The clay and the potter

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know Him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And every one who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as he is pure.”

1 John 3:1-3

My soul is on fire as if it has been lit by ten thousand candles, and yet I feel a deep calm, an innermost peace, at the same time as this fire. This divine fire which has inflamed my soul is the radiant joy and awe I feel at God’s immediate and immanent presence, which is “everywhere present and fill[s] all things”!

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I am in love with every part of God’s creation, all that is on this earth and in the heavens, but most especially, I am struck by the beauty I see in every face, in every person’s countenance. Old and creased with cares, young and carefree, wrinkled from the accumulation of a life’s work, or soft and smooth in youth – every person I see is beautiful, because each person points to the Creator.

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Whenever I think on the reality that every single person I will see or meet in my life is a child of God, formed by Him before birth in His image (Psalm 138 LXX), I am almost overwhelmed with awe. Every person, at every stage of his or her life, is a precious vessel of the Holy Spirit, the divine Love, the immanent and active grace of our Lord present in all His creation.

Every person is sacred, and the grace of Him who made us all cannot ever be fully absent from anyone. It is always there; the seed of the divine Image remains imprinted upon each soul, no matter what a person does to deny, shatter, or flee from that grace. For we are as clay formed by a master potter; just like clay vessels which travel to the corners of the earth away from the hands of him who formed them, even if we end up far away from Him who shaped us, we cannot escape the reality of our existence. Impressed upon our souls, our very being, is the reality that we came from, and were generated by, the divine Love of God.

The Scriptures are filled with beautiful verses describing God and man in the language of a potter and his clay. Within Genesis 1:26-28, we read:

“. . .So God created [in Hebrew, the word used here is bara] man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them.”.

God created man ex nihilo, but the word bara also signifies that He molded and fashioned man as would a potter out of clay. Bara is a word which occurs in the Hebrew Scriptures only in reference to the creative activity of God. It implies that something new has been brought into existence by divine command.

Further, in Genesis 2:1-7, we read that 

“In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no man to till the ground; but a mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground—then the LORD God formed [In Hebrew, the word used here is yatsar] man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath [רוח, ruach, or spirit] of life; and man became a living being. . .”.

In Hebrew, “dust” and “clay” are often used interchangeably to refer to soil or earth from the ground. Yatsar, translated in this version as “formed”, literally means to mold as a potter molds clay. The use of yatsar tells us how God formed and sculpted the first of mankind, Adam (אָדָם, whose very name means ‘man’ in Hebrew) and Eve ( חַוָּה, whose name means “living one” or “source of life”). God created man as the summit of His work, the highest of all of His artistic creation, after His own image.

In Jeremiah 18:1-7, we read in the Prophet Jeremiah’s revelation from God a wording very similar to that used in Genesis: “Then the Word of the Lord came to me. He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.””

Most beautifully, in Isaiah 64:8, we read:

“Yet, O Lord, thou art our Father;
    we are the clay, and thou art our potter;
    we are all the work of thy hand. . .”

Knowing this by the sweetest and most touching grace of God, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which imprints Himself upon our souls, we are transformed “by the renewal of [our] mind”, as St Paul writes in Romans 12:2. (Here, “mind”, a latinism, is a very misleading translation of the original Greek word νοός, nous, which is more accurately understood as the eye of the soul or mind of the heart; that spiritual consciousness which makes us aware of God’s immanent presence and grace).

When our noetic faculties are enlivened by the Holy Spirit, we become more and more aware that God truly is “everywhere present and fill[ing] all things. . . the Treasury of blessings and Giver of Life”. When we come to look upon every person — no mater their emotional or psychological state or physical appearance or social status — as a fellow child of God, an icon of the Divine image, we see the spark of His love present all around us in everyone we meet and see, each hour of every day. In this, each moment of our life becomes a great blessing.

How can we not love each person as a precious icon of the Holy Trinity, our God who loves us in a way that is beyond our power to rationally describe or conceptually understand? If we know this, once we discern His love for ourselves, then we must realize He loves every other person just as much as He loves us. How can we not but see that the love God has for each of His creatures is a reflection of the perfect love which unites His Three Persons in a unity which transcends our rational understanding?

We read again and again in the Scriptures variations on the reality that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 1 John 3, John 3:16, Ephesians 2:4-5, Galatians 2:20, Romans 5:8, etc), which the universal witness of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church has maintained through the centuries. Only by integrating into our daily lives this awareness that our God loves us to the depths of our being, who fashioned each body and soul in His image, may we be transformed and become truly Christ-like Christians, little anointed ones, sons  and daughters of the Most High. What a soul-astounding and glorious challenge this is: to live by love in all things, seeing in the other, in every person you meet and know, the presence of your Creator.

Metropolitan Jonah: A man of extraordinary kindness

“Oh how great is thy goodness, which thou hast laid up for them that fear thee; which thou hast wrought for them that trust in thee. . .” – Psalm 30:19 (LXX)
 
It is often the seemingly simplest things in life which give us the greatest joy, from the happiness of an unexpected call or e-mail, to an impromptu dinner surrounded by the warmth and laughter of great friends. Yesterday was filled with both these simple joys for me. I’ve resumed my correspondence with one of my mentors, the world-traveling futurist and educator Gary Marx, and in the evening I attended a fascinating conference planning session and wonderful dinner with a group of Orthodox friends.
 
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Metropolitan Jonah invited a group of Orthodox friends to his house here in Washington. As a university student, I was the youngest person present. It was a great joy to be with so many dear friends (and several new acquaintances, including an Anglican priest and a newly-arrived Orthodox monk) brainstorming about panel and lecture topics, reaching out to would-be sponsors and affiliate organizations, and discussing media outreach strategies. We are in the infancy of planning a series of pan-Christian conferences focused on the overarching themes of secularism and the place of faith in public life.
 
Vladyka is a wonderfully kind host! Following several hours of enthusiastic discussion, and tea served by Vladyka, we moved to the dining room for a delicious Lenten dinner which he had prepared for us. My godmother has told me many times, and I discovered for myself that he is a very gifted cook! It was very touching to gather together in his home enjoying this lovely dinner which he had made for all of us. The main course was a savory vegetable stew with squid (an Athonite recipe, he told us) along with plenty of pasta, bread, fresh tomatoes and cut lemon.
 
For dessert we enjoyed blackberry turnovers and cherry pie with soy ice cream, and I was delighted to see that my godmother (who is not of Jewish heritage) brought hamentaschen! These triangularly folded fruit pastries baked with poppy seeds are a delicious Ashkenazic Jewish tradition. Most often eaten during the Purim festivities, the time when Jews commemorate the Hebrews’ deliverance from destruction through the courage of Queen Esther, they remain popular year-round with Jews and non-Jews alike. It was a delight to eat these Jewish pastries during our Orthodox Lenten dinner, as I recalled my introduction to them during my Long Island childhood.
 
The food was delicious, but it is the warmth of the conversation, the easy and frequent laughter (Vladyka and the visiting Anglican priest are both wonderful storytellers) which I will most remember. It was a great blessing to spend the evening with such wonderful church friends. The dinner was yet another reminder of how profoundly blessed I am to have such a kind and thoughtful man as my spiritual father and bishop.
 
To those of us who are blessed to see him regularly, Metropolitan Jonah is a shining example of Christian love actualized through thoughtful actions, a warm nature and a heart filled with a deep awareness of God’s presence and an abiding love for serving others. Unassuming, down-to-earth, and warm-hearted to the core, he is a blessing to talk with and a joy to learn from in his brilliant Bible study talks and incisive and pastoral sermons. I feel very blessed that I have come to know him over these past several years, and that I have the opportunity to continue learning from him. To all those whose lives he touches, he is a great blessing.

On awareness of the God who searches your heart

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On awareness of the God who searches your heart

St. Theophan the Recluse, also known as Theophanes or Feofan Zatvornik (Russian: Феофан Затворник), (January 10, 1815 – January 6, 1894) is a well-known saint in the Russian Orthodox Church. He was born as Giorgiy Vasilievich Govorov in the village of Chernavsk. His father was a Russian Orthodox priest. He was educated in the Orthodox seminaries at Livny, Orel and Kiev. In 1841 he was tonsured as a monk and ordained as a priest, and adopted the name Theophan from the Greek θεοφάνεια, denoting a theophany (an appearance or manifestation of God). Theophan later became the Bishop of Tambov.

The Saint is well-known today in Russia through the many books he wrote concerning the inner spiritual life, especially on the subjects of the Christian life and the training of youth in the faith. He also played a leading role in translating the Philokalia from Church Slavonic into Russian. The Philokalia, a classic of Eastern Orthodox spirituality, is composed of the collected edited works of a number of Church Fathers which were placed in a four volume set beginning in the 17th century. A persistent theme is developing an interior life of continuous prayer, learning to cultivate a profound awareness of God’s presence and to “pray without ceasing” as St. Paul teaches in 1 Thessalonians.

St John of Kronstadt on divine love

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St John of Kronstadt on divine love

“Great is Your love, O Lord: You have wholly spent Yourself out of love for me. I gaze upon the cross and marvel at Your love to me and to the world, for the cross is the evident token of Your love to us. ‘Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ (Jn. 15:13). Your life-giving Mysteries, Lord, serve as a perpetual glorious proof of Your love for us sinners; for this Your Divine Body was broken for me, for us all, and this Blood was poured out for me, for us all. Lord, I glorify the wonders accomplished by Your Holy Mysteries upon Your believers, to whom I have ministered Them; I glorify the innumerable cures of which I was witness; I glorify Their all-saving action in myself. I glorify Your mercy to me, revealed to me in Them and through Them, and Your life-giving power, acting in Them. Lord, in return for Your great love, grant that I may love You with all my heart, and my neighbor as myself, grant that I may also love my enemies, and not only those who love me.

-St. John of Kronstadt (My Life in Christ; Holy Trinity Monastery pgs, 319-320)

Saint John of Kronstadt (1829-1908) is one of the most beloved Russian saints to whom thousands would come seeking his ascetic and pastoral advice. He served most of his life at St Alexander Nevsky’s Cathedral in Kronstadt outside St Petersburg. He wrote widely on many topics, especially on the profound existential need to cultivate transcendent Christian love and forgiveness.

Saint John of Kronstadt (1829-1908) is one of the most beloved Russian saints to whom thousands would come seeking his ascetic and pastoral advice. He served most of his life at St Alexander Nevsky’s Cathedral in Kronstadt outside St Petersburg. He wrote widely on many topics, especially on the profound existential need to cultivate transcendent Christian love and forgiveness.

A centering prayer for compassion

forgiveness

Each morning after or before you pray, and each night before you sleep, say these words slowly and deeply, so that the peace of God which “passes all understanding” may fill your heart and the Lord’s grace may quiet your soul.

“I was created by God out of His love.

I am alive today by His grace.

I will die in hope of eternal life with Him.

Through His mercy, I will rise again in the glory of the resurrection.”

Then, look or think upon anyone who has hurt or wronged you, and, keeping him or her in mind,  reflect on this person that:

“You were created by God out of His love.

You are alive today by His grace.

You will die in hope of eternal life with Him.

Through His mercy, you will rise again in the glory of the resurrection.”

If, in this way, you can truly look upon your fellow man with kind intent, even a person who hurt or wounded you, then you not only do a good work in God’s sight, but you lessen any pain in your soul. By allowing the grace of the Holy Spirit to work and move through you in a spirit of forgiveness, any anger and bitterness in your soul will dissipate, replaced with genuine compassion and deep Christian love. This freedom from anger and bitterness is the fruit of all regenerative redemption, healing of soul, and inner peace.

The ocean of God’s mercy

“We should often, if not daily, examine our souls, and repent of the sins that we find there.” – St Mark the Ascetic

“Let none fear death, for the death of the Saviour has set us free!” – St John Chrysostom

When compared to God’s love for us, our many sins are but rain drops disappearing into the infinite ocean of His mercy.

In baptism, we enter the Christian life through water, as the waves of faith and God’s grace wash over us, embracing us in the sea of His eternal love, pulling us on the tide of our mortal life toward the promise of eternal life with Him.

When we repent, our turning away from sinful paths often manifests physically in the shedding of heartfelt tears as the soul is pierced by the love of her Creator. Just as the ocean of God’s mercy envelops and blots out all our sins, so too are our tear drops of repentance washed away through the cleansing pool of His grace in genuine confession, by which, in obedience to the grace and direction of the Holy Spirit, we may continually be renewed, strengthened, transformed and made righteous anew.

In Christ, the sunrise is a metaphor for both birth, one’s physical entry into this world to begin this transitory life, and for the crowning sun of entry into eternal life through the body’s physical death. Likewise, the sunset heralds both the declining years of one’s human life, and the hopeful approach of life eternal beyond the ‘night’ of the grave.

When, at the end of this transitory life, we have shed countless tears, some of bitterness or despair, many more of repentance, humility and joy, we will then more fully discern the depth of God’s infinite grace and mercy for us. When we have been transformed through God’s grace and our ever-deepening faith, when we have poured out oceans of love for our Creator and all His creation, we feel called to return to His infinite, loving embrace. With radiant faces, joyous hearts, and illumined souls, those made righteous by grace, in faith, fall once more into this infinite ocean, entering unto eternal life as peacefully as gentle raindrops falling into the sea.

“As a handful of sand is thrown into the ocean, so are the sins of all flesh as compared with the mind of God. Just as a strongly flowing fountain is not blocked up by a handful of earth, so the compassion of the Creator is not overcome by the sins of His creatures. Someone who bears a grudge while he prays is like a person who sows in the sea and expects to reap a harvest.”
St. Isaac the Syrian (d. c. 700)

In Christ is our hope, our joy, our life- in this world and the next- and our very salvation- mystical and personal union with Him by the grace and power of His Holy Spirit!

On divine love

Patience, forgiveness and joy are the three greatest characteristics of divine love. They are characteristics of all real love – if there is such a thing as real love outside divine love. Without these three characteristics, love is not love. If you give the name ‘love’ to anything else, it is as though you were giving the name ‘sheep’ to a goat or a pig.

-St. Nikolai Velimirovic

Saint Nikolai Velimirovic of Ohrid and Žiča lived from 1881-1956. He served as bishop of Ohrid and of Žiča in the Serbian Orthodox Church and was an influential theological writer and a highly gifted orator who came to be widely regarded as The New Chrysostom.

The Holy Spirit and the waves of God’s righteousness

There are several signs that the energy of the Holy Spirit is beginning to be active in those who genuinely aspire for this to happen and are not just putting God to the test – for, according to the Wisdom of Solomon, ‘It is found by those who do not put it to the test, and manifests itself to those who do not distrust it’ (cf. Wisd.1:2).

In some it appears as awe arising in the heart, in others as a tremulous sense of jubilation, in others as joy, in others as joy mingled with awe, or as tremulousness mingled with joy, and sometimes it manifests itself as tears and awe. For the soul is joyous at God’s visitation and mercy, but at the same time is in awe and trepidation at His presence because it is guilty of so many sins.

Again, in some the soul, at the outset, experiences an unutterable sense of contrition and an indescribable pain, like the woman in Scripture who labors to give birth (cf. Rev. 12:2). For the living and active Logos – that is to say, Jesus – penetrates, as the apostle says, to the point at which soul separates from body, joints from marrow (cf. Heb. 4:12), so as to expel by force every trace of passion from both soul and body.

In others it is manifest as an unconquerable love and peace, shown towards all, or as a joyousness that the fathers have often called exultation – a spiritual force and an impulsion of the living heart that is also described as a vibration and sighing of the Spirit who makes wordless intercession for us to God (cf. Rom. 8:26).

Isaiah has also called this the ‘waves’ of God’s righteousness (cf. Isa. 48:18), while the great Ephrem calls it ‘spurring’. The Lord Himself describes it as ‘a spring of water welling up for eternal life’ (John 4:14) – He refers to the Spirit as water – a source that leaps up in the heart and erupts through the ebullience of its power.

-St Gregory of Sinai

St Gregory of Sinai (1260-1346) was a monk at St Catherine’s Monastery on Mt Sinai in Egypt who was instrumental in preserving the tradition of hesychia on Mount Athos and bringing it to Bulgaria.

The Monastery of Saint Catherine, named in honor of the third century Great Martyr of Alexandria, is one of the holiest sites for Orthodox Christians. It is located at the foot of Mount Sinai, Egypt. On this site the Prophet and Hebrew patriarch Moses, traditionally viewed by Christians, Jews and Muslims as the author of the Pentateuch, received the first Ten Commandments from God. Erected by order of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565), the monastery also encloses the Chapel of the Burning Bush.