Archive for February, 2007

It’s Not Just the Details, It’s Not Just the Particulars, It’s Something Personal

February 28, 2007


I have long been intrigued with the notion of our common responsibility, or rather, that I am responsible for the sins of the whole world. I think I first came across the notion in a quote from the Elder Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov. And even there, Dostoevsky was only putting on the lips of his fictional Elder the sentiments of the saints and the common teaching of the Church.

At one time I mostly thought about all of this as having something to do with the fact that there is only one human essence, that our common humanity is a sharing in one being (ousia). Though this is a way to think about it, I have come to believe that it is not the specific teaching of the Church. In a way, the Western notion of Original Sin is far more akin to this. There is only one essence, and Adam took us down with him – a kind of Federalism as it is known.

Instead, I tend to understand this now as something potentially centered in us as persons. There is a freedom involved in accepting the common reponsibility of humanity for all of its sins. I can say, “Yes,” to this, or I can refuse it. As Fr. Sophrony writes, our very refusal, however, is a repetition of Adam’s sin, who refused to acknowledge any culpability in his own act. The problem was with God, who gave him “that woman.”

It also centers the problem squarely within the realm of love (which can only exist where there is freedom). I am not utterly free, there are many givens within my life and situation. And yet there are many things that I can choose to embrace or refuse to acknowledge. This embracing or refusing is the action of our heart towards others and ultimately towards God (“inasmuch as you did it to the least of these my brethren”).

Thus I cannot argue on some objective ground that you are responsible for the sins of all. You may want to refuse that kind of unity with the whole of humanity. But it you do so, you will not be able to pray for them. You cannot pray for the other as though you had no connection to them. Praying as though you had no connection is mere noblesse oblige, our pride that somehow we are different (and superior) to those for whom we pray.

Prayer, in its final analysis, can only be accomplished as we stand in union with Christ, and Christ will not seperate Himself from others. He has “become sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Thus if we are to pray in union with Christ, we will also have to pray as though “having become sin.” Thus we can honestly pray and say that we are the chief of sinners.

But this must not be something we embrace as theoretical. We cannot theoretically pray. God is not a theoretical God, but He Who Is. If we embrace others and accept responsibility for their sins, then we do so only as an act of love that unites us to them and to God who has so humbled Himself. If we refuse them then we can at best find ourselves lost in our own righteousness, which, before God, “is as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:5). But by embracing all, and becoming responsibility for all, we unite ourselves with Christ “who is through all and in you all.”

It’s Not Just the Details – It’s the Particulars

February 27, 2007


I wrote earlier of the details – and my own wrestling with the details of my travel.

Slowly, I am decompressing and regaining my own composure. The difficulty of life is not really found in the details but in its very character as particular.

 I think people do very well in general – that is to say – with things in general. When we think of things on the general level we’re not really talking about much other than our own ideas. Arguments can be had on this level, but not much is really at stake – just ideas.

Mankind, in general, is easy to love. Indeed Ivan Karamazov (by far the most sinister of the brothers) argued that it was only in general that we could love mankind. Mankind in general is easy to make plans for, to create bold utopian experiments and the like.

But then comes the particular. To feed 5,000 people is generally a large thing to do, but it comes down to the actual feeding of 5,000 particular people. The details of such an undertaking is enormous. I don’t know how we manage to seat the 5 of us living in my house now!

In local parish life – it’s almost never the general things that trouble us – in general we are all Orthodox and agree (in general). It’s only when we talk about what setting of the tropar we will use (or the myriad other choir decisions that must be made) or how we will actually do so many other things that can be measured only in particulars, that we find trouble.

In concept, the idea of a single, unified jurisdiction for Orthodoxy, is easy. But when that day comes (which it most surely will) the difficulty will be found in the particular.

This is always the test of love (not do I love man, but do I love this man).

This is the level of every struggle that is true and significant. Here the Gospel of Christ can come into its fullness. It is finally only in the fullness of each and every particularity that the Gospel is fulfilled.

And it is only in each and every particular that you and I lose our souls, that we despair of succeeding, that we actually come to know our need of God. In general, we do not need God (because of how perverse the “general” is). But we need Him in each and every particular.

This tells us how important prayer is in the smallest things. In the largest things (things in general) prayer is almost perfunctory. Not how do we feed the world, but how do I feed my family and the stranger at my door?

And it is in the smallest things that we fail.

Thus it is that the focus of our life must turn from the general, and from the largest things, and to the smallest details. I know and can know nothing of tomorrow or even 10 minutes from now. But what am I to do with my neighbor here and now as they stand in their particular need (or irritation or sin)?

“He who is faithful in small things, I will give to be master of much,” (Matt. 25:14) Christ says.

A little prayer, a little patience, a little humility, a little kindness, a little cry for help and all can be fulfilled. It is for want of the little things that our lives slip away into something less than what they should be. And it is in the little things that saints shine forth as the stars of heaven. God give us grace!

In the Details – God Reigns

February 27, 2007


 For the second day, I am sitting in airports, just one of many thousands effected by a snow storm and a storm of flight cancellations. I cannot complain – I was comfortable last night and am so now. I will have missed my Tuesday appointments and responsibilities but it cannot be helped.

But these are the events that precisely make up the stuff of our life. A plane doesn’t work. Traffic won’t move. The computer crashes. What was supposed to be due tomorrow is suddenly required today. And on it goes.

Our faith is tested, not in any larger global sense, just in the details of the day, the place where we live. Either we pray here or we probably will not pray at all. For me, it is the reminder to bring myself back to St. John Chrysostom’s words, “Glory to God for all things,” the words I used to name this blog and to remind myself to actually try to live what I preach.

This morning I looked up while waiting for the shuttle bus to carry me to the airport – when my line of sight was greeted by a lovely young woman who apparently had contact lenses that could only be described as designed to look like a demon. It took me back for a moment, and then reminded me to pray, and got me properly started for the day.

I probably looked sort of haggard, without shower or morning ablutions. I hope I did not look demonic. But may God help her not to want to appear as the image of something she truly was never created to be.

To be quiet inside, to be patient with what is beyond our control, to love everyone around, including ticket agents and airline managers – this is today’s Lent for me. And to pray for all around me and their protection and salvation. It is not wasted time or a wasted day – just another place to pray and new faces to pray for.

I am not so important that being thrust aside for a day matters to the world. Again our salvation is found in embracing the smallness that is the truth of ourselves.

Across the nation and world, people will today struggle with things that make my inconveniences seem very small. May God strengthen them to bear the day.

At the end of the service of the Sunday of Orthodoxy, we knelt and sang:

Beneath your compassion,

We take refuge, O Virgin, Theotokos.

Despise not, our prayers,

In our necessity, but deliver us from harm.

O, only pure, only spotless one.

Most Holy Theotokos, save us!

It was a sweet reminder of her protection (the cathedral was actually the “Protection of the Mother of God Cathedral.”) I knelt and looked at her icon and once again remembered that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses; prayed for and loved and never alone. May she place her protecting veil over us all.

Pictures from Minneapolis Sunday of Orthodoxy

February 27, 2007

Pictures from the Sunday of Orthodoxy were made available today. I gladly share them any who wish to see that wonderful Cathedral.

If You Weren’t in Minneapolis – Thoughts on the Sunday of Orthodoxy

February 26, 2007


My weekend in Minneapolis was a tremendous joy. The Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Clergy Association is a wonderful brotherhood of Orthodox priests and deacons that has obviously helped foster a strong since of common Orthodox identity and true brotherhood. It was a pleasure Sunday evening to be in the altar with so many brothers from various jurisdictions. I long for the day, as do most Orthodox in America, for a single common jurisdiction for us all. But for this I can pray and wait.

I had several opportunities to preach – in a variety of settings. Everything was focused on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, when we mark the return of the icons to the Churches in the reign of the Empress Theodora. My own thoughts were mostly on two aspects within us as human beings (not that there aren’t many more).

The first one is an impulse towards icons in the first place. Created in God’s image, we are created as iconodules (those who honor icons). The distortions within us mean that we often crave images that are not the Truth (see my article, The Icon We Love the Most). Sitting in airports, as I am today (and now in a hotel room – marooned in Chicago), there is a huge range of “image seekers” to be seen. We decorate ourselves, adopt fashions, etc., all in an effort to create an image and to give ourselves a defining image. I’m wearing a cassock (as I usually do when I travel) so I have to include myself in this number. It makes for frequent and interesting conversations and opportunities to share the Orthodox faith.

The other impulse is a drive towards iconoclasm – that is as much in evidence in our daily lives as anything in our modern world. Indeed, modernity can almost be defined as the age of Iconoclasm. We sweep away the past as if it were only so much clutter standing in the way of progress to a world we always assume will be better. Some of our most powerful technology is aimed specifically at re-designing the human. We will be new and improved if some research has its way.

Other forces are working rapidly to redefine things that already exist, so that things that might have once been considered wrong or dysfunctional are now considered desirable and good. There is almost a sense that we can redefine the world into a state of goodness, though nothing will have changed in such schemes that bring us closer to God’s kingdom.

Some of our iconoclasm is dangerous, indeed. Changing the image of an unborn child into a “foetus,” and thus rendering them somehow more clinical, and less human, allows us to destroy the image with less guilt and concern. Redefining life can also allow us to euthanize the weak and the elderly without remorse. Stanley Hauerwas has frequently noted that “compassion” in ethics is almost always a prelude to murder.

Thus when we celebrate the return of icons to the Churches, we also have to look at ourselves. The icon, the image of God, must be restored to the Temple of our self. We must renounce false images and embrace what God has revealed of Himself. The Holy Icons of Christ are precisely part of that revelation. We honor Him in His icon lest we fail to honor Him in the Truth.

At the same time we have to renounce iconoclasm. In so doing, we inherently set ourselves against certain forces within modernity. The truth is indeed eschatological, that is, it lies in the future, but we also believe that this eschatological reality was incarnate in Christ, the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega. We do not oppose the future in embracing the Tradition we have received. We embrace the future that is coming in Truth, rather than the false utopias of modern man’s imagination.

May the Holy Icons truly be honored and may we all be restored to the image in which we were created. Thy Kingdom Come, O Lord!

Who’s To Blame?

February 25, 2007


I frequently buy used books (indeed with the used books feature on Amazon, I often can only afford to buy used books). You try to get a good, clean copy, but occasionally they come with marginal comments.  My volume of St. Silouan the Athonite is used, and has a number of marginal comments from my anonymous predecessor.  Sometimes the comments themselves are interesting.

Reading today, I ran across marginal comments that said: “Nonsense…This is plenty enough guilt…blah, blah, nonsense.”

That will definitely make you want to stop and read. What on earth could Fr. Sophrony have written that got such a rise out of a reader?

The section was entitled, “On the Difference between Christian Love and the Justice of Men.”

I’ll quote some of the offending sections:

…What sense is there in enjoying only the pleasurable side of love? Indeed, it is only in willingly taking upon oneself the loved one’s guilt and burdens that love attains its multifold perfection.

Many of us cannot, or do not want to, accept and suffer of our own free will the consequences of Adam’s original sin. ‘Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit but what has that to do with me?’ we protest. ‘I am ready to answer for my own sins but certainly not for the sins of others.’ And we do not realise that in reacting thus we are repeating in ourselves the sin of our forefather Adam, making it our own personal sin, leading to our own personal fall. Adam denied responsibility, laying all the blame on Eve and on God who had given him this wife; and by so doing he destroyed the unity of Man and his communion with God. So, each time we refuse to take on ourselves the blame for our common evil, for the actions of our neighbor, we are repeating the same sin and likewise shattering the unity of Man. The Lord questioned Adam before Eve, and we must suppose that if Adam, instead of justifying himself, had taken upon his shoulders the responsibility for their joint sin, the destinies of the world might have been different, just as they will alter now if we in our day assume the burden of the transgressions of our fellow man.

For those Orthodox who have a knee-jerk reaction to the phrase “original sin,” be at peace. This is not an endorsement of that particular doctrine. Instead it is the common teaching of the Church that, as Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima said, “Each man is responsible for the sins of all men.”

This is only so because we are one humanity. Indeed it is a common teaching that we cannot pray for the world if we are unwilling to take the sins of the world upon ourself. Christ does precisely that. If we are to pray as He prays, then we must pray for all as though we are all. We cannot pray for our enemy as though he were somehow other than ourselves, guilty and condemned while we stand justified and condemning.

I understand the provocation of my predecessor and the caustic remarks (made only to oneself) in the margin of the book. It is a hard teaching. But this is the full revelation of love. I cannot condemn because I do not see you as somehow different from me.

As Fr. Sophrony goes on to say:

We can all find ways of vindicating ourselves on all occasions but if we really examine our hearts we shall see that in justifying ourselves we are not guileless. Man justifies himself, firstly, because he does not want to acknowledge that he is even partially to blame for the evil in the world, and, secondly, because he does not realise that he is endowed with godlike freedom. He sees himself as merely part of the world’s phenomena, a thing of this world, and, as such, dependent on the world. There is a considerable element of bondage in this, and self-justification, therefore, is a slavish business unworthy of a son of God. I saw no tendency towards self-justification in the Staretz. But it is strange how to many people this taking the blame for the wrong-doing of others, and asking for forgiveness, savours of subjection – so vast the distinction in outlook between the sons of the Spirit of Christ and non-spiritual people. The latter cannot believe it possible to feel all humanity as a single whole to be incorporated in the personal existence of every man. Love thy neighbor as thyself, each of us must, and can, comprise all mankind in our own personal being. Then all the evil that occurs in the world will be seen, not as something extraneous but as our own.

If you listen to the words of the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, then you hear the constant refrain that reveals that we are not only no different than the great sinners within Scripture – we are worse. Is this just pious language? Do we utter pious nonsense when each Sunday we say “Thou camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first?”

I do not know if I would choose to use the language of guilt, with all of its forensic implications, but ontologically, on the level of my being and existence, I know that I am responsible for the sins of all.

As one modern monk once said to me, “The contemplative need look no further than his own heart to see the source of all violence in the world.”

Who’s to blame? I am.

Happy Birthday Khouria!

February 24, 2007


My second daughter, Kathryn, has a birthday today and I am nowhere near to give the hugs that should be given. But I pray her many years! And all the joy that can be had!

Godly Grief

February 24, 2007


I spent two years working as a Hospice Chaplain in the Mountains of East Tennessee. When you’re working with hospice, death and grief are ever-present. You have no choice over your patients. Mine ranged from Mountain Pentecostals, to unbeliever scientists here in Oak Ridge (a science city). But grief was universal.

I learned many things about grief, both by watching and listening to others and by paying attention to myself. One of the most surprising things I learned about grief is that each grief is all grief, meaning, that an event that opens up grief in our hearts, taps in to all the previous events of grief. Thus we find ourselves grieving far greater for something than the loss itself would have indicated.

Those two years were years that for a variety of reasons brought much grief to my heart. I found myself at the bedsides of strangers, listening to their stories, and weeping. They must have thought I was very emotional, or incredibly empathetic. I didn’t know how to say, “Your grief is part of my grief which is quite substantial just now.”

The discipline of Soul Saturdays and the frequent prayers for the departed in the Church probably saved my sanity those two years. I never had a week with less than three deaths.

The experience if anything taught me that it is possible for some one thing to be part of some larger thing. There was a communion within the experience of grief that I cannot articulate other than to say that it is so.

Thus, the verse of St. Paul which I quoted several days ago, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10) became important for me. Worldly grief can be the door to despair (which we certainly do not want). To grieve in a “godly” manner, I believe, means to unite and offer my grief to God. Thus “we do not grieve as those who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

I think in the same manner we can “weep with those who weep” learning that such things are not utterly private as our culture often teaches, but that the loss and suffering of one is the loss and suffering of us all. Even Christ wept over the grave of his friend Lazarus.

That passage in John 11, is very instructive:

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled; and he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept (33-35).

It is not simply the news of Lazarus’ death, nor his sorrow over his death that moves Christ to tears. It was when He saw Lazarus’ sister Mary weeping and the others who came with her weeping, that he was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” Their grief became His grief. “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 52:4). We are not asked to do less.

St. Silouan and the Church

February 23, 2007


The following excerpt from St. Silouan the Athonite, begins with a quote from the saint, and is followed by the comments of Archimandrite Sophrony.

It is given to our Orthodox Church through the Holy Spirit to fathom the mysteries of God, and she is strong in the holiness of her thought and her patience.

The mystery of God which the Church understands in the Holy Spirit is the love of Christ.

The holy thought of the Church is that all men should be saved. And the path she treads towards this holy end is the path of patience – that is, of sacrifice.

In preaching the love of Christ to the world, the Church calls all men to the fulness of Divine life but people do not understand her call, and repudiate it. When she bids men keep Christ’s commandment and love their enemies, the Church finds herself caught between conflicting forces who naturally vent their anger upon her when she crosses their course. But the Church, actualizing Christ’s mission on earth – the salvation of the whole world – purposely takes upon herself the world’s anger, just as Christ took upon Himself the sins of the world. And as Christ was persecuted in this world of sin, and had to suffer, so the true Church of Christ must also be persecuted and suffer. The Lord Himself and the Apostles spoke of this spiritual law of life in Christ, and St. Paul put it in plain words when he wrote, ‘Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution’ (2 Timothy 3:12).

And this is always and everywhere so in the whole world, where only sin exists.

If I might be so bold as to offer a few of my own words – even in lands like our own where there is no particular civil persecution of the Church – we still find that when we resist sin, something pushes back against us. We feel the pressure and presence of sin anytime we resist it. Thus in our Lenten journey, the more we struggle the greater the “persecution” we encounter. The more we seek to forgive, the harder forgiveness becomes. The more we seek to love, the harder love becomes. That is why our words are obviously of so little value – they come easily.

A Request for Your Prayers

February 22, 2007


I fly Friday morning to Minneapolis where I will be speaking at several Churches, including St. Mary’s Cathedral for the Sunday of Orthodoxy Vespers. Minnesota is also expecting one of its worst winter storms of the year. Sounds about right to me… I have been assured that I will be “kept warm, fed, and entertained…”

But if any of you know me you know that flying is not one of my favorite activities and that an anticipated foot of snow is not normal for a Southerner. Most especially pray that God give me grace to say something useful to my brothers and sisters in that part of the world.

I have “pre-set” some articles before the trip, though Saturday is still a little questionable for the blog. Might be a good day to read in the archives… unless you have far better things to do (which is doubtless).

Glory to God for all things!