Thursday, May 29, 2008

On Yucky Thoughts: A Somewhat Hasty and Imperfect Transcription of Part of Fr. Thomas Hopko's Talk, "Wisdom! Let Us Attend!" (from cassette tape)

“John of Kronstadt said that the worst memories of his life were when he was standing in front of the altar. And by the way—and not ‘by the way’ at all; this is very important--that’s supposed to happen. So you can say, ‘Oh, God, I go to church, I try to say my prayers, and I get all these thoughts and these horrible memories of my college years and all that stuff,’ and we say, ‘Yeah, that’s right, that’s what’s supposed to happen, because you’ve got to name it before God, you’ve got to bring it to God, and you’ve got to let God dissolve it for you.’ Otherwise, it’s going to stay in there doing its yucky work. So catharsis is part of the attentive process, and by the way, that’s why a lot of folks who start out, they quit, they leave, and they’ll make some lame excuse—‘Ah, church is crazy, people go there just to show off, I don’t need that, I can pray in the field,’ but what they’re really saying is, ‘I can’t stand the wisdom that’s there, and I’m not ready to deal with it.’ But if you’re going to stand it and face it, all that garbage is going to come up. All that’s going to happen. And you’ve got to watch it come up, you’ve got to see it--as they say nowadays, you’ve got to ‘name it and claim it,’ you’ve got to admit that it’s there, and then you can dump it, and you dump it on the crucified Jesus. You put it on the altar. And then you can be liberated from it. But that process has to go on. And that’s why you’ve got to stand in church and read that stuff and hear that stuff even if you get to the point where you say, ‘I can’t stand it any more, if I hear one more Lord have mercy I’m going to kill the cantor and throw up in the middle of the church or something. Well, you’ve got to go through that. That’s part of learning how to be attentive. And if you go through it, actually, what happens is that something happens. You get through just the surface of it. You get through just hearing for the thousandth time the prayer—I don’t know whatever it is, and so on—you finally enter into the content of it, and it become part of your own system, but you’ve got to go through that exercise; there’s no way around it. Now if you’re doing that, and all these thoughts and all these feelings are coming up, the advice is you just let it go. Just let it go. You don’t engage it. There’s even a Greek word for that…you don’t couple with it. You just let it be there. We have to know, we have to know for sure, that if we’re trying to be attentive to the Word of God, all that is going to come. And the devil is gong to come and say all kinds of stuff, telling everything all the time, pointing out how stupid the guy is who sings and why that is that lady standing there and why is that guy by the candle stand and why doesn’t the priest stand straight…. All those things can come for distraction. And what do you do? The teaching of the fathers is that you stand. Let it go. Let it go. Bring your mind back. Bring your mind back. You don’t engage when it comes. And you don’t freak out, saying, ‘Why is this happening to me? Something’s wrong with me. Am I some kind of freak?’ You’re not a freak; you’re just trying to be a wise person, you’re trying to be purified, you’re trying to be a human being is what you’re trying to do, because if you’re not doing that, all that stuff is ruling you, it’s ruling you anyway, so you’ve got to get rid of it, so this is how you do it. And that’s what the holy fathers would mean, you know, in those famous saying where the young guy comes to the old guys, the young guy would come running to them and say, ‘I can’t pray, I can’t fast, I can’t do anything,’ and they’d say, ‘Go in your room and sit there. If you can’t pray, don’t pray, if you can’t keep vigil, go to sleep, if you can’t fast, eat, but just stay there, and your cell will teach you everything.’ So just standing there is what we’re told to do. Now what about the mind and thoughts? Well, with these thoughts that come, let them go, let them go. But they can be very instructive. So the holy fathers tell us: watch what kinds of thoughts come, and then sometimes you can name what the causes of them are, because you can’t just cover them over, you’ve got to root them out. But the thoughts are going to keep coming. You know that saying, ‘You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free’? Well, a lot of times, these thoughts can be instructive in showing us what it is that’s really bothering us--what it is that we’re scared of, what it is that we’re angry at, what it is that we’re sad over, and then we’ve got to name those and give them to Jesus, so to speak. And unite those wounds to Christ’s wounds. So when you try to be attentive, you see what your wounds are. Now the one exception to that would be blasphemous thoughts, because blasphemous thoughts will come. If blasphemous thoughts don’t come at least some time in your life, then you’re probably not doing it right. Or you’re not doing it in earnest enough. Because at some point, the devil has to get you head-on. And the unanimous opinion of the fathers is that you never pay attention to blasphemous thoughts; you laugh at them and you spit at them. That’s all you do because they’re not you, they’re not you, and don’t think that they’re you. But don’t be afraid, either--you just say, ‘Oh yeah, [the holy fathers] said it would happen. Thank you, holy fathers, it makes me feel good.’ You can read John Climacus’ sentence on blasphemous thoughts--that’s exactly what he said in The Ladder--you don’t pay attention to blasphemous thoughts, you laugh at them and you spit at them –like at baptism--you know at baptism when you spit on the devil, that’s all you do. You spit, but you stand there. Now when these thoughts come, it’s also always advised that you have to tell somebody. You can’t handle it yourself. If you try to handle it yourself, it won’t work, at least according to the fathers. So every one of us should have at least one or two people that we tell what happens to us when we try to pray, when we try to go to church, what kinds of thoughts come, what they are, and there the holy fathers say to be very specific--if there’s any doubt at all about whether to tell or not to tell, do tell--the only exception is if it’s explicitly sexual, don’t get into detail, but say what it is, just say, ‘I have sexual problems,’ and then the friend or the father can say, ‘O.k., I don’t need to hear anything more.’ But that’s enough. But normally, we tell what they are because that’s how we get rid of them. And when you try to pay attention and they come, that’s what ‘s supposed to happen, and then when you confess them or [do] what they call ‘opening the thoughts,’ sharing those thoughts, that gives you a certain freedom, and it allows you to be more attentive. They never go away but they bother you less. They can’t get you as they used to, you see. Our freedom that we’re looking for and even the wisdom that we know is that in this world they will never go away, but we learn how to be attentive in the midst of them, and we learn to focus on the one thing needful, the Word of God, while all this stuff is going on. Now sometimes they may lessen or whatever, that’s in God’s hands and it depends a lot on us, but at least in the beginning we shouldn’t worry not only that they’re there, but we shouldn’t worry if they even get worse. It seems to us that they’re getting worse. That’s probably a sign of progress. It’s most likely a sign of progress. But then you’ve got to stick with it. You can’t run away; you can’t hide them; you can’t deny them; you can’t try to repress them. You let them out. So confessing the manifestation of thoughts is important…”

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

When God Gives

"When God gives, it is himself he gives, not handouts."

Sean Caulfield, The Experience of Praying
"My earliest recollection is of listening to my father and then deciding for myself what to do. I decided not to do what my father suggested and he was not offended. He was not the sort of man who imposed his will on others. I was three years of age at the time. We were in the process of building a new home and were up there one day while construction was going on. Dad had shot a rabbit and was holding it up by the hind legs. It seemed as large as myself. He asked me to take it down home. He said it was all right, that the rabbit was dead and would not harm me. I did not understand what 'dead' meant. I thought within myself: 'You know that it will not harm me but I do not know that, and so I cannot take it.' I refused, although of course I never spoke a word. The incident left a deep impression. Even to this day I cannot be sure whether this first conscious and deliberate decision was a sin emerging from a failure to abandon my independence in trust to my father, or a mature act of responsibility, having listened."

Sean Caulfield, O.C.S.O The Experience of Praying

Thursday, May 15, 2008


"Our suffering never makes the Shepherd unable to save. His power to save is seen to be all the more glorious when we are found to be burdened by trials and temptations. Our weakness shows His strength. So despite the counterintuitive nature of this thought, a sign of the Shepherd's presence is the weakness of the sheep." --Rev. Scott Murray

Saturday, May 10, 2008


"Every understanding that touches upon God must have a certain fragility and transparence; it cannot be something fixed once and for all, but must itself urge us to call this understanding into question and stimulate us to seek one further along in the same direction. If such an understanding does remain fixed in our mind, we place limits on God corresponding to the boundaries of this particular understanding. We may even forget God entirely and find that our whole attention is concentrated on this particular understanding or upon the words which express God. In such a case our 'understanding' becomes an 'idol,' a false god. The understanding or the word we use must always make God transparent, as one who is not contained within it, as one who transcends all understanding and reveals himself now under one aspect of his infinite richness and now under another..."
Dumitru Staniloae The Experience of God

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Theological Reconciliation

"Theological reconciliation moves at a pace that makes the advance and recession of glaciers seem like the oscillation of a gnat in the golden light of summer evening."
--Mark Helprin

...But does it always have to be this way...?

The Decision

The Decision

There is a moment before a shape
hardens, a color sets.
Before the fixative of heat of kiln.
The letter might still be taken
from the mailbox.
The hand held back by the elbow,
the word kept between the larynx pulse
and the amplifying drum-skin of the room's air.
The thorax of an ant is not as narrow.
The green coat on old copper wire weighs more.
Yet something slips through it--
looks around,
sets out in the new direction, for other lands.
Not into exile, not into hope. Simply changed.
As the sandy track-rut changes when called a Silk Road:
it cannot be after turned back from.

--Jane Hirschfield

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Sunday of Thomas II

"The disciples were assembled on the eighth day,

And the Savior appeared to them!

He gave them peace and said to Thomas:

Come, O Apostle, feel my hands, which were pierced by nails!

O most wonderful doubt of Thomas!

It brought the hearts of the faithful to knowledge!

My Lord and my God, glory to Thee!"

What is the nature of the mysterious, life-giving connection between wounds, doubt/struggle, and the release of grace for revelation?

Monday, May 5, 2008

Sunday of Thomas

"After Thy fearful resurrection, O life-giver Christ,
Thou didst not break the seals of the tomb.
Likewise, Thou didst appear to Thy glorious apostles,
even though the doors were locked.
Thou didst fill them with the joy of Thy Holy Spirit,
in Thy boundless mercy."
At the risk of thinking too anthropomorphically, I can't help but wonder if when confronted with the presence of a barrier--a sealed tomb, a set of locked doors, a closed-up heart--Jesus feels a sense of glorious anticipation, of holy hilarity...

Friday, May 2, 2008

Imaginary Letter from Jesus to Me

An Imaginary Letter from Jesus to Me

When you see how I allow every aspect of creation
the natural freedom and wildness that are its birthright,
then you complain that I don’t intervene enough,
that there isn’t enough direct proof of My presence,

but when I draw close and manifest that presence,
working so deeply in history and in your life
that your soils and mosses cling to My fingers,
then you complain that I’m too controlling, too invasive;
you call Me a bully, even a tyrant.

When I offer you the full pallette of experience
with which to paint your life—
the radiant hues, the dark and heavy tones,
the shades so subtle they’re nearly imperceptible,
then you complain that you’re overwhelmed,
and why couldn’t I have given you a simpler, paint-by-numbers world
with just the five basic Crayola colors?—

but when I am very precise with you,
directing you about particular details—
a touch here, a broad stroke there,

then you complain that you don’t have enough breathing room,
and why won’t I let you do it your way?

When I answer your prayers and get you unstuck,
then you complain that you aren’t worthy,
so that therefore I should remove myself
to a more comfortable distance;
or you complain that others have suffered
or are currently suffering
far more than you,
so why don’t I take everything I’ve given you
and pass it on to them instead;
or you complain that I didn’t help you sooner,
and that by accepting My help when I do give it,
you would be relinquishing your grasp
on that elaborately cross-referenced and multiply-indexed
documentation of the history of pain
you’ve been compiling to hold against Me.

And when in all of this,
I invite you to argue with Me,
to reason with Me, to wrestle with Me ,
not letting Me go
until I bless you and the people you carry in your heart,

then you complain that I’m loading you up
with more responsibility than you can bear, and besides,
you “don’t have time to get that intense with Me.”

You claim that in My eyes,
you can’t seem to do anything right,
that I’m always displeased with you,
that all I ever do with you is
pick, pick, pick,

but the truth is that you have it exactly backwards—
in your eyes, I can’t do anything right;
it’s you who are perpetually displeased with Me;
you are the one who does nothing but
pick, pick, pick.

You cry out to Me for closeness with you,
yet there are a million sharp quills
protruding from your skin.
But because you’re not a porcupine,
these quills aren’t natural to you;
each one causes you pain
which has become so familiar to you
that you experience it as “normal,”
and feel threatened, indignant,
even highly offended at the prospect
of letting it go.


I can pick out those quills,
but not all at once from a distance
as if with some kind of celestial vacuum-suction device;
I want to do it personally,
with my bare hands,
quill by quill.
I don’t mind getting my fingers bloody
for the love of you—
but you have to give Me permission
instead of trying to convince yourself
that you are a porcupine,
instead of shying away from Me,
instead of crouching down to scuttle into the underbrush
as fast as you possibly can!

You have a distance interpretation distortion.
The overwhelming expanse you perceive around you—
infinities receding into infinities—
that’s not how far away I am from you;
in fact, that’s not distance at all—
it’s the immensity of My mercy.
What you are interpreting as distance
is actually the deepest possible intimacy.

What you experience as claustrophobia
is actually fear of My freedom.
Inside the densest knots of the most intense struggle,
the most confining thought,
the most crushing schedule,
there is nothing but infinite spaciousness,
for I am there.
I am so much nearer than any of your efforts
to locate Me.

So remind yourself every day
that you are not God.
You can wrap this fact around you
like a blanket, like a cloak, like a prayer shawl,
flexible, weightless, and fluid as light.
You were not God at the instant of conception
when your genes and chromosomes began lining up
to do the Electric Slide inside your mother.
You were not God at the event of your birth,
or at any point while you were growing up,
despite any level of commotion you may have caused
or any degree of invisibility you may have managed to achieve.

When nothing much seems to be happening, you are not God.
When too much seems to be happening, you are not God.

You don’t have to sustain or negate
your own existence or anyone else’s,
or hold the world close to you or away from you
with the muscle tension
in your jaw, your neck, your forehead, or your stomach.

Your puny thoughts don’t have to pump iron all night long
in order to ascertain what would have happened
if you’d behaved, thought, or felt differently
on any particular occasion.
You don’t have to fight, flee, freeze, fix, faint, or philosophize.
You don’t have to churn yourself into a small local vortex
in an attempt to speed time up or slow it down.
You can’t leap or fall out of the universe,
or sever yourself from it,
or sequester yourself invulnerably in a niche within it.
You can’t mind-clenchingly believe anything
in order to make it true,
or foot-stampingly disbelieve anything
in order to make it false.

And no matter what resolutions you painstakingly chip
into the stoniest regions of your heart,
certain migratory regions of your life will always remain
uncolonized, raw, chaotic, incomplete, and beyond articulation.
Much within you and around you will not be made complete in human time,
so if you have to make a resolution,
resolve to wean yourself from your habit
of refusing to outrageously enjoy God
until you have until you have gotten everything “right.”

The greatest evidence of the mercy of God
is that you are not God.
You can breathe God, but you are not God.
You can eat and drink God,
and offer God as food and drink to others,
but you cannot be God.
In God, you can tread and kick in one place;
you can do the backstroke, the crawl, or the dead man’s float,
but through none of these techniques
will you become God, even briefly.
You can dive down or up or sideways,
but you will not arrive at the end of God.

And while you’re treading or swimming
or floating or diving,
inside every cell of your body,
a billion tiny candles are blazing.
Rejoice! Fear not!
You didn’t light
a single one of them.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Ancient Hymn

As the gardener Christ addressing,
Mary very truth believed;
He the Sower gave his blessing
To the seed her heart received;
Not at first his form confessing,
Soon his voice her soul perceived.

She beheld, as yet not knowing
In the mystical disguise,
Christ, who in her breast was sowing
Deep and heavenly mysteries;
Till his voice, her name bestowing,
Bade her hear and recognise.

She to Jesus for him weepeth;
Of her Lord removed complains;
Jesus in her beast she keepeth;
Jesus seeks, yet still retains;
He that soweth, he that reapeth
All her heart, unknown remains.
Why, kind Jesu, why thus hiding,
When thyself thou wouldst reveal?
Why, in Mary’s heart abiding,
From her love thyself conceal?
Why, true Light in her residing,
Can she not thy radiance feel:

O, how strangely thou eludest
Souls that on thee have believed!
But, eluding, ne’er deludest,
Nor deceiving, nor deceived;
But including, still excludest,
Fully known, yet not perceived.

Glory be to God, and honour,
Who, true paschal sacrifice,
Lamb in death, in strife a Lion,
Did the third day Victor rise,
And the spoils of death, as trophies,
Bore triumphant to the skies.

Office Hymn for St Mary Magdalene; tr. unknown