Saturday, August 11, 2007

Limits, Freedom and this Blog

When I served as a mission priest in northern California, I would often plan out my Sunday sermons several weeks at a time. So, for example, when I was first assigned to St George Greek Orthodox Church in Redding,CA I decided that in the first few months, the Sunday sermons would focus on the basics of an Orthodox Christian spiritual life: Daily & liturgical prayer, fasting, almsgiving and stewardship. After this I focused on the sacraments, the daily & yearly liturgical cycle and, finally, the Creed.

The sermons themselves always followed the same basic structure: (1) Dogmatic: What is it that we believe as Orthodox Christians about the topic at hand? (2) Illustrative: What does this topic look like in practice? This was usually where I would refer back either to the Scripture readings at Liturgy and/or the lives of the saints. (3) Applicative: How can we, practically, live out the Church’s faith embodied in this topic? Especially important here was brief consideration of the obstacles and facilitating conditions for people’s spiritual lives; what do we do that gets in the way of our living out the Church’s faith and what can we do to foster living out the Church’s faith.

Some people simply didn’t like my preaching in this way. As one person put it, “I come to church for inspiration not a lecture. I want a positive thought to carry away with me for the week.” In the main, however, most people where open to this type of preaching and eventually began to find it profitable for their own spiritual lives.

The key to preaching successfully this way was planning out the course of the sermons over several successive Sundays. This was especially important not only as the congregation grew, but also as I was asked to take on responsibilities for communities in Crescent City (also St George, a small mission station on the far northern coast of California a 4½ drive away) and later for St Nectarios parish in Pasco, WA (which was a 6 hour trip by air that required me to stop over at 4 airports).

Let me change focus here to blogging.

One of the challenges of keeping a blog is writing on a regular, and, ideally even a daily basis. To do that with new material (rather than merely linking to what others have published), I need a structure, a general sense of topics that I want to cover on any given day of the week. And, as with preaching, not only will this serve to keep me on track, it will give readers a sense of what I’ll be looking at each day and so they can keep an eye out for the days when there is likely to be something of particular interest to them.

So, here’s my weekly schedule with a brief summary of that day’s theme:

· Monday will look at the Sunday Gospel reading for the following Sunday. I think it helps us in our spiritual lives if we reflect on the Gospel reading throughout the week and, even if as it is likely, the sermon you hear on Sunday doesn’t pick out the same themes that I focus on, bring the two together is a good thing.

· Tuesday is devoted to Current Events. Our spiritual life can’t be separated from what is going on around us so this post will be a general interest essay about something in the local, national or international news during the last week and how it might pertain to the Christian life.

· Wednesday is for Church News. Like Tuesday’s post, this is a general interest essay about what has happened in the Orthodox Church during the last week and how it might pertain to the Christian life.

· Thursday is my day to wax (or is it wane?) poetic on Ecumenism. Especially important here are topics & events in Orthodox/Catholic relations.

· Friday I’ll write about Spiritual Formation. As with my preaching, these will be theoretical and practical reflections on discovering and incarnating our identity in Jesus Christ in light of the tradition of the Orthodox Church.

· Saturday is a day without an established theme (and so this post), my Free Topic day in which any & everything that has struck my fancy in the last week might make an appearance. This is also the day in which I would very much like to address at length questions or topics that readers submit to me. While the comment box has its value many people have raised issue that simply don’t lend themselves to quick answers. So, what do you think I ought to address? Drop me an email through the “About Me” link.

· Sunday is devoted to my great delight, Liturgy. My doctoral dissertation looked at the psychological structures and dynamics of communion in Liturgy and though it has been better than 10 years since I finished it and got my degree, I am still interested in the relationship between Liturgy and our psychological, spiritual and community lives. Since I often travel on weekends, in addition to a general essay on Liturgy, I will occasionally offer my thoughts on serving Liturgy in different communities.

One of the great paradoxes of the spiritual life is that we need limits to grow in freedom. In fact as we grow in the spiritual life, or at least as I have, I experience not only more freedom, but also a greater appreciation for limits. One of my professors in graduate school, the Roman Catholic priest-psychologist Adrian van Kaam, would say that human freedom is never absolute; our freedom is always a situated freedom. As I said earlier, this means that we realize our freedom not by leaving behind or denying or minimizing the empirical structures that limit our life, but by going ever deeper into those structures.

The fathers of the Church say that the human person is both a microcosm and a macrocosm. By this they mean we are both a “miniature” of the creation AND that we give expression to the whole of creation. Or, to use another phrase, our personality is meant to be a catholic personality—a unique expression of the whole of what it means to be human.

However we describe it, the realization of our identity requires a structure that makes transcendence possible and which roots us firmly in our own life. My hope is that by structuring somewhat my essays here, I can provide that experience of “going beyond” and “going deeper” for myself and you dear reader.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

What the Beatitudes Teach

The Hoover Institution has an interesting summary of the Beatitudes that expands on what I wrote earlier on the relationship of justice and joy. Take a look.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Hoover Institution - Policy Review - What the Beatitudes Teach:
By Tod Lindberg

Jesus’s community of goodwill The sermon on the mount has long been rightly understood as both a starting-point and a summation of Jesus ’s teaching. It begins with the Beatitudes (Mt. 5:3-12), in which Jesus delineates the categories of people he says enjoy special favor. The Beatitudes are all familiar to us as sayings, the best known being blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. But what, really, are they? Is Jesus merely pronouncing a blessing, offering good wishes to those whom he chooses to single out? In fact, there ’s more to the story than that. The Beatitudes provide a dizzying commentary designed to turn upside down the political and social world of the Roman Empire of Caesar Augustus and of the Jewish religious elite of Judea and Jerusalem. This is the opening move of a more drastic and fundamental reassessment of political and social affairs, applying not only to its own time but to all future times, down to our day. More still: It points to the increasing fulfillment in this world of the promise of the human condition as such — and of the struggle against vast and daunting but not insurmountable obstacles that such fulfillment will require.


Here Jesus proposes a different hierarchy. To see whom he elevates in the Beatitudes, it may be helpful to conjure a list of qualities opposite to the ones he lists. Cumulatively, what emerges from this collection of "anti-Beatitudes" is a portrait of a privileged class, one that sees those below as essentially inferior. For "the poor in spirit," the opposite number might be someone arrogant in his righteousness and sense of superiority. For "those who mourn," we can substitute those whom the world has given cause for rejoicing. For "the gentle," the overbearing. For "those who hunger and thirst for righteousness," we may find a contrast in those who are complacent on account of their privileges and defend them vigorously. For "the merciful," the unforgiving, perhaps the cruel: those who, when they have an advantage over another, even a temporary one, don 't hesitate to exploit it.


The beatitudes are organized according to a scale running from passivity and paralysis in this world, through increasing levels of engagement with it in accordance with what Jesus is teaching, up to a pinnacle of earthly conduct Jesus describes. The categories he delineates describe people we can recognize in our own day, from homeless shelters and nursing homes to the halls of power, at least on those occasions when people rise above their private ambitions and work for the public good.

We begin with the "poor in spirit." It is an ambiguous phrase, but one that evokes a sense of those incapable of taking care of themselves at all: the dejected, the demoralized, those in whom the spark has gone out. They have given up, resigning themselves to their lonely place at the bottom, beyond reach of all others.

Next come the mourners, whom we may think of as the temporarily incapacitated. For now, they are overwhelmed by a sense of grief and loss. They are perhaps unable to take care of themselves or to fulfill their responsibilities toward others. They once felt a connection to another or others — strongly enough to be reduced to incapacity by the loss. The loss of that connection in turn imperils all their other connections. Because they were once more robust, however, now there is at least the possibility that one day they will again be so, having recovered from their mourning.

Then there are the gentle, or meek or humble. They walk softly upon the earth, seeking to impose themselves on others as little as possible. They see to their obligations as best they can, but they take nothing from others and ask for nothing from them for themselves. They are satisfied with what they have, however meager it may be. They do not strive, but accept their circumstances.

The gentle are followed by those who desire righteousness. They, unlike the gentle and still less the poor in spirit, have surveyed the world around them and are dissatisfied with it, wishing instead for a world in which their desire for righteousness is fulfilled. Here, Jesus uses metaphorical language: He speaks of those who "hunger and thirst" for righteousness. All people get hungry, all people get thirsty. Hunger and thirst are primordial and universal bodily desires.


Similarly, what if I satisfy myself at the expense of others and the others either don 't see it or don't object? What if they are, for example, so poor in spirit, so ground down by oppression, that they cannot imagine anything different? Does this acquiescence somehow vindicate my claim to righteousness in satisfying myself at their expense? Can I say that I am in the right because of my natural or otherwise-given superiority over them, as demonstrated by their acceptance of my position of privilege? Jesus 's answer is clearly "no." And the reason is simply this: They may not be able to speak up for themselves, but others can speak up for them — starting, of course, with Jesus. No overlord's sense of his own vindicated righteousness stands unchallenged. Such supposed righteousness is wrong-headed. A true desire for righteousness is of the kind that can be satisfied along with everyone else 's true desire for righteousness.


Mercy is a quality within reach of everyone at one time or another. All mercy requires is a position of the barest advantage over another, even for the most fleeting of moments. When someone is down — whether physically, psychologically, or emotionally — do you kick him or not? To show mercy is an action that doesn't necessarily require activity: In certain cases, no more than the refusal to press an advantage one has is an act of mercy.


In some instances, peacemaking of the sort Jesus endorses here will be an exercise in reaching even further beyond oneself, interposing between others in conflict to help them remove the sources of discord between them. With such peacemaking attempts, the presupposition is that such a peacemaker is already at peace with each of the two parties in conflict (otherwise the type of peacemaking described in the preceding paragraph would have to come first). But this suggests that my peace with each of them must not come at the expense of the continuation of their conflict with each other. If I perceive the conflict between them as a benefit to me, then I am failing to uphold peacemaking in its broadest, Jesusian sense. Making one 's personal peace, whatever it entails, does not fulfill the Jesusian prescription. Such a peace is insufficient if others remain in conflict, and it is incumbent upon one who is at peace with others to make peace among the others as well. As we will see later, Jesus regards the obligations of those who enjoy the benefits of living in a world shaped by his political teaching to be especially high with respect to those who are not so fortunate.

At first glance, the main purpose of the Beatitudes seems to be to offer various consolations to the downtrodden. But while Jesus does this, he also propounds a stern standard of judgment and offers strict guidance for good behavior for those who find themselves in a position of privilege. This injunction takes the form of a warning: The days of abusive privilege are numbered. Jesus 's is not merely an ethereal threat, bound up in the afterlife and a world to come, which the nonbeliever can spurn with contempt in favor of worldly enjoyment. It is a threat based on changes coming to this world. It is a threat dangerous to ignore in the here-and-now.

Nevertheless the question remains: Is this all to be taken literally? Come the revolution, of course, heads may roll, but surely Jesus cannot be saying that all those who enjoy privilege without righteousness are going to suffer for it in this world. Surely he is aware that some will hear all of what he has to say, spurn it — and get away with it scot-free for the rest of their earthly lives. Moreover, there is a potential for large-scale contradiction based on misreading here: If the point is to show mercy, even those who have themselves been unmerciful should be shown mercy, should they not?

True. Jesus says that what is right, according to the Beatitudes, "shall" come to pass; he does not say when. However, the cumulative effect of the positive, stated promises of the Beatitudes and the negative, unstated repercussions for those who oppose righteousness point to a question that will be asked in this world about those who have come before: What side were you on? Did you defend your privileges at the expense of others or work to uplift those who found themselves downtrodden? Did you act only for yourself, or did you think of others as best you could, whenever you could? Did you run risks for what 's right, or was the risk you ran that the righteous would prevail? The merciless, the persecutors, the purveyors of conflict, the defenders of privilege — Jesus's point is that they live in a world governed by fear, and he invites them to reflect on what might happen if the world turned on them and they suddenly became the ones with cause to fear.

But that world is not the world Jesus is promoting. In a world ordered according to Jesusian principles, there will be no persecution, even for those who have made a transition from a world in which they were persecutors. Even those who have been unmerciful will be shown mercy. Their fear of a world in which the tables are turned on them is in fact displaced fear of a more primordial — one might say existential — kind: a world that has no place for them. A world in which the attributes of privilege that they believe are essential to their being have been obliterated. A world in which they, in their conception of themselves, cannot continue to be. A world in which they must change if they are to remain. Jesus confronts the "bad person" not with something so simple — and easy to reject — as a competing model of how to live a better life. Rather, he forces a radical confrontation within the "bad person" over the very possibility of his or her continued existence.

To read the whole essay: What the Beatitudes Teach.