Orthodoxy & Ambition

The time is now, on everything.
Took my heart away from money.
I ain’t interested in fame.
And I pray that never change.
Ambition is priceless.
It’s something that’s in your veins.
And I put that on my name“.
Wale – Ambition Lyric

Western society has undergone changes within the last 40 years with respect to morality.
Many things that were once viewed as being inherently immoral, such as gambling,
fornication (sex outside of marriage), homosexuality, are now viewed as being acceptable, and in some cases, outright laudable.
Many Christian denominations have followed suit by adopting the attitude
that modern Christians should adopt this “New morality” of secularism
lest we be judged by the world as being culturally backward and irrelevant.
I know you do not save man with advice and exhortations from outside.
Nor do you offer him freedom by telling them, “Do whatever you want“.
Wordlessly, like a sun of tender Love and fresh breeze of Courage,
your Love needs to be able to give them health and arouse
within them their personal appetite for Life.

Ambition
Especially the attitude of modern ambition gives me the impression of playing with fire.
It is not inherently negative, in fact it is good to have goals and
to work for those goals with perseverance.
But ambition uses people, destroys relationships, and muddy the waters of communities.
Ambition is intimately coupled with “envy, pride, and perhaps gluttony“.

In our times we are fully embodied creatures
and ambition feeds on our chemistry and biology
and it shapes our natural responses, it  is addictive.
Ambition, although not always clearly recognized and acknowledged as such, creates ‘Chaos’
[Tohuwabohu hebr. תהו־ובהו, tohu-wa-vohu]
in Communities.
Sexual sin, despite the attention rewarded to it, is of less significance if we consider impact on community and pain caused.
The difference in impact is primarily because we recognize sexual sin as sin
– there are consequences.

In contrast we often value and reward the result of ambition.
We brush under the rug or rationalize away its impetus in envy and pride.
This is a spiritual problem and a physical problem.
Scientific developments have impact
on our understanding of human behavior and human response.

Biochemical background
I have been reading in an article about Seven Deadly Sins, “Why does being bad feel so good?” and it described research being done these days to explore the science of sin.
Scientists are using techniques such as  functional magnetic resonance imaging [fMRI] and PET [Positron-Emission Tomography] to map the active areas of the brain as a subject responds to certain stimuli.
Lust is a big one
– Research into brain response connected with lust indicates that (in males at least)
the response is all-encompassing.
All said, the most notable thing about lust is that it sets nearly the whole brain buzzing“.
The signals are unique, distinctive, unmistakable and uncontrollable.
This isn’t surprising.
We know that lust is a problem, we know that behaviour can shape response, that
there is a biological and chemical aspect that shapes not only the present, but the future.
The biochemical response can be addicting and destructive.
The lure of pornography is an excellent case in point.
We could go on here, but this isn’t really the point of today’s question.

Envy
Envy is interesting
– in a study of envy a number of volunteers were observed using fMRI while they read one of three scenarios
– the key one described a student similar to the volunteer, but better in every respect.
The conflict detecting regions of the brain fired and the response was similar to that for pain.
This leads to the suggestion that envy is a kind of social pain.
Later, when reading about this student’s downfall, the reward and pleasure regions of
the volunteer’s brain fired.
Not only this but the greater the pain in reading about the student’s success,
the greater the reward in reading of the student’s downfall.
The reward response is along the same line as that experienced from food – or sex.
It feels good.

Pride
And now the queen of vices – Pride.
Gregory the Great in commenting on Job noted:
For when pride, the queen of sins, has fully possessed a conquered heart, she surrenders is immediately to seven principal sins, as if to some of her generals, to lay it waste. …
For pride is the root of all evil, of which it is said, as Scripture bears witness;
Pride is the beginning of all sin
“.

Does pride show response in brain scans?
The science here is rather interesting.
For most of us, it takes less mental energy to puff ourselves up than to think critically about our own abilities.
… volunteers who imagined themselves winning a prize
or trouncing an opponent showed less activation in brain regions
associated with introspection and self-conscious thought
than people induced to feel negative emotions such as embarrassment.

We accept positive feelings about
ourselves readily,
Joseph S. Takahashi, a Japanese American neurobiologist and geneticist says:
Compared with guilt and embarrassment,
pride might be processed more automatically
”.
In another experiment a part of the brain
could be stimulated to turn off the protective influence of pride.
When this happened
They saw themselves as they really were, without glossing over negative characteristics“.
Even more interesting, the experiments demonstrate that righteous humility,
deliberate self-downgrading, is but arrogance and pride in cover.
The brain activation is the same.
Both are forms of one-ups-man-ship.
‘They are in the same location and seem to serve the same purpose:
putting oneself ahead in society’
“.

What does this mean?
Self-confidence, ambition, pride, envy – this is a slippery slope.
It is insidious – affecting our very make-up inside out.
We are wrong when we cast it “simply” as a battle of wills.
And our capacity for denial, blame-shifting,
and self-deception is also rooted in our make-up.
It is interesting though, because studies also show
that we can train our brains and influence response
– especially true of sins of envy, wrath, and pride.
Feeding ambition, with its corollaries of envy and pride, is like feeding lust.
It changes our very being, our function, our chemistry, our brain paths.
On the other hand intentional pursuit of virtue is also self-re-in-forcing.

So why is it playing with fire?
This reflection leads me though, to an idea that I would like to pose for consideration.
Within the Church we view ambition as a virtue.
We make allowances for ambition, we reward ambition,
we cultivate ambition, we admire ambition, we feed ambition.
The whole community, especially in the west, is puffing up the value of the ‘blacks’,
the priests, the bishop, the Patriarch [Pope].
And this is a serious problem.
In fact, I think it is one of the biggest
and most destructive temptations active in our Church today.
Ambition, accompanied by, and inseparably knotted with, pride and envy,
is the death of the Church.
The communal People of the Western Church are disordered by it,
because they only see the system instead of the original aim [object].

The original Christian ambition
Orthodox Christians must respond
to the moral confusion of our age
by examining the rich spiritual Tradition bequeathed to us in the Church.
Contrary to what many people might think, the answer to this problem is
not an answer that lies in the uniquely Western irreconcilable difference of conservatism verses liberalism;
rather, it has to do with the Church’s understanding and experience of ‘Theosis’ and Beauty.

Theosis
Theosis is the teaching that as human beings we have been created for a life of perfect and unending communion with God, and that this Divine Life
– revealed to us in Christ – is the very dynamic and substance of Salvation itself.
By uniting ourselves to Jesus Christ, the Son of God made flesh, we receive the gift [Grace] of the Holy Spirit,
Who in turn, reconciles us to the Father.
Christ was delivered over to death for our sins
and was raised to life for our justification
“.
Rom.4: 25

I am crucified with Christ:
nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lived in me:
and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God,
Who loved me, and gave Himself for me.

I do not frustrate the Grace of God: for if righteousness come by the Law,
then Christ is dead in vain
“.
Gal.2: 20,21

Here, in his own person, the apostle Paul describes the spiritual or hidden life of a believer.
The old man is crucified” [Rom.6: 6],
but the new man is living;
sin is mortified, and Grace is quickened.
He has the comforts and the triumphs of Grace;
yet that Grace is not from himself, but from another“.
Believers see themselves living in a state of dependence on Christ.
Hence it is, that though he lives in the flesh, yet he does not live after the flesh.
Those who have true faith, live by that faith;
and faith fastens upon Christ’s giving Himself for us.
He loved me, and gave Himself for me.
As if the apostle said, The Lord saw me fleeing from Him more and more.
Such wickedness, error, and ignorance were in my will and understanding,
that it was not possible for me to be ransomed by any other means
than by such a Price.
Consider well this Price.
Here notice the false faith of many.
And their profession is accordingly;
they have the form of godliness without the power of it.
They think they believe the articles of faith aright, but they are deceived.
For to believe in Christ crucified, is not only to believe that He was crucified,
but also to believe that I am crucified with Him.
And this is to know Christ crucified.
Hence we learn what is the nature of Grace.
God’s Grace cannot stand with man’s merit.
Grace is no Grace unless it is freely given every way.
The more simply the believer relies on Christ for everything,
the more devotedly does he walk before Him in all his ordinances and commandments.
Christ lives and reigns in him, and he lives here on earth by faith in the Son of God,
which works by Love, causes obedience, and changes into His Holy Image.
Thus he neither abuses the Grace of God, nor makes it in vain.

Orthodoxy & Official relations

The woman answered and said,
“I have no husband”.
Jesus said to her,
“You have well said,
‘I have no husband,’… ;
in that you spoke truly”.
Luc.4:  17, 18

View on sexuality
From the Orthodox churches point of view, humans are not sexual creatures in terms of their essential identity.
To Eastern Orthodoxy, the relationship which people have with God is reflected in the love for one another; the union of two people in marriage is considered to be a reflection of our ultimate union with God.
However, as a result of humanity’s rebellion against God [the Fall], humanity has tended to adopt a more animalistic view of sexual activity which is not true to the ultimate transfigurable nature of the human race, having been made in the Divine image and likeness.

Orthodoxy holds that Adam and Eve
did not have sexual intercourse until after the Fall,
and that sexual sin and the Fall are intimately linked [Reproduction must have happened in some way, however, for God commands Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply” before the Fall as is stated in Genesis 1: 28].
The Orthodox churches do not hold that sex is inherently sinful, but rather condemn seeing sex as something which can be divorced from the loving act between a married couple.
As Saint Cesarios said, “copulation and birth of children in accordance with the law is free from any sin and condemnation“.

Marriage
One of the Fathers of the Church,
John Chrysostom, in elaborating on the words of Paul of Tarsus states that
because man is prone to strong lustful feelings, and because all men are not strong enough to be celibate, the Church allows the temporary union of marriage as an alternative to sin“.
This is a commentary on 1Cor. 7, which states “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion“.

To some Orthodox, sex and marriage
are both temporary states experienced in this world only.
In Heaven all are equal and our relationship is with God [Matth.22: 30, Marc.12: 25, Luc.20: 35].
Other Orthodox regard marriage as being eternal, that the crowns used in the Orthodox marriage ceremony are received [as the rite states] into Heaven and therefore signify an eternal reality.
Thus, while sexuality in its physical sense may not be continued in Heaven, the bond between a husband and wife is permanent, and celibacy, while an honourable and holy state if done for the sake of the Kingdom, is not by any means the most common path for all Orthodox Christians.
With virginity, marriage is thus also understood as
an ascetical working out of salvation.
As the Bible says,
the “marriage bed is undefiled” [Hebr. 13: 4].
As is seen in the sacramental rites themselves,
marriage is understood as being forever sanctified by Christ’s presence and first miracle at the wedding at Cana in Galilee. John 2: 1-11

The Orthodox view Christian marriage as a primary image in the New Testament of the union of the Church with Christ.
The eschatological fulfillment of all things is in terms of the marriage of the Bride to the Lamb [Revelation 19: 7-9], i.e., the Church to Christ.
“Thus, marriage is a Mystery — Holy, Blessed, and Everlasting in the sight of God
and His Church” [Orthodox Study Bible, pg. 448].
Or, as Father r. Alciviadis C. Calivas writes:
Orthodox theology has always presented Christian marriage as something absolutely unique, and, indeed eternal.
In marriage, human love “is being projected into the Kingdom of God” [John Meyendorff],
reflecting the intimate union between Christ and the faithful which Saint Paul speaks of [Eph. 5].
Married life is a special vocation which requires the grace of the Holy Spirit; and it is this very grace which is conferred in the Marriage Service.

Father John Meyendorff in Byzantine Theology [pp. 196–197] says:
The Byzantine theological, liturgical, and canonical tradition unanimously stresses the absolute uniqueness of Christian marriage, and bases this emphasis upon the teaching of Ephesians 5.
As a sacrament, or Mysterion, marriage reflects the union between Christ and the Church, between Yahweh and Israel, and as such can be only one — an eternal bond, which death itself does not destroy.

In its sacramental nature, marriage transfigures and transcends both fleshly union and contractual legal association: human love is being projected into the eternal Kingdom of God.

Only this basic understanding of Christian marriage can explain the fact that until the tenth century no second marriage, whether of those widowed or of those divorced, was blessed in church. Referring to the custom of “crowning” the bridal pair – a feature of the Byzantine rite of marriage
— a canon attributed to Nicephorus the Confessor [806-815] specifies:
Those who enter a second marriage are not crowned and are not admitted to receive the most pure mysteries for two years; those who enter a third marriage are excommunicated for five years“.
This text, which merely repeats the earlier prescriptions of the canons of Basil, presupposes that second and third marriages of those widowed or divorced can be concluded as civil contracts only.
Actually, since the marriage blessing was normally given at a Eucharist, where the bridal pair received communion, the required temporary excommunication excluded the Church’s participation or blessing in cases when marriage was repeated.

Later Meyendorff also says:
The most striking difference between the Byzantine theology of marriage and its medieval Latin counterpart is that the Byzantines strongly emphasized the unicity of Christian marriage and the eternity of the marriage bond; they never considered that Christian marriage was a legal contract, automatically dissolved by the death of one of the partners….
Guided in its practice by the legal notion of contract, indissoluble as long as both parties were alive, the West seemed to ignore the idea that marriage, if it is a sacrament,
has to be projected as an eternal bond into the Kingdom of God.
Byzantine Theology, pp. 198-199

Homosexuality
The Orthodox Church has been consistent in condemning acts of homosexuality [but not homosexual persons], despite variations
in the conditions for homosexual activity and responses from
various Church leaders and the State.
Continuing a worldview evident from the Old and New Testaments, the Church Fathers consistently condemned homosexual activity, as did the Byzantine state.

Official statements by the Orthodox hierarchy continue to be consistent in terms of the traditional position that homosexual behaviour is sinful and thus damaging to the human person, and that homosexual temptation is a subject for ascetic struggle.
While some Orthodox theologians and jurisdictions have championed the traditional view, they have also engaged in scientific conversation and in dialogue with the increasing number of societies that view homosexuality far differently than at the time of the Byzantine Empire.
After affirming the import and meaning of the Scriptures that address homosexual activity, calling it sin, the Orthodox Church in America offered the following advice at its 10th All-American Council in 1992:
Men and women with homosexual feelings and emotions are to be treated with the understanding, acceptance, love, justice and mercy due to all human beings…
Persons struggling with homosexuality who accept the Orthodox faith and strive to fulfill the Orthodox way of life may be communicants of the Church with everyone else who believes and struggles.
Those instructed and counselled in Orthodox Christian doctrine and ascetical life who still want to justify their behavior may not participate in the Church’s sacramental mysteries, since to do so would not help, but harm them.

Assistance is to be given to those who deal with persons of homosexual orientation in order to help them with their thoughts, feelings and actions in regard to homosexuality.
Such assistance is especially necessary for parents, relatives and friends of persons with homosexual tendencies and feelings. It is certainly necessary for pastors and church workers.

Within the Orthodox churches, there is a minority advocating a change in the view of homosexuality; one such group is Axios.
However, the work of such groups and any blessings they confer are largely ignored by the Orthodox as a whole.

I have always asked myself
why the world has to confront tradition
in calling to make homosexual relations official by Law
– a ‘Marriage‘, instead of a ‘friendships-commitment’.
By taking this formulation the world denies her relation with God, our Lord.

The Biblical Greek term for sin is αμαρτία [amartia] which means missing the mark,
it means that our aim is out and we have not reached our goal, our fullest potential.
As in Western Christianity, in Orthodoxy, the goal is Union with God.
Orthodoxy also understands sin as
a disease of the soul, a condition where
the soul is lacking in God’s Grace.
Union with God, which is made possible through Christ, is the ultimate medicine.
In Orthodoxy, the Mysteries of the Church, also known as sacraments in the West,
are vehicles leading towards union with God.

I wish, nobody loses hope,
even if he reaches the limit with his evil…
The power of repentance is so immense,
to turn us into the whiteness of snow, and the purity of wool,
even if the sin reigned over us and tinted us“.
Saint John Chrysostom

Sunday of the Publican & Pharisee

The Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee begins the Lenten Triodion, the liturgical book used in the services of Great Lent. It is the Sunday after the Sunday of Zacchaeus and Sunday before Sunday of the Prodigal Son. This is the pre-Lenten start of the Easter cycle of worship in the Orthodox Church.

The focus this Sunday is on the Gospel
of Lucas 18:10-14, in which two men went
to the Temple to pray.
One was a Pharisee, an externally decent and righteous man of religion, and the other was a publican, a sinful tax-collector who was cheating the people.
Though the Pharisee was genuinely righteous under the Law, he boasted before God and was condemned.
The publican, although he was truly sinful, begged for mercy,
received it, and was justified by God.

On this Sunday in the preparation for Great Lent, Orthodox Christians are to see that they have not the religious piety of the Pharisee, but the repentance of the publican.
They are called to think about themselves, in the light of Christ’s teaching, as they really are and to beg for mercy.
For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled,
and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted
“.
Luc.18: 14

Kontakion       Tn 4
Let us flee from the pride of the Pharisee!
And learn humility from the Publican’s tears!
Let us cry to our Savior,
Have mercy on us,
Only merciful One!

Do I View Others as Bigger Sinners?
One huge indicator of spiritual health and maturity is when a Christian views his sin as being at least
as great, if not greater, than the sins of others.
The apostle Paul described his own attitude this way: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst“.
1Tim.1: 15
Paul ministered to people out of that deep sense of being a bigger sinner than anyone he was trying to reach with the Gospel.

Spiritual pride leads me to think
that others are bigger sinners than me.
In fact, if that attitude is present in the heart and mind of a believer,
it is impossible to grow spiritually.
The minute I begin to entertain that arrogant attitude, I start to carry myself with an air of superiority toward others.
That “air” is very different than the “breath” of the Holy Spirit inside believers.
He will never lead me to think highly of myself….ever.
It is very natural to become proud of my “righteous efforts” for the Lord.
It is also natural to compare my works and my life of discipleship to that of others.
A mature disciple of Christ does not live according to the natural way of looking at others.
A mature disciple is filled with the Holy Spirit….and therefore, he or she has tons of compassion for anyone caught in sin….and anyone who does not know Christ.
Simply put, mature disciples don’t view others as bigger sinners.

Most of the Pharisees mentioned in the New Testament were not known for their humility. In one instance, “The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector‘”. Luc.18: 11
Notice that as he compared himself in his mind with others, he truly thought that his personal righteousness was superior.
That is where he went way off the rails. He was trusting in his personal righteousness….rather than in the righteousness of Christ.

The Pharisee went on to say, “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get“.
Luc.18: 12
Those were a couple things which he felt made him superior to others.
How sad. He didn’t get it.
None of us have any righteousness of our own that is even one cut above anyone else.
As long as we concentrate on our own “righteous acts“, we will continue to live in pride and self-deception.

Meanwhile, “the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner’“.
Luc.18: 13
Wow….what a difference in attitude.
He did not consider himself worthy before God….and therefore, he didn’t waste his time comparing himself to others.
He was so aware of his own sinfulness that he didn’t fall into the trap which had ensnared the Pharisee.

How aware are you of your own sinfulness….relative to your awareness of the sins of others?
Your spiritual health will depend largely upon whose sin you are looking at….and where you are turning to find the cure for your sinful attitudes and behavior.

Take this quick test. Ask yourself this question.
Who are the biggest sinners?
Your instant response will tell you a lot about your spiritual health. Did your mind go immediately to others….or to yourself?
If it went to others, here is the way to deal with spiritual pride.
Admit it to yourself, and to God.
Confess that sin to the Lord.
Ask Him to forgive you because of the cross of Jesus. He will.
Then ask the Lord to give you a new heart, and a new mind….one that has genuine humility.
Ask Him for it everyday….and then one of these days, ask yourself that question again. Before long, you will hopefully be able to truthfully say what Paul said:
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst“.
1Tim.1: 15
That mindset and heartfelt perspective is an essential attribute of a healthy disciple….
and it is a God-given attitude that must be in our hearts before we can be used by God to reach anyone for Christ.
Daan Delzell