One of my dear friends, Fr. John Parker, pastor of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Mt. Pleasant, S.C. (Charleston), has recently had an article published in Touchstone. You can read the article here. I have also added his Blog, Holy Ascension Blog, to my Blogroll. Fr. John is a former Anglican priest, an excellent writer, and pastors a wonderful community in South Carolina. I encourage you to read him.
Archive for April, 2007
Twenty years ago today, I witnessed the birth of our third child, our son, James. Always a joy to our heart and those of others he has become a young man of whom I am proud and whose company is a delight.
He was ten years old when I announced to the complete family that we were converting to Orthodoxy. He had heard nothing of this before and had been blissfully enjoying his life in our parish (Episcopal). At the announcement he became very upset and with great emotion began to question the decision.
I took him aside and said, “Son I need to tell you some things that I have not spoken about to you before.” I could not discuss the problems and debates of human sexuality in the Episcopal Church because I could not imagine my first conversation with my son on the topic of sex being that of same-sex unions. Instead I began to tell him of Bishops who had denied the resurrection of Christ and His divinity.
As I was relating all of this to him his eyes got wider and wider. Finally, in a burst of indignation he yelled, “But…but…that’s just Buddhism!” I don’t think he knew anything at all about Buddhism, but it was the only word he had in his 10 year-old vocabulary to say that something was heretical.
In a very short time he became my constant Church companion, arriving very early at Church with me (which was now in a warehouse), lighting candles, preparing everything for the morning’s service. His company and enthusiasm was a strength for me he could never have imagined.
He is getting married this summer to a wonderful Orthodox young woman from my wife’s hometown. They met as young teenagers at a Youth Retreat, renewing their relationship each year as summer returned. We could not be happier with whom God has chosen for him.
He stated goal in life, relayed to me a year or so ago was simple: “I want to be married and finish college. I would like to have a job that’s not too boring. I want to live in Oak Ridge and have children, and raise them in the parish I founded.”
As always, music to my ears. Happy birthday, son, and may God grant you many years!
I commend the collection The Inner Kingdom, volume 1 of Bishop Kallistos Ware’s collected works. Writing in essay on martyrdom, Bishop Kallistos, offers the following observation and stories:
This notion of exchange, of solidarity in suffering, forms one of the master-themes of Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim. It is said of one of the most attractive of the Hasidic teachers, Rabbi Zusya, “He felt the sins of the people he met as his own, and blamed himself for them.” So powerful was his sense of identification that he could say of a certain man who was a sinner, “I climbed down all the rungs until I was with him, and bound the root of my soul to the root of his.” It is recorded of Rabbi Moshe Leib, who was ill for two-and-one-half years, racked with pain: “He grew more and more certain that he was suffering for the sake of Israel, and his pain did not grow less, but it was transfigured.”
To make others’ sufferings His own, to climb down all the rungs until He is with the lowest sinner, to bind the root of the sinner’s soul to the root of His own, to suffer for the sake of Israel, both the Old and the New – that is exactly what Christ has done; and the martyrs are enabled to do the same precisely because they are convinced that Christ is suffering in and with them. Applying Father Alexander Elchaninov’s test of catholicity, we may define the martyr as the quintessential churchperson: “‘And when one member suffers, all the members suffer with it’ (1 Corinthians 12:26) is said of the Church. If we do not feel this, we are not within the Church.”
…. Solidarity, mutual sharing, is also a dominant feature in the voluntary martyrdom of the monastic life. Not only does the monk living in community share with others his daily work and daily prayer, together with all his possessions, but he may also be called to express this solidarity on a far deeper level as well. St. Symeon the New Theologian prayed to God, so he tells us, “with scalding tears and with all his soul,” that his brethren might enter heaven with him, or else that he might be condemned to hell with them: “Spiritually bound to them by a holy love in the Holy Spirit, he did not want to enter into the Kingdom of heaven itself if it meant that he would be separated from them.”
Bound as he is in this way to his brethren, the monk – like Zusya – takes their guilt upon himself and joins them in their repentance. In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers there are a number of stories such as the following:
Two brethren journeyed to the market to sell their handiwork. In the city they went different ways, and one of them fell into fornication. After a while the other monk met him and said, “Let’s go back to our cell, brother.” But the first answered, “I’m not coming.” And the other questioned him, saying, “Why not, my brother?” And he said, “When we parted, I fell into fornication.” Then the other, wishing to win him back, began to say to him: “When I left you, the same thing happened to me. But let us go and do heavy penance, and God will forgive us.” So they returned and told the old men what had happened to them; and the old men enjoined on them the rules of penance that they were to perform. So the one offered repentance on behalf of the other, just as if he himself had sinned. God, seeing his labor of love, after a few days revealed to one of the old men that, because of the great love of the brother who had not sinned, He had forgiven the brother who had. That is what it means to lay down one’s life for one’s brother.
I will add a short story of my own. In 1988, a very difficult year of transition in my life, a young couple, Christian friends but not parishioners, came to me to tell me of their concern for the fact that I was a smoker (very sad but it was true). They told me that they were persuaded that my ministry would be far more effective if I didn’t smoke. They were extremely careful not to make their conversation into a question of guilt. Instead they said, “We know it is very hard for you when you have tried to quit. We have taken on a weekly fast for you [they were setting aside a day on which they would eat nothing] asking God to give you the grace to quit. We only want you to let us know when to stop fasting.”
I responded with gratitude and did not take on guilt (they had offered none). Indeed, I did nothing with it until Lent of that year. At Lent I laid my tobacco aside, and though there was a struggle, I did what I had failed at so many times before: I quit – and stayed quit. The grace of God, the prayers of friends, their voluntary sacrifice on my behalf, all of it lightened my burden to a point that I could do what had been impossible before. It was a profound moment of change in my life and one of the most poignant experiences of grace I have ever known – particularly stretched, as it was, over a period of weeks and months. “Suffer with those who suffer.”
On the other hand – irony is probably too much to ask of youth. If I can remember myself in my college years, the most I could muster was sarcasm. Irony required more insight.
There is a deep need for the appreciation of irony to sustain a Christian life. Our world is filled with contradiction. Hypocrisy is ever present even within our own heart. The failures of Church and those who are most closely associated with it can easily crush the hearts of the young and break the hearts of those who are older.
I can think of at least two times in my life that the failures of Church, or its hierarchy, drove me from the ranks of the Church, or what passed for Church at the time. As years have passed I haven’t seen less that would disappoint or break the heart – indeed the things that troubled me as a young man cannot compare with the revelations we all have seen in recent years.
No hands are clean. Evangelical, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, the failures and coverups are in no way the special province of any. But the irony remains. The failures would not be so poignant if the Kingdom were not so pure. Judas’ betrayal is darkened all the more by the fact that his victim is God Himself.
All of which brings us back to the irony that remains. The greatest irony of all is the God who forgives and remains ever faithful to us despite the contradictions.
When speaking with seekers – those who are asking questions about the Orthodox faith – it’s important early on to be sure that they are not in search of the perfect Church. The One, True Church means something quite distinct from perfect. A good read through Orthodox history (which for a thousand years is just “Church history”) refuses to give up an ideal century – the mark and measure for reform. Any student of the New Testament has to admit that there are no Letters to the Perfect.
From the moment of the resurrection, Christ continues to gather scattered sheep. Betrayal, denial and cowardice were the hallmark of the Church on Good Friday. But from Christ we hear no blame – if only because He never thought us to be other than we are.
Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs which he did; but Jesus did not trust himself to them, because he knew all men and needed no one to bear witness of man; for he himself knew what was in man (John 2:23-25).
And if we are honest with ourselves and know what is in man, then we can only give thanks for the wondrous irony that, knowing all that, Christ gave Himself for us anyway. It is the very character of love.
I have been asked a few times over the years the meaning of St. Paul’s statement that “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). There is either almost nothing to say about it or far too much to say about it. But it is the irony of the Cross: Love enduring all things. If you know the Cross and the Love that there is crucified then the verse likely needs no explanation. Christ is His own exegesis.
And when I turn myself to the Church, I can only reach for Christ and the assurance that the contradictions we offer Him will be forgiven. And this is a thought to cling to even in the best of times. For any who would be His disciples, the Cross and its irony is the only path that is ever offered. Christians, what do you think we are?
I am the father of two children who still (for at least the next day or so) measure their lives in numbers that fall in the “teens.” My son turns 20 on Monday. Be that as it may, I still qualify as the father of teenagers. They certainly hear plenty from me about God, about the faith, about Church, and I give thanks that they take it seriously and are committed Christians.
They are also committed teenagers. They do not necessarily despise their culture, though they may utter some criticisms occasionally. But the music that emanates from their various electronic devices is not all “Christian” by any stretch. Our house is Christian, but it has not been stripped of all references to popular culture.
Friday night I attended a rock concert at the local college (University of Tennessee) along with my wife, my son and his fiancee, and my 16 year-old daughter and a friend. The group we had come to hear was the group “Cake.” I have no idea how well known they are, though many in the crowd of thousands seemed to be singing along with the songs, so I suppose they cannot be that obscure.
I am actually the first in my family to have heard them – back in the 90’s – and brought home a CD of theirs with the song, “How Can You Afford Your Rock and Roll Lifestyle?” I thought it was worth listening to. Towards the end of the song, you hear,”Excess ain’t rebellion/ you’re just buyin’ what their sellin'”. I thought this was insightful. Most youthful indulgence in our culture, much of it disguised as “rebellion,” is really something else altogether. Large corporations have for years dominated the music business, marketing angst, rebellion, sex, drugs, and rock and roll, with the fiction that they were only publishing or selling what the younger generation wanted.
This, of course, is not true. They not only sell to the anger of youth; they help create the market in the first place.
Thus it was that I found myself at a rock concert on Friday night. The music was good, the crowd enthusiastic. The biting insight of the lyrics remained, but something felt hollow and empty. Perhaps I should not have expectations of rock concerts, but anything that packs in youth by the thousands is worth pondering.
What I realized is that the band and its music offered a sort of “sardonic” view of life. There was acute ridicule of certain aspects of modern culture. An insider’s nod that said, “We all know better.” But, of course, it’s not true. We do not all know better. Poets for many generations have been astute observers of the public scene, frequently pointing out the hypocrisy and foibles of popular culture. There is nothing new here. However, neither is there anything suggested as an alternative.
Indeed, for a band that could write: “Excess ain’t rebellion/ you’re just buyin’ what they’re sellin’, (which for some odd reason was dropped from the lyrics of the song that once contained the phrase), it seemed strange to hear complaints from the bandstand through the evening that the University had declared the campus to be “dry” that weekend, i.e. no alchohol. This was a popular complaint with the crowd.
Christianity, rightly preached, also recognizes the futility of popular culture, though much of modern American Christianity is as insipid as the culture it critiques.
But where rock and roll offers something sardonic, the Church offers something ironic.
It does not ridicule culture in order to make itself seem wise – it ridicules what the world would call wisdom and exalts what the world would call foolishness. The Cross is the great irony of Christianity. An instrument of torture, the very symbol of Roman might, becomes through Christ, the symbol of God’s compassion and love and His victory over sin and death.
There is a form of wisdom required to be sardonic. You have to be able to see through some things and deconstruct them from some other point of view. But if the deconstruction is just for the fun of declaring that the emperor has no clothes, then it is simple rebellion as much as anything.
But the wisdom of the Cross requires the ability to die to self. To see not only the emptiness of the world and its fashions, but also the fullness of God and His coming Kingdom.
At one point the bandleader railed against the authorities of the school, with a few choice epithets, and to great applause. “What’s all this about a dry campus?” he shouted. “What do they think we are, Christians?” The crowed roared its approval. I felt out of place.
What do they think we are, Christians? Probably most of the campus would identify itself as Christian in some manner. After all, this is America. But there was no irony, no willingness that night, to embrace the foolishness of the Cross. Just another crowd with exams coming next week and ready to have some fun.
Our world today stands in as much need of irony as the world has ever needed. The rich need to hear the irony of God’s poverty. The powerful need to know the irony of God’s weakness. And I need to remember that the poets of this world are not the same thing as the prophets of the world to come.
They’re just salesmen in need of a Savior.
Last January I posted a note on Ignorance and God. It has since been translated and posted in both Romanian and French. My first thought was, “Great. My first taste of international recognition will be because I am an ignorant man.” That, of course, is a kindness from God. I would be in danger should I be known for something else.
Within that first article I included a quote from Father Sophrony on the nature of true spiritual knowledge. I wrote:
What do any of us actually know of God? I believe we only know of God what has been revealed to us in Christ. And just reading the revelation is a world away from actually knowing and “having” the revelation. That comes very slowly indeed.
The Elder Sophrony wrote that such revelations come in something like a “flash of lightning, when the heart is burning with love.” These relatively rare experiences accumulate over a lifetime:
The accumulation in the experience of the Church of such ‘moments’ of enlightenment has led organically to their reduction into one whole. This is how the first attempt at the systemization of a live theology came about, the work of St. John of Damascus, a man rich, too, in personal experience. The disruption of this wondrous ascent to God in the unfathomable wealth of higher intellection is brought about, where there is a decline of personal experience, by a tendency to submit the gifts of Revelation to the critical faculty of our reason – by a leaning towards ‘philosophy of religion.’ The consequences are scholastic accounts of theology in which, again, there is more philosophy than Spirit of life. (From his work On Prayer).
Today I would like to add to this a quote from the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew:
As we have said, the Orthodox faithful awaits and desires to become the reflection of the glory of God and through the grace of the Holy Spirit he becomes an image of our Lord Jesus Christ. He desires, in other words, to immediately know one person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, and through him the remaining two, the unapproachable person of the Father, and through the Son alone, the person of the Holy Spirit. The Orthodox Christian strives towards purity of Heart for the visitation of grace, and having been fulfilled, is able to behold the sought-after glory of God. Being thus transformed, from glory to glory, the Orthodox Christian approaches God. On the spiritual journey a dogmatic description of the manifestation of the Lord and his Body, the Church, is not required because our experienced guide at every moment protects us from deception, and allows us to accept the Glory of the Lord in any appearance it takes. Therefore, experiencing the Dogma of the Church is not something that is taught through intellectual teachings, but it is learned through the example of him who, through incarnation, joined Himself to us. To this point, dogma is life and life is the expression of dogma. However, a mere theoretical discussion on the meaning of life and dogma is unnecessary.
This quote comes from a speech by the Ecumenical Patriarch to a Catholic audience at Georgetown University several years back. The full text can be found here.
What is of interest to me is the common thread that runs between Fr. Sophrony and these comments by the Ecumenical Patriarch. Both understand that dogma, though officially stated by the Church in its formularies, are in fact a reality to be experienced and known on a level that transcends all discussion. It is this reality that makes the Orthodox seem as completely intransigent in their discussions with others (although there are lesser and sinful forms of intransigence). But at the core and heart of Orthodox claims is the reality of the experience of Christ and the knowledge of God found in Him. This knowledge is frequently unable to be expressed, even though it can be known.
Will there ever finally be ecumenical reproachment between the Orthodox and others? Not if the reproachment is rooted in dialog and formulas. The treasure that is Orthodoxy is a living experience of the fullness of Christ. It is certainly true that most of us who are Orthodox do not have yet a fraction of the fullness of that experience. And yet, oftentimes, even in very young (spiritually) Orthodoxy, there is an instinct, born of the Spirit, that hesitates at the formulaic offerings of those who would seek union.
The first task we have as Christians is to bear witness in word, and primarily in deed, of the reality that has been birthed in us through Baptism and the anointing with the All-Holy Chrism.
And thus it is that I confess myself an ignorant man. I do so partly to protect myself from any temptations to think more highly of myself than I ought. But I do so as well because I have promised to safeguard that which was vouchsafed to me at my Chrismation and at my Ordination.
On the most fundamental level of my heart, it is a hesitancy to embrace anything that would separate me from the reality of the experience of God as He has made Himself known in Christ. It is as the Patriarch stated:
Therefore, experiencing the Dogma of the Church is not something that is taught through intellectual teachings, but it is learned through the example of Him who, through incarnation, joined Himself to us. To this point, dogma is life and life is the expression of dogma.
From this point of view, anyone who knows me would agree that I am an ignorant man. It what measure is my life the expression of Orthodox dogma? Certainly only in fractional ways. But to settle for less or be drawn away to anything less is apostasy plain and simple. Help us, save us, and keep us, O God, by Thy grace.
Following such interesting discussion of the necessity of monasticism, I offer a small story from the life of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos in which he comments on the spiritual wisdom of his peasant father (a married man). Truly, we are all called to different stations in life, but in every place, those who love God and seek Him, find Him and with God, they find wisdom.
This excerpt is from the Elder Sophrony’s St. Silouan the Athonite.
Young, strong, handsome, and by this time prosperous, too, Simeon [later to become the monk Silouan] revelled in life. He was popular in the village, being good-natured, peaceable and jolly, and the village girls looked on him as a man they would like to marry. He himself was attracted to one of them and, before the question of marriage had been put, what so often happens befell late one summer evening.
Next morning, as they were working together, his father said to him quietly,
‘Where were you last night, son? My heart was troubled for you?’
The mild words sank into Simeon’s soul, and in later life when he recalled his father the Staretz [elder] would say,
‘I have never reached my father’s stature. He was absolutely illiterate – he even used to make mistakes in the Lord’s Prayer which he had learned by listening in church; but he was a man who was gentle and wise.’
They were a large family – father, mother, five sons and two daughters – all living in affection together. The elder boys worked with their father. One Friday they were out harvesting and it was Simeon’s turn to cook the midday meal. Forgetting that it was Friday, he prepared a dish of pork for their lunch, and they all ate of it. Six months later, on a feast-day in winter, Simeon’s father turned to him with a gentle smile and said,
‘Son, do you remember how you gave us pork to eat that day in the fields? It was a Friday. I ate it but, you know, it tasted like carrion.’
‘Whyever didn’t you tell me at the time?’
‘I didn’t want to upset you, son.’
Recalling such incidents from his life at home, the Staretz would add,
‘That is the sort of staretz I would like to have. He never got angry, was always even-tempered and humble. Just think – he waited six months for the right moment to correct me without upsetting me!’
A month or so ago I received an email from a young protestant who wondered: “What good is monasticism?” His arguments and observations were pretty similar to others I’ve heard over the years. I recall my older brother once asking me, “If a hermit is in the desert and is very holy, what good does it do since no one knows he’s there.”
These questions, of course, come from our modern mindset in which good and bad are measured only on utilitarian grounds. Things are good if they are “useful.” Some of the worst ethics ever produced by the human race were utilitarian in character. In the name of “usefulness,” millions of people have been murdered. It is not a very useful category (forgive the pun).
A few brief observations:
- I replied to my brother’s question “who knows they are there?” with “God knows and the demons know and tremble.”
- When God came down to search out the truth of Sodom and Gomorrah, whether they were as wicked as reported, He agreed to spare the city for as few as 10 righteous men.
- By the same token, the value of a very few righteous men or women is invaluable in the life of the world.
- Finally, monastics bear witness to the Kingdom of God by turning away from the Kingdoms of this world. Their very rejection of utility is itself a Divine judgment on the nonsense by which we too often guide our lives.
I am a married priest, not a monastic, but I know how much we need them. Orthodoxy is a maximalist religion. We write canon law based on the maximum good (in most instances) and then, by economy, apply that canon to individual cases. I want monastics setting the bar higher than I can reach – so that I will keep reaching.
Our task as Christians involves the sanctification of all life and time – returning everything to its right relationship with God (or at least recognizing the sanctification of all life and time). Thus the world does not need the Church to be more like the world, but more like the Kingdom of God which reveals the truth of the world in Christ.
May the good God deliver us from the temptation of utility and help us to be useful to the Kingdom. The two can be very different things.
A final question: For the sake of how many righteous does the Lord spare our wicked world today?
I am working on some cosmetic changes for Glory to God for All Things. So if you see changes over the next few days, please be patient.
I would also appreciate feedback if you find any changes to be improvements or bothersome. As I’m learning a little more about how wordpress works, I am looking to see if there are improvements worth making.
Thank you for your patience.
Our culture celebrates the ability we have to choose – and so we think a lot about choices. We are told every four years that we get to “choose” our leaders (though the choices given to us might not be suitable in either direction). As I look back and think of my preaching over the years I can see a change – and not just a change wrought by my conversion to Orthodoxy. In many ways it has been a change wrought by the fact that I am not a young man any more (though I do not think I am yet an “old” man).
But I can recall a lot of sermons from my late 20’s (I was first ordained and assigned to a Church at the age of 27) that were primarily concerned with choices. The thought that anything was simply a given, or that anything impinged on my freedom was uncomfortable.
As years have gone by and I have watched my children grow up, leave home and settle into their own lives, it seems to me that I have fewer choices – or rather that the most important thing in my day may not have much to do with choice at all.
The vast majority of fundamental things in my life were completely beyond any choice I made. My gender, my nationality, my race, my language, my genetic inheritance – are all matters that I have to live with and come to terms with, but not matters that I choose. Part of the madness of our modern world is that things which do not belong to the realm of choice are being turned into options: do I have this baby; do I want this gender; etc.
Fr. Thomas Hopko is very fond of quoting his father-in-law, Fr. Alexander Schmemann as saying: “Spirituality consists in how you deal with what you’ve been dealt.”
This comes much closer to my present experience. So much of my life has always been beyond my control and only delusion has made me think otherwise. There are fundamental choices – to yield my life to God and acknowledge the fact that He is Lord of my Life. But it is also true that He is Lord whether I choose to acknowledge that or not. The choice I make is whether to remain delusional or to embrace the truth. That is a large choice, indeed, and one to be made moment by moment, but it is still a far cry from the power I once thought I had.
It is interesting to have more than one child. It is certainly interesting to have four, as we do. I can recall that when we only had one, we were able to imagine that this darling little girl was largely “darling” because we were wonderful parents. The second girl came, and she was darling, too, but not in the same ways as the first. How is this possible? Because people are different from the moment of their existence. The other two (a boy and a girl) have only ratified this understanding. They belong to God, not me. He created them, even if the “stuff” of their creation was consubstantial with me and their mother.
Of course, as they grow up, they have to learn that their lives largely consist in how they deal with what they have been dealt. And thus we all pray, “Lord, have mercy!”
We are more powerful than we imagine, but not in the ways we imagine. We are utterly weak in matters where we think we are masters. Day by day, prayer by prayer, we feel our way forward. Learning to choose what God has chosen for us and in so doing find the salvation of our souls.