Icons of God: An Interview with Fr. John Behr

April 25, 2019 Length: 19:03

Dr. Albert Rossi interviews Fr. John Behr (Director of the Master of Theology Program and the Father Georges Florovsky Distinguished Professorship of Patristics at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Younkers, NY) on a homily he gave on the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas.

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Dr. Albert Rossi: Once again, this is Dr. Albert Rossi, today with a very exciting podcast to do. I am sitting here with Fr. John Behr in his office. He gave a homily, second Sunday in Lent, which struck me as one of the best homilies I’ve ever heard. Maybe it’s because of me, maybe it’s because the quality of the homily, but it was really good. So I’m not interested in having him re-give that homily; I’m interested in you, the listener, hearing the content, the basic content, of that homily. So he and I discussed a little bit right now, and he is very willing to, wanting to share these Gospel insights with you. So here’s Fr. John.

Very Rev. Dr. John Behr: Three things. It’s good to be with you, and thank you, Al, for this opportunity.

Dr. Rossi: Oh ho! Joy, joy!

Fr. John: [Laughter] Really, my pleasure.

Dr. Rossi: If you will just kind of jump right in, just jump in the water.

Fr. John: Well, the homily you mentioned is one I gave on the second Sunday of Lent, on the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas, and it always strikes me how Lent is structured. We have the first two Sundays in Lent where we celebrate feasts of Orthodoxy: we have the icons on the first Sunday, then Gregory Palamas and the hesychast controversy and the defense of the reality that God is at work in the world through his energies on the second Sunday. The mid-Sunday of Lent is an anticipation, the high point of Lent, the high point, and an anticipation of where it’s going, going to the Cross. Then the last two Sundays are given over to two figures in whom we see the power of the Cross at work: St. John Climacus, the abbot on Mount Sinai, St. Catherine’s Monastery, whose book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent clearly is an allusion to the Cross; and then the final Sunday, St. Mary of Egypt, whose life was dramatically changed around completely by her encounter with the Cross. So that was just the structure of Lent in which I gave that homily on the second Sunday.

I think the point that I was making, which I shall want to make both with regard to the first two Sundays, where we’re celebrating the triumph of Orthodoxy with icons and with the activity of God in the world, is that the Orthodoxy that we celebrate is not simply a passive reception of elements from the past that we are proud of and that we can hold up and we can say, “Look, we’ve done this, and we’re keeping this.” It’s striking with the Sunday of Orthodoxy, with the celebration of the restoration of the icons, the earlier commemoration on that Sunday, before we had the council and the giving over of that Sunday to the restoration of the icons, the earlier celebration that Sunday was in fact the prophets. In fact, we heard, we hear a lot about the prophets in the hymnography of the feast for that Saturday evening, Sunday morning.

One thing in particular strikes me. Some of the hymns in the vigil service speak about how the prophets in their suffering became icons of Christ. That is really what we’re called to do, not just simply have icons, venerate icons. Of course we do, and the icons are a testimony of the faith and everything that could be said about that. The real point is that we are to become icons. We are the image of God in this world, and we need to live up to that calling, and so in that way manifest God’s presence in this world. If we’re not doing that, well, the fault clearly lies with us if we’re not doing that! We’re icons of God in this world, not just simply have icons but be icons.

Then to be an icon of Christ means to, very simply, act as Christ acts. It’s not simply asking, “What would Jesus do?” and then do something similar, or to act in imitation as if that’s all that’s involved in it, but rather we are the ones by whom God acts in this world. We are his eyes, we are his hands, we are his feet, we are his mouth. We’re the instruments of how he works in this world. So when we hear about the distinction between essence and energies, we shouldn’t really think of it as there’s a divine force field that we have to tap into, but rather we are the energeia of God or the works of God, so when we do those works, we are in fact doing the very works of God himself.

That’s almost explicit or very forcefully in the gospels. The Pharisees say, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” This is the mark of God, to be able to forgive sins, and yet it is exactly what we are commanded to do. We are commanded to forgive each other. We’re going to be celebrating—we’re in Holy Week now, and in a few days’ time will be celebrating Pascha, and at that feast we’ll talk about forgiving all in the Resurrection. When we do that, we are in fact doing the very acts of God.

You could take it even further. In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to imitate us in doing that. “Forgive us our trespasses as we do those who trespass against us.” We’re asking him to imitate us in doing this. Just think about that. That’s really quite mind-blowing.

Dr. Rossi: It is.

Fr. John: But we’ve got to be doing it; otherwise it won’t be happening. [Laughter] So we are really the ones by whom God acts in the world, and in that we become icons of Christ, manifesting his presence in the world. We are, then, strictly his body.

St. Ignatius of Antioch at one point in his letters speaks about how the head cannot be born unless the body’s also born, and he’s referring to us. The head is not born unless the body is also born, all the members of the body as well.

Dr. Rossi: And the head is Christ.

Fr. John: The head is Christ, obviously, holding the body together, the one from whom comes growth and the one to whom all things are leading, and so on. But we have to actively enter into that.

Then you kind of enter into that paradoxical thing. We are the ones actively doing this, but then when we look back and realize what we’re doing, it’s in fact God who is acting in us. We often talk about synergy, and we imagine it as being 50% me, 50% God, or 90% me, 10% him, or 90% him, 10% me, and we try to work it out: two agents mutually working on some project together. No, it’s not like that. When we do the works of God, it is in fact God who’s working within and through us as the body of Christ, period.

Dr. Rossi: Period.

Fr. John: Period. So we have to be active, but most of the time that activity is also kind of bound up with holding yourself open, passive, receptive, silent so that God can work. We have to take up the Cross, we have to die to ourselves in order that he might increase. We’ve got to actively do that so that he can fill us in that way.

More often than not, what hinders us from doing God’s work is not God but is ourselves. We’ve got our own egos involved, we’ve got our own stake in this, we want things to turn out the way we want them to turn out, and so on and so on and so on. So we have to actively work on bringing… cutting down our ego in all of this, all our passions, all the way in which we work to protect and preserve our self. And as we are doing that, we are in turn, as it were, holding ourselves more and more open so that God can work in us, so that we can be the clay in God’s hands and he can form us to be the living human beings he’s called us to be in the image of Christ and in fact being his body.

Dr. Rossi: All this is just so revolutionary, so revolutionizing, because in point of fact I don’t want to hear it. I want to think when I want to think, thank you, and I don’t want to be silent. I think back to the Passover, the Old Testament Moses, Exodus 14:14. God says to Moses, “The Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. I will fight for you.” [Clack] “You have only to be still.” Then the whole Old Testament is about the Israelites refusing to be still. Isaiah 30:15: “In stillness and in trust is your salvation.” The next four words are: “And you would not.” You just won’t. So we resist that, and the calling is to be as still as we can, and even to have little periods of silence where we just decide this X number of minutes a day, I’m just going to sit and try to speak a little prayer, “Lord, have mercy,” or something in order to let God speak.

Could you just… This is just so vital. Can you just continue it a bit?

Fr. John: In many ways the whole relationship is bound up in that reciprocal dynamic of activity and passivity, in the need to hold—actively hold—ourselves to be passive, not in the sense of something that gets kicked around, but rather passive in the sense of receptive to God’s activity, to God’s presence, to God’s work in and through us. “Be still. Know that I am God. Be still. I will fight for you.” All these different things. It is such a huge work to be still! It requires everything, every effort we’ve possibly got to hold our minds so that we’re not constantly flitting hither and thither and so on.

In some ways, it is in fact the discipline of holding one’s mind, I think, that is most essential. I mentioned John Climacus earlier. He came up with what is surely the most beautiful, most concrete, perfect description of what a true hesychast is. We think of a hesychast and we immediately think of monks living on the edge of the world in caves and doing all that kind of thing, and we wish, “Oh, if only I had wings like a dove, I, too, would fly away, and I would be at rest!” No, the Desert Fathers are full of stories of monks who think that they can find peace by going somewhere else, and they don’t; they just end up more tortured than they were before. Rather, he says, the true hesychast is the one who tries to enshrine in his body the incorporeal.

Dr. Rossi: “Enshrine within his body the incorporeal.”

Fr. John: Yes, or the incorporeal within his body. “To enshrine what is incorporeal within the corporeal.” What he really means is holding our mind. Think about it. Even during the five or ten minutes we’ve been talking now, our minds have been elsewhere so much of the time.

Dr. Rossi: Yes.

Fr. John: I’m thinking about what I’ve got to do later in the day, what I did yesterday, whatever else it might be, what’s going on in in England or whatever else it might be. Our minds are everywhere other than in the present.

Dr. Rossi: And the only place we meet God is in the present moment.

Fr. John: So we have to work to call our minds back. Really, it’s like a muscle and we have to exercise it, and we do that in all sorts of contexts. When we’re in church and our minds wander, we constantly bring our minds back, we bring our minds back, we bring our minds back. When we’re, in my case, reading a book or writing a book, my mind is always flitting off hither and thither, and I’ve got to bring it back, got to bring it back. When I’m sitting down with my children, I’ve got to bring my mind back, I’ve got to bring my mind back again and again. It’s the same muscle in each case, and I think it really is one of the most important aspects to living as a human being: to learn how to hold one’s mind, to be present in the present, not to think about things which no longer exist or which don’t yet exist.

More often than not, the passions that affect us are instances in which we feel grieved or aggrieved by things that have been done to us or things that we think are not fair and whatever else it might be, or things somebody said to us or things I wish I’d said to another person, all those kind of things, those kind of thoughts that come into our mind, or whether it’s thoughts of pornography or of hunger or gluttony or whatever, all these thoughts that keep coming into our mind. Well, our mind is our own space. Nobody else can control it apart from us. We don’t… Some of the Fathers talk about how you can’t stop birds landing in the tree, but you can stop them making a nest there. You can’t stop these thoughts coming into our minds. They’re in the air: you look around, and the thought comes to you from whatever you might see or from whatever memory you’ve got, or a particular smell or what that smell evokes, or whatever it might be. All these thoughts come to us constantly, but we don’t have to pay attention to them.

That my mind is my space, and I am free—I should be free—to allow into my mind what it is I want to be in there, or to dispel it when it accidentally comes in. In this, in fact, we have the true battle for freedom. Rather than being dominated by the thoughts that come into us from who-knows-where and then seize us and build up a rage within us or build up a passion within us or whatever else it might be so that we become seized by the thought that is not mine—don’t give it space. Really, don’t give it space. It’s a battle, but don’t give it space. And it’s a battle for the freedom to be who we want to be.

It’s worth remembering that from the very beginning, Christianity, being a Christian, has been presented in terms of a fight, a spiritual fight, warfare, spiritual warfare. Our battles are not with other people, but with the thoughts that we allow into our minds regarding other people, and we just simply have to cut it off. If we don’t have to have that thought, if we want to be free, if we want to be icons of God in this world, if we want to reflect his presence, we have to shut out all those thoughts which continually affect us so that we can live in the way that we want to be, so that we can live as God has created us.

Dr. Rossi: Again, so personal, so powerful, and so much to respond to. Muscle, and it is like a muscle, and in that sense a muscle can atrophy or it can become stronger and become more muscular as it is intended to be. I love that image that you used of the Fathers that the mind is like the tree. Birds will come land on the tree, but we don’t have to give them a nest; we don’t have to do that. St. John Chrysostom says, “If there’s no conflict, there’s no life,” and the conflict he means is inner conflict. It’s got this intense spiritual battle.

So I’m really grateful for this conversation, Fr. John. With that we’ll wrap up. Any last words you want to say?

Fr. John: Yes, but can I have slightly more than a last word?

Dr. Rossi: Please.

Fr. John: St. Antony the Great, in the Apothegmata the sayings of the Desert Fathers, speaks about at the end of his life how even being a monk having spent 40, 50, 60, whatever years in the desert, he’s still affected by thoughts of porneia; he’s still struggling with all of this. Like with Paul, asking the Lord to remove the thorn in his flesh, but the Lord says, “No, I’m going to leave it there. It’s for your good,” so we continually engage in this battle, but the true outcome of all of that is that we learn that we are broken and that we are fallen, that we’re sinful, that we are passionate, because knowing that and struggling for virtue, for God’s grace and all the rest of it, in that tension between those two things, that’s where we learn to have a broken and a contrite heart, and that is what God wants. He doesn’t want our successful efforts.

If you recall back at the beginning of Lent, the penultimate verse from the Great Canon of St. Andrew says, “O God, do not expect from me any great thing or any deeds which show that I’ve managed to achieve repentance,” having laid out four days’ worth of material for us to induce us into this attitude of contrition. No, he says, “Do not expect from me any deed to show that I’ve changed my way. Rather, accept from me a broken and contrite heart.” If we have a broken and contrite heart, it’s only a broken and contrite heart that can actually receive God’s love and then, because it’s broken and contrite, show that love to others so that it’s his love that we’re showing rather than what we think is our love.

Dr. Rossi: Fr. John, you’ve given me and no doubt the listeners, a great deal to ponder and to think about, and I personally want to go back and to listen to these podcasts again and again just so I get more from it. Thank you very much for that, and we will now end.