Posts tagged ‘suffering’

March 20, 2017

destroying sin through the instrumentality of death

There is a whole lot in my paltry readings of Maximus the Confessor that I don’t understand. However, I continue, and Maximus rewards patience time and again.

Here’s a recent example. Maximus says that Jesus came to give human death a new purpose. He made death into a weapon that we can use against our own sin. This confused me a lot at first, so let me set up the theological background a little more.

Death is simply a natural result of sin. We sometimes read Genesis as if God proclaimed that death would be the punishment for sin. In fact, God was not “assigning a consequence” but simply pointing out a reality about life. Death is fair (or just) because it is a natural extension of sin. This is because sin is turning away from God who is the loving source of life.

Moreover, death became tied up with human nature because our first sin caught us all in bonds of pain and pleasure. Our first sin left us serving a vicious tyranny of the urgent, always fleeing a pain or pursuing a pleasure that seemed more near-at-hand than God’s presence. It became natural for humans to pursue anything but God, and mortality became a human characteristic. It is terrible to think of death as natural to those made in God’s image, but we all learn to see each other in this world as destined for death instead of God. Socrates takes it as an axiom that “man is mortal.”

Maximus also points out that death and suffering are merciful because they keep us from going too far off course while we wander between increasingly extreme fears of pain or desires for pleasure. Although death is merciful in a way, God did not impose death on us as either a kindness or a punishment (most fundamentally). Death is simply reality apart from life with God. As love and the source of life, God hates death.

Moving a step further, human death attacks the core of God’s purpose in creation. Humans were made uniquely to ensure that all creatures would enjoy and display God’s love. By sinning (turning from God to pursue another source of goodness), the image bearers of God tangled up their own natures with death itself, entrapped there by pain and pleasure. Instead of promoting and protecting life in all creation, God’s image became connected to death by our sin. God’s image brought death to the world.

To set up a little background, I’ve wandered from Maximus’ main point (and wandered into a few points of my own, no doubt). Maximus is focused on explaining exactly how salvation is accomplished by Jesus Christ within this situation. Because God’s image became connected to death by our sin and brought death to all creation, Maximus shows how Christ becomes a human and used human death as an ingenious weapon against sin. Maximus says that Jesus Christ “turned death from a weapon to destroy human nature into a weapon to destroy sin.” This attack on our sin gives us a new weapon and opens a way for the curse on all of creation to be undone. Christ surprised the devil and death itself by giving this new purpose to human death. By becoming human and repurposing death, God restored to humans a way to serve again as the image of God.

Maximus explains at length how this was possible. Christ fully took on our own human desires for pleasure and our fears of pain, all the realities of our sins, while remaining free from committing any sins of his own. Therefore, death was not a natural or just consequence for Christ. The normal purposes of death did not apply to Christ, and he was able to give death a surprising new purpose. I won’t go into further details, but this surprise move required all that Jesus Christ was (as fully God and fully human).

This noble use of death to restore life with God is full of profound encouragements and implications regarding how to suffer and to carry our own cross with Jesus Christ each day in this life, even into our own eventual deaths. Amazingly, Maximus claims that “the baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin.” Christ has now given death to each of us to use as a weapon against our own sin. Christ changed the function of death for all of those who unite themselves to Christ. In Christ, humans can learn to accept everyday experiences of suffering and death in ways that free us from our sin. Maximus is giving a theological basis for the Christian practices of asceticism and mortification (which are very easily abused and misunderstood).

Pointing continually to the work of Christ, Maximus points us to the only perfect example of how to use death as a weapon against sin. However, Maximus the Confessor, as a follower of Christ, is himself a profound example. All those tortured for Jesus Christ were called “Confessors.” In Maximus’ case, he insisted on confessing the truth even when they promised to cut out his tongue and remove his right hand for preaching or writing one more word about who Jesus was. That didn’t stop him.

Here are some passages from Maximus himself (from Ad Thalassium 61 “On the Legacy of Adam’s Transgression”):

For if the deviance of free choice [by Adam] introduced passibility, corruptibility, and mortality in Adam’s nature, it only followed that in Christ, the immutability of free choice, realized through his resurrection, introduced natural impassibility, incorruptibility, and immortality.

…He exhibited the equity of his justice in the magnitude of his condescension, when he willingly (κατὰ θέλησιν) submitted to the condemnation imposed on our passibility (τὸ παθητόν) and turned that very passibility into an instrument for eradicating sin and the death which is its consequence—or in other words, for eradicating pleasure and the pain which is its consequence. For it was in human passibility that the power of sin and death (the tyranny of sin connected with pleasure and the oppression associated with pain) all began. Indeed, the rule of pleasure and pain over our nature clearly originated in the liability to passions. Wanting to escape the oppressive experience of pain we sought refuge in pleasure, attempting to console our nature when it was hard-pressed with pain’s torment. Striving to blunt pain’s spasms with pleasure, we merely sanctioned against ourselves a greater debt (cf Col 2:14) of pain, powerless to disconnect pleasure from pain and its toils. But the Lord exerted manifest strength of transcendent power by inaugurating for human nature a birth unchanged by the contrary realities (of pleasure and pain) which he himself experienced. For having given our human nature impassibility through his Passion, remission through his toils, and eternal life through his death, he restored that nature again, renewing the habitudes of human nature by his own deprivations in the flesh and granting to human nature through his own incarnation the supernatural grace of deification.

…Therefore death, in its dynasty, dominates all of human nature because of the transgression. …But the Lord, …naturally willed to die…. Clearly he suffered, and converted the use (χρῆσις) of death so that in him it would be a condemnation not of our nature but manifestly only of sin itself.

The baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin. …Such will ensue if indeed the saints, for the sake of truth and righteousness, have virtuously finished the course of this life with its many sufferings, liberating their nature within themselves from death as a condemnation of sin and, like Christ, the captain of our salvation (Heb 2:10), turned death from a weapon to destroy human nature into a weapon to destroy sin.

From the translator’s notes:

Maximus repeats here his slightly earlier affirmation that Christ “converted the use of death” (τὴν τοῦ θανάτου χρῆσιν ἀντέστρεψιν) so as to condemn sin and not human nature itself. We already see in Ad Thal. 42 (translated above) Maximus’s larger perspective on Christ’s assumption of human passibility in its fullness, becoming the “sin” which is a consequence of the fall (but not the “sin” committed in moral acts) and so for our sakes taking on the mortality which is its condemnation. Recalling here the christianized Stoic idiom of “good use” of the human passions (cf Ad Thal. 1), Maximus describes Christ “using” death, the ultimate “passion” and the end of human passibility, as a redemptive instrument. Elsewhere, Maximus speaks of Christ’s blameless use of the fear of death (Disputation with Pyrrhus, PG 91:297B), for Christ alone turns it into a “voluntary” fear that encourages the Christian faithful in their own confrontation with death (Opusc. 7, PG 91:80D; cf Comm. on the Lord’s Prayer, CCSG 23:34, 135–35, 142).

…Maximus is insistent that the Christian appropriates Christ’s own good “use” of the ultimate passion of death (see note 9 above) by his or her own discipline of mortification. One should not overlook his important distinction between destroying death and destroying sin through the instrumentality of death.

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November 4, 2014

your struggle and your suffering is the same as everyone else’s

On Old Ideas, Cohen sang of wanting to write “a manual for living with defeat.” Cohen says:

I wish I could really come up with something ’cos we are all really living with defeat and failure and disappointment and bewilderment, these dark forces that modify our lives. Everyone is engaged in a mighty struggle for self-respect, meaning and significance. The first step would be to recognise that your struggle and your suffering is the same as everyone else’s. I think that’s the beginning of a responsible life. Otherwise we are in a continual savage battle with each other with no possible solution, political, social or spiritual.

From this interview with Neil McCormick.

August 31, 2014

giving yourself over to suffering

You can’t give yourself over to love for someone without giving yourself over to suffering. You can’t give yourself to love for a soldier without giving yourself to suffering in a war. It is this body of our suffering that Christ was born into, to suffer Himself and to fill it with light, so that beyond the suffering we can imagine Easter morning and peace on earth on little earthly homelands such as Port William and the farming villages of Okinawa.

But Christ’s living unto death in this body of our suffering did not end the suffering. He asked us to end it, but we have not ended it. We suffer the old suffering over and over again. Eventually, in loving, you see that you have given yourself over to the knowledge of suffering in a state of war that is always going on. And you wake in the night to the thought of the hurt and the helpless, the scorned and the cheated, the burnt, the bombed, the shot, the imprisoned, the beaten, the tortured, the maimed, the spit upon, the shit upon

From Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry (171).

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August 15, 2013

seven swords were in her heart but one was in her hand

From “The Ballad of the White Horse” by G.K. Chesterton. In a desperate hour, King Alfred has a vision of Our Blessed Lady and asks her this:

When our last bow is broken, Queen,
And our last javelin cast,
Under some sad, green evening sky,
Holding a ruined cross on high,
Under warm westland grass to lie,
Shall we come home at last?

She answers paradoxically:

I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?

After many losing fights, King Alfred is granted one more vision:

And when the last arrow,
Was fitted and was flown,
When the broken shield hung on the breast,
And the hopeless lance was laid at rest,
And the hopeless horn was blown,

The King looked up, and what he saw
Was a great light like death,
For our Lady stood on the standards rent
As lonely and as innocent
As When between white walls she went
In the lilies of Nazareth.

One instant in a still light,
He saw Our Lady then,
Her dress was soft as western sky,
And she was queen most womanly–
But she was queen of men.

Over the iron forest
He saw Our Lady stand;
Her eyes were sad withouten art,
And seven swords were in her heart–
But one was in her hand.

June 18, 2013

she has no right to forgive

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, book V (“Pro and Contra”), chapter 4 (“Rebellion”):

Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to dear, kind God’!

…Surely I haven’t suffered simply that I, my crimes and my sufferings, may manure the soil of the future harmony for somebody else. I want to see with my own eyes the hind lie down with the lion and the victim rise up and embrace his murderer. I want to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been for. All the religions of the world are built on this longing, and I am a believer. But then there are the children, and what am I to do about them? That’s a question I can’t answer. For the hundredth time I repeat, there are numbers of questions, but I’ve only taken the children, because in their case what I mean is so unanswerably clear. Listen! If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please? It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony. Why should they, too, furnish material to enrich the soil for the harmony of the future? I understand solidarity in sin among men. I understand solidarity in retribution, too; but there can be no such solidarity with children. And if it is really true that they must share responsibility for all their fathers’ crimes, such a truth is not of this world and is beyond my comprehension. Some jester will say, perhaps, that the child would have grown up and have sinned, but you see he didn’t grow up, he was torn to pieces by the dogs, at eight years old. Oh, Alyosha, I am not blaspheming! I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived cries aloud: ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.’ When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ then, of course, the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear. But what pulls me up here is that I can’t accept that harmony. And while I am on earth, I make haste to take my own measures.

…I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.”

March 30, 2012

where you want your slave to go

Good stuff from an honest man. These are the lyrics to another Leonard Cohen song from his album Old Ideas.

“Show Me The Place”
by Leonard Cohen

Show me the place
Where you want your slave to go

Show me the place
I’ve forgotten I don’t know

Show me the place
For my head is bending low

Show me the place
Where you want your slave to go

Show me the place
Help me roll away the stone

Show me the place
I can’t move this thing alone

Show me the place
Where the Word became a man

Show me the place
Where the suffering began

The troubles came
I saved what I could save
A thread of light
A particle a wave
But there were chains
So I hastened to behave
There were chains
So I loved you like a slave

Show me the place
Where you want your slave to go

Show me the place
I’ve forgotten I don’t know

Show me the place
For my head is bending low

Show me the place
Where you want your slave to go
The troubles came
I saved what I could save
A thread of light
A particle a wave
But there were chains
So I hastened to behave
There were chains
So I loved you like a slave

Show me the place
Show me the place
Show me the place

Show me the place
Help me roll away the stone

Show me the place
I can’t move this thing alone

Show me the place
Where the Word became a man

Show me the place
Where the suffering began

February 20, 2012

sometimes he feels that there really is another way

Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it. And then he feels that perhaps there isn’t. Anyhow, here he is at the bottom, and ready to be introduced to you.

Opening lines of Chapter One, “In Which We are Introduced to Winnie-the-Pooh and Some Bees, and the Stories Begin” from The Complete Tales and Poems of Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne.

November 17, 2011

the world is like an oilpress

I’m not sure that Augustine lists some of the most intense and subtle pressures in this world, and I wish that he more fully identified the splendor (or the inevitable response that this splendor elicits from the meek and hungry): the ongoing expression of broken hallelujahs under pressure (as sung about by Leonard Cohen). However, this image of Christ (“another sort of man”) under pressure is profoundly true and echos the “ooze of oil” that is so central an image in the poem “God’s Grandeur” by Hopkins.

Thus the world is like an oilpress: under pressure. If you are the dregs of the oil you are carried away through the sewer; if you are genuine oil you will remain in the vessel. But to be under pressure is inevitable. Observe the dregs, observe the oil. Pressure takes place ever in the world, as for instance, through famine, war, want, inflation, indigence, mortality, rape, avarice; such are the pressures on the poor, the worries of the states: we have evidence of them. …We have found men who grumble under these pressures and who say: “how bad are these Christian times!” …Thus speak the dregs of the oil which run away through the sewer; their color is black because they blaspheme: they lack splendor. The oil has splendor. For here another sort of man is under the same pressure and friction which polishes him, for is it not the very friction which refines him?

From Augustine’s Sermons (ed. Denis, xxiv. 11. and quoted in Meaning in History by Karl Lowith).

June 21, 2011

ooze of oil

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89)

God’s Grandeur

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

It’s a violation of this blog’s purpose to include much commentary on the passages, but I needed to write a prose reflection on this poem by Hopkins today and will include this gushy first draft (any feedback in the next couple of days will help me improve it before delivery):

Hopkins’ title and first line taken together form a simple chiasm (“God’s grandeur … grandeur of God”) with the “charged world” surrounded and throbbing at the center. Charge is an electrical term. It builds up over time. It is carried, potent and evenly dispersed (yet invisible), throughout the object.

Continuing this electrical (or scientific) language with “flame out,” “shining” and “foil,” we nonetheless shift to natural sunlight as the real source of the bright, piercing light. The world is only a mirror. We notice, too, the first introduction of violence as the cause of the brightness. Shook foil, creased and vibrating, reflects the light with almost overwhelming glory. It is the shaking that releases the potential, the built-up and hidden charge within.

This building up of a charge is echoed with “it gathers to a greatness.” Only now, with the “ooze of oil,” we are shifting to more ancient and agricultural images. “Crushed” is strongly emphasized by its solitary placement at the start of a line. It recalls and even intensifies the violence of “shook.”

Now the images come fast, harsh, jumbled, over-lapping, in a growing pile. “Generations that trod, trod, trod” maintains the agricultural picture (of olives or grapes being pressed under feet). It is fruitful and productive as well as wild, even wanton and destructive. This is an image of judgment, reinforced by the term “rod” in the previous line. Now we see the whole world, along with all of human history, as being charged, full of reflective potential, gathered to a pregnant greatness, ripe with oil for the pressing. At the same time, we (the trodders) are in rebellion against His rod. We do not recognize His bright and potent reign, although the world shines it out, drips with it, bleeds with it.

In this pile of negative and positive images, we feel tension. What is God using to shake out his grandeur, to press out this goodness, to harvest it? Despite (and through) our rebellion, our perverted labors, our abuse, the sufferings of the whole world itself are productive.

As listeners, we are by now involved and implicated in a brutal and ugly scene. This trodding is our own gross and heedless brutality. Even the oil (a source of light and life) is perverted and takes on a sinister sense as we witness a grimy, greasy fouling of the once shimmering foil. No light is reflected now from this crushed and dirty pulp. No longer charged and pregnant, it is violated and exposed by unfeeling generations of well-shod feet.

In the second stanza, we slow down and transition back to the opening lines, recognizing, even amid the bleary mess, a fullness and depth within the world. This being-charged-with-the-grandeur-of-God was too complete to be fully spent (shaken or trodden out). But this second recognition of fullness is less exuberant, more subdued yet more profound. We now face reverent words like “deep down” and “dearest freshness.” After the violence, the ugliness of searing toil, the smell of men who do not reckon with God’s rod, we find that this world cannot be ultimately marred. Whether we use the world well or we abuse her, only God’s grandeur can flame out. She is charged with nothing but goodness. She is fruitful and precious to her very pit.

Finally, blear and smear recurs as the world swoons away in blackness, until over the brown (barren) horizon “springs” a “morning,” a new creation under the hovering wings of the Holy Ghost. This second visitation of the Spirit brings to mind the first brooding of God over the darkness and chaos. But here, at this second dawn or birth, we see for a moment that the agent is, in some subsidiary sense, our own senseless marching, our own brutal trade. Heartless abuse and long suffering, in the deeper goodness of God’s economy, exposes or brings out only God’s grandeur. Christ’s own long-suffering and motherly Spirit puts even our facile abuses to the task of ushering life outward and forward, to the knowing of “dearest freshness deep down things.” Refreshed by the beauty that Hopkins’ language points to so faithfully, we might even be ready to walk unshod over seared and blackened earth. We might lay ourselves down and embrace the charged (and crushed) world with our own warm breasts and tender young wings.

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