For Christians, the title of this post speaks to divine faith and the spiritual realm, which is just as real as the empirical world, although not as readily evident for those who rely solely on their physical senses and whose spiritual senses are so dulled that their noetic eyes cannot see by the light of faith and the light of Christ. This may be seen in today’s Gospel concerning the Myrrh-Bearing Women. They were relying on more than their senses in the midst of unspeakable grief. Their Beloved Master whom they had followed and on whom they had set all their hopes had been crucified and put to a cruel death. Such death, such cruelty, such despondency lead many into inactivity, but faith in the Truth of everything Christ said and love that can never die made them not only active, but divinely bold. And so they rose early, before dawn, the Evangelist tells us, in order to anoint the body which they thought would have begun decomposing in the tomb. Yet, what they expected was not to be. The tomb was empty. The pious women were told that the one for whom they sought is not here. Saint Mark recounts that the women fled from the tomb.
One can only imagine the anguish the women must have felt as they made their way to the tomb to anoint the Lord. One can only imagine the thoughts racing through their minds. On the one hand, there could have been natural thoughts such as “What do we do now? We had committed our lives and our hopes in Jesus and he has been crucified and laid in a tomb.” On the other hand, there could also have been the remembrance of His words, which endure forever and which continue to give hope in something they can’t fully understand. In their grief, it would have been a still, small voice, but powerful enough to lead the spiritually sensitive out of themselves and towards Christ. And when they were confronted by the young man and the opened tomb, they listened, obeyed, and fled. They listened to the words of the strange young man who told them, “Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him. But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.” They obeyed and immediately fled not only from the physical place of the tomb, but also from all their earthly thoughts of death and despair. The spiritual senses of the heart that Christ had cultivated in them became dominant. There was no need to hesitate. Looking around for empirical evidence of the miraculous resurrection was not necessary. They knew with their hearts. And so, they believed and fled their former place and their former dark thoughts.
How often are we confronted with similar seemingly desperate and gloomy situations like that of the Myrrh-bearing women? How often do the events of our own lives and our perceptions thereof drive us to dark places where God is not to be found? How often do we measure our lives by earthly, empirical evidence that discards the possibility of the spiritual and God’s healing grace? How often do we hear the world tell us “God is not here” and fall into despair and sinful behavior? Yet, just because God is not where we expect Him to be may we conclude that He has abandoned us? Just as the Myrrh-bearing women listened, obeyed, and fled, we too must listen to that soft voice within that beckons us to believe in the power of the Resurrection in our own lives. If we do not find God present in our thoughts, the problem lies with our thoughts and not with God. God is always present calling us to be mindful of His love that has conquered death.
In a previous post, I wrote about the potential cognitive pitfalls concerning meaning assignment, “the fathers were quite mindful of the overall importance and etiological significance of meaning assignment for successful human functioning and the virtuous life. They recognized that our perceptions are channeled through our interpretations of our situation, interpretations that are often influenced more by imagination than by objectively measurable external reality. Interpretations in the form of thoughts and images shape our views of others and ourselves. Good thoughts bring us joy, increased insight, and wisdom, whereas bad thoughts can throw us into a state of melancholy, confusion, or even folly. According to the fathers, thoughts not only give rise to emotional reactions, but also coalesce over time into character traits.”
Whether it be medicine or therapy, a good diagnosis is the beginning of good treatment. Becoming aware of one’s idiosyncratic meaning assignment and that it may not really coincide with the whole of reality, physical and spiritual, is the first step. Exploring and weighing other possible interpretations is the second step. Choosing the interpretation that leads to adaptive functioning is the final step. At each of these points, deep Christian teachings on humility, love, and forgiveness can bolster these steps and take a person beyond adaptive functioning to another sphere of holiness, in which every interaction, regardless of whether it is initially interpreted as good or bad, can be seen with the eyes of the heart as a blessing from a loving God through which we can grow into children who clearly reflect the goodness of His image and likeness.
Because the hearts of the myrrh-bearing women were illumined through the grace of the Holy Spirit, they were able to behold the initial signs of the Resurrection and believe. They fled the tomb of ignorance, despair, thoughts, and death in order to seek Christ their Resurrected Lord. So too in our own lives, we must flee those harmful interpretations of thoughts and events in order to behold the Resurrected Christ who is always calling us to seek Him so that we might find Him, not in an empty tomb, but in a heart full of His mercy and love.
A central tenet of cognitive theory is that the meaning we assign to things, events, situations, and ambitions is what determine how emotionally invested we are in those aspects of our world. It shapes the quality of life and even more crucially the quality of our character. Therapy looks at the small picture of reactions to family stressors, work dissatisfaction, and other parts of life that we may respond to in less than helpful ways. Christianity always looks at the widest possible picture, even wider than this whole world and our entire life. And in that wider picture is our salvation. Again and again, saints throughout the ages emphasize this fundamental truth.
For example, Elder Nazarius lived in the 18th century and became abbot of the Russian monastery Valaam during a period of great spiritual decline. Through his example and holy life, Valaam experienced a spiritual renewal which led to the eventual missionary efforts in America by Saint Herman and Saint Juvenal. Elder Nazarius once said, “Beguiling and deceptive is the life of the world, fruitless its labor, perilous its delight, poor its riches, delusive its honors, inconstant, insignificant; and woe to those who hope in its seeming goods: because of this many die without repentance. Blessed and most blessed are those who depart from the world and its desires.” What he is describing is the problem of not looking at the world through the wider picture of Christian revelation, but through the narrow picture of this stressor and that, this aim and that, this desire and that, a way of looking at life which not only misleads us and causes us to chase shadows, but ultimately leaves us feeling empty, because with such things as the guiding stars of our lives, we really are.
The situation which Elder Nazarius encountered mirrors the cultural situation we experience today. Father Stephen Freeman in his blog, www.glory2godforallthings.com, writes about Christians who have created a bifurcated two story universe. In this two-story universe, God is relegated to the second story as an ineffectual, distant, and unengaged deity. For those who live on the first floor, it is even questionable whether anyone inhabits the second floor.
This bifurcated universe is not Christian, but unfortunately Christians can be duped into espousing it, because it pretends to pay homage to a God who doesn’t really exist in the heart of the one who professes this worldview. In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I’ve described in great detail the manner in which Christians would be well-advised to make their way in the world. That way must start with a Christian worldview. “Christian teaching illumines created reality and the events of history. . . In like manner, an Orthodox Christian theological worldview can be employed as a frame of reference for evaluating the philosophical worldview underlying cognitive therapy, thereby removing what is false and misleading so that what is true and informative can be put to proper use.”
A proper Christian worldview maintains a one-story universe in which the uncreated God of our fathers is present, active, and sustaining life and love. This particular worldview is essential since it colors the perceptions of our daily experiences and encounters, for they are placed in a context wider than the universe and timeframe longer than time itself. The words of Elder Nazarius warn us about the dangers of a worldview in which life, labors, ambitions, honors, and wealth are all viewed from a false perspective that only the time of our life is important, that only those in direct contact with us matter, and worst of all that God is absent from the equation of our life. The Elder Nazarius’s seemingly austere words do not condemn the world, but short-sightedness and existential errors in meaning assignment.
If our thoughts determine our lives, the structure of those thoughts is determined by the worldview that we live by (and not merely what we profess on Sundays). As I mention in ACW, “A human narrative of creation, the fall, and redemption offers a background theory about the universe, human nature, the human predicament, and its resolution.”
A Christian living in the world is to be salt and light to the world. “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” These are aims worthy of the Christian life and can only be achieved by accepting the wider picture of salvation as the context for what we think, what we say, and what we do.
The saints often remarked how people manage with great enthusiasm, creativity, and intelligence to get ahead in worldly affairs, but often fail to make a comparable effort when it comes to the spiritual life. Saint Seraphim of Sarov in his conversation with Nicholas Motovilov used the analogy of acquiring money to help his spiritual child understand how one should strive to acquire the Holy Spirit. With respect to a detailed examination of how one has spent one’s day in terms of actions pleasing or displeasing to God, “Saint Theophan the Recluse even suggests that it be done with ‘the mathematical accuracy of a business ledger’” as I mention in Ancient Christian Wisdom. But how are we to go over our day in a way that can help us to crystalize our spiritual goals, to identify our strengths and our weaknesses, as well as to use this knowledge ultimately to become better Christians, to confess more fully, to pray more earnestly, to receive Holy Communion more worthily, and to love less selfishly?
For the sake of performance assessment in many occupations, industrial psychologists suggest considering productivity, absenteeism, peer-ratings, and supervisor-ratings. Starting with the premise basic to Ancient Christian Wisdom, it occurs to me that some of these same approaches may be usefully applied in the most important job of all, the job of being a Christian. In terms of productivity, we can look at our prayers. The fathers of the desert used prayer ropes to be sure that they said the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me” a certain number of times each day, sort of like a spiritual quota. Although one might dismiss such concerns as not particularly spiritual or deep, most monks will be able to tell you that they experience a palpable difference when they pray less, even when their prayer happens to be dry. We can also consider the quality of our product, which provides a window into the deeper, spiritual dimension. Is our prayer from the heart or are they just words? We can likewise consider productivity in terms of almsgiving (that is particularly quantifiable), in terms of acts of kindness, in terms of forgiveness, in terms of filling each and every commandment in the Gospel of Christ. Looking at our productivity as Christians does not seem to be out of place in a sincere effort to assess where we are in our journey towards Christ.
Psychologists providing employers with assessment guidance also suggest considering absenteeism. In the context of the spiritual life, at a base level, we can ask about our attendance at Church and our presence there from the moment the bell rings. Psychologists consider specific categories of absenteeism such as justified versus unjustified, sickness versus non-sickness, voluntary versus involuntary, explained versus unexplained, and certified illness versus casual illness. Some of these same categories can be applied for absence from Church in terms of why we made the choice and our spiritual commitment underlying that choice. But even more important than absence from Church is being present before God in Church, being present not just in body, but also in mind, in spirit, and in heart. And given that Christianity was never meant to be a Sunday only affair, one can also consider absenteeism from willingly striving to be in God’s presence throughout the day.
A final useful tool is peer-ratings and supervisor-ratings. In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I mention that “Saint John Chrysostom notices that philautia blindfolds us with blinders that can only be removed by those who are hostile to us. ‘Under the influence of philautia we do not see our own failings, while those who are hostile to us often see them quite accurately.’ Although it may be too threatening to ask someone who is not kindly disposed towards us about our failing, we can still choose to ask a close Christian fellow-struggler who dares to be honest with us for some precious feedback about where we need to strive more earnestly. Finally, in confession, we can also ask for guidance about which weaknesses we should struggle to correct, which strengths we should build on, and what is the ideal model of the Christian we desire through the grace of God to be. There do seem to be spiritual analogues to productivity, absenteeism, peer-ratings, and supervisor-ratings. May we use them to move forward in the spiritual life as they are used to move forward in the secular world.
In this post, I would like to translate in full a conversation in Greek that a pilgrim had with the Elder Porphyrios. A psychologist of the cognitive ilk will no doubt recognize in the following conversation an example of how meaning assignment can influence mood. The believer, however, will see testimony to the transformative power of Christ’s Resurrection.
— Do you know the troparion that begins, “We celebrate the slaying of death …”?
— Yes, elder, I know it.
— Then say it.
—“We celebrate the slaying of death, the destroying of hell, the beginning of another way of life that is eternal. And leaping for joy, we sing a hymn to the Cause, the only blessed and most glorious God of our fathers.”
—Do you understand it?
—Certainly I understand it.
I thought that he was asking me for a translation into modern Greek.
The Elder then waved his hand dismissively saying,
— Little George, you didn’t understand anything at all! You said it quickly like a chanter in a hurry. Listen to what awesome things are said in this hymn: Through Christ and His resurrection, we do not get across a river, a gorge, a canal, a lake, or even the Red Sea. We have moved across an abyss that no human being could cross on his own. Ages came and went with the world waiting for this Pascha, for this passage. Our Christ passed from death to life! That’s why today “we celebrate the slaying of death, the destroying of hell.” Death is no more. We celebrate today “the beginning of another way of life that is eternal,” a life with Him.
Speaking with enthusiasm and conviction, the Elder was clearly moved. The elder paused and continued more energetically:
— Now there is no more chaos, no more death, no more slaying, no more Hell. Now everything is joy, thanks to the resurrection of our Christ. Human nature is resurrected with Him. Now we too can rise again that we might live with Him eternally … What bliss is contained in the Resurrection! “And leaping for joy, we sing a hymn to the Cause.” Have you seen how young goats now in the spring frolic on the green grass? They drink some of their mother’s milk and then prance about leaping for joy, and so do we celebrating the ineffable joy of the resurrection of our Lord.
He then stopped speaking. Pure joy was now in the air. And the elder continued,
—Can I give you some advice? In every sorrow, with every failure, in anything that causes you pain, collect yourself for half a minute and slowly say this hymn. Then, you will see that the most important thing in your life and in the life of the entire universe has already been accomplished with the resurrection of Christ. It is our salvation. And then, you realize that all our setbacks are so insignificant, that you don’t need to allow them to spoil your mood.
This conversation with the Elder Porphyrios contains precious advice on how we can make the Church’s experience of Christ’s resurrection our own and how doing so can enable us to look at all things through the resurrection of Christ and hence be victorious over the gloom, the sadness, the failure, and the death that seem to surround us. The Church’s hymns have great power, but we must focus on them, internalize them, and let them fill the horizon of our mind like the blazing sun fills morning sky. Saying the words slowly, we try to understand the universe of thought and feeling contained in each phrase, which ultimately means to live each phrase with body and soul, to experience a shift in emotion and a change of heart, so that we find ourselves translated from our little world with its petty problems to the world of Christ’s radiant resurrection where we will be forever with Him.
In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I mention that “the fathers were well aware that meaning assignment directly influences mood. St. John Chrysostom observes that irrational fears can spring from incorrect meaning assignment. For example, someone in the dark night might be afraid of a dangling rope if he mistakes it for a live serpent. Saint Theodore the Studite characteristically notes, ‘We feel radiant when we think about something good, and then we become dark and gloomy when we entertain somber thoughts. . .The change is volitional and within our own power.’ In summary, the fathers were quite mindful of the overall importance and etiological significance of meaning assignment for successful human functioning and the virtuous life. They recognized that our perceptions are channeled through our interpretations of our situation, interpretations that are often influenced more by imagination than by objectively measurable external reality. Interpretations in the form of thoughts and images shape our views of others and ourselves. Good thoughts bring us joy, increased insight, and wisdom, whereas bad thoughts can throw us into a state of melancholy, confusion, or even folly. According to the fathers, thoughts not only give rise to emotional reactions, but also coalesce over time into character traits.”
Yes, the Elder Porphyrios was well aware of this patristic teaching. I think it is also worth mentioning that on the Holy Mountain of Athos, the Paschal Canon is sung on fourteen, which means each troparion like the one the Elder Porphyrios referred to is repeated about seven times. There is a purpose to that repetition. These powerful words written by Saint John of Damascus can reorder the soul and give it the strength to face any adversary and certainly any assault by gloomy, dark thoughts. They enable us to put our thoughts, the things that happen to us, even our entire lives into the proper perspective, being that Christ, our Christ has triumphed over death and changed everything forever. He invites us to enter “another way of life that is eternal.” And one simple way to begin is to just slowly say the following words as though we mean them: “We celebrate the slaying of death, the destroying of hell, the beginning of another way of life that is eternal. And leaping for joy, we sing a hymn to the Cause, the only blessed and most glorious God of our fathers.” And then to live in accordance with what we have just said.
Seeing is believing. But what does it mean to see? Most of the work of seeing takes place not through the eyes, but throughout the mind that conjures up distance and difference from light reflecting and refracting in thousands of ways. And to make sense out of light’s perpetual dance, the human brain needs to allocate immense resources to the visual cortex. And yet, the light pouring forth from the tomb of Christ and renewing the vision of the faithful is of another order, beyond sense and beyond thought, and hence, as radical as it may sound to all of us under the sway of physical reductionism, beyond the human brain. And yet, it is more real than any thing we could possibly perceive or conceive. To the rationalist, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, just like the equation 3=1 doesn’t seem quite right except in the presence of the Triune God where the created laws of logic come to an end. For those who have beheld the resurrection of Christ, however, everything changes, for all things are filled with light, heaven, and earth, and the places beneath the earth. Such souls believe, for they have seen. How many, though, have beheld the Resurrection of Christ?
Saint Symeon the Theologian in a beautiful homily on this subject writes the following, “Most people believe in the Resurrection of Christ, but very few are they that have a clear vision thereof. Those who do not behold it cannot even worship Christ Jesus as Holy and Lord. As Scripture says, ‘No one can say the Lord Jesus except by the Holy Spirit,’ and, elsewhere, ‘God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.’” A vision or understanding of Resurrection is attained through worshiping Christ in His truth with one’s entire spirit and through the Holy Spirit saying the prayer Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me from the depths of the soul. This prayer, when said with humility, when said with love, when said with desire, and when the Spirit so wills, creates new vision, new perception, new thought, which are beyond all vision, perception and thought, and through which and in which the believer is to behold the Resurrection of Christ.
Saint Symeon continues, “That most sacred phrase which is daily on our lips does not say, ‘Having believed in the Resurrection of Christ,’ but, ‘Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ, let us worship the Holy Lord Jesus, the only sinless One.’ How then, does the Holy Spirit exhort us to say, ‘Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ,’ which we have not seen, as though we had seen it, when Christ has risen once for all a thousand years ago, and even then without anyone seeing it? …The Resurrection of Christ takes place in each of us who believes, and that not once, but every hour, so to speak, when Christ the Master arises in us, in splendid raiment and flashing forth rays of incorruption and Divinity. For the light-bearing Advent of the Spirit reveals to us, as in early morning, the Master’s Resurrection, or, rather, it grants us to see the Risen Lord Himself… Those to whom the Risen Christ has revealed Himself, to them has He assuredly become manifest spiritually; He has shown Himself to their spiritual eyes. When this happens to us through the Spirit, He raises us from the dead and gives us life. He grants us to see Him, Who is immortal and indestructible, and not only that, He grants us clearly to know Him who raises and glorifies us with Himself, as all of Divine Scripture attests.”
Saint Symeon here is speaking about the fruits of unceasing prayer, of always calling out on the Lord Jesus. Ever invoking His name, ever humbling oneself, ever fulfilling the Lord’s commandments of selfless love, the Risen Lord appears to the soul in all His glory, a glory whose brilliance no human eye can bear and whose splendor no human mind can grasp. The loving Lord knows this, so He provides new eyes, He provides a new mind, like a new heaven and a new earth, all we need to provide is our heart, all we need to offer is our will, then we too together with all those who have pleased God will chant, “Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ” and our words, like theirs, will be true.
“Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection.”
In one of his Paschal discourses to his monastic community Saint Symeon the New Theologian explains how the Cross, the Tomb, and the third day Resurrection of Christ are mysteries that the faithful are to live with their entire selves. He writes, “Christ our God was suspended on the Cross and, having nailed thereto the sin of the world and having tasted death, He descended into the nethermost depths of Hades. He returned from Hades into His own immaculate body, from which [His Divinity] had in no way been separated as He descended thither, and at once He rose from the dead. Thereafter, He ascended to Heaven with great glory and power. In just the same way, since we have now come out of the world and entered into the tomb of repentance and humiliation by being assimilated to the sufferings of the Lord, He Himself comes down from Heaven and enters into our body as into a grave. He unites Himself to our souls and raises them up, though they were avowedly dead, and then vouchsafes to him who has thus been raised with Christ to behold the glory of His mystical Resurrection.”
Just as through the Cross, joy has come into the world. So through our humility and our repentance, joy comes into our lives. And these two mysteries, the great mystery of salvation in Christ and the little mystery of our soul finding its way are deeply embedded one in the other. In truth, His death for our sakes becomes our death to sin and corruption. His resurrection for our sakes becomes our resurrection unto eternal life so that when the Eternal Father gazes upon creation He sees the in us figure of His Eternal Son who died and rose from the dead.
The dread events in the Holy city of Jerusalem at the time of Pontius Pilate and our own lives are forever connected through the mystery of Baptism. We are submerged in the Radiant Waters of holy baptism and mystically buried with Christ. Our sin and mortality are left in the waters, as in a tomb, so that we may rise with Him to newness of life. This movement from death to life is no weak symbol or liturgical re-enactment, but a mystery apprehended by faith, apprehended by prayer, apprehended by those who have touched Christ, have put on Christ, and now have Christ living in them.
In an earlier post on depression, I made some similar comments, “For the Christian, depression as a mindset is incompatible with the life of faith, for it expresses the conviction that our cross is only a cross, suffering and nothing more, that our loss is only a loss and not a possibility for grace-attracting kenosis, and that without our former world, without our ideal self-image, and without our this-worldly dreams, there is no point in moving forward, there is no goal worth pursuing, in a word, there is nothing to hope for.” For those who are baptized, our earthly sufferings are Christo-centric crosses that offer the path to resurrection in Christ. Our union with Him in holy baptism means that everything the world considers banal and base is life-giving and an opportunity to behold the resurrection of Christ in our own lives.
As Saint Symeon notes, “As has been said, Christ’s Resurrection and His glory are our glory, which is accomplished in us, disclosed to us, and beheld by us through His Resurrection. Once He has appropriated what is ours, that which He works in us He ascribes to Himself.”
This is the great triumph of the Resurrection. Christ has not only conquered death but in so doing we are co-conquerors with Him. As Saint Paul says, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth 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.” Read more…
Albert Bandura is a psychologist whose works I appreciate in part because he has a good sense of what psychology can and cannot offer. In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I quote his comment, “Psychology cannot tell people how they ought to live their lives,” and I note that “something hierarchically superior and existentially deeper is required for that.” Nevertheless, Bandura asserts that psychology “can provide them with the means for effecting personal and social change.” Sometimes, what psychology offers is not something new, but added clarity about the mechanics of something that has been done for ages and knowing those mechanics can in turn make a process even more effective.
For example, we all know something about learning. We learn through reading books, listening to others, being shown how to do something, practicing a skill, and engaging in trial and error. We also know that in attending Church, we should be learning about how to become Christians. Learning in Church takes place through the grace of God acting on a repentant heart. Part of it has to do with the teachings of Christ and the way they are presented. And part of it has to do with our way of approaching the services with childlike simplicity and a childlike desire to learn. After all, Christ has told us, “Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.”
And this is where psychology has something not necessarily new, but certainly useful, to say. In 1986, Albert Bandura discovered a simple, yet until that time overlooked form of learning through which children acquire new responses simply by observing the behaviors of those around them. In this form of learning, social models demonstrate behavior and the child processes the models’ behavior and stores it in memory for later use. Both good and bad modeling form patterns in the child’s mind for later use and play a role in his or her development. According to Bandura, there are four stages involved in observational learning: 1) attention, 2) retention, 3) production, and 4) motivation. The observer must be paying attention to the modeled behavior and store it in memory. The observer must also be capable of replicating the observed action or behavior and have a desire to do so.
While the Church does not refer explicitly to observational learning, the liturgical texts are certainly quite vivid attracting the attention, the events described are emotionally powerful, insuring retention; a connection is made between the texts and the believer, encouraging production, and the hope of the resurrection is always present, providing ample motivation. In other words, every aspect of observational learning is weaved into the services for the soul who approaches those services as a little child watches towering figures doing things that are both good and bad. The Great Canon of Saint Andrew is a case in point. A distinguishing feature of the Great Canon is its rich use of biblical imagery and subjects taken from both the Old and New Testaments. Those who hear the Great Canon are encouraged to emulate the positive examples of holiness and repentance while at the same time reject the negative examples of sin and disobedience.
On Wednesday of Holy Week, the image of Judas is offered to us, “Impious Judas with avaricious thoughts plots against the Master, and ponders how he will betray Him. He falls away from the light and accepts the darkness; he agrees upon the payment and sells Him that is above all price; and as the reward for his actions, in his misery he receives a hangman’s noose and death in agony. O Christ our God, deliver us from such a fate as his, and grant remission of sins to those who celebrate with love Thy most pure Passion.” If we pay attention to this hymn, if we retain it in our memory, it is possible that when we find ourselves becoming greedy that we will produce the opposite behavior out of a motivation to avoid the fate of Judas and be generous with others. When this takes place, observational learning has taken place and we have taken an important step towards becoming children of light.
In contrast to the betrayal of Judas, Holy Wednesday offers an image of repentance and contrition in the woman who anointed Jesus before His Passion. “In tears the harlot cried out, compassionate one, as she fervently wiped your most pure feet with the hair of her head, and she groaned from the depths of her soul: cast me not away, neither abhor me, my God, but receive me in my repentance and save me, for you alone are the lover of mankind.” Again, if we pay attention to this hymn, if we retain it in our memory, it is possible when we like the harlot fall into sin, that we will produce similar behavior turning to Christ in tender, humble repentance out of a desire to be received by our Savior.
One can do the same kind of analysis for every hymn in Holy Week, but what matters is not the analysis, but that learning takes place. The services of Holy Week are a precious gift, but they are meant not simply to recount dread and holy events, but to guide our lives. And that can take place only if we also learn, like little children, by observation.