Archive for November, 2006

What Does It All Mean? An Apology

November 21, 2006

Yesterday’s post, “What Does It All Mean?” was deleted this morning. I apologize to those whose comments were lost. I will attempt to recreate the article at a later date and take up the discussion. Thank you for your patience with my blogging.

Fasting for Christmas

November 19, 2006

Last Wednesday, November 15, the Orthodox Church began its “Winter Lent,” the fast that prepares for the feast of the Nativity. Somewhat similar to Advent, it is the older practice, a full 40 day fast, that reminds us that Christmas, joy that it is, is a foretaste of Pascha.

The Cave of Bethlehem reminds us of the Cave of Hades (icons of the Descent into Hell picture the Cave of Hades). The Babe, wrapped in swaddling cloths, reminds us of a man who will be wrapped in fine linen and laid in a new tomb.

Christ is an action of God’s great humility. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. That same Word will reveal yet more humility when he takes that flesh and yields it to the hard wood of the cross. Entering death, the final and complete humility of God is manifest, a humility that will conquer all pride and smash the bonds of the wicked.

The world is already singing Christmas carols, and candy cane music, preparing for the annual orgy of consumer spending, seeking to please one another, and to spend ourselves into a joy that says to death, “Hush, please, for another day.”

But the spending that will set us free is the Blood of Christ spent freely – the original Christmas gift. He is the peace on earth and good-will toward man. He is the only gift that will matter – and it is a gift worth fasting for, praying, “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us, and on Thy whole world.”

A Washington Family Weekend

November 18, 2006

I am in Washington, D.C., this weekend to attend the wedding of a niece, and share the joy of a family whose youngest generation is now doing things like getting married. Like many American families, we are scattered across the churchly plain. My parents and I are Orthodox. I have a brother whose family is Episcopalian (including the niece getting married). I have another brother who is Catholic. Sometimes our discussions are friendly, sometimes we fight like brothers.

But like most families we will look on the joy of a young woman and a young man and pray that their journey will be clear for them and the road to the Kingdom of God not too steep. Mostly we’ll pray that they ever keep to that road.

My earliest journeys to a Church were down a railroad track, holding the hand of an older brother, who led me to the nearby Baptist Church. The same brother later led me to Anglicanism (as a teenager).

I think of the many kindnesses he gave to me and pray that on this day, the good Lord will take his hand and lead him to where he would have him be and make his road one of peace. I ask that of all my family and ask that you kind friends, readers of this little blog, remember Allison and Preston on the day of their marriage.

Fr. Stephen

A Prayer at Bedtime

November 17, 2006

From the Orthodox Prayers Before Sleep

Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered! Let those who hate Him flee from before His face! As smoke vanishes, so let them vanish. As wax melts before the fire, so let sinners perish before the face of those who love God and sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross and say joyfully: rejoice, most precious and life-creating Cross of the Lord, which chases demons away through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ Who was nailed to you, descended into hell and, having trampled down the power of the devil, gave to us His precious Cross for the routing of all enemies. Help me for eve, most precious and life-creating Cross of the Lord, with the Holy Lady Virgin Theotokos and all the Saints. Amen.

A Mighty Battle

November 16, 2006

We are faced with a mighty battle but an especial, holy battle, not like the fratricidal wars that crowd the history of our world ever since Cain killed his brother Abel. Our common and only real enemy is our mortality. We must grapple painfully with the death that pervades all things, first and foremost ourselves. The Lord’s gospel belongs to another, higher, celestial plane, where everything is ‘not after man, and not of man.’ It would be criminal to belittle its eternal dimensions – that would cancel its power of attraction and even meaning for people. Of course, Christ’s commandments, ‘Love your enemies…Be ye perfect, even as your Father which is heaven is perfect’ – surpass our mind and our strength. But Christ in our flesh manifested this perfection: ‘He overcame the world.’ Which means victory can be given to us, too. ‘The seed is the word of God.’ May it be in us as seed not of this world. After death, having fallen in compatible soil, it will produce imperishable fruit.

The Elder Sophrony in On Prayer

America is a Franchise Operation – Further Thoughts on a Particular God

November 15, 2006

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When my family and I moved from Durham, NC to Oak Ridge, TN in 1989, I had all of the expectations of a child: new surroundings, new friends, a new community in which to work. It was inherently interesting to me.

Arriving as we did, at the beginning of December, among our first tasks as a family was the annual Christmas shopping (we had three small children at the time). One of our first forays into the commercial world of Christmas was to go to a toy store, a johor chain found nationwide. My wife, always well-prepared, had a list of items for purchase. She had also neatly divided the list so that we could split up and do the job in half the time.

Looking at my list, I commented out loud, “I wonder where these (some toy) are?”

My wife immediately said without looking up, “They’re over on aisle 6.”

I was astounded. “Beth, we’ve never set foot in this store in our lives. How do you know they’re on aisle 6?”

“They were there in the store in Durham. It’s the same everywhere.”

That’s when it hit me (for the first time): America is a franchise operation. Everywhere you go you are likely to have been there before. Traveling in England this past summer, the omnipresent McDonald’s and Burger Kings were (I’m ashamed to say) frequent stops on the way – guarantees that the teenagers would find something suitable on the menu.

This is a fact of our modern lives. Though we are particular persons who are called to relationship with a particular God, we are nonetheless surrounded by mass culture which does everything it can to eliminate particularity. Every McDonald’s hamburger should taste like every other McDonald’s hamburger.

Thus there is a temptation to live our lives in a franchised manner, as consumers of mass culture whose only worth is not in our particularity but in our wallets.

Reclaiming our value as persons in such a setting is a difficult task. Much of our askesis (spiritual discipline) is aimed in this direction. We fast, eating differently and intentionally, with reflection on the meanig of the day or season, thus refusing to become mere consumers.

We pray and offer thanks which transforms everything and anything into an offering to God, thus raising it to the level of a personal offering. Now this thing becomes something of great worth, no longer a product of our franchised culture but an offering of praise to God who made us all.

America is a franchise operation, in the midst of which we properly carry on subversive lives, redeeming the meaningless into the meaningful, drawing creation away from the empty abyss where mere consumerism would take it.

To stop on aisle 6 and to give thanks to the particular God for His particular blessings, changes that franchise, that aisle, and makes it like no other in the world.

The Journey to a Particular God

November 14, 2006

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Some years ago I found myself traveling down I-75 with my van loaded with wife and children. Our destination was some hours away in Georgia. The purpose of the trip was to travel to a place where someone was reportedly having visions (and messages) from the Virgin Mary. At about 100 miles down the road the question formed in my mind, “If God is everywhere, then why am I driving 250 miles to pray?” I had no answer for the question at the time. I just kept driving and finished the pilgrimage. Were there visions of the Virgin Mary? Was someone actually hearing from heaven? I never knew the answer to those questions. Part of me remains highly sceptical. But an answer to my first question began to come to me, and has become firmly fixed over the years.

We frequently speak of God in general terms. “I believe that God…” etc. The great difficulty arises when we turn to God in general. In general, you will find nothing, because God is Personal, and does not make Himself known “in general.”

When we look at the Scriptures, particularly in the stories of the patriarchs, we see stories of encounters with God. All of them have the hallmark in which the story occurs, God is encountered, and a sacrifice is made. And here is the particularity – the sacrifice is offered to El-Roi, or El-Elyon, or Yahweh-Yireh, or God (but always with a modifier). Sometimes the place of the encounter receives a new name, such as Beth-el in Jacob’s dream of the ladder.

As we come to know God, we cannot know Him in general (for the general can only be known by a category that shares similarities, as in “all chairs,” “all men over six feet tall” etc.). There is no category for God. Thus each encounter is particular, and personal (not “private” but free and marked by obedient love).

So our life in the Church is marked by many actions that draw us toward a particular encounter with God – physical gestures, feast days, disciplines, icons – all of these are given to draw us toward God.

I recall some years ago a man said to me, “I find that I can worship God better alone, walking in the woods.” Of course this banality didn’t mean that he actually went to the woods and prayed. I replied to him, “Yes, though it is a bit strange. God has an appointment to meet you here at Church at 10 on Sunday morning.”

We cannot use generalities to trap God into our presence. Thinking that since God is everywhere, he must be anywhere I want Him to be when I want Him to be. In such thinking there is no freedom, no love, only metaphysical bondage (which does not exist for God).

God is indeed, “Everywhere present and fills all things,” but for us, He is present only where He makes Himself known – and this is always a gift and a revelation. It is for this reason that a pilgrimage may have benefit. To drive 250 miles to pray is to say to God, “This matters enough to me that I will undertake the struggle.”

My family’s experience of our pilgrimage had mixed reviews. The events we witnessed were disappointing at best. What changed was my family. When we returned home, our family’s prayer life changed. What had been hard became easier – we prayed together. For me, that made the pilgrimage worthwhile. And it said to me that our struggle was met with grace and God gave us the gift of prayer.

Do You Unite Yourself to Christ?

November 13, 2006

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In the Orthodox service of Holy Baptism, the candidate (or sponsor) is asked, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” The question is put three times, and later is asked again in the past tense, “Have you united yourself to Christ?” It is clear from the dialog and the prayers themselves of the Baptism service that this question goes to the heart of the Church’s understanding of Baptism. Indeed, Baptism is only the beginning. It would be possible to say that all of our life in Christ is a question of union. “Do I unite myself to Christ?”

This understanding has been of major significance in my life as an Orthodox Christian, and certainly played a role in the process of my conversion. For when we are united to Christ, it is not something that happens outside of the Church, but in, through and with the Church, by the Holy Spirit. It is one of the reasons that the subject of Ecclesiology (the doctrine of the Church) interests me. For, as I have previously noted in my posts, the Church is not something separate from doctrine. Properly, the Church is what doctrine “looks like,” if I may be so bold.

All that Christ has given us in His death and resurrection is for our union with Him. In his letter to the Ephesians St. Paul sums this up by saying, 

For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth (1:9-10).

And shortly after states,

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe, according to the working of his great might which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come; and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all (1:16-23).

The union with Christ of which St. Paul speaks is nothing other than the Church which is the body of Christ. We are Baptized “into His body,” and all of our life as Christians is lived within His body. The Church is not secondary to Christ’s purpose, nor a mere association of believers, but is that very mystery of union with God that is His purpose in all things.

In my own pilgrimage, understanding the essential character of the Church was a turning point – a recognition that Church was a serious question, and not simply a point of Christian convenience. If God’s purpose is the gathering together of all things into one, then that gathering is the Church itself.

Knowing that did not begin to answer all of my questions, but it began to frame my questions. Where is the Church? How is the Church? What is my relationship to the Church?

St. Paul recognizes in the same passage in Ephesians that what we now know of the Church is not yet what it will be. He says that we:

were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, which is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

It is not something perfect we look for, nor yet something perfect that we should try to create. It is the new creation of God, sealed by the Spirit, until the time for the fulness of our inheritance.

On a daily basis, the question, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” remains the best self-examination I have found. It reminds me of the sole purpose of my every action. Everything I am to do is to unite myself with Christ. Whether it is love of neighbor and enemy, prayer, study, fasting – everything – is to unite me to Christ.

God grant us to know the vision St. Paul teaches in his letter to the Ephesians, and to unite ourselves to Christ.

Prayer Behind the Ambo

November 12, 2006

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This prayer from St. John Chrysostom’s Liturgy comes at the end of the service. It is a fitting summation of the Church’s prayer before God.

Blessing those that bless thee, O Lord, and sanctifying those that trust in thee, save thy people and bless thine inheritance, preserve the fullness of thy Church, sanctify those that love the beauty of thy house. Glorify them in return by thy divine power, and forsake us not that hope in thee. Give peace to thy world, to thy churches, to the priests, to all civil authorities, and to all thy people. For every good gift, and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from thee, the Father of lights, and unto thee do we send up glory, thanksgiving, and worship, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

The Morning Prayer of the Last Elders of Optina

November 10, 2006

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I have loved this prayer for years and found it essential in beginning the day. Key phrases have a way of coming back throughout the events of each day. It is worth committing to heart. 

O Lord, grant that I may meet all that this coming day brings to me with spiritual tranquility. Grant that I may fully surrender myself to Thy holy Will.

At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things. Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is subject to Thy holy Will.

Direct my thoughts and feelings in all my words and actions. In all unexpected occurrences, do not let me forget that all is sent down from Thee.

Grant that I may deal straightforwardly and wisely with every member of my family, neither embarrassing nor saddening anyone.

O Lord, grant me the strength to endure the fatigue of the coming day and all the events that take place during it. Direct my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to be patient, to forgive, and to love. Amen.