Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Father Stephen on Secularism, Part 2

Father Stephen has posted an elaboration on his original post (which I discussed here) on living in a secular world. In this second post, he asks the tough question: what does it mean in our every day life to live a life in Christ in our secular culture. It offers some very good advice:

It is one thing to describe the cultural mix in which we swim and quite another to swim in an opposite direction. One of my favorite icons is a Theophany icon (Christ’s Baptism). In it you can see fish swimming in the water. All of the fish are swimming downstream except one. A single fish, just beneath the hand of Christ, is swimming in the opposite direction. The first time I saw this icon a priest said to me, “With the blessing of Christ, we overcome the world.”

The same is true of us - fish as we are. With the blessing of Christ we do not have to be conformed to this world. Our minds can be transformed (Romans 12:2). A large measure of this is to be found in availing ourselves of the grace given to us in the Mysteries of the Church. Confessing our sins, striving to make a good communion, the simple ascesis of attending services with their attendant struggle to turn our hearts to God.

But there are many more opportunities in the day (for most, the Mysteries of the Church are far from daily opportunities). I think of two particular opportunities that offer themselves with great frequency. The first, of course, is prayer. Simple prayer, such as the Jesus Prayer: “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Or simple phrases from the Psalms: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name,” or the hundreds of other possibilities. Such prayer turns our heart to God and moves us towards the “constant remembrance of God.” Such remembrance allows us to see the world as it truly is and to see others as they truly are. With such true sight comes the Kingdom of God.

Another opportunity, which I think is akin to the first, is to practice obedience to the commandments of God. I have suggested before in my postings the simple obedience: Today I will be kind to all whom I meet. Kindness is more than the absence of rudeness or malice - it is a positive act of generosity of spirit towards all whom I meet. Such an obedience, simple to state, is full of struggle. But the struggle also reveals to us the state of our heart and also reveals the world around us in a clearer light. As we struggle towards mere kindness, we see that our own hearts are darkened - and not as the result of the actions of others but from the depths of our own selves. And so the struggle helps to beget repentance as well.

There are any number of such obediences - drawn simply from meditation on the commandments of God.

Today I will seek to deceive no one.

Today I will not refuse an opportunity to do good.

Today I will speak ill of no one.

The list can be lengthened quite easily. It’s not unwise to discuss such an undertaking with a confessor or a trusted spiritual friend. In my own experience, it’s almost impossible to take on such a thing for more than a day at a time (our Lord enjoins us to live one day at a time) or to take on more than one such obedience at a time. Of course we should strive to keep all of God’s commandments at all times - but having said that - such a statement quickly passes into banality - indeed it becomes an abstraction, part of the murky waters of our secular world.

We should be wary of generalities - not because they aren’t true - but because they are often true in a very vague way - a way that is too vague to practice. We are very concrete beings and it helps to put things in concise and concrete terms. If you feel tempted to point out that this paragraph is a generality, I noticed it already. Its antidote is to be found two paragraphs above.


Read it here.

In my discussions with atheists, I am struck by how often a get a lecture on how Christians have done evil deeds in history. They are right. This is a historical truth. But this misses another side of this same issue. Chrisitans have also done great good in the world as well. They were instrumental in ending the salve trade (and then slavery). The civil rights movement would have been delayed decades without the Black church and saints like Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, young Christian workers are working in the hells of the world like Darfur.

So the question for me is not whether people have done evil deeds in the name of Christ in the past. The issue instead is this: does following Christ make me a better person. And I think it has, the imperfect sinner that I am.

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