2002, An-Nahar, Articles

Strife or Renewal / 8.12.2002

In struggling for perfection, we are told to strive because the grace by which we are saved has outrun us. Our books say that God saves us when we fall or when we are “assaulted” by temptation. This is true; our books speak of resisting the evil one with the “full armor of God” and when the apostle lists that armor he mentions that it is truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, the helmet of salvation and the word of God. These help us “extinguish” all the arrows of the evil one. Yes, Paul here calls for much patience, gentleness in the Holy Spirit, love and the word of truth.

In the face of human weakness that threatens us from the inside – as James says – the Bible tells us to pray that the Spirit who is in the depths of God, would come down into our hearts. As such I do not find in the New Testament the idea of “strengthening the will” that we were brought up with in the missionaries’ schools. And it became clear to me later that that is the genius of the West which is enchanted with the human power that springs from Man’s inner being despite Augustine’s (the Father of the Christian West) stress on the supremacy of the action of Grace.

From what I know of the asceticism of the East  – and l have assimilated thousands of its pages – in this field, I did not come across any talk about the strengthening of the human will except the little that came concerning the education of the human being (and we find this with St. John Chrysostom).  And it appears to me that this is so due to the concern our Fathers have in distinguishing between mere human strife and the grace that comes down on us freely from God. Christian Eastern spirituality shuns what is merely human. But it also shuns the idea of man being at the mercy of the arbitrary temperament of a god who forces himself on man; such a forcing implies that we are still in the realm of animalistic dealing and that we have not gotten into the logic of the incarnation based on the participation between the Deity and the humanity, in Christ and in us. And so the Christian Eastern spirituality sees salvation as a combined effort between God and Man; an action depicted by the word “synergy” which implies the accompaniment of the divine action to the human effort. Yet what sounds as a contractual understanding is superseded with what is mentioned about God’s action in the practice of the invocation of the name of Jesus that God, by coming and filling one’s heart,  purifies as a resuly the soul from all defilement. And only He (Man excluded) is able to save us from the spiritual death that lurks around us.

 There remains a “big” question: “Why do we sin?” In other words, what is inside us that causes us to sin as the Bible says: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3: 23). The universality of sin and its prevalence in the human race is a point stressed in the Bible.  When we see that the apostles sinned as they were following the Lord, and when we read in the Epistles how the apostles denounce the Christians for their sinfulness and they mention their (Christians) sins to them, we are faced with the question: “how can that be when Christ has arisen from the dead and He raises us with Him (that is He raises us from sin)?”

Here, I think we have to consider the dialectic of St. Paul. After Paul says: “If we have died with Christ we have faith that we will live with Him” and then he goes on saying: “Consider yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord”; he calls us not to let sin reign in our mortal body obeying it in lusting for things; then he goes on saying: “Do not offer your organs (meaning our whole body) as instruments of iniquity”. The Apostle knows that sin can be an obstacle in our way of beholding the resurrection of the Savior. In spite of this, he hopes that in being filled with the victory of Christ, we would not fall, so he says – in hope – “sin will not have dominion over you because you are not under the Law (the law of Moses) but under grace”. 

Here, I have to remind us that our Fathers greatly stressed the fact that we are created in the image and likeness of God. The image – whether it is freedom of will or the mind or our total being – is that we, structurally, resemble God and the likeness is the “movement” towards God. This likeness, which is the “movement towards Him”, is fallen and this is why we need redemption. But the image in us has been marred; yet we remain in the image of God since the image passes away but we do not. Here sin corrupts the likeness and only Grace can bring it (the likeness) back. The Bible mentions “the mystery of iniquity” and answers the question “Why do we sin?” only through the Epistle of James where it says that lust moves us to sin and it has not ceased to do so despite the resurrection of Christ and His victory over death.

Yet we have two discourses on the resurrection the best of which is what the Lord told the sister of Lazarus: “I am the resurrection and the life” after a conversation between them about the resurrection of her brother. When Jesus told Martha “your brother shall rise from the dead” she said to Him I know that he will rise on the last day in the resurrection. It is then that Jesus tells her:  “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” As if Jesus wants to tell her that there is something more important than the resurrection on the last day, which is the resurrection in the present time for all those who love the Savior. It is a resurrection that eats up the weakness of Man and his lust.

Yet Paul gives the full understanding of the resurrection in his first letter to the Corinthians saying: “Now Christ has risen from the dead and has become the first fruit of those who die ….. in Christ all shall live”; “…shall live” indicates the future, and so the possibility to sin remains in the present time in Paul’s dim understanding of the mystery of sin. Somewhere else he says “now we see dimly in a mirror”.  

And perhaps the greatest vision is this “that we all and together shall be saved on the last day”. Sin, the sting of death remains now. When our being which is now marred by death will be redeemed on the last day, we shall be raised whole. Then God will give us full victory in our Lord Jesus Christ.

When in my youth I got interested in the subject of evil no one helped me as much as my instructor the great Russian theologian Father George Florovsky; he told me that we do not have a philosophy of evil in Christianity even though he exposed to me what other schools of thought say about that matter. We believe that Christ remains close to the sinner; so when we notice the presence of evil, we undertake to combat it in Christ who is in us. We are concerned with being rid of sin and Christ is our deliverer, individually and as a group, today and in the future.

Yet our curiosity leads us to some questions; why does one lie and another steal? Or why do you find some who are pure or almost pure, as if they are like that without making effort? We are told that people are like that as an answer but such an answer does not help; there is nothing that says for certain that we inherit out weaknesses in the genes. You find one addicted to crime and another is addicted – if one might say – to righteousness; I do not know, God knows. And none of us can pass judgment on others or examine the evil that is in the others; not even one’s own.     

Yes we know that there are some people who immediately rise from their sins by God’s grace, and we find people who find it hard to rise.  The repentance of the human being is as much a mystery as massive tendency of committing sins is. And from experience, we know that for some repentance is impossible while for others, falling into sin is impossible. Experience also shows that the virtues are strongly related together and that on the other hand, sins are also associated together. It is self-evident that the thief is a liar by definition and a potential killer at times; in the same way, the modest and humble person is virtuous, turning away from lust for money and power. And so, as you observe others and yourself, you could become either sad or happy.

The main thing you have to believe in is that even though you inherit this fragility of your nature – and that is what original sin, as Augustine said, is – yet nothing can make you one overcome by sin as if it predetermines you; you also are not predetermined in being virtuous either for it is written: “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin” but in the hope of becoming free, the Blessed Lord says: “I do not call you slaves……..but I call you friends”.

In the face of the intensity of sin and its repetitiveness, the apostle says: “Where sin abounds, grace also abounds”. So we live in the hope of becoming righteous after sinning. And that is why the Saints of the Christian East call us not to brood over our previous sins, our souls being sapped with regret and pulled backwards to our past, so that we could go forward to the presence of the Lord who when He draws us to Himself, helps us not get carried away anew with our lusts.  

Yes, the Saints speak of passionlessness or the state of serenity in the soul, or the state of freedom from the unconscious tendencies that compel us, but they also warn us that having that state is not a guarantee for its continuance; the enemy lurks seeking to harm us and only vigilant prayer reminds us of God’s power to overcome him. We do have a group of combatants whom we call the watchful and vigilant fathers. He who acquires watchfulness and vigilance is able to confront the seduction of the devil and to host (receive) Christ.

Translated by Riad Moufarrij

Original Text: “جهد أو تجدد” – 8.12.2002

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2002, An-Nahar, Articles

Trust / 25/5/2002

A spirit of individualism dominates the dispositions of the Arabs to such a degree that there is no value is given to social solidarity. For this reason we find the stark contradiction that, despite his progress and material advancement, the Arab of today has not exited from the tribal frame of mind.  He lives in a system in which one tribe is pitted against another.  Recall that even when the tribes struck alliances between one other in the desert of yore, this did not produce any fundamental integration between them.  And even in cases in which such a pact may have resulted in an approximation, the Bedouin remained a hostage of his extended kin.  Within the kin he was a prisoner of his house, and within this family he was held as a prisoner of the branch and its subdivision.

The extended family is predicated on tribal solidarity which however does not strip anybody from his or her individualism and egoism.  The Arabic word for living quarter (al-hay) refers to an assembly of tents which do not, by necessity, establish a sincere affinity between the residents of this and that tent.  If you are invited by the people of a tent, you do not automatically become a friend.  They dispense on you a favor that you relied on them but the pride remains theirs.  The desert therefore is not predicated on the group.  Individuals may fall silent when they gather around the Shaykh of the tribe.  It is this silence which is the telling sign that all of them remain enclosed on themselves and doubtful of the others.

Might this fear be a product of the harshness of Bedouin life? Or from the fact that God remained unknown in the [pre-Islamic] age of ignorance?  Perhaps the spirit of tribalism persisted after the advent of Islam.  City quarters were built in Kufa in which each tribe withdrew into a quarter.  The flag of the ancestors appeared after Islam, and everyone took pride in his lineage, and those who invented pedigree for the Arabs came with a lineage which befitted their ambitions and vanity. 

The Arabs were governed by this superciliousness, the essence of which was that each party considered itself superior to the others.  This is what explains the spread of the genre of deprecatory poetry (hija’) which I do not believe any other literary tradition embraces in quite the way our literature does.  The potency of this kind of poetry lies in greater implication that the Arab is fortified by what he considers great in his people and himself.  This is why we have amongst us this preoccupation with lineage and pedigree (hasab and nasab) which is but a token of (false, vacuous) mundane glory.

It seems that knowledge, once attained, does little to refine this sort of mentality. So you may substitute the tent with the castle, full with all amenities of luxury and sophistication, and yet you remain as if you lived in one of the Arab alleys of Mount Lebanon.  Instead of mounting a camel you now enter a car, and the street always remains yours and not that of the other drivers.

When man vanishes in what sociology designates as a “patriarchal,” extended family, it appears to him that he has gained space yet this family cements his individuality, and he does not dissolve in it except by ways of appearance, for the important thing is for the family to strengthen him.

Certainly: Man does not live bereft of any communion with anybody.  Yet true communion cannot occur without friendship and love.  And both of these connote a departure from the ego enclosed on itself to the ego of mutual sharing.  My entire being is fortified through the friend, through his guidance and his tenderness, just as he is strengthened by me.  You also will exit from your [limited] self in terms your scope of understanding so that the joint community of the understanding is created.  And the true friend will ask you and you will ask him, and he will animate and unsettle you and you will animate and unsettle him in so far as you both want this company to be based on truth and rooted in reverence.  At that point, what arises is a community not based on communalist passion [‘asabiyya] but on the choice of love.  The shell of your self is broken so that the free and growing “we” can spring forth.  All this is unavailable within the tribe.

Each agreement and concordance involves a mutual accounting and interrogation.  And an interrogation of the self consists in you allowing the other to limit and define you.  In truth, it implies that you strip yourself naked before him, and this requires courage.  For you to consider the other to be coming to kill you means that you are assuming the role of  a Bedouin Arab preparing for battle before the other Bedouin comes to kill you.  And if you brought your Bedouin identity to Lebanon or the Arab World even though you may wear Western garb and drive a car you have armored out of a fear which shelters you from challenges and does not compel you to an honest word. 

It is from this desert Angst that Arab eloquence sprouted forth.  “Eloquence can be enchantment” (goes the famous proverb from the Hadith).  A language of sublime beauty such as Greek was nurtured in the shadow of cities waging war with each other.  Arabic poetry was  a necessity for the tribes.  If for some reason they were unable to engage in battle, they found resort to the searing word, and to the imaginary notion that, in doing so, they had prevailed.  Today, we find the Arabs still issuing declarations which, they believe, will come true if read.  They do so out of their non-existent sincere sentiment for truth, or their lack of understanding that life is not about statements and not (verbal) enchantment but about being.  And being, in the true sense of the word, requires a good deal of ascetic devoutness, and a surmounting of pleasures, including the enjoyment of money.  Mere existence is a lesson for being, and the latter requires long hours of staying up and an investment in the future; yet they immerse themselves in illusion because they are the sons of the desert.

The future is not formed from roots alone, nor by the return to roots, but rather it is a barging into the unknown.  To orient oneself towards the future means that truths come from what lies ahead and not just from the past. You do not remain a prisoner of your tent in which you welcome the shade, but rather you travel under the scorching sun and construct under it a building of bricks and ideas instead of using an old stone as a peg for the tent.

Perhaps the reason for all this ossification and withdrawal is that the Arab has adopted and internalized the old Roman saying: “Man is a wolf to man.”    He accuses and suspects the other before having dealt with him, believing that he knows the position of the other, assuming that he is a bedouin Arab like him, whereas the divine word is: ”You shall love each other.” This implies that one is not to inquire whether the other deserves to be loved. Rather, one loves without any condition placed on love or the other. 

Out of his faith that the other does not constrain him but expands him and is capable of having mercy on him because the other too is a being made in the image of the God who is complete in his integrity and goodness.  As he trusts in his Lord so too he trusts in the other and does not anticipate any recompense from him.

My readers always ask me: “Who did you have in mind when you wrote this or that,” or, “what was the situation which inspired you to write this article,” or, “who was it who shocked or injured you?” And many a times they will not believe me when I say: “This is an idea which is applicable to the human reality as a whole, and it may correspond to the state of several individuals.” Once one of the believers asked me at the end of a mass: “Why did you cite me today in your sermon today?” And I responded that “I did not see your face when I was speaking.  My evidence that I did not impugn or target you is that another person posed the self-same question to me just two minutes ago. All this proves is that the sermon reached your heart and his heart, and this is good.” This indicates that these two men were in a state of antagonism, in an inherited ignorance, and that they did not strip before the Truth which descended on them from the Word of God.

If you meet a person, trust in him at first.  After your first association, or limited interaction with him, you will know whether he deserved this trust. Certainly our scripture says that trust must be placed in the Lord, and that we ought to bring it to the Guide of all blessings, and that faith itself is trust.  Yet man is God’s expanse and his seat of manifestation, and therefore, you must trust man, place hope in him and bond with him.  And the covenant is a form of friendship and concord.  At the root of matters of the heart lies a mutual agreement, acquaintance and contract. And a contract or covenant requires an initiative.  So open your heart, or your hand, and they will enter into a contract with you.  And if a human being speaks to you with candor from the start, then it is better that he deceive you (openly) from the start rather than leaving you in the dark and in doubt (of his intentions).  But if he sees you doubting him even as his intentions are pure, he will  succumb to disappointment and perhaps suffer from great distress.

Perhaps you are endowed with long experience which allows you to see through whoever approaches you in an a matter of minutes. Yet, in the end, “God is the examiner of hearts and judges all with justice.”  As for us, we must test and learn from experience.  Should you judgment be amiss, your interests will suffer.  But if you injured another soul, the wound may be deep.  And know that trust generates trust.  And the fear born from mistrust may lead to the loss of a precious opportunity of the meeting of two souls.  How many souls were saved by trust.  And remember – if you do not know it – John the evangelists saying: “Love banishes fear into exile.” And our frailness, or part of our frailness, stems from this deliberate separation out of antipathy.    

 It is, in fact, impossible for you to live without warmth, without intimacy and a sense of kinship, without that kinship and proximity to the other which makes you through love.  Make friends for yourself who will be a family of your heart.  “Oh servant, everything is of the heart.” (al-Nufari). Only with it can you free yourself from the straightjacket of the tribes and this primal fear which strips you of all life and vitality.  Trust, trust until you dissolve out of love. Thus, the mirage and delusion shall come to an end.     

Translated by Mark Farha, Georgetown University, Qatar

Original Text: “الثقة” – Nahar 25/5/2002

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