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Discerning the Spirits of the Times-The “Feel Good” Ethic vs. The Way of Spiritual Transformation

December 30, 2012

In one of my earlier, more modest works, In Peace Let Us Pray to the Lord, I wrote about our “world where easy experience is coveted and true knowledge acquired through labor is scorned.” And I posed the question as to whether movements that fit hand-in-glove with such a mindset are “truly Christian”?

That question posed in 2001 remains valid for us today.  Too often, the experience and practice of religion or spirituality is associated with entertainment for the purpose of making oneself feel good with no reference or connection to the implementation of the Gospel’s counsels on the challenging terrain of day-to-day life.  For many, religious experiences are contrived to make you feel good about who you are, where you are, when you are, and even what you want. They provide validation, empowerment, enthusiasm, but not necessarily what matters most: repentance through humbly and freely submitting to a way of life that can transfigure a vessel of clay into a vessel of honor for and in Christ.  Instead of an all-embracing way of life illumined by teaching tested over millennia, the ultimate gauge is to be found in one’s own personal, private, subjective, emotional state.  The patristic counsels of humility, obedience, fasting, confession, and watchfulness—that can provide real, objective benchmarks for the Christian way of life and that are founded on the bedrock of sacred revelation—are eschewed as old fashioned, outdated practices for people who superstitiously believe they are saved by works rather than faith, even though there could be nothing further from the truth. In this new world of ours, Karl Marx was right in writing that religion is the opium of the people.

However, the way of spiritual transformation is not solely based on human experience, especially if that experience is based on a “feel good” ethic designed to uplift the human spirit.  The way of spiritual transformation recognizes the ancestral sin as a fundamental component of human history and each human life.  In chapter 2 of Ancient Christian Wisdom, it is noted, “The tragedy of the present world can only be understood theologically by considering the second half of the Genesis story that describes how the misuse of human reason and freedom radically altered creation.  The sacred history of the fall forms a second phenomenological layer over the Christian understanding of humanity and the universe in its pristine state.  .  .The wrong choice of the ancestral sin was not just a detour from the journey toward perfection.  It was a dead-end characterized by a deluded state of irrationality and pride in which man disregarded the very boundaries separating the created from the uncreated realm.  Although the divine image was not erased by the fall, it was darkened, thereby permitting human reason to grow indolent and lose its ability to clearly see the things of God.  Instead of being directed toward the Giver of Light, human reason turned with blind selfishness toward creation and fell under the shadowy influence of the imagination that encouraged all manner of illusion, prejudice, superstition, and idolatry to grow freely.  As a result of separation from God, human beings became more vulnerable to the devil’s influence as they became intimately acquainted with corruption, sickness, and death, foes that human freedom and reason could not overcome.  When Adam and Eve were girt with garments of skin, human nature was clothed with dead matter, altering life into a struggle for survival in which instincts and passions would displace God-implanted reason.”

Human progress and technological sophistication do not supplant these truths of revelation.  No amount of happy talk or exhortations to feel good about oneself can erase this reality.  If you become seriously ill and go to the doctor and he informs you that you have cancer, he will in all likelihood prescribe forms of treatment that may be painful, arduous, and difficult.  The same is true in the spiritual life.  The effects of the ancestral sin incline us to a sickness unto death.  The prescriptions of the Church (confession, prayer, humility, and watchfulness) are not designed to make you feel good about yourself.  They are designed to restore us to communion with God for all eternity, but beginning today.

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2 Comments
  1. Bruce permalink

    Father Bless!!!

    I am reading a book by Archimandrite Irenei called ‘The Beginnings of a Life of Prayer’. His words in Part I called “Taking Stock of Our Struggle” and his chapter on “The Call of Christ Toward Self Examination” are very consistent with your blog entry today:
    ————– Page 12
    The depth of man’s captivity to sin is so great, his tragedy so profound, that if he were to be aware of even a portion of its reality, cries would consume his heart. And while such as awareness might be, for its time, the source of great pain, this pain would at least bind him more fully to the work of Christ, for the Lord takes such tribulation and makes it into a strengthening ordeal, as iron is tested by fire and made stronger by it.

    Yet man is not bound to Christ in this way, because he little admits, little recognizes, the true condition of his heart. The chains of his bondage and the shackles of his slavery have become so commonplace, so “normal”, that they are no longer seen. The passions have become such familiar and commonplace enemies that man loses sight of their true character, their oppressive nature, and even starts to consider them friends. The enemy which ceaselessly wages war against him is so much a “part of the fabric” that he ceases to be seen at all; his existence begins even to make him a thing unreal, unimposing, remote. So the spiritual struggle becomes a non-struggle, which makes it a defeat; for if we do not recognize our state, we cease to rise to the contest in full seriousness and vigor – and then our passions reign, sin triumphs, and the devil stakes a firmer claim. We then become like the spiritually idle brother who approached St. Anthony the Great of Egypt in the desert:

    ‘A brother came to Abba Anthony and said “Pray for me”. The old man replied to him, “I will have no mercy upon you, nor will God have any, if you yourself do not make an effort and do not pray to God.’

    This is the hopeless state to which spiritual lethargy leads: one in which man does not struggle, does not act. So he fails to attain even the fundamentals of the true Life in Christ. While modern man in some ways feels himself “enlightened” by no longer subscribing to the old fashioned legends and myths of the devil, demons, spiritual contest or, at times, even sin itself, the Christian knows this enlightenment to be pure delusion. It is the hiding of reality beneath the thin veil of “knowing better” – a veil that is transparent when one looks at it objectively from the Church’s perspective of true knowledge in the Lord, yet which, without that knowledge, seems to many to be the very fabric of reality itself.

    How hopeless would this all seem, were it not for the reality of the resurrected Christ! Without this, man’s very existence would be defined by but one word: death. All his sin, all his willing submission to the passions, leads only there.

    …But the Christian person, even the whole created race of man, has been offered the one thing needful: the defeat of death itself. By this defeat, wrought by Christ at the Cross, in the tomb, and in hades is HIs self sacrificing glory, the contest is which man is engaged is one preceded by the emblems of victory. The Cross is made the ensign of life, and the battleground of the heart is reclaimed for glory in the risen Lord.

    …So our daily task is great: to look inward, to the depth of the heart, to discover there the chains that bind us deep to the bottommost parts of the sea, and by the grace of Christ to struggle against them. We are called to work, through the redemptive power of the incarnate Lord, to defeat that which seeks our destruction. We are to take stock of our condition daily, to see it in its true weakness, and to call upon the solace and support of the charitable Lord to overcome it.

    We are called to change, to be transformed, to see and know ourselves, so that we can offer ourselves to Christ for transfiguration.

    ——————-

    Thank you for all your are doing to point us toward the renewal of life Christ calls us to!!!

  2. Bruce,

    Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful passage from The Beginnings of a Life of Prayer. It does fit nicely with my post. So much in this life is the reverse of what it seems and somewhat distorted, only becoming clear in the light of Christ to the repentant heart. Thanks again.

    Fr. Alexis

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