Elder Sophrony: Crossing the Abyss

During his life the Elder Sophrony Sakharov lived an intense yet hospitable life: a life characterized by love.  This love appears clearly in his writings.  They are both warm and personal, strong and soaring.  They invite and challenge.  I believe he was able to do this largely because his vision was expanded by suffering, the kind of suffering that is common to all humanity and especially common to the people of this present age.  Meaninglessness.

Consider these sections from a chapter from his book His Life Is Mine entitled “The Bliss of Knowing the Way”. Pardon the length, cutting out anything at all was exasperating.  You can read the whole chapter here.

Those with no experience of prayer find it hard to believe how prayer broadens the horizons of the spirit. Sometimes prayer consumes the heart like fire; and when the heart succumbs to the burning flame, unexpectedly there falls the dew of divine consolation. When we become so conscious of our frailty that our spirit despairs, somehow, in an unknown fashion, a wondrous light appears, proclaiming life incorruptible. When the darkness within us is so appalling that we are paralysed with dread, the same light will turn black night into bright day. When we properly condemn ourselves to eternal infamy and in agony descend into the pit, of a sudden some strength from Above will lift our spirit to the heights. When we are overwhelmed by the feeling of our own utter nothingness, the uncreated light transfigures and brings us like sons into the Father’s house.

How are these contrasting states to be explained? Why does our self-condemnation justify us before God? Is it not because there is truth in this self-condemnation and so the Spirit of Truth finds a place for Himself in us?

Even remote contact with the Divine releases the soul from all passions, including envy, that vile offspring of pride. The man who continues with a humble opinion of himself will be given greater knowledge of the mysteries of the world to come. He will be delivered from the power of death. United through prayer with Christ, he realises that in eternity the whole content of being will belong to him, too, through the perpetual dwelling in him of the Holy Spirit- of the Trinity, it would be truer to say. Father, Son and Holy Spirit will make Their abode with him. By virtue of this, every good or word or deed, from whatever source, will become part of his eternal divinised life. Thus, in the words of St Paul ‘as having nothing yet we possess all things’ (2 Cor. 6.10). If anyone performs deeds to the glory of God which bring him both temporal and eternal renown, the man of prayer feels not envy but joy at our common salvation. My brother’s glory will be my glory, also. What blessedness to behold fellow humans radiant with the Holy Spirit! Yet even this is but a pale reflection of our joy in the Kingdom to come where, in a superabundance of love which never diminishes, the spirit of man will embrace the fulness of god-man being.

Let us not forget, however, that the way to this superabundant love lies through the depths of hell. We must not be afraid of this descent since without it plenitude of knowledge is unobtainable.

Sometimes the trials and difficulties which befall put us in the position of a traveller who suddenly finds himself on the edge of an abyss from which it is impossible to turn back. The abyss is the darkness of ignorance, and terror at being captive to death. Only the energy of a saintly despair will get us across. Upheld by some mysterious strength, we cast ourselves into the unknown, calling upon the Name of the Lord. And what happens? Instead of smashing our heads against unseen rocks, we feel an invisible hand gently carrying us over, and we come to no harm. Throwing ourselves into the unknown means trusting to God, having let go of all hope in the great ones of the earth and setting off in search of a new life in which first place is given to Christ.

Traversing the abyss of the unknown can also be likened to swinging along a cable stretched from one side to the other. The hands of Christ crucified link the far ends of the abyss. The soul that has been given the dread privilege of travelling along this cable can find no words to describe it, just as those who have passed beyond the grave cannot tell us of their experience on the new plane.

The spiritual vision just outlined dissolves into contemplation of the crucified Christ. His arms are outstretched to gather all peoples into one, to link the far concerns of the world; His body, hanging on the cross, forms a stupendous bridge between earth and heaven. Uniting in Himself both God and Man, He calls upon us to follow in His steps. It is not a simple matter to portray what meets the spiritual eye at such times. Just as a heavy body precipitated beyond the range of terrestrial gravity becomes subject to the mechanics of space and moves at a speed impossible on the surface of the earth, so it is with our spirit when prayer in its upsurge towards God overcomes the passions which pin us down, to move in the luminous sphere of the Divine and contemplate the sublime and hitherto unknown. In the depths of our consciousness we apprehend the unoriginate Truth, and the Spirit testifies to our immortality. Thus the first dread vision of darkness and mortality changes to a vision of light and life indestructible.

At first the struggle for prayer seems to be beyond our strength but if she persists the soul will eventually be able to contain within herself at the same time sorrow and joy; despair and hope. There is no more alternating between elation and depression, since all states are gathered into a single whole. Through knowledge of God the soul has acquired profound peace.

O God and Father, without beginning;
Thou Who art blessed throughout all ages;
Who hast revealed unto us the mystery
of the way of Thy salvation:
Renew our nature, by Thy Word abiding in us,
and make us the temple of Thy Holy Spirit,
that being ever guarded by Thy might
we may give glory to Thee in a worthy manner,
now and for ever.

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Wittgenstein summarizes Chesterton

From Philosophical Investigations.

129.

The aspect of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity.  (One is unable to notice something — because it is always before one’s eyes.) The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all.  Unless that fact has at some time struck him. — And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.

Philosophy’s valuable bumps

What is philosophy good for? People often read Wittgenstein as deconstructing the usefulness of philosophy; and I suppose that is sort of true. As any philosophy majoy will tell you, philosophy is not particularly useful.  They will, however, tell you that it is incredibly valuable.  Wittgenstein helps make this clear; and here’s a little section from Philosophical Investigations to that effect.

The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or another piece of plain nonsense and bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language.  These bumps make us see the value of the discovery. (PI, #119)

It bears mentioning here that the value of a thing is also a thing that is discovered by the philosophical act of “simply put(ting) everything before us, and neither explain(ing) nor deduc(ing) anything”.  That is, to be precise, that value is something real that is seen, as opposed to something invented or made up. Philosophy is useful in that it helps us value things that should be valued, and enjoy things that should be enjoyed.  In short, it helps us live well.  But it will not help us with smaller projects.  When it is commandeered for that purpose, it simply becomes something that gets in the way. That is why Wittgenstein says about a page later that “(i)f  one tried to advance theses in philosophy, it would never be possible to debate them, because everyone would agree with them.” (PI, #128)

The Theological Importance of the Color White

A fantastic paragraph from G. K. Chesterton’s essay “A Piece of Chalk”.

But as I sat scrawling these silly figures on the brown paper, it began to dawn on me, to my great disgust, that I had left one chalk, and that a most exquisite and essential chalk, behind. I searched all of my pockets, but I could not find any white chalk. Now, those who are acquainted with philosophy (nay, religion) which is typified in the art of drawing on brown paper, know that white is positive and essential. I cannot avoid remarking here on a moral significance. One of the wise and awful truths which this brown-paper art reveals, is this, that white is a color. It is not a mere absence of color; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black. When, so to speak, your pencil grows red-hot, it draws roses; when it grows white-hot, it draws stars. And one of the two or three defiant verities of the best religious morality, of real Christianity, for example, is exactly this same thing; the chief assertion of religious morality is that white is a color. Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell. Mercy does not mean not being cruel or sparing people revenge or punishment; it means a plain and positive thing like the sun, which one has either seen or not seen. Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc. In a word, God paints in many colors; but He never paints so gorgeously, I had almost said so gaudily, as when He paints in white. In a sense our age has realized this fact, and expressed it in our sullen costume. For if it were really true that white was a blank and colorless thing, negative and non-committal, then white would be used instead of black and grey for the funeral of this pessimistic period. We should see city gentlemen in frock coats of spotless silver linen, with top hats as white as wonderful arum lilies. Which is not the case.

Meanwhile, I could not find my chalk

Achbp. Rowan Williams to Speak at St. Vladimir’s Seminary

As I wrote in Orthodoxy Today, it’s not just internal forces tearing the Anglican communion asunder — it’s outside forces too.  While most see Pope Benedict’s recent establishment of “Ordinaries” to help facilitate Anglican’s move towards Rome as a slyly hostile move, the invitations “home” from the Orthodox have taken on a much more hospitable and friendly tone.

This is evidenced by the head of the worldwide Anglican communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, speaking in January at St. Vladimir’s seminary. This is another move made by serious Anglicans in aligning themselves with the Orthodox Church rather than the RCC.  To be sure, Archbp. Williams has contributed a great deal to the “West” about Orthodoxy, but one wonders to what extent this has ceased being about politics and become one of fraternity.

So Rome is beckoning, and the Orthodox Church as well; who is offering the Calvinist-leaning Anglicans shelter from the storm?  Do not expect such an invitation from the Reformed Episcopal Church, an organization that has very little of “Reformed” identity officially tied to it or its hierarchy. Just try to find Calvin or Luther on their website.  Their concerns are of staying faithful to the teaching and practice of the Apostles, not of the Reformers.  An REC friend of mine recently told me that Metropolitan JONAH’s address to the ACNA in Bedford this summer was welcomed heartily by the REC delegates.  The same could not be said of the rest of the ACNA, many of whom took strong exception to his refusal to consider the ordination of women and his denouncement of Calvinism.

I’ve been predicting a dramatic restructuring of the Protestant denominations during the next two decades, and it looks like it is coming even sooner than that. Anglicanism is fractured, but many of the remnants will find home elsewhere.  The Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists share the Anglican’s “diversity” in respect to liberal and conservative constituents; and soon, I think, they will share their fate.

Manhattan Declaration Draws Fire

The “clarion call” of the Manhattan Declaration that has united conservative Christians from various denominational affiliations has begun to draw fire from gay activist groups.  The Declaration which voices concern over three main issues: religious freedom, sanctity of life, and “the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife” was signed by prominent members of the Christian community.

The Philadelphia Bulletin cites posts from gay blogs calling for letters to be written, and the willful disruption of services:

“It is time we let Bishop Cordileone know there are consequences for his actions,” the blogger states. “Is anyone up for a rally in front of the Oakland Diocese or a disruption of services? Let me know and I’m happy to help organize.”

After listing an address where people could write to the bishop, the blogger goes on to say: “By the way, here are the other Catholic cardinals and bishops who signed the Manhattan Declaration.” Listed are the names of the 17 bishops who signed the Declaration to date.

The blogger goes on to cite Fred Karger of Californians Against Hate who refers to the 152 framers of the document as “zealots” who “drafted, approved and signed their Declaration of War on full civil rights for gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans last week. They threw in some other societal beefs, just to try and mask the overriding issue, their fervent opposition to same-sex marriage.”

I’m not surprised by this.  Is anyone?  Time to go on over and add your name to the Manhattan Declaration.