Saturday, February 25, 2006

Humility & Wisdom

In ancient Greece a shrine dedicated to the pagan god, Apollo, stood at Delphi. People seeking answers to questions from the god would travel to the shrine and ask the oracle, a priestess of Apollo, who would answer the question on behalf of the god. A man named Chaerephon once asked the oracle, “Who is the wisest man?” She replied that Socrates was the wisest man.

Upon hearing the oracle's answer from his friend, Socrates was puzzled. Knowing that he was not the wisest man, but unwilling to accept that the god lied, Socrates set out to talk to others with reputations for wisdom. By talking to these wise men he hoped to discover how he could possibly be the wisest man. After speaking with them, Socrates discovered that even though they possessed great reputations for being wise and they certainly saw themselves as being wise, they really weren’t wise at all. He found that they didn’t know much, but they thought they knew much more than they actually did. They had deceived themselves by overestimating their own wisdom. On the other hand, Socrates didn’t know much either, but he realized how little he knew. Therefore, Socrates concluded that he was indeed the wisest man because he recognized his own ignorance (Plato, The Apology).

If we understand wisdom the way Socrates did, we can be rather unwise ourselves. We are ignorant of more than we know, but we can often overestimate our wisdom. Recognizing our own ignorance is humbling, but when we think we know more than we actually do we can become quite arrogant. Everyone around us seems less intelligent, wise, and knowledgeable than we are. We can even become so arrogant that we judge our Creator, the source of all knowledge and wisdom, as possessing less wisdom and knowledge than we do. How can anyone actually think that he or she has a more complete and coherent understanding of reality than the One who creates reality out of nothing? In our ignorance, we can question whether God is really infinitely holy, powerful, loving, merciful, and compassionate. How can we, who are sinners full of self-righteous pride, hedonistic lust, selfish ambition, and spiritual laziness, judge the true and living God? We are blindly arrogant and incredibly unaware of our own empty ignorance.

Challenging God is sometimes an emotional reaction to our personal pain and inability to understand things that happen in our lives. When we don’t understand why we are hurting or life doesn’t seem to make sense and we can’t find anyone around us to blame, we direct our anger, frustration, and anxiety toward our Creator. Consider the story of Job. During a period of tremendous suffering, Job began to make accusations against God.

God answered him,

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who shut in the sea with doors, when it burst forth from the womb; when I made clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed?’ Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.”

Then Job, realizing his own ignorance, responded,
“Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer thee? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.”

God continued,

“Will you put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be justified? Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his?”

Job answered,
“I know that thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of thine can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 38.1-11, 40.2-9, 42.1-8, RSV)

In the end, Job realized how ignorant and arrogant he had been to challenge God. He repented, trading self-righteousness for humility, and proceeded to live a long, fulfilled life.

Questioning God or blaming Him for whatever happens in the world that we don’t understand doesn’t lead us to greater wisdom and knowledge or make us more pure, loving, spiritually healthy people. Arrogance actually shuts our hearts and minds to God’s grace, love, and wisdom. It causes us to ignore our own sinfulness and turns our hearts against the only One who can help us. A child who rebels against her loving parents, questions their authority, rejects their instructions, and accuses them of not understanding her or desiring what is best for her will not likely grow closer to her parents as long as these attitudes are kept in her heart. She will grow inward and distant from them. The child who obeys her parents in humility, even without understanding why they give certain instructions, confides in them, and genuinely loves them is likely to build a strong, enduring relationship and develop a way of thinking and understanding the world shaped by their views. Instead of arrogantly challenging God like an immature child challenges her parents, we can improve our knowledge of ourselves and our comprehension of reality by loving God with our hearts, obeying the teachings He has given to us for our benefit, and nurturing our relationship with Him, our compassionate Father.

Rather than trying to figure out reasons things happen in the world, we can benefit from humbly embracing the divine mystery of the One who is incomprehensible and uncontainable. Through our intimate spiritual communion, God transforms our hearts so that we are capable of understanding reality from the divine perspective, a perspective that often makes little sense to secular culture. In a corrupted, dysfunctional world, “common sense,” the sense held in common among people influenced by the world, is not necessarily good sense. “Let no one deceived himself. If any one among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, 'He catches the wise in their craftiness,' and again, 'The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile'” (1 Cor. 3.18-21, RSV).

How do we escape from the arrogance in our hearts that causes us to challenge, accuse, and question the One who loves us? How do we humbly embrace the mystery of the Holy Trinity and commune in a relationship of love and trust with the living God, the source all wisdom the knowledge? We accomplish these things by living the dynamic spiritual life within the Church, the mystical community of Christ’s disciples. The Church is the temple of God where the Spirit of God dwells. She is the guardian and preserver of the Truth, the one who proclaims the Truth to the world, and who lives the Truth within the world. God created the Church, reveals Himself to her, dwells within her, and guides her every day of her life. Within the Church we find Holy Tradition, the Faith passed down to us from the Apostles, in its fullest form. The Holy Scripture, revealing the Truth through human language, as well as the correct interpretation of Scripture, are present within the Church. The Holy Icons, revealing the Truth visually through art, are kept within the Church. The Holy Mysteries through which we mystically experience the Truth remain inseparable from our life in the Church. Within the Church we pray, both individually and together as one body, one temple. A true theologian in not a philosopher, but one who prays, communing and communicating with God, who molds our hearts like wax and imparts wisdom to those who seek it.

The complete spiritual way of life that leads into the depths of divine spirituality is the life of the Orthodox Christian Church. Through the Church, built upon the Apostles, we come to the knowledge of the Truth and acquire spiritual wisdom, not through intellectual philosophical ideas, but through the Spirit. As St. Paul said of the Apostles, “Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, ‘What no eyes has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him,’ God has revealed to us through the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2.6-10, RSV). The word “orthodox” in the term "Orthodox Christianity" means, in part, “correct belief” or “right faith.” As Orthodox Christians, we hold to the original Christian faith that has endured for two thousand years, but being an Orthodox Christian is not just about being right, that is, intellectually knowing the right doctrines. Knowledge that remains in the mind alone without descending into the heart can puff up our pride. However, when Truth abides in the heart and is embodied as a lifestyle in the world, it produces humility. If we have humble hearts, the Spirit can teach us, shape our perceptions, and grant us wisdom.

Through our life in the Church, a life involving a dynamic relationship with the One who loves us, we can learn to better understand what our Creator has revealed to us and has entrusted to us. We can also learn to confidently accept the indescribable mystery that remains beyond our human comprehension. Let’s keep this psalm of King David in our hearts so that we may recognize our ignorance and find peace, tranquility, and wisdom through our communion with the Holy Trinity:

O LORD, my heart is not lifted,
My eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
Too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
Like a child that is quieted is my soul.

O Israel, hope in the LORD
From this time forth and forevermore.

(Psalm 130/131, RSV)

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. Photo copyright © 2005 by Dana S. Kees.

Monday, February 20, 2006

The Way of Humility

Sometimes it’s not easy to look at ourselves honestly, seeing ourselves as we really are. Looking into our own hearts truthfully can be painful. Having pride is easier. Pride insulates our awareness and shapes our perception so that when we look at ourselves we don’t seem that bad. Our hearts look purer in our own eyes than they really are and our faults appear dramatically minimized in size and importance. It’s like a pig looking into a magic mirror and seeing a princess. Have you ever known a parent who thinks her child is absolutely perfect? Even though the child perpetually gets into trouble at school the problem is always the fault of a school administrator, teacher, or another student. We look at ourselves in that way. If we have conflict with someone else, we can’t believe what the other person said or did. Do we never say or do things we shouldn’t? (I know even when I don’t act, I think.) Our coworkers, clients, neighbors, and friends may seem incompetent and immature to us. Do we never make mistakes or do stupid things? “Those people” don’t know what they’re doing? Each of us possesses enough ignorance to go around. Pride is a raging ocean of dark storm clouds around our hearts, keeping us from honest self-awareness. It causes the heart to grow damp and cold. When it overtakes us, our relationship with others (who are not as good as us anyway, we think) begins to decay. Because we are so good, we appoint ourselves as judges over other people.

Jesus once told a story about a tax collector and a Pharisee. Tax collectors were hated in their day because, in addition to collecting taxes for the pagan Roman government, they collected an added fee for themselves. Pharisees, on the other hand, didn’t want anything to do with the pagans. They strived for holiness and purity by following strict religious rules and regulations. One day, both the Pharisee and the tax collector walked to the temple for prayer. The Pharisee stood and prayed, “God, I thank you that I’m not like other men, corrupt, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and I tithe everything I own.” The tax collector, standing far away, would not even lift up his eyes toward heaven, but pounded his chest, praying, “God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went home justified instead of the other one: for whoever exalts himself will be brought down and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (The Gospel of St. Luke 18.10-14).

When we embrace humility we realize how much we really are like the sinners around us. The sinners are not “those people.” We are the sinners. We may actually be worse than most people. As one of the Egyptian Fathers said, “Don’t look down on anyone because you don’t know whether the spirit of God prefers to dwell in you or in them.” The purpose of humility is not to enable us to realize how sinful and corrupt we are so that we can wallow in guilt and depression. Humility is not self-defeating, but empowering. Humility conditions our hearts with the right attitude for us to stand before God and receive the mercy, forgiveness, and restoration He desires to bestow upon us. God is a loving Father who, like in the story of the Prodigal Son, comes running to embrace us when He sees that we’ve left behind our sinful pride to return home. Pride causes isolation. It isolates us from God, ourselves, and those around us. Humility opens our hearts to love, communion, wholeness, and harmony.

Humility is the way toward Paradise and the path of spiritual perfection. God created us as humble creatures, making us in His own divine image and likeness. In the Garden of Eden, our first ancestors, Adam and Eve, were tempted to turn away from God with pride. They took the bait and experienced sin, the evil that corrupts our souls and separates us from God. By their own actions, they lost the glory of the divine likeness they once possessed. As the image of God within them warped, the natural passions of humility and love were replaced with arrogant self-centeredness.

When God confronted Adam about eating fruit from the only forbidden tree in the Garden of Paradise, Adam defended himself by saying, “The woman you put here with me gave it to me and I ate it.” Adam’s pride is palpable. I can tell we are his descendents. Things haven’t changed so much that they haven’t remained the same, although down through the centuries we may have become more intellectually creative, emotionally convincing, and philosophically complex in our attempts to deflect blame away from ourselves, condemn others as guilty, and find ourselves innocent (or at least better than the other guilty people).

Since the first sin by our ancestors in Paradise, the war against pride has been fought in the hearts of those determined to regain the divine likeness, find spiritual wholeness, and enter once again through the gates of Paradise. One simple, practical step we can take to become more humble is to dedicate ourselves to saying the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, a prayer dating back to the fourth century:

O Lord and Master of my Life,
Take away from me the spirit of laziness,
faint-heartedness, lust for power, and idle talk.

Instead grant me, your servant,
the spirit of purity, humility, patience, and love.

Yes, Lord and King,
give me the power to see my own faults
and not to judge my brother.
For You are blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.

We, as Orthodox Christians, pray this prayer together during the forty days of Great Lent preceeding Pascha (Easter). The prayer will undoubtedly be a vital part of my personal prayers during Lent this year. That for which the prayer asks, I desperately need. It sums up so much about my own faults and my desire to escape my sins and become better than I am.

Standing before an icon of Christ, we begin the prayer. As His servants, who have come to Him requesting love, mercy, and grace, we acknowledge Him as our Lord, Master, and King. Humility grows in an environment where we remember who God is and who we are in relationship to Him. We ask Him to release us from self-centered inclinations, laziness, faint-heartedness (despair), selfish ambition, and idle talk, and to fill our hearts with purity, humility, patience, and love. Our prayer also specifically asks God to help us see ourselves as we really are instead of seeing what everybody else does wrong. If we are able to see our own faults, instead of seeing the faults of other people, we can embody a spirit of humility that allows all the good things we ask for to flourish within our souls and to be made real in our actions.

When we pray this prayer, we don’t just pray with mind, heart, and lips, but with the whole body. Three times during the prayer (marked with a + sign above), we prostrate ourselves before the true and living God, the Creator of all things. At the end of the prayer, we bow twelve times, praying each time, “O God, cleanse me, a sinner.” Then we prayer the prayer a second time from beginning to end, followed by a final prostration. In humbling our body, we remind ourselves to humble our hearts. We sin with our bodies to our own hurt so we make use of our bodies to do good and glorify God. The weak, lazy flesh must be brought under the submission of the awakened, humble spirit.

Through the ancient prayer of St. Ephraim, we approach God in humility, asking for humility. Our spiritual lives involve “synergy,” the cooperation between our free will and God’s grace. We bring Him as much repentance, humility, and love as we can, and He meets us half way to transform us into a person who more closely reflects His own divine image and likeness. Let’s look at ourselves honestly and repent of our self-destructive arrogance so that our Creator, who loves us, can heal us and transform us into spiritually empowered humble creatures capable of true worship, healthy relationships, and divine love.

We have nothing to lose but our pride.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. Photograph of icon showing St. Ephraim of Syria by Dana S. Kees.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

My Favorite Love Poems

Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
Oh, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor a man ever loved.

- William Shakespeare

How Do I Love Thee?

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely as they turn from Praise.

I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, — I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! — and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

- Elizabeth Barrett Browning

To My Dear and Loving Husband

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me ye women if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.

My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay;
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever,
That when we live no more we may live ever.

- Anne Bradstreet

From The Song of Solomon

How graceful are your feet in sandles, O queenly maiden!
Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the work of a master hand.
Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine.
Your belly is a heap of wheat, encircled with lilies.
Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle.
Your neck is like an ivory tower. Your eyes are pools in Heshbon,
by the gate of Bathrabbim.
Your nose is like a tower of Lebanon, overlooking Damascus.
Your head crowns you like Carmel,
and your flowing locks are like purple;
a king is held captive in the tresses.

How fair and pleasant you are, O loved one, delectable maiden!
You are stately as a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters.
I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its branches.
Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine,
and the scent of your breath like apples,
and your kisses like the best wine that goes down smoothly,
gliding over lips and teeth.

- from the Holy Scripture (Song of Solomon 7.1-9, RSV).

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Spiritual Education

While looking around a museum bookstore, I once saw a mother with her young daughter, who may have been about four years old. The mother was talking to the attendant behind the counter when the child pointed to a statue on a shelf. “May I see Anubis please?,” the girl asked. “You know who he is?,” the surprised attendant answered. The girl declared, “He’s my favorite!” I guess the attendant didn’t expect the child to recognize Anubis, the jackal-headed Egyptian god of the dead. I didn’t expect it either.

I don’t know anything about the girl or her family, but I’m compelled to wonder how much the little one knew about the Orthodox Christian faith. Is it possible that she could recognize an image of Anibus, but wouldn’t be able to identify an icon of St. Nicholas, the Archangel Michael, John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, or even Jesus Christ Himself? Could she know the myth of Anubis embalming Osiris, but not know the story of Christ raising Lazarus from the dead, or the triumphant account of Christ’s own crucifixion and resurrection? Such a thing is indeed possible, especially in America.

Take a look at the instructions God gave to the Israelites through Moses about teaching their children:

Here, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord: And you shall love the Lord your God with all your mind, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words, all that I command you on this day, shall be in your heart and in your soul. You shall teach them to your children, and you shall speak about them when you sit in the house, when you walk along the path, when you lie down, and when you get up. You shall fasten them as a sign upon your hand, and it shall be immoveable from before your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your houses and your gates.

And in the future time, when your son asks you, “What are the testimonies, ordinances, and judgments the Lord our God has commanded us?,” say this to him: "We were slaves of Pharaoh in the land of Egypt, and the Lord rescued us with a mighty hand and with a high arm. He brought us here to give us this land, which He had promised to give our ancestors. The Lord charged us to observe all these ordinances and to fear the Lord our God so that it may be well with us and we may live as we do today.” (Deut. 6.1-9, 20-25)

These instructions reflect the way we should teach our children within the Church. With all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength we are called to love God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and to love those around us in His name. Let us wear the Holy Cross around our necks so that it hangs near our hearts and make the Sign of the Cross to remember what God has done and who He has made us to be. In our homes, let’s constantly tell the story of how we became a people, the Church, and discuss the teachings of the Faith for our benefit and the benefit of our children. If we do not nurture them as Christians, we abandon them to the pagans and their secular culture. Let’s keep retelling the stories preserved in Holy Tradition so that we remember who God is, who we are, and how we should live. May we also hang Holy Icons in our homes so that the divine Truth revealed in them remains always before our eyes.

When I think about the girl in the museum, the education of children comes to mind, but the story relates to adults as well. Many young adults (and older adults for that matter) have no significant knowledge of the Holy Scripture, the lives of the Saints through the ages, or of the Orthodox Christian way of life. What should we do about the ignorance pervading our culture? (As a young unmarried man without children, I’m particularly interested in this part.) We can teach those around us by telling our spiritual Story, explaining our way of life and the reasons we live it, and by endowing both the message and messenger with credibility by living the Faith we proclaim in love. We have been called to be light in the world of darkness. May the divine radiance of the Holy Spirit shine brightly through us.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. Photo by Dana S. Kees. (My paraphrase of the biblical text is based upon Sir Lancelot Charles Lee Brenton’s translation of the Septuagint, 1851.)

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Praying with the Icon of Christ & His Mother

If I stopped someone on the street, showed her this image painted on wood, and asked her, “What can you tell me about this?” she could probably identify it as a painting and recognize the subjects as Mary and Jesus. If so, she would be correct, but her answer would only capture the surface of the reality behind it. This is not merely a painting, but an “icon,” a sacred image. It is a visual representation of the heavenly reality that teaches us about the spiritual world around us.

The woman pictured here is indeed Mary. She is typically adorned with three stars representing her virginity, before the birth of her child, during the birth of her child, and after His birth. She is the ever-Virgin Mary, who conceived her child without a man through the Holy Spirit and gave birth to Him, the Son of God. A few Greek letters identify her as the “Mother of God.” (She is also called the Theotokos, the “God-bearer.”) The titles bestowed upon her tell us who she is, but more importantly reveal the identity of her Son. If she is the Mother of God, then her Son is God Himself in human flesh.

A few Greek initials reveal her Son’s name, Jesus Christ. A halo, divided into three parts with three letters, surrounds His head. The letters spell the Greek words meaning, “the One Who Is” or “the Existing One.” Who is this child? Remember back to the time our Creator spoke to Moses through a burning bush. Moses asked God His name. God replied, “I Am Who I Am.” “The One Who Is,” who can identify Himself by simply saying, “I Am,” and who forbade the Israelites from making an image of Him has come into the world as a human being, born of a woman, to take on an image we could see and we can still portray. As St. Paul said, Christ is the icon (image) of the invisible God. The invisible One became visible and the One who cannot be contained confined Himself to a human body. The icon proclaims the unfathomable mystery that Jesus Christ is fully God, beyond comprehension, and completely human, one of us.

The icon teaches us eternal Truth, but it accomplishes more than instructing us. It allows us to see into the spiritual world. This is why icons are called “windows to heaven.” We pray standing before them, peering beyond the image into heaven itself, where Christ dwells and where His mother, with all the Saints of heaven, pray to Christ, our God, for those of us on earth. Icons direct our hearts and minds to heaven while showing us the heavenly reality present around us. When I see the icon of Christ, I see Christ Himself through the icon. When I kiss the icon, I kiss my Saviour by means of the icon. When I honor the icon, I worship my God represented by the icon. When I pray before the icon, I speak with Christ who is portrayed by the icon. I'm thankful to God that He has given us holy icons. They help me to pray, teach my mind, guide my heart, comfort my soul, and remind me Who is always with me every moment of every day. Through our prayers, may we become living icons who reflect the image and likeness of Christ, pointing others, not to ourselves, but to the loving and compassionate One Who Is.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. (Icon from the IconoGraphics ColorWorks Collection,