From Virtual to Reality in the Search of Love and Personhood

Fr. Dn. Stephen Muse

These are occasional lectures by Fr. Dn. Stephen Muse. Fr. Stephen is a pastoral counselor and marriage and family therapist. He directs Clergy-in-Kairos at the Pastoral Institute,  a weeklong intensive therapy and discernment program for clergy (and their spouses). He is a gifted speaker and the author of numerous books, the most recent entitled Treasure in Earthen Vessels: Prayer and the Embodied Life published by St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press and Isha’s Voice, published by Sebastian Press.

August 2019

From Virtual to Reality in the Search of Love and Personhood

Fr. Stephen speaks at Biserica Ortodoxa Romana Sfintii Imparati Constantin si Elena in Atlanta, Georgia. The talk addresses what makes culture mature, the problem of loneliness, and how people encounter one another intimately. Attachment theory and Orthodox theology are discussed in light of the Cross and the Eucharist.

August 27, 2019 Length: 59:44





Dr. Dn. Stephen Muse: Well, I’m glad to be here, and thank you for coming so we can have a dialogue about the topic that Sandor asked me to speak about. I’d like to begin by asking you what you think the greatest achievement of modern civilization is. What do you think?

C1: It would be technology for me.

Dn. Stephen: Technology? The one I can’t operate, yeah. [Laughter] What else? Other thoughts?

C2: Knowledge.

Dn. Stephen: Knowledge? What kind of knowledge?

C2: How we know more about our body in a biological way.

Dn. Stephen: So some scientific knowledge, so all sorts of things: biochemistry, biology, endocrine system, quantum physics—all kinds of advances historically in this way.

What would you say are the signs of a highly developed culture?

C3: It should be faith.

Dn. Stephen: Should be faith?

C3: Ideally.

Dn. Stephen: Well, okay.

C4: Respect.

Dn. Stephen: Respect.

C5: Kindness.

Dn. Stephen: Kindness.

C6: I would say unity.

Dn. Stephen: Unity.

C7: The lack of selfishness.

Dn. Stephen: Love and, what was that back there?

C7: Lack of selfishness.

Dn. Stephen: Lack of selfishness.

You’re not talking about neurobiology and science and moon visits now. You’re talking about something else. The greatest advances were in one area, but the determination of a culture’s maturity may be in another area. We could develop the technology to go to the moon, which they said everything NASA had would fit in this computer now that would’ve done that, and yet we might not have any love. It’s possible to go to the moon, transplant hearts, and develop a theory of quantum physics, but have no love. So this is a very interesting kind of paradox.

How many of you know Fr. Nicholas Louh in Jacksonville? He’s a young priest there. He went to Africa on a mission, and he was telling me one day—we were riding on the bus—and he said there were lots of children there, and he had one little granola bar. So he picked one of the little boys, and he was in a tent, and he told him, “Now, be sure to go ahead and eat this now.” The little boy ignored what he said, and he took the granola bar apart, piece by piece, put it in his t-shirt, and after he had taken the entire granola bar apart, he went outside and served all of the people out there.

That’s a powerful story. Not only did—I’ll say “we,” because we represent sort of one civilization—we do the selfish thing that seems so natural. “Eat this before you go out there, because then everybody will want some.” But the little boy didn’t protest. It was just natural for him to think in terms of everybody.

If you look at the Bushmen culture, they all share everything. They keep their water in an ostrich egg, they dig for roots, and every single part of everything that they find is used and the whole community shares it. They wouldn’t dare think of just one person taking it and not sharing.

In the Lakota culture, the word for white man, wasi’chu, means “the fat-taker,” the one who takes the best for himself. In order to exterminate the Lakota people, our cavalry took the repeating rifles… You know, the buffaloes used to be three miles wide; there were so many they used to be like thunder when they came down the prairie, and they just shot them by the tens of thousands and left their bodies to rot, and they took only the tongues. In war, that’s like going to Greece and destroying all the olive trees when you go through there. It’s like Sherman burning down Atlanta and everything, just tear it to pieces, because you want to destroy the enemy. But there’s also something about that that is very, very disturbing. The Lakota couldn’t comprehend this. This was a destruction and a horror on a magnitude beyond their comprehension that the Great Spirit could be repudiated by taking the buffalo and doing this to it by the tens of thousands.

The Shoshoni say that when a favor is shown to a white man, he feels it in his head, and his tongue speaks, but when a kindness is shown to an Indian, he feels it in his heart, and the heart has no tongue. In our tradition as Orthodox, hesychia or stillness, silence, is very important, because when we’re up in our heads with our… Do you know the word nous? Are y’all familiar with nous, the contemplative mind, the apprehending mind? It’s a Greek word, but the mind is thought of in two ways. One is rational thinking, analytical, logical thinking; and the other is a kind of non-verbal apprehending awareness.

In the Fall, the Fathers say that the nous left the heart and went up in the head, and Adam and Eve began to identify with the thinking part. We’re in a fragmented state. But in order to be sober, in order to be capable of personal relationship, intimacy, depth, we have to bring the mind down, out of the place where it wanders about, caught by all sorts of stuff, back to the heart. So the Indians and the Bushmen culture, really, are starting from a place that is more normal than we are. With our education and with our science. We’ve continued to develop something that strengthens us outside our hearts, and yet the natural culture, which I think, you know, Fr. David deeply appreciates his formation in Romania, because the village church and the rhythms of life are so much more natural in the sense of: when you work the earth and when you live close to it, what you know you are what you know. When you go to university and live about in the theater and all, we get to be sort of like the character in The Mask, Jim Carrey. We put the mask on and then we’re wild! and we can do all kinds of things, but we’re just an ephemeral vapor.

So the ancient culture and the Fathers of the Church, they were more normal. They were on the ground; they knew something about silence and rhythms. They paid attention to the stars; they felt them—but we don’t. We live in boxes, we walk around in boxes, we watch boxes, we wear boxes on our arms. And the digitalizing of us feeds an information hunger that doesn’t help us find our heart. So today one of the things we’re looking at is: How do we move from the virtual to reality? How do we come down out of the imagination, the kenodoxia as the old patristic word for vainglory, empty glory, kenodoxia, emptiness—how do we move from kenodoxia to orthodoxia in a practical way? Orthodoxia being God is the glory, and we receive something from God and offer it back, as in the Eucharist. “Thine own of thine own, we offer thee: in all and for all.” This is the heart of liturgy. It is the axis mundi, the place where this world and the other world touch. In fact, actually the hands are crossed when the priest lifts this up.

This is the path—the way, the truth, the life—through which we enter in order to find a eucharistic life everywhere we go, and this is the context for real relationship. If we tried to relate to one another through imagination, we’d never find one another. So this is the theme that I want to discuss today.

Let me ask you this. What is the greatest pain in the world today?

C8: Absence of God in our life.

Dn. Stephen: Absence of God in our life. How would we know this?

C9: By your nous. [Laughter]

Dn. Stephen: Okay, well, all right. If it’s in my heart, okay, but if it’s scattered among advertisements that attempt to catch my attention, everything from the nightly news… I had to tell a woman yesterday who was so anxious; I said, “Stop watching the nightly news. The news is not designed to inform you. It’s designed to entertain you with urgency, and repeat the same thing over and over from different directions.” I’ll chase this rabbit. I do like to chase rabbits, and I will go after this one, but…

Gavin de Becker who is the international expert in predicting violence, he’s written a very, very good book, worthy of reading, called The Gift of Fear. One of the statements he makes in it is that people who go around worrying about bad things happening all the time won’t notice when something’s wrong so they can protect themselves, because you have to be relaxed and in a normal state to realize something’s not right, and then you want to trust your gut. But if you’re always up here, worrying, worrying, “something’s going to happen! something’s going to happen!” you’re deadening your intuition and your natural capacity to know if you’re in danger.

So I think that that’s a good analogy, or that when we have cares of the world… In the Cherubic Hymn, it says, “Stop all that. Be still. Be quiet. Prepare for the encounter between the two worlds.” You can’t do that if you’re busy. You can’t do that if you’re multitasking. You can only do that if you come down to earth, which is humility, simplicity. Of course, I can’t make myself humble. I become humble when, like Job, we enter into the whirlwind in some way, and we realize, “You’re God and I’m not,” and we go down. Whatever helps us bring that, whether it’s my wife giving me a hard time about something I deserve, or somebody fussing with me about something, there’s this possibility to humble me. But it might not, if I defend myself and all that.

St. Macarius says, “Understanding cannot enter us if we are not still.” The understanding of the Church, the recognition of approaching communion and of loving one another and of maturing as a society with all those good things you were mentioning, it requires us to be reunified, to be re-membered. We’re dismembered, and we are walking around in this state, not realizing that what we are doing may be deepening our craziness. I call it post-traumatic spiritual disorder [Laughter], because it’s a combination of both neurobiological problems, but the fragmentation that occurs when Adam and Eve assent to the whisper that’s in them explodes everything. And that’s a very interesting whisper, too, because that whisper says, “Didn’t God make a beautiful world? Isn’t it wonderful? You’re supposed to enjoy it. Offer it to yourself.” It sounds so close to the truth! But what happens if I offer the world to myself rather than to Christ, and receive it back. Everything we’ll talk about this morning has to do with that.

If I offer the world to myself, I enter a monologue, a virtual reality that I cannot exit until, as in the first step of AA, I recognize there is an Other whose help, whose presence I need to free me from my monologue, from my self-sufficiency, from my pride that I can take the world and offer it to myself and then I can control it and do whatever I need to do by myself. And I resist seeing that my actual life is related to everybody around me, like the Lakota and the Bushmen understood in a very simple way.

A Russian critic, Mikhail Bakhtin, he says, “Without faith that we will be understood somehow, sometime, by somebody, we would not speak at all, or if we did, it would be babbly, and babble, as Dostoyevsky shows in his short story, ‘Bobok,’ is the language of the dead.” What’s your reaction to that statement?

They’ve all entered hesychia; there’s nothing more to say. Would you try to talk to someone who could not possibly understand you or pay attention to you?

Various: Yes. Absolutely.

Dn. Stephen: You would. Why?

C10: Because even if they understand a little teeny thing, they will be receiving something.

Dn. Stephen: Ah. You’re thinking that somehow the other person will get you, but let’s just say that this other person is… If they were so mentally ill that they couldn’t understand anything, you’d need to help them first. Jesus cast demons out; he talks to people who are more neurotic or character disordered, but if they are out of their mind, he zaps them. You can’t talk to somebody like that, in a sense. So if I believe that you are not interested in anything that I am saying, or in me, or that you want me to only be how you want me to be—anybody have a father or mother like that? They know the truth, they want you to get it, and they do everything out of love to get you to do that, but.

If you hold a baby really tight because you love the baby, and the baby is a wiggly baby and needs to move, and you say, “No,” and you hold them tight, tight, tight, what does the baby learn? He learns that my mother’s not responsive to what I need. My mother’s controlling, and her anxiety is driving it. He doesn’t think all these things, but he starts to learn it very soon. Then mother takes him out to buy clothes for school, and he says, “Wow! Look at those red pants!” and she says, “Oh, wouldn’t you like the brown ones so much better? They would look good on you.” Well, where is the line between helping him find something good, and crushing his ability to experiment or explore? Can you imagine disturbing his learning to walk so that every time he started to try, you’d rush over and say, “Move your leg this way, do that, oh! You fell.” He probably wouldn’t even learn to walk. All these are small ways that we start to interfere, and we don’t even realize it.

I want to show you something called the still face experiment. Have you ever seen this? All right. This is two or three minutes of a mother interacting with her one-year-old daughter. I want you to look at the face of the daughter as the mother interacts. Then they tell the mother, “Turn around, make your face placid, like this, and don’t move, no matter what the baby does.” Watch what happens to the baby when in two minutes they don’t get the mother, whose eyes and face show that she’s responsive and tuning to the baby’s internal world and movement.

Oh, oh, the screen is not letting me shift, so what do we do now? Let’s see. All right, we’ll try it this way. Here we go. All right.

A social interaction that they get from the world around them. This is something that we started studying, oh, 30, 40 years ago, when the people didn’t think that infants could engage in social interactions. What the mother did was she sits down and she is playing with her baby who is about a year of age, and she gives a greeting to the baby, the baby gives a greeting back to her. This baby starts pointing at different places in the world, and the baby is trying to play with her, engage with her. They’re working to coordinate their emotions and their intentions, what they want to do in the world. That’s really what the baby is used to.

Then we ask the mother to not respond to the baby. The baby very quickly picks up on this, and then she uses all her abilities to try and get the mother back. She smiles at the mother; she points, because she’s used to the mother looking where she points. The baby puts both hands up in front of her and says: What’s happening here? She makes that screechy sound at the mother, like: Come on! Why are we doing this? Even in these two minutes when they don’t get a normal reaction, they react with negative emotions, they turn away, they feel the stress of it, they actually may lose control of their posture because of the stress that they’re experiencing. [Baby crying, mother crooning, saying, “I’m here. Oh, what a good girl.] It’s a little like the good, the bad, and the ugly.

How do you respond to that? What is that? All right. Let’s see. Let me get rid of this. Okay, so what are your reactions to that?

C11: That’s a normal response to a poker face.

Dn. Stephen: Normal response to a poker face, well, she wasn’t angry. It wasn’t an angry face, but it was an unresponsive face. When you look into the eyes of a person, the limbic system of the brain coordinates with this, so the eye really is the window of the soul or the feeling. Even though we sometimes talk about… People make fun of the evil eye… The eye can give out something; the ear can’t. The ear can only listen, but the eye can give something out, and if the heart is bad, the eyes are. We are always experiencing this, and it’s registering, if not consciously, in unconscious ways. So we can see that the foundation of the growth of our brains and the formation of our personhood has to do with communion with the other. And it’s not just the other giving me instructions; it’s the other creating a playspace of safety and freedom in which we can interact. Without this, I am under oppression, and I am under a tension that at one year old I can’t bear. If you do that to me because mother’s drunk a lot of times, or she’s seriously mentally ill, or daddy’s been abusive to her so many times that she’s not in a place that she can respond, if it gets out of a certain middle ground, it will have some powerful effects on the child, and this, then, goes into the neuropeptide systems, stored in non-verbal ways in the body, and becomes…

So you and I have a one-year-old part, a two-year-old, a three-year-old, a four-year-old, and it includes neural, hormonal, physiological reactions that are patterns. It includes mental perceptions of the self, because that baby, at one year old, would start to feel like she was toxic, like “I can’t get a reaction out of my mother; I get no love, I get no… Nothing’s helping me when I’m in pain,” so this is going to swing out in between me and the world and God as I grow up. If it’s very deep—if I had attachment losses and ended up in an orphanage for a couple of years, at two years old, at three years old, if you took away my entire world at one—you took away my mother’s voice, the sound and smell of her and the warmth and everything I knew, and you put me in some other place, completely different—you just took me from Earth to Mars—and I try to recover, but I only can recover the two-year-old brain or the three-year-old brain, which is not fully developed.

That means that even though my DNA will grow me up—maybe I’m adopted by parents that love me to pieces and give me everything good—I still have a two-, three-, four-year-old terrible, devastating explosion in me that must surface. And when will it surface? It will surface when the relationship with someone starts to get good enough that it touches that.

Now let’s switch to the relationship with God, because behind all this stuff that we’re talking about psychologically and neurobiologically is the living God who unites with humanity but is not just physical, but is uncreated. So now how do I—if I marry, if I go to a monastery,if I come to church and I have been touched by God—the very love that draws me into each of those relationships as it deepens will bring me in touch with the unfinished business in my belly. So at some point, in some way, I’m going to face that pain. It may look like something bad is happening, because I start to get angry, or I get depressed, or as someone was telling me recently, she wakes up in the morning—she’s very bright—and she has a kind of emptiness. She thought it was depression, right here. But she lost everything and one year old, and it appears to be a memory, a body memory, of the loss. Just—why try? That baby, after it protested, if the mother wasn’t around, eventually it would go like this and give up. Babies that were taken care of physically but not given that, many of them died in the war.

All the injuries that we have, that come from the most essential nourishment that we need, which is the space between the communion of otherness that we have with our mother and with one another, this exists within the larger context of our relationship with God, and faith begins to, if it’s embodied, heal us. But if it stays up in the head, kenodoxically, it goes in a different direction: it goes toward where the Sanhedrin went, which executes Christ.

Let’s think about this for a second. Orthodoxy is Christ is the center of our life. He is our beloved. We are his beloved. He loves us; we return this love as best we can, and we are brought toward healing and community with one another. But in the place where I want to protect myself from being injured, which I learned early on—maybe I learned not to let you learn I need you, since nobody’s there for me, I become a turtle: I become self-sufficient, don’t need anybody, not going to let anybody love me, because I’m not going to get hurt again. If I’m bounded by all of this, what I may do is, when I convert, I put God on as clothing, for part of my self-sufficiency.

So I become the rich young ruler, and I go to Jesus, because there’s some truth in that, but I say, “Jesus, I’ve earned 75 merit badges. Is there another one I can get.” And he looks at this young man, and he loves him, but he says, “Well, if you’re really serious, let go of what you’re trying to create to protect yourself and achieve things on your own, and enter into communion. Just follow me. Come with me. Be unprotected. Let God protect you, and you just show up.” This left him with a holy wound, and this is our holy wound, because we’re trying to decide: Can I trust God enough that when I encounter you, and you’re different [from] me, that I could actually enter into communion with God through our relationship, and receive something from Christ through you, and can I be vulnerable? Because if I can’t, the only thing that you and I can do is ignore each other, or polarize and try to convert each other. We’re not going to have a communion.

I have a simple way of thinking about this. There are five ways of being in the world. The first three are precursors. The first one is fusion, and that’s when we’re infatuated, we’re in love, we’re in the same club, all of us think alike. Maybe we’re in a church that’s only Romanian. We’re one. Everything’s fine like that until we realize one of us is growing different. We were in love, we got married, but now I’m discovering this and that about you and you about me, and now there’s a tension that arises.

Well, this is the stage I call converting or being converted. Now I want to go back and keep what we had, so I’ve got to get you to give up what’s happening to you so you can get back like when I loved you, where we were happy. But that means I’m going to hold you too tight like that mother did the baby, and I’m not going to be able to tolerate you growing. And you’re not going to like that, and you’re going to protest and complain, and then I’m going to be upset, and I don’t know what to do now.

So now if I can’t get you back like you were, and I won’t change to be a person in the world with you as you are, my third option is to ignore you. This happens in a lot of marriages. You can ignore one another for 15 years, and you do your jobs, you raise the kids, you handle business, but there’s no playspace. You don’t look into each others’ eyes and find a place to be. This is very tragic, this is very lonely, and it produces problems. It leads to alcoholism, affairs, workaholism, depression, all sorts of things, because it’s not natural.

This couple doesn’t have a space between them, so they don’t have any dialogue. Now, this couple are trying desperately with all their might to get the relationship to work, but they could sure use all this energy in another way if they weren’t pulling against each other. Is there a couple in here, a married couple? Is there a married couple that has a little bit of no fear of something that I should show a little experiment with? [Laughter] I won’t hurt you, and it won’t be bad. You have to have a little bit of… Ah! Well, do you have to ask her if she’s willing! Is this Preoteasa? No, well, would you be game? Okay. All right. Come up front here, stand up.

Husband: Both of us?

Dn. Stephen: Yes, both of you. All right. Sometimes with couples, I like to demonstrate physically, because it’s a way to know something that you could talk about forever, but not get. [Laughter] She says why did you get me into this? [Laughter] Did you read that? All right. Stand over here. Now, stand far enough away, a little bit farther, a little bit farther. Now put your hands out. Now what I want you to do is: You’re going to hold hands, but you’re going to stand far enough away that you can’t stand up if you’re not pushing against the other. Okay? Now, back up. Back up. Back up further. Back up further until there’s pressure here so that you’ll fall if you let go. Keep going. All right. Now.

This is one kind of marriage that is a problem, because I’m going to give them some instructions now. Then I’m going to ask one of them to scratch their ear, but in order to do that… [Laughter] Okay, here’s what’s going on. [Whispers to wife:] Any movement he makes with his hands means he’s abandoning you. [Whispers to husband:] Any movement she makes with her hands means she’s trying to control you.

All right, now: you have to scratch your ear. What are you going to do?

Husband: Ask a friend? [Laughter] I release one hand, I guess.

Dn. Stephen: Try and see what happens. You just let him do this? [Laughter] You didn’t follow the instructions! All right. If you really believed what I told you, what will you do when he does that?

Wife: [Whispers]

Dn. Stephen: Oh, no, I’m not going there! All right. [Laughter] You’re going to do something else. When he starts to let go, let’s say you don’t want that to happen. What are you going to do? Mmm-hmm. Now you can’t scratch your ear because she’s holding onto you. So what’s going to happen now? You need to scratch your ear. [Laughter]

Husband: I take her, I guess.

Dn. Stephen: This won’t work, because what I told her was—

Wife: He could have just asked me to help him!

Dn. Stephen: Ohh, yeah, yeah. That’s complicated!

Wife: It’s a different level.

Dn. Stephen: I told her: Anything he does, interpret as he’s trying to abandon her.

Wife: Okay.

Dn. Stephen: And I told him: Anything she does, interpret as she’s trying to control him. [Laughter] So he won’t be able to scratch his ear, and they will have a terrible row! Now, all they have to do to solve this is step closer and stand on their own two feet, and they can embrace each other with freedom and love, and it’s wonderful, because they have a space between them. Look how close they can get, because out of their freedom they choose to be together. When they’re like that, they’re fighting not to fall apart. Thank you. That’s very good. [Applause]

Now, I like to do that non-verbally because it’s so obvious that the one is painful, but to get to the place where you could talk about that, now you have to have a lot of skills, because when I speak and I say, “You know, I need to scratch my ear. I need to go play golf. I need to whatever”—“How can you do that!? You’re always getting to do what you want! The church always has you there. You just never are there for me!” Oh my goodness, now you see this is getting real intense, so what do you do? You don’t go to a place of alienation. Now you have to be responsible for all that activity in your belly and in your heart.

I use a little way of thinking about the brain like a fist. This part is the part that makes our heart beat and our lungs breathe and we don’t think about it. This is our fight-flight-fright emotion central, the limbic system; it keep us alive and deals with threat. And this part is the curly stuff around the brain, the neocortex that thinks. So the couple marries, and then this difficulty comes up, and all of a sudden—and I put a heart monitor on some of my people so I can see where they are. I say, “What’s your rate now?” They say, “Well, it’s 100.” Well, they’re flooding. So that means they’re having a lobotomy. The limbic system is turning on, and they are afraid or angry. They’re at an intense enough level. Why is it a threat? Why is the limbic system involved in where we eat dinner? Because of all that other stuff that we talked about that’s in here, [it] gets triggered symbolically.

Now if I’m not able to bring my nous into my body and with the strength of my belly stay present and open to the other and myself at the same time, I’ll have a lobotomy and will just turn up the volume and do the same thing that we’re doing—“find the bad guy,” as one therapist calls it; my wife and I just go “you, you, you, you!” when we’re doing that, and usually we’ll laugh, because it’s all about [how] one of us is “good” and the other one is not, one of them is “right”… and that never gets anywhere. But that’s all you can do when you don’t have a cortex.

So you’ve got to bring this down, and this is what the Fathers teach in the Philokalia to pray. It’s very interesting that healing trauma and learning to pray are very closely related. The nous must come down into the body. St. Symeon the New Theologian, St. Gregory Palamas, St. John Climacus: Bring the nous inside the body. Focus on the belly, and find the heart—because when we pray, we don’t pray up in our minds, wandering about in kenodoxia. We pray as an embodied being that is open to the other. It’s not our imagination; it’s an act of turning toward communion in vulnerability, just as we walk to receive the holy Eucharist. We’re not doing that as a magical act; we are coming, present, and we are approaching the chalice, who is Christ. And if we do this, embodied, we may actually find that our heart is warmed, and when it is, the body confirms the truth of it with tears.

If you just talk about things from your head, you will change nothing, just the outside, superficial stuff. If you are just cathartic, and you scream and yell and all that,it doesn’t change anything: you get retraumatized. What has to happen is you have to find the place of the heart, and then it’s as though compassion for the being we once were and compassion for the one that we love changes things, because when I am present, I start to discover all sorts of things that have been pushed away.

The marriage is a very powerful crucible in which we get healing, just as the Church and the Eucharist and confession are in this way, but they must be embodied. If they’re not embodied, then we really aren’t present, and what will happen is we will be in church because of our culture, it’s what we know, it’s what we grew up with, but we’ve grown up with it mechanically. Our children will not stay in the Church because they’re not understanding that it is vital to them because it’s speaking to the center of the loneliness and the loss that they have in a culture that no digital amount of media can fulfill. 90% of people now have cell phones; 80% of kids sleep with their cell phones, according to the Pew Research. There’s a lot we could say about all that, but the digital world is just this world rendered into a machine.

I can still be as if I’m on a cell phone by being up in my head in kenodoxia, wandering through my imagination as objects, where I’m stuck to it. It’s really a hypnotic state. Sin is a form of hypnosis in which the nous is not grounded by the thymos, the incensive power. Our incensive power, our belly, moves our arms. It turns our attention, our flashlight, moves it around. You need strength in your belly in order to bring the nous and hold it in the place that’s starting to go like this. And you need to bring it there in order to actually encounter the people in the world around you. If you look at the stars on a night, and for a moment, all of a sudden, you say, “Glory to God,” because you are moved, this is starting to happen. But we can’t count on enough of those things to just rely on that in our life; we have to have a practice. We have to start to realize the direction of human relationship, the way, the truth, and the life is in and through Christ.

I have to know this not just as a word in my head; I have to start to taste and see and discern, like a child learning to walk, how, inwardly, I’m a mess. I’ve got to take a lot of snapshots of my inner world to start to see there’s a plumb line, and I’m off-kilter. I can start to try to straighten up. “Wisdom! Stand aright! Sophia! Get straight! Pull yourself together! Let us attend!” No, that’s a wandering nous. No, these are instructions. The Cherubic Hymn, “Let us attend,” all of that is saying, “Be still. Collect. Embody. Prepare for communion. Prepare for an encounter. Prepare for eternity. Prepare to be speechless, like Job in the whirlwind, where we go from human reason and criticism—“why didn’t God do it this way? Why did these bad things happen to me?”—to: [Gasp] “You’re God, and I’m not.”

The beginning of wisdom is that moment, where humanism enters into communion with the living God. Christianity, decorating humanism, is not yet Christianity. It’s just a psychological thing, using Jesus’ words, and doing the same thing that we do without him. Fr. Schmemann says this is more terrifying than hedonism and atheism, to just take Jesus and make him a cherry on top of a world that doesn’t change inside me. What I must realize is that we are here because we fell in love with Christ; he moved us. And now we are tested and tempted in all different ways by advertisements in our psyche, and on the TV and in the news and everything else, and the demonic that is trying to capture again and hold onto our nous, so that hypnotically we move into areas of delusion and beguilement that then do things that lead us into defilement and hardness of heart and fatness of heart so that we can’t have communion. That’s the ultimate loss. We’re either moving toward communion or we’re moving into sin, toward nothingness, toward fallen non-being, as Yannaras says.

Those are the two directions; there’s nothing else. There’s life, there’s the real way, and there’s the truth that can only be lived, not known about without living it—can’t happen. Christ is the living truth, so without communion, we cannot have knowledge that saves us. As Fr. George Metallinos says, it’s not learning metaphysical principles that saves us, not reading a bunch of theological books; it’s entering into communion and undergoing what occurs through communion that changes us, transforms us. When St. Gregory of Nyssa speaks of epektasis, he takes it from St. Paul who speaks of “going from glory to glory” in eternity; St. Gregory says this communion with Christ, each moment of it, we can never catch up with the infinite God, so we are transformed again and again and again, eternally: epektasis. That’s communion. That’s love; that’s intimacy.

So really the beautiful thing and the scary thing is that Christ is the humility, as Fr. Sophrony says, the content of the Person of Christ is the total outpouring love of the Father, complete kenosis. So Christ is saying, “I am yours. I give you my entire life.” What is your response? Fr. Nikolaos Loudovikos in Greece, the theologian, says, “The Logos is a marriage proposal waiting for a response.” It’s not just one time I respond; I respond again and again and again and again, because when you get married, you say yes to the one you love and no to whatever defeats that. So this communion then becomes a lived path, not one that I know about and say, “Oh, did you have an emotional experience one time and are you saved?” Mm-mm. “Did you memorize the Creed and are you saved?” No. If someone says, “Are you saved?” as an Orthodox your response should be, “It is good for us to cling to God and to place in him the hope of our salvation.”

The mercy of God is what I trust, not anything I did or thought. I would never want to say I could have control of God like a slot machine: put in your nickel, and God does what he’s supposed to do. That’s what Job’s friends wanted him to buy. After seven days with Job, they said, “We can’t take this any more. Your questions are driving us nuts. We’ve got a theology that we trust and we’re going with that, so if you’ll just say you messed up, we’ll move on.”

But Job’s is a strange human dilemma, which is that God had said to Satan, when Satan said, “Man cannot love you,” God said, “Yes, man can. I can give man communion and they will become person. I can take the nature that I breathed into and brought to life as a living, embodied soul and raise it to life in me.” The devil said, “No, you can’t, and I’ll prove it.” And how did he think he could prove it? “Just let me touch him. Let me give him arthritis, give her cancer, take her child, give this one’s baby a birth defect—they’ll spit on you.” So he says, “Okay. You can touch every single possible pleasure and thriving that could come from life, but you can’t touch his prohairesis, the heart of his freedom to enter into communion and to choose. You can’t touch that.”

So this is what happens. He says, “Okay. All the children—dead. All your esteem in public—gone. All your lands and property that you’ve got—gone. Health—gone; you’ve got sores all over you. Wife—“Just curse God and die. I’m sick of this. I can’t be the preoteasa any more. This is driving me crazy.” Nothing could get worse! And that’s when Job says, “I want to talk to God.” And his friends say, “We don’t believe like that. We believe in a theology that gives us control, and you’ve got to buy it. What you want, uh-uh.” So his friends are taking the devil’s side; they’re saying it isn’t possible to really love him and have a conversation, a communion, with God, and Job says, “I will not submit to what you’re asking.”

So he enters where the rich young ruler might have gone and where Peter goes after he realizes he couldn’t do it either—into the whirlwind. And there God says, “Where you here when I hung the moon? Did you do this?” And God says things that sound a lot like what his friends said, but he says all those friends were wrong. Why? It wasn’t the content that they were wrong about; it was that they didn’t get communion.

Think about the devastating consequences of this. If you go the path of Job with true faith, you enter into the realm of personhood, but if you go where the people went that say, “That isn’t possible,” then you go to where the Sanhedrin was, and they said, “You must die, Logos, because we run this Church.” We’ll just say Church because that was the Church back then; they’re no different [from] us. “We have it, what you left us, and what you’re doing is outside of what we can control, and it threatens our power, our self-sufficiency, and all the other things that we substitute for true communion. Therefore, you’re a threat! And we’ve got to kill you.” That’s the essence of the struggle in us. One part wants to go where Job went, and one part’s trying to do what the Sanhedrin did, and the result is the same, always the same.

How do I get to where the Sanhedrin is? Well, I have contempt for the child in me. I don’t want to hear from the child. Keep the children away from Jesus; we’ve got more important things to do. There’s no time for this. And yet, Jesus says if you put a child in your lap and hold a child, hold the one who sent him: you hold God. Only if you become a child can you enter the kingdom of heaven, because the personality cannot receive grace. It’s a mask; it’s man-made. Only the essential living nefesh, the child, the embodied neurological formed human being through communion can receive grace. Grace comes through personhood. It evokes personhood; it draws personhood. If that child didn’t have a person to interact with, it couldn’t become a person joining the community; it would have been a wild animal if it even survived. But it becomes a human in a beautiful way and then is invited even deeper, because Christ is more than just a man.

And yet, I think it was Fr. Dumitru Stăniloae—I saw it once and I should have written down the citation, but I’m pretty sure it was him—he said something that I really love even more than what St. Athanasius says. St. Athanasius and many of the early Fathers say: “God became human so that we could become god.” Yes, this is true. Fr. Stăniloae adds something to it; he says, “And God became human so that man could become human.” This makes the hair on my back stand up. This is stunning. We aren’t becoming persons until we’ve entered the communion with the One who becomes fully Person.

God is someone who, as Fr. Lev Gillet says, there was a cross in the Father’s heart before creation, not only after we sinned—before creation—meaning Christ is the Father’s love. The Father’s love is of the other, for the other. Instead of what Adam and Eve do with the devil’s provocation and say, “I offer the world to myself,” God says, “I offer myself to you. You, you are so real for me. I don’t want to hold anything back. I give everything to you. Me, I give me to you. At the cost of going to your hell and standing with you in the shame and the horror of it, and loving you.” That’s somebody you can trust. You can’t trust someone who’s going to say, “I’ll go that far with you, but after that it’s too much.”

All right. I just love having people I believe want to hear Christ, and that’s the best I can do. Should we stop? Okay. [Applause] Mulțumesc. Thank you so much. I enjoyed this very much.

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