I was recently blessed to listen to the recordings of a three-part series offered by His Grace, Bishop Irenei (Steenberg), Ph.D. These talks are both inspiring and challenging, pressing us into deeper love of God and obedience to His commands. Ancient Faith Radio has made this three-part series available for free at the following links. I offer them here for the edification of my readers.
One of my favorite movies is the 2002 science fiction film Equilibrium. Written and directed by Kurt Wimme, the film is set in a future society called Libria. In Libria it is against the law to feel.
The main character of the film named John Preston (played by Christian Bale) is a law enforcement officer. He is tasked with destroying objects that could incite emotion, including art, poetry and classical music. He is also required to kill rebels, known as “Sense Offenders”, who choose to experience illegal emotions.
The citizens of Libria have been brainwashed into believing that feelings are the cause of war, suffering and conflict. Accordingly, most of the citizens in Libria willingly participate in their own enslavement by taking a daily injection of a drug, known as Prozium II, which suppresses all emotion.
I couple weeks ago I was speaking on George MacDonald and the Imagination at the Gold Country Gathering hosted by my parents. A number of people at the conference heard I was an Eastern Orthodox Christian and wanted to know more about Orthodoxy and why I converted to it. It’s always hard to answer questions like that in a short space of time. But part of the answer has to do with the rich tradition of spiritual psychotherapy found within the Orthodox Church. I touched on some of that in my 2016 OCAMPR talk in which I offered an Eastern Orthodox perspective on the psychology of gratitude. I thought this would be a good time to re-post my talk here for some of the new readers I recently picked up. Nothing I mention concerning the spirituality of gratitude is unique to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, but for me it was only after joining the Orthodox Church that I found out about this teaching through visits to monasteries and reading the examples and teachings of the saints revered in our tradition.
“If only someone would tell me what to do!” I often thought as I lay awake at night, going over and over the same problemsa in my mind.
The situation I found myself facing was different to the struggles I had faced earlier in my Christian life. In the early days of being a Christian, my focus had been on cutting out sinful habits and coming to terms with the claims of Christ on my life. It hadn’t been easy, but at least my marching orders had been straight-forward. By contrast, after many years as a believer, I increasingly found myself facing situations—sometimes on a daily basis—where I had no idea how God wanted me to behave. In the minutia of daily life, I encountered problems at work, problems with my teenage children, problems in the lives of those who looked to me for guidance, problems in my finances and health. I often found myself baffled, stumbling along without a clear sense of direction. On big decisions, I could go to my pastor for advice, but it simply wasn’t possible to get advice for the dozens of small problems that cropped up every day.
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.
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.
This week our church was blessed to have Archimandrite Fadi visiting us and participating in our Lenten services. Fr. Fadi spent some time with the children of our homeschool co-op, sharing his testimony and helping to instruct them. One of the things he shared was the remarkable story of how he went from being a successful law professor in Lebanon to working along side the Orthodox Metropolitan in Mexico.
After last night’s Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified Gifts, we gathered downstairs as Fr. Fadi addressed us on many important topics, including the importance of finding joy in the present moment.
Jason and Kaitlyn would never have said their marriage was unhappy. However, throughout the fourteen years they had been together, they gradually drifted apart. They rarely had arguments and to outsiders they looked like the perfect couple. However, as the years went by, they seemed to have less and less in common.
Without giving it much thought, Jason instinctively assumed that the reason he had grown distant from Kaitlyn was because she had changed. It wasn’t simply that Kaitlyn’s had lost her youthful beauty, although it did bother Jason that he was no longer physically attracted to his wife. It was also that she was no longer as fun to be around. She used to be the type of person you wanted to share everything with, but over the years she seemed to have become different. It was hard to put his finger on it.
Kaitlyn tried not to think too much about the growing distance between Jason and herself. A few years ago she had begun to suspect that Jason was using his computer at work to access pornography, but she quickly dismissed the idea from her head. The sense of distance between them was probably just because they were so busy with their kids that they rarely had time to do things together anymore. Whenever they did have a free evening, it seemed Jason preferred to spend it watching sports with his friends from the software firm where he worked. During football season, Jason didn’t even come to church with her and the kids. Kaitlyn reflected that maybe if she and Jason could go on a vacation together, just the two of them, they might be able to rekindle what they had lost.
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.
“I think I might stop being a Christian,” my friend said, a few minutes after comfortably situating himself in my office.
“Why?” I asked. “Have you stopped believing in God?”
My friend, who we will call Trevor, pondered silently. A few days ago Trevor had asked to meet to get some advice about a personal crisis he was facing. But the conversation had quickly turned to his more general struggles with Christianity.
I renewed my question: “Is it because you’ve stopped believing in God that you are considering giving up Christianity?”
“It’s not that, Robin. I still believe in God. But I’ve been at this Christianity thing for over six years now, yet I’m still struggling with the same sins and addictions as when I converted. People keep telling me I need to rely on the Holy Spirit to help me, but however much I pray and ask for help, it never gets any easier. I just can’t achieve victory over the sins in my life. Why isn’t the Holy Spirit helping me?”
As Trevor continued to share, I learned how well-meaning Christians had been telling him that he needed to abandon the struggle and “let go and let God.” The problem was that victory over sin was part of the criteria these Christians were using to determine whether Trevor had fully “let go.” Trevor had also been told that because he kept sinning this was proof that he was struggling in his own strength. Moreover, he had been told that the difficult Christian life is a failed Christian life, since a life defined by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit will be characterized by rest not difficult struggle.