A man who has never had that experience, be it only very briefly, who has never felt that he is exiled from God and from real life, will never understand what Christianity is about. And the one who is perfectly “at home” in this world and its life, who has never been wounded by the nostalgic desire for another Reality, will not understand what is repentance.
Repentance is often simply identified as a cool and “objective” enumeration of sins and transgressions, as the act of “pleading guilty” to a legal indictment. Confession and absolution are seen as being of a juridical nature. But something very essential is overlooked—without which neither confession nor absolution have any real meaning or power. This “something” is precisely the feeling of alienation from God, from the joy of communion with Him, from the real life as created and given by God. It is easy indeed to confess that I have not fasted on prescribed days, or missed my prayers, or become angry. It is quite a different thing, however, to realize suddenly that I have defiled and lost my spiritual beauty, that I am far away from my real home, my real life, and that something precious and pure and beautiful has been hopelessly broken in the very texture of my existence. Yet this, and only this, is repentance, and therefore it is also a deep desire to return, to go back, to recover that lost home. I received from God wonderful riches: first of all life and the possibility to enjoy it, to fill it with meaning, love, and knowledge; then—in Baptism—the new life of Christ Himself, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the peace and the joy of the eternal Kingdom. I received the knowledge of God, and in Him the knowledge of everything else and the power to be a son of God. And all this I have lost, all this I am losing all the time, not only in particular “sins” and “transgressions,” but in the: sin of all sins: the deviation of my love from God, preferring the “far country” to the beautiful home of the Father… But the Church is here to remind me of what I have abandoned and lost…
From the book Great Lent by Fr Alexander Schmemann
This new experience – this opening of the heavens and the expansion of the horizon – is one of the most beautiful experiences that a person can have. From then on, the character of our life is changed. From then on, we soar through the sky on wings. Provided we want to. Because there’s always the chance that, in our soaring flight, a treacherous, critical moment might come when we remember our self and prefer it over everything else. All things are indeed ours. But all things will turn against us like a bitter enemy if once again we become confined within ourselves.
But the moment we reject such narrowness and enter into the breadth and know the depth of the love of Christ (Eph 3.19), we discover that the whole world is ours: the earth, the sea, and the sky are all for us; so too the angels, the saints, and all the sacraments of the Church. And God Himself – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – is wholly ours, for He gives to us His fullness. Do you see? You renounced yourself, and in return received God.
Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra
Valley of the Shadow of Death is a photograph by Roger Fenton, taken on April 23, 1855, during the Crimean War. It is one of the most well-known images of war.
Fenton observed, “in coming to a ravine called the valley of death, the sight passed all imagination: round shot and shell lay like a stream at the bottom of the hollow all the way down, you could not walk without treading upon them.”
Was the unconscious mind unknown to the prophets and poets of ancient Israel? Or were they aware our awareness had limits? No doubt it would be anachronistic to attribute a modern understanding of the mind to the ancient authors, but I think there’s evidence enough that they knew of dark recesses within themselves.
Consider for instance the words of the Psalmist, who cries, “But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12) and “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139:23-24)
Though it is sometimes unclear whether the secrets of the “heart” being spoken of refer merely to that which is hidden from others or also to that which is hidden from self, phrases like “Who can discern their own errors?” seems to strongly suggest elements of self deception. As does the reflection of Jeremiah when he says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)
Then of course there are figures like Daniel, who unpack dreams that are obscure to the dreamers. “As for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because I have greater wisdom than anyone else alive, but so that Your Majesty may know the interpretation and that you may understand what went through your mind.” (Daniel 2:30)
An understanding of hidden depths to the self seemed to carry though into New Testament times also. The apostle Paul writes, “He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart” (1 Corinthians 4:5) and “As the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God” (1 Corinthians 14:25) and “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being”. (Ephesians 3:16)
And yet, it would appear that we are not without their own resources, for the Psalmist also writes, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11)
Chills on my skin,
I feel an Autumn breeze,
Red, gold and orange
Glow upon the trees.
The air is crisp,
Refreshing to breathe in,
Excitement stirs in my heart
As starts a new season.
Lord Jesus, I marvel
The rhythm You create,
Surely but a glimpse
Behind Heaven’s gate.
With perfection and beauty
The seasons do dance;
Each one has its glory,
Each one its chance.
So amidst these changes,
As trees are cloaked in glory,
I remember all is Yours,
Your unfolding story.
The refreshing air,
The trees of red and gold,
Sing a song of Your love,
Extending from days of old.
The cool Autumn air
I delight to breathe in;
Excitement stirs in my heart
As starts a new season.
Yes, my Lord Jesus,
As I feel an Autumn breeze,
The glory of Your presence
Brings me to my knees!
– Caroline Gavin, 2013
Did the prophets think God could only speak through them? Did they think the God was mute without them? On the contrary, the prophets recognised it was the Spirit of prophecy who enabled them to speak, and that God could speak through anyone or anything. Job was emphatic on this point:
But ask the animals, and they will teach you,
or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you;
or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
or let the fish in the sea inform you.
Which of all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?
Is it such a strange suggestion then, that God can still speak to us through the land?
Might we experience the stones crying out, even today?
When people say they find church boring, is it entertainment they’re lacking? Or challenge?
In his article, Amusing Ourselves To Death, Neil Postman said “I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.”
I find it interesting to consider this in light of what psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi found about flow, also known as the zone. Csíkszentmihályi defined flow as a mental state in which a person performing an activity were fully immersed in what they’re doing, with energized focus, to the point that they can lose their sense of space and time. Ever experienced it? I certainly have. Though rarely in a church service. Well, what Csíkszentmihályi found was that flow kicked in when both challenge and skill levels were high. To experience flow we need challenges that are commensurate with our skill levels. Making it easy can actually be counter productive to experiencing life to its fullest.
Jesus never set his expectations so low. Why should we?
For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them. (Matthew 13:15)
Summer and Winter
Dance joyfully around Earth
Singing YHWH’s song
Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland. (Isaiah 43:18)
This photograph of a fire devil in Portugal reminds me of the account from the book of Exodus where it is said, “By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night.” Are you open to the possibility that, in attuning ourselves to the ways of the elements, God can still guide us through them today?