The Orthodox Leader

Asceticism and the Replacement Talk

As several of you know from my previous post, I was at Acton University a couple of weeks ago. His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America gave the keynote address on Thursday evening, June 16. A couple of days after the end of the conference, Acton announced that “We’ve posted the text of Metropolitan Jonah’s AU talk” and linked to the full talk, titled “Asceticism and the Consumer Society,” elsewhere at

There’s only one problem: that’s not the talk Metropolitan Jonah gave. When I read the posted text, I couldn’t help but think that it sounded rather different from what I remembered that Thursday. I certainly didn’t remember the extensive quotations from Schmemann, and the talk, as I recalled, was at least twice as long as the posted text.

The mention of creation “shimmering” with God’s presence was a striking image from the talk, but it was nowhere to be found in the Talk-of-Record. Acton recorded all talks at the conference and has made a number of them available for purchase, but not Metropolitan Jonah’s. Thus, there was no way to review.

Even more puzzling is that the Koinonia blog, hosted by Orthodox priest Fr. Gregory Jensen (a fellow attendee), also made reference to the Talk-of-Record as the real deal:

The Christian ascetical life, that is the life of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, the works of mercy and obedience, is the application and the appropriation of the Cross to my life. It is the means by which I both enter into a life of communion with God and become myself a sacrament of that communion for others. This is possible because at its most basic level, asceticism “is the struggle of the person against rebellious nature, against the nature which seeks to achieve on its own what it could bring about only in personal unity and communion with God.” Our “restoration” to a life of personal communion with God and so our personal “resistance” to the powers of sin and death, “presuppose a struggle” within each human heart that is often lacking in contemporary society and even our churches.

Those points are, without exception, found in the Talk-of-Record, but were not in the original talk given at Acton.

In the end, I finally located a fellow Acton attendee who had recorded the talk on a small recorder at the table. I have transcribed the real talk below, as best I can, from the audio. Bracketed text indicates either alternative readings where it was hard to make the exact words, or a question mark if I couldn’t fully tell. The address gave the impression of being given largely off-the-cuff, with a good number of pauses, verbal tics, and minor repetitions not preserved in the transcript. You can try getting the audio here (choose the Free Download option toward the bottom).

Having said all of this, my question is why was the Talk-of-Record put forth as what was actually given? If anyone has light to shed on this, my mailbox is open. See the contact form at the right.

[UPDATE 7/6/2011: See my additional comments.]

Metropolitan Jonah’s Address at Acton University 2011

I have to say I am tremendously impressed with the work of the Acton Institute and Acton University and, just probably, the two lectures I had the opportunity to participate in this afternoon. This is an institution that I think has a tremendous, tremendous potential to affect the future of this country. May God bless it. May God bless all of the work that goes into it.

Before I get into the prepared, more prepared remarks, I’d like to comment just a bit on the introduction. When we founded the monastery in Marin County, it was basically two hovels and a magnificent little chapel. Eventually, God was gracious enough, especially through the prayers of St. Demetrius (that’s a whole story in itself) to enable us to purchase a facility in northern California, at 3,000 feet in the mountains. One of the things that has always been a huge challenge in the life of the monastery is to try to figure out how you support it. Especially since [?] had a $4,000 a month mortgage, which we had not had to deal with before. One of the most important things about monasticism and I would say, about, I would hope it that is also characteristic of any very integral Christian [?] life, is that monasticism shows that work is sanctified. It is holy. The leitourgia, the common work, the liturgy, of the monastery is not simply begin and end in the chapel. It continues on to the trapezea, to the dining hall, and it continues on to the workshops. Because the liturgy of the monastery is the common work of the monastery is to support one another out of love, and to work for the sake of the other. And, thus, all work is sanctified. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the making of the candles, or elevating the host, or whether it’s cleaning the bathrooms or, actually,  most of the food actually came from Costco. [laughter] Because, at that elevation in the mountains, the monks would be real ascetics indeed. [?]  How do you run an institution where it costs about $1500 per person per month? And how do you raise that kind of money? It’s a huge challenge.

But it’s a challenge that is, that I think was presented to the monastery in an incredibly valuable way, because not only were these various handicrafts, but also the special ministry of hospitality. A ministry of hospitality, not only just of a guest house where the monastery was constantly overrun with pilgrims but also guided retreats, something a little unusual in the Orthodox world, and chances for young people, especially young men, to come and to enter into the life of the monastery, in what we affectionately called a summer novice program. You got all of the benefits of the monastic life. You could enter into all the services.  You lived with the monks. You prayed [bathed?] with the monks. You worked with the monks. You did everything with the monks. The monastery benefited from all of the sweat and the labor of a bunch of 20 year olds, and we only had to feed them. And that was a challenge. For up to three months. That was quite a challenge.

What it does is it shows the Christian attitude towards work. And, it shows what life is in a non-secular, completely non-secular, context. Because what happens in our context in our life as Christians so often living in our very secular American society is that we compartmentalize everything. You’ve got church here. You’ve got work here. You’ve got family here. You’ve got other things here. And you’ve got this over there.  And you’ve got that there. And very seldom are they integrated. But the life of the monastery manifests that total integration of work and prayer, of service to the other, of self-sacrifice for the other, of real asceticism, and all in a context of repentance. And one of the things that I think is,  I want to clarify is the term repentance, because I’m going to be using it in a way that is rather different.

Repentance comes from the Greek word, metanoia, which means transformation of the mind. St Isaac the Syrian, one of the greatest of the hermits of the universal tradition of the Church unpacks St Paul’s word metanoia, actually the Lord used it as well, as did John the Baptist, “to be renewed in the transformation of your mind.” Repentance is not about a guilt trip. Repentance is not about feeling guilty about the tings you did or things you think you did or the attitudes or the thoughts or about anything else. Repentance is not scary. In fact Repentance is not a negative dark kind of depressing thing at all. Because repentance, true metanoia, means a transformation of mind and heart which happens by the grace of the Holy Spirit when we enter into the living flow of the grace of God which is his will. It is that living flow of communion, that synergy. (That’s also St Paul’s word; it’s not just from Silicon Valley. It’s true, just look in the Greek New Testament). That synergy is what we aim for, because precisely that synergy, that cooperation, with God in every aspect of our life is what sanctifies us, is what purifies us, it’s what deifies us. The universal trad,  tradition of the Catholic church and the Orthodox: the Orthodox Church of the East, the Orthodox Church of the West, and the Orthodox Church of the further East. The universal tradition has always emphasized deification as the very essence of content of what salvation is. And that doesn’t mean that we become gods. We can become God.

It means we actualize our communion in Christ by the Holy Spirit with the Father. So that we share the Lord’s own Sonship to the Father. We share his relationship with the Father. And thus, the totality of our life is transformed, transfigured. And our life in this world simply transitions, it flows, into the life of the Kingdom. Because, here and now, we live that life of the kingdom. Here and now, that, that, life of Jesus Christ, which shines forth from his empty tomb, and was imparted to his disciples at Pentecost, is the very content of our life. It’s who we are. He is who we are. And, so, the actualization of this, of living according to one mind and the one heart, living according to one vision of life, the Gospel, living according to self-sacrificing love for one another in a relationship of obedience.

Now obedience is another really scary word, right? A lot of people are terrified when we bring up the word obedience, that you might actually have to be obedient. God forbid that you read St. Paul’s in a wedding [?]. Or children to be obedient to their parents. By this obedience it means synergy out of love and respect. It means cooperation.  Father Robert [Sirico; founder of the Acton Institute –ed.] and I were talking earlier about monastic rules, and […] said in the rule of the particular great founder that he is following, that it is not simply following the word of the superior, it’s to try to anticipate the very wish of the superior. That’s what it is. Why would you do this? It’s not because you’re going to get beaten. It’s because you cooperate in love and respect. I would love for your father who loves you unconditionally and absolutely. That’s what a monastery is all about. But you know what? It’s not what monastic life is all about. It’s what Christian life is all about. It’s the potential of what the Christian life has to offer to us. A communion of love.

We can say that some of us have abbots, and some of us have abbesses. Especially those of us who are married.  [Laughter] And it’s always a matter of mutual obedience. It’s always a matter of that communion in love. And that’s what we have to foster. And that’s why it’s so important. So important to truly and authentically understand what St. Paul has to teach us. Because if we are going to live as Christians in this incredibly broken culture which seems to be heading towards a precipice, and we’re going to stop it from going over that precipice – I hope that ‘s our mutual goal – we have to show the world what it means to live as Christians. Because it’s that living communion with God, that living life in which everything is sanctified, in which every action, every relationship, every aspect of how we make our money, to how we spend our money, to how we are responsible for the things God that has given us stewardship over, to live lives that are not compartmentalized. So that going to the liturgy and going to the church leads us into a deep communion with God. So does going to work or going to school. And we relate to our fellows.

It’s that overcoming of that secularization which is inherent in our culture. Now I think one of the things that is very important for us (and I am going to be getting to the whole consumerism and asceticism thing) because this is the foundation. Because what is secular inside [us] is the root of consumerism. And it is precisely what we have to fight against with asceticism. Secularism I believe comes from the loss of communion with God. It comes from the loss of our awareness of God. What were created for in the beginning was to be in an intuitive communion, an intuitive awareness of God and his will. Right? Just look at Genesis 1. And 2. An intuitive awareness of God. Just like Jesus had. And in our brokenness, in our fallenness, we lost that intuitive awareness of God.  An according to the Fathers of the Eastern Church, what we did we put in its place? Rationalism. Now, God gave us our reason. He created it as something exquisite, as an image of his own. But we take that, for us to operate in that authentic humanity, and that authentically rational mode of being, it has to be informed, and the Eastern fathers would say “governed by”, our spiritual intuition. Our intuitive awareness of God and his will, and of his presence. The more that we ignore God, and I don’t know about you, but I am frequently [guilty?] of that,  the more we ignore God, the more disintegrated our minds and our hearts are. The more we are thrown back purely onto our very broken and flawed reasonings – one of the prayers of our tradition, a prayer after communion, says “save me from the vanity of my own reasonings”—because unless they are informed by that living experience of communion, which is the very definition of what the Faith is, they’re just going to lead us around and around and around in a circle. Actually, what it’s like is…I like to use the analogy, remember those graphite toys, where you turn the little knobs, and you saw everything in two-dimensional surface? What were they called, an Etch-A-Sketch or something like that? That’s life in a two-dimensional universe. Life without God, life led in obliviousness to God – what St Isaac calls the second [level?] of consciousness – is like living in a two-dimensional world.  Very informed condition by your senses, by your desires, by your lusts, your passions – passion not in the sense of what you love, but in the sense of what controls you – your anger, your regret, and your bitterness and hatred, and all these other passions, the seven deadly sins … and you can’t see out of it.

How many times, especially those enrolled at secular colleges, [say] I don’t believe anything that I can’t measure, that I can’t understand, that I can’t touch, or that I can’t find. I hear that a lot from college students. That’s being trapped in a two-dimensional world. I liken it to the Flat Earth Society, because once God touches our hearts, and illumines our hearts with the knowledge of his existence, with the awareness of his presence, not just knowledge about God, because knowledge about God, there are endless theological bookstores with knowledge about God, will not save you. It’s only knowledge of God, as a person, that saves us.

And so, when God touches our hearts and illumines us, and calls us to himself, and calls us to knowledge of him, we can’t live in that little two-dimensional world any more. Our whole paradigm is shattered, because now I am in a new three-dimensional world and that third dimension in God. And we can no longer imagine what it’s like to be trapped in a two-dimensional world. There’s a little book out, from a priest in Tennessee, Father Stephen Freeman, that talks about a two-story world. Where, even if we are so often profess belief in God, but it’s like God lives “upstairs”, and we never go upstairs. But God is up there for sure, we think.  But we just continue to live our life on our first floor, and we think that God is up there and is just waiting for us to maybe show up and maybe not. But how often do we live that kind of compartmentalized life. To think that God is “out there” someplace? That, rather than the most important and critical thing for us to understand, as Christians, is that God is present everywhere, filling all things, all the time. That we live in the context of God.

I want to be politically correct. I like to say that we live in the rule of the Holy Trinity. The reality for us  who have entered into this experience of Faith, this living communion with God, is that we live in this three-dimensional world, and we know that it’s the truth. And yet we have a society that’s dominated by those of the flat earth society that want to tell us that “oh, you can believe that if you want to …that religion is a private thing, we have to keep it out of the public sector, we have to keep it quiet, and you can believe whatever you want, just don’t offend anybody, and on and on and on and on.”

But as people of faith, we know that that’s a lie. We know that it’s a false view of reality. That it’s a false reality. And, the reality to which God has exposed us, in which he has revealed to us, is something entirely different. It’s permeated with his grace, it’s permeated with his life. One of the great points St. Isaac makes, and all of the great fathers (Eastern, Western, and further East), is that at the highest levels of spiritual awareness, you can look at creation and see all of creation shimmering with its presence. And it’s this intuitive vision of reality that is creation, that is radiant with the presence of God. And not just the beauty of nature, and all of these things, but each and every person, radiant, and exquisitely beautiful.  Each one reflecting the image of God. Each one of ultimate value. Each one beautiful. It’s this that [?] that is [part?] of the sacramental vision, which is our [?] of how we see the creation filled with God, and everyone and everything being a means of deeper and deeper communion. The bread and wine of the Eucharist is not just bread and wine, but it is radiant with the uncreated light of the presence of Christ. The oil of Chrismation is filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit. That the water of Baptism becomes the very presence of God in whom we are immersed. And our neighbor is the presence of God to us. And how we treat our neighbor is the criterion of how we love God. Somebody said once, that the criterion of how much we love God is how much we love the person we hate the most.

So as we move out of a two-dimensional universe and let that grace of God inform and inspire every aspect of our consciousness, of our awareness, of how we understand and how we treat people, and how we deal with our work, and how we overcome the secularization which is the compartmentalization of every aspect of our life. We see that there is nothing in our life that is not sacred, that is not holy, that is not a means of communion, or that can’t be a means of communion. And so what is this consumerism? What is this addictive pattern in which we use material goods, but a means of trying to console ourselves for the despair that comes from God the Source.  Secularism leads to despair. Our culture is in despair. And no matter how much we make or how many things we try to buy or to sell, our desire is never enough. It’s what an addictive pattern is. All addictive patterns, whether it be using material goods, or whether it’s using alcohol or drugs, whether it’s using sex, whether it’s using relationships, no matter what it is, our attempts to distract ourselves from the pain of despair, from the pain of having been abused, from the pain of having been rejected, from the pain of having regarded ourselves as failures. And it’s to this society, which is engulfed in that pain, that we come as Christians. That we come as people of faith. To call all those around us to repentance. That joyful repentance which leads to healing, which leads to salvation, which leads to life, because it’s a repentance that means turning towards God.

Our consumerist society is to a great extent oblivious to God. Parts of it are more militant in their atheism, but part of it is also dysfunctional atheisms. How often are we functional atheists? This is another question that my friend Fr Freeman raises in his book about the two-story universe. Where God living outside, and where we try so often to disregard God’s presence. But it’s precisely the overcoming of this barrier between us and God, and the nurturing of the constant awareness of God’s presence that is the ultimate solution for our spiritual life. And the very essence of our spiritual task.

Consumerism gives us a very sorry substitute for God. One of the things I’ll always remember is a bumper sticker on a Rolls-Royce.  (Now who would put a bumper sticker on a Rolls-Royce?) But it said, “He who dies with the best toys wins.” Isn’t that pathetic?  That is just pathetic. He who dies with the best toys wins. No! He can be buried with is Rolls-Royce if he wants. But it’s this addictive pattern which we have entered into that we have to get the best and the most  and the most recent of everything. Of course, I felt very guilty with [?]. Sitting at my desk, surrounded by Apple products. [Laughter]

But what we’re called to as Christians is a life of self-denial. And it’s a life of self-denial ultimately for the sake of the other. Is there any greater than ascetic than a young mother, a new mother, who has to get up at all hours, night or day, to feed the child, change the diapers, that’s asceticism. It’s true self-giving in love. All real asceticism is self-giving in love. It’s not about beating yourself up, or about beating yourself with chains and all that kind of medieval [?] stuff. It’s about the living self-offering of oneself, for the sake of the love of the other. What is it when you’re working 12 hours a day to support your family? Isn’t that an offering, a self-offering of love? Or 8 hours a day or whatever it is? What is the asceticism we’re called to? It is also an asceticism of responsibility. It’s taking responsibility for other people. Taking responsibility for their lives. It’s taking responsibility for the environment around us, to use the resources in a responsible way. It’s living according to our conscience before God.

If we could only live according to our conscience, the fathers say, we would easily obtain salvation. Because what is our conscience but the intuitive wisdom of God given to us? And so that asceticism to which we’re called has to make us question, you know, how we use the resources that have been given to us. Because God has made us stewards of our resources. To some he has given five talents, to some he has given one. Each one is called to be a steward of the resources that he or she has been given. And there’s no shame in having five talents and there’s no shame in having one, because all of us are equal before God. But to each one of us God has given different responsibilities. How are we going to use them? The holy fathers define our fallenness, our brokenness, as the descent into egocentrism.  It’s the very essence of the Fall. It’s the loss of consciousness so that we become completely self-conscious. So that we become completely focused on ourselves instead of on God, and instead of on the other. Our spiritual task, of course, is to overcome that egocentrism, to overcome that focus on ourselves, and focus on God and the other in God. So the way of repentance is the way of healing for us. How do we heal our society?

I firmly believe that it is the responsibility that has been given to us by Christ to stand up for those who are abused, to stand up for those who are hurt, to stand up for the poor, to give with generosity, to take care of all our brothers and sisters, no matter who they are, who are our neighbor,  and to speak out against injustice and to speak out against that which destroys people’s lives. There’s a very scary thing that happened recently at one of our seminaries. One of the students wrote an essay for a blog, which said “well, if the government says that things are legal and are moral, why doesn’t the Church follow? Why does the Church have to have a different standard of morality? Why doesn’t the Church support the Government’s morality?” This is a critical thing for us, especially right now, when you look at abortion, when you look at gay marriage, when you look at all of these other things. When we [confess?] the Church, are we going to just go with the flow, and as the government not only legalizes but normalizes all of these things, are we going to go along with it? These are not…We don’t say these things are sins because it says so in a book someplace. These are sins, these are sinful things because they destroy people’s lives. And they depersonalize and they dehumanize us. Because what we were created for in the beginning is to live in intuitive synergy, in intuitive communion with God, and when we enter into a sinful state of being, what we’re doing is we’re living in a way in which we are cutting off our consciousness of God. We’re saying, “Go away.”

And what’s now [?], theologically, really is that we’re living like animals. We’re simply according to our own lusts, were living according to our desires, we’re living according to, simply according to the flesh. And what does that do? It reinforces in a vicious cycle egocentrism, so that we become more and more and more and more completely focused on ourself, our own desire, our own lust, our own pleasure, our own…  And that is the very definition of depersonalization, because to be a person is to be someone living in communion. We define ourselves by our communion, by our communion and love with God and our communion and love with the other. And when all we’re reduced to is self-love, philautia in the words of St. Maximus, which isn’t exactly “love of self” but rather an inordinate focus on oneself, we’re simply an autonomous individual , not moving according to that life of communion with one another, to which we are called and for which we were created, but in the delusion of our own autonomy.  How clear is it to all of us who are pastors that delusion of autonomy which manifests itself in what Mother Theresa calls the “greatest poverty of the developed world: loneliness.” Isn’t our culture tormented by loneliness, by the despair of loneliness?

We have that. We have the answer to that. That’s the answer to the things that get to us. That’s the answer that we are called to bear witness to in this world. And if it means standing up in the public square and saying that worship is [  ?], if it means standing up in the public square and saying that homosexual activity is sinful. And having to suffer for it, so we can, because we are called to be witnesses to Jesus Christ, and to obey  the [life?] which he has taught to us. And it’s only through bearing witness to this new life, life not according to our own passions and lusts, as autonomous individuals who care only about ourselves and the gratification of our own desires, but rather that our life is about communion with God, in a living relationship of obedience and self-sacrificial offering of love to all [men?]. In a spirit of repentance, then we will be able to heal our society. And we can. We can. If we are willing to bear witness. It might cost us everything. How many, I don’t know how many of you are necessarily aware that there were 20 million martyrs for Jesus Christ in Russia in the last century. 20 million people who died for Jesus Christ at the hands of the Communists, in just one country. And another 40 million who suffered after bearing witness in the gulag. Are we willing to do that?

Are we willing to accept that Cross? Because truly if we are going to be Christians, if we are going to be people of faith, it will be a cross. We can’t wear the cross of Jesus Christ and expect that we’re not going to get crucified on it. It’s not just Jesus on the Cross, it has to be us too. And that’s the only thing, ultimately, that we can bear witness, to that new life which shines forth from his empty tomb, and will overcome the brokenness of the world that is gone made in running after its own lusts. To call our culture, to call our country, to call our people, to repentance, so that the bitterness of their despair, and the anguish of their loneliness can be transformed to joy. That they and we might be healed. And that all that we strive for, all the work that we seek to do will be an offering of love, whether people accept it as such or not, but a joyful self-offering expressed through our generosity, our kindness, and our unconditional love of each person that we encounter, in a non-judgmental way. That is the medicine that will heal our culture. So, God bless you. [Applause.]

3 comments (click to add your own)

Written by Fr Basil Biberdorf

July 6th, 2011 at 12:03 am

Posted in Metropolitan Jonah

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