A Prayer to Our Lord Jesus Christ
My most merciful and all-merciful God, O Lord Jesus Christ! In Thy great love, Thou didst come down and become flesh in order to save all. Again, I pray Thee, save me by Grace! If Thou shouldst save me because of my deeds, it would not be a gift, but merely a duty. Truly, Thou aboundest in graciousness and art inexpressibly merciful! Thou hast said, O my Christ: “He who believes in me shall live and never see death.” If faith in Thee saves the desperate, behold: I believe! Save me, for Thou art my God and my Maker. May my faith replace my deeds, O my God, for Thou wilt find no deeds to justify me. May my faith be sufficient for all. May it answer for me; may it justify me; may it make me a partaker of Thine eternal glory; and may Satan not seize me, O Word, and boast that He has torn me from Thy hand and fold. O Christ my Savior: save me whether I want it or not! Come quickly, hurry, for I perish! Thou art my God from my mother’s womb. Grant, O Lord, that I may now love Thee as once I loved sin, and that I may labor for Thee without laziness as once I labored for Satan the deceiver. Even more, I will labor for Thee, my Lord and God Jesus Christ, all the days of my life, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
From the Morning Prayers
I hear the heart’s cry in the prayer quoted above. The depth of its honesty provokes the hearts of those who read it. It recognizes the truth of our will and echoes St. Paul’s observations:
For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand….Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:18-21; 24)
There is, I think, an abiding temptation towards Pelagianism (the belief that we can will our own salvation). In Orthodoxy, the teaching of “synergy” often runs in that direction. We indeed “cooperate” with God in our salvation (“cooperate” is the Latinized equivalent of “synergy”). But our cooperation is best illustrated in the prayer above. It is the cry for help from the lips of the helpless. This is not nothing – it is synergistic. But it is not the imagined synergy that some profess. We are saved by our weakness, not by our excellence.
Sin is a movement away from being, well-being, and eternal being. It is a distorted direction (hamartia: “missing the mark”). It is equally the refusal of Beauty and Goodness, without participation in the Truth.
When someone asks: “Is it a sin to withhold help from someone in need?” The answer is yes – but not in a merely legal sense. It is a sin – a movement towards non-existence – a movement away from the proper direction of our lives.
[A]ll of this should shed much light on the importance of beauty in Orthodox liturgy and Churches, iconography, etc. It is essential – not a decoration or an afterthought. Much of the modern world sees beauty as a luxury (which it so rarely affords). I grieve deeply when I hear the modern sentiment directed towards a beautiful Church “that money should have been given to the poor.” These are the words of Judas. And those who say such things rarely give anything themselves. Beauty is not a contradiction of generosity. The movement towards Beauty is a movement towards Goodness (which contains generosity at its core).
The apprehension of Beauty is at the very heart of the preaching of the gospel. It is that which first touches the heart and draws us towards Truth. In our over-rationalized world we tend to think that it is reasoning and arguments that draw people to Christ. But this is something that comes much later. First the heart must be drawn – and this happens primarily through Beauty in its broadest sense.
Could a liturgy be served without vestments? Of course, though a priest would, even in extreme circumstances, try to cobble something together. The vestments themselves are not mere decorations. Can a liturgy be served without icons? Of course, though it would be wrong to do so unless under extreme duress. There was once a liturgy celebrated in the confines of the prison of Pitesti in Romania. The canons require that the liturgy be celebrated in the presence of a martyr’s relic (all altars have such a relic). It was decided to celebrate the service on the body of a deceased prisoner, the only martyr present. Such things are not extraneous. The liturgy should not be subjected to reductionism.
The givenness of the liturgy, in all its aspects, is a proper subject of theoria – contemplation and understanding. It is a mystery that yields itself to the heart. It is not, however, one more cultural artifact to be manipulated in the interests of consumer capitalism and its deformation of humanity. We are fast losing the memory of who and what we are. It is the confusion of Babel.
Jesus healed the sick, cleansed the lepers, and gave sight to the blind. Such actions are incorrectly described as the “relief of suffering.” In many other cases Jesus specifically asks people to suffer: give away your possessions; forgive your enemies; take up your Cross; turn the other cheek; give without expecting in return. Again, there is no authentic Christian voice that does not demand suffering on the part of its adherents.
More important than this, is the fact that this voluntary self-denial, a willingly embraced suffering for the sake of others, is not a diminishment of our humanity, but a necessity of its fulfillment. It is this reality that modernity, in its truncated account of existence, fails to understand or to describe. The most popular ethic within the modern world entails the relief of suffering. In the name of that ethic, people are put to death. It cannot ask us to suffer without guilt. But if suffering is inherent to our existence, then only that which encompasses suffering is sufficient as an account of being human.
To be truly human is to be conformed to the image of Christ. And not just to the image of Christ, but Christ crucified. Anything less would make a mockery of our existence and a diminishment of the fullness to which we are called.
I have seen, more than once, the favorable outcome of a soul whose deepest hunger has, in an unguarded moment, been exposed to the light of the gospel. I know the case of a woman who found God when a priest called her by name unexpectedly. Just her name. The mercy of God is wonderfully opportunistic. I have often thought, “Give Him an inch and He’ll take your life!”
As I finished up, deciding what “categories” to assign to today’s blog, the quote “Sin is a movement away from being, well-being, and eternal being” struck me as an instance of nominalism versus realism, so I applied that category. One characteristic tendency of nominalism was to see sin as sinful because it transgressed an essentially arbitrary divine decree. The consequence of sin was not non-being (spiritual death), but punishment by God. In this sense, the Orthodox understanding of sin is realist rather than nominalist.
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Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.
(Philip K. Dick)