Before we begin what is the question at the end.
It’ that time of year, when the world turns its mind toward trees and candelabra; driedels and tinsel; manger scenes and Maccabees. The Holidays and all the trappings from toys and latkes to church and family. It’s a busy time and the prevailing cultural mood is that if everything in your life isn’t going exactly how you’d like, then you are doomed to wander through the whole year having “lost the holiday spirit”. Woe betide those who walk past the Salvation Army Santa with his bell or fail to greet their neighbor with appropriately festive greetings. All of this in the name of “keeping the spirit” or “keeping Christ in Christmas” or…whatever.
Recently, though, we have been on the receiving end of a darker holiday message. In recent weeks, our own Jamey Bennet has had to break the law in order to follow the Gospel calling to feed the homeless in Fort Lauderdale. A good friend of LOTW had his house robbed and ransacked and what little they did have, was taken from them in the course of an afternoon. Even our own government has been exposed for its cruel and inhuman acts towards our fellow-man. Here at the rolling of the year, we are drawn to the question: Am I my brother’s keeper?
It was in this dark world that I was reading A Christmas Carol to my daughters. This has become a tradition in our house: First The Best Christmas Pageant Ever , then A Christmas Carol. We have just reached Marley’s Ghost and his admonishment of Scrooge in light of his own sufferings.
“At this time of the rolling year,” the spectre said, “I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me?”
Having lost the ability to interfere for good in human misery, Marley must watch it–blown about on the winds–and weep for his unfeeling past. Keeping his eyes to the ground and only on the nearest crisis of income and expenses, he lost the time granted him to reach out a tender hand with love and goodwill towards those he saw in need.
What are we to do? How are we to see the world in such desperate need, to feel ourselves at a loss for time and resources, and make a real change? What great work can we accomplish in the name of Jesus Christ for the life of the world and the saving of the race?
I was moved by the story from our friend: in the midst of his suffering he kept saying, “I am thankful”. Thankful for his family, his safety, his house, his friends, his work, everything that remained to him. It is so easy at these times to turn inwards, focus on our own needs, and to wait for someone else to work to change the life of someone else. But that wasn’t the end of the story. Where Marley kept his eyes to the ground and ignored human misery, this dear friend looked up and was guided by the star to the nearest manger and able to change the life of someone else he saw in need.
Dickens, through Marley, presents a very simple anthropology: “It is required of every man,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and, if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!” We are called to see each person, every hurting soul, every joyful laughter and tune our hearts to join that dance. Failure to do that is failure to be a Human. In every person, we are called to see the imago dei and turn in reverence to that image and raise it up in the name of Christ–no matter who or what they may be or how they may offend us. True iconodulism is not limited to the reverence of sacred images on wood and stone, but most truly directed at the living icons who wander in and out of our lives.
Caleb (Edward) Shoemaker is a teacher of Latin and Bible in Upstate New York. He has a degree in Biblical Languages from Gordon-Conwell Theological Institute in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. He is kept busy raising four beautiful children with his wife Amelia. Check out their Etsy shop Embroidered Ameilia specializing in Pascha blanket patterns for the American Orthodox.
“Oh the happinesses of the man (the one, the person) who never walks in the council of the ungodly, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor remain standing in the dwelling place of the scornful.”
The Book of Psalms contains the poetic description of a life spent in the service of YHWH and obedience to His commandments. The Righteous One is compared to the Fool–who says in his heart there is no God–because the Righteous man seeks to obey the Lord and His commandments. In the Psalms, the Righteous Man becomes a Righteous King and is almost always presented to the people as David (the chosen, anointed Messiah). In the world of the New Testament and the reign of Christ, we see that these Davidic pictures are all foreshadowing the Incarnation and divine reign of THE Messiah who is not just the adopted Son of God that the Israelite kings were but is truly God himself and His divine, pre-eternal Son.
Through a series of longer “study” posts and shorter “discussion” posts, we’ll be engaging the imagery and theology of Psalm 1 and hopefully encourage and instruct one another as we go.
Psalm 1 contains the entirety of the theological instruction of the Psalter. In six short verses we are introduced to the two characters (the righteous one and the fool), the Law of God, the Covenant Blessings, and the two ways: life and death. Each of these themes is repeated throughout the Psalter, and it’s important to recognize that the author of Psalm 1 has created a perfect prologue to the proceeding passages. It’s also important to note, that these images have been adopted and presented to us by the Church in relation to Christ and that He (David’s heir and divine Son of God) is the fulfillment of these Psalmic images.
Psalm 1 begins as above: “Oh the blessedness (literally the happinesses) of the man who NEVER walks, stands, or abides with the ungodly. It’s a fabulous bit of Hebrew poetry built upon the actions of walking, standing, and dwelling–think Exodus imagery here–in relation to the person who is going about life’s way. The righteous man who wants covenant blessing must NEVER (the prohibition in Hebrew has this connotation) walk on the way of death; NEVER stand in the council of the ungodly; and NEVER “abide as though to live” among the unrighteous. His delight (hephetz), rather, is in the Torah of YHWH, and it is on His law that he (the righteous man) chews. In contrast to the one who sits around the table with the ungodly, the man who receives covenant blessing sits and eats at the table of Torah and becomes like a tree planted by living water which grows, flourishes, and produces fruit. The wicked, on the contrary, receive the covenant curses and wither and are lost on the wind like chaff.
For the original audience of the Psalms, this image was a very visceral. They had spent generations dwelling among the ungodly in slavery and their decision to stop walking in God’s way and to stand listening to the ungodly led to their forty year wilderness wandering. Before finally entering the Promised Land they had taken time to rehearse the blessings and curses of the Law as they looked across the flowing Jordan river (next to which they would be planted). Every year they would listen to the words of the Exodus as they celebrated Passover. Every year they would read the Torah in its entirety, starting in Genesis and ending with the words of Promise as they crossed the Jordan into Canaan. Every day they were given the opportunity to examine their lives before Torah and to place themselves on the Path of the Righteous or the Way of the Ungodly.
Before moving forward, consider these two images: the way of life and the way of death. The Righteous one is happy and blessed on the way of God’s commandments and the Ungodly is forgotten as quickly as chaff. How do these two ways present themselves through the Old Testament Scripture and the Gospels/Epistles?
Here, we call upon God, our Father, giving Him His due praise. He is our Master, the Maker of Heaven and Earth. We are humbling ourselves while we admit that we are sinners, that we do indeed possess, carry with us, and ‘own’ even, these spirits.
We are slothful, for we do not truly love God. As Saint John of Kronstadt said, ‘I have not preserved a love for God.’ Nor do we call out to Him in prayer enough. We are lazy. We miss the services. Often, we simply forget God, as is a habit of ours living in this world.
We are in a state of despair, of despondency. We have neglected the wick. It burns low. The oil runs out. The flame dwindles and we feel a sense of helplessness. Perhaps it’s a sense that we are alone. We have arrived here through pride. We thought that we knew everything, that we didn’t need help. And we fall, in failure.
We long for a power of this world, that we may conquer and climb the ladder of success. Perhaps it is achieved by material possession, or status among the elite. We succumb to the desires we are told we want, that we think we need.
We gossip. We engage in belittling one another. We hurt ourselves and our neighbors with our loose tongues. We listen to radio and other media that does nothing but provoke the passions. We watch feebleness on TV or in the cinema. We passively take it all in.
Sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk – these represent the antithesis of Christlikeness:
Christ did not go to the cross grudgingly; he did not fall asleep in the garden.
Christ did not pity himself or lose hope in God, even as he hung dying.
Christ did not call down legions of angels to save him from his gruesome execution.
Christ, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:6-7).
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth” (Acts 8:32).
Christ did not plead his case. He did not curse his captors. Instead he blessed them and forgave them.
Let us reject the spirit of sloth, despair,
lust of power and idle talk. Let us put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Romans 13:14).
“Salvation begins and ends with humility” – Saint John Chrysostom
As discussed in Article 1: Pride, humility is the cure, just as the saint said. When pride rules our emotions and actions, the world around us changes. It seems as if even God becomes distant, and, in a sense, that may be true. It is well-known among monastics that there are periods when God takes a step back for this very purpose, to remind us of our dependence on Him, to humble us. But what about the distance we feel in our state of pride?
One night, in a drunken haze, I was walking past a church, and began pounding on the door. As I beat my fists I railed against God, asking where He was, “Why can’t I see You?” That was a moment I look back on with a bit of tender fondness. It was a small light in a life otherwise devoid of anything real. In my state of complete self-absorption it was a blessing from the curse. Had I not been there, at that moment, and in that state, I may never have come to understand just how broken I was; why I was feeling so alone. In that moment the seed was planted. God had not turned away from me, I had turned away from God. For me this was the beginning of humility.
In the book of Proverbs we find a number of very simple, very plain statements about humility. Let’s take one for example, 29:23 which states “Arrogance humbles a man, but the Lord supports the humble-minded with glory.” Huh? How does that make any sense? Well, to put it plainly, what happens when you fall? You land. In recovery programs it’s called “rock bottom”, the end of the line. It’s the point at which we see very plainly our impending doom, and decide whether to live or die. At that moment one of two things can happen: we look up and see our lowliness; we humble ourselves, or we refuse to see the depths, and dig deeper into our grave. It’s not the fall that kills us, it’s the injury. A wounded pride, folks, can kill us. But, just as the proverb implies, God allows us this arrogance, that we may learn humility, so that He may raise us up. So, we have gotten prideful, fallen away from reality, and are presented with the chance to humble ourselves before God. How do we learn humility? I’m glad you asked.
“Therefore, humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting your care upon Him, for He cares for you.” -1 Peter 5:6-7
The humble are unpretentious, modest. They are meek. By yielding all rights and possessions to The Lord, by responding properly to anger, by simple patience waiting to be heard instead of demanding, humility begins to take hold. Virtue comes with this cost. Our due diligence in this area may earn us God’s blessings, the true treasures of His kingdom. Honor, wisdom, unity, eternal life. Here on earth, we can manifest these gifts in our service to one another, taking the seat in the back. Humility manifests a calm spirit. It opens us up to God, and allows truth to penetrate us. Through prayer fasting, and good works (there it is again!) the old self falls away, and we are made new. We become an asset. We become the children God wants us to be.
The world doesn’t want us humble. the world wants consumers, takers, sinners of the finest caliber. TV, film, the internet, inundates us with enticing images of our selfish desires. Our only hope is to look up, and accept the humility that God has granted us. Only then can we hope to be lifted by His mighty and loving hand.
Humility, dear brothers and sisters, is Theosis distilled. It is the beginning, and the end.
[In this series of 14 articles, I hope to look into the 7 grievous sins, and 7 capital virtues. Since every sin has a virtue to combat it, one will follow the other. (Hopefully, this will keep the writer from falling too far into a state of self-dejection and deepening acedia.)]
Dear brothers and sisters, pray for me, a sinner. Today, my sin is Pride.
Here’s a bit of history:
Pride, as listed in the seven grievous sins, is the product of the amalgamation of the previous list by the monk Avagarius (4th century AD), derived from Hubris, and Boasting. Thank you, Saint Gregory! These days we see pride in two forms, and for our purpose here, we will focus more on the spiritual aspect, that being of inwardly directed emotion, inflated sense of self, and outward expression.
Today it is not at all uncommon to see pride all around us, hanging on walls, flashing from the screen, dripping down off of people’s very flesh. It’s the prime “virtue” promoted by the secular society we live in. “Let your freak flag fly”. Every media outlet tells us this. Gay and proud! Gun owner, and proud! Proud to be an American! We are told to be proud of our looks (and ashamed if they are not to a prideful standard), to show it with our accumulated material goods. Nice car, nice clothes, nice hair, etc. Who among us doesn’t look in the mirror every day to assess our selves, and groom and clothe accordingly? Then again, where do we draw the line?
Pride, as some may know, is usually the source of all other sin. It is the voice of the enemy telling us that not only do all these things matter, but are of the utmost importance. We develop a high self-esteem, we think we are so great, and it begins. “Pride comes before the fall”. Just ask Satan. He was the first. And he wants us to follow him. So, with our inflated, sometimes bloated, ego, we commence to lust for things, we get greedy, possessive, and defensive to a fault. We begin to feel that we are above reproach, and become angry with any one who defies our thinking. Through it all, we boast, and boast, and boast. We are so this, that, or the other. Pride has become the first step to spiritual death.
“Wherever arrogance enters, there also is dishonor, but the mouth of the humble meditates on wisdom.” – Proverbs 11:2
When we fall victim to pride, we stop caring. The opinions and views of others become more annoying, and in a rage we lash out. We become bigots, racists, elitists. We ignore Gods wisdom, we pay no attention at all. We forget who we really are. Not to say that all of us are doomed to fall to the lowest depths of this sin, but we all have our moments. For example, when in the choir at church, or when I’m reading the Hours, more often than not, I have to stop and realign myself. I begin singing too loud, boom too much. Puffing my feathers, as it where. “I’m a trained singer, by golly, and you need to know it.” No, no you don’t. In those moments, I have to hang my head, and start again. Lower my voice, dial back the bravado. I cross myself, and ask God for another shot. No joke, this happens EVERY SUNDAY. I am beginning to see why so many priests have a slight bow to their posture.
In Dante’s Inferno, penitents of pride walk around with stone slabs on their backs to keep their heads bowed. So, what’s our slab? Assuming we are, in fact, penitent for this sin, how do we combat it in our daily lives, how does it SHOW? As we all know (I hope!) the cure for sin is a triple-decker sandwich of prayer, fasting, and good works. Yet, there in is a virtue we can practice, a discipline, a rule we can live by to destroy our pride, and return to God…
It was another typical day at work. I stood behind the counter, leaning over to look at the people around me. Attractive co-eds, not so attractive co-eds. Annoying people, snarky Muslims, snarkier professors. Ignorant evangelicals, ethnocentric Orthodox. Atheists. People with a generally poor attitude. And me. A judgmental, lazy, lustful, selfish, unworthy sinner. My food was too good for them. My food wasn’t good enough for them. I was too white, too old, too…
To my right, on the east wall, I kept two icons; St. Euphrosynos and the Port Arthur icon of The Theotokos. I looked at them, crossed myself, and cursed myself, begging help a dozen times a day. Anything to deliver me from myself, to save these people from me, lest my lechery and hate rub off on them.
Save them, Lord, save me.
I was not at all surprised when I was fired. Thank God. They’re safe. Now, what next? How do I save the world from myself, from the antithesis of St. Seraphim I see myself as? Simple, I don’t. God does. Now, if only I could begin to trust in that belief. “Lord I believe. Help my unbelief!”
Now, let’s make this abundantly clear, I’m an Ortho-newb. I was chrismated on Pentecost of 2013, after a year-long catechumenate. To say that I am in my spiritual infancy would be an understatement. God willing, some day I may get a clue. That being said, I DO know a thing or two about sin. Actually, I know a lot about it. I’ve been doing it for a long time, and I’m good at it. I’m sinning right now. So, when asked to tackle the subject for the blog, you could imagine my surprise, and dismay. What could I possibly have to bring to the table? According to a few people, quite a bit.
It’s easy to beat yourself up over sin. For an ego driven fun lover like me, it can even be a thrill. In Orthodoxy, “holier than thou” takes on a whole new dimension, as we constantly are encouraged to acknowledge —and by God’s grace, receive forgiveness for—our sins. “I am a greater sinner!”, “no, no! I, my friend, am the greater sinner, because…” And so on. But what happens when we step back from the ego flagellation, and give ourselves a deep, thorough look?
In 12 step programs, they call it a “moral inventory”. Call it what you will. It’s in the little red prayer book, the one in your back pocket. It’s called “Preparation for Confession”. So, we take a look. We begin to see where our faults lie. Do I really need to give a list here? Each of us knows what they can be. The question is, “we’ve gone to confession, received absolution, taken the precious life giving Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and now, here we are, being schmucks again. What gives?” Well, the answer is simple, and you’ve probably heard it numerous times.
Every day we wake up and say our prayers, drink our coffee, and commence to sin. But that’s never the plan. No, the plan is usually to live a day free of sin, to try, with God’s help, to overcome our sinful nature, and hopefully, spread it around a little bit. But we fall short. So, what do we do, wallow in it? No, brothers and sisters, we revel in it! It’s another chance for grace, another beginning. We look at the icon, we make the sign of the cross, we shoot an arrow into the heavens, and, by God, we try again! Will we always be this way? God knows. Will we always be found ready, repentant, and on guard? God knows. Can we, a generation coming down, taught by the world we were born into to give in, give up, and live completely for self, have any hope of true repentance? Well?
Because, chances are, if you’re reading this, you are already two steps ahead of me—a sinner, and chief among them.