Author Archives: Matthew

About Matthew

"You Are, What You Do, When It Counts" - The Masao "The Enemy Gate Is Down" - Ender

Reading: Fifty Spiritual Homilies of St. Macarius the Egyptian by Pseudo-Macarius

When I began seeing the deep and lasting impact of God in my life, I was finishing my first book.  The universe facilitated my introduction to Maximus the Confessor and the Philokalia.  From there I read Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross and then The Selected Works of Maximus the Confessor. Maximus made tremendous effort to explain the condition of the human heart. I returned to the Philokalia and several passages struck truthful chords within my heart and my dreams. One of these passages, often cited without proper reference is from St. Macarious the Egyption. That passage is:

“Within the heart are unfathomable depths.  It is but a small vessel and yet dragons and lions are there, and poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms.  There likewise is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, the light and the Apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there.”

This passage is from the 50 Spiritual Homilies of St. Macarious the Egyptian.

There is no greater truth than the power and depth of the human heart are beyond measure and comprehension.  Each of us is defined by our actions.  Our capacity for good, selfless acts is balanced by the depth of our desire to preserve and serve our ego and self.  Inside the heart is the Godhead.  We were created in God’s image, given free will, and stained by original sin.  Each day we wake up and choose the roles we will play in our lives and in our

St. Macarious in the tradition of the Desert Fathers rejected a comfortable life and moved to the desert to medidate on God and our role as his creation.  His focus is the human heart and the spiritual battle within.  It is a deeply driven combat manual of spiritual warfare.  Taken as a whole, it is revolutionary in its scope and promise.

When I began reading it, I didn’t appreciate the degree and the forms that evil can take.  In protecting and serving our ego, we sacrifice our godly image and values.

Reading: Meister Eckhart Selected Writings by Oliver Davies

Okay, so it is no surprise to me that my journey bring me to Eckhart. To be honest, until last year the only reference to Eckhart I had found was in the movie Jacob’s Ladder. The main characters discuss Eckhart’s perception of demons and angels freeing us from the material world to which we cling for existence and value. The movie is based on Ambrose Bierce short story Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge. I saw the movie years ago and this discussion about Eckhart still gives me chills.  A few months ago, I watched the movie again for the first time in decades. Immediately, I jumped on Amazon and bought the first book I could find: Meister Eckhart Selected Writings by Oliver Davies.

Since reading this book, I have enjoyed several others and will do reviews on those as well. Any fans of Christian Mysticism will enjoy this book. Eckhart’s story and contribution to the philosophical understanding of the Godhead is beyond measure. He doesn’t write in riddles and his parables are sound. He turns a critical eye within himself to arrive at his assertions and they ring true.

This book, specifically, is pop culture Eckhart. It is the best, most understandable, and most memorable discussions and sermons he produced. I can’t cite or say a single negative thing about this book or Eckhart after reading it. And that bothers me. I am accustomed to disagreements. I welcome positions that challenge my own understanding or beliefs and I didn’t feel that way reading this book. His other books, available through your local library, will help push that individual envelope should the Eckhart fan want challenges. This book is very well thought out. The organization and structure is smooth.

Is there anything wrong with reading a book that doesn’t challenge your perceptions? No. Did I gain valuable insight into myself, God, and Eckhart? Absolutely. Would I recommend it?  Without hesitation. Almost every page in this book has a highlight mark or a dog-eared page. I devoured it and it resounded within me. However, if you discover Eckhart speaks to you personally like I felt, don’t stop with this book. There are many more that you won’t find on Amazon. Check out eBay!

Reading: On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ by St. Maximus the Confessor

Maximus the Confessor put forth many concepts through analytically sound reasoning that could be considered fringe. Today, he is a Saint although he died as a heretic.  When religious-political winds changed around the Monothelite Heresy of Christ’s nature, Maximus attained his Sainthood. Maximus believed that Man’s greatest endeavor was deification: becoming God. His assertions are bold concepts for their day and well-reasoned.

I continued to pursue a greater understanding of Maximus the Confessor and next on my reading list was On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ. As I read, I experienced Maximus asking the tough questions about our own humanity and Jesus’ role in our salvation. Ask ten different people “Who was Jesus?” and you will get ten different, but related, answers. Maximus was unafraid to address the impressive philosophical challenges of such a question. My reading was well rewarded. Inside the pages, I learned to appreciate the greater role and gift each human being possesses by its creation in God’s Image.

As I read, I like to dog ear and highlight passages that I really enjoy or that speak to me. Just like in life, there are times when you see, hear, or discover something about yourself or the world that just feels right. Feels down to our being that what you now understand is a universal certainty or conviction. During these blog post reviews, I want to make a practice of sharing these passages. Like any famous quote, it can inspire further study in its author.

“One man sets forth an admirable example of superior perseverance and pious courage for other human beings, if indeed there were a man distinguished in intelligence and virtue, and competent in himself to uncover, through unwavering engagement in formidable struggles, the truth which has meanwhile lay hidden.”   Ambiguum 8

For me, this is the challenge for humanity. While the person described above sounds like a super hero, there is no talk of flying faster than a speeding bullet. If one can heroically aspire to heavenly virtues upon this physical world, this passage describes that aspiration.

“Perhaps it is even the case that the present inequality is allowed to prevail in order to display our rational capacity for preferring virtue above everything else. For the change and alteration of the body and of things external are for all human beings one and the same thing-both a bearing and a being born along- which also knows chaos and conductibility as its only stability and its only security.” Ambiguum 8

 

 

Sin: Missing the Mark

As I was digging into Pseudo-Dionysius I went to Chicago for business.  I met with Cress who is a good friend from Denver and we chatted over lunch.  We shared stories and I told him some of my immediate impressions of Pseudo-Dionysius’ work.  As we discussed the Divine Pattern that each of us can choose to follow or choose to ignore in favor of our individual egos, he shared the analogy that many Christians have come to associate with the term ‘sin’.

For most of human beings, we don’t roll out of bed in the morning with a daily plan to wreak havoc and destroy others.

Reserve your Advice Unless Asked

We all want to run around fixing other people.  We want them to be happy by our definition and expectation.  As we get older, we see our friends and family make the same mistakes over and over, repeating the same patterns of behavior again and again.  We hear them tell us their dreams and hopes yet when the rubber meets the road, they fail over and over with the same problems.  We celebrate when we see them escape a terrible relationship and then watch them as months go by and they dive right back into a similar relationship.  It is as if they are damned to repeat their mistakes and as good friends we want to help them…

I was lost, now I am found, and everyone else is lost

Obama has become my daily inspiration for how the ego drives otherwise good men to incredibly wicked and morally corrupt deeds.  I read articles that described his intense concern for his legacy and how it would be perceived by history.  This subscription to the whims of history blinded him from doing the right thing.  My wife always mentions that the White House photographer is incredible and I have to agree.  The historical capital by which the photographer continues to capture candid moments of the president standing with a small African-American child in front a portrait of Lincoln is a wonderfully emotionally trigger that tugs on my heart strings.  Now, six years later I feel ashamed.  I was played.  The American people were played.  We were marks in the biggest con in our country’s history.

I’ll be honest.  I voted for change.  I believed the hype.  And then I discovered a harsh truth about politics.  Republican, Democrat, or Tea Party nutcase they don’t live in the same America I do.  They allowed their egos to get the better of them.  Money and power corrupted their souls and corroded their values.  The party that I held up as the moral compass of America was as dark as anything in my worst nightmare.  It is a chilling wake-up call.  I can’t make excuses for them anymore.

I believe American’s try hard.  Yes, some citizens game the system and others live in a world of entitlements.  However, most Americans just work hard and try to get by.

I watched the recent debate over the firing of the West Point football coach.  Alumni rose to defend him claiming it isn’t his fault the players fumble the ball every year.

The news outlets tell me that the millennials are failing in everything they do.  Well, they aren’t failing.  Young Americans are second guesses themselves.  Someone moved the goal posts.

At the end of the day, the coach is the only one we can ultimately hold responsible on a football team.  Likewise, a president for a country.

 

Reading: Maximus Confessor Selected Writings by George C. Berthold

After reading the Philokalia, I made a list of authors that I wanted to read.  That list included philosophers, saints, and early Christian mystics.  One of the first was Saint Maximus the Confessor.  I had read the Wikipedia entry on him and was fascinated by him.  My own belief in ego death reflected in his philosophy and I saw echoes of my own experiences with the God Image, the deification of man, and reconnecting with the Source.

In Maximus’ time, there was a great debate over whether Jesus had only a Divine Will or both a Divine Will and a human will.  Monophysitism put forward that Christ only had a Divine Will.  Dyophysitism believed Christ had both a Divine Will and a human will.  This was a tremendous debate within the new church.

Maximus the Confessor believed in the Dyophysite position.  He believed the only way Christ could fully demonstrate his sacrifice and vulnerability was to be faced by the same temptations as God’s creation.  Ultimately, this is how the Church evolved but at the time it resulted in a heresy conviction and cost Maximus his tongue and his right hand.  He died shortly thereafter in 662 AD.

As a result of the Sixth Ecumenical Council in 681, Maximus was vindicated and the Church declared Christ to have both a Divine Will and a human will.  He was made a saint and is one of the last men to be recognized by both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church as a Father of the Church.

The book Maximus Confessor Selected Writings by George C. Berthold is divided into 6 key parts: The Introduction, The Four Hundred Chapters on Love, The Commentary on the Our Father, The Chapters on Knowledge, and The Church’s Mystagogy.

The Introduction provides the historical framework necessary to appreciate the world of Maximus’ time.  It also gives a brief biography of Saint Maximus the Confessor to include his teachers and the great controversies of the time.  The Christian Church wasn’t built in a day. Its creation was the result of many iterations of discussions and debates during the first millennium of the Church’s existence.  These debates were incredibly passionate as the founders felt a responsibility almost beyond imagination.  There were also consequences for those who didn’t follow the popular line of reasoning.  Theologians incorporated and synthesized elements of Judaism and Greek philosophy to fully understand the Christ phenomena.  Maximus was a student of Pseudo-Dionysius and also integrated the work of Plotinus, the father of Neoplatonism, into his own beliefs.

The Four Hundred Chapters on Love is also known as the Four Centuries on Love.  It contains 400 verses that represent the most beautiful reflections on God, Love, and Jesus Christ ever written.  It also delves into the destructive force of allowing passions to enter the heart. After I read these verses I saw a change in myself and my own understanding.  I promised myself I would reread them regularly and incorporate them into my prayers and meditations.

The Commentary on the Our Father is a delightful dissection and discussion of the Lord’s Prayer.  My own experiences of coming back to the Church were reinforced by this discussion.  As a child and young adult, I recited the Lord’s Prayer with rote accuracy but without an understanding of its deeper meaning.  One of the first things that I did as I came back was to meditate on each line of the prayer and how it evolved for me.  The Lord’s Prayer hadn’t changed, by its personal meaning and reflection on my understanding of God had been altered dramatically by the passing years.

The Chapters on Knowledge or Two Centuries on Knowledge are some of the most deeply moving philosophical thoughts on God, the human ego, redemption, and salvation I have read.  Like the Four Hundred Chapters on Love, there are two hundred verses to serve as a basis for meditation and prayer.  Maximus’ deep understanding and inspired writing cannot help but move one to a greater appreciation of our role as God’s creation.

The Church’s Mystagogy discusses the symbolism of the rites within the Divine Synaxis.  Although this was my least favorite part of the book, it was interesting nonetheless.  The first eight chapters were the most rewarding with in-depth discussions of man’s relationship and responsibility to both God and himself and the logical ransom Christ paid for his Father’s creation.  After chapter eight I found it became a little dry for the next 14 pages.  Stepping through the individual rites and their meaning wasn’t as engaging for me personally.

In summary, this book will be a part of my permanent collection.  Like a wise old friend, I find its company comforting and I am often surprised by the counsel I receive from its pages.  Whenever I feel distracted, this book can be relied on to provide the answer I need.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

 

Reading: Philokalia: The Eastern Christian Spiritual Texts by G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware

The Philokalia was one of the first books I read on the subject of early Christian mysticism and continues to inspire my wonderful journey.  In many ways, I consider it a tasting menu and cross section of the greatest Christian philosophers, mystics, and writers of all ages.

By late February 2013, my midlife crisis of the previous two years had evolved into a crisis of faith.  Spiritually I was going to hit a tremendous crossroads that would change me forever.  As I sat on my couch editing GGCBCC, I grabbed a straw that had been pointing at me for awhile.  That straw was a number.  662.

I was led to the Philokalia by way of Wikipedia when I typed in the number 662 into Google one night.  It’s amusing that we ever made it through our day without Google.  The number had come up in my life too many times recently to be discounted any longer.    Among other things, it was the date of the death of Saint Maximus the Confessor.  If you have ever read an author that really speaks to you down to your very soul, that’s what happened to me with Saint Maximus.  As I read the Wikipedia entry, I took notes pulling out the relevant authors and books that might continue my education once I finished GGCBCC.  My first book was the Philokalia.

We have a wonderful public library system in San Mateo County.  It allows you to pull books in from different branches and that is exactly what I began doing.  I am always open to suggestions for further reading, but for me the Philokalia was the perfect choice to begin my education.  It paints a beautiful mosaic from the excerpts of leading Christian thinkers and philosophers during the creation and formation of the Christian religion.  These contributors included mystics, desert hermits, Saints, and even the kernel of philosophers that together created the operating system we call Christianity.

I used to believe that religious folks were superstitious and feared science and reason.  The state of Texas was proof in my mind with their desire to outlaw critical thinking in schools.  Then I realized that I had typecast all Christians into an extremist minority no different than many Americans probably do with followers of the Jewish or Muslim faith.  The Philokalia demonstrated to me the incredible critical thinking and reasoning that was required to build the foundation of the Christian Church.

If you can only read one book on Christianity to start your journey, I recommend the Philokalia.  It will show you a beautiful back story to Christianity that will inspire further reading.