Archive for June, 2007

John the Baptist and Forerunner of the Lord

June 22, 2007


We approach the feast of the Nativity of the Forerunner of Christ – a feast noted around my household for also being the birthday of my wife (and of her brother). Thus we celebrate and are sometimes slightly distracted from the ecclesiatical meaning of the day. But a family cannot be faulted for the joy it takes in its mother, nor I in my spouse. But I want to turn my thoughts today to the Forerunner of Christ before our family calendar overtakes the day itself.

St. John has always been a fascinating figure – perhaps among the most unforgettable encounters and events in all of the Gospels. St. John’s gospel is content to make no mention of our Lord’s birth, beginning instead with His pre-existence. St. Mark’s Gospel is equally silent on matters of Bethlehem, Egypt and Nazareth. Sts. Matthew and Luke are our only witnesses for the feast of Christmas. St. John makes no direct mention of the Institution of the Lord’s Supper (though his sixth chapter’s discourse following the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is by far the most complete exposition of the meaning of the Eucharist despite its being given before the unmentioned event occurs). St. John is also the only witness we have for the Lord’s merciful treatment of the woman taken into adultery, and many liberal scholars want to take even that away.

Nevertheless, Evangelists who show an ability to diverge in their accounts of our Lord’s life and ministry to the consternation of fundamentalists and the confounding of the faithless, nevertheless rally with an amazing agreement when it comes to the figure of the Baptist. St. Mark opens his Gospel with the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”

Needless to say his ministry also marks the beginning of the adult ministry of Jesus in both St. Matthew and St. Luke, the latter including stories of the birth of the Baptist as well as that of Christ. It is in this marvelous context that the Mother of God offers the Magnificat, St. John himself leaping as a babe in the womb at the very sound of the Virgin Mary’s voice.

The Baptism of Christ is universally presented as the inauguration of His ministry and John is clearly indicated as a witness of this event. He sees the Spirit descending like a dove. There is also another aspect of Christ’s encounter with John, only noted in two of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke, and that is the questioning of John. Is Jesus the one or should he look for another? What had seemed to be settled was still a matter unsettling in the heart of John. Christ’s answer is to cite one of the great messianic prophecies and to note that it is fulfilled in his ministry. Thus, we are to understand, John’s doubts are settled.

In Church tradition, John continues his role as forerunner. He is martyred sometime before the crucifixion of Christ and thus enters Hades with the same message, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.”Not only does he prepare Hades for the reception of Christ, but clearly he had prepared some of the disciples for the reception of Christ as Messiah.

I would urge the Orthodox to listen to the hymns of his feast for theological content of his ministry. This is a man whom the New Testament does not see as a minor player, but in every gospel, finds essential to the work of Christ. There is no ministry of Christ without him, just as there is no birth of Christ without the Theotokos. Little wonder that many iconostases always include his icon as a matter of course (not all Orthodox traditions do this). I am very fond of our icon of the Forerunner, and am even aware of a few minor miracles associated with it. Happy feast to all.

Orthodoxy and Torture

June 21, 2007


I generally try to respond to questions, when asked, though my main guidance in writing is to follow what seems good to me and that which I have some experience in. Therefore the limited range of topics…

However in one of the comments recently, I was asked to consider a post on the Orthodox Church’s view on torture and “enhanced interrogation.” First, let me say that I have never served in the military (my draft number was 2 numbers away from being called up during Vietnam), and have no connections with three-letter agencies other than my faithful contributions to the IRS. But having said all that I will share a brief thought on the subject.

When St. Vladimir was received into the Orthodox faith (around 988 A.D.) along with many of his countrymen. Among the incredible deeds of this sainted king were:

  • the establishment of a tithe to the Church from the holdings of the Prince
  • the abolition of capital punishment in the Russia lands
  • the abolition of torture
  • the establishment of public schools (in the 11th century!)

There were many other marvelous works which he set in motion. The ban on torture was counseled against (even by some of the Greek Bishops) for fear that he would not be able to rule effectively without it.

But St. Vladimir’s instincts were correct and founded upon the Gospel. The Church has always embraced the commandments of Christ, even if the state sometimes finds it necessary (in statecraft, not in the Kingdom of God) to do something other than the commandments of Christ.

It is a sin to kill and even treated as a sin if I inadvertently cause the death of another. Torture is certainly a disobedience to Christ’s commandments to love your neighbor and to love your enemies.

Having said that – the Orthodox Church treats those who have violated these commandments as we treat all who violate God’s commandments – we lead them to repentance and the new life in Christ.

Officially, in the U.S., the Orthodox Church of American has urged abolition of the death penalty. Reader’s on the subject would also be interested in the larger statement of the Basic Social Teaching of the Church put forth by the Moscow Patriarchate. They state:

The death penalty as a special punishment was recognised in the Old Testament. There are no indications to the need to abolish it in the New Testament or in the Tradition or in the historical legacy of the Orthodox Church either. At the same time, the Church has often assumed the duty of interceding before the secular authority for those condemned to death, asking it show mercy for them and commute their punishment. Moreover, under Christian moral influence, the negative attitude to the death penalty has been cultivated in people’s consciousness. Thus, in the period from the mid-18th century to the 1905 Revolution in Russia, it was applied on very rare occasions. For the Orthodox church consciousness, the life of a person does not end with his bodily death, therefore the Church continues her care for those condemned to capital punishment.

The abolition of death penalty would give more opportunities for pastoral work with those who have stumbled and for the latter to repent. It is also evident that punishment by death cannot be reformatory; it also makes misjudgement irreparable and provokes ambiguous feelings among people. Today many states have either abolished the death penalty by law or stopped practicing it. Keeping in mind that mercy toward a fallen man is always more preferable than revenge, the Church welcomes these steps by state authorities. At the same time, she believes that the decision to abolish or not to apply death penalty should be made by society freely, considering the rate of crime and the state of law-enforcement and judiciary, and even more so, the need to protect the life of its well-intentioned members.

The Church of course condemns both euthanasia and abortion as a matter of Church teaching.

But the Church is not merely a collection of more excellent moral discerments. It is the living body of Christ in this world. We should not be surprised that the world will choose to act as it does in violation to Christ’s commandments. The kingdoms of this world always have and always will do so until “the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of Our Lord and His Christ” (Rev. 11:15).

As a citizen in a democracy you may vote for whatever policy a candidate or party advocates, or even work to change such policy. Though politics being as uneven as they are, you will also find (regardless of your political affiliation) Orthodox Christians who vote differently.

What remains unchanged and unchangeable is the Church’s understanding of the faith we have received. If someone participates in a sinful activity, even in obedience to the State, they still need to deal with their sin in the presence of God (generally in confession).

Men should not kill, but they do, and when and if they do, they should turn to Christ asking His mercy. They will find a merciful God. Neither should we cause hurt or harm to others, and if we do we should turn to Christ asking His mercy.

The political agenda of the Church, if there is one, is summarized in the quote I gave from Revelations. But this event is described as an eschatological event and as an intervention by God. If I live long enough to see it, I promise I won’t be blogging.

Pray. Fast. Give alms. Be kind to all around you. Forgive your enemies. Vote if your conscience directs you and never confuse the Kingdom of God with any agenda of a political party. They are not us and we are not them.

I hope this is a helpful reflection on the question that was asked. If it sounded ambiguous on political matters, forgive me. I do not think there is any ambiguity on the Commandments of Christ and His kingdom.  Politics is always ambiguous because their agenda is not the same as the agenda of Christ. They want your votes and they want power.

I have yet to see a saint in the office of the President, much less an Orthodox saint. But I think the actions of St. Vladimir are a good meditation for us all. Imagine making such declarations in the 10th century! It is yet more evidence that the Orthodox faith has not changed. While Vladimir was outlawing torture and capital punishment – Kings of the West were shortly to urge Rome to officially sanction a Crusade. There is no such concept in Orthodoxy. If you’re wearing a cross as an Orthodox Christian, it should be proclaiming that you have willingly embraced the Cross of Christ and are willing to die for the truth of the Gospel – on a daily basis. It does not mean that we have a new symbol enfranchising us to kill others in the name of that symbol.

There are interesting materials for reading on the Orthodox faith and war (with varying perspectives). The web site of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship (which numbers among its members, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Frederica Mathewes-Green, and others) has a good page of references at their web site. The last year or two have seen a number of books on these topics published. The most difficult thing to do, as a believer, is to sort between one’s political loyalties (which are quite high at the moment) and the truth as taught in the Church. Pray, looking for a pure heart as much as possible, read, and pray some more. God will give us grace to know the truth. And when you know the truth, don’t forget to forgive those who don’t. I encourage you to look at these resources. They are doubtless more informed on these matters than this poor, Southern priest.

To Know God

June 20, 2007


I have had some correspondence recently on the subject of knowing God. The knowledge of God, generally spoken of in a very experiential manner, is an absolute foundation in Orthodox theology. Nothing replaces it – no dogmatic formula – no Creed – not even Scripture – though Orthodoxy would see none of these things as separate from the knowledge of God. But the questions I have received are very apt. In a culture that is awash in “experience” what do we Orthodox mean when we speak of such things and what do we mean by such knowledge of God?

There are two Scriptural passages in particular that come to mind when I think of this subject. The first from the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8); the second, “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as He is pure (1 John 3:2-3).

Obviously I equate “seeing” and “knowing,” as does the Tradition. In both of these verses the knowledge of God (“seeing God”) is tied to purity of heart. We do not see or know God because our hearts are darkened by sin and ignorance. Thus any knowledge of God that we have in this life begins as gift and remains as gift. However, it is a gift that is more fully received as our hearts are purified.

The importance of speaking of knowledge of God in this manner is to prevent two equally devastating errors. One would be to have a knowledge which is based only on the data of revelation, and only known as we know other data (like the multiplication table). As an Orthodox Christian I accept the teaching of the Church precisely because I am not pure of heart and I am not competent in and of myself to judge these things. I trust the saints and hierarchs of the ages, under the Holy Spirit, to have spoken truly of what they know and of what they have received.

The Orthodox “experience” if I can use such a phrase, is the confirmation in the heart of the truth we have received as we grow in grace and in purity of heart. But the truth of the faith must be confirmed in such a living manner or it simply becomes an historical item and the Church would be a collection of antiquarians and not the living temple of God. For my knowledge of God is also my life in God. Life, light, truth, knowledge – all of these have something of a synomymous character.

In accepting Christ as He has given Himself to us in His Church, we are also accepting knowledge of Him as it has been given to the Church. Private revelations (experiences) tend to be received with great skepticism either because of the spiritual dangers involved (delusion, etc.) or because of our own spiritual incompetency (sin).

None of this is an effort to disparage knowledge of God in a way that is “experiential,” that is, more than merely rational, but it is an effort that recognizes that such experience of God is itself part of our healing from darkness, death and sin. And just as that healing is a slow and steady progress (sometimes even a regression), so too our knowledge of God is slow (hopefully steady) as we grow in grace and purity of heart.

There is a passage in one of my favorite spiritual novels, A Pilgrimage to Dzhvari, (written by the mother of Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev). In it, a mother and her son make pilgrimage to a monastery in Georgia (the one south of Russia). The woman is bright, intelligent and a fairly recent convert to the faith (having been previously a non-believer). In a conversation with the Abbot, she asks some questions about a passage in Maximus the Confessor. The Abbot reacts with alarm, “You’ve been reading the Fathers?” She replies in the affirmative. He is concerned that she may have done herself damage. “You should never read more hours in a day than you pray,” was his admonition.

His concern is that she not come to a place of imbalance – where the knowledge that fills her mind outstrips the knowledge that fills her heart. Such knowledge, acquired without ascesis (prayer, fasting, repentance, etc.) is the knowledge of which St. Paul warns when he says, “Knowledge puffs up” (makes us proud). It is by no means a celebration of ignorance, but rather a deeper diagnosis of precisely the kind of ignorance that poisons our souls.

I have known brilliant men and women, with degrees from very prestigious institutions, indeed with degrees in various forms of religious disciplines, whose knowledge of God was less than my average catechumen, but whose very “knowledge” reduced the possibility of discovering their ignorance and coming to a knowledge of the truth. Again, knowledge that is not accompanied by ascesis is dangerous – no matter whether the knowledge is of an academic character or of a mystical character. We cannot know God and at the same time not be like Him to some degree. Such conformity to His image is itself a result of such knowledge. It is for this reason that the Scriptures tell us that “by their fruit you shall know them.” If someone claims knowledge of God, but his life is not in conformity with the commandments of Christ, then we know that what we are hearing is largely delusional in character.

What should we do?

First, we should pray, fast, repent of our sins, seek to forgive our enemies and do good to all around us. These are clear commandments of Scripture. With such efforts, as God gives us grace and changes our heart, we begin to know. The writings of the Fathers are generally the writings of saints. We will not understand them without ourselves seeking to become saints. All of this, of course, is slow and difficult – but we are talking about reality and our salvation not simply the acquisition of information.

It is, of course, proper, even necessary to study the faith, but this is something we should do with a primary concern for the salvation of our own souls and not the correction of others. The Scriptures tell us: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).

Neither should we avoid religious “experience,” though this has gotten something of a bad name on account of numerous abuses within the Christian world of today. But like knowledge acquired by study, knowledge of God gained by experience should be accompanied with ascesis as well. Much of modern Pentecostal and Charismatic teaching has offered false information on religious experience to an audience of Americans who wants everything. Too often we want the interior life of Mother Teresa and all of the shoes of Imelda Marcos. It just doesn’t work like that.

The story is told in the Lives of the Desert Fathers that one of the Fathers was in prayer when the devil sought to trick him. A demon appeared in the cell of the monk (who was in prayer) and said, “I am the angel Gabriel sent from God.” Without looking up the monk replied, “You must be in the wrong cell. I am not worthy for an angel to visit me.” The demon disappeared, defeated by the humility of the monk.

This is a description of the proper state of our heart. We desire to know God, but we want to know Him deeply enough, that we refuse to settle for anything less. Much of modern religious experience, as witnessed by its fruit, has little to do with the true God.

Study. Pray. Fast. Give alms. Forgive your enemies. Repent of your sins. Cry out to God for mercy. He is a “good God and loves mankind.” He will not leave us in the dark nor ignore the cry of our hearts. “This is eternal life,” Christ says, “To know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.” Thus we pursue knowledge – true knowledge in the way and in the manner given to us as though our life depended on it. It does.

The Church of the Unanxious God

June 19, 2007


The story of the conversion of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware to Orthodoxy has more or less passed over into modern Orthodox legend. He accidentally stumbles into a Vigil service in order to get out of a rain storm. Discovering Orthodoxy and its beauty he begins to inquire into conversion only to be told to go back to his Anglican Church (he was not a clergyman, by the way). When eventually he does convert, he is told that he may become Orthodox but that he should not expect to ever be a priest because he is not Greek. The irony of the story, of course,  is that it is being told by a Greek Orthodox Metropolitan.

His story was from another time. It is similar to that of Archbishop Dmitri (OCA) who, along with his sister, persuaded by encyclopedia articles that the Orthodox Church is indeed the Church founded by Christ, seeks to convert and attends five weeks in a row before anyone speaks to them (he was 16 or so at the time). He says he was 21 before he ever knew what the Liturgy said.

In neither case did the Orthodox Church seem particularly anxious to accept a convert. Some part of these stories is a failure – a lack of concern for evangelism – but another part reflects an aspect of Orthodoxy that continues to a certain extent: a frequent lack of anxiety about conversion. The night before I made a heart’s decision to convert to the Orthodox faith, I had read an article about a gentleman who had himself approached the Church and was told by a very spiritually mature woman that he should indeed convert to Orthodoxy, but that he should wait ten years.

I recall at the time being amazed at the story. What amazed me was that no one could say such a thing without a sure confidence in God. It was an uncommon thing to say – something that could only be said because of a prophetic gift. Indeed something about the story moved my heart to a place of decision that had not been there before. That story had a character to it that I later heard echoed in both the stories of Metropolitan Kallistos and Vladyka Dmitri. Indeed, my own entrance into the Church took years after that first decision of the heart – not because anyone in the Orthodox Church told me no or asked me to wait – there were many other factors that made my conversion extend over such a period. But what I found in the Church was no one who was anxious to make me do anything.

I found priests who certainly cared for me and would have done anything for me. But I did not find priests who seemed alarmed at my condition and anxious that it be corrected as soon as possible. The priest who eventually received me and my family into the faith later said to me that he thought everyone who came through the door of his parish was called to be Orthodox. “But that is God’s problem. My problem is to show hospitality.”

I had no arguments when I approached the faith. For one, I had no doubt of its truth. This stood in stark contrast to the life I was experiencing as an Anglican – where doubt and argument, crisis and cowardice were all too familiar companions – both within me and within most around me.

There was no argument – only decision. The lack of anxiety that greeted my decision probably played a much larger role than I will ever know. I provided all the anxiety anyone could want (I didn’t need more from someone else).

In hindsight, I can see that the “Church of the Unanxious God” is also the foundation for virtues such as patience, faith, hope – all characteristics that are born from dwelling in the truth. We can be patient because “God is good and loves mankind.” For the same reason we can be faithfully patient and live in hope.

I will quickly grant that Orthodoxy has no corner on proclaiming an unanxious God and that we sin as often as anyone else, failing to be patient or to have faith and hope. Nevertheless it seems to be an inherent part of the Orthodox faith to say to the world: “The truth abides and will abide and will not change. It will be here tomorrow as surely as today. Whether you come now or later or never come at all – it will abide.”

The position of Orthodoxy within the English-speaking world has shifted dramatically since the decades in which Archbishop Dmitri or Metropolitan Kallistos sought to be received into the faith. Much of the convert-rich territory of today’s Orthodoxy can be attributed to the fact that, unlike 50 years ago, today’s Church has an abundance of material in English. And with greater numbers of converts also comes greater conversation, awareness and opportunity.

And yet, it should still be the case that the Orthodox Church retain its faith in the unanxious God. Hospitality is tremendously important and so is the ability for people to get information who want it. We have a commandment to preach the gospel and to make disciples – but this is not the same thing as a commandment to make converts. That is God’s business, and a mysterious business indeed. Our first task is to pray for the world and welcome such as God adds to the Church (Acts 2:47), making disciples by learning to be disciples ourselves.

Moses and the Unknowable God

June 18, 2007


Last week, while conducting a retreat for youth at Sts. Mary and Martha monastery, we concentrated on the topic of “Who Am I?” It seemed to me an appropriate topic for an age where youth are frequently struggling with issues of identity. They live in a socially dangerous world – the cruelty of young teenagers towards one another can be brutal – thus it is not an age of risk-taking. Young people tend to find groups to which to belong almost as a survival tactic. If you can find a group to protect you then perhaps survival is possible. The frightful consequences of the “politics” of youthful society have made frontpage news far too often in the past years. We can discuss and blame any number of factors for the “Columbines” in our culture, but for every violent case that makes the news, there are thousands of “non-violent” cases where social brutality has done its share of emotional damage.

I suspect this is not a modern phenomenon – simply a phenomenon associated with an age-group within our culture. School was not a safe place when I was there in the 60’s.

Given that sort of context, how does a young person ask questions about personal identity? Becoming who you were created to be is an essential part of spiritual life. This is not a matter of “navel-gazing,” but of coming to know the unknowable God. As we know Him, we will know ourselves (“for our life is hid with Christ in God” Colossians 3:3).

One of the Biblical characters we studied in order to think about this question of identity was Moses. St. Gregory of Nyssa used Moses’ life as a model for the Christian life in his classic The Life of Moses. It has marvelous imagery that can direct the heart at any age. Born into a dangerous world (his own birth and the birth of Christ parallel each other with the hatred of a ruler directed towards infants and a miraculous deliverance). Moses, of course, has the ironic childhood of adoption into the Pharoah’s family. When I transfer the circumstances of his life into a contemporary setting all I can imagine is deep confusion. So Moses the Hebrew-Egyptian eventually comes to face his true birth only to find himself now the enemy of Pharoah and an exile from both Hebrew and Egyptian homes.

It is very telling that when he settles with the family of Jethro, a priest of Midian, marrying his daughter, Zipporah, he names his first child, Gershom [stranger], saying, “I have been a stranger in a strange land” (Exodus 2:22). It is a phrase that many people – particularly young people – could claim as their own. But it is in this state as stranger that Moses first encounters the God of his fathers. In the miracle of the burning bush God reveals Himself to Moses as “I Am That I Am,” or as it reads in the Greek text, “The One Who Exists.”

Knowing the unknowable God is the beginning of Moses’ discovery of Moses as well. And so it is for us all. To know the meaning of our own existence it is necessary to know the One Who Exists. This becomes far more clear for us as Christians when we stand on this side of God’s self-revelation and understand that the One Who Exists is made known to us in Jesus Christ. Thus in the dismissals of our services the priest intones, “He Who Is is blessed, even Christ our God…”

Moses’ recognition of himself as a stranger seems linked with the revelation of God to him. They remain side by side in the Scriptural account of his life. For ourselves we frequently struggle along with the assumption that we do know who we are. We are in a culture that markets identities. Of course, nothing that is marketed is actually a true identity – they are simply the masks worn by the false self. It is in first knowing that we do not know ourselves that the revelation of God becomes possible to us.

There are, of course, spiritual practicalitites in the service of Holy Baptism. We exorcise those who come for Baptism because demons are real. But it also is an assault on the false images under which we have lived and labored. We have to renounce Satan and all his works and all his pride, finally spitting on them, before we turn to God and embrace Him. In this we receive new life and the only life and identity that matter – ourselves in the image of God, redeemed, accompanied by angels and restored to right relationship with He Who Is. Thus we renounce the false self that has served false gods in order to serve the true and living God in the truth of our existence which is now revealed to us in Christ.

St. Gregory of Nyssa would take this same story of Moses and extract from the entirety of it the revelation of our life in Christ. For a group of youth last week, we took only this first portion. We looked at Moses the stranger – doubtless a comfort to us in our own strangeness – and saw how he came to know the truth of his existence. The pattern has not changed – as the God who gives us the revelation of ourselves in Him has not changed.

Now Lay Aside All Earthly Cares

June 18, 2007

This youtube video has the music of Tchaikovsky’s Cherubimic Hymn.

Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim and sing the thrice holy hymn to life-creating Trinity, now lay aside all earthly cares that we may receive the King of All who comes mystically upborne by the angelic hosts. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.

A Day at a Time

June 17, 2007


One of my favorite books, for many years, has been Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: A Novel. It’s hard at first thought to say what draws me to the book (I’ve probably read it ten times). It makes occasional remarks that are religious but it would not be described as an overtly religious novel. Though it’s set in largely the same place and time of the books on the life of Father Arseny, it has no saints. What it does have is a quality that I would describe as religious, though not obviously so. It is it’s use of time. That the novel is only a day in a man’s life gives it a pace and a motion that sees and reflects, and therefore values fairly insignificant things in a very significant way.

Perhaps the best moments (or more) that I have known in worship have been when things seemed to step out of time. This often happens for me at some point in Holy Week. Finally overwhelmed (exhausted) with the details I shut down the part of me that is trying to think about every thing and the service takes on its own life, carrying worship into the depths of the week that is indeed one eternal Pascha. In such moments time stops, or compresses, and a clarity of detail reveals layers of meaning and belonging that were otherwise hidden.

I have had other such moments – not all of them overtly religious, either. I recall a ride on a snow sled outside my house – probably 15 years ago and I can remember every detail with such clarity that I can close my eyes and take the ride all over.

Such moments – even such a day – is like the fulfillment of Christ’s commandment to “take no thought for tomorrow.” It is not that tomorrow is unimportant but that it always threatens to capture us and take us away from today. There is a sense in Solzhenitsyn’s novel that one day is much like another. I could well imagine that would be so under such conditions. There is not really a tomorrow to consider – not without tempting insanity.

But there is also something insane about the tomorrows of our own existence – insane in its original meaning – not healthy. Tomorrow, when imported to today pushes aside the possibility of peace and recollection and replaces it with anxiety and a scatteredness that cannot be a place to live.

It is strange that an American, with all of the creature comforts that surround him, would be drawn to a novel that recounts a single day in the life of a prisoner in the Soviet Gulag. I suspect it is because we (I) read it as a prisoner in a different Gulag, one created by days out of joint, stretching forward without end. A single day, a single moment is the promise of a single peace. A Day in the Life did not create the sort of political reaction that Gulag Archipelago brought with it. But it may have created a deeper reaction – a whisper of rebellion against a more insidious foe.

Take no thought for tomorrow, let tomorrow take thought for itself. Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.

The One Thing Needful

June 16, 2007


Having spent half of the last week at Sts. Mary and Martha Monastery, it is unavoidable to think about these Holy Myrrhbearers. Among those who were the first witnesses of Christ’s resurrection, these Myrrhbearing women are perhaps better known for their conversations with Christ when he visited in their home and at the time of their brother Lazarus’ death. In our encounters with them in the gospel we learn that Martha was “busy with many things” (when there’s a crowd under your roof, somebody seems to always assume Martha’s role). Mary sat at Christ’s feet. When Martha complained that her sister was not being very helpful, Christ said, “One thing is needful. Mary has chosen the better part.”

Without belaboring that particular event, the phrase, “One thing needful,” has passed on into monastic and spiritual writing in Orthodox tradition as synonymous with prayer. The one thing we must have, even if we have nothing else, is prayer. The simple reason behind this is the better part that Mary chose: prayer is choosing God Himself. God is truly the One Thing Needful. We should not and must not substitute things for God – not even things we think to be good. For nothing is good in and of itself except for God. Every other good is relative to Him Who alone is good.

I sit visiting with tomorrow’s gospel – the ending of chapter 6 of Matthew – “Seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness and all these things will be added to you as well.” It’s the same message. We need God and if we seek Him first and above all, other things will have a way of falling into place. Not that this is a key to the “American Good Life.” The Kingdom of God and its righteousness and the American Dream are not the same thing. Perhaps this reality is something that shakes the faith of many. They sought God and did not get the American Dream.

In its final analysis, that dream is a delusion. It is a substitute for God and His kingdom and as such makes itself an enemy of the gospel. I heard a Bob Dylan quote the other day which said, “The Commandment: ‘Thou shalt have no other God before me,’ is just fine if its the right God.”

The question for me today and tomorrow – and every day beyond – is always, “How do I seek God today and His righteousness?” If I can manage to ask the question honestly and not deceive myself in the answer, then it will be a good day.

One Thing Needful.

Why is Love so difficult?

June 15, 2007


As I’ve noted, I’m on retreat with about 15 youth at a monastery. Our topic has been freedom and love – the two most important things necessary in our journey to become fully what God has created us to be. It’s not a complicated subject. “Everybody’s in favor of love,” Fr. Thomas Hopko says. What then, is so difficult about love?

Of course, love is not difficult as a topic. As discussions go, 12-15 year olds seem about as insightful as their adult parents. But, of course, there is something difficult about it or else I would not again be spending half a week on this topic with teenagers in a monastery.

Love is difficult because it comes not from the head but from the heart. If it came from the head only smart people would love – obviously not the case.

What makes it difficult is that we frequently surround it with other things. We disguise it with religion. Indeed, sometimes we may use religious things to confuse the issue and excuse our failures to love. In the name of very specific religious laws, Christ was crucified. Religion does not make us better people.

God makes us better, and although our religion is itself a necessary part of what God has commanded, He has never commanded us not to love. I recall in the early years of our OCA mission, one of our members was unexpectedly killed in a car wreck. We were meeting in a warehouse and were in no way prepared for a funeral. I was still in transition and not yet ordained as an Orthodox priest.

That evening as I sat, in grief and stunned silence, the phone rang. It was the neighboring Greek Orthodox priest. “I insist that you have the funeral here,” he said. I later found out that someone had questioned him. Silly inter-jurisdictional objections. With steadfast goodness he told them, “It’s the Christian thing to do.” Indeed. What is so hard about that?

We made our way through probably one of the most difficult emotional weeks of my life and certainly one that was difficult for our tiny mission. But what was not difficult was the clarity of a brother priest. Nothing is complicated about love unless you don’t want to love.

I continue to give thanks for someone who owed me nothing and was willing to put up with a little grief because he knew God.

Our lives are not terribly complicated. They are as hard as keeping God’s commandments. We were told from the beginning that following Christ may very well get us killed. But we take up the cross, apparently agreeing that we will die when the time comes. Love is not hard – it’s just deadly – in a way that gives us the only life worth having.

I rejoice to be telling this to children. They probably live in far more difficult settings than any adults I know.

Love God. Love your neighbor. Do the Christian thing. What’s so hard? Apparently our hearts are what’s so hard. May God soften them and create a new heart within us. I want as much for us all.

On the Shoulders of Giants

June 14, 2007


One of the peculiar things (though not really) about the Orthodox Church in America (and by this I mean all the jurisdictions) is the fact that in a little over 200 years on this continent, we have been blessed by the showing forth of many saints. And not only have saints been shown forth, but many of those saints have been among our hierarchs. Men such as St. Innocent of Alaska and Metropolitan of Moscow, St. John of Shangai and San Francisco, St. Raphael of Brooklyn, St. Tikhon, Confessor of the faith, Bishop of America and later Patriarch of Moscow. St. Nicholai of Zicha who served for a while as the Rector of St. Tikhon’s Seminary – who had also been imprisoned by the Nazis in one of their death camps. These are amazing figures, aided by saints both among the laity and the clergy. Nor are we without martyrs: St. Peter the Aleut, St. Juvenaly, St. John Kochurov (who labored in Chicago and was the first priest martyred by the Bolsheviks) St. Alexander Hotivitzky (who was marytred as he sought to protect the Cathedral of the Savior in Moscow). In less than two hundred years this Church, like its mother church, has yielded a great abundance of holy saints. There are many others whom I have not mentioned here as well as many more who are even now being considered for canonization.

To me, this peculiar history which is marked by radically brilliant manifestations of holiness in the lives of saints, is utterly essential when we think about our work here in this land. We were not rich to a large extent in coming to America. Certainly the generations of miners and steel workers who built so much of the Church, including such institutions as St. Tikhon’s, were far from rich. They gave their life’s blood for this Church.

By the same token, we will not flourish in our own days by any other means than did the saints. We are frequently clumsy (to say the least) when it comes to administration (come visit my parish). We are scandalous in our relationships with other Orthodox (the alphabet soup that greets those who first look at Orthodoxy in America is outrageous). And yet solving these problems – something that I will gladly work towards all of my life – is still not of crucial importance. We’ll get by.

But we will never survive without holiness. Without absurd and audacious forays into forgiveness we will never fulfill the mission God has given us in this land. Without leaps of faith that would make the heart faint, we will never begin to be what God has called us to.

However, my hope rides exceedingly high. My hope is founded always on God, and on this particular heritage we have as Orthodox in North America. A farmer does not take his best seed and sow it because he has no hope of a rich harvest. We were planted by saints and that not by accident. The providence of God has given us a rich heritage, it seems to me, for one of two purposes (if not both). Either in His foreknowledge He knew that only a Church planted by saints could do anything in this land and in this culture. This hypothesis I call the “survival hypothesis.” Without saints Orthodoxy would never have survived in this land. The other (which I favor) is that God in His foreknowledge planted the Church in this land by saints that it might flourish as a Church of saints. This I think of as the “hidden hypothesis.” For if this is so, we are still waiting for its fulfillment.

But I am deeply hopeful. I have no idea what I will see in the years that remain to me. But I know that my children are better Orthodox Christians than I am and that they are not alone. I am very encouraged by what I see coming from our seminaries. I say this as someone who knows what is coming out of other seminaries in America.

I served for a number of years as a reader for the General Ordination Exams, taken by seniors in Episcopal Seminaries. Over the course of my terms (through most of the 90’s), the tests became easier and the answers less satisfactory. There has been a “dumbing down” of seminaries in many denominations. Such seed will eventually bear fruit and show itself for what it is (some would argue that this process had begun long before).

I met today with a young couple from my deanery who will enter seminary this fall. My heart soars – not because this young man is the greatest scholar they will ever see – but because I know that this man will make a fine priest. He will not waste what has been given him.

We are all standing on the shoulders of giants in our American Orthodoxy. Perhaps its why so many that I talk to can see so far and ache for a greater fullness in our Church life here. I make no claims as a prophet, but I believe we shall not be disappointed.