ORTHODOXY SPIRITUALITY AND ACTIVISM
RECLAIMING OUR VOCABULARY-REFOCUSING OUR VISION
Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology
Fr. John Chryssavgis
So what is it about language? An alert human infant early begins to build a vocabulary, to make sense of the chaos of sounds. A child recognizes that there are some noises we share with others, sounds that are deserving of response. This is precisely how - and probably how early - our theological vocabulary also begins. Unfortunately, many years later, and after so many well-meaning adults who taught us Sunday school or theological courses, we are intent on fitting the vastness of the world and of God into small boxes of our own devising. We are, I think, called to reclaim our theological vocabulary. And, if we have any guides in this endeavor, it is the saints of the Church, who teach us the process of learning and re-learning what it is consciously to know and to reflect God's love in the world.
So it is,
then, that such words as "spirituality" carry an enormous weight of
baggage throughout history and our own life. It is a word that can
project wrong cues; it can even cause much harm. I find that the long
struggle to sort out a genuine theological vocabulary has made me more
aware of ways in which religious language can often strike a false note
- the narcissistic babble that transforms itself into spirituality, the
conventional "language of a land with no known inhabitants." 1 The
Church of the Fathers has of course many inhabitants. And, in living
with the saints, in realigning a genuine relationship with them, we
find that vocabulary comes to life and forces us to question and even
to shed inadequate definitions that we have received from our childhood
or our culture, which we have formed - actually, deformed - as
"spiritual" means in order to justify out "secular' ends. We learn to
refuse convenient codes, the "sacred lingo" I. Cf. Kathleen Norris,
Amazing Grace A Vocabulary of Faith, Riverhead Books: New York, 1998,
The aim, ultimately, in any discussion about "spirituality" and "activism" is to bring about some form of reconciliation between the ways in which we understand our world and God. The goal is to bring healing to a world that has grown accustomed to an unholy dissociation between spirituality and morality, and to a disciplinary divorce within academia itself of Christian Ethics (in Protestant confessions), Moral Theology (in Roman Catholic circles) and Christian Spirituality (in Orthodox theology). Somehow, we are called to close the gap, to coincide the stress on fleeing from the world and the anxiety to change the world; to bring together the struggle toward personal holiness and the struggle toward social justice; to reconnect personal salvation and cosmic transformation. The problem is not that spirituality is "privatized" and internalized, or that activism is "globalized" and externalized, but that the two are distinguished from one another in the first place. 2
In his book, Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights, Thom Hartman refers to "the values we choose to live by" in a corporate and globalized world.3 It is true that whenever we speak - whether about things in heaven or on earth - we are drawing upon established, indeed presumed values of ourselves and of our world. In fact, some contemporary writers prefer to speak not only of a "global utility"4 but also of "the art of profitability."5
Therefore, as I contemplated the topic on which I was asked to speak, I considered three fundamental terms in light of another art, "the art of prayer,"6 particularly as this is reflected in the early ascetic literature. These three concepts will serve as my basis for drawing connections between spirituality and activism, as well as for reclaiming basic theological vocabulary and refocusing our spiritual vision. I hope to approach these terms with a proper sense of humility before the great mystery of language - that human venture which begins with the ear and tongue of -an infant, proceeds through the tensions that define the relationship between our words and those of others, and finally reaches for the very mystery of God's Word. Such language has the power to bless ... or to curse, to heal... or to wound. It has the creative power of a "word made flesh and dwelling among us in the world" (John 1.34). We should pay closer attention to it.
I was in my early teens when I discovered the word "eschatology." Right away, I knew something was different about this word. It had a breadth and spaciousness far greater than any dictionary definition could allow. Many students of Orthodox theology encounter this word in a writer such as Vladimir Lossky. I still recall my tattered copy of his Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. 7
Now, most of us assume that the last times and the last things imply some apocalyptic or escapist attitude toward the world.8 It took a long time for theologians to realize that eschatology is not the last, perhaps unnecessary chapter in some course or manual of dogmatics. Eschatology is not the teaching about what follows everything else in this world and in these times. It is the teaching about our relationship to those last things and last times. In essence, it is about the last-ness and the lasting-ness of all things. The Omega gives meaning to the Alpha; this world is interpreted in light of the age to come. The entire creation is a burning bush of God's energies - to recall Gregory Palamas in the fourteenth century; the beyond is discovered in the midst of life - to recall Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the last century.
However, it was my friends in the early desert of Egypt and Palestine who would later plunge me all unwitting into the realm of eschatology. That dry desert, from the middle of the third century until around the end of the sixth century, became the laboratory for exploring hidden truths about heaven and earth, as well as a forging ground for drawing connections between the two. The hermits who lived in that desert tested and studied what it means to be human - with all the tensions and temptations, all of the struggle beyond survival, all of the contact with good and the conflict with evil. And on their course, some of them made many mistakes; others made fewer mistakes. Whoever said that there is a clear and simple answer to the questions of life? Yet, these men and women dared to push the limits; they challenged and defied the norms of what was acceptable in their age and society.
I think I received further insights into some of the deeper dimensions of eschatology when I faced my own mortality in the brokenness of my son's cerebral palsy. The word "eschatology" no longer seemed other-worldly to me; it did not focus exclusively on future events. I was intensely faced with the vulnerability of an infant - so intricately caught up in the last things. The lie about heaven being elsewhere split wide open when I admitted that I was really broken.
What is far more difficult and ' far more important than learning to live is learning to die. Once we sense that we are in the shadow of God, then we discover light, so much light that our vision of the world improves dramatically. Then, we know that holiness is near. Dying and loss are lessons in how to live and love.
So our spiritual reflection on globalization is fatally flawed if it does not begin with the reality of the Cross, with the suffering and cries of those deeply affected and directly threatened by its legacy. An eschatological interpretation of globalization introduces a raw criticism of power dynamics and human domination. It recognizes that what is personal and private is also political and public.
An eschatological vision of reality and the world offers a way out of the impasse of provincialism and the evil of confessionalism. It allows us the possibility to question and reject "market myths" of modem man, such as the theory that growth benefits all, that freedom is market freedom, that our purpose is consumption and domination, or that corporate- and commercial-driven globalization are inevitable.9 It reflects our refusal to acquiesce, whether out of innocence or intimidation, whether by choice or by force.
Finally, eschatology is our hope against all hopelessness. It is our conviction that our efforts on this planet are not ours alone, but that the Source and End of all life is working in us, through us, and above us for the wen being of all creation, including our tiny part in it.10
As a father of two teenagers, I know that silence is not the absence of noise but the ability to tell the difference between the two. Children who are barked at all day by burned-out parents ultimately stop listening. Yet, listening is surely the prerequisite for silence. Such silence is active, alive, and affectionate. It resembles a spider spinning its web, a silkworm creating its silk. It reminds us to take our soul with us wherever we go.
What is far more difficult and far more important than learning to speak is learning to be silent. In the desert, silence is the daughter of patience, the mother of watchfulness. When all words are abandoned, a new awareness arrives. Silence awakens us from numbness to the world around us, from our dullness of vision.
For the early desert dwellers, silence is a requirement of life, the first duty of love. Silence is a way of waiting, a way of watching, and a way of listening to - and not ignoring - what is going on in our heart and in our world. It is the glue that binds our attitudes and our actions. Silence reflects our surrender to God and to new patterns of learning and living. Through being silent, we learn by suffering and undergoing, not just by speculating and understanding, Silence confirms our readiness to lead a counter-cultural way of life, to choose rather than to be led, to admit our limited perspective as consumers and to appreciate another, the unlimited perspective of "life in abundance" (John 10. 10).
And what we learn in silence is that we are all intimately interconnected, all mutually interdependent.
The truth is that all things are so intimately interrelated, cohering in each other beyond our imagination. Nothing living is self-contained. There is no autonomy - only a distinction between a sense of responsibility and a lack thereof.
The result of any bifurcation between spirituality and activism is catastrophic. The way we pray is mirrored in the way that we treat our brother and sister. Moreover, we are also invited to respond to nature with the same delicacy and sensitivity with which we respond to people. All of us are cocelebrants in what Maximus the Confessor in the seventh century called "cosmic liturgy" - he might well have spoken of "cosmic economy" or "cosmic ecology."
Finally, the early ascetics also valued the term "detachment." For us, detachment is a concept that has lost its positive connotation. Nowadays, it is used in a negative sense, to mean the opposite of a healthy engagement with the world and with other people. It conveys a sense of aloofness, a studied remoteness that implies lack of concern. Yet the monastic interpretation of detachment could not be more different. In the desert, detachment meant not allowing either worldly values or self-centeredness to distract us from what is most essential in our relationship with God and with our world. Dorotheus of Gaza describes detachment as being free from forcing certain things to happen. It is faith sufficiently strong as to be thoroughly realistic in its encounter with the world. It is paying close attention to details, even to the intake of food and the acquisition of possessions. Not in order to punish ourselves, but in order to discern the value of sharing, the presence of suffering, and the intrinsic honor of good things in life. This sort of detachment is neither passive nor remote; paradoxically, it is fully engaged with the world. It is a prayer that can absorb all manner of pain and transform it into hope.
For the desert elders, detachment from everything and everyone only underlined the dignity of everything and everyone. Detachment was the first step of monastic renunciation or of the flight to the desert. Yet, detachment was more than merely spatial or material.
Detachment is not the inability to focus on things, material or other; it is the spiritual capacity to focus on all things, material and other, without attachment. It is primarily something spiritual-, it is an attitude of life.
In this respect, detachment is ongoing, requiring continual refinement over years of practice. The desert elders speak of stages in the way of detachment, just as there are steps in "the ladder of divine ascent."14 Detachment resembles the shedding of a number of coats of skin, until our senses are sharpened, or until - as one desert father put it - "our inner vision becomes keen."15 When we learn what to let go of, we also learn what is worth holding on to. Think of it in this way: it is simply not possible to share something precious or even to hold a lover's hand, when we keep our fists clenched, holding tightly onto something. The purpose of monastic detachment was not to live apart from the social world, but to inspire about how to live in the world as a part of society. Detachment is love, a positive energy that must be incarnated into action.
The same attitude extends beyond one's connection with other people to one's relationship to material things.
The detachment recommended here is a form of letting go. We are to let go of our actions, of our words, and finally of our life. The aim of letting go is the learning of true prayer, the starting-point and ending-point of all action. By letting go, we learn to pray spontaneously, a gift that children seem to have innately, but which takes a lifetime for us to recover as adults. And in this prayer, the way of silence and the way of service coincide.
Work is not separated from prayer. Instead, prayer frees us for carefree service of others, where we are no longer conditioned by the burden of necessity but always prepared for the novelty of grace. Just as silence conditions our words, prayer too conditions our works. Detachment signifies humility, and humility looks to shift the focus of oneself as the center of the world and to place oneself in the service of others. The humble person is always satisfied, always shares, always gives, always gives thanks.
A truly detached person cannot tolerate creating miserable poverty for the sake of accumulating exorbitant wealth. The moral crisis of our global economic injustice is integrally spiritual; it signals something terribly amiss in our relationship with God, with people, and with things. Yet, insulated as we are by privilege and by the sin of attachment, so many of us remain blind to the ecological devastation created by current global, trade and investment regimes.18 The humble person is able to say "no" - or "enough" - when it comes to food and possessions. Detachment is a way of liberation. And the detached person is free, uncontrolled by attitudes that abuse the world, uncompelled by ways that use the world.
This implies that we are not tyrannical overlords - with a license to dominate the earth and to control creation - but servants and ministers called to restore harmony with the rest of the world, to bring a sense of at-one-ment with the environment. Detachment is the worshipful acknowledgment that this world, "the earth ... is the Lord's, and all the fullness thereof" (PS.23-1). It is an affirmation that material creation is not to be exploited selfishly but to be returned in thanks to God, restored in communion with God.
When I recognize detachment as this powerful source of community and life, then I begin to break down barriers with my neighbor and my world, to recognize in others faces, icons; and in the earth the very face of God. Detachment implies loving; it is restoring the primal vision of creation, the original beauty of the world. It signifies moving away from what I want, to what the world needs. It is liberation from greed, control, and compulsion. It is freeing creation itself from fear and destruction.
Walking the way of the heavenly kingdom, assuming the power of silence and recognizing the value of detachment is to regain a sense of wonder, to be filled with a sense of goodness, of God-liness. It is to recognize all things in God and to remember God in all things. Understanding the spiritual root of our economic globalization of consumption is the necessary corrective for our culture of wasting and wounding. Letting go and letting God - in a renewed eschatological attitude - is the crucial balance for our patterns of control. Keeping silence is a critical alternative to noticing the impact and effect of our actions. And detachment is an essential way of learning that fasting is the only corrective for our wasting, that communion is the only substitute for our consumption.
Sharing is the healing of the scarring that we have left on the body of our world, and on our neighbor as the body of God. When through silence and detachment we learn to share, our spirituality is anything but disconnected from our actions. Then, we no longer lead lives disengaged from the injustice in the world. Then, our vision becomes enlarged, for-giving, able to contain the Uncontainable. Whenever we embrace this cosmic vision, we cease to narrow life to our concerns, our desires, and ourselves attending in the process to our vocation to transform the entire creation of God. Then, the confession of Augustine of Hippo becomes our deeper longing:
2 See the discussion on "methodological fault lines" by Cynthia Moe-Lobeda in HeaKng a Broken World C46balization and G64 Fortress Press: Minneapolis MN, 2002,152-156. Fr. Dumitru Staniloae described the contemporary tendency to identify spirituality with disengagement from the world as "premature eschatologism." See his Ascetica si ngsdea orthodoxa, Alba lulia- 1993, p. 28 [in Romanian].
3 Rodale: 2002, pp. 11-23.
4 Cf. Michael Mandelbaum, 7he Ideas that Conquered the World Peace, Democracy and Free Markets in the 2ist Century, Public Affairs: New York, 2002, PP. 328-352.
5 Adrian Slywotzky, 7he Art of Profltahility, Warner Books: New York, 2002.
6 See Igumen Chariton of Valamo, The Art of Prayer An Orthodox Anthology, Faber and Faber: London, 1966.
7 Originally appeared in English, published by James Clarke: London, 1957. Later reprinted by St. Vladimirs Seminary Press: New York, 1,976.
8 Even more enlightened and eloquent Orthodox theologians are guilty of narrowing the scope of eschatology: see Sergius Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press: New York, 1988, especially pp. 176-186, An important and influential exception may be found in the writing of John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology- Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes, Fordham University Press New York, 1974, pp. 118-223; and "Does Christian Tradition have a Future?' in St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly26, 3 (1982) pp. 139-154.
9 See Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Healing a Broken World PP. 48-65.
10 See Sallie McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology, Fortress Press: Minneapolis MN, 1993
11 Poemen 137; cf. Benedicta Ward (ed.), The Sayings of the Desert Fathers Cistercian Publications: Kalamazoo M1, 1985.
12 See Eric Wheeler (transl.), Dorotheus of Gaza: Discourses and Sayings, Cistercian Publications: Kalamazoo M1, 1977, PP. 138-139.
13 Reflections I, b and XV, d. Translation forthcoming by J. Chryssavgis, In the Heart of the Desert, World Wisdom Bloomington IN, 2003.
14 Title of a seventh-century text by John Climacus; English transl. in The Classics of Western Spirituality (Paulist Press: New York, 1982).
15 Doulas 1.
16 Agathon 11. See also Agathon 12.
17 Poemen 29.
Cf. Daniel Maguire, 7he Moral Code of Judaism and Christianity
Reclaiming the Revolution, Fortress Press: Minneapolis MN, 1993. "One
thing is clear: if current trends continue, we will not. ... We are an
endangered species" (p. 13).
19 Confessions VII, xiii, 19.