Archive for December, 2010

Thy Will Be Done

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

The Gospel and Holy Tradition are very clear on this subject: one can, and should, pray for all needs: physical, psychological, and spiritual.

But I confess I’m like you in this respect. I too have always found it difficult to ask God for something that’s not necessarily going to be ultimately good for a person, and physical health is obviously in this category. One of my former students, now an Orthodox priest, reminded me recently that I had once told him many years ago—when he was suffering from a migraine—that I hoped he got better as soon as he’d learned what he should! I try not to be quite so blunt anymore, or not at least with anyone but myself, but my philosophy on the subject has never changed.

It’s interesting you bring this up just now, given our reading for class tomorrow from Charles Williams (“The Practice of Substituted Love”, He Came Down From Heaven). As you’ll have noticed, Williams speaks of the “dangers” of prayer for the “old self” when it first enters upon the “new way”, and he says some pretty amusing (if frightening!) things about how the ego can manipulate prayer to its own advantage:

“It is with the intention of substituted love that all ‘intercessory’ prayer must be charged, and with care that there is no intention of emotional bullying. Even prayer for the conversion of others is apt to be more like prayer for their conversion to the interceder’s own point of view than to the kingdom.”

Williams goes so far as to claim that it’s even dangerous to pray, however right and proper it might otherwise seem, that a particularly evil malefactor (his example is Nero) not kill his mother (Agrippina). It’s better, claims Williams—”without particularizing”, that is, without telling God exactly what ought to happen—”intensely to recollect Nero and Agrippina ‘in the Lord'”.

This makes excellent sense to me, and my Williamsian solution to the “problem” of intercessory prayer is simply to ask Christ and His Mother to please bless and protect those (by name) whom I know to be suffering while I attempt to hold their specific forms of suffering briefly in mind. Thus, for instance, “Please bless and protect S.” (while thinking of the problem she’s been having with her eye).

This is what Williams has in mind, I believe, when he says that “it [can never] be dangerous to present all pains and distresses … with the utmost desire that Messias [Christ] may be … the complete reconciliation”. More simply put, “Thy will be done.”

The Sufferings of Mother Russia

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

You’re puzzled, you say, by what seems an oxymoron. Filled with admiration for the many holy men and women of Russia who lived during the century and a half preceding the Revolution and “who spent their lives getting as close to God as they could and teaching others to do the same”, you rather indignantly wonder, “What good did it do their country? Stalin knocked off over 30 million people!” Even though the demons weren’t strong enough to overcome Optina and the country’s other spiritual strongholds, “it looks as if they were wiped out by a murderous twit with a big mustache”.

I just finished grading final papers for the seminar I directed this semester on the Oxford Inklings. The third and last of our authors was Charles Williams (following Tolkien and Lewis), and among the assigned readings were two short selections from his book The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church. You already know Williams as an author of fantasies—stories sometimes referred to as “supernatural thrillers”—and I believe you would find his non-fiction very rewarding as well. In any case I mention him here because he refers in one of the selections we read to an early tradition of the Church which claims that the heretic Arius died in great pain after a fall from his mule. (Other versions say he met his traumatic end in a privy.) Williams then comments:

“Accidents to such [figures] were, to their opponents, nearly always miracles of judgment, and during this period there was encouraged in Christendom the view which attempted to discern in exterior events an index to interior and spiritual truths … [a view] which in a later day invented terrifying death-beds for atheists and agonizing diseases for Sabbath-breakers. This in itself is dangerous enough, but it is made worse by that fatal tendency in men to hasten God’s work and to supply, on His behalf, the deaths and the agonies which they think His inscrutable patience has too rashly postponed.”

Though Williams doesn’t explicitly say so, it’s at least as “dangerous” to suppose this sort of visible or juridical tit-for-tat should work the other way round and that the Good Guys’ goodness should be manifestly rewarded, or at least acknowledged, by Heaven in a clear provision for their earthly comfort, security, and longevity. But surely a Christian—and for that matter a Muslim, a Buddhist, or a Hindu—has no right to expect this, indeed quite the contrary. Aren’t we told that “the last shall be first, and the first last”, and what about Job? Admittedly, his story ends on a happy note, or happy at least for Job himself, though whether his first set of children would agree is another matter. Be that as it may, the point is that we have no right to expect—as did Job’s oddly named “comforters”—some sort of direct correlation between spiritual perfection and this-worldly reward.

Mind you, I’m not saying the gruesome testing of Job makes the sufferings of Mother Russia more palatable, nor that they were inevitable or (all the more) deserved. All I wish to maintain is that these sufferings are entirely, and indisputably, consistent with a key Biblical principle, the sanctity of Her greatest elders notwithstanding.