Monday, March 21, 2011

Challenging aspects of following Christ

With a deep diaconal bow to my fellow deacon, Charles Joiner, who is Orthodox, I am posting an excerpt from the late Fr. Seraphim Rose’s book, Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future, in which he comments on much of what passes for Christian spirituality today:

"The life of self-centeredness and self-satisfaction lived by most of today’s 'Christians' is so all-pervading that it effectively seals them off from any understanding at all of spiritual life; and when such people do undertake 'spiritual life,' it is only as another form of self-satisfaction. This can be seen quite clearly in the totally false religious ideal both of the 'charismatic' movement and the various forms of 'Christian meditation': all of them promise (and give very quickly) an experience of 'contentment' and 'peace.' But this is not the Christian ideal at all, which if anything may be summed up as a fierce battle and struggle. The ‘contentment' and 'peace' described in these contemporary 'spiritual' movements are quite manifestly the product of spiritual deception, of spiritual self-satisfaction––which is the absolute death of the God-oriented spiritual life. All these forms of 'Christian meditation' operate solely on the psychic level and have nothing whatever in common with Christian spirituality. Christian spirituality is formed in the arduous struggle to acquire the eternal Kingdom of Heaven, which fully begins only with the dissolution of this temporal world, and the true Christian struggler never finds repose even in the foretastes of eternal blessedness which might be vouchsafed to him in this life; but the Eastern religions, to which the Kingdom of Heaven has not been revealed, strive only to acquire psychic states which begin and end in this life."
In trying to keep it simple, I will add only one observation, namely the banishment from contemporary Christian life, at least in the West, of those traditional disciplines that are difficult. First among these are the disciplines of fasting and abstinence. It seems that those of us in the well-fed and over-sexed West see the need to fast from virtually everything except food and sex. The reason for this is because when we do we get hungry and horny, which means grappling with these basic desires of our flesh, which are not intrinsically evil, just as our bodies are not evil. However, these desires often rule our lives, or at least exercise undue influence over us. Christ wants to liberate us from all that enslaves us, from all that distracts us from loving as we are loved, which means dying to ourselves. So, we are loathe to eliminate meat, cheese, milk, indeed, all animal products, including fish, from our diet for a prescribed season, or even a few days a week, let alone wine and conjugal relations, which disciplines have been part of Christian praxis from the very beginning. Sure these things can take on a dead formalism, but this, too, must be resisted. It is not resisited by falling into being lax.

When Philippine Archbishop Paciano Aniceto, who serves as chairman of the Commission on Family Life of the Philippines’ Conference of Catholic Bishops, suggested to married Catholics in his country at the beginning of Lent that they might consider abstaining from sexual relations by mutual agreement over these forty days, citing Muslim practice during the month of Ramadan, his suggestion, at least in the U.S., was met with sarcasm and smug ridicule, despite the fact he made it clear that he was only making a suggestion and not seeking to impose anything, which is only to suggest what Sacred Scripture itself recommends, when St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians:

"Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: 'It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.' But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control". (1 Cor. 7:1-5- ESV- underlining emphasis mine)
If I am not mistaken, Lent is a time we devote ourselves to prayer more intensively. Passages like this in Scripture are often dismissed by Western Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, as antiquated, outdated, and irrelevant to contemporary life. While I certainly do not take a literalist approach to Scripture, I cannot dismiss challenging passages with the wave of my hand. I fully recognize that for some people this would never occur as a possibility and I would never insist that it is incumbent upon married couples to do this for even a day, let alone for a week, month, or six weeks, but I think as Christians we have to acknowledge there may well be something to it.

Of course, such an undertaking requires a certain amount of spiritual maturity, meaning it cannot be done on a whim or for superficial, legalistic, or moralistic reasons. It also requires competent spiritual direction in order for it to be fruitful, competent spiritual directors are in short supply these days. Like all disciplines it is a means to an end, not an end in itself. We do not become holy by our own efforts, God is the one who transforms us, but not only does God not change us against our will, He does not do so without our cooperation. So, while our reasons for doing these things must be primarily spiritual, like fasting from food, it also has practical benefits, such as deepening marital intimacy, which is surely fostered by such things as praying (more) together, engaging in spiritual reading together, etc. Those who undertake such a spiritual endeavor must do so quietly, not seeking to draw attention to themselves, so that it might help them be transformed from image to likeness together, which is what the sacrament of matrimony is all about. (Mark10:6-8; Gen. 1:27)

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

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