The Dragon Who Changed

“He just drives me crazy! When is he going to wake up to himself?!”

Unfortunately, priests hear words like these on an all too regular basis. There is a lovely little story His Holiness Pope Shenouda tells of a man who came to him to confess (before he was Pope). The man launches in to a lecture about So-and-so and all the horrible things he has done, how he is a very bad person, and how frustrated and angry he has made him. HH listens patiently, and at the end, the confessor asks HH to pray the absolution for him. “Sorry,” HH replies, “I can’t do that. You haven’t confessed any of your sins for me to absolve. But if you would like to bring So-and-so, I will happily pray the absolution for him, since you have confessed all his sins for him!”

I always wonder how it is that people maintain such an optimistic hope that they will be able to change other people. Why else would you waste your time or your breath complaining? Wives believe, day after day, that if only they continue to complain about the messy sink, one day, their husbands will suddenly stop in their tracks and say, “Gosh, you’re right! How thoughtless of me! I’ll just turn this dial here in my side to the NEAT setting, and from now on I will always immediately wash up after myself.” And the wife will reply, “Thank you dear. I knew that nagging for thirty-five years would do the job.”

It just doesn’t work that way.

Here’s the deal: there is only one person that can change an annoying, frustrating, difficult person for the better: Himself or herself.

I can’t say it with 100% certainty, but I am pretty sure on this point. I have seen hundreds of people try to change their loved ones, with a pretty solid failure rate. Just think about it from the other side of the equation – has anyone managed to change you simply by complaining about you? What’s your first reaction when someone points out your failings? Is it “Oh gee, I am so glad you pointed that out to me! What a silly duffer I’ve been.”? Or is it more like, “Oh yeah, well what about you, hey? You do this that and the other. How dare you criticise me?!”

No, for most of the human race, we do not react well to criticism. What is needed is insight, liberally sprinkled with good old fashioned humilityand topped with a hearty dose of grace.

The insight is the ability to honestly recognise when we have been a pain to others. Some people are over sensitive in this area. They will read even the slightest little facial expression as implying displeasure and respond with copious apologies and offers to make it up again. But then there are others who have hides like a rhinocerus – they don’t get it even if you shout it in their faces.

Having recognised and understood the problem, one finds it extremely difficult to actually do something about it. We behave the way we do often because that is how we are comfortable. To change one’s behaviour, to alter a habit, is no easy task. It requires oodles of humility just to admit that change is needed, and to put the needs of others before one’s own needs. Yes, my family’s need to live in their own home without wearing gas masks should come before my own need not to walk three meters to the washing basket to dispose of my smelly socks. It takes humility to think that way.

And having decided to make the change, one sometimes meets with an impenetrable barrier of inertia. It is so hard to change!

I feel like giving up.
I’ve tried everything without success.
His standards are just too high.
Why can’t she accept me the way I am?
I feel there is no hope.
I am getting so tired of this.

Sound familiar? These are the words of one who tries to change all on their own. It usually fails. This is where the grace of God comes in. He is able to do that which we cannot…

“My grace is sufficient for you,
For My strength is made perfect in weakness” – 2Corinthians 12:9

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” – Phillipians 4:13

“Do not rejoice over me, my enemy,
For when I fall, I shall surely rise,
When I sit in darkness,
The Lord shall be a light to me.” Micah 7:8

Change is never easy. In CS Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader, he has the detestable Edmund transform into a dragon because of his selfishness and greed. Eventually, the Christ figure, Aslan the Lion, meets him by a pool and asks him if he would like to be a human again. Of course, by this stage, Edmund is so lonely and miserable that he has finally understood what a monster he’d been to his friends, so he agrees. All he has to do, he is told, is to take off his dragon skin. Happily, he peels it off, much like a snake shedding an old skin, only to find another dragon skin underneath. This too he sheds, and another, and another of the seemingly endless layers of dragon that enfold him. Finally, Aslan asks if he would like some help, which he accepts. But much to his consternation, the Lion digs His claws deep, deep into Edmund’s flesh and rips… In agony, Edmund cries out, but it is soon over, and he looks down upon himself to find himself wonderfully human once more.

God is more than willing to help me with the difficult changes in myself that I need to carry out. But first, I have to recognise and humbly acknowledge the trouble I cause to others. It is only then, when I come before Him in genuine humility, seeking His grace, and willing to accept the consequences, that I can truly change.

The choice is mine … no one else’s.

Fr Ant

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7 Replies to “The Dragon Who Changed”

  1. On the subject of change and Lewis, does he allude to purgatory (which we believed in the seventh century) when he says that we will be made perfect- if not in this lifetime, then in the next? I struggle with this. Is this “change” something we start by putting on Christ…by living a life of repentance, pray for purging of sins and renewal of thought and cleansing of heart- “pretending” as he calls it, but where when the mask is taken, the face kinds of molded to the perfect texture of the mask…hence, changed…

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  2. Hi Tony

    I’m not aware that our Church has ever accepted the concept of purgatory. It was only officially adopted by the Catholics around the 11th century, although traces of the idea can be traced back as far as St Augustine in the 5th century.

    My understanding of the Orthodox faith is that our opportunity for change in the sense of repentance ends with our last breath on earth. As for CS Lewis, I never got any impression that he accepted purgatory from any of his writings. In fact, Tolkien tried to encourage him to join the Catholic Church when he lost his atheism, but he chose instead to joion the Church of England where purgatory is certainly a no-no. Can you quote any specific passage of his on the subject?

    PPFM

    Fr Ant

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  3. Sure Abouna,

    In the chapter, “Counting the Cost”, he says:

    “Here is another way of putting the two sides of the truth. On the one hand we must never imagine that our own unaided efforts can be relied on to carry us even through the next twenty-four hours as ‘decent’ people. If He does not support us, not one of us is safe from some gross sin. On the other hand, no possible degree of holiness or heroism which has ever been recorded of the greatest saints is beyond what He is determined to produce in every one of us in the end. The job will not be completed in this life; but He means to get us far as possible before death.”

    I think I may be reading too much into it?

    According to “Two thousand years of Coptic Christianity” by Otto F.A. Meinardus, in the seventh century, during the generation after the Arab conquest, there is a recording of an event where a priest, Theodore, addressed 23 questions to Patriarch John III. The Patriarch when asked about the fate of the sinners in the Hereafter, answered with description of Purgatory. “While eternal damnation is reserved for the unbaptized, the soul of the Christian who has sinned will be purified in the purgatorial fire of Hades according to the measure of it sins.” And he continues to describe it as “prevalence in the seventh century…long abandoned by the Coptic Church.”

    Of course, the Pope can be fallible and teach heresy, and that does not mean we espouse it.

    And Abouna, I just want to thank you for your “Purity” page. You have given me hope, again.

    Tony

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  4. I did a google search and got this. There were other Protestant sites being indignant of Lewis’s apparent unorthodoxy, and his life-style.

    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/december/9.28.html

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  5. Hi Tony

    Wow – good research!

    Regarding CS Lewis and Purgatory, the only useful reference I could find in his own words was chapter XX (20) of “Prayer: Letters to Malcolm”, published first in 1964. Some quotes:

    “Of course I pray for the dead … ‘but you are bringing in something like Purgatory.’ Well, I suppose I am … I believe in Purgatory. Mind you, the Reformers had good reasons for throwing doubt on ‘the Romish doctrine of Purgatory’ as that Romish doctrine had then become.”

    My reading of the letter in its entirity (you see how easy it would be to misquote some phrases out of context) is that he believed in praying for the dead very strongly (as we do) and believed that our prayers could in some way share in the ever increasing joy of those in Heaven (as St Augustine wrote).

    But his definition of Purgatory is very different to that of the Roman Catholic Church. It does not involve periods of time (the last part of the letter is devoted to this question), and it has nothing whatsoever to do with ‘merit’. There is no question of one ‘earning’ their place in Heaven through Purgatory, no possibility of the excess ‘merits of Christ, the Holy Virgin and the saints being deposited into your account to shorten your time in Purgatory, nor of our prayers being able to shorten this time.

    Instead, for him, the emphasis of his Purgatory is on purificiation rather than punishment. One does not ‘work off one’s debts’, but rather is washed of any remaining stain of sin in order to be worthy of entering Heaven in a spotless state. He assumes this may involve suffering on the grounds that on earth, spiritual purification often involves suffering.

    I have found CS Lewis’ forays into theology to often be quite speculative. He was never a professional theologian, but rather an extremely eloquent ‘amateur’ with a very keen mind and wonderful imagination. He reminds me of a sort of modern-day Origen: fearless in defending his faith against non-believers; spotlessly sincere in living out his Christianity; willing to explore new areas and see things in new ways. Perhaps, like Origen, we can take from him what is good with gratitude but politely reject his less likely suggestions.

    In this case, I would put his theory about being purified before we can enter heaven into the “don’t know” basket. Our Church prays for the forgiveness of any remaining unconfessed and unabsolved sins at the funeral, thus removing any ‘guilt’ that might prevent the departed person from entering Paradise. But does God still perform some type of ‘purification of the person’s very nature, something that makes them incapable of sinning again? I don’t know of anything in the Orthodox literature or the Bible either for or against that possibility. It’s one of those things we will have to wait to find out.

    Regarding Pope John III and Purgatory, I couldn’t find anything further about the subject. The “History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria” does not seem to mention the questions (http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/severus_hermopolis_hist_alex_patr_03_part3.htm#JOHN_III), and I couldn’t find a text anywhere. Let me know if you have any luck.

    PPFM

    Fr Ant

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  6. Bless Abouna.

    I had no luck on the Internet, too. I looked in the bibliography of the book, and there is like 50 books listed for “general history”, and most of them have titles general enough that I have no clue which one would contain it…

    The author seems to be authoritative. He is Dr Otto F.A. Meinardus from the ‘American University in Cairo’, a prolific writer, who has written I think soberly about our Christian Church throughout the ages, and still does not amount to criticism of the spirit of the Church. I think I bought it once in pilgrimage/tourism in a Monastery in Egypt few years ago. It is a good read. Highly recommend it. This sounds like a book review, so I will just include a rating: 8.5 our of 10.

    Anyway, I think it was Origin who had this idea that purgatory is for everyone? Apocatastasis? And perhaps his doctrine sort of lingered for awhile in Egypt (my speculation, as someone who has not a clue). http://orthodoxwiki.org/Apocatastasis .

    Oh well. I think it doesn’t change anything, even if true. We should aim to put on Christ, and make no provisions for the flesh.

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  7. Hi Tony

    Fr Tadros Yacoub Malaty addresses the issue of Universal Restoration (Apocatastasis) – the doctrine that all humans, and even the devil and his demons will eventually be saved, in his book on Origen: The School of Alexandria, Book 2.

    My reading of his analysis is that like so much to do with Origen, it is very difficult to pin him down specifically. He appears to have held to this doctrine in his early writings, yet in later writings he vehemently denies that he believes the devil will be saved. And yet, it seems that this doctrine is necessary if he is to be consistent in his whole framework of beliefs.

    I agree with you that in the end, we can only ever speculate about these things. Certainly, the general direction of the Tradition of the Orthodox Church has been against universal salvation and purgatory, despite the few exceptions to have popped up through history. We shall know the clear truth, I suppose, when we get there, and until then, we should not allow speculations to distract us from our true work in this life: loving God and humans.

    Fr Ant

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