Archive for June, 2007

From a Monastery in the Deep South

June 13, 2007

southwest-trip-035.jpg

I am leading a retreat with young teens this week. All prayers are welcome. This is my evening break time to read comments and relax a moment. My thanks to my wife for checking on comments during the day and clearing the spam.

The joy is to be with youth and to here their voices lifted to God. This has been an almost annual event for me since 1999. I have much joy in being here again. Tomorrow I float down a river in a canoe and pray to return undrowned.

I pray God’s blessing on your day, and look forward to coming home and taking up my duties there. Also pray for the good nuns who take care of us here and generously make this event possible. Monastic life in the heat of the South is its own struggle. May it be for salvation!

The Level of Difficulty

June 13, 2007

dscf0022.JPG

In the past weeks and months I have posts entitled, “How hard is it?” “How much is enough?” “How Much is Too Little?” “What is at Stake?” In all of these I have pointed towards the maximum as the standard by which we live the Christian faith – even if we cannot live at the maximum standard. This neatly coincides with the Scriptural notion of sin as “missing the mark.” Of course, if we cannot live at the maximum standard, then it is obvious that we will miss the mark. And of course we will.

In a culture that suffers from grade inflation (everybody wants an ‘A’) it is hard for some people to live with the idea of perpetually falling short and missing the mark. It is also easy to understand why so many churches are moving the mark. “Everybody’s Welcome!” a wonderful statement of hospitality can also be code language for, “We don’t think of anybody as a sinner here!”

In an Orthodox Church everybody is not just a sinner, but says aloud each week that of sinners, “I am the first.” At least we get to be first in something! This, of course, is much the same as Christians have confessed everywhere, for most of Christian history. “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under Thy table,” used to be regular liturgical fare for Anglicans. My seminary ridiculed that particular prayer as only so much “groveling.”

Of course, we ought to grovel. It is, after all, God before Whom we stand in worship. The only proper response is to fall down before Him (even if Orthodoxy is a bit seasonal about when it’s proper to fall down). We cannot be healed and become what we were truly created to be by puffing ourselves up and making ourselves feel better about everything. It just won’t work because it’s not true.

Every child can make an ‘A’ in a classroom, but it every child does, then it is either a highly selective class, or the ‘A’ has come to mean nothing more than “not absent.” We want more than this of our salvation. For to dwell in heaven as I am now would quickly become torture for me and obvious for all around me. I am not ready nor fit, and if I die tonight, then I will hope that friends and family will begin to pray for me with great fervor – for I shall need it.

The only way up for us as Christians is the way down. Only as we follow Christ and the way of the Cross will we find the door that opens from Hades into Paradise. It is there and has been well trod. If it is a road of maximum effort, it is only because God would not want less than all of me to be saved.

I will miss the mark today. Perhaps I will be closer than yesterday – but if so – it will only be because I have learned how to let a steadier hand guide the bow, a more sure hand clasp the arrow, even if my hand is still there. Of sinners I am the first. But if I am to be last in anything, please, O God, let it be in the number of those who are saved!

Music from Heaven

June 12, 2007

I thought all might enjoy this singing from Russia, written by Chesnikov, it is marked by his love of Basso Profundo. I think of it as praising God from the very bottom of your feet.

On Hope in God alone and on Confidence in Him

June 12, 2007

southwest-trip-317.jpg

Although, as we have said, it is very important not to rely on our own efforts in this unseen warfare, at the same time, if we merely give up hope of ourselves and despair of ourselves without having found another support, we are certain to flee immediately from the battlefield or to be overcome and taken prisoner by our enemies. Therefore, together with complete renunciation of our selves, we should plant in our heart a perfect trust in God and a complete confidence in Him. In other words we should feel with our whole heart that we no one to rely on except God, and that from Him and Him alone can we expect every kind of good, every manner of help, and victory. Since we are nothing, we can expect nothing from ourselves, except stumblings and falls, which make us relinquish all hope of ourselves. On the other hand, we are certain always to be granted victory by God, if we arm our heart with a living trust in Him and an unshakable certainty that we will receive His help, according to the psalm: ‘My heart trusted in him, and I am helped (Psalm 28:7)  From Unseen Warfare

What battles we all endure on any given day vary across the board. This day may bring extreme battle for some while for others the skirmishes they will have to endure will sound quite minor. We have a tendency to not want to “bother” God with the small stuff. With such an attitude, our enemy, need only put before us small stuff. We will have had skirmishes but never felt the need to call on God. Thus we find ourselves lost because we never thought we were in need. And yet the Scripture tells us, “Blessed are the poor.”

We should begin everyday with the utter assurance that we are not capable of handling even the small things by ourselves, and that therefore only with God can we succeed. With such an attitude we will not cease to pray and to call on His name. As for those who trust in themselves – “the way of the wicked will lead to ruin.”

This is not an onslaught against self-esteem, but rather an onslaught on the false self who falsely esteems himself able to stand against the wiles of the evil one. This is false hope. We stand up and begin to discover our true selves as we pray: “Apart from Thee I can do nothing.” In such a manner, every victory will have been the work of God, every failure will still not separate us from Him.

“Let us at least promise ourselves that from this very minute we will try to love God more than anything and to fulfill His Holy Will!” (St. Herman of Alaska).

It is God’s will that all we do should be done in union with Him. Only when we do this will we be able to defeat the sin of pride. If we call on God He will most assuredly come to our help.

A Prayer Request

June 11, 2007

I was deeply embarrassed when I came home this evening, checked the web site and found that a flagrant piece of filth had managed to slip through the various screenings and post itself on my site. I apologize to any who may have seen it before I was able to remove it. I will continue to work with the WordPress management to prevent such things.

More than that – if you are a reader – please join me in prayer for those who do these things. May God forgive them and forgive all of us because we have fostered such an industry in our nation. People only do these things because it makes money for them and we must all bear the blame. Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us, and on Thy whole world!

May God bless all who hate us and seek to do us harm and teach us to forgive and not to judge our brothers, or reduce one another to objects.

I am temporarily making some modifications to at least slow all this down if not stop it completely. Please be patient if you find your comment has been put into the group being moderated (you’ll post it and it won’t seem to post). It’s not personal. Postings that contain a url in them will be moderated (approved) before being allowed to post. The reason is that spammers and pornographers love to put links (many of them) into their work. It’s a fact that allows them to be caught and blocked.  I will be out of town for part of next week, leading a retreat for youth. I will try to keep up with the site each evening and will moderate comments at least by then. Be patient with me and pray for safety. If I guard this blog a bit more carefully, we can perhaps continue our conversations.

If all else fails I would be forced to turn off all comments – a great tragedy since I think the conversation would become too much one way. Not good for me.

Also if any of you have suggestions (apparently I could not use the protect web plugin that had been suggested. My wordpress program lies with wordpress so that kept it from being added. Again, forgive everyone by the resurrecton!

New Martyrs from Optina

June 11, 2007

There is an excellent account of three Monk Martyrs of Optina Monastery in Russia on the website of Handmaidleah. She is a frequent visitor to this blog, always with insightful comments. Her account of these new saints is well worth a read. Her blog, Christ is in our Midst is on the blogroll here at Glory to God for All Things.

Can There Be Morality on the Moon?

June 11, 2007

I rarely refer people to a blog article by someone whom I don’t know. But I was recently directed to an article by William Gairdner that does an excellent job of looking at the fact that none of us lives in a “moral bubble.” Our lives are always connected to the lives of others. In Orthodoxy this is a fundamental doctrine of the nature of persons. His article, though largely exploring the issue in terms of ethics and “political” thought, makes an excellent presentation of the ideas involved. It also points to some of the sources for much of modern “individualistic” thought that is simply anathema to the Orthodox faith. I recommend it as a good read. Hats off to the Web Elf for the link!

Lost in Translation

June 10, 2007

Engaging in conversations about the Orthodox faith – with others born and nurtured in the West – I sometimes feel that something is “lost in translation.” I say, “Church,” and something else comes to the listener’s mind: either something Roman or something Protestant, perhaps Anglican. I begin to explain that Orthodoxy cannot be explained or defined in terms of either Rome or Protestantism, for Orthodoxy did not come from Rome or from Protestantism and does not owe very much to them (occasional influences here and there that remain a matter of debate within Orthodoxy but nothing of great significance). There may be common roots – but the Western experience of the Church began to move in a different direction very early on. The common history of Western Christianity and Eastern Orthodoxy is, in many aspects, slim, at best. But, of course, we human beings want to understand one another and so we struggle on, speaking words of the same language whose context has given them radically different meanings. East and West are “lost in translation.”

I had this come home to me recently while reading my way through the latest copy of the Smithsonian Magazine. I like the magazine – it has wonderful pictures and articles that are informative and just the sort of length that such casual reading demands. In just such a casual moment the other day, my eye was caught (the magazine was lying open) by wonderful pictures of the frescoed Churches of Romania. Some parishes, others monasteries, they have long been part of the ecclesiastical treasures of the Orthodox world. The pictures were enticing enough to demand reading time as well.

All was going well (even if the article seemed to lack depth) when suddenly I read a description of the Churches as:

modest, three-room Gothic churches, covered from bottom to steeple-top with Byzantine iconography in vivid, intense colors.

There it was – lost in translation. I can only hope the author was using “gothic” in the literary sense of the word, as in “gothic” novel. However, when speaking of churches, the word “gothic” tends to have a very specific meaning – something that is radically opposed both to the architecture and the intention of an Orthodox Church. There is a theology of space related to architecture – a theology that is proper to the gothic style – and there is a theology of space related to Orthodox Churches that runs from Constantinople, through Eastern Europe and on into Russia.

What becomes “lost in translation” is convincing someone from the West that “gothic” doesn’t just mean “old church building style.” Or, more than that, convincing someone that the difference in architecture is signficant and represents a very different way of perceiving the human relationship to God.

This is not just a question of comparative architecture; it is a difficulty that runs throughout Church life, East and West. For many centuries, the West has been the dominant culture – dominant in economics, politics and war. It has long been a Western habit to see other cultures as a subset of something already familiar – thus when someone else says, “God,” it is assumed that he means the same thing that anyone in the West means when he says, “God.” And this is simply not the case.

There are many words that are more like “place-holders.” We use them because there is nothing better at hand or no equivalent in the language we now must use. Translating Byzantine texts, and translating Eastern Orthodoxy into a Western language, such as English, and not creating confusion is nearly impossible. Thus from service to service the Orthodox pray, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” Western ears hear blasphemy where none is intended.

The translation problem can work both ways. A conservative Protestant asks an Orthodox, “Are you saved?” If the answer comes back with anything less than, “Absolutely!” the assumption is made that this is a person who has no relationship with God, a person who regularly prays for Christ to save them and have mercy on them. Lost in translation.

It is important for Christians to listen to each other – if only for the sake of understanding what is being said. A standard work on the history of Christian doctrine continues, in edition after edition, to say that the Eastern Church never developed a doctrine of the Atonement. How absurd! What Christian Church would have no understanding of how it is that God has reconciled us to Himself? And yet, there the charge remains, lost in translation. In the end we may have irreconcilable differences. What differences there are will never be overcome by calling something gothic when it’s just Romanian. With more than 250,000 words in its vocabulary, surely English can do more. With charity in our hearts we all can do more.

What Is at Stake?

June 10, 2007

In the struggle to come to the wholeness of Personhood – to become the “true self” rather than to sink into the “false self” our very existence as spiritual beings is at stake. If you read across Orthodox books that center on the issue of Personhood – a common theme becomes visible. Our fall and our brokenness leave us vulnerable, even in our religious efforts, to the development of a “false self” something quite other than the wholeness of true Personhood.  Indeed, religion might be more than just a little vulnerable to this – it may be one of the best ways to pursue a false mode of existence. It should be quickly added that most of our activities contribute to this false self – for it is simply another way in which our sinfulness manifests itself. The movement from false to true self is another way of describing the work of salvation that is wrought in us through grace.

The distinctions being made between “false” and “true” are not about identities: not a matter of my being “Bill” or “George.” It instead a distinction being made between a distorted and improper relation with God and the world around me and a whole and proper relation with God and the world around me. Through any number of life experiences we find ourselves wounded and broken. Our love becomes distorted such that we do not love as we ought. Our feelings (in the very largest and all-encompassing sense of the word) become distorted. We do not love what and who we should love in they way they should be loved. The whole range of emotions from hate, anger, joy, love, etc., all become distorted. Thus it seems that often the longer we live the more damage we receive and inflict.

The healing of the self includes the healing of the whole self. Though purification, illumination and deification (or the various ways of describing the ascetical and spiritual life of the Orthodox Christian) our emotions are restored to their proper function. We are able to love, to be thankful, to have anger even hate (in their proper sense – meaning however whatever is actually in the image of God). We do what is right (not as measured by some abstract set of principles or objective set of rules) but as is measured by the will of God: “whoever does the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

The difficulty in all of this is that it describes something dynamic, that is happening in the life of a believer. It is not static, such that it is finished before it is finished. Instead it is something of a roadmap, and looks at what is going on in the life of salvation and is a way of describing the relative merits of differing things. It is a way of saying what is important and what is at stake.

It is quite possible for a local church (as in a local parish, though we could be describing the more accurate sense of “local” church and mean the Orthodox Church in America or the Russian Orthodox Church, etc.) to go about what looks like the work of the Church, and in fact not be doing the work of the Church. The sacraments may be present (these are utterly essential aspects of the life of the Church). Fr. Alexander Schmemann is quoted as having said: “The Church is not an institution that has mysteries; it is a Mystery that has institutions. But it is quite possible to put things the other way around, and instead of serving the salvation of each member, be serving the creation and the fostering of the false self.

Our American way of life has tended to mold the local church into the local religion store. It offers various programs and activities that keep everyone involved and even maximizing the “ministries” of its members. But it can also simply be a beehive of activity, none or little of which has much to do with the healing of the soul.

In every activity of the Church, whether it is liturgical, or educational, or building buildings, what have you, each activity should serve for the healing of the soul and the nurture of the true self. If not, then the Church has simply become one more secular activity that is destroying true life rather than fostering it.

So, what is at stake? Everything. These things are easy to get wrong, and we doubtless fail at many of them most of the time. What is to be done? First we pray and seek to live our lives as though we believed in God. And not only that we believe in God, but that the goal of our life is our mystical union with Him and one another. We can engage in any Godly activity, but it will be seen as a Godly activity, if and only if, its goal is true union with God and one another. This will be marked by love, freedom, indeed the fruit of the Spirit. It may not be the most efficient of organizations (efficiency is not a criteria of Godly judgment), but if it is moving forward in this work of healing in whatever it is doing, then it is doing the work of God and He will be glorified.

Another specific activity, deeply related to this false and true self, is the knowledge of God, and all that we speak of when we say, “doctrine.” Part of the argument of St. Gregory Palamas, against those who argued for a different manner of knowing God, was his insistence on the experiential character of the proper knowledge of God. Thus when we know God properly, we know Him as Person, not as object or topic. Someone may know all of the dogmatic formulas such that they can repeat them with no trouble, or even quickly analyze a statement as somehow being contrary to the doctrine of the Church, and yet know all of this in a way that is not proper. They simply become experts, like someone studying for a game show. This is an activity that fosters the false self, and may be more dangerous than many, because the person involved can suffer under the delusion that because they “know” all of the true facts, they actually know the truth, when they do not.

In the liturgy we sing: “We have seen the true Light, we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, worshiping the undivided Trinity, who has saved us.” This in no way means, “We now have the true facts.” Anyone could have the true facts. This is almost nothing. The hymn in the liturgy refers to a living relationship that is healing us a whole persons. There is no triumphalism in this hymn whatsover (if there is then one is singing from the “false self”). Instead, there is simple gratitude. We give thanks because God has done this for us (who in no way deserved what has been done).

Thus the Orthodox life should always be marked by a knowledge of God (frequently beyond expression even though it agrees with the doctrine as it has been revealed). But it is not doctrine I wish to know, but Him Whom the doctrine reveals. Again, everything is at stake.

Hopko on the Cross of Christ

June 9, 2007

stvladsem.jpg

An excerpt from Fr. Thomas Hopko’s commencement address at St. Vladimir’s. The whole is the address is exquisitely true and I would encourage you to read all of it. The link to the whole commencement address is given at the bottom of this post.

…I can tell you that being loved by God, and loving Him in return, is the greatest joy given to creatures, and that without it there is no real and lasting happiness for humanity.

And I can also tell you, alas, that such loving is always a violent, brutal and bloody affair.

The God who is merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, who gives us his divine life and peace and joy forever, is first of all the Divine Lover who wounds His beloved, and then hides from her, hoping to be sought and found. He is the Father who chastens and disciplines His children. He is the Vinekeeper who cuts and prunes His vines so that they bear much fruit. He is the Jeweler who burns His gold in His divine fire so that it would be purged of all impurities. And He is the Potter who continually smashes and refashions and re-bakes His muddy clay so that it can be the earthen vessel that He wants it to be, capable of bearing His own transcendent grace and power and glory and peace.

…I learned that all of these terrible teachings of the Holy Scriptures and the saints are real and true. And so I became convinced that God’s Gospel in His Son Jesus is really and truly God’s final act on earth. It is the act in which God’s Word is now not simply inscribed in letters on pages of parchment, but is personally incarnate as a human being in his own human body and blood. And so I became convinced of the truth of all truths: that the ultimate revelation of God as Love and the ultimate revelation of humanity’s love for God, are to be found in the bloody corpse of a dead Jew, hanging on a cross between two criminals, outside the walls of Jerusalem, executed at the hands of Gentiles, by the instigation of his own people’s leaders, in the most painful, cursed, shameful and wretched death that a human being — and especially a Jew – can possibly die.

So to the measure that we are honest and faithful, and try to keep God’s commandments, and repent for our failures and sins, we come to know, and to know ever more clearly and deeply as time goes by, what we have learned here at St. Vladimir’s. We come to know by experience that the Word of God (ho logos tou theou) is always and necessarily the word of the Cross (ho logos tou stavrou). And — in language befitting a commencement ceremony at an Orthodox graduate school of theology — we come to see that true theologia is always stavrologia. And real orthodoxia is always paradoxia. And that there is no theosis without kenosis.

Theology is stavrology and Orthodoxy is paradoxy: the almighty God reveals Himself as an infinitely humble, totally self-emptying and absolutely ruthless and relentless lover of sinners. And men and women made in His image and likeness must be the same. Thus we come to see that as there is no resurrection without crucifixion, there is also no sanctification without suffering, no glorification without humiliation; no deification without degradation; and no life without death. We learn, in a word, the truth of the early Christian hymn recorded in Holy Scripture:

If we have died with him, we shall also live with him;
if we endure with him, we shall also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself. (2Tim 2.11-13)

According to the Gospel, therefore, those who wish to be wise are constrained to be fools. Those who would be great become small. Those who would be first put themselves last. Those who rule, serve as slaves. Those who would be rich make themselves poor. Those who want to be strong become weak. And those who long to find and fulfill themselves as persons deny and empty themselves for the sake of the Gospel. And, finally, and most important of all, those who want really to live have really to die. They voluntarily die, in truth and in love, to everyone and everything that is not God and of God.

And so, once again, if we have learned anything at all in our theological education, spiritual formation and pastoral service, we have learned to beware, and to be wary, of all contentment, consolation and comfort before our co-crucifixion in love with Christ. We have learned that though we can know about God through formal theological education, we can only come to know God by taking up our daily crosses with patient endurance in love with Jesus. And we can only do this by faith and grace through the Holy Spirit’s abiding power.

A reminder you can read the rest here.