Saturday, July 5, 2014

99 Ways to Become a God

     Throughout the Internet there are many self-help manuals published by various religious groups. Some of these manuals start with “99 ways to”. I thought it would be appropriate to hijack this title from them, since a great deal of these religious groups hijack the terminology of my Church. I speak mainly in reference to the Catholic Church’s teaching on deification. When it comes to deification, the Catechism of the Catholic Church eloquently teaches: “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God (CCC460)”. Unfortunately, for many Catholics, to use such terminology would make you a heretic. In fact, as someone often accused of this heresy, I have had to personally point out what it says in the CCC above to Catholics but even then they want to compromise the meaning. They would rather say it means that “we are one with God” or that “we become like Him” because they are uncomfortable with the truth. Of course, their apprehensiveness is understandable do to the fact that there are many religious groups that teach deification. In contrast, among those groups, that have hijacked our terminology, none of them teaches deification in the way the Catholic Church does.
     To some degree I understand the fear expressed by some Catholics when they hear about deification. Growing up without organized religion I was exposed to various religious ideas that included deification. In fact, there was an organization up the street from where I lived called the Church of Today. If you went to one of their services you would get the chance to sing hymns by the Beatles and hear preaching that proclaimed that we are all God. Consequently, upon becoming a Christian I had to make sharp distinctions between the false teachings that influenced my thinking before I knew Christ. However, what the Church teaches is easily distinguished compared to other religious groups. Most often when the terminology for deification is used by those outside of the Church it implies the natural state of humanity. For example, the Mormons who use the same terminology will teach that we become gods because that’s what we already are. Likewise, those who throw around the term in other religions groups use it in a way that makes divinity a natural state. On the other hand, the Catholic Church has always maintained that divinity is not something natural to humanity. Even though we “become God” it is always through participation in God and not something from our nature. As Christians, we are called to participate in the divine nature and at no point do we become the source of it (2peter 1:14).
     Looking back throughout Church history, many Fathers openly taught deification. For instance, it was St. Athanasius that gave us the phrase, “God became man so that man could become God”. Notice he did not say “becomes one with God” or “like God”. As an act of grace we actually become real children of the Father. This is something we receive through adoption and not something we are born with. Through the generosity of our Father we are given the chance to eternally become what God is, which always remains dependent on our participation and is not something that is natural to us. As far as what's natural is concerned we are no different than a rock in the sense that we are a creation. However, unlike a rock God has graced us with ability to participate eternally in everything that He is. Based on this, deification should be at the center of our Catholic faith and not something we fear.
     As a Catholic, I think it’s time to take back our terminology from the captors and start again to boldly proclaim it. Our teaching on deification is in many ways the heart of the Gospel! It’s so important that Saint John Paul II, proclaimed it to be "the deepest mystery of the Christian vocation" and "the culminating point of the mystery of our Christian life”. We should not be afraid of what is natural ours. The consequences for not embracing this teaching obviously would offer something less than what God wants for us. As I said, I can understand an apprehensiveness on the part of some Catholics but we are all obligated to conform our thinking to the truth.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The New Cliché

     Be good people, do good things, and talk about evangelization! From the perspective of some outsiders that is all they see going on in our churches. As a former outsider myself, who became a Christian about 18yrs ago, I often see the same pattern. What is unfortunate is that many Catholics think that there is nothing wrong with this. For me personally, when I joined the Church, I was horrible at being good, doing good things, and found it utterly pointless to keep talking about something and not doing it. To this very day, I still struggle in maintaining my appearance and sharing my faith. On the other hand, I can sense the presence of the Holy Spirit at work in me, encouraging me, and driving me to share what I know of God with others. Of course, when it comes to goodness and proclaiming our faith, none of us could accomplish anything at all without the presence of Holy Spirit. Obviously, this is where a distinction must be made when it comes to how we participate in the Church. When it comes to this distinction the Holy Scripture instructs,” Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you--unless, of course, you fail the test? ( 2 Corinthians 13:5 NIV)”. Concerning such testing, Metropolitan Hierotheos teaches, “This examination is not a moral test. The Christian examines whether he is a real member of the Church, to what extent he is a temple of the Holy Spirit.”. To put it simply, If there is no drive to grown in our love for God or if there is no desire to share our faith with others, we are failing the test.
     Understanding the pattern I mentioned above Saint John Paul II introduced to the Church what is known as The New Evangelization. If you would allow me now to avoid all political correctness, the New Evangelization is directed to Catholics who do not know Jesus Christ. Basically, it’s a call to find ways to reintroduce The Faith to those who have somehow failed to have it properly communicated. However, to some degree The New Evangelization is becoming The New Cliché. In some areas of the Church it’s becoming a repeated subject and instead of being practiced it continues to be the theme of special committees, which are sometimes made up of people who in fact need to be evangelized. On the other hand, I don’t want to diminish the fact that there are Catholics being very creative in The New Evangelization. It’s just unfortunate that The New Evangelization has been taking into captivity by those who don't have any real desire to evangelize. For them, The New Evangelization, when talked about, makes them feel like there being a good Catholic. In contrast, if you are not in fact actually evangelizing, if there is no desire or struggle to share your faith, then its possible that you have yet to meet Jesus Christ as a Catholic.
     At this point some might ask: how is it possible to be a Catholic and not know Christ?  Someone might even say that there a good person or that they never miss a liturgy. There in fact is nothing wrong with this assumption.  However, going back to the test mentioned earlier from scripture, if there is no drive to experience God and if we have no desire to share our faith with others, these are sure signs that we need to meet Jesus Christ.  We might know things about Him but he didn’t die on the cross for us just to have ideas about Him. On the cross, He defeated any powers that would separate us from the experience of His power and presence. It was for this very reason that He sent the Holy Spirit, in order that we could continually experience God and be empowered to bring that same experience to others. Based on this, it is apparent that there are sharp distinctions between ideas about God and the actual communication of His presence.   In fact, not even clergy or monastics are immune from this lack of communication. For instance, St.Symeon the New Theologians himself once bore witness to the fact that his own monks needed a New Evangelization. He even invited them to receive the Holy Spirit with him so that they too could move beyond mere ideas and encounter His actual presence.
     When it comes to all this, I think it is important to realize that God wants us to move beyond our clichés or a superficial practice of our faith. To this end, our God is always giving us opportunities to embrace an ongoing experience of His presence. At no point does God make this difficult either, it just takes a little humility on our part where we ask Him for what we might not have. To me, this is what the grace of The New Evangelization offers. Its challenges us all to ask that hard question, “Do I really know Christ?” and at the same time shows us how to know Him. The great thing in all this is, God never makes it difficult to experience Him. If for some reason we find ourselves lacking in our experience of Him, all we have to do ask and He holds nothing back. You might even be someone like me who struggles to live a moral life and often fails at. For such people, God never holds our failures and weaknesses against us, for His generosity has no limits.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Explaining the Aerial Toll-Houses

     During our entire life we are caught up in a battle with the kingdom of darkness. We don’t always see these powers that assail us but the effects are real and devastating. Concerning this invisible battle the apostle Paul tells us, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12 NIV)”.As the Apostle points out we do not see these forces so we respond to this battle in a different way. However, when our physical body dies we will get a chance to see these forces that work against us. Consequently, it is essential that we continually make ourselves ready for that battle that will be face to face. Concerning this final battle, there are many traditions that have developed in the Church, one in particular is the Byzantine tradition of the Ariel Toll-Houses.
      The Byzantine tradition of the Ariel Toll-Houses remains an obscure tradition, but it is also an important one. Some of the obscurity has led to controversy in our modern time in some Eastern churches. In wishing to renew this tradition some have made the mistake of a literal interpretation of what many Church fathers have said on the subject. The results of this have been the equivalent of a Dante’s Purgatorio where Christians get prodded with pitch forks by demons on the way up to God. Just like the medieval fantasies, which unfortunately still prevail, this understanding of the Toll-Houses is a radical departure from the New Testament. However, when approaching the tradition with discernment we can discover something beneficial about the process of death or final Theosis.
      Some of the fathers of the Church in explaining the Toll-Houses have done so in terms of the divine economy. For example, St. Diadochos of Photiki in the Philokalia teaches that if maintain our love for the Lord our soul is “ freely to pass by the rulers of the nether world(Volume I, p. 295)”.  Here the saint speaks of encountering demons and going through a nether world. This of course is nothing less then what the Master himself experienced when he died on the cross. When Christ died he was subject to whatever the powers of darkness threw at him and experienced the realms that confine the dead, but these things had no power over Him. Just like the Master at death we too will experience what He went through and with the same victory. Speaking about this journey of the soul at death St. Andrew of Crete says that our souls pass through “that obscure place, but they do not dwell in it”(pg .93 Life after Death by Metropolitan Hierotheos) .  This transition here becomes the content of what some fathers have addressed in their understanding of the Toll-Houses. In this matter, much of what the fathers emphasize is that we must strive to make ourselves ready for the final experience of Theosis.
     Concerning the content of how some fathers understood Toll-Houses its based mostly on how much we have integrated ourselves into the life of Grace. For them, at death there remains a distance between us and final rest in God based on how we participated in the Divine nature before death. Some of this distance will constitute whatever final struggles we will face with those powers that we have fought during our earthly struggle. Sometimes it is described as legal battle where angles guide us amongst the demons who hurl allegations of sin. For example, a monk named  St. Boniface says the following of what he experienced at death, “the holy angels had a violent dispute concerning the souls that had come forth from their bodies, the demons bringing charges against them and aggravating the burden of their sins, the angels lightening the burden and making excuses for them(pp 25-27. The Soul After Death, by Fr. Seraphim Rose).” In contrast, no one can know for sure how the toll-houses are experienced after death. The essence of the tradition points to a struggle that we must all face at death and the importance of striving for holiness in this life.
     Another way of looking at this tradition is from the perspective of someone who has done a horrible job in fighting the powers that be and who has fallen into sin many times. I speak mostly for myself here and glancing quickly at what many fathers have taught I believe my future battle at death doesn’t look good right now. On the other hand, I think there is a mystery here that many neglect in sharing this tradition of the Toll-Houses. Even in failure in this life at no point are we abandoned by God. It is His hope that we overcome and He continues to work toward that end. In working toward that end he doesn’t remove the obstacles that he wishes for us to overcome since in overcoming them we grow in our relationship with Him. Based on this, I understand the Toll-Houses as that final grace where we get the chance to overcome. We get to fight the evil that once held us down and victory at this time will be gloriously achieved in Christ.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Follow the Pope on This

      In the recent common declaration ,signed by Pope Francis with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Catholic Church received a powerful statement. When speaking about the theological dialogue undertaken by the Joint International Commission the declaration says, “This is no mere theoretical exercise, but an exercise in truth and love that demands an ever deeper knowledge of each other’s traditions in order to understand them and to learn from them. Thus we affirm once again that the theological dialogue does not seek a theological lowest common denominator on which to reach a compromise, but is rather about deepening one’s grasp of the whole truth that Christ has given to his Church, a truth that we never cease to understand better as we follow the Holy Spirit’s promptings”.   After reading this statement it should be pretty clear to Catholics that these dialogues mentioned are done in the context of Orthodox and Catholics belonging to the same One Church. In other words, no church involved (Rome or Constantinople) has the intention of converting the other through the dialogues. As the common declaration emphasized it is, “about deepening one’s grasp of the whole truth that Christ has given to his Church.” Obviously, by not properly grasping “the whole truth” in the past we now have some of the divisions we do in the Church.
     As I have said many times, those churches in communion with Rome and those churches in communion with Constantinople are “sister Churches”. These churches might be in some sense estranged sisters but they are sisters none the less and that of the One Mother.  Speaking of this bond Saint John Paul II said the following, “For centuries we lived this life of 'Sister Churches', and together held Ecumenical Councils which guarded the deposit of faith against all corruption. And now, after a long period of division and mutual misunderstanding, the Lord is enabling us to discover ourselves as 'Sister Churches' once more, in spite of the obstacles which were once raised between us (UT UNUM SINT 57)”. It is unfortunate that the saint’s invitation to discover the reality of sisterhood has often been met with hostility. Of course, the discovery that he is offering challenges an experience and understanding of the Church that many have. It seems that for some they are more comfortable with having the divisions outside of the realm that might affect their own salvation. Unfortunately, if these people expressing hostility fail to embrace the saint’s call to discovery they will in some ways estrange themselves from the Church in which the sisters belong.
     I can’t speak for others but I have no trouble as a Catholic proclaiming that the sister churches (Orthodox & Catholic) belong to the One Church. In fact, the common declaration signed by the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch gives me even more reason to do so. As usual, I know there will be hostilities toward me for making this proclamation. However, this time no one can claim that I am going against Catholic teaching in doing so. As a Catholic I am free, with the pope, to embrace the work of the Joint International Commission that seeks the reestablishment of Full visible communion within the One Church of Christ. As the recent common declaration signed by Pope Francis teaches I am to “follow the Holy Spirit’s promptings” and I most certainly can discover the “whole truth that Christ has given to his Church” with the help of the Joint International Commission. In fact, I think all Catholics should follow their pope in this. The sooner we realize that we are one, the sooner we will overcome what divides us.

Monday, May 19, 2014

My B.A. in Heresy

     There was a young man that I met who left the Church. In speaking with him about this he made reference to his Catholic education. As it turned out, we both received our undergrad degrees from the same university. So when he shared his philosophy on religion I knew where his thinking was based. Unfortunately, this philosophy that the university gave him was not rooted in authentic Catholic teaching. Consequently, as we continued our conversation it was like I was back at the university where I had to respond to teachings that claimed to be Catholic. However, this time I had the advantage of drawing upon all the resources that I used to combat those false teachings when I was there. To make a long story short, I gave him something to think about. In part, much of what I was able to share with him was do to the fact that we had a few experiences in common. On the other hand, things could have been different since I almost left the university due to its false teachings.
    It is real convenient to run away every time things look bad in the Church. The circumstances, like I was in, may even make things justifiable for leaving but that doesn’t make it right. What is unfortunate is how readily people abandon their circumstances in hope that things will be better somewhere else. Not to mention the fact that sometimes these circumstances for leaving can be very trivial. For example, many times I have had conversations with people who have found my Byzantine church to be some type of haven for things they disagree with in the Roman churches. I could only imagine how Catholics from 1000yrs ago would view this convince of theirs. It seems with the conveniences of our day a sense of loyalty to our local church is all but optional. Not saying, there are not always legitimate reasons to leave them. However, I think we should be aware that leaving sometimes has consequences for others.
     For some people they don’t have the luxury to escape with us if we abandon our local church. In fact, there was a time in the Church where such leaving was limited for all. A person that comes to mind that suffered in such circumstances was St. Maximos the Confessor. For him there was no escape since the Emperor and his Patriarch were both promoting false teaching. Instead of moving to a far off land the saint had to fight the false teachings where he was at. As we know his commitment to truth got him to the point where he was severely beaten and had his tongue cut out. In contrast, someone in our day would probably move or find the next church up the road. However, I don’t think the saint understood his teachings as his own personal ideology, which he could run and hide with. Instead, I believe the saint also suffered for what others in his own local church should believe in. If he would have left they would have never been given the opportunity to know the truth.
     In 1 Corinthians 11:19 it teaches that God sometimes allows divisive circumstances so that truth can be recognized in us.  With such truth we need to recognize that we might be the only light in the dark place. I hated that university that I went to and I did consider leaving. On the other hand, I am also grateful for enduring the evil there. I may not have received a true Catholic education but I did earn my degree in dealing with heresy. Now, thanks to this degree I am able to understand the truths of the Church in a greater way. Also, maybe sticking with the school was a good thing just so I could help that young man. If enduring all that heresy was for that reason than it was worth it. The opportunity for Evangelization doesn't always come to us in the traditional package. Most of the time its birthed from the trials where we are found to be faithful.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Convert Madness

     In my early years, when I converted to Christianity, my experience with spirituality was influenced by the “pop” spirituality of the time. For instance, if it was explained by that famous priest on EWTN or if it was in that popular book, my spirituality had to be that way.  Unfortunately, being without any spiritual roots, since I didn’t grow up in the Church, I continued to form my spirituality in this way. As you can imagine my spirituality was always in flux and when I adopted the Byzantine tradition in this way it obviously led to complications. The complications in this matter came from contemporary Eastern Christian authors that showed me my church was in some ways incomplete and this made me want to leave. In fact, not too long ago I heard a story of a man who had similar discoveries. In his case his understanding made him Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Byzantine Catholic, and back to Eastern Orthodox again. Unfortunately, this is all too often the madness of us converts. For many of us, nothing is ever traditional or spiritual enough, based on our experts, so we leave or try to find something that is.
     At one point when I was in the process of my madness I spoke to my spiritual father. He never told me what to do but instead asked me how long I wished to remain in the wilderness. His meaning was in reference to the Israelites in scripture who wandered in the wilderness until death. In my case, like them I was failing to see my need for repentance and became committed to a spiritual life of wandering. In such a state you are never truly satisfied with anything and as a result it becomes easy to lame blame, which I was doing when ever a new spiritual idea came along. Like the Israelites who complained about Moses in the wilderness I found it real easy to complain about how everyone else is doing it wrong. Looking back now I can see that it wasn’t “my church”,” that person” or “those teachings” that were the problems, it was me.
     A few years ago I met this guy who left my church for the Eastern Orthodox Church because he got mad at the circumstances that we often deal with as Byzantine Catholics. What was interesting to me was that after he left I became to him someone who was no longer part of the True Church, even though there was no differences in the theology we shared. On the other hand, I don’t think I would think any differently if I were in his shoes. In such circumstances in order to not see our own heart we must always look to how others are wrong. In fact, its rare that people leave their churches like this for any other reason. For example, in the past few years when people, mostly converts, have told why they left my church it was because of some theological deficiency. In addition, each time they did leave they laid claim to it being God's will but I have yet to find in scripture or tradition where God leads people to leave churches in the ways they have, even when those churches are filled with heretics. Just glancing at the history of the Church you will find the opposite where people have heroically endured the hardship of being part of communities that didn’t want them.
     It’s only by the goodness of God that I made it out of some of the convert madness.  When I do find myself struggling with it I like to remind myself of the life of St. Seraphim of Sarov. For those that don’t know there was a time when he lived away from society. Away from everything all he had was himself and what he knew of the Byzantine tradition. He didn’t have to worry about who is doing the theology or liturgy better nor did he have anyone one to blame for the things that are wrong. By reminding myself of this I hope to realize there is nothing keeping me from what God is offering. Sometimes it looks better in the books that I read that say otherwise. On the other hand, if I want things to be better than I need only to make more room in my own heart for God. There is a saying that the grass looks greener on the other side of the fence. But the truth is on any side of the fence, with God's grass, it is as green as we want to make it.