Posted by Joe Rawls

A few days ago my wife Nancy loaned me A Rare and Precious Thing: the possibilities and pitfalls of working with a spiritual teacher (Bell Tower, New York 2006) by John Kain. He is a Buddhist practitioner, poet, and associate publisher of Tricycle magazine. The book describes how one works with spiritual teachers/masters/elders/guides/directors in a wide variety of traditions. Pages 36 and 37 relate a visit to a Trappist monastery near Winnipeg by Howard Thurman, professor of theology at Boston University, and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of the founders of Jewish Renewal. Instead of going to the abbot, whom they considered "just a manager", they sought out the novice master.

"...and Howard asks him, 'What's the biggest complaint you have among novices?' The master says, 'Well, they have to be up at two-thirty in the morning to attend Matins and Lauds. They aren't too happy about it. They tell me that it's so much better when they're out in the fields and they feel ecstasy and love for God and hallelujah and so on. So I say to them, "I forbid you to come to any services now except for the masses, which are an obligation". 'What happened then?' Howard asked. And the master replied, 'Well, after a while they came back to me and said, "We didn't come here to be farm hands." 'What happened to your ecstasies?' the master asked. 'They dried up', said the novices. So the master told them, 'Of course, now you realize, what you are doing at two-thirty in the morning is what gives you the ecstasy in the fields'."

Essence, Energies, Theosis  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

Yesterday was, in the Orthodox calendar, the feast of St Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), a monk of Mt Athos, an archbishop of Thessalonica, but above all a great theologian. Largely as the result of a prolonged dispute with Barlaam of Calabria, Gregory clarified and solidified one feature of the Eastern Church's teaching on the nature of God. God's transcendent aspect (his "essence") is unknowable by us because of the gulf inherent between Creator and creatures. However, we do encounter God in his "uncreated energies" (his immanent aspect), in which God reaches out to us in love and holds us and the entire universe in existence. The process of theosis, in which we become progressively more united with God, is a process of union with God's uncreated energies.

Illustrating these observations are two quotes, one from number 78 of Palamas' 150 Chapters, and the second from an article by Russian theologian Georges Florovsky.


There are three realities in God, namely substance [essence], energy, and a Trinity of divine hypostases. Since it has been shown above that those deemed worthy of union with God so as to become one spirit with him...are not united to God in substance, and since all theologians bear witness in their statements to the fact that God is imparticipable in substance and the hypostatic union happens to be predicated of the Word and God-man alone, it follows that those deemed worthy of union with God are united to God in energy and that the spirit whereby he who clings to God is one with God is called and is indeed the uncreated energy of the Spirit and not the substance of God, even though Barlaam...may disagree.


Actually the whole teaching of St Gregory presupposes the action of the Personal God. God moves toward man and embraces him by his own "grace" and action without leaving that light unapproachable in which he eternally abides. The ultimate purpose of St Gregory's theological teaching was to defend the reality of Christian experience. Salvation is more than forgiveness. It is genuine renewal of man. And this renewal is not effected by the discharge, or release, of certain natural energies implied in man's own creaturely being, but by the "energies" of God himself, who thereby encounters and encompasses man, and admits him into communion with himself.

Boredom Eternal?  

Posted by Joe Rawls

When I was a pious young Catholic lad, I would sometimes work myself into a state thinking about eternity. When the nuns and priests spoke about the afterlife they gave the impression that it would be a lot like this present life, minus, of course, sin, corruption and death. Honestly, I did not find it all that interesting. The possibility that it would go on forever was frankly a bit unnerving, even throwing the beatific vision into the mix.

The possibility of everlasting tedium is advanced by some philosophers and theologians as an argument against the afterlife. This is discussed by Episcopal priest Matt Gunter in a post on his new blog Into the Expectation. However, he presents an alternative view based solidly in the Christian tradition--one which was glossed over in my catechism classes. A hat-tip to the Covenant site.


If immortality is just mortal life extended indefinitely, there might not be much to commend it. Our limited mortal selves cannot bear immortality in that sense. Borges gets at this. As does Anne Rice in the desperate and lonely immortality "lived" by the vampire, Lestat. Living forever in the sense of life as we know it is less attractive than might be assumed at first.

But, as a Christian, I have to say that is not my hope. Mere immortality is not the same thing as eternal life. The Bible is surprisingly circumspect in describing just what eternal life means. But there are hints.

First of all, the Christian hope is not to avoid death. Death is indeed the hard reality under whose shadow we live. But, we confess that the one who is Life entered into that hard reality and took it upon himself and died a mortal death on a cross. Still more, we confess that Life transformed the reality of death through resurrection. So, now the shadow of death is the shadow cast by the cross with the light of resurrection glory shining from beyond.

Because we hope for resurrection, our hope is not for life extended over inexhaustible time but for life transformed. Thus, one of the most enduring images of that hope is the prophet Isaiah's vision of the Peaceable Kingdom...Similarly, the vision of the New Jerusalem in the Revelation to John points to the healing of all that corrupts and destroys along with all within and without that keeps us from complete and mutual joy. Our hope is for all creation, perhaps all of history--and us in it--to be transformed.

We do not hope for this life extended beyond death. Rather, we expect to be transfigured, or as Dante would have it, transhumanized. We expect to be "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 2:4) capable of enjoying God who is Eternal Life and capable of being in-joyed by God.

All Saints  

Posted by Joe Rawls

For All Saints Day we have excerpts from a sermon by Bernard of Clairvaux, a founder of the Cistercian monastic reform and one of the greatest preachers of the western medieval church. It comes from Sermo 2: Opera omnia, Edit. Cisterc. 5 [1968], 364 ff


Why should our praise and glorification, or even the celebration of this feastday mean anything to the saints? What do they care about earthly honors when their heavenly Father honors them by fulfilling the faithful promise of the Son? What does our commendation mean to them? The saints have no need of honor from us; neither does our devotion add the slightest thing to what is theirs. Clearly, if we venerate their memory, it serves us, not them. But I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by a tremendous yearning.

Calling the saints to mind inspires, or rather arouses in us, above all else, a longing to enjoy their company, so desirable in itself. We long to share in the citizenship of heaven, to dwell with the spirits of the blessed, to join the assembly of patriarchs, the ranks of the prophets, the council of apostles, the great hosts of martyrs, the noble company of confessors and the choir of virgins. In short, we long to be united in happiness with all the saints...

...When we commemorate the saints we are inflamed with another yearning: that Christ our life may also appear to us as he appeared to them and that we may one day share in his glory. Until then we see him, not as he is, but as he became for our sake. He is our head, crowned, not with glory, but with the thorns of our sins. As members of that head, crowned with thorns, we should be ashamed to live in luxury; his purple robes are a mockery rather than an honor. When Christ comes again his death shall no longer be proclaimed, and we shall know that we also have died, and that our life is hidden with him. The glorious head of the Church will appear and his glorified members will shine in splendor with him, when he forms this lowly body anew into such glory as belongs to himself, its head.