Archive for March, 2007

The Challenge of Atheism

March 23, 2007


I will quickly confess that I am not a philosopher. I am not trained in the subject and always struggled in the few doctoral classes that were in the area of “Philosophical Theology.” Thus, this will not be a philosophical response that settles matters for believers viz. atheism, or settles matters viz. Orthodox Christianity for atheists. It is just some observations.

That the world would be better off if everyone were an atheist is to me, a silly thought. We have too much evidence to the contrary. Atheist states have been the most efficient killing machines in all of history. Dostoevsky is quoted as saying, “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” It is questionable that he ever wrote it in that succinct fashion, but it certainly reflects a number of statements that occur in his writings. And it is true.

Though there are some very strange things happening in our culture as the result of religion, they hardly hold a candle to the strange things taking place among those who are committed to hedonism and other forms of modern atheism.

The greatest challenge from Atheism is what Orthodoxy would term the “problem of the human heart.” Orthodoxy (and many other Christians) understand very clearly that human beings have a “dark” side and that religious “delusion” is a constant issue for believers. Properly taught and nurtured, Orthodox Christians should be more sensitive to questions of religious delusion than non-believers.

The problem of the human heart (this deep, spiritual center of man) is that it very easily becomes hard. And that in its hardness it is capable of almost anything. The amount of atrocities carried out by professed believers is ample testimony to the dangers of the heart, even for Christians.

What would an atheist propose for the treatment of the heart? It cannot be that less religion means a healthier human heart. Indeed, the modern nation state is what threatens to take the place of religion. And the modern nation state has not shown itself to be a repository of kindness, gentleness and altruism with regard to its clients.

If anything, the spiritual teaching of the Orthodox Church is particularly directed towards our distortions of reality and our denial of the True God in an acceptance of a false god. The proper practice of Orthodoxy is ruthlessly self-honest and self-critical and believes that true belief in God can only be measured by the love we have for our enemy. Anything less than this is not the fullness of the Orthodox faith.

Our conversation with Atheism is not about the stars and the planets, or about how our planet came to be and how long ago. Our conversation with Atheism is not about the literal character of stories in the Old Testament. Christians who focus on such things in their discussions with Atheism are largely agreeing that these are the essential questions for humanity – and they are not.

The central question for humanity is the God revealed to us in and through Jesus Christ. If that God is the true God, then our religion can only be measured by the love we have for our enemy.

By the same token, we can ask of anyone, Atheist included, “Do you love your enemies?” If they do not, then we can say with confidence, “Your heart is in trouble.” And if anyone’s heart is in trouble (most are) then the world is indeed a very dangerous place (it is).

We believe that the world is so dangerous that even God Himself is not safe within it (cf. crucifixion). We also believe that our mission as Christians is to follow the example of the God/man Jesus Christ and yield ourselves up for crucifixion on behalf of our enemies. Anything less than that is not Orthodox Christianity in its fullness.

St. Paul noted: “One will hardly die for a righteous man — though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8). While this is undeniably true for Christ – it is also meant to become true for all who follow Him. Anything less is not the fullness of the Orthodox faith.

The challenge of Atheism is the challenge of despair. For Atheism cannot claim that human beings are improving. If anything, technology only makes us capable of far worse than the past. The marvels of this internet now mean that evil men have easy access to vulnerable children and are manifesting that evil in epic proportions. The Atheist can only (if he is honest) look at history and despair. We are heading towards a certain destruction on our present trajectory. If there is no one who can intervene and heal the human heart then our fate is indeed a sad one.

Orthodox Christianity does not believe that all religion is good. Indeed, we might very well argue that most religion is not good because it embraces the delusion that clouds the human heart. Most religion does not measure itself by its love of its enemies. In that sense, much of religion among men is just a peculiar manifestation of politics and nothing more.

But I believe that Christ is truly God in the flesh and that God so loves us that He emptied Himself and endured death on the cross in order to rescue us even from the relative non-existence we had brought on ourselves (in Hades). I believe that we can judge ourselves only by the standard of the love of God on the Cross. Either we are denying ourselves and extending our hearts towards others, especially our enemies, or we are not following Christ. Anything less than that is not the fullness of the Orthodox faith.

There is a path to salvation but it only goes through the cross (not just the Cross of Christ but through the cross He has set before each of us). It is the only means of curing the sickness of our heart. Such religion endangers no one. Such religion would see the Atheist not as our largest problem, but simply one of many examples of the heart of man in need of healing. Indeed, many Atheists may be closer to that healing than many deluded Christians. We can and must pray for all mankind and for the triumph of the Cross in their heart. The sooner the better. And let it begin with me.

The Mother of God – Telling the Whole Story of Salvation

March 22, 2007


This Friday and Saturday the Orthodox Church focuses its liturgical attention on the ancient hymn known as the Akathist, the “the hymn we sing unseated, i.e., Akathismos” (what hymn would you sing while seated methinks?). St. Romanos the Melodist was the author of the first Akathist, written in honor of the Theotokos (“Birthgiver of God”). It has its own particular poetic form. Many of the Saints now have Akathists written in their honor and they may be sung as part of the Vigil of a Feast, or, often, used largely by themselves as popular devotions.

The Akathist, honoring the Mother of God, is a veritable feast of theology on the economy of our salvation and the role of the Virgin in that economy. And this gives rise to the thoughts I offer in this post.

Salvation, the whole story, cannot be reduced to four spiritual laws (else the Apostles would have saved themselves a lot of time). Salvation is everything, Mother of God included.

Salvation is the incarnate Christ, taking flesh of his Mother, by the Holy Spirit.

Salvation is the miraculous, virgin birth of Christ, who enters our world without violence, either to human will or our flesh.

Salvation is the Theotokos pondering in her heart the mysteries of Christ long before anyone else had any thoughts on the matter.

Salvation is the leaping of John the Baptist in the womb of his mother at the sound of the voice of the Theotokos.

Salvation is the birth of Christ in humble circumstances, with shepherds and angels and the visit of the Magi.

Salvation is the Baptism of Christ in the Jordon by John.

Salvation is the resisting and vanquishing of the tempter in the Wilderness.

Salvation is the calling of the twelve and preaching to the crowds.

Salvation is the healing of the sick, the blind, the cripple.

Salvation is the raising of the dead, the forgiveness of sins.

Salvation is the Body and Blood of Christ, shared and eaten by His friends.

Salvation is the suffering of Christ in the Garden and his yielding to His betrayers.

Salvation is the scorn and spitting, the mocking and beating.

Salvation is the crucifixion of the Lord of Glory.

Salvation is the words of forgiveness spoken from the Cross.

Salvation is the gift of the Mother of God to the Church and the Church to the Mother of God.

Salvation is the promise of paradise to the thief who repented.

Salvation is the death of Christ on the Cross and His triumphant entry into Hades.

Salvation is the proclamation to those in bondage of the freedom now declared in Christ.

Salvation is Christ’s resurrection from the dead, His ascension into heaven and His sitting at the right hand of Power.

Salvation is accepting Christ as Savior and following in the way of His Cross.

Salvation is the forgiving of our enemies.

Salvation is prayer for the world.

Salvation is repenting constantly of our sins.

Salvation is trusting in God and His goodness above all things and in all things.

Salvation is naming Christ as Savior ’til one’s dying breath.

Salvation is reigning with Christ in heaven and sharing in His resurrection.

I have left so much out. Salvation is the whole of our life in Christ, indeed, it is God’s will that the whole of our life be salvation.

But as we celebrate the Mother of God in these next two days, let us remember that without her there is no story of salvation. We must tell the whole story, much more than I have said here. But let us long for all of it, and never yield to less than its fullness.

Feel free to contribute observations on “Salvation is…

St. Mary of Egypt

March 22, 2007


One of the most remarkable stories of the early Church, read each year on this day in Lent during the Canon of St. Andrew, is the Story of St. Mary of Egypt. I know of nothing better to do this day than read it (or attend a service in which it is read – I did the latter this morning). Do yourself a favor and ponder the mercy of God.

The Story of St. Mary of Eygpt by St. Sophronius of Jerusalem.

The Problem of Church

March 20, 2007


My title may sound a bit strange – for I do not mean to say “the Problem of the Church” – but simply the problem that something exists called “the Church” creates for modern Christianity. My thoughts are occasioned by a question posed to one of my recent posts. I assumed that the person posing the question was an evangelical or protestant of some sort – for the statements that were questioned centered around the problem of Church.

As I have been writing recently about boundaries, the one boundary I have avoided is the most obvious: what constitutes the boundary of the Church? The question can be answered in a variety of ways depending on the tradition from which it is viewed. It seems to me that most Christians would readily agree that there is a boundary to Church. This is the Church, this is not the Church. But, of course, how the question gets answered is indeed the problem.

I recall a few years back (and doubtless continuing), within Anglicanism the question was raised as to whether a person who is not Baptized should be admitted to communion. Within the Christian Church (the denomination that uses that title) this is common policy. This is radically “open communion.” Of course, when a Buddhist kneels at your altar rail and takes communion, what does it mean? What is in fact happening? What does the communion itself mean?

In conversations between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox the “problem” of the Church is much simpler even if it seems to prove constantly intractable. Both generally understand that the Church is a visible entity, not merely a “mystical Body of Christ” or “invisible Church.” This latter idea is a late invention of the Protestant Reformation in which the Church ceases to be a visible entity and becomes a group of people known only to God alone. It solves many problems for the pluriform nature of Protestantism (some 20,000 different groups now). It also has the convenience of being easily harmonized with the individualism of American culture which is gradually sweeping the globe. “I have accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior, therefore I am in the Church.” This, of course, has the added benefit of not having to deal with the problem of other people.

Most of the problems in my life over the last 30 years or so have been in the context of Church. It is the location of my closest friends as well as my most aggravating companions. Hopefully all of them will forgive me. But were the Church to exist only in some mystical form, only as the invisible Church – frankly nothing would bother me. I could read the books I choose and my Bible and believe as I will or will not and me and Jesus will get along just fine.

Of course, all of that latter sentiment is delusion. It is only my imaginary relationship with Christ (if the Church is invisible it is little more than imaginary). It is the visible character of the Church, and the possibility of boundary (everything visible has some boundary) that creates the “problem.”

For if there is a boundary, then someone is not within the Church. If there is a boundary then you can be inside it or you can be outside of it. And there is the problem. Who says where the boundaries are to be set?

Many modern churches (Protestant) have side-stepped the issue and generally lowered or dropped the boundaries altogether. This of course makes those who believe in visible boundaries seem exclusivist or outlandish in their claims.

Thus the embarassment or rudeness one encounters when speaking with the Orthodox or with some Roman Catholics (I try to avoid being rude).  But there is such a thing as the historical Church. It can be identified with historical confidence. That the Eastern Orthodox Church is in direct succession of the Apostles and those whom they appointed is not a faith claim but a simple historical fact. The same has to be granted to Roman Catholicism, although the Orthodox generally would offer the criticism that Rome has departed in some important ways from the Tradition they were given (but this becomes a matter of discussion and debate between Rome and the Orthodox which is not my purpose here). I’m sure Rome would return the favor.

But there is a vast common ground in that conversation. Both agree that the Church is visible and recognize its historical life. The multiplicity of schisms that have created modern Protestantism is a creature of another sort. There, churches can be created by a single individual so long as they can convince some other individuals to join. Indeed, in the MegaChurch model, all denominational labeling is generally hidden. It’s just Church, or something like that.

I started this post with a title – the Problem of Church. I believe that an important milestone in the maturing of a Christian life is coming to grips with this problem. It is recognizing that the Church is God’s creation and not man’s; that the Church existed before I was born; that it may have boundaries; and that I might be outside the boundaries. This is like growing up and realizing the difference between marriage and dating (especially some of the bizarre forms that modern dating has taken).

When a Christian begins to read the Bible seriously (including the many passages on the Church) and to read even a few centuries of Church history, questions frequently begin to form and generally head in the direction of the historical Church. Many of the Protestants who come through the doors of my Orthodox Church are precisely in such a situation. The lack of boundaries in much of modern Protestantism will eventually dictate its extinction. That “such and such” a megachurch ever existed may not have any historical significance – or that it was this megachurch and not that megachurch may not have mattered. Many of the traditional Protestant denominations are quickly placing themselves in line for extinction as boundaries cease and meaning disappears.

I will restate the problem as a conclusion for this post. The Problem of the Church is that there is one. Whatever free associations man has created, there still exists a Church whose life is rooted in that first community in Jerusalem and stretches through the centuries into the present. It is not a problem to be solved – but it is a challenge to the fiction of invisible Churches and boundary-less associations.

Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth

March 19, 2007


Learning to read the Bible (since we now have them so readily available) is a difficult thing. We pray always for the Bishops of the Church that God will “grant them to the Churches, long lived…rightly dividing the word of Truth.” Rightly dividing the word of Truth, or properly interpreting the Scriptures is quite difficult.

The modernist approach of the historical critical method can be useful for some things, but has never been used for the purpose of creating doctrine. In many cases that I know of here in the West so-called “higher criticism” has robbed people of their faith. No longer feeling secure about what is found in the Scriptures, they declare themselves agnostic or worse.

Many modernists are beginning to show their hand, simply attacking the Scriptures as “culturally biased” and in some cases to be “evil.” Those are the words of modern scholars (not Orthodox) and show how far many Christians have drifted from the Truth.

At the same time we have fundamentalists (of many varying hues) who insist on the “plenary verbal inspiration” and proceed to read the Bible in a literal, historical manner. They create doubt in believers as well leaving people thinking, “If that’s what I must believe in order to be a Christian, then I can’t be a Christian.”

Virtually unknown in our day is the proper reading of the Scriptures. We hear this “proper reading” all the time in the Orthodox liturgical cycle, hearing how scripture is used and what sense is made of it.

As I noted in my previous article, the Seventh Ecumenical Council declared that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” We could turn this saying around and say that what the Scriptures does with words it does “iconicly.” When we read the Scriptures we are reading more than an historical narrative (as in the gospels or many other books) we are instead reading the Good News of Jesus Christ which is presented to us in an icon-like form.

This method of reading can only be done as part of a community where we are initiated into a reading of Scripture by hearing it over and over again, presented in its proper form. The key to this form is the “Apostolic Hypothesis” as described by St. Irenaeus. This is simply the belief we can find generally summed up in such things as the “Apostles’ Creed.” These short summaries of Christ’s work reveal the framework on which all New Testament writing is built, and by which all the Old Testament is read properly.

If we are reading the Old Testament properly, then we are looking for Christ (not that there isn’t much other kinds of information to be found there). Other information in the Old Testament might be of interest to us, but it is not “saving” information. It does not lead to Christ.

We must also learn to “read backwards,” that is, to see everything in the light of “that which is to come.” The Scriptures are, like icons, also eschatological. The One who is born in Bethlehem, is also the One “through whom all things were made.” And He is also the One who is to come. Indeed, it is in knowing Him as the “One who is to come” that we begin to be able to rightly divide the word of Truth.

The Christian community, when it exists and lives as it has been taught, is itself a witness and testament to the last things. We literally live as though there were no tomorrow, for the Truth is, there is no tomorrow. There is ever only today, and this day is the day of salvation. People who know the End of all things can begin to live in that End (which is Christ). Because He is the end (and He will be my end as well), I do not have to live as if I were in charge of history. I do not have to see to it that everything turns out fine. To do so usually means that we have to agree to do violence in order to bring about a just society (in then those societies are never just).

I can turn the other cheek, because it doesn’t matter, in light of the End of all things, that I should be insulted.

I can forgive my enemies because the End of all things means to reconcile them to Himself.

My life is not being formed and shaped by my past (except where I am still an inveterate sinner). Instead, my life is being shaped by Him Who is to come. I am being changed, from glory to glory, into the image of Christ, the coming One.

The gospels are clearly written “backwards.” The gospels know from the very beginning that Christ would be crucified and that this was the fulfillment of Scripture. But the apostles did not know this, not at the time of the resurrection itself (John 20:9). “They did not yet know the Scriptures how he must rise again on the third day.” But the gospels know this throughout and do not keep it secret. It presumes the reader knows the One who is to come already. Thus the telling of the story of Jesus, like a good icon, is arranged in such a way that we will see what it means. In these “icons” we see the Truth of who Jesus is, was, and is to be.

By the same token, the Old Testament, which is a “shadow” of the New, is read backwards. We read Christ in writings by people who never knew Him. But these are not ordinary people, but people whose role as the chosen is to represent Christ incarnate, crucified, ascended and seated at the right hand of the Father and sending us the Holy Spirit. Whether any of those who were writing/acting in that setting knew what they were writing is doubtful and not necessary. The meaning of the Old Testament as Scripture is not to be found in the intent of the author, but is to be found in Christ Himself, for He is its meaning.

Thus Christ in the belly of the whale prays:

The waters closed in over me, the deep was round about me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever; yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God. When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the LORD; and my prayer came to thee, into thy holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their true loyalty. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to thee; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the LORD!

This is not Jonah praying from the belly of a whale (except in some sense) but Christ praying from the Pit of Hades. It is Christ who is the perfect image of the Father, not Adam. Adam and Eve never fulfill their creation as image and likeness of God, until that created promise was fulfilled in Christ. He is the Second Adam, the True Adam, for He is the beginning and the End.

I heard some “preacher” on television today say that 75% of prophecy in the Old Testament has already been fulfilled. Of course he was a Darbyite fundamentalist who is reading his newspaper everyday believing that Biblical prophecy is being fulfilled before our very eyes.

Far more the 75% have been fulfilled – but virtually nothing that this man would think of as a fulfilled prophecy is actually any such thing. He is looking for Armegeddon, not Christ.

God give us grace, under our Holy Bishops, to rightly divide the word of Truth.

The Truth of an Icon

March 19, 2007


Icons are lovely objects – directing our hearts towards God – sometimes miraculous and truly “windows to heaven.” But I want to be somewhat theological today and write about the “truth” of an icon. Icons are peculiar, when painted according to the most traditional patterns. They are not just “ahistorical” they are positively non-historical. We can look at an icon and see any number of events depicted that do not belong to the same time framework at all. Icons are simply not about history as we popularly understand it. This separates them dramatically from much that flowered in the Western Renaissance.

The “truth” (I hardly know what else to call it) of an icon is never to be found in its past, it’s historical message, but in the future, in what it is manifesting of the age to come. There is a Patristic maxim, put forward by both St. Maximus the Confessor and earlier by St. Ambrose of Milan: the Old Testament is shadow; the New Testament is icon; while the eschaton (the end of all things or the fulfillment of the Kingdom, etc.) is the truth itself. In both of these Fathers, one Eastern, one Western, truth is understood to be a property of the end of things. In theological terms, the truth is “eschatological.”

Thus we have this rather strange aspect of icons. They are eschatological representations. They not only show us what happened (if we’re talking about a Biblical scene) but also show us what that scene means in its fullest and final sense. Saints are not painted as they might have appeared in life, but in an eschatological fashion representing how they shall be in the age to come (at least this is what the intention is behind many stylistic aspects of an icon). They are thin (not heavy and of the earth); their senses are either deemphasized (small ears, small mouth, thin and elongated hands) because they are turned inward to the heart; or overemphasized (large eyes and enlarged forehead) representing heavenly vision and wisdom. They are always presented to us face-to-face, never in profile, for the truth of who they are is only to be known personally (hypostatically) in relationsip, never as a merely existing object. This last aspect is quite notable in the resurrection appearances of Christ. He cannot be objectified.

In the Seventh Council, the Fathers said, “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” And so it should not be surprising to find that the Scriptures themselves only open their Truth to us eschatologically. St. John’s gospel is probably the most obvious in this respect. He places Christ’s discourse on the meaning of the Eucharist at the occasion of the feeding of the five thousand, and yet does not have an account of the Last Supper in the Passion Narrative (or at least does not include the Eucharist in his account of the Last Supper as do Matthew and Luke). Christ makes statements in his sermon following the feeding of the five thousand that would and will make sense only to those who are eucharistically aware. It is a sermon out of time.

All of the New Testament is written from a “future” perspective – it’s all after the fact – Christ having been raised and taught the Church and ascended into Heaven. The Holy Spirit has already come. Indeed, the Scriptures of the Old Testament are now seen as fulfilled in Christ. Thus, they will only yield up the “truth” of their meaning by examining them through Christ.

This is also true of our own lives as Christians, as well as the corporate life of the Church. The meal of which we partake together is Christ’s Body and Blood, the Messianic Banquet. It is food from the end of the world. Thus in St. John Chrysostom’s Liturgy, we actually speak of the Second Coming in the past tense.

St. Paul taught us to understand that the truth of ourselves lies not in the present but in the age to come. In the third chapter of Colossians he says:

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

St. John says the same thing: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1John 3:2).

Thus the icons of the Church stand around us not as reminders of the past, but as witnesses of the age to come. They say to us: “Thus shall you be.” And we ourselves groan within for such truth, as the Scriptures tell us, “Looking to Christ, the author and the finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2).


Boundaries Which God Has Set

March 19, 2007


I have written previously of boundaries and their essential nature in our spiritual lives. This can be described by the boundaries we experience within ourselves (certain ones must be maintained) or the boundaries we experience in an Orthodox Temple (such boundaries serve to teach us about ourselves and the Truth of our relationship with Christ).

One boundary which is perhaps the most essential, and yet contrary to much modern thought, is the boundary at the Cup of Christ. In Orthodox terms there is an absolute boundary set at Eucharistic fellowship that can only be crossed by those who share the Orthodox faith, life, and churchly communion. We never cross that boundary for “eucharistic” fellowship, or to promote “ecumenical” harmony.

Many who first visit an Orthodox Church, particularly if they are used to a communion with no boundaries, find Orthodox eucharistic discipline to be jarring and even “hostile.” Of course, nothing of animosity is intended. The Orthodox are only stating the obvious with the Cup. “You are not one with us in Christ.” That unity presupposes unity of doctrine, discipline, unity of worship, unity of submission to the Bishops of the Orthodox Church.

Though the Orthodox have traditionally avoided pronouncements about other Christian groups, the Orthodox cannot but believe that the Church is “One,” just as we have received it in the Creed. There cannot be two Churches, because Churches only come in “ones.” Neither can there be some overarching “invisible” Church – this is simply a modern fiction that seeks to remove boundaries that are necessary to our existence.

If the Church is not defined by its communion with Christ, what else would give it definition? Doctrine? Of course true doctrine gives the Church definition, but in most matters, the majority of Protestant churches would have no existence – for very few have any expectation of unity of doctrine.

Can institutional unity define the Church? Only if the Church is reduced to the level of a modern corporation. This, indeed, is the unity that most modern Churches have. They share a label and the right to that label exists like a local franchise. Pay your dues and you get the name. The sacraments are reduced to mere products offered to those who happen to be at any given sacramental service.

The Orthodox understanding of the sacraments and of the nature of the Church always makes it vulnerable to schism. There must be unity of faith and doctrine between Bishops (and with their people and priests) or communion, the living boundary of communion in Christ, is breached and schism results. Orthodox history is replete with the stories of schisms, both of some that continue to last, and some that have been healed, and some that are soon to be healed. But the virtue of the Church’s boundary existing at the edge of the Cup is that communion itself is never reduced to a mere ceremony, a token of hospitality, or something less than essential to the Church’s very being.

As recently as 50 years ago, almost all of the churches in the world, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant practiced communion discipline that understood that communion requires unity of faith. That consensus was shattered by the ecumenical movement as churches became convinced that “open” communion would soon result in unity within the Churches. The unity that has resulted has been a unity that has eviscerated Eucharistic Doctrine. No longer a sign of unity, it has become a matter of private piety between the believer, his or her conscience, and Christ. That is one way to do things, but it has no warrant in Scripture.

My first encounter with the Eucharistic discipline of the Orthodox Church did not offend me. It reminded me at the time that I was not Orthodox (not even orthodox if I were honest). It was a call to repentance and to a searching of heart. It gave me a boundary that invited me to approach – but in approaching it invited me to change – to believe the gospel as taught by Christ and the Apostles and recognize that many things in me had to change (or at least embrace the willingness to be changed).

I pray for all those who struggle amid impending schisms, and those who struggle with the understanding of the Cup having a boundary. Without that boundary, the Eucharist would lose its meaning, being relegated to the private imaginations of the individual members of invisible Churches.

These are boundaries that God has set. They are not the invention of man. Like the angel at the gate of paradise, they are a gift from God.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent

March 17, 2007


There is something about charts, methods, tables and the like that always make me react in a negative manner. There is a form of rationalism that, for me, simply screams, “This is the work of man.” A Linaeus can invent a table for classifying nature – and I’m sure that biologists find it very helpful. But there is something irrational at the same time about nature in which everything resists classification.

The most frustrating example of this was my experience in geology lab in college. I always did well with the book and the lectures, rarely making a mistake on exams in that area of the course. But one day per week was given over to “lab” work. In geology this consisted of boxes of rocks. Each of the boxes were labeled. We experimented and learned to use the various techniques for identifying qualities that would allow us to say, “This is feldspar,” or “This is quartzite,” etc.

I would go every week and do everything I was told. Indeed I strained what brain I had to learn these classifying techniques. The exam would finally came. And, surprise, the rocks we had to identify were samples we had never seen. We had seen other samples of similar rocks, but not these particular rocks.

My frustration was that I was invariably learning what a rock was by learning that particular rock. I invariably flunked the lab test. This is probably only a revelation about the way my brain is wired. But it left me suspicious of classifications. I know they are real – but my brain just won’t work that way.

This Sunday, the Orthodox Church celebrates St. John Climacus, the author of the great spiritual classic known as “the Ladder.” It offers 30 steps in the spiritual life, with the notion that we cannot go from one “rung” of the ladder to the next without mastering what has gone before. It is Orthodoxy’s 12 steps, only, of course, there are 30 of them.

The Ladder makes for good Lenten reading. Each topic is worthy of everything that is written. I have even gleaned insight into various things by reading it. But I have always wondered if that’s exactly how things work. First this step, then that one.

It may be a general description, but I suspect that grace works in a less predictable fashion. As far as I can tell I am still on the first rung. I know some things and even have experience of other rungs, mastery of none.

My own ladder is to pray for grace for whatever “rung” lies before me. The sin that threatens me at any given moment. I suppose it’s a “spontaneous” ladder.

What is truly amazing about St. John, was that he knew the spiritual life so well, and was in such a state of soul, that he could write authoritatively about so many vices and virtues. Perhaps his prayers will “hold the ladder steady” so that lesser souls such as mine may climb with care the ladder God has set before us.

The Breastplate of St. Patrick

March 16, 2007


I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through a belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
Of the Creator of creation.
I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth and His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion and His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection and His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.
I arise today
Through the strength of the love of cherubim,
In obedience of angels,
In service of archangels,
In the hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In the prayers of patriarchs,
In preachings of the apostles,
In faiths of confessors,
In innocence of virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of the sun,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of the wind,
Depth of the sea,
Stability of the earth,
Firmness of the rock.

I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me;
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s hosts to save me
From snares of the devil,
From temptations of vices,
From every one who desires me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone or in a mulitude.

I summon today all these powers between me and evil,
Against every cruel merciless power that opposes my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of women and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.
Christ shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that reward may come to me in abundance.
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through a belief in the Threeness,
Through a confession of the Oneness
Of the Creator of creation

St. Patrick (ca. 377)


March 15, 2007


I have spent my day traveling by car to the heart of South Carolina where my parents are now living, having moved to an “Assisted Living” Center recently. I have a brother nearby. “Going home” to South Carolina has become a sort of barometer of sorts for me in the past 20 years (it’s how long I’ve been gone). There have been vacations, funerals, weddings, graduations – all the events that mark the passage of time in a family. As the past few years have gone by the visits have become more “medical” or “emergency” in nature as my parents have entered their 80’s and age has its impact.

I stood around in a parking lot tonight talking with my older brother, both of us grappling with the fact that our parents are not that much older than we are and that their health and fate is likely our own. It’s just one of life’s signposts. Nothing shocking or different than you thought all your life – except that some events make you realize that it’s later than you think.

I can recall the same feeling at a number of points in my life. The birth of a first child (and I could go on for a lot more).

The Scriptures, particularly in the “Wisdom” literature are very frank about the phenomenon of human life. It is fragile, and, on this earth, it is finite. It is strange, and probably a modern thing, that we are surprised by just how fragile and short life is. We live a very protected existence in most reaches of our culture. Most people that I know have never seen anyone actually die, nor have they seen anyone actually get born. The two things we must all do, and most people have never witnessed either. That is strange.

This strangeness probably means that we have less appreciation of the full enormity of our salvation. No one appreciates health like a man who has been very sick. We have been very sick (mortally wounded) and yet have been promised eternal life. I am certain that I do not fully appreciate what that means – but as each signpost goes by I become yet more interested.

The fragility of life makes it yet more precious – it’s finitude makes the gift that awaits us yet more unfathomable. Glory to God for all things.