They said of Abba Macarius [the Great] the Egyptian that one day he went up from Scetis to the mountain of Nitria. As he approached the place he told his disciple to go on ahead.
Abba Poimen said that when a person succeeds in grasping the saying of the Apostle, “unto the pure all things are pure” (Titus 1:15), he sees himself as being lower than all God’s creatures. A brother who heard this said to him: “How can I reckon myself lower than a murderer?” The Elder replied: “If a person attains to the measure of this saying, such that he acquires purity, and sees a man engaging in murder, he will say: ‘He has committed only this one sin; but I commit murder daily.’” [see 1 John 3:15 – “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer.”]
A dear friend sent me this meme that apparently does the rounds of Facebook these days (I am not on Facebook myself so I learned of it from him). He also pointed to the basic problem of this saying: “The word that stands out is ‘approving.‘ Who is doing the approving? A generic someone? Me? Hardly. If the hand that struck the Savior did not wither but rather He went all the way to death for that very person who struck him (who is me), it is clear that it’s not a matter of approving or not approving but rather it is a matter of God’s love for us, of Him who gives us complete and utter freedom such that He will not bruise our freedom in order to bring us to repentance.”
A few days ago, when traveling in the same car with some fellow Orthodox clergy, as our discussion was passing from topic to topic related to our experience of the parish life, one of them has praised strongly a priest who has antagonized a lot of his congregation and has even alienated many of them because he, said this brother, “wanted to make them Christians out of pagans.” I didn’t say anything then because I think he would not have received any words of mine irenically, but would have only been hurt by them. Since this observation of his happened quickly and in passing from topic to topic, even if he were to read this blog, he would not recognize that I am referring to him, so I think I can now speak my piece without hurting him.
The phrase this brother used in order to express the priest’s intransigence, “making Christians out of pagans,” is problematic in many ways. First and foremost, there is no meaning one can assign to “pagan”, except non-baptized, that would not also fit the intransigent priest in a certain way, and indeed all people, including myself. If by “pagan” (word which, I find, is rarely useful and is always offensive these days) he meant someone who doesn’t live out the life of the commandments, it is certainly the case that to different extents we are all “pagans.” If by it my brother meant “one who does not know one’s faith properly,” we are again all pagans. No one “knows faith,” because faith is not something one knows or practices. This take on faith rewrites the ancient word into the modern definition of assent to the right statements. These “right beliefs-statements” are these days no longer mere expressions of a spiritual life worked out in discipleship to a saint, life authenticated by the experience of my elder, but “right statements” have become written information submitted to my learned intellect which is now the arbiter of right and wrong.
But this glaring improper use of “pagan” is not even the greatest problem with my brother’s statement. The greater problem is the spiritual attitude it expresses. Now if faith is life, experience, my experience of Christ in my elder, in me, and in all others (in this particular order), the question of discipleship is not “how does one teach faith?,” but rather “how does one merge his life with that of others, just as my elder has merged his/her own life with mine?” In simple words, the “program” of pastorship is not one of learned teaching, but one of symbiosis. What we are called to do is become the presence of Christ to others just as our elders have embodied Christ to us. And herein lies the answer to my brother’s misjudgment: Christ does not do this trenchant refusal of others, because He sees the human being in ways radically different from our own. To put it in a few words, in all people He sees Himself. And if we look at all people in Christ, we see Him in all, not pagans.
And my brother’s attitude is how we can be wrong with the “truth” on our lips.
Following my previous posting, one could say that my Christian life is best defined by my relation with my own death. A Christian life is one in which one has found this proper relation.
We Orthodox read this verse yesterday in the Apostle reading. As I was listening to it in church it struck me how much that particular translation didn’t understand St. Paul’s point, put forth particularly by the power of his language. For the KJV the verse reads:
Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
Other English translations have for that final verb “dwell,” “live,” or even “work”! But the verb rather means “tabernacle.” A more accurate translation of this verse would be:
Therefore I will rather boast most gladly in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ tabernacles upon me.
Given the history of the last verb, the language here is that of the temple. The apostle sees the temple replicated in himself, in the presence of Christ within him. And this is the power of the language! Now the meaning becomes clearer, anticipated itself by the expression “treasure in earthen vessels” used earlier in the epistle (2 Cor 4:7). Just as Christ tabernacled in the temple, He now tabernacles in our human weakness. If we want to find Him within ourselves, we need look no further than our brokenness, failures, illnesses, mortality, struggles, and ultimately our own death. Our brokenness is the temple of God in the world; this is where He is well pleased to dwell. And He wouldn’t have it any other way.