Tag Archives: John of Sinai

Rejoicing on Pasca

Hallelujah! Christ is risen!

I love Easter. I love it more when the Christian community, East and West, by delightful coincidence happens to be celebrating it on the same day, but on years like this, when they don’t, I do my best to look at the silver lining: I get twice as many resurrected Christs. My intent had been to share another passage from John of Sinai today, but he has nothing very pleasant to say about Easter.

The gluttonous monk…counts the days to Easter, and for days in advance he gets the food ready. The slave of his belly ponders the menu with which to celebrate the feast. The servant of God, however, thinks of the graces that may enrich him.

Joy and consolation descend on the perfect when they reach the state of complete detachment. The warrior monk enjoys the heat of battle, but the slave of passion revels in the celebrations of Easter. In his heart, the glutton dreams only of food and provisions whereas all who have the gift of mourning think only of judgment and of punishment.

Well, I’m not a warrior monk, and I left my mourning on Great and Holy Saturday where it belongs. I suppose there is a reason why John of Sinai is standard Lenten reading for the Orthodox and not standard Easter reading. Though I admit the possibility that this is duplicitous of me, and I’m sure John of Sinai would accuse me of just that, but I’d like to think that I can think both of the physical feast and of the spiritual feast afforded by the resurrection. In fact, I rather like to believe that the two are related. With sacramental flavor, the feasts of holy days are intended to make tangible to our bodies and minds–more accustomed and attuned to the immediacy of physical stimuli than spiritual ones–the great joy which we have received from God. Today being the remembrance of that consummate joy of Christian existence, I intend to make that as holistic an experience as possible, letting my body partake of the joy of my heart, and vice versa. I can only hope that God consecrates that effort rather, and I don’t run headlong into gluttony and dissipation.

On that note, happy Easter everyone (even those of you who thought Easter was more than a month ago).

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Mourning on Great and Holy Saturday

Today Jesus is in the tomb and the Orthodox Christians around the world are mourning the savior. But this mourning cannot help but anticipate it relief, as the Paschal feast is within sight and the Lord is eager to spring from the tomb, resurrected, triumphant, and regnant forever. It is because of this that John of Sinai can speak of sorrow the way that he does.

Groans and sadness cry out to the Lord, trembling tears intercede for us, and the tears shed out of all-holy love show that our prayer has been accepted…Hold fast to the blessed and joyful sorrow…and do not cease laboring for it until it lefts you high above the things of the world to present you, a cleansed offering, to Christ.

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Contemplating Death on Great and Holy Friday

Today Christians in the Orthodox world are recalling the crucifixion of Christ, perhaps the most famous death in human history and, if our testimony is to be believed, the most important one as well. Christ death is itself a victory over death, which has a rightful claim on all humanity except the undefiled Christ. With his death, Jesus has sapped death of all its finality, taken from death its sting. It is a truth which warrants endless rejoicing, but just as the victory over death was not complete until the resurrection and our freedom over death not complete until the eschatological future, so today is not a day for the ruminating on victory but for contemplating death. John of Sinai believes that the remembrance of death is a necessary product of our sins, but he also insists that it is a spiritual virtue if rightly practiced.

As thought comes before speech, so the remembrance of death and sin comes before weeping and mourning…To be reminded of death each day is to die each day; to remember one’s departure from life is to provoke tears by the hour…Just as bread is the most necessary of all foods, so the thought of death is the most essential of all works. The remembrance of death brings labors and meditations, or rather, the sweetness of dishonor to those living in community…Just as some declare that the abyss is infinite, for they call it the bottomless pit, so the thought of death is limitless and brings with it chastity and activity.

Someone has said that you cannot pass a day devoutly unless you think of it as your last.

Remembering that humanity must still die keeps our sins in the forefront of our mind standing in judgment of our behavior now so that they will not stand so before the Lord in the last days. Considering our own deaths also reminds us of the inadequacy of them when compared to the atoning death of Christ, for “the day is not long enough to allow you to repay in full its debts to the Lord.”

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Learning Humility on Great and Holy Thursday

After a couple excellent years of sharing the date of Easter (Pascha) and one year of reasonably close proximity, the holiest day in Christianity is once again being celebrated at completely different times by Catholics and Protestants, on the one hand, and the Orthodox, on the other. While for most Americans, Maundy Thursday is just a distant March memory (if it’s remember at all), but today is Great and Holy Thursday in the Orthodox Church, the day when, like their Western counterparts, the Orthodox remember the washing of the disciples feet and the last supper on the night when Jesus was betrayed. Both these events–the radical servanthood of Jesus and the betrayal of the Christ for material gain–ought to inspire in us an enduring sense of humility. Humility, unfortunately, has a bitter taste to Christians, being one of those virtues which we know we ought to have but we never really aspire for because its no fun and (unsurprisingly) garners us little praise. John of Sinai, standard reading for the Orthodox during the Lenten season, views humility differently.

As soon as the cluster of holy humility begins to flower within us, we come, after hard work, to hate all earthly praise and glory. WE rid ourselves of rage and fury; and the more this queen of virtues spreads within our souls through spiritual growth, the more we begin to regard all our good deeds as of no consequence, in fact as loathsome…We have risked so far a few words of a philosophical kind regarding the blossoming and the growth of this everblooming fruit. But those of you who are close to the Lord Himself must find out from Him what the perfect reward is of this holy virtue, since there is no way of measuring the sheer abundance of such blessed wealth, nor words nor could word convey its quality.

Humility, after all, is only the rejection of false blessings in favor of real blessings, divine blessing of eternal import. To eschew earthly praise is only to suggest that we prefer the praise of God our Father to that of the devil our enemy. It is this humility which Jesus embraced in kneeling before his disciples, and this humility which Judas rejected in turning Jesus over to be crucified.

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War and Peace (A Short Post)

While it must be remembered that Harry S. Stout’s stance in Upon the Altar of a Nation is outspokenly not pacifist and that he uses the following quote as a launching point for a discussion of jus in bello, I was struck by the truth of the following quote and its at least superficial harmony with the transformative ethics espoused by, among others, St. John of Sinai:

There are no ideal wars. Peace is the only ideal, and every war is at some level a perversion of it.

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#200

Because twice makes a tradition, this two hundredth post will be dedicated to ten memorable quotes from the previous hundred entries here.

10) J. W. McGarvey from The Wisdom of J. W. McGarvey who I was excited to find was yet another outspoken proponent of pacifism in the history of the now militaristic Churches of Christ.

I would rather, ten thousand times, be killed for refusing to fight than to fall in battle, or to come home victorious with the blood of my brethren on my hands.

9) Bill Maher from The Wisdom of Bill Maher? Don’t ask why I was watching Bill Maher.

And not to put too fine a point on it, but nonviolence was kind of Jesus’ trademark, kind of his big thing. To not follow that part of it is like joining Green Peace and hating whales. There’s interpreting and then there’s just ignoring. It’s just ignoring if you’re for torture, as are more evangelical Christians than any other religion.

8) John of Sinai from Sunday of St. John of Sinai. These entries, and this quote in particular, represent the profound importance to me of Lent and the devotional struggle it entails.

The place of temptation is the place where we find ourselves having to put up a bitter fight against the enemy, and wherever we are not involved in a struggle is surely the place where the enemy is posing as a friend.

7) Gregory Akindynos from The Wisdom of Gregory Akindynos who represents a startling source from which to receive a call to intellectual restraint.

For you should have known not only how to write discourses and devise syllogisms, but also where to do this and who ought to do it and from what motives.

6) Peter of Damascus from Texts on Thanksgiving who revolutionized the way I understood and expressed gratitude toward God.

The purpose of what we say in our prayers is as follows. The thanksgiving is in recognition of our incapacity to offer thanksgiving as we should at this present moment, of our negligence in doing so at other times, and of the fact that the present moment is a gift of God’s grace.

5) David Lipscomb from David Lipscomb on Zeal and Giving. In addition to being a wonderful example of the rhetorical genius and force of Lipscomb’s teaching, this is still a relevant critique of the fundraising activities of modern churches.

A pure consecrated church will spread by the force of the zeal and devotion of its own members. Only a cold, lukewarm, selfish, unconsecrated church needs other devices to spread it…When the church has not zeal, devotion, self-consecration to cheerfully and gladly do the will of God, it should be taught its duty. If it refuses to do it, it would be a blessing to the world and an honor to God for it to die.

4) Ron Paul from A Memorial Day Salute to Saluting expressing the irony of the uncritical worship offered to American soldiers.

The endless praise offered to those who serve in the military–“thank you for your service” in defending the empire–is a required politically correct salutation to our “universal” soldiers. No, they never say thank you for “defending the empire”; it’s much more decent–it’s thank you for defending our freedoms, our Constitution, and for fighting “them” over there so we don’t’ have to fight them here at home. Though the wars we fight are now unconstitutional, the military is endlessly praised for defending our liberties and Constitution.

3) Katharine Hepburn (as Eleanor of Aquitaine) from The Lion in Winter offering a popular audience the kind of thinking that could revolutionize the world if it ever took hold.

How clear we make it. Oh, my piglets, we are the origins of war. Not history’s forces, nor the times, nor justice, nor the lack of it, nor causes, nor religions, nor ideas, nor kinds of government, nor any other thing. We are the killers. We breed wars. We carry it, like syphilis, inside. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten. For the love of God, can’t we love one another just a little? That’s how peace begins.

2) Panayiotis Nellas from Christ and True Ontology. Nellas gives so much meat to theological thinking; this is only an example.

Man finds his existence and being in Christ. Before and outside Christ, his being is a being-unto-Christ. And when it is not oriented towards Christ–when, to be more precise, it is defined in freedom and consciousness independently of Christ–then it is a being-unto-death, as Heidegger called it, quite correctly according to his own perspective. United with Christ, the iconic biological being of man becomes a true being-in-Christ. In Christ, man finds his true ontological content.

1) Petru Dumitriu from The Wisdom of Petru Dumitriu. Having first encountered Dumitriu over two years ago and too quickly abandoned him out of necessity, his word have nevertheless haunted me. They echo my own acute awareness of the absurdity of everything especially God and existence, all the while being expressed in faith.

Finally, to reduce all these questions to one: how can one love God when he obviously does not exist? And — putting the same question in a different way — how can one love human beings, when they are as they are, and when there is no God?

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The Wisdom of John of Sinai: Repentance

The story of St. Mary of Egypt offers us an exemplar of penitence, and the story of the Passion which we are about to relive is the ultimate call to that repentance. John dedicates an entire chapter, Step 5 of his thirty step ladder, to the subject and he allots it a considerable amount of space to the subject. He defines repentance thus:

Repentance is the renewal of baptism and is a contract with God for a fresh start in life. Repentance goes shopping for humility and is ever distrustful of bodily comfort. Repentance is critical awareness and a sure watch over oneself. Repentance is the daughter of hope and the refusal to despair. (The penitent stands guilty—but undisgraced.) Repentance is reconciliation with the Lord by the performance of good deeds which are the opposites of the sins. It is the purification of conscience and the voluntary endurance of affliction.

Understood in this way, repentance was the continual duty of Christians. It was not the occasional response to noticeable sins but a perpetual disposition born from our persistent sinfulness. He warns:

We ought to be on our guard, in case our conscience has stopped troubling us, not so much because of its being clear but because of its being immersed in sin.

A true reflection on the degree to which we sin ought, according to John, drive repentance. In fact, if we were truly aware of just how grievous our sins (or our sinfulness) was, John insists that we would have no trouble repenting continuously.

He who really keeps track of what he has done will consider as lost every day during which he did not mourn, regardless of whatever good he may happen to have done.

Such an inordinate focus on our sinfulness might ultimately lead to despair, although John has already specifically said that the essence of penance is hope and not despair. To answer this, John offers a story that, while it may not inspire confidence, does model an appropriate attitude of penitence as we seek to approach God. John tells of a group of monks who strove to repent of their sins, tried desperately to conquer the passions, and prayed constantly for forgiveness. Like so many of us, however, they were plagued constantly with doubt. He writes:

With failing confidence, they would often speak to one another as follows: “brothers, are we getting anywhere? Will we be granted what we ask? Will the Lord accept us once more? Will He open up to us? Others would answer: “As our brothers the Ninevites said, ‘Who knows if God will change His mind and deliver us from mighty punishment?’ Let us do what we can. If He opens the door, well and good; if not, then blessed be the Lord God Who in His justice has shut the door on us. At least we should continue to knock at the door as long as we live. Maybe He will open to us on account of our persistence.”

I think there is in this a good, biblical model for repentance: one that acknowledges human depravity, recognizes human ignorance, and throws the soul continually at the feet of a loving God, knowing that it is not our merit but His mercy that makes salvation possible.

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The Wisdom of John of Sinai: The Two Paths

How fortunate that we should get a double dose of John of Sinai this week. On the Sunday of St. John of Sinai, the post focused on struggle, working out our salvation, pursuing God in love, and entering through the narrow door. It is with special regard for this last image that I select the passages below.

John begins his great spiritual work by dividing Christianity into two kinds of servants:

His true servants are all those who have done and are doing His will without hesitation or pause. His useless servants are those who think of themselves as having been worthy of the gift of baptism, but have not at all guarded their covenant with Him.

This indictment of nominal Christians (to borrow a modern term) becomes even more acute when we consider precisely what true service to God looks like in John’s reckoning. Certainly, the image will seem like the extreme of acesis to us, but at the same time it would be dishonest if we tried to deny that this describes not only the life of Christ but also of the overwhelming majority of Christians saints from whom we draw inspiration.

We should be careful in case it should happen to us that while talking of journeying along the narrow and hard road we may actually wander onto the broad and wide highway.

Mortification of the appetite, nightlong toil, a ration of water, a short measure of bread, the bitter cup of dishonor–these will show you the narrow way. Derided, mocked, jeered, you must accept the denial of your will. You must patiently endure opposition, suffer neglect without complaint, put up with violent arrogance. You must be ready for injustice, and not grieve when you are slandered; you must not be angered by contempt and you must show humility when you have been condemned. Happy are those who follow this road and avoid other highways. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

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Sunday of St. John of Sinai

Scripture:

Luke 13:22-30

He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?”

And he said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’

In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

Genesis 15:29-30

Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?”

Now Laban had two daughters. The name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance. Jacob loved Rachel. And he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”

Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.”

So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her. Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” So Laban gathered together all the people of the place and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and he went in to her. (Laban gave his female servant Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her servant.) And in the morning, behold, it was Leah!

And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?”

Laban said, “It is not so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.”

Jacob did so, and completed her week. Then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife. (Laban gave his female servant Bilhah to his daughter Rachel to be her servant.) So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah, and served Laban for another seven years.

History:

John of Sinai, Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 15

The place of temptation is the place where we find ourselves having to put up a bitter fight against the enemy, and wherever we are not involved in a struggle is surely the place where the enemy is posing as a friend.

Reflection:

St. John of Sinai’s Ladder of Divine Ascent is a mystical-ascetical guide to ascending to God. It lays out step-by-step the means for overcoming vice and acquiring virtue. It is a struggle to transcend and, in transcending, to actualize our humanity as God intended it to be. It is this struggle for good, and thus for God, that has historically been the theme of this Sunday.

Jesus’ warning about the narrow door as given in Luke is significantly more ominous in tone than the corresponding teaching in Matthew 7. In Matthew, the teaching has a more distant, didactic tone, but in Luke Jesus paints for us a vivid picture. It is a narrative of those who struggle to do what they believe is right and nevertheless fail. They are left outside confused and isolated, not understanding why they have been excluded.

Yet it is clear that Jesus’ purpose is not to invite doubt but to inspire action. His story begins with the clear exhortation that we are to strive to enter the narrow gate. In Matthew, the passage comes at the end of the greatest arrangement of moral teaching in the Gospels. We are exhorted to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. When we think about the narrow gate, we are not invited to despair but to renew our vigor. We must maintain a vigilant struggle because, as John so aptly notes, peace is often complacency in disguise.

The constant struggle, however, need not be a burden to us. Elsewhere, John will write, “Lucky the man who loves and longs for God as a smitten lover does for his beloved.” In this, we may take a lesson from Jacob, whose seven years of labor seemed to him like only a week because of his deep love for Rachel. Even when he was duped, he gladly endured another seven years of servitude once Rachel had been given to him. Let us be so ready to undertake the difficult task of striving for our salvation, and—like Jacob, when he received Rachel—be even more ready to struggle to preserve what has been given to us.

Prayer:

The things, good Lord, that we pray for, give us the grace to labour for.
–Thomas More

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The Wisdom of John of Sinai: Hope

In his chapter on faith, hope, and love, John dedicates the overwhelming majority of his time to love. It is, after all, the greatest of the three and the only one that is given as “the very name of God Himself.” He does spare a moment talk about hope, the kind of hope that cooperates with love and sustains us as we flounder in an illusory isolation from God.

Hope is the power behind love. Hope is what causes us to look forward to the reward of love. Hope is an abundance of hidden treasure. It is the abundant assurance of the riches in store for us. It is a rest from labor, a doorway of love. It lifts despair and is the image of what is not yet present. When hope fails, so does love. Struggles are bound by it, labors depend on it, and mercy lies all around it. The hopeful monk slays despondency, kills it with his sword.

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