Christianity, Modernity and the Idol of Education

The essence of education today is the undermining of everything that stems from the past. The catch-phrase for such uprooting is “social justice,” which is a misnomer, since there can be no justice when the intent is the destruction of all that came before. True social justice does exist, of course, and is the consequence of Christian morality. The early followers of Jesus, in the Roman world, first invented social justice when they undertook good works for no tangible reward. For example, they would collect the abandoned bodies of the poor and give them a decent burial; or rescue babies left in the open to die of exposure; or pool funds to buy the freedom of slaves who were never coerced to become Christian. Real social justice is the quiet work of aligning society to the ways of God – thus negating both politics and power.

What we see today is the subversion of Christian virtue, so that good works are turned into a power dynamic, where groups claiming “historical marginality” are sanctioned. Since everyone still agrees that goodness matters – modernity has given it a political definition – empowerment. In effect, modernity is a process of subversion.

But what is modernity? Briefly, it consists of four types of narratives: that physical reality exists separate from God, so it matters little if God exists or not (i.e., secularism); that each person is autonomous (i.e., individualism); that we can create who we are according to any image of ourselves we desire (that is, self-deification, or auto-theism); and that the world will only keep getting better because of technology (i.e., progressivism and presentism). “Narrative” means an explanation which is repeated constantly to maintain coherence within a group.

(Here, it is important to point out that “postmodernism” is a fake term, adapted from architecture. Few understand this, though ignorance has never stopped anyone from fulminating. The term is fake because no one has yet proven, once and for all, that the world has actually moved beyond modernity – that the world no longer functions as modern. Thus, even though much ink, virtual and actual, is continually being spilt on the horrors of “postmodernism” – the horrified only end up wrestling with modernity – and losing in the process, because the “post” keeps moving).

The consequence of these narratives runs deep. Secularism assures everyone that life can be good and happy without God (which highlights the grand failure of the Church). Individualism entrenches self-indulgence. Auto-theism gives purpose to life as the ceaseless pursuit of pleasure (aka, self-fulfillment). Progressivism demands the construction of utopias because progress alone knows how to fabricate a better world, the first step to which is righting all the imagined wrongs inherited from the terrible past.

In all this, modernity seeks to overcome and replace Christianity (which it holds created all the defects of the past which now need correcting). Tis will lead to the creation of the New Man (down to gender). This New Man will be the great citizen of the coming utopia. But until that high stage of human evolution arrives, men and women must be remade, because they cannot function in the imagined utopia as they are, tainted by Christianity – and being nothing more than bio-mass, they must be perfected by modernity. Such is modernist “salvation.”

Thus, for some, “salvation” will come as transhumanism, where humanity merges with machines to live forever, while the brain is lulled by pleasure-inducing psychotropic drugs (as Yuval Noah Harari fantasizes). For others, redemption will be found in neo-paganism, or “archeofuturism,” where the old gods are again worshipped and life returns to a pretend-time before Christianity came along and ruined everything. And then there are those who work to “save” the planet, rather than humanity – by ridding the earth of its most pernicious foe, the destructive human being. Modernity’s inherent anti-natalism serves this fantasy well, via abortion, gender fluidity, homosexuality, contraception. Babies are the great evil. This is the return of human-sacrifice that is inevitable whenever Christianity weakens.

All three of these utopias (really dystopias) are promoted and justified by the education system. Nevertheless, they are failed endeavors (as all mad schemes tend to be) – for consciousness cannot be reset to some default mode. Once the mind knows something, how can it then unknow it? After two-thousand years of Christianity, how can the Christianized mind and its accomplishments be undone? Thus, how do you worship Odin and Thor, with an iPhone in your hand? Or, how do you become a machine when you still have to lull the brain with drugs? And, how do you work to get rid of humans, while also decrying wars, weapons, climate change, gun-violence and murder? In all this barren wasteland of modernity, the soul cries out in its exile for something greater than the immediate. That cry dismantles modernity, and justifies Christianity.

This habit of fantasizing about dystopias is, in fact, the legacy of the true father of modernity (whom few mention, for obvious reasons), namely, the Marquis de Sade. He described meticulously, and unflinchingly, what a world without God is all about – relentless hedonism enabled by the cruel exertion of power, in which the weak are used and then destroyed. Pleasure is the only purpose of life. The world that comes after morality is Hell itself.

Those beguiled by the allure of an atheistic world that will yet be decent, just, kind and good, without the bother of superstition about a Man in the Sky, should lower themselves into the world of de Sade and honestly admit whether they would like to live in it. You cannot have all the benefits of a Christian civilization and then imagine that all of it can be sustained by the Godless. That is simply dishonest. Thus, every atheist should be asked what s/he thinks of de Sade. Any form of revulsion only means that that person’s atheism is simply a lie. The choice before the world is simple, therefore – the Marquis de Sade or Christ. If you say neither – then modernity will give you de Sade by default, because modernity does not have Christ. Recall, this choice was once made earlier, when Barabbas was on offer.

Because modernity is the logic of education today, it offers neither instrumentalism nor idealism. This makes it a false idol that people are taught to worship as the great benefactor of humanity. The fact is that degrees have little to do with jobs, and the ideas being taught in schools have little to with God, or transcendence, let alone civilization. There is only the tiresome rhetoric of fashioning utopias that shall come once all the old systems of oppression are finally destroyed.

Those that advocate STEM are near-sighted modernists, who cannot answer two fundamental questions. How many scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians can industry actually support, let alone need? And, how is cheap labor to be addressed, for there are competent STEM workers the world over? This means that more STEM only adds to the problem of modernity.

Then, there is the fact of how degrees are obtained – by way of massive debt. Few speak of the ethics of educational institutions selling their products (degrees) by way of the debt-industry. Thus, education becomes a corrupted function of capitalism, which destroys lives by turning young people over to debt-slavery. The massive human trafficking industry functions on exactly the same model, where persons trafficked must first pay off the debt owed to those who trafficked them. Likewise, graduates must first pay off those that “educated” them.

But what is to be done? First, the Church needs to ask herself – why can she no longer bring people to God? Why must people, who once were her flock, now chase after “spirituality,” and even neo-paganism, to look for God – or give up and embrace atheism or agnosticism? Once this question is properly understood and then fully answered, the Church can finally counter modernity. Until then, the Church will continue to be another function of modernity, just another narrative.

As for education, it must once again be aligned with the Christian understanding of life. To do so, schools must be made smaller and community-based, which would make them the responsibility of parents and the parish church (but only those churches that actually want to resist modernity). The lure of institutionalization must be avoided – because nothing is more soulless than vast bureaucracy.

The content of education must be made fully anti-modernist, which can best be done by using the medieval trivium and the quadrivium. The greatest need right now is to build base knowledge (now utterly lost) which will then lead to holy wisdom. This can only be done through the teaching of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric. Afterwards must come the teaching of music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. These seven subjects will not only stop the destruction wrought by modernity (by making meaningless its various narratives) – but they will also prepare the mind for truth (a quality now being lost, if not lost already). Truth alone can knock down the false idol of modernity and its attendant education system, because truth and Christ are one.

Afterwards, these schools must lead into smaller, focused learning centers, again parent-organized and parish-based, that are instrumental in nature (apprenticeships, including music), or idealist (which teach history, philosophy, classic literature, languages and theology). There is no longer need for universities and colleges and their meaningless degrees. As for the cost, teachers must be given housing, allowances for necessities and a small stipend. This cost would be borne by the parents and the parish-church.

Historically, education was never about jobs. It was about giving humanity the moral equipment to do good works and to struggle for Heaven. It was about the care, cultivation and salvation of the soul through the pursuit of truth. The by-product of such an education was civilization, and thriving industry. If we still want civilization, then we will have to abandon modernity – because the one cannot contain the other.

Such deinstitutionalized education will require a great deal of courage and faith – because it will mean choosing to live forever against the modern world. And it will require the Christianization of capitalism. Here that moving remonstrance of Jesus should be brought to mind – What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose his soul? Can there be a better rebuke of modernity and a better summation of what real education is all about?

The photo shows, “Christ in the Garden of Olives,” by Paul Gauguin, painted in 1898.

The Ontology Of Salvation

I cannot begin to count the number of times I wished there were a simple, felicitous word for “ontological.” I dislike writing theology with words that have to be explained – that is, words whose meanings are not immediately obvious. But, alas, I have found no substitute and will, therefore, beg my reader’s indulgence for dragging such a word into our conversations.

From the earliest times in the Church, but especially beginning with St. Athanasius in the 4th century as the great Ecumenical Councils took shape, the doctrines of the Church have been expressed and debated within the terms related to being itself.

For example, St. Athanasius says that in creating us, God gave us “being” (existence), with a view that we should move towards “well-being,” and with the end of “eternal being” (salvation). That three-fold scheme is a very common theme in patristic thought, championed and used again in the work of St. Maximus the Confessor with great precision, as he matured the thought of the Church as affirmed in the 5th Council.

At the same time, this language of being was used to speak about the nature and character of salvation, the same terms and imagery were being used to speak about the Trinity and the two natures of Christ. That language continues up through the Seventh Council and is the language used to define the doctrine of the veneration of the Holy Icons.

Conciliar thought, carried on within the terms of being (being, non-being, nature, person, existence, hypostatic representation, essence, energies, etc.) can be described as speaking in the language of “ontology.” Ontology is the technical name for things having to do with being (“onto” as a prefix in Greek means “being”).

There is a “seamless garment” of theological exposition that can be discerned across the range of the Councils. It is ontological in character.

Tremendous work and discussion on the part of the fathers resulted in a common language for speaking about all of these questions. Thus, the term “person” (an aspect of “being”) is used both for speaking about the Trinity as well as speaking about human persons and the one person of Christ in two natures.

It is the primary “grammar” of Orthodox conciliar thought. No other imagery or language receives the kind of imprimatur as the terms raised up into the formal declarations of the Church’s teaching. To a degree, everything else is commentary.

Many other images have been used alongside the ontological work of the Councils. The Church teaches and a good teacher draws on anything at hand to enlighten its students. Nevertheless, the dogmatic language of the Church has been that of “being.”

So what constitutes an “ontological” approach to salvation?

Here is an example. “Morality” is a word and concept that applies to behavior and an adherence to rules and laws. “Immorality” is the breaking of those laws. You can write about sin (and thus salvation) in the language of morality and never make reference to the language of being.

But what is created becomes a sort of separate thing from the conciliar language of the Church. Over the centuries, this has often happened in theology, particularly Western theology (Protestant and Catholic). The result is various “departments” of thought, without a common connection. It can lead to confusion and contradiction.

There is within Orthodoxy, an argument that says we are on the strongest ground when we speak in the language of the Councils. The language of “being” comes closer to accurately expressing what is actually taking place. Though all language has a “metaphoric” character, the language of being is, I think, the least metaphorical. It is about “what is.”

Back to the imagery of morality. If you speak of right and wrong in terms of being, it is generally expressed as either moving towards the path of well-being-eternal-being, or moving away from it, that is, taking a path towards non-being. What does the path of non-being look like? It looks like disintegration, a progressive “falling apart” of existence.

The New Testament uses the term phthora (“corruption”) to describe this. Phthora is what happens to a body when it dies. Death, in the New Testament, is often linked to sin (“sin and death”). It is the result of moving away from God, destroying our communion with Him.

For most modern people, death is seen as simply a fact of life, a morally neutral thing. It can’t be a moral question, we think, because you can’t help dying. But, in the New Testament and the Scriptures, death is quite synonymous with sin.

When Adam and Eve sin, they are told that it will result in death (a very ontological problem). A moral approach to that fact tends to see “sin” as the defining term and death as merely the punishment. The ontological approach sees death itself as the issue and the term that defines the meaning of sin. Sin is death. Death is sin.

And so, the language of the Church emphasizes that Christ “trampled down death by death.” In the language of ontology, that simple statement says everything. “He trampled down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowed life.” This includes the destruction of sin, freedom from the devil, forgiveness of sins, etc. But all of those things are included in the words of “death” and “life.”

An advantage in speaking in this manner can again be seen in comparing it to a simple moral approach. Morality is about actions, obedience, and disobedience. It says nothing about the person actually doing those things (or it can certainly avoid that topic).

It can mislead people into thinking that being and existence are neutral sorts of things and that what matters is how we behave. This can be coupled with the modern heresy of secularism in which it is asserted that things have an existence apart from God, that the universe is just a “neutral no-man’s land.”

The ontological approach denies this and affirms that God upholds everything in existence, moment by moment. It affirms that existence itself is a good thing and an expression of God’s goodness. It says as well that it is the purpose of all things that exist to be in communion with God and move towards eternal being. It is the fullness of salvation expressed in Romans 8:21-22.

Moral imagery also tends to see the world as disconnected. We are simply a collection of independent moral agents, being judged on our behavior. What I do is what I do, and what you do is what you do, and there is nothing particularly connected about any of it.

The language of being is quite different. Everything in creation that exists shares in the commonality of created being. What happens to any one thing effects everything else. There is true communion at the very root of existence.

And it is this communion of being that the fathers use when they speak of Christ’s Incarnation and our salvation. When the Creed says, “Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man,” it is speaking about salvation. It does not say, “Who, in order to pay the penalty that was due…”

Such language can be used and has been used, but it is not at the heart of the Conciliar words of the Church. It is not recited every Sunday.

So how does Christ save us in terms of being? In essence (no pun intended), He became what we were in order to make us what He is. He became man, entering and restoring the full communion which we had broken.

The Lord and Giver of Life, the Author of our Being entered into dying humanity. He took our dying humanity on Himself and entered into the very depths of that death (“suffered death and was buried”). He then raised that same dying humanity into His own eternal life. This is our forgiveness of sins.

If sin is death, then resurrection is forgiveness. Thus we sing at Pascha: “Let us call brothers even those that hate us and forgive all by the resurrection.” That sentence only makes sense in terms of the ontological language in which it is written.

We do bad things (immoral things) because we have broken communion with God. “Sins” are the symptoms and signs of death, decay, corruption, and disintegration at work in the soul. If left unattended, it will drag us into the very depths of near non-being in what can properly be described as hell. This is reflected in the Psalm verse, “The dead do not praise the LORD, Nor any who go down into silence.” (Psa 115:17)

In Holy Baptism, we are asked, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” This is the language of being and communion. St. Paul tells us that in Baptism we are united to Christ in His death and raised in the likeness of His resurrection. He then adds that we should “walk in newness of life.” That union with Christ and infusion of His Life creates a moral change that can be described in the language of being.

The unity of language, I believe, is very helpful and salutary. It is easy for modern believers, nurtured in the language of morality, to hear teachings about the Trinity and the two natures of Christ, etc., and think, “What has any of that got to do with my life?” That is a natural conclusion when salvation is expressed in a language that is separated from the language of the doctrinal foundations of the Church.

There are some who have pushed the moral language into the language of the Trinity, such that what is important is the Son’s propitiation of the Father’s wrath. Such terms find no place within the Conciliar thought of the Church and can (and have) created problems.

It is not that such terms have no use nor that they have never been used by any of the Fathers at any time. But they have a long history of being misused and distorting and obscuring the foundational doctrines of the Church.

In my own life, I personally found the language of being, when applied to my salvation, to explain the meaning of Scripture more thoroughly and connect my daily life and actions to the most fundamental doctrines of the Church.

It allowed me to read St. Athanasius, St. Basil, St. Gregory, St. Maximus and a host of others without feeling that I had come to something foreign. It more than adequately addresses moral questions, whereas moral language cannot address anything else and creates problems and heresies when it is imported into the language of the Trinity.

I should add that I have worked within this for nearly 30 years and have found nothing within Scripture than cannot be understood within the ontological understanding and that doing so frequently takes you deeper into understanding what is actually going on. It also forces you to ask the questions of “how does this relate to everything else?”

I hope this little introductory train of thought is helpful for those who are thinking about these things. It should explain why I see this as important and something that goes to the very heart of the Orthodox faith.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows, “The Assumption of the Virgin” nu Francesco Botticini, painted ca. 1475-1476.

Why God Hides

God hides. God makes Himself known. God hides.

This pattern runs throughout the Scriptures. A holy hide-and-seek, the pattern is not accidental nor unintentional. It is rooted in the very nature of things in the Christian life. Christianity whose God is not hidden is not Christianity at all. But why is this so?

In a previous article, I wrote: “Our faith is about learning to live in the revealing of things that were hidden. True Christianity should never be obvious. It is, indeed, the struggle to live out what is not obvious. The Christian life is rightly meant to be an apocalypse.”

God is not obvious. That which is obvious is an object. Objects are inert, static and passive. The tree in my front yard is objectively there (or so it seems). When I get up in the morning and take the dog outside, I expect the tree to be there. If it is autumn, I might study its leaves for their wonderful color change (it’s a Gingko). But generally, I can ignore the tree – or not. That’s what objects are good for. They ask nothing of us. The freedom belongs entirely to us, not to them.

This is the function of an idol – to make a god into an object. He/she/it must be there. The idol captures the divine, objectifies it and renders it inert and passive.

The God of the Christians smashes idols. He will not stay put or become a passive participant in our narcissism. He is not the God-whom-I-want.

Christ tells us, “Ask, and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened.” The very center of the life promised us in Christ requires asking, seeking and knocking. The reason is straightforward: asking, seeking and knocking are a mode of existence. But our usual mode of existence is to live an obvious life (a life among objects).

Have you ever noticed that it’s easier to buy an icon and add it to your icon corner than it is to actually spend time and pray in your corner? There is a kind of “Orthodox acquisitiveness” that substitutes such actions for asking, seeking and knocking. Acquisition is part of our obvious form of existence. We have been trained in our culture to consume. We acquire objects. On the whole, we don’t even have to seek the objects we acquire, other than to engage in a little googling. We no longer forage or hunt. We shop.

But we were created to ask, seek and knock. That mode of existence puts us in the place where we become truly human. The Fathers wrote about this under the heading of eros, desire. Our culture has changed the meaning of eros into erotic, in which we learn to consume through our passions. This is a distortion of true eros.

Christ uses the imagery of seeking or true desire (eros) in a number of His parables: The Merchant in Search of Fine Pearls; The Woman with the Lost Coin; The Good Shepherd and the Lost Sheep; The Father in the Prodigal Son; The Treasure Buried in a Field…

But how does seeking (eros) differ from what I want? Are these parables not images of consuming? Learning the difference is part of the point in God’s holy hide-and-seek. The mode of existence to which He calls us must be learned, and it must be learned through practice.

Objects are manageable. They do not overwhelm or ask too much of us. Consumption is an activity in which we ourselves always have the upper hand. St. James offers this thought: “You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures” (James 4:2-3).

What we seek (eros) in a godly manner, is something that cannot be managed or objectified. It is always larger and greater than we are. As such, it even presents a little danger. It may require that we be vulnerable and take risks. We are afraid that we might not find it while also being afraid that we will.

The parables are not about a merchant with a string of pearls, or a woman with a coin collection. The merchant risks everything he owns just for the chance of buying this one pearl. The woman seeks this coin as though there were no other money in the world.

When I was nearing the point of my conversion to Orthodoxy, a primary barrier was finding secular employment. It’s hard for someone whose resume only says, “priest,” to get a job or even an interview for a job. That search had gone on, quietly, for nearly two years. It was not an obsession – rather, more like a hobby. But one day, a job found me.

The details are not important here. But the reality is. The simple fact that a job was likely to happen, that I only had to say, “Yes,” was both exciting and frightening in the extreme. If I said yes, then everything I had said I wanted would start to come true (maybe).

And everything I knew as comfortable and secure would disappear (with four children to feed). And if everything I said I wanted began to come true, then the frightening possibility that I might not actually want it would also be revealed! I could multiply all of these possibilities many times over and not even begin to relate everything that was in my heart.

But the point that had found me was the beginning of the true search. The risk, the reward, the threat, the danger, the joy and the sorrow, all of them loomed over me, frequently driving me to prayer. I made the leap and began a tumultuous period in my life. But my life, like most, eventually settled down and slowly became obvious.

St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, one of the great monastic heroes of the Celtic lands, had a way of dealing with the obvious. He would walk into the North Sea from the island where he lived, and stand in the waves up to his neck. It was a dangerous sea, not like an American beach.

He stood there at the point of danger – and prayed. St. Brendan crossed the Atlantic with his monastic companions in a boat made of animal hides. Countless thousands of monastics wandered into deserts, forests, holes in the ground, islands, all in order to place themselves at that point where God may be found. Seeking God is not done in the place of safety, though it is the safest place in all the world.

Eros does not shop. True desire, that which is actually endemic to our nature, is not satisfied with the pleasures sought by the passions. It will go to extreme measures, even deep into pain, in order to be found by what it seeks.

All of this is the apocalyptic life of true faith. The question for us is how to live there, or even just go there for once in our lives. I “studied” Orthodoxy for 20 years. All of my friends knew (and often joked) about my interest. Many said they were not surprised when I converted.

I was. I was surprised because I know my own cowardice and fear of shame. If you liked Ferraris, your friends wouldn’t be surprised if you had photos and models, films and t-shirts. But if you sold your house and used the money to make a down payment on one, you’d be thought a fool, possibly insane. Seeking God is like that.

There are quiet ways that do not appear so radical. The right confession before a priest can be such a moment. Prayer before the icons in the corner of a room can become such a moment, though it takes lots of practice and much attention. They cannot be objects and the prayer cannot be obvious.

All of this is of God, may He be thanked. We do not have to invent this for ourselves. It is not “technique.” The God who wants us to seek is also kind enough to hide. Finding out where He is hiding is the first step. Finding out where you are hiding is the next. But the greatest and most wonderful step is turning the corner, buying the field, selling everything that you have, picking up the coin, making that phone call, saying “yes” and “yes” and “yes.”

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows, “The Supper at Emmaus” by Caravaggio, painted in 1606.

Parable Of The Sower

Every Society has its dream of a better world. The classless society, the American dream; Utopia. Martin Luther King spoke about having a dream where black and white would no longer be segregated.

We hear our politicians when it’s coming up to election time talk about a fair and just society. The former British Prime Minister David Cameron talked about the ‘Big Society’. Not sure whatever happened to it.

The Jews of the first century were no different to us in wanting a better society and a better world. In the Old Testament, we can read from Judges on through to Kings and Chronicles all about the different rulers and kings Israel had and what sort of society they tried to create.

But as time went on it became clear that it would take an extraordinary intervention on God’s part to transform this present evil world into the sort of world where God’s people would really feel at home.

A decisive victory over the power of evil would have to be won, a victory no ordinary human being could ever achieve.

The people looked forward to the arrival of a supernatural deliverer, the one who would be anointed like the mighty heroes of the past; a new David; but greater even than David was. They waited for The Messiah.  

Don’t worry said the prophets; things look pretty bad for us Jews in this present wicked age.

But soon the Messiah will step out of the wings of history; and then at long last the kingdom of God will begin.

Can you imagine the shock that must have gone through the population of Galilee when Jesus, a young carpenter from Nazareth, started to wander around their towns and villages saying it had happened? ‘The kingdom of God has Come’. Its arrived. ‘Repent and believe the good news that I bring’. That’s what he said.

Many as we know were naturally very sceptical. They were not unfamiliar with lunatics who indulged their megalomaniac fantasies by pretending to be the Messiah.

But this man did not just make messianic claims; he cast out demons, he healed the sick, he raised the dead. He feeds 5000 plus people with a few fish and some loaves. He forgave people. And he taught. He wasn’t just all talk.

There was a charisma about him that had not been seen in Israel since the days of the greatest prophets 500 years before. There was even a rumour than he was Elijah or Jeremiah back from the dead.

The word ‘kingdom’ in that part of the world meant a great deal to the Galilean masses. The mere mention of the kingdom fired up their most fanatical zeal, and inspired their most passionate commitment.

All Jesus had to do when confronted by this vast multitude was to work a miracle or two and deliver a suitable firebrand speech and the whole of the Galilean countryside would have erupted enthusiastically for his Messiahship.

 He could easily have whipped up the crowds to march on Jerusalem. As some political leaders try to do even today.

But the extraordinary thing is, he didn’t. Instead he told them a story.

He had power greater than every nation combined together on planet earth at his disposal. But instead he tells the people a story. Can you imagine this great crowd coming to him from town after town, full of expectancy, hanging on to every word and ready to do as he commands? Then He sits down and tells them a Story.

Not a straight forward type of story; but a bizarre perplexing riddle of a story called a Parable. People are more open to stories; but not everybody; this is the strange conundrum.

Even his closest friends were utterly bewildered by this kind of approach. What on earth are you doing Jesus they asked him. What is this parable business all about?

Then he explains to them; ‘the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that though seeing, they may Not see, through hearing they may Not understand. What does he mean? These are unpopular and controversial words.

What Jesus says here clearly seems to contradict the popular view of parables as moralizing stories told to aid the understanding of simple rural people.  

On the contrary; Jesus says he speaks in parables not to make it Easier for people to understand, but to make it Harder. Though seeing, they may Not see, though hearing, they may Not understand. Whatever you make of that, its quite clear that Jesus was not as impressed by these crowds, streaming out of Galilee to see him, as we might have been, if we had been there.

Jesus was not convinced that they were on his wavelength.

You see Jesus grew up with these people; he knew perfectly well what their ideas of the kingdom of God were; and that they were as different from his own ideas……. as chalk and cheese. As day to night. He had to take a different way with them. The last thing he wanted to do was to foster their mistaken notions by courting popularity with them. He was going to make things difficult for them.

He hints in fact that he feels rather as the prophet Isaiah did, when he was told to preach to a people whose hearts would be Hardened against his words.

Yet At other times Jesus speaks to the crowds and challenges them; he who has ears to hear, let him hear.’ Verse 8. So how do properly assess what Jesus is saying here.

This particular parable acts as a type of filter. You know what a filter does. It sifts.

Among the thousands who come to see and hear him for all the wrong reasons; he believes there are Some, just some who are genuinely Open to the truth.

A tiny minority maybe, amid that vast spiritually deaf multitude; but though few, they Did have ears to hear.

His parables were like a type of Filter that identified those True disciples.

They identified those who came to Jesus looking for just a political leader, a nationalist revolutionary, or a spell binding miracle worker, they went away disillusioned. Or I want you Jesus to give me the wow factor; take away all my troubles and tribulations, then I can get on with living for myself.

They found to their disappointment a teller of stories. But those who were drawn to him by some deeper magnetism stayed. In their hearts God’s spirit was working. They were being inwardly called to follow him.

Though they were perplexed at first, just like all the others, they were also intrigued, longing to understand what he was really getting at, sensing that somewhere buried in the obscurity of his parables lay the clue to that kingdom of God for which their hearts longed.

To you he says to them; ‘the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given’. But for some you have to take it a step further.

You will never find the kingdom, or Jesus for that matter if you do not allow your mind and heart to be opened. You need to move closer to him.

This is in fact, a fundamental characteristic of all Jesus’ ministry. You don’t get to grips with his message from the safe distance of a detached curiosity.

Unlike so many orators and some preachers of today; Jesus’ head was never turned by the flattery of the crowds.

He wasn’t fooled by the illusion of success that big numbers conjure up, he saw through all that hype. Instead he was perfectly content to Invest himself in just Twelve men and the handful of women Luke names for us. Provided they were real listeners, real learners, and real disciples, he was prepared to give the whole of himself to such a tiny band.

The parable of the Sower acts as a sifting process because

 behind this imagery of the sower and the seed is the solemn and serious truth that only some who hear his words are ultimately blessed by him and saved.

You know the way when people joined the Gold Rush in America back in the 1800’s. You see the prospectors sifting through a pile of dirt and stones from the river bed as they look for gold. And then they start to gradually wash all the debris away, until there is just one or two gold nuggets left.

Though there may be many whose initial response to the gospel looks promising, the path of being a follower of Jesus proves too demanding. They can’t hack it.

Different people view the meaning of parables differently. Some feel that parables are deliberately mysterious and elusive. But by drawing us into this particular story Jesus brings home some truths that we were not aware of which can strike home and leave us uncomfortable, perplexed and wanting more.

No matter whether we understand this parable, this story; at the first or second or third or fourth attempt; it can take years; Jesus still gets his message across. He wants us to hear it; to think carefully about it; and respond to it.

The photo shows the icon, “Christ the Sower of Seeds.”

The Demons

In 1872, Dostoevsky published his novel, The Demons [Бесы]. It demonstrated in a microcosm, the insanity that lay within the revolutionary movements of 19th century Russia. That insanity broke upon the world in 1917 and has remained present with us, in one form or another, ever since.

The madness that he describes takes place in a small town, away from the great capitals of Russia. It involves a relatively small cast of characters (at least for a Russian novel and revolution). There is love and intrigue. But mostly there is murder and mayhem. For the only revolutionary who succeeds is the one who fears nothing himself but creates and feeds on the fear of others.

It is interesting that great theories of economics and social justice do not form a part of this novel. Dostoevsky was no stranger to Russia’s radical movements and their political and economic theories: he spent a number of years in prison under the Tsar for having participated in one such group.

But he does not make the theory out to be of much importance. He rightly recognized that the spirit of revolution is not about a struggle for a glorious future. Revolution is about the destruction of the present and the will to power. Hitler’s rise to power and Lenin’s rise to power both belong to differing ideologies. What they share in common are lies and murder.

Dostoevsky’s revolutionary sees the world as teetering on chaos. The old order is a roadblock, an encumbrance that stands in the way of progress and the forces of renewal. Every convention, every custom and practice of tradition is the enemy. The revolutionary has to be prepared to sweep everything aside for the sake of his cause.

In Dostoevsky’s Russia, the Church was a primary conserving force. Its Orthodox practice was a shrine to Tradition and custom. Every aspect of life moved in obedience to the seasons of the Church. It is thus not surprising that the Church, God and the Christian view of the world were the primary targets of his drama.

But the title of Dostoevsky’s novel is even more to the point. Though he does not say so, the actors in the small “revolution” in the provinces, are only pawns. There is a larger game afoot, and that game is revealed in the title of the novel.

The work of the demons is not an ancient conspiracy, a carefully-planned work that ultimately results in the enthronement of the anti-Christ. Demons do not seem to be driven towards the construction of great empires – that activity is particularly human.

The work of the demons (both in the novel and in the real world) is the work of destruction. Existence is the gift of God. All that we know as existing is His gift. Its order, laws, even “reasonableness,” are all reflective of God’s creative work. Non-existence, non-being is the drive of the wicked ones.

Non-existence is not something that can be achieved by created beings, for existence is the gift of God and He alone sustains all things. Thus, the work of those in rebellion is to move things “towards” non-being. Lies, murder, destruction, disarray, deception, and the like are hallmarks of their work.

The demons are not the builders of civilizations, even civilizations that seem to have evil purposes. They corrupt and distort. The farcical “opera” that was the Nazi regime was a demonic attempt at civilization, a mimicry of the true thing.

Its delusional aspects seem so obvious now that people can only wonder how anyone ever took seriously its grand productions and Wagnerian pretensions (the delusions of our own time should be considered as well). The destructive character of that regime began to manifest itself quite early. In almost every effort, its constructions were distortions, an anti-civilization.

Where do the demons lurk in our own time? Look to the places of chaos and destruction, where order is slipping away and violence triumphs. Take note of despair and mayhem, any place where the drive towards non-existence has taken hold. Occasionally these forces manifest themselves in larger eruptions.

The bizarre extremism within radical Islam has all of the hallmarks of the demonic. It is a form of madness, of chaos, unleashed. Other extremes seem bent on the destruction of traditional ideas and norms that have existed for millennia.

The Orthodox resistance to iconoclasm recognizes the true nature of this urge to destruction. For the discussion about icons has never been limited to quiet theological thoughts about the nature of images. Iconoclasm is not a theological position, it is what its Greek name says, “Smashing.”

The smashers in the modern world have multiplied. The revolution of 1917 initially swelled their ranks. Films of icon burnings and Church explosions were only the most visible expressions. The smashing of human beings, images of God, were among the most brutal in all of history.

We see as well the sad cases of individual iconoclasm. The mass murders in schools, theaters, shopping malls (which sometimes seem to occur on a weekly basis) represent the demonic collapse within a single person. The wanton destruction of strangers, murder for the sake of murder, reveals a frightening drive towards non-existence. Of course, such events involve mental illness and other social problems, all of which are exploited by the demons of our time.

But more to the point for readers of this article is the unraveling of existence within our own lives and souls. Solzhenitsyn famously said: “…the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.”

In the existential/spiritual terms that I’ve used here, we must recognize that the forces of disintegration and entropy war within us with the forces of order and true being. And we must recognize that true being only occurs in relationship – for it is the gift of God and has its existence in its giftedness and in its self-offering in return.

This life of receiving and offering extends not only to God but to all persons and things around us. It is nothing other than love. The Scriptures tell us that God is love. We must also understand that love is the only true existence – all else is a distraction and a distortion, a movement towards non-being.

For the individual who can walk through an elementary school and blithely shoot teachers and children, the heart has grown cold – on the order of demonic coldness. But by the same token, we ourselves can walk through any number of crowded places, our hearts filled with judgment and envy, or worse still, nothing at all. The former is only a demonic sacrament of the latter.

The demons in Dostoevsky’s novel ended their melee in an orgy of violence – a short spree that came to nothing. He wrote of other such eruptions of madness. The student Raskolnikov murdered an old woman in the name of a bizarre Nietzschean will to power. Dmitri Karamazov was convicted of murdering his father, though he was only guilty of wanting to. But in both of these latter cases, the outcome was not destruction, but repentance – in prison. Imprisonment for these Dostoevskian heroes is the place of rebirth, just as it was for the author himself.

Repentance, in prison or not, is the only way forward from the nightmare of our present demons. It is love that has grown cold. What we see in our present world is not the result of mistaken political decisions or failures of diplomacy. It is as Solzhenitsyn said – a battle within the heart of every human being. It is there that the demons must be defeated.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows, “The Demon Fallen,” by Mikhail Vrubel, painted in 1902.

The Death Of True Manliness

Just as it is difficult to gain a true perspective of the size of a mountain when one is actually on the mountain, so it is difficult to understand how revolutionary a change is when in the midst of the revolution.

And we are today in the midst of a great revolution, a dramatic shift in the way we understand human nature. That is, our culture in the West is changing the way it understands gender. This change is all-encompassing, and expresses itself in such large movements such as feminism, gay rights, and now transgender rights.

The change is not a matter of refining or tinkering with past approaches. Past approaches are not so much moderately altered as completely overthrown. The revolution regarding gender is radical and vociferous, and like all devout revolutionaries, its advocates are taking no prisoners, which accounts for much of the rhetoric and verbal violence in America’s culture wars.

If the Lord tarries, historians hundreds of years hence will look back on the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries as the time when the West waged war on the way its ancestors understood gender differences from time immemorial. Those reading sociology will speak of a fundamental paradigm shift. Those reading Screwtape will wonder if the revolution was not the result of far-reaching decisions taken by “our father below”.

The ancient approach saw gender as a divine gift. Judeo-Christian texts spoke of our gendered existence with its resultant differing roles as ordained by God at creation: “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:27).

Islam inherited this understanding of gender, and even the pagans who did not read Scripture of any kind understood maleness and femaleness as basic and stable categories. That is why they privileged legal marriage above unregulated sexuality. Certain pagans (Greeks for example; the Romans were slower to follow) had no problems with pederasty, but they still insisted on heterosexual marriage as the foundation for a stable society.

As far as everyone until the mid to late twentieth century was concerned, you were born either male or female, and certain rare anatomical or other medical anomalies aside, that set you on the path of life and provided you with specific roles and responsibilities.

Men were to behave in a certain way, as were women. To be sure, the prescribed behaviours contained a fair degree of latitude—“tom boy” behaviour, for example, was still acceptable for girls, and men could knit if they wanted to—but the basic path was fairly clear, even if it was wide. And this was not confined to the Judeo-Christian or the Islamic traditions. As C.S. Lewis illustrated in his book The Abolition of Man, these norms could be found in all cultures. He termed this “the Tao”, and recognized it as the universal practice of mankind.

The revolution in the West began in the 1960s, with what was then called “Women’s Lib”. Women’s Lib found cultural acceptance because much of it seemed to be simple common sense, and because the Suffragette movement demanding for women the right to vote had partly prepared the way for it.

Though not introducing radical or harmful change in the basic understanding of gender roles, Women’s Lib prepared people to regard change as essentially a good and much-needed thing, and this openness to change would continue to govern basic attitudes when more far-reaching changes were proposed.

Women’s Lib also drew heavily upon the language of racial civil rights, and presented itself in terms of an analogous struggle. The emphasis here is upon the word “struggle”, since the movement used the tactics of protest (famously with its symbolic bra-burning and its marches), and its labelling of its opponents as enemies of enlightenment and progress. The seeds of a future culture war may thus be traced to this early predilection for protest.

Despite the use of angry denunciation of perceived oppression and inflammatory rhetoric that increasingly characterized the diverse feminist movement, the radical changes first appeared with the gay rights movement. Here too we observe a progression. What began with a simple act of decriminalization continued with a demand for social acceptance of an alternative lifestyle as if it were as valid as traditional marriage.

Thus, first came demands for social acceptance and non-discrimination, then came a demand for the provision of legal civil unions between homosexuals, and then a demand for providing legal marriage for them. Inherent in these demands was the assertion that maleness and femaleness were not all-encompassing roles, but simply anatomical realities which did not bring with them any societal roles or norms.

Thus, one could be born anatomically male but still seek sexual union (socially legitimized through marriage) with another male—or, with both males and females. Anatomy had been definitively sundered from gender role and its accompanying sexual “preference”. Indeed, the very language used—“sexual preference”—presupposes that one gender could be preferred as easily as another.

Formerly, men did not just “prefer” women, but were ordained to this choice, if not by internal sexual desire for women over men, then at least by divine law. Now one could “prefer” male to female as easily and legitimately as one could prefer chocolate to vanilla.

The next step was to sunder anatomy not just from gender role but from gender identity. In this move to legitimize transgenderism, it was asserted that one could be born anatomically male and yet still “be” a woman. There was no objective way to tell if a person “was” a male or a female.

All now depended upon a person’s subjective feelings and which gender one “identified with”. And throughout this long progression of change, its advocates continued to employ the rhetoric of civil rights, indignantly denouncing their opponents as bigots and cultural Neanderthals. The culture wars were now raging loudly. In the din, the voice of the historic Christian Faith, replete with both inviolable standards and subtle nuanced distinctions, was usually shouted down.

Thus those who identify as gay or transgender now occupy the role of noble victim in constant danger of harm, while those who oppose the new revolution occupy the role of dangerous cultural criminals, whose bigoted opposition to the new revolution threatens very lives of those in the LGBQT community. Those assigning these roles are often driven by a self-righteousness that takes no prisoners and justifies any amount of hatred, anger, and bullying.

The revolution is poised to continue, driven as it is by its own interior logic. If physical anatomy counts for nothing, then it counts for nothing. If the will (or preference) is sovereign, then it is sovereign. That includes not just the gender of the sexual partner, but also the number of partners. Or the age of the partners.

Paedophilia (or “minor attraction” as it calls itself) is currently beyond the pale of general acceptability, but the landscape of the debate and its borders are shifting quickly. No one living in 1950 could have foreseen the current situation. It is therefore possible that the presently radical call for the acceptance of “minor attraction” will one day become mainstream. Where the revolution will end is anyone’s guess. I myself believe that the end is not yet in sight.

The question remains: what is the problem with the revolution? Who is it hurting? Granted that the gender revolution (or “gender confusion”, depending upon point of view) overturns the way humanity has regarded itself since the beginning, why it that wrong? Much could be said, but a single reply will have to suffice. In the new paradigm offered us, what was once regarded as “true manhood” is labelled toxic in some places, and is fast becoming extinct.

What does it mean to be a “real” man? True manhood involves more than simple sexual “preferences” or the question of who takes out the garbage. It involves primordial self-defining symbolism and emotions springing from the deepest hidden levels.

To be a real man is to relate to those weaker—notably women and children—with gallantry, protection, and self-sacrifice. (Christians will note that this is how Christ, as a real Man, related to His bride, the Church.) We note this in a thousand ways: the man proposes the woman on bended knee, (not vice-versa), and in situations of danger, the man defends the woman even at the cost of his life. And this last example applies not just to the man’s own wife, but to any woman, precisely because she is a woman. Womanhood was considered as sacred per se.

This could be observed in the investigations following the sinking of the Titanic: witnesses were emphatic that some lifeboats contained only women and children, the men sacrificing themselves to save them. Doing anything less—taking a space in a lifeboat that could have been taken by a woman or a child—would have violated their manhood. Manhood and masculinity, increasingly derided as toxic by definition, included both the symbolism and actions of gallantry. A true man was a knight.

It is true of course that acts of bravery and self-sacrifice can be and are done by women and children, and of course by homosexuals and transgenders. Anyone can become brave. But that is just the point: since bravery and self-sacrifice are no longer part of what it means to be a man, one does such heroic acts only if one is a hero.

But heroism is not common (which is why it is applauded when found). One may or may not feel oneself called to heroism and bravery. But in the old paradigm a man sacrificed himself not because he felt called to extraordinary heroism, but simply because he was a man. The gender role he inherited by virtue of his anatomy contained within it the moral imperative of sacrificing himself, if need be, for women and children.

It is just this protection that real men once offered that is so desperately needed now. We now rely upon “public education” (i.e. propaganda) and the stigma attached to being politically incorrect to motivate people to gallantry, self-sacrifice, and bravery.

We can see how well this is working (or not working), by how dangerous the nights remain for women and other vulnerable people. The cry of those trying to educate the public is to “take back the night”. More helpful perhaps would be sustained reflection upon how the night was lost in the first place.

Father Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman’s Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.

The photo shows, “Les batteurs de pieux,” by Maximilien Luce, painted ca., 1902 to 1905.

Rahab’s Faith

The children of Israel as they enter into the Promised Land, Canaan, have a few major challenges ahead of them. Their great leader Moses has died and there are a lot of people in Canaan who do not like, or want the Israelites anywhere near them. The entire generation that set out from Egypt 40 years earlier have all died, except two young men; Joshua and Caleb.

These two men had spied out in advance the Promised Land together for Moses. They had returned enthusiastically about the prospects of Israel’s new homeland confirming what God had already told them. The time was now right to enter into Canaan. The Israelites now under the leadership of Joshua are camped along the Jordan River directly opposite the city of Jericho. 

Wisely Joshua did not get his army ready and just attack. Just as Moses had done years before, Joshua sent spies ahead to gather military information about what lay on the other side of the Jordan and Jericho. The two spies head off and the first person they meet is a woman called Rahab. Was it by sheer chance they meet her out of all the thousands of people they could have met? Was it by sheer chance she would meet two very culturally different men? Rahab’s whole life and her future would soon be changed through this encounter.

What do we know about Rahab? It’s not a name that many women are called today. Many women are called after Mary, Ruth, Hannah, Lydia, Rachel, Rebecca, Sarah, Martha, Elizabeth, All biblical names. But no Rahab. That gives you a clue. Not many men are called Judas either.

The first thing we are told about her is in the very first verse; she is introduced as a prostitute named Rahab. I wonder what she looked like and what she dressed like. She was an immoral woman who had No concept of sexual purity.

She lived in a sex obsessed pagan society that was fanatically devoted to everything that God hates. This culture like Sodom and Gomorrah was on the verge of God’s judgement. Their generational descent into the abyss of moral and spiritual corruption had been intentional, and now it was irreversible.

It appears that Rahab has always been a willing participant plying her trade. Now that God had called for the complete destruction of the entire culture because of their extreme wickedness, why shouldn’t Rahab also receive the just desserts of her own deliberate sin?  Good question.

Rahab as we would say was; the dregs of society. She made her living catering to the most depraved insatiable sexual appetites. It’s hard to imagine how someone like her could ever be changed. Her house was not in some back alley of the city, but perched on the famous walls. She was in a prime location of her red-light district. We could safely assume that her trade was a financial success given the location.

Jericho was part of the Amorite kingdom which was a totally depraved and violent pagan culture. In fact, their culture was so depraved with witchcraft and child sacrifice going back to the time of Abraham that their evil lifestyle was the very reason God granted Abraham and his heirs rights to their land, driving them of it.  So, the spies enter into the city of Jericho to check it out. A bit like a Mission Impossible Team. Looking for a place to spy out the land they came across Rahab. The location of her house seems to have been the ideal spot.

The Israelite spies did not seek to take advantage of her for immoral purposes. Perhaps this being what won her trust over in the first place. They were not here to use and abuse her unlike the other men who came through the doors of her house. These men were different, they were sober and serious.  Presumably, they treated her with dignity and respect while they were staying with her. Maybe they told Rahab something about their God and the ways in which he had saved, lead and provided for them. Amazingly she was spiritually open to the way God was working through these two spies.

 Everyone in Jericho already knew that the Israelite nation was now camped across the river a short distance away. They had heard about the Hebrews escape from Egypt now they were seeing them with their very own eyes. And they were frightened. Rahab now finds herself where she could make a fair bit of money if she turned in these two spies. But she didn’t. She hid them. She misdirected the officials and saved the lives of the two spies, even though this put her at considerable risk of losing her own life.

At this point for someone who lived their life through wicked, corrupt ways it seems alien that someone like her would turn down the chance to make a lot of money, and put her own life at risk. Not only is this sudden change in her attitude unexpected, it runs counter to every instinct that normally would motivate a woman like Rahab.

What could possibly bring such a dramatic change in a person’s life, and in such circumstances. God. God is the answer.

Suddenly God touches her life in some amazing way. Over the years of her tough hardened life; had she come to realise that her life should not be like this. The lies, the perverted sex, the booze, the cheating, the brawling.

Is this the level I am at? I cannot do this anymore. I need a clean break. But how? There comes appoint in a person’s life where this awakening; this light comes on. Everybody is different. For some it’s like a Damascus Road experience, for others it’s more of an Emmaus Road experience, gradual. Either way something changes. With her new-found faith undeveloped as it was, we see immediately that it bears the fruit of action. The bible tells us; ‘faith without deeds is dead’. Rahab did something; she took the spies in, making herself vulnerable. With this act she was putting her faith into action. She not only hid them, she embraced their cause, entrusting her whole future to their God, and our God.

There is absolutely nothing but faith in God, that could have made such a dramatic, sudden change in the character of such a woman. She had heard of the mighty acts and wonders he performed with the Hebrews. Now she had met real flesh and blood people, spies, who knew him and worshipped him. She was prepared to follow them and their God.

What about you today? Have you sat maybe for years in the pews of a church, hearing Sunday by Sunday the stories of God’s mighty acts and his miracles? Listening carefully to the scriptures, and the prayers and the sermon. But that’s as far as it goes. The trust, the stepping out in faith needed; is still absent. After it was clear that the king’s messengers were gone for the night, Rahab went back up to the roof to speak with the spies. It’s really quite amazing what she says to them; ‘ I know that the Lord has given this land to you and that a great Fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting because of you.’

What was it that caused her in particular to trust in God? It was fear. Fear of God. Is it a bad thing to be frightened of God? No, it’s not. Our affluent western societies across the globe generally speaking have no fear of anything. No fear of the police, the courts, getting caught, libelling or slandering anyone. People generally have no fear.

A life sentence for murder is around 8 years in prison or less. You hire a barrister or better still you get the state to pay for a barrister to get you off. There is no fear of doing wrong. Knife crime in London is out of control.

Years ago, in the UK you would never have heard of a child being suspended from school; now it’s a daily occurrence. Most people have no fear of God. Afterall What’s he going to do? I; am my own authority. My rights trump everyone else. I must be allowed to do what I want to do. And the state will back me up. Right or wrong.

But they forget one thing; there will be a day of judgment for every human being who lives on this planet. That judgement will be carried out by the living God of Israel. This is what Jesus Christ says 1500 years later, after the battle of Jericho; ‘I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgement for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.’

We all know what happened next. God intervened in a way that made clear to everyone in Canaan that he was fighting for Israel. He demolished the massive walls of Jericho without any military means whatsoever. On the 7th day the Israelites marched around the city 7 times, blew a ram’s horn, and shouted. Instantly the wall of the city fell down flat. All except one part of the wall.

Rahab and her house were spared. In chapter 6 we are told the two spies went into the ruins and brought out Rahab, her father, her mother, her entire family and left them outside the camp of Israel. They received the protection they had been promised.

Rahab is a beautiful example of the transforming power of faith in God. Although she had few spiritual advantages and little knowledge of the truth, her heart was drawn to God. She risked her life, turning her back on a way of life that did not honour God, and walked away from everything but her closest family members. But they too came into the community of God. We never hear of Rahab again in the Old Testament. But her name comes up in the New Testament. Her name is mentioned 3 times in Hebrews and the book of James where she is held up as an Example of faith, for both men and women. Rahab’s faith was anything but dead.

But the most amazing occurrence of Rahab’s name, though in the NT is the very first time it appears. It appears on the very first page, in the very first paragraph, of the first gospel, Matthew.

Matthew begins his account of Christ’s life with a lengthy genealogy tracing the entire lineage of Jesus from the time of Abraham.

There in the list of Jesus’ ancestors’, we unexpectedly come across Rahab’s name. ‘Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David’.

It is highly unusual for women to be named in Hebrew genealogies at all. Yet in the Bible, the greatest manifesto of human rights ever written, Matthew mentions 5 women all of them notable for various reasons; Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary the mother of Jesus. Three of them knew what it was like to be an outcast, stigmatised because of who they were. Yet God is able to work all things together for good. Rahab was saved by God spiritually as well as physically not because of her good acts like protecting the spies.

She did not earn God’s favour by any good deeds. She is not a lesson in how to better ourselves through self-improvement. She is a reminder that God by his grace can save even the worst of offenders and turn a habitual sinner into a saint. Proving there is hope for everyone.

Rev. Alan Wilson is a Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland, where he serves a large congregation, supported by his wife. Before he took up the call to serve Christ, he was in the Royal Ulster Constabulary for 30-years. He has two children and two grandchildren and enjoys soccer, gardening, zoology, politics and reading. He voted for Brexit in the hope that the stranglehold of Brussels might finally be broken. He welcomes any that might wish to correspond with him through the Contact Page of The Postil.

The photo shows, “The Harlot of Jericho and the Two Spies,” by James Tissot, painted ca. 1896 to 1802.

Fake Religion

The TV programme Fake Britain is usually on in the morning. It’s quite interesting to watch. The Programme is about criminals in Britain who sell things to people like you and me, that are not real; they are fake.

It used to be that police would have raided Sunday markets like the one at Nutt’s Corner in Belfast years ago, where dodgy traders were selling off videos and cigarettes that were fake. Generally, those were the two main items.

Today There is hardly any household item that cannot be replicated as a fake. Even the new £5 notes have had to have special holograms printed on them; something the criminals have not mastered …..…yet. But they will.  Everything from Christmas tree lights, to perfume, to watches, trainers, even food can be sold as counterfeit.

Everything it seems can be a fake. Including religion. With regard to religion It’s not just fake; its counterfeit. Its looks identical; the same as the real thing. In other words, there is hardly anything on the surface that separates the counterfeit from the real thing. They both look identical.

In this parable of the wheat and the tares, or the wheat and the weeds; this is what Jesus is at pains to talk about. The tare is a type of weed.

 There are 8 parables in this chapter of Matthew and the first two have to do with soils and crops and growing.

All of them though, have to do with the Kingdom of God. Jesus speaks about the Good things concerning the kingdom as well as the Bad things.

 Jesus was a country boy and he liked telling parables about what he saw going on in the countryside and the natural world.

Growing crops like wheat in bible times and today is something vitally important for us; but so is the meaning of the parable.

 We need to understand that when the farmer sows the field with wheat, almost immediately weeds start to grow up alongside the tender shoots. These weeds are called Darnel. This weed called Darnel and immature wheat look very alike in the early stages of growth. In fact, you cannot tell them apart.

 Thankfully this is an easy parable for us to figure out, because Jesus tells us what it means. The meaning of the parable stumped the disciples, so he tells them and us what it means from verse 37. It’s pretty clear. This is what it means.

The one who sows the GOOD seed is Jesus. The field is the world. The GOOD seeds are Jesus’ true followers, the true Christians.

The weeds or the Tares are the sons of the devil. And the one who sows the weed, the enemy, is the devil. It’s not God. God does Not sow the Weeds. He sows the Good Seeds. Then comes the harvest, and the harvesters are the angels. 

It’s a straight forward parable but there are a few puzzlingly things that emerge from it.

Number 1. The Devil has a family; and His family are made up of counterfeits.

 In other words, they are imitators of the true faith. The first imitator of faith was Cain the son of Adam and Eve. In the book of Genesis, we are told He had a brother called Abel and both men were religious.  What did Cain do? He killed his own brother because he was jealous of his brother’s relationship with God.

Then when God asked Cain, where is your brother? Cain lied by saying,’ I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper. Cain was a member of the devil’s family.

 If you go on and read about some of the kings of Judah and Israel you will find they are also family members. The devil has sadly, a very large family.

In the New Testament which gets much closer to the truth; who are the next group of people we discover who belong to the devil’s family? Any ideas?

 It’s……. the Pharisees and Scribes. Now you may think they are just misguided but well-intentioned people. Not according to Jesus.

Jesus susses them out right away. He knows where they stand in relation to him; and who they stand with.

 The Pharisee and scribes were the ruling religious leaders and had been around for hundreds of years. What did they think of Jesus??

 Well After Jesus healed a demon possessed man, they said; ‘it is only by the devil, the prince of demons that this fellow drives out demons. Its only through the devil he does this.

Jesus knew where the Pharisees stood; he called them a brood of vipers several times. Vipers are poisonous snakes and can be very deadly.

After a relentless war of words, the Pharisees had waged against Jesus throughout his ministry Jesus says this about them. Reading from Matthew 23.

‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You travel over land and sea to win a single convert and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.’

Pretty strong stuff. Jesus does not mince his words. It’s as well the NI Equality Commission wasn’t there to hear Jesus speak.

Jesus goes on; ‘You appear to people as righteous but, on the inside, you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.’

Now this is important to note; NOWHERE does Jesus ever say that if you are Not a child of God, then you are a child of the devil. He never says that. The only people he says that about are……….. the religious leaders; the Pharisees.

Jesus knows where each person stands with him. These people are members of Satan’s family and they do his bidding for him. The devil comes to us the bible says; as an angel of light, always hiding his true intentions.

You see The Pharisees appeared to others as very religious people, who prayed, tithed, carried the scriptures around with them. They looked the real deal. The rabbi’s still do to this day.

That’s the first point. The Devil is real; he exists and he has a religious family. You can see why this parable isn’t preached on very often.

The Second point is this; The Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.  It belongs to God; NOT the devil. The forests are his, as well as the cattle on a thousand hills. The Field in this parable is the world.

 Jesus in this parable is NOT dealing with the problem of evil in the world. This parable is NOT about evil creeping into the world.

 Jesus is dealing with a specific truth; namely and this is what this parable is all about; That wherever God plants a true child of God, the devil comes along and plants a counterfeit, who looks like the real deal. It’s a fact.

The devil is a neighbour; whether we like that or not. He lives beside us. He is in our neighbourhood.

 Jesus is the sower AND owner of the field. The earth belongs to God and the devil is a trespasser. It is NOT his world.

Many times, and with the news we hear daily we think it is. But it will never be the devil’s world and the devil knows this. And so He causes dissension, strife, wars, and rumours of wars, chaos, AND plants counterfeits. That is his MO. His Modus Operandi.

The servants wake up one day to find, weeds growing in the field alongside the good seed. Immediately they ask; ‘Where did the weeds come from.’ ‘An enemy did this’, replies Jesus.

The natural response is; the servants ask him; do you want us to go and pull them up?

 Jesus says NO; ‘because while you are pulling the weeds up, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest’. 

Surely you pull the weeds up right away; pull up these counterfeits, these distorters of the truth. You Get rid of them. Don’t you.

The fact is; Jesus is NOT worried about the weeds.

God is in control of the world. Remember the earth is the Lords. We get anxious about who will be the next prime minister, Brexit, the EU, our pension, our savings, our children, our parents, selling our home. Moving jobs.

 There will be a harvest; and it IS going to come at the end of the age. God will tell the angels Not us, to gather up the weeds, tie them in bundles and burn them.

Then HE will gather the wheat and it shall be brought into his barn. Two very different outcomes. Very Similar to how he treats the sheep and the goats later on in the book of Matthew. The sheep on his right, and the goats to his left.

The people and nations in this world are living on Substitutes. You can buy sleep and drugs, but not PEACE; you can buy entertainment but not JOY; you can buy companionship but not LOVE.

The three things the bible says are essential for living and having a good life; are Peace, Joy and Love. If you have those 3 within you; you are blessed.

People all around us are living on substitutes. They need to eat the food from God’s harvest. Instead they are eating steadily, even gorging themselves on substitutes, on counterfeits fed to them by the devil. He has blinded them to their folly.

This world for the Christian is not a playground; it’s a battle ground where we encounter all around us demonic led forces who persist in trying to deceive us and destroy us. But take heart; Jesus says; ‘I have Overcome the world’.

 Jesus is Not subject to the world; nor should his followers.

Oh, it would be great if Jesus would pull up all the weeds right now and burn them. NO; he says; but one day I will. Just Leave that to me. That’s my job.

Here’s a question for you. Why do you think he’s NOT doing it now? Why is he waiting and waiting? The time is Not right. But also…….

It’s because we have a job to do LIVING and Working among the weeds, among the tares. We have work to do for the Kingdom of God. That’s why God dosn’t pull us up and send us directly to heaven. We are to be active in the things that matter to God and not apathetic or indifferent as we live our lives. We are to be on the ball and not sleep walk into the devil’s schemes.

In his love and through his mercy he gives the weeds time to repent and believe. Some may do it; some will not. But it shows us that even with counterfeits God in his grace grants them a chance to turn from their wicked ways right up to the harvest.

God plants Christians where he wants to. He scatters them to grow for a reason or a season. You are planted where you are; in a family, in a job, in a neighbourhood, in a farm, in a church, in a village, for a reason. To live a life worthy of God. To live a God honouring life.

To grow strong and firm in faith where many around you are living on substitutes. Our lives are to be lived out differently and distinctly to those around us.

This at times can be very hard going especially when we face obstacles and setbacks along the way. Which we will. Even in our own families, as Jesus did.

Sometimes we feel like throwing the towel in. But we keep on going. We keep living among the weeds. Remember; The one who is in us; is Greater than he, who is in the world.


Rev. Alan Wilson is a Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland, where he serves a large congregation, supported by his wife. Before he took up the call to serve Christ, he was in the Royal Ulster Constabulary for 30-years. He has two children and two grandchildren and enjoys soccer, gardening, zoology, politics and reading. He voted for Brexit in the hope that the stranglehold of Brussels might finally be broken. He welcomes any that might wish to correspond with him through the Contact Page of The Postil.

The photo shows, “The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares” by John Everett Millais, painted in 1865.

St. Ephrem On The Last Judgment

This reflection on the Last Judgment was written in a letter by St. Ephrem to a man named Publius. Nothing is known of him.

YOU WOULD do well not to let fall from your hands the polished mirror of the holy Gospel of your Lord, which reproduces the image of everyone who gazes at it and the likeness of everyone who peers into it. While it keeps its own natural quality, undergoes no change, is devoid of any spots, and is free of any soiling, it changes its appearance before colors although it itself is not changed .

Before white things it becomes [white] like them.

Before black things, it becomes dark like them.

Before red things [it becomes] red like them.

Before beautiful things, it becomes beautiful like them and before ugly things, it becomes hideous like them.

It paints every detail on itself. It rebukes the ugly ones for their defects so that they might heal themselves and remove the foulness from their faces. It exhorts the beautiful to be watchful over their beauty and even to increase their natural beauty with whatever ornaments they wish, lest they become sullied with dirt.

Although it is silent, it speaks.

Although it is mute, it cries out.

Although it is reckoned as dead, it makes proclamation.

Although it is still, it dances.

Although it has no belly, its womb is of great expanse.

And there in those hidden inner chambers every limb is painted and every body is framed in a bare fraction of a second. Within it they are created with undetectable quickness.

  1. For this mirror is a foreshadowing of the holy tidings of the outer Gospel, within which is depicted the beauty of the beautiful ones who gaze at it. Also within it the blemishes of the ugly ones who are despised are put to shame. And just as this natural mirror is a foreshadowing of the Gospel, so also is the Gospel a foreshadowing of that heavenly unfading beauty by which all the sins of Creation are reproved and by which reward is given to all those who have preserved their beauty from being defiled with filth. To everyone who peers into this mirror, his sins are visible in it. And everyone who takes careful notice will see in it that portion which is reserved for him, whether good or evil.

There the kingdom of heaven is depicted and can be seen by those who have a pure eye.

There the exalted ranks of the good ones can be seen.

There the high ranks of the middle ones can be discerned.

There the lowly ranks of the evil ones are delineated.

There the beautiful places, which have been prepared for those worthy of them, are evident.

There Paradise can be seen rejoicing in its flowers.

  1. In this mirror, Gehenna in flames can be seen by those who deserve to dwell there.

In Paradise there are joyous promises for the good as they wait for [the day] when they will receive their masters with uncovered faces. But in Gehenna, the promises for the wicked will be grievous at the time when they see their masters abased in stature.

There the outer darkness can be seen clearly and from within it can be heard the sound of wailing and weeping, of groans, and of gnashing of teeth.

There in their bonds people wail as they are tortured, and it becomes more intense according to their wickedness so that they are punished with all justice.

  1. There that rich man, who used to wear different clothes every day and used to take delight in his luxuries, wails from anguish inside Sheol.

There the groaning cry of the rich man can be heard crying out to Abraham, the father of the just, “Send Lazarus, your son, to moisten my tongue for I am afflicted, for my sins are burning me up and my evil deeds like coals of a broom tree are roasting me.”

And there was sent from the mouth of the just One to that evildoer a direct reply, like a swift messenger with swift wings flying over that dreadful chasm’s that has been set as a boundary between the good and the evil. And that letter of justice, which was written by the mouth of the just One, was carried forthwith and sent to the deaf ear of that one who had never opened the gate of his ear for any holy voice to enter. And in that letter, which it carried like a speedy messenger, were drawn those gentle sounds of just judgment: “My son, remember that you received your precious and luxurious things while you were alive whereas at that time Lazarus received his evils and his afflictions. And now he is unable to come to help you in your torments because you did not help him when he was in anguish from his diseases. For this reason you are seeking his aid just as he once sought your aid. But you refused. Now he is unable to come because that great chasm, which cannot be crossed, is between us. No one from you can come to us, nor can any from us come to you. ”

  1. Fix the eye of your mind and gaze on this mirror of which I spoke to you above.

Notice the twelve thrones that are fashioned on it for judgment.

Notice how the tribes stand there trembling and how the many nations stand there quaking.

Notice how their bodies shake and their knees knock. Notice how their hearts palpitate and how their minds pine.

Notice how their faces are downcast and how their shame is thick upon them like darkness.

Notice how their souls languish and how their spirits flicker.

Notice how their tears overflow and soak the dust beneath them.

Notice how their complexions are changing to green. One takes on that color and hands it on to his companion.

Notice their faces, which used to be joyful, have been transformed to look like soot from a cauldron.

Hear their many groans and their wailing moans.

Hear their sighs of grief and their churning innards.

Notice their deeds:

those that were in secret have now become manifest;

those that were done in darkness now shine forth like the sun;

those that they had committed in secret now make their complaint with loud voice.

Notice how everyone stands, his deeds before him justly accusing him in the presence of his judge.

Notice how their evil thoughts have now taken on shape and stand before their masters to accuse them .

Notice their slanderous whisperings crying out in a loud voice, and how the snares once hidden are now revealed before them.

A little further …

  1. Notice that Judge of righteousness as He sits, the Word of His Father,

the Wisdom of His nature, the Arm of His glory,

the Right Hand of His mercy, the Ray of His Light,

the Manifestation of His rest,

that One Who is equal in essence with the One Who begot Him, that One Whose nature is commensurate with the nature from Which He sprang forth,

that One Who is at once near and far from Him,

that One Who is at once joined with Him and separated from Him,

in His presence and not at a distance, at His right hand and not far away, Who shares the same dwelling but not as a foreigner, the Gate of life,

the Way of truth,

the propitiatory Lamb, the pure Sacrifice,

the Priest Who remits debts, the Sprinkling that purifies, the One who created [all] that was made,

the One Who formed and the One Who established, the One Who fashioned creatures,

the One Who gives senses to the dust, Who clothes the earth with perception, Who gives movement to all flesh,

Who separates the places of every species, Who differentiates faces without number, Who renews the minds of all races, Who sows all wisdom everywhere,

Who stretches out the heavens, Who adorned them with lights,

Who gave names to them all,

Who spread out the earth on a foundation that cannot be touched,

Who is the architect of the mountains, Who built the high places,

Who commands the grasses, Who causes trees to spring forth, Who causes woodplants to give seed, who causes fruit to grow,

Who distinguishes tastes,

Who gives color to blossoms and shape to all flowers,

Who measures heaven with His span, with that power that can not be measured,

Who meted out in the palm of His hand the dust of the earth in that right hand which cannot be meted out,

Who weighed the mountains on scales with a knowledge that cannot be comprehended,

and the hills on a balance with an unerring understanding

by which the gathering places of the seas that envelop all Creation and the depths of the sea that cannot be grasped by us are considered to be even less than a drop there before Him.

  1. God from God,

the second Light of Being,

the Treasure House of all riches that have been or will be made,

the Judge of the tribes, the Measure of justice, the Scale without deceit, the even Measuring Rod, the Measuring Bowl that is not false, Wisdom that does not err,

Intelligence that cannot pass away, the Renewer of creatures,

the Restorer of natures,

the Resuscitator of mortality,

Who rolls away the cloud of darkness, Who brings to an end the reign of iniquity, Who destroys the power of Sheol,

Who shatters the sting of evil, Who brings captives to the light, Who raises up from Abaddon those who were cast down, Who removes the darkness,

Who makes worthy of rest,

Who opens mouths that had been shut and Who breathes in life just as of old.

  1. Look then upon that Divine Child Whose names surpass the reckoning of mortals and Whose titles are more numerous than the computations of the earth:

King of kings,

the Messiah affirmed by the prophets,

Who spoke through the Prophets,

Who sends the Spirit,

Who sanctifies every soul in the Spirit, for His aid is manifest.

Consider this Only-Begotten, the multitude of His names, this One Who does the will of Him Who sent Him, this One Whose will fulfills the will of Him Who begot Him. Look at Him, on that day, sitting at the right hand of Him Who begot Him, in that hour, placing the sheep at His right hand and the goats at His left hand, at that moment, calling out to His blessed ones, while giving them thanks, “Come, inherit that kingdom,” which from of old had been made ready for them in His knowledge and which from the beginning had been prepared for them.

When He was hungry they fed Him in the poor.

He was thirsty and they gave Him to drink in the disabled.

He was naked and they clothed Him in the naked.

He was imprisoned and they visited Him in the imprisoned.

He was a stranger and they took Him in with the aliens.

He was sick and they visited Him in the infirm.

And when they did not make their good works known before Him, those same beautiful works, which were depicted on their limbs, sounded the trumpet and gave witness on their behalf. Like luscious fruits on beautiful trees they hung on them and stood like bunches in order to be witnesses to the truth that these persons had truly wrought them.

  1. For just as the deeds of the wicked are their accusers before the righteous judge, making them bend and bow down their heads silently in shame, so also their beautiful deeds plead cause for the good before the Good One. For the deeds of all mankind are both silent and speak – silent by their nature, yet they speak when one sees them.

(2) In that place, there is no interrogation, for He is the judge of knowledge; nor is there any response, for when He sees it, He hears. He hears with sight and He sees with hearing. Because in that one thing, which is not a composite, is hearing and sight, swiftness, touch, sensation, smell, taste, discernment, knowledge, and judgment. Also by that which is not a composite, there is given out the reward of good things and the punishment of evil things to the two sides: those on the right hand and those on the left.

(3) It is not that there really are a right and a left in that place, but rather these are names for those who are honored among us and for those in our midst who are unworthy. Rather we reckon that there is a throne for the judge in that place -and we call the place of the good “the right,” while we label the place of the wicked “the left.” We call the good “sheep” because of their docility, and we call the wicked “goats” because of their impudence. We call His justice “a balance” and His retribution to us “the measure of truth.”

  1. Take firm hold, then, of this clear mirror of the divine Gospel in your two hands and look at it with a pure eye that is able to look at that divine mirror. For not everyone is able to see himself in it, but only the one whose heart is discerning, whose mind is sympathetic, and whose eye desires to see its helper. Look at it, then, and see all the images of Creation, the depiction of the children of Adam, both the good and the wicked. Within it can be observed the beautiful images of the works of the good and the unsightly images of the deeds of the wicked. They are conceived within it so that at their time they might be given birth either to praise those who did [the good works] or to rebukes those who performed [the evil deeds]. See that just as here [the mirror] rebukes the ugly, so also there will it manifest within itself their ugly deeds. Just as here it sets out the good for praise, so there will it also mark out in itself their beautiful deeds.
  2. At times even we when we were in error, mired in the pride of our mind as if with our feet in the mud, did not perceive our error because our soul was unable to see itself. Although we would look [into the mirror] each day, we would grope around in the dark like blind men because our inner mind did not possess that which is necessary for discernment. Then, as if from a deep sleep, the mercy of the Most High, poured out like pure rain, was sprinkled on our drowsiness and from our sleep we were roused and boldly took up this mirror to see our self in it. At that very moment we were convicted by our faults and we discovered that we were barren of any good virtue and that we had become a dwelling place for every corrupting thought and a lodge and an abode for every lust.
  3. I saw there virtuous people and I longed for their beauties, [I saw] the places whereon the good were standing and I earnestly desired their dwellings.

I saw their bridal chambers on the opposite side into which no one who did not have a lamp was allowed to enter.

I saw their joy and I sat mourning the fact that I possessed none of the deeds that were worthy of that bridal chamber.

I saw that they were arrayed in a garment of light, and I was distressed that no noble garments had been prepared for me.

I saw their crowns, which were adorned with victory, and I was grieved that I had no victorious deeds with which I might be crowned.

I saw there virgins knocking [at the gate], and there was no one who would open it for them, and I wailed because I lacked the deeds of that blessed ointment.

  1. I saw there many crowds shouting at the gate and no one would respond to them, and I was alarmed that I had none of those virtues that had the power to open the gate of the kingdom.

I heard the clamor of many voices saying, “Lord, Lord, open [the gate] for us.” And a voice from there fell upon myears, swearing to itself, “I do not know you” to be worthy of salvation.

I saw there those who were pleading, “We ate and drank in your presence,” but [the voice] answered and said to them, “It is not I Whom you sought but only that you ate bread and were satisfied.”

  1. I also, like them, had always taken refuge in His name and had been honored in His honors and had always wrapped His name like a cloak over my hidden faults, but fear then seized me, terror shook me, and a great alarm counseled me to turn back so that perhaps those provisions required for that narrow way that leads to the land of the living might come to me. For I saw no one there who was able to give any relief to his companion or to moisten his tongue in that burning fire. For that deep chasm, which keeps the good separate from the wicked, did not allow them to give any relief to those others.
  2. I saw there pure virgins whose virginity, because it was not adorned with the precious ointment of desirable deeds, was rejected. They implored their fellow virgins to give them some assistance, but they received no mercy and [they asked] that they might be given the opportunity to go and purchase for themselves some deeds, but this was not permitted them because the end, their departure from this life, was coming quickly. I drew near to the gate of the kingdom of heaven and I saw there those who did not bear the title “virgin” who were crowned with victorious deeds, for their virtues filled the place of virginity. For just as those who had been espoused to Him only in their bodies had been rejected because they were naked of any garment of good deeds, so too those who had espoused their bodies in a chaste marriage while their spirit was bound to the love of their Lord were chosen, and they wore their love for Him like a robe with [their] desire for Him stretched over all their limbs.
  3. And when I saw those there, I said to myself, “No one from henceforth should rely solely on the chaste name of virginity when it is lacking those deeds that are the oil for the lamps.” And while I was being reproved by this dreadful vision of others being tortured, I heard another voice from the mouth of the mirror crying out, “Keep watch, O feeble one, over your wretched soul. ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.’” Have you not heard children shouting to you, “If a man gain the whole world yet lose his soul what will he gain?” or, “What shall he give in return for his soul?” Do you not see what happened to that man whose land yielded abundant crops because he said to his soul, “My soul, eat and drink, be at ease, and enjoy yourself for abundant crops have been gathered in for you for many years?” Have you not heard that while this word was yet sweet in his mouth a bitter word was poured into the womb of his ear.” Although it had no understanding, it cried out saying, “On this very night your beloved soul is required of you. This thing which you have prepared, whose will it be?”
  4. Be alarmed by this your seal, and consider where all the children of Adam are, who like locust have swarmed over the earth since the first day. Rouse yourself from this deep sleep that is enfeebling you and that is spreading over all your limbs like a shadow of death. Rise, then, and bring yourself back to those former generations about which you have heard. Where is Adam? Where are your fathers who like fatted sheep lived luxuriously in the midst of the Paradise of Eden, who like friends spoke fearlessly with God, whose arms made all creatures obedient to their authority, whose power held the authority over sea and dry land, whose feet tread upon the dreadful serpents and before whom those beasts, which are rebellious nowadays, bent their necks, whose minds used to reach up to heaven and to seek out the deepest part of the deep as if it were dry land?
  5. Where are those ten generations from Adam to Noah? Were they not washed away in that flood of waters?

Where are those generations of the Sodomites? Were they not also swept away in a flood of fire?

Where are those generations from then until today?

Where are those who in that time used to live for almost a thousand years?

Have they not diminished and passed away? If the ink written on goatskins had not preserved for us the memory of their names, we would not even have known that they had ever existed.

  1. Come, I will lead you out to the gloomy sepulchres.

Come down, in your mind, with me even to lowest Sheol and I will show you there kings cast down upon their faces, their crowns buried in the dust with them.

Come, see the princes, those who once luxuriated in silks, how the worm has now become their bed and the grub their covering.

Come, look at those military chiefs who used to command thousands of armies, how they have become useless vessels of dust and things of no understanding.

Look carefully at the dust of the earth and consider that it is your kin. How long will you delude yourself and think that you are any better than the grass on the housetops? For the heat of one day dries out the grass. The burning fever of a single day also causes a desirable body to become parched.

(2) Where are the kings, their raiment, their crowns, or their purple ? Where are their dominions, their battles, their armies, their companies, their treasuries, or their wealth? See how their spears are shattered, their bows destroyed, their swords rusted, their arms eaten by worms. Their generations have departed and passed on, the threads of their lives are severed like a tent full of worms at their death, and like a web about to be cut; their military expeditions are cut down and they are brought to ruin.

  1. Notice how their songs have turned to mourning, their harps to the sound of weeping, how their laughter is overcome by mourning, their sweet melodies by songs of lamentation. The garment of a spider has been woven for them there and a bed of worms lies beneath them and a covering of moths is spread over them like a tunic. Tables lie upended before them. Their splendid state of luxury is completely reversed. Their administration is destroyed and is rendered useless. Their glory is laid out in the dust and all their luxury is also buried there in ashes. Bridegrooms are plundered and brides are forsaken who have been thrown out of their bridal chambers, and the crowns have withered on their heads and together with them they are sprinkled with the dust from the earth. Over them is spread a garment of darkness which Sheol has woven for them on a dingy loom. From every mouth there you hear the sound of wailing because there is no one there who can console his companion.
  2. Everything that their eyes see causes them suffering, for when they reach out to the boundary of the chasm, they quickly pass over it and fly to the garden of Eden and hover over the Paradise of God and see the blessed place of rest and are filled with desire for the banquet tables of the kingdom. And they hear the sound of pure melodies combined with holy songs and intermingled with the praises of God. And as they stretch out they soar to heaven and the gates of the kingdom are opened. Before their Lord they hover with joy, sending only the sound of their mouths back and forth to each other. There the vision of their eyes is allowed to come and go, and on the two sides it either grieves or gives joy so that when the good look out upon the wicked their lot increases and they rejoice therein. But, as for the wicked, their souls are condemned and their distress is multiplied.
  3. Perhaps, for the wicked, that which they see is Gehenna, and their separation is what burns them with their mind as the flame. That hidden judge who dwells in the discerning mind has spoken and there has become for them the judge of righteousness and he scourges them without mercy with torments for the compunction of their soul. Perhaps, it is this that separates them and sends each of them to the place suitable for him. Perhaps, it is this that lays hold of the good with its extended right hand and sends them to the Exalted Right Hand. It also takes hold of the wicked in its left hand, equal in power, and casts them into the place which is called “the left.””’ And perhaps, it is this that silently accuses them and quietly pronounces judgment upon them.
  4. In this matter, I believe the inner mind has been made judge and law, for it is the embodiment of the figure of the law and itself is the figure of the Lord of the law. And for this reason there is given to it complete authority to be portioned out in every generation although it is one, to be imprinted on every body although it is indivisible,

to be painted on every heart although it is inseparable,

to fly over all without tiring,

to rebuke all without shame,

to teach and guide all without compulsion,

to counsel them with no constraint on them,

to remind them of the judgment to come while cautioning them,

to recall to them the kingdom of heaven so that they might yearn for it,

to point out to them the beneficent rewards so that they might desire them,

to show them the severity of the judgment so they might restrain themselves,

to make known to them the sweetness of the Only-Begotten so that they might be comforted.

With them [the mind] runs after all good things, strengthening them. Over them it flies when they incline to hated things and reproves them. For its mercy is similar to that of its Lord in that it does not turn away from them when they are defiled with impurities and is not ashamed of them when they are wallowing in the mud. As for those who obey it, it will remember them and as for those who do not heed it, it will recall to them. Here it is mingled with them in every form whereas there it stands before them on this day [of judgment].

  1. And when I saw these things in that bright mirror of the holy Gospel of my Lord, my soul became weak and my spirit was at an end and my body was bent down to the dust; my heart was filled with bitter groans that perhaps my stains might be made white by the washing of my tears. And I remembered that good Lord and kindly God who cancels through tears the bond of those in debt and accepts lamentation in the place of burnt sacrifices. When I came to this point, I took refuge in repentance and I hid myself beneath the wings of compunction. I sought refuge in the shade of humility and I said, “What more than these am I required to offer to Him who has no need of sacrifices and burnt offerings?” Rather, a humble spirit, which is the perfect sacrifice that is able to make propitiation for defects, a broken heart in the place of burnt offerings, and tears of propitiation in the place of a libation of wine are things which God will not reject.”
  2. That, then, which I saw in that living mirror that speaks, on which the images of all the deeds of men move from Adam until the end of the world and from the resurrection until the day of the judgment of righteousness – and that which I heard from that blessed voice that could be heard from inside it, I have written for you in this letter, my beloved brother.

Excerpted from Selected Prose Works of St. Ephrem of Syria by E. G. Mathews and J. P. Amar.

The photo shows an icon of St. Ephrem from the 15th-16th centuries, and found in the Dormition Cathedral in the Krtemlin.

Is Common Sense Wisdom?

It is often said that the modern world lacks common sense. If this is so, it must be because many people are no longer learning from life, because the source of common sense is experience of life. Indeed, this may be true, for people more and more live not in the real world, but in a virtual world, a world of artifice and so lack of experience and so of immaturity. Without experience of life there is no common sense, only ideology, or theory, or naivety, or else just plain stupidity.

Even more seriously, as our knowledge of facts has in recent times hugely increased (partly through the internet), there seems to be less wisdom. Wisdom is being replaced by mere factual knowledge and the latter guarantees no understanding, no ability to interpret facts.

For there is no correlation between knowledge of facts, with its mere technological progress, and wisdom, with its spiritual, and so moral and cultural, progress. So what is the source of wisdom?

The answer can be found in two words in Church Slavonic. Firstly, there is the word ‘tselomudrie’. Although this means ‘chastity’, it literally means ‘wisdom from wholeness’.

Therefore, in order to understand what chastity means we must go beyond the superficiality of Puritanism which understands chastity only in the outward sense. Thus, in the Orthodox wedding service we pray that the couple to be wed may preserve their chastity. Chastity is not necessarily about virginity.

For from the Gospel (as from life) we know that there are foolish virgins, just as there are wise married couples. In other words, what chastity actually means is integrity, keeping our wholeness with Christ, despite distractions, such as money or, for that matter, unrestrained (= unchaste) sexual activity.

This is what we express in Church services by the words ‘let us entrust our whole life to Christ our God’. Chastity means wholeness, the integrity of our devotion to Christ.

Secondly, there is the Slavonic word ‘smirennomudrie’, which means wisdom from humility. This is the wisdom that angelic, pure and innocent children (still uncorrupted and non-sexualized) can have. They too are ‘chaste’, that is, they have wholeness and integrity, that is, they have humility.

However, such wisdom from humility can also come from accepting life’s sufferings positively. For example, old soldiers, who have seen suffering and suffered, are often very humble.

We can see this also with academics. Some are humble and have wisdom, others are pompous and only have knowledge. The pompous are mocked openly or behind their backs; their level of wisdom is less than that of many children and they just seem childish and silly. Little wonder that in English the word ‘pompous’ goes with ‘ass’. They suffer from what the apostle Paul calls a ‘puffed up mind’. In fact such people, suffering from intellectual pride, become ‘humility-proof’.

Thus we see children who are wise, but old people who are not wise. In today’s world, the sources of wisdom, outward integrity (chastity), inward integrity, humility and suffering are all derided. Perhaps that is why there is less wisdom today. For wisdom does not come from experience of life, like common sense. Wisdom comes from inner purity. As we say: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’. And Who is God? He is Supreme Wisdom, obtained only through inner purity.

Courtesy of Orthodox England.

The photo shows an old Novgorod icon of Holy Wisdom and Her Three Daughters.