In the early fifth century, the great preacher of the early church, St. John Chrysostom (c. 349–407), made an enemy of the Empress Eudoxia. He had provoked the wrath of the empress by speaking out against an image she had erected of herself directly across from his church, the Hagia Sophia Cathedral. When games were played in front of the idolatrous image, this distracted worshipers from the prayer services. Hoping to silence St. John, Empress Eudoxia sent soldiers to carry him into exile in 404. There followed a period of persecution against those who supported the exiled preacher. Soldiers forcibly broke up church services of those who were loyal to St. John, abusing the worshipers and even stripping ear rings off the women, pulling off parts of their ears in the process. Some of St. John’s followers were even tortured and killed.
This article is part of my ongoing series on Gnosticism. For a complete list of these articles, see ‘Full Links to Gnosticism Series.’
God and the Problem of Creation
Camille is a sophomore in college, majoring in theater with an emphasis in dance. Earlier in the year she was introduced to Jesus through friends with Campus Crusade, leading to what she describes as her “salvation experience.” Now Camille is only interested in serving Jesus. She wonders if perhaps she should switch her major in Bible, for she is unsure how “secular” pursuits like theatre and ballet fit with her newfound faith.
Rodrigo recently became uncomfortable when a group at his church got involved in local politics to try to address issues of homelessness and poverty. Although Rodrigo does not have a problem helping homeless people, he has a strong intuition that the church should not become involved in politics. Didn’t Jesus himself say that His kingdom is not of this world?
In our culture, the main distinction we tend to make about emotion is between emotions that are pleasant vs. emotions that are unpleasant. But that isn’t the healthiest way to think about emotion, not least because it can lead to the assumption that unpleasant emotions should be avoided and pleasant emotions sought. Instead, it is better to think about emotions that are rightly orders vs. emotions that are disordered. Some rightly ordered emotions can be pleasant or unpleasant, just as some disordered emotions can be either pleasant or unpleasant.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322) helps us to understand the distinction between rightly ordered emotions vs. disordered emotions. Aristotle taught that properly ordered emotions play an integral role in correct thinking as well as in helping a person’s appetites be regulated by virtue. Accordingly, emotion is a type of perception—an “appearing as”— that undergirds moral thinking and decision making. For example, we feel anger when we witness an action that appears unjust, or we feel pity when we see someone suffer from evil. Rightly ordered emotion is thus integral to the concerns by which we perceive the world as moral agents. But it is also possible for disordered emotion to obscure our perception of the world. For example, if I feel envy at the good fortune of another, then my ability to rightly perceive the other person’s situation has been obscured. The goal of education, especially the education of children, is to cultivate proper habits, including the habit of responding to situations with the right emotional reaction. Without properly ordered emotions, it is impossible to achieve eudaimonia, a Greek word that is often translated happiness but more properly conveys the idea of human flourishing.
St. Sebastian Orthodox Press has just released a new book Pain, Suffering and Resilience: Orthodox Christian Perspectives.
This collection of peer-reviewed essays explores the mystery of human suffering along with the spiritual and psychological resources that enable us to achieve resilience in the midst of pain.
The publisher explains how the work
“includes eminent scholars, clergy, physicians, and psychotherapists seeking to serve people in their respective fields, through their respective disciplines informed and guided by the depth and riches of the Orthodox Christian Faith. This is the unifying thread for each of the contributors who bring this ancient Christian perspective into dialogue with the contributions of modern psychology and medical science as they seek to address the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions of pain and human suffering in a variety of contexts.”
I was privileged to be asked to contribute a chapter to this volume on the topic of practicing gratitude during times of suffering. My essay develops material I began exploring in my chapter on Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Saints and Scoundrels. By drawing on classic spiritual texts (i.e., The Way of the Pilgrim, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Dorotheus of Gaza’s Saying and Discourses, etc) and integrating them with recent developments (i.e., advances in cognitive psychology, neuroscience, the twentieth-century prison literature, etc.) I make a case that suffering and gratitude are not related like two sides of a zero-sum transaction where an increase in the former entails a decrease in the latter. Rather, by receiving our sufferings rightly, we can use them as opportunities to actually grow in the cognitive, behavioral and emotional dimensions of thankfulness. From the essay:
“…true gratitude is not merely compatible with an acknowledgement of pain; it presupposes it. To be truly grateful is to acknowledge that life is difficult while framing that difficulty within a context of thanksgiving…. Gratitude releases us to lean into the pain, to stand face to face with the ambiguity and complexity of life and not to despair. In contrast to stoicism, cynicism and sentimentalism, gratitude-based reframing does not involve detachment from suffering; rather, it provides the inner resources for genuine engagement…. In so far as gratitude enables us to lean into pain, to be realistic rather than escapist, it provides the resources to engage with others who are suffering instead of insulating ourselves from their pain. In our comfort-oriented culture, many people’s default response is to avoid those whose lives are lonely, messy or filled with pain. Instead of going through people’s pain with them, we often numb ourselves to the suffering around us in order to protect ourselves. However, when the pursuit of comfort causes us to numb ourselves to the impact of suffering, what we are doing is numbing away the capacity to empathize, to feel love, joy and gratitude. This is because it is impossible to selectively numb emotion. When we harden ourselves as a defense against fear, grief, disappointment, shame, rejection or vulnerability, we are inadvertently reducing our capacity to feel the emotions that are important for our wellbeing, including gratitude.
Gratitude enables us to look pain straight in the eye and not to despair. Gratitude enables us to derive genuine enjoyment from small blessings even when evil, suffering and pain are crowding in upon us. This is important, not only so we can have the resources for weathering life’s storms, but so we have the inner resources to engage with others who are going through hardships. Instead of pushing people away because we cannot deal with their pain, and instead of numbing ourselves in order to be insulated from other people’s grief, a grateful person has the inner resources to empathize with those who are in pain and like the Apostle said, ‘rejoicing with them that rejoice, and weeping with them that weep.’ (Romans 12:15)”
What I don’t share in my chapter, but which I would like to share here, is that the research behind this essay was prompted by a very painful set of circumstances in my personal life. The Lord brought me to a point where I was ready to dig deep in ancient spiritual teachings on contentment and pain. What I found is the spiritual paradox encapsulated by Elder Alexander of Gethsemane who observed that “The amount of suffering that the soul can accommodate is also how much it can accommodate the grace of God.
The best chapters in Pain, Suffering and Resilience: Orthodox Christian Perspectives, are actually the ones written by others, including a contribution by His Grace, Bishop Alexander (Golitzin), who serves as Bisohp of the Diocese of the South for the OCA and ruling bishop of the Bulgarian Diocese of the Orthodox Church in America.
I hope all the essays in this book can prove an encouragement to ordinary men and women facing struggles and pain.
I would be grateful for people to buy the book on Amazon and then write a review (Amazon always privileges reviews if the person writing the review has bought the book through them).
You can read more about the book on the St. Sebastian Orthodox Press website.
My previous post, “A Visit From G..K. Chesterton“, raised the issue of what is often referred to as “the sacramental imagination.” Along with other poets and novelists associated with the sacramental imagination (one thinks of authors like George Herbert, George MacDonald, Gerard Manley Hopkins, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien), Chesterton invited his readers to look at the world in a new way, to see the divine splendor that lies concealed in the stuff of ordinary life.
Chesterton believed that we can best approach this sacramental vision by becoming like little children. He pointed out that as we mature we often lose the sense of wonder towards the world that came to us naturally when young. Taking inspiration from St. Francis of Assisi, Chesterton believed that the spiritual life was an invitation to regain this elemental sense of wonder, to have our spiritual senses sharpened so that we can begin seeing the halo of sanctity in all natural things. “…the whole philosophy of St. Francis”, he reflected, “revolved around the idea of a new supernatural light on natural things, which meant the ultimate recovery not the ultimate refusal of natural things.”
Throughout his book Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica frequently returns to the theme that when we think negatively about another person, we actually injure them spiritually. Similarly, we can be injured by other people’s antagonistic thoughts about ourselves. Here is the solution to both these problems, in Elder Thaddeus’ own words:
Your thoughts are burdened because you are influenced by the thoughts of your fellow men. Pray to the Lord that He might take this burden from you. These are the thoughts of others which differ from yours. They have their plan, and their plan is to attack you with their thoughts. Instead of letting go, you have allowed yourself to become part of their plan, so of course you suffer. Had you ignored the attack, you would have kept your peace. They could have thought or said anything at all about you, yet you would have remained calm and at peace. Soon all their anger would have died down, like a deflated balloon, because of the pure nad peaceful thoughts that would have come from you. If you are like that, calm and full of love, if all you think are good and kind thoughts, they will stop warring against you in their thoughts and will not threaten you anymore. But if you demand an eye for an eye, that is war. Where there is war there can be no peace. How can there be peace on a battlefield, when everyone is looking over their shoulders and anticipating a surprise attack from the enemy.
The sixth-century desert father, Dorotheos of Gaza, gave some very helpful wisdom for emotional people struggling with temptation and/or afflictions. (From Discourses and Sayings):
“God does not allow us to be burdened with anything beyond our power of endurance, and therefore, when difficulties come upon us we do not sin unless we are unwilling to endure a little tribulation or to suffer anything unforeseen. As the Apostle says, ‘God is faithful and will not allow us to be tempted beyond what we are able [to endure].’ But we are men who have no patience and no desire for a little labor and [no desire] to brace ourselves to accept anything with humility. Therefore we are crushed [by our difficulties]. The more we run away from temptations, the more they weigh us down and the less are we able to drive them away. Suppose a man for some reason dives into the sea: if he knows the art of swimming, what does he do when a great wave comes along? He ducks under until it goes past and then he goes on swimming unharmed. But if he is determined to set himself against it, it pushes him away and hurls him back a great distance, and when again he begins to swim forward another wave comes upon him, and if again he tries to swim against it, again it throws him back, and he only tires himself out and makes no headway. But if he ducks his head and lowers himself under the wave, as I said, no harm comes to him and he continues to swim as long as he likes. Those who go on doing their work this way when they are in trouble, putting up with their temptations with patience and humility, come through unharmed. But if they get distressed and downcast, seeking the reasons for everything, tormenting themselves and being annoyed with themselves instead of helping themselves, they do themselves harm.
“If painful experiences crowd in upon us, we ought not to be disturbed; allowing ourselves to be disturbed by these experiences is sheer ignorance and pride because we are not recognizing our own condition and, as the Fathers tell us, we are running away from labor. We make no progress because we have not squarely taken our own measure, we do not persevere in the work we begin, and want to acquire virtue without effort. Why should an emotional man find it strange to be disturbed by his emotions? Why should he be overwhelmed if he sometimes gives way to them? If you have them inside yourself why are you disturbed when they break out? You have their seeds in you and yet you ask, why do they spring up and trouble me? Better to have patience and go on struggling with them and beg for God’s help. It is impossible for someone struggling against his evil desires not to suffer affliction from them.”
A couple years ago, while doing some work in London, I found myself with an eight day gap in my schedule. I decided to take the train to the quiet countryside of Essex where I had heard there was a Christian monastery that offered free accommodation to spiritual seekers.
As I sat in the train, watching the English countryside whiz by, I thought of a conversation I had a couple days earlier with the receptionist at the London hotel where I had been staying. The receptionist, a young Italian lady named Francesca, had a sharp elegant-looking Roman nose offset by soft dark eyes. She told me she had immigrated to the UK just a month before, after the severe economic conditions in Italy had forced her to come to London in search of work.
As we rush about our busy lives, how often do we stop to savor the joy of being able to breathe, or the joy of being able to sit in a state of peace and stillness? How often do we remember that, of all the blessings God has given us in this world, the blessing of being able to breathe affords one of the most profound occasions of gratitude?
I’d like to invite you to do a little thought experiment with me. Shut your eyes and imagine that every single person on earth is thinking about you right now. Moreover, imagine that every person is not only thinking about you, but loving you and working to arrange all things for your benefit. Of course that could never happen, but just imagine for a moment that it were possible and what it would feel like. In this thought experiment, everyone in the world feels the same protective love towards you that a father and mother feel for their young child.
Now I want to ask you a question: in the state of affairs I’ve asked you to imagine, would you ever have reason to worry, to feel anxiety or be insecure? Would you need to grasp good things for yourself? Obviously not.