Sunday, February 21, 2016

The natural unity of our bodies and our souls

On Mark 2:1-12 
Second Sunday of the Great Fast
Our Holy Father Gregory Palamas

When we look at each other – especially when we look at strangers or people on the street – we often don’t really see the person before us. We might see someone in our way, someone we have to wait behind in line at the grocery story, or we might see the apparent poverty of a beggar, or the struggles of a blind person preparing to cross at a busy intersection.

We may tend to see the condition of human bodies, while having little regard for human spirits. We may be attracted to some and repelled by others. We may automatically judge one other on the basis of appearance.

We may keep our heads down in a crowd, afraid of making eye contact, because sometimes that’s the moment when we see a bit more than the body, which can be unnerving or make demands upon us. Jesus even says that “the eye is the lamp of the body,” which, if sound, fills the whole body with light. So when we look another in the eye, sometimes we see not only a body, but also catch a glimpse of the light (or the darkness) that fills a body.

But when Jesus looks at us, he always sees us entirely as we are. When four men lay down their paralyzed friend before him on a pallet, Jesus sees the man. If it had been one of us, most would first have seen the man’s paralysis. But that is not what Jesus first sees. Rather, he sees their faith, and he says to the man immediately, “My son, your sins are forgiven.”  

When Jesus looks at the scribes sitting there, he doesn’t only see their silent lips, but sees in his spirit that they question him in their hearts. Again, he sees the whole person before him, whether they are filled with light or with or darkness. He knows us inside and outside. He knows us in spirit and in body. 

Jesus then demonstrates that he does also see the paralytic’s need for healing and he tells the man to rise, take up his pallet, and go home. So Jesus is able to see the whole man and he can see that he needs two kinds of healing. He needs healing of both body and soul. He needs to rise and walk, but he first needs forgiveness of his sins.  

These things do not exist in isolation from one another. As long as we are living this life, we need continual healing of both body and soul. We need repentance, which is therapy for our soul, as much as we need any kind of physical therapy for our bodies. Our need for forgiveness and our need for healing are really the same need, because our bodies and our souls are not two separate things but one thing, mysteriously interconnected.

Our holy father Gregory Palamas, who we always remember and celebrate on this second Sunday of the Great Fast, recognizes the gift of healing as one of those charisms of the Spirit that “operate through the body.” He writes,

“Healings and miracles never take place unless the soul of the one exercising either gift be in a state of intense mental prayer and his body in perfect tune with his soul…. The communication [of the Spirit] takes place… not only during the mental prayer of the soul, but also at moments when the body is operating.”[i]

Our bodies and souls work in conjunction to bring God’s healing into our lives.
Palamas writes about this in his work on “the Hesychast method of prayer and the transformation of our bodies.” The Hesychasts’ prayer does not disregard the body, but incorporates both breath and posture into prayer. We pray in spirit and in body. And we experience God in spirit and in body. Because we are spirit and body. And because God, who is spirit, has become man, who is body and spirit. 

We are body and spirit at the same time. Our bodies and souls are meant for each other. We are a psychosomatic unity. We are not only bodies animated by electrical impulses and controlled by our brains, as the materialists would have it. Nor are we only immaterial spirits inhabiting or trapped in bodies that confine us until our release from them at death, when they will pass away, as the Platonists and Gnostics would have it.

A soul is the life of a body and the human soul is also an immortal and everlasting spirit, which means that the body – though it dies, and thus experiences an entirely unnatural separation from its soul – will naturally rise again and live forever. There will be resurrection. It’s not the resurrection that is unnatural; it is death that is unnatural. Resurrection is a natural response to the unnatural reality of death.

Our veneration of relics – of the dead bodies of the saints – of the relics of St. Gregory Palamas – is not merely a remembrance of what they were but also an expectation of what they will be again. Our bodies will rise again. Our bodies have a place in everlasting union with our immortal souls.

I emphasize this because both materialism and disregard for the body have strong footholds in our culture and even among some people in the church. These ideas deny or ignore the resurrection and the natural unity of our bodies and our souls. And it is essential to our faith to get right this this understanding of our human nature – this Christian anthropology. 

If you gloss over the importance of our bodies as well as our souls, you miss the whole purpose of Christ’s resurrection. You miss what he has accomplished for us by rising from the dead in his body – which is our salvation - our salvation - the salvation of us who are bodies and are souls and are spirits.

Let me give some examples of the disregard for our bodies found all around us. First, one from our culture: a few times I’ve seen this new-agey bumper sticker (maybe you have too), which states, "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience."

Second, one from among Christians: C.S. Lewis is often misquoted as saying: ““You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” When you see this quote floating around the internet, be aware that he never said this.[ii]

These quotes are both half-truths. It is true that we are spirits. It is true that we are souls. I don’t merely have a soul, I am a soul: that much is true. But I am also a body. It is the way that God has made us from the beginning. And it is part of the human nature that God takes on in his incarnation.

Finally, an example regarding attitudes toward fasting. The great fast is a great time for reflecting on the importance of both body and spirit in human nature. A coworker of mine and I were discussing the great fast and she told me about how, at a local community she used to belong to, they would emphasize that we are to fast from fear. They’re not wrong that we are to fast from fear. Paul told us to have no anxiety about anything. And John teaches us that perfect love casts out fear. This kind of fear, as opposed the holy fear of the Lord, is born from a failure to trust in God. To that I would add that we are to fast also from all the other sins and vices of the spirit: malice, envy, rage, despair and so on. 

But we must not emphasize these things over and against the fast of the body, I don’t think. Whatever good we do in spirit, we must echo with our bodies. Because we’re not spirits trapped in flesh, we’re flesh with spirit breathed in by God. Physical matter isn’t a problem and it isn’t an illusion. Rather, it is a means by which God unites us to himself.

[i] “The Hesychast method of prayer and the transformation of our bodies,” 13. The Triads, 53.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Two kinds of enemies

On Matt 6:14-21
Cheesefare Sunday

There are two kinds of enemies we must keep in mind as we fast. There are the enemies we must forgive – and there are the enemies we must destroy.

First, there is the enemy we must love and forgive. Today our Lord Jesus teaches us how to fast, and he begins his teaching with talk of forgiveness. A true fast must begin with forgiveness. We Byzantines take this literally – tonight we begin our Great Fast with Forgiveness Vespers, confessing and forgiving all the wrongs that we have done.  

Just before our Lord teaches us how to fast, he teaches us how to pray (Matt 6:5-13). He teaches us the Lord’s Prayer, which we pray many times daily – and in which we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
And today he elaborates on the meaning of this prayer, saying, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but” – and this is a terrifying conjunction – “if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt 6:14-15).

Our Father’s forgiveness is not exactly unconditional – though he makes it always available to us, and no sin of ours can cut us off irredeemably from his mercy. But Jesus himself reveals the condition of our Father’s forgiveness – that is, we must forgive others. We must put aside all our enmity and hate and resentment over wrongs.

St Maximus the Confessor writes, “Strive as hard as you can to love everyone. If you cannot yet do this, at least do not hate anybody. But even this is beyond your power unless you scorn worldly things.”[i] Fasting rightly will teach us scorn of worldly things, which will help us put aside our hate for others. This is necessary because we are not to be an enemy to anyone.

Just because you have an enemy, doesn’t mean that you have to be an enemy. There is probably someone who hates you and opposes the good that you are and the good that you do – a person who makes himself your enemy.

We will have enemies, whether or not we create them by our own evil doing. Jesus assures us that if we follow him, we will be hated, as he has been hated (cf. Matt 10:22; John 15:18). Christ himself has enemies and so, if we become like Christ, we will be like him also in this. Furthermore, he commands us to love our enemies, which presupposes that we will have enemies to love (cf. Matt 5:44).

So, how do I stop being an enemy of my enemies? I forgive and seek reconciliation. I make restitution for any wrongs. If my enemy will not reconcile with me, I can still remain open to the one whose heart is closed to me. I can love and forgive the one who hates and hurts me. I can pray for those who persecute me. All this in imitation of the supreme example of Christ Jesus on the cross, who cries out, “Father forgive them.” And really, it is this cross that gives us the power to forgive. Only in Christ and in his cross can we truly offer forgiveness.

Forgiveness isn’t something entirely within our own power. When the Pharisees say, “Who can forgive sins but God alone,” they have a point (though they fail to see that they are making their point to God himself). But if you’ve ever felt like you couldn’t forgive someone because they have hurt you so deeply or because their crime is so heinous, in a way, you’re right. That is, you can’t forgive them of your own individual power, by your own unaided will. You can’t do it, but Christ can, and in Christ, you can forgive.

Forgiveness is a grace – a participation in the life of God. As they say, to forgive is divine. Only by the grace of God can we find the power to forgive, to release those whose crimes against us have bound them to death, to abandon them utterly to God’s good graces, to seek every good on their behalf.

The process of theosis – our dynamic ascent into ever greater union with God – precedes forgiveness, accompanies forgiveness, and results from forgiveness. In forgiving, we become more like God, who forgives. We are forgiven as we forgive. Forgiving and being forgiven are one action of God in us.

As we enter the Great Fast, let this be our approach and God’s approach in us and between us toward all. Let us invoke blessings and not curses upon our enemies.

St. John Chrysostom points out that “praying against one’s personal enemies is a transgression of law.”[ii] Yet, anyone who prays the psalms will soon notice that they are filled with curses against enemies. So what does this mean for us?

It means that there is another kind of enemy – one with whom we must never be reconciled. In another place, St. John Chrysostom says, “We are commanded to have only one enemy, the devil. With him never be reconciled! But with a brother, never be at enmity in your heart.”[iii]

As an exorcist of demons, Jesus teaches us who our enemies really are. Our enemies are not each other or other parties or other nations, but the demons and the evil that is in our own hearts. It is toward these enemies that we must direct the curses of the psalms and it is against these enemies that we must strive by our fasting.

Just as our fast is entered and sustained in the spirit of forgiveness and patience with others’ faults, so it is also an act of war against our true enemies – the devil and his demons and our own passions. How shall we wage this war?

St. John the Dwarf writes,

“If a king wanted to take possession of his enemy's city, he would begin by cutting off the water and the food and so his enemy, dying of hunger, would submit to him. It is the same with the passions of the flesh: if a man goes about fasting and hungry, the enemies of his soul grow weak and can be conquered thereby.”

We begin the fast by forgiving our pretended enemies – our neighbors and fellow humans – so that then, free from the distraction of focusing our energies on waging a campaign against them, we can turn that power instead against our true enemies: the demons and our own passions.

Against these enemies, let us pray with the Psalmist,

      O Lord, plead my cause against my foes;
fight those who fight me.
Take up your buckler and shield; arise to help me.
Take up the javelin and the spear against those who pursue me.
       O Lord, say to my soul: “I am your salvation.”
Let those who seek my life be shamed and disgraced.
Let those who plan evil against me be routed in confusion.
Let them be like chaff before the wind;
let God’s angel scatter them.
Let their path be slippery and dark;
let God’s angel pursue them.
They have hidden a net for me wantonly;
they have dug a pit.
Let ruin fall upon them and take them by surprise.
Let them be caught in the net they have hidden;
let them fall into their pit.
But my soul shall be joyful in the Lord and rejoice in his salvation (Psalm 34:1-9).

[i] Fourth Century on Love, 82
[ii] Against Publishing the Errors of the Brethren, 10.
[iii] Homily 20

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