Archive for January, 2008

The Ecclesiology of the Cross

January 31, 2008


The following article is a series I wrote during the early months of the blog. I think it worth reprinting (surely people aren’t going back to read everything I’ve written). It is also available in the “Pages” section of the blog. If you’ve read it before I hope you enjoy rereading it – if not, I hope you find it useful or worth some thought.

Part I

Writing to the young Timothy (first letter) St. Paul gives this homey admonition:

These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.

Paul does not then go on to give us several chapters’ explanation of ecclesiology, expounding and unpacking the phrase, “pillar and ground of the truth.” The phrase simply hovers as a statement of fact beckoning the brave to “come up higher.”

Some have done so over the years: most famously in modern times Paul Florensky’s book by that very title – a massive tome of writing by the mathematician/mystic/theologian who is himself often as enigmatic as he is interesting.

Being Orthodox means living with words like “pillar and ground of truth.” Or singing gleefully in a liturgy, “We have seen the True Light, we have found the true faith.” In the wrong hands such words can be dangerous indeed. They are true enough, but such truth can be uttered well only as praise to the Living God, rarely as apologetics or as “war words” in our confused scene of Christianity. Uttered in “battle” (if the little dust-ups that occur hither and yon can be called such) these words take on the fearful character of “that by which we will be judged” (Matthew 12:36).

The insanity of modern American Christianity is the product of sola scriptura, poor or no ecclesiology, and the entrepreneurship of the American spirit. Thus almost every Christian group that exists has something excellent to say about itself (like so many car dealerships). The perfect ratiocination of Reform theology, an Infallible Pope with a Magisterium, or the perfections of an invisible Church (really, how can you discuss an invisible Church?) Even Anglicans, born of divorce and compromise (I know they don’t like to say it like that in Anglican seminaries, but it’s history), can brag about Via Media, or today, “Inclusivity.”

Into this playing field of discussion come the Orthodox. We are familiar with Pillar and Ground of Truth, True Light, True Faith, Fullness, etc., words of excellence and perfection. Of course, as soon as they are uttered, gainsayers will point to everything about us that appears less – and there is so much at which to point (our messy jurisdictionalism, internal arguments, etc.) People who have mastered cut-and-paste functions on their computer can quote concatenations of the fathers proving that our Pillar and Ground of Truth was always sitting in Rome. What’s an Orthodox boy (or girl) to do?

I do not think we give up conversation, but we have to be aware of the nature of our conversation. We utter “Pillar and Ground of Truth,” etc. “in a sacred mystery.” Pulled out of its context (that is the living Church) and placed in argument, the phrase becomes words weakened by every other word we have ever spoken, and particularly the actions we have performed or failed to perform. Such phrases are no less true, but they were never meant as offensive weapons (except perhaps in spiritual warfare).

I would start, as an Orthodox boy, with the fact that everyone who is Orthodox has agreed to “deny himself, take up his cross and follow Christ.” The ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, is found precisely in its weakness and is found there because God wants it that way.  If salvation means loving my enemies like God loves His enemies, then I am far better served by my weakness than my excellence. If humility draws the Holy Spirit, then my weakness is far more useful than any excellence I may possess.

The Orthodox Church has perhaps the weakest ecclesiology of all, because it depends, moment by moment, on the love and forgiveness of each by all and of all by each. Either the Bishops of the Church love and forgive each other or the whole thing falls apart. “Brethren, let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” These are the words that introduce the Creed each Sunday, and they are the words that are the bedrock of our ecclesiology.

We live in a wondrous age of the Church. Having suffered terrible blows at the hands of the Bolsheviks, we were smashed into jurisdictions (they don’t really start until the 1920’s), and often turned on one another in our rage. Today, the Bolshevik has been consigned “to the dustbin of history.” Moscow and the Russian Church Outside of Russia are actually going to gather at the Lord’s table together. We still have the spectre of a powerful Patriarch of Constantinople bumping into a powerful Patriarch of Moscow here and there, first in Estonia, then in London, who knows where next.

But in each and every case the only ecclesiology that will work, that will reveal the Church to be the Pillar and Ground of the Truth will be an ecclesiology of the Cross: mutual forgiveness and abiding love. This will be the Church’s boast: that it became like Christ in all ways; or it will have no boast at all.

I rejoice that I am alive in such a time as this. We stand at the edge of an abyss. We can embrace each other in joy and forgiveness or fall into the abyss itself (I trust Christ’s promise to keep us from such a misstep – though He has pulled us out of such places more than once). I rejoice because I don’t want anything other than to be conformed to the image of the crucified Christ. Let everybody else be excellent if they need to be. I need to die.

 Part II

I suggested in my previous post on this topic that the Cross be a central part of our understanding of the Church. There is a natural tendency to compartmentalize in theology – it’s hard to think of everything all the time and everywhere. And yet, it is important that we always remember that our salvation is not a series of discreet, compartmentalized events and undertakings – our salvation is one thing. Thus it is never entirely appropriate to speak of the Eucharist as one thing, Confession as another, Christology as another, iconography as another, etc. – everything, all of our faith, is one. All is encompassed in the saving work of Christ. It is hard for us to think like this but it is important to make the effort.

I would like to suggest several points for reflection on the Cross and the Church:

1. The self-emptying of God on the Cross, including his descent into Hades, is not accidental but utterly integral to understanding the saving work of Christ.

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.

3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Today, the first point:

1. When St. Paul writes of Christ’s “emptying” Himself (Phil 2:5-11), he is not describing something that is somehow alien to God, regardless of its profound irony. In Rev. 13:8 Christ is described as the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Thus we cannot look at the Cross as an event that is somehow alien to God. Rather, it is a revelation of Who God Is, perhaps the fullest revelation that we receive.

Christ speaks of his crucifixion, saying, “for this cause came I unto this hour”  (John 12:27).   Other aspects of Christ’s ministry, even His revelation of the Father to the world, should not be separated from the event of the Cross. In His self-emptying, Christ reveals the true character God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Writing about this self-emptying (kenosis), Fr. Nicholas Sakharov describes its place in the teachings of the Elder Sophrony:

The eternal aspect of Christ’s kenosis is perceived in the framework of the kenotic intratrinitarian love. Fr. Sophrony remarks that before Christ accomplished his earthly kenosis, “it had already been accomplished in heaven according to his divinity in relation to the Father.” The earthly kenosis is thus a manifestation of the heavenly: “Through him [Christ] we are given revelation about the nature of God-Love. The perfection consists in that this love humbly, without reservations, gives itself over. The Father in the generation of the Son pours himself out entirely. But the Son returns all things to the Father” (I Love Therefore I Am, 95).

Indeed, in this understanding we would say that this self-emptying is not only integral to Christ’s saving work, but to the revelation of the Triune God. Thus when we say, “God is love,” we understand that God pours Himself out: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is into this life of self-emptying that we are grafted in our salvation. We lose our life in order to save it. This is no reference to a single act, but to the character of the whole of our life as it is found in Christ. “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live” (Galatians 2:20).

Tomorrow: the second point, “Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.”

Part III

Following earlier posts on this subject, I take up the second of four points: 

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying [as the self-emptying of God on the Cross].

There is a tendency when we think of the Church to think in institutional terms – to speak of hierarchies, the role of Bishops, etc. Scripture uses a variety of images for the Church: the body of Christ, the messianic banquet, the pillar and ground of the truth, etc.

But of course, one simple reality of the Church abides and colors all of our experience: we are human beings in relationship with God and with other human beings who are part of the Church. That relationship, whether characterized in Eucharistic terms, or the language of the body of Christ, is still always quite relational (excuse the tautology). This inescapable fact makes it necessary for us to keep this aspect of the ecclesial life before us at all times.

What then does it mean for us to be in relationship? St. Paul, in his famous discourse on the Church as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12-13), focused on its most central aspect in the very core of that discourse. Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is the great chapter of love (agape). St. Paul subjugates all other concerns to that measure of reality. “If I have not love, then I am nothing” (13:2).

All too easily this passage is relegated to the category of ethics. (Recall that I noted in the last post it is all too easy to compartmentalize our thoughts about the Christian life). There is not an “ethics” department and an “ecclesiology” department. The ethics of 1 Corinthians is as much ecclesiology as Paul’s speech about the “body of Christ.” One is simply what the other looks like when it is actually lived.

The love of 1 Corinthians 13, is nothing less than the agapaic love of God – the love the Father has for the Son; the love the Son has for the Father; the love the Spirit has for the Father and the Son (and all the ways we may permutate those statements). Love is nothing other than the self-emptying of one person towards the other – it is the kenotic (emptying) relationship of one for the other that is the hallmark both of the intra-Trinitarian life as well as the life of the Church (how could the life of the Church be any different from the life of God?).

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…

This is as poetic and accurate a description of kenotic love as can be found in Scripture. This is synonomous with Christ’s claim that he does only that which He sees the Father doing (John 5:19). The Son empties Himself towards the Father and only does His will. The Father empties Himself towards the Son, and has given “all things into His hands” (John 13:3). The Spirit “does not speak of the things concerning Himself” (John 16:13), etc. These are not discreet revelations about intimate details of the Trinity, but are revelations of the very Life of God. Kenosis (self-emptying) is descriptive of each Person of the Trinity. It is in this that we speak of “God is love.” For greater love cannot be measured than that we “lay down our life for our friends.”

Thus when we come to speak of our life in the Church, St. Paul characterizes it by this same act of kenotic love. We do not look towards our own good, but for the good of the other. We “weep with those who weep” and “rejoice with those who rejoice.” Our lives in the Church are not marked by centers of activity and importance (individuals) who then negotiate with other centers of activity and importance for their respective positions. Such a model is a description of secular life (at its best) and Hell (at its worst).

That our membership in the Body of Christ begins by our Baptism into Christ’s death (Romans 6:3) and also includes Baptistm “into the Body of Christ” (I Corinithians 12:13) gives an explanation of the meaning of “Baptized into the Body.” To exist in the Body of Christ is to do so by existing in the death of Christ, as well as His resurrection. How this makes us “His body” is amplified when we see that “His death” is more than the event on Calvary, but the fullness of His divine self-emptying that was made manifest to us on the Cross of Calvary. We are Baptized into the self-emptying love of Christ, for this is the only way of life. If we are to be transformed “from one degree of glory to another” then it is towards the “glory” of the crucified, self-emptying Christ that we are being transformed. Deification (theosis) is also kenosis (self-emptying) for there is no other kind of life revealed to us in Christ.

Next: 3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

And: 4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Part IV

We continue from our previous posts with the last two points:

3. All discussion of the Church and its life must include this self-emptying [of Christ], not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

These last two points probably belong together as a single point – and so will be treated together in this posting.

The self-emptying of God, revealed to us on the Cross of Christ, is enjoined by the Apostle Paul to be the “mind” of the Church:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of god, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled [emptied] himself and and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).

Typical of the Apostle, even his most profound theological statements are integrated into the life of the church – for theology concerning Christ is not an abstraction or a theory to be discussed, but a revelation of the truth – both the truth of God and the truth of ourselves, inasmuch as we are His body. There is no proper division between our contemplation of the truth and our living of the truth.

In another place the Apostle writes:

Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).

Here, even the separation or distinctin between Church and Scripture is overcome! The Church, rightly lived, is itself the true interpretation of Scripture. Thus, when we speak of the self-emptying of Christ on our behalf, we must also live in a self-emptying manner towards one another and towards God.

The Church has often been described as a “Eucharistic Community,” and it is said that the Church is most fully manifest in the Divine Liturgy. But this is true only as the Church itself lives in a proper Eucharistic manner. Just as Christ pours Himself out for us to the Father, and the Father gives Himself to His Son, so all the members of the body of Christ must pour themselves out towards one another and towards Christ. We “empty ourselves” so that we might be the “fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Ephesians 1:23).

This same self-emptying is also proper to the unity of the Church. The context for St. Paul’s writing of Christ’s self-emptying is precisely in a passage where he is concerned to speak of the unity of the Church.

Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself…(Philippians 2:2-7)

 The unity of the Church is unimaginable without this mutual self-emptying. Indeed, such a unity (should there be one) would be without the mind of Christ, and thus would be a false unity.

As noted in the first post on this subject, the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church is rooted in its weakness. Our imitation of the self-emptying love of Christ is precisely the weakness in which our ecclesiastical life is grounded. thus, though the Church has a hierarchy (a “holy order”), that order is not properly an earthly hierarchy, a ranking of privilege and power.

As Christ Himself warned His apostles,

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28)

Thus the primacy which exists in the Church is a “primacy of love,” not a primacy of coercion. St. Ignatius, in his letter to the Romans, referred to that Church as the one which “presides in love.” (Nicholas Afanassieff famously wrote an Orthodox essay on the Petrine ministry by this title).

However, just as our salvation is not properly seen as a juridical event, neither can the life of the church be seen as juridical in nature. To say this does not deny the concept of jurisdiction, nor the necessity of the church to make judgments and practice discipline within its life and the lives of its members, but it is to assert that such jurisdiction, judgment and discipline are not properly juridical in nature. Thus, depriving someone of Holy Communion, or deposing them from Holy Orders, is not rightly understood as a juridical action of the Church, but an action whose sole purpose is the healing of that member of the Church. God’s chastisement is for no purpose other than our salvation – how can the chastisement of the Church serve any other purpose?

The great difficulty in all of this is that the true life of the church, and thus all ecclesiology, is never anything less than miraculous. Ecclesiology cannot be a study of those things the Church “has to do” because it “lives in the world.” This would make the Church’s life one long compromise with “practicality” and declare that the life of God is trumped by some version of necessity. This kind of reasoning eventually yields the evil fruit imagined in Dostoevsky’s famous chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor.” The church is driven by no necessity other than the self-emptying love of God manifest in her life and in the life of all of her members.

This self-emptying life of God, understood as the life of the Church, is of particular importance for Orthodoxy. Here, there is very little of a juridical nature. Those who see Orthodoxy from the outside see this ecclesiological lack as a fundamental flaw in the life of the Orthodox Church. Instead, it is a fundamental faithfulness to the mind of Christ. But to live in such faithfulness requires that our lives be ever yielded to God. So soon as the Church turns away from God and the True Life which makes this self-emptying possible, so soon does the Church fall towards anarchy and strife. Church history is full of examples of such failures – just as it is full of examples of Christ’s faithfulness and promise to the Church to preserve it against the gates of hell. But each time the Church has been victorious over such stumbling, it has been because she returned to the path set forth by the self-emptying Christ.

Whatever dialog the Church has within itself (between “Churches” as the Orthodox would say) or with those with whom there is schism, the dialog must be rooted in the mind of Christ, the self-emptying love of God. This in no way calls for an ignoring of dogma, for dogma itself is but a verbal icon of Christ (to use a phrase of Fr. Georges Florovsky). But to “speak the truth in love” is to speak from within the mind of Christ, that is, from within His self-emptying love. There is no sin that such love does not heal, no emptiness that this Emptiness cannot fill. Our hope is in Christ, thus we shall not be ashamed (Romans 5:5).

St. Isaac the Syrian and the Door of Heaven

January 30, 2008


Be at Peace with your own soul; then heaven and earth will be at peace with you. Enter eagerly into the treasure house that is within you, and so you will see the things that are in heaven; for there is one single door to them both.

And another:

If you do not strive, you will not find; and if you do not knock eagerly at the door and keep long vigil before it, you will not receive an answer.

And this small word from St. Augustine:

Where can we find Him?…Not on earth, for He is not here. And not in heaven, for we are not there. But in our own hearts we can find Him. He ascended to heaven openly so that He could come back to us inwardly, and never leave us again.

God and the Universe

January 29, 2008


The material and organic world is not a world of thought. Only man can think, knowing himself and everything that surrounds him. In our mind an entire ideal world is borne in which is reflected everything we know. But we see that the universe is filled with wisdom, that in acquiring the knowledge of the truth we do not invent it but perceive it through our spiritual eyes. The truth about the universe is neither matter nor a human concept.What is the source of this truth and this wisdom, which penetrates all that exists without merging with it, this wisdom which abides in the world but is not the world itself? Philosophers have invented an ideal world or a world soul having, as it were, an independent existence. But everything that is spiritual is personal, and the universe is not a single, living being, such that it could have a soul. The world of thoughts and ideas must belong to someone’s mind. Whose thoughts, then, fill the universe? It is obvious that only an absolute being could conceive of all that exists and of all that has ever existed. Every thought or idea of God is the eternal plan for something that in fact exists. In accordance with these plans God has created everything in the universe, and His creative thought continues to communicate meaningful, unbroken existence to everything. God’s powers and actions are always meaningful and His thoughts always efficacious. It is precisely in the divine ideas that we find an ideal measure of the truth toward which we are striving when we try to know anything.

From Serge Verhovskoy’s The Light of the World

It is always interesting to read books that are nearly 30 years or more old. It even seems strange to me that much should have changed in so short a time. I remember 30 years ago…as though it were yesterday. I was certainly a married man, as I recall.

But much has changed. The words above, penned by Serge Verhovskoy (of blessed memory), spoke rather comfortably of a universe whereas today it would be more accurate to speak of a “multiverse.” The unity of human thought (which has never been a reality) has today clearly given way to an awareness of just how diverse human thought really is.

When I speak with my son about his physics courses and how he thinks of the universe – he is clearly open to thoughts of multiple universes and things that my generation never considered. However, the diversity of post-modern thought does not change the relevance of Verhovskoy’s thought – though it is thought that is addressed to believers.

Of particular significance to me is his statement:

In accordance with these plans God has created everything in the universe, and His creative thought continues to communicate meaningful, unbroken existence to everything. God’s powers and actions are always meaningful and His thoughts always efficacious.

It is the Orthodox understanding that God is not a watchmaker (as the Deists imagined back in the Enlightenment). He did not create the world simply according to a plan and then let it unfold. Creation is more than the original event. It is the clear teaching of the Church that everything exists because God sustains it in its existence: only God is self-existent. It is a very important understanding for everything in our relationship with God.

Part of two-storey thought (itself largely a product of the Enlightenment) is the notion of a God who is distant – somewhere else – whose connection to the universe is, at best, philosophical. For Enlightenment thought, God as Creator, stands at a remove of billions of years. The universe is understood to have self-existence and thus God is reduced to interference if He is to have anything at all to do with the world He has made.

This is nothing like the teaching of Orthodox faith. God is not only “everywhere present and filling all things,” but also the One “in whom we live and move and have our being.” He not only gives the world existence in the sense of bringing it into existence – but gives the world existence by sustaining it in existence. Thus whether we believe in God or not – we existence in Him and through Him.

In this understanding, prayer takes on a very different role. In the world imagined by the Enlightenment – prayer is largely petitionary – asking God to break His laws and intervene to make things as we want them. It is almost always as if we were asking God to do something He does not want to do. Thus the importance of Scripture verses that promise that God will do what we ask (particularly if the formula set forth is carefully followed).

However, if everything that exists is moment by moment sustained in that existence by God, prayer becomes not an interruption of the established order, but communion with the Order itself. It is the central point of prayer – communion with God. The faith of the Church, proclaimed in every service of the Church is that “He is a good God and loves mankind.” Our very existence – at every moment – is a gift of the good God. And our existence itself is evidence of His goodness.

It is finally true, that there is a universe (rather than a multiverse) because there is One who creates and sustains it. Regardless of what diversity we may bring to the world – we share a common existence – a common gift. It is the same gift that will sustain us beyond this material existence and make our memory to be eternal. Glory to God for all things.

At the Edge of Tradition

January 28, 2008


There are many things that we see in our lives to which the word “traditional” may be attached. It can refer to a style of dress or an understanding of relationships. In Church it may refer to the use of certain kinds of music or a sytle of worship. Many years ago, pastoring my first parish as an Episcopal priest, I had a young couple who were Roman Catholics, who had come to the Church as inquirers. One of their first statements and complaints to me was that the service in my parish was not “traditional” enough. I was slightly puzzled. My eleven o’clock service was a choral Eucharist, about as traditionally “high church” as Anglicans get. I was also aware that the surrounding Catholic Churches were all pretty contemporary in their worship. I should add that the couple was in their early twenties.

They explained away my confusion. By “traditional” they meant: “where are the guitars?” “In the eye of the beholder,” is all I could think.

The same can be said of the contemporary use of the word “traditional” or other phrases such as “ancient,” etc. I know there are experiments out there to bring a more “traditional” style of worship into Evangelicalism (and here “traditional” means, I believe, “liturgical”). In many places an increased emphasis on the Eucharist as the primary service of worship on Sundays is also part of the package.

On the one hand, these efforts can hardly be faulted from an Orthodox point of view. The more people explore the “tradition,” the more likely they are to confront the faith – which was, after all, “once and for all ‘traditioned’ to the saints,” for that is the meaning of Jude 1:3. But on the other hand, there is a danger in confusing the outward trappings of “tradition” with “Tradition” itself. For what was once and for all delivered to the saints, was not so much questions of liturgy and incense (although all of these ritual and liturgical elements of Orthodoxy do carry with them the content of Tradition – they are not electives), rather the faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints was and is indeed the content of the faith – the living union between the true and living God and man. That faith truly reveals to us and makes accessible to us the true and living God, and it also reveals to us and makes accessible what it is to be a truly living human being. The content of the Christian faith, the living Tradition, is the truth of both God and man, and the truth of our salvation through union with God in Christ.

The content of the Tradition is not a set of ideas – but a reality – God with us.

And this is the problem that always accompanies attempts to reach that reality through reform. It is not our reformation that is the problem in the first place. We cannot reform ourselves into union with Christ. We can submit ourselves to union with Christ and not much else. We can cooperate with union with Christ.

Invariably, the great stumbling block faced by various attempts to “recreate” or “rediscover” the “early Church,” is that the “early Church,” is not an historical reality. It is a present reality – not simply as the “early Church” (this is not a Biblical phrase anyway). The present reality is the same as the “early Church”: it is the Body of Christ, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, the true and living Way. It never ceased nor was overcome by the gates of Hell. It has lived and thrived in enough places to have picked up many languages, many customs, but always the same faith.

This always comes as a stumbling block, I believe, because the existence of the Orthodox Church stands as a stark witness to the True and Living God – not the idea of a God – but God. In my own conversion, I was utterly shocked by this fact. I had read about Orthodoxy for years. I agreed with it for years. I would have even readily agreed for years to everything the Orthodox Church said of itself, and yet I remained outside. When, at last, my family and I were actually received into the Church, I was staggered by the reality of God. I know that sounds strange (since I had been an ordained Anglican priest for 18 years prior to that) but such was the case. There was no longer any question about discussing God, or refining the tradition, or even debating how all of it was to be applied. I was now in the thick of things and God was reigning down in canon, text, Bishop, sacrament, penance, sight, sound, rubrics (which I could not begin to fathom at first) – everything!

Thus, I surprised friends constantly in my first year or so of Orthodoxy when they asked me what was the most important thing about my conversion. My constant reply (to this day) was: the existence of God.

This, somehow, is the content that sets the Tradition apart from all discussions of appropriating tradition, etc. You do not appropriate something whose content is God. You are Baptized into it. You are Chrismated into it. You are absolved for ever having lived apart from it. You are fed it on a spoon. You are splashed with it. But you cannot appropriate it. To paraphrase: Your life’s to small to appropriate God.

Thus many in our time stand at the edge of Tradition. I have written that it is all really about Being – and it is. Thus it is worth going over the edge, to cross from thinking about God, to being plunged into the heart of it all. Frighteningly, it will come complete with Bishops whom you like and whom you despise – with stories of contemporary saints – and encounters with contemporary sinners. No different than this living Tradition in any other century. No different than this living Tradition in any other century. No different than this living Tradition in any other century. What else can a man do?

In the Depths of the Heart

January 27, 2008


For many years I have had an image that I carry around with me – it is the notion that the world could be completely other than it appears if we had eyes to see it in some other way. I suspect it’s originally a science-fiction idea that got into my head but the idea also seems just theological enough that I’ve never been able to shake it.

The notion gained strength when I once read in St. Theophan (the Recluse) that our guardian angels see us not as we see one another, but immediately see the state of our souls. Thus (and this was the part that got my attention) he said our guardian angels see us a “greasy” when we’re full of sin. Righteousness, of course, shines as light. Imagine, one glance and you see the state of your soul (or your neighbors). I’m generally glad that I cannot see what my guardian angel sees.

The same idea has carried my thoughts to other ways of seeing the world – and some of these are scientific realities. It has become a commonplace to see the world through any number of lenses and wavelengths of light. Thus we can see the world through a lens that shows where the most energy is being produced (or wasted). There are a whole variety of such maps.

There is another map, this time in my imagination, that is not unlike St. Theophan’s angelic vision of the world. It is thinking of the world as it is – if we could see the depths of our hearts – if the map of our world showed us what was happening in the human heart.

To a degree we can see such things – at least some of the effects of them. We can see a degradation of humanity in certain places. It is hard to gauge these things. Are they getting worse? Are they getting worse at a pace faster than we’ve ever known? We do not know (or at least I do not know).

But this same meditation – the world as seen in the depths of the heart – also makes it very difficult to know where the Church is at any given moment (not its location – but it’s spiritual state of health). I have now studied Church statistics for nearly 30 years. They tell us many things but they also mask many things. Church attendance is an interesting and even important figure – but it is such a generalized thing that it is hard to make judgments based on such knowledge. Things are clearly undergoing cultural shifts during the last decade or so. Some Churches themselves are undergoing such metamorphoses that it is hard to know what is going on.

And thus we come to the place each of us lives – and the lives with whom we share the place we live. We cannot know the depths of the human heart at a glance (we’re not angels), but with careful listening and careful observation we can know something. I know as a priest that some in my parish are making great struggles within the realm of their heart and are engaging the gospel as they never have before in their lives. And I am sure that my parish is not unique.

This terrain of the heart is something that lies before each of us. We will not be able to make great generalizations such as those of statisticians. But we will not be held responsible for knowing the shape of the world’s spiritual terrain. We will, however, be profoundly responsible for the warfare that takes place within the depths of our own heart. Did I struggle to pray? Did I struggle to forgive my enemy and beg for the grace to love what I cannot love without God? Did I allow my heart to be made tender by the mercies of God and share those mercies with everyone around me? (I’ll be more specific). Did I allow my heart to be made tender by the mercies of God and share those mercies with anyone around me? (That’s more to the point).

One of the Fathers said that when the end of time comes and the “book” is opened for judgment, the “book” will be the human heart. What is written there will be the true history of the world. And then we shall know even as we are known.

The Goodness of Being

January 26, 2008


The primary good is existence itself, for if someone does not exist, how can he make use of good things of any sort? And, whereas we all simply somehow exist, God is “the One Who Is,” that is, He is the One Who enjoys utter fullness of existence, the One Who is Being itself. God’s being has within itself its own cause or foundation. It is absolutely whole, individsible and unchangeable; it possesses everything simultaneously in a single perfect, all-encompassing unity. All of God’s attributes interprenetrate one another. Thus, for example, one cannot say that in God love is not wise, nor that wisdom is not permeated with love; nor can one say that His freedom is powerless, or His power without freedom, etc. God’s life is not a death-like rest but a complex and yet unified, all-powerful act of being whereby He realizes everything that we, even through thousands of our own efforts, cannot attain. Thus, God is above time and space; He is eternal and simple.

The above is a short paragraph from the beloved Serge Verhovskoy’s The Light of the World. Rich in content yet simple in statement, it points us to the reason that Being is the question. We may say these things of God, but our own experience of being is full of contradiction and even pain. It is clear that our existence is in some sense flawed. Thus God united Himself with us in the fullness our being and healed us at the very core of who we are. But it is this core that often remains unaddressed and unattended in our religious life. We all too often are satisfied with having mastered certain external matters of the Orthodox life and just get by. We fail to press the very pain and problem of our being. We take for granted that failings and emptiness in certain areas of our life are simply givens and must be endured.

But God is the Fullness of Being and invites us to share in that fullness. Thus not only is Orthodoxy really “all about being,” it is about our being healed and sharing more fully in all that it means to exist. Existence should not be a burden for us, but a daily joy, a gift. By the same token, our existence should be a daily joy and gift for those around us, unless they have set themselves as enemies of all that is good.

To be able to say, “It is good to be here,” (St. Peter said such a thing on the Mount of Transfiguration), is a confession of the truth. It is indeed good to be here, regardless of the problems that have beset our existence.

I have seen such joy in the face of children on more than one occasion. In the remembrance of my own children’s childhoods, I recall such moments that I was graced with witnessing as among the greatest joys of my life. May God multiply such moments for them in their adult lives!

It is good to be here. It is good to be. For God is good.

For the Life of the World

January 25, 2008


The Orthodox Ministry, Come Receive the Life, has two podcast programs on the Sanctity of Life. The first is an interview with Khouria Frederica Mathewes-Green, the second is an interview with Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News, a relatively recent convert to Orthodoxy (I met him the week after his Chrismation), also on the topic of the Sanctity of Life. I commend both interviews to you.

It’s Really All About Being

January 25, 2008


I wasn’t sure how to title this post. One part of me wanted to say, “It’s really all ontological,” but that would lose half my readers in the maze of theological/philosophical vocabulary. I also thought about entitling it, “It’s not what you do but what you are,” and that might have been better than what I chose. My podcast this weekend on Ancient Faith Radio will also touch on this same subject.

And the subject is this: the moral life is not about the moral life – it’s really about a matter of life or death. This is the great crisis that passes some people by while others are confronted with it square on. If you read about the life of Dostoevsky the writer, you discover that his entire life’s work really flows from a near-death experience courtesy of the Tsar. Arrested for involvement with a “revolutionary” group, he was sentenced to death. The Tsar really only wanted to teach a lesson, so, at the last minute, death sentences were commuted to a few years in Siberia’s prisons. And I mean at the last minute. Dostoevsky was standing in line for the firing squad when a rider from the Tsar showed up with the commuted sentence. He described the scene in a letter to his brother some twenty years after the event. It also shows up in veiled scenes in his novels. But standing at the abyss of death he saw the world completely transformed. Time seemed to stand still and the utter value and beauty of life flooded his awareness. The result, in time, was an Orthodox Christian Dostoevsky, who grasped the Church’s teaching on the true nature of the moral life (of life itself) like no other novelist in history.

I would have to take a reader back to St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, to find anywhere near the clarity of our human predicament.

We saw in the last chapter that, because death and corruption were gaining ever firmer hold on them, the human race was in process of destruction. Man, who was created in God’s image and in his possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself, was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone. The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape. The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting. It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption. It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits. As, then, the creatures whom He had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good, to do? (2.6)

Of course, the answer to St. Athanasius’ question is the incarnation of the Word of God and the entire economy of our salvation. But it is how he frames the question that is of importance here.

Man…was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone. The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape. The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting.

It is this realization that the nature of sin at work in us is not a compilation of bad test grades, a gradual legal debt being incurred by our bad actions, but, in fact, a movement away from God and a verging on non-existence: that is key. Our problem is not moral (as in keeping laws); our problem is that we stand on the edge of an abyss of non-being (from which we came). Only the free gift of life in Christ stands between us and non-being. Who cares about our legal status? We’re talking about existence!

That is the realization which struck Dostoevsky, and it is the proper realization to strike every Christian, if he or she is to be struck in the Orthodox manner. For myself, I came early to this realization through a collection of family tragedies that included the death of loved ones and the murder of another relative very close to me – all in the tenth year of my life. I was a premature existentialist. One who found the moralistic bromides of cultural protestantism absolutely insufficient.

The mystery of the Church (which I first encountered among Episcopalians) came close. And I spent twenty-eight years among them. But during that time I began to discover St. Athanasius and the tradition of the Orthodox Church (Dostoevsky included) and eventually my heart carried me to the place where the answers were stated most clearly and unabashedly. That is, I came to the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I still think of this daily, as I contemplate my sins. I think of it daily as I serve as a priest and hear confessions. It is not the legal peccadilloes that we share in our confessions, but the evidence of death and decay at work in our heart. At every moment we stand at the edge of the abyss, and Christ alone pulls us back and draws us towards the fullness of being.

And so my title: “It’s really all about being.” It’s just that serious – but also just that saving. Our relationship with Christ is securing for us an existence that is beyond corruption and death. The healing we experience is no mere legal absolution of our sins, but the healing of our very being.

At the core of my heart I cry: “I do not want to die – but to live – and to live in the image and likeness of God!” And for that heart’s cry, Christ was born.

Philotimo – Responsive Gratefulness

January 24, 2008


As noted in my preceding post, I was introduced to this word through reading about the Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain who used it quite frequently in his teaching. The following short article appears on OrthodoxWiki, the online Orthodox encylopedia. It is a worthy read on an important virtue as taught by the Church. May God, by His grace, increase such virtue in us all! 

The virtue of philotimo is commonly emphasized in Greek Orthodox Christianity. It follows in line with two other important words; ethos (demeanor, manner) and phronema (mind-set, attitude/disposition). Philotimo is the humble, dignified and respectful way people interact with one another (family members, extended friends and family, fellow parishioners and extends to the workplace). And it is perhaps more especially referred to in the highly refined and profoundly simple monastic literature of Orthodoxy. In our times and from the works and words of Elders Paisios (+1993) of Mount Athos and Porphyrios of Athens, we see the term and its antecedent spirit used quite frequently. That these two modern spiritual giants of the Greek-speaking world use the word so naturally (as most Greeks do) is no coincidence however, because it is an anthropological concept that was first observed by the ancient Greeks. It was always used with regard to eager and grateful living. When one is grateful he responds toward God and others by enacting other virtues. Hence, some would say that the philotimo spirit is the singularly unique virtue from which stem all the virtues. When used specifically in the spiritual sense, philotimo expresses the intense and constant feeling of deep appreciation and heartfelt gratitude for God’s gifts, to such a degree that the soul feels the inner need to freely and thankfully respond. It is the feeling of not being able to “give back” enough. It can mean gratitude for anything from a small gift someone might have given you (or the small act of kindness someone may have shown you) to an appreciation for one’s heritage and ancestors (to one’s own parents) as according to the word of the Apostle Paul who writes, “Remember, it is not you that holds up the root, but the root that holds you up (Rom. 11:18).” At another level, in our effort to successfully define philotimo, we might also simply suggest these two English words “responsive gratefulness.”

Philotimo is that deep-seated awareness in the heart that motivates the good that a person does. A philotimos person is one who conceives and enacts eagerly those things good. The term is formulated in a beautifully synthesized Greek word which comes from two Greek root words; 1) the prefix filo (filw) – which literally means I love (cf. John 21:16 as in Apostle Peter’s response to the Lord’s question, “Do you love me?” – “nai kurie, su oida oti filw se,” – which also has height, depth and breadth of meaning in and of itself). Philo can be more precisely understood also as having deep heartfelt appreciation or gratitude for some one or some thing. It is also the prefix to many other etymologically Greek monikers (eg. philanthropist, philosopher, philologist, philharmonic etc.). As a prefix, philo denotes one as an appreciator or friend (lover) of the essence of another concept found in the term which follows it, in this case, “timi” (Grk timh, h).” Timi is yet another very important ancient Greek and Christian concept that means honor or value. Honor (or the value of things) is itself the immeasurably deep philosophical concept about which volumes could be written. Another way of thinking about philotimo is when considering a clean or clear conscience and how one act eagerly upon that which the conscience dictates. Philotimo is therefore intimately intertwined with the grateful conscience, the stirrings of one’s inner disposition, but it is infinitely more.

Olivier Clement says the following about love in his book The Book of Christian Mysticism, “Spiritual progress has no other test in the end, nor any better expression, than our ability to love. It has to be unselfish love, founded on respect; a service, a disinterested affection that does not ask to be paid in return (“our” philotimo), a ‘sympathy,’ indeed an ’empathy,’ that takes us out of ourselves enabling us to ‘feel with’ the other person and indeed to ‘feel’ him or her. It gives us the ability to discover in the other person an inward nature as mysterious and deep us our own, but different and willed to be so – by God.

Responsive Gratefulness, Miracles and Love – the Elder Paisios

January 23, 2008


Responsive gratefulness (translating the Greek philotimo) is a very strong theme in the teachings of the Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain. The following is taken from the book Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain.

Elder Paisios stressed that our acts are worthwhile only if they are done out of a grateful predisposition. He always urged us not to struggle out of self interest, but rather out of responsive gratefulness. Even our faith in God, should be based on our gratefulness. He used to say:

The person who asks for miracles, in order to believe in God, lacks dignity. God, if He wishes to, can make with one of His miracles everybody instantly believe. However, He does not do so, because He does not wish to exercise force on man’s free will; man will then end up believing in God, not out of gratefulness or due to God’s excessive kindness, but due to His supernatural power.

What God respects and values most is to love Him just because He is kind.

Christ was incarnated, mocked, whipped, crucified, out of His extreme love for humankind; He shed His blood for us. All these facts explicitly indicate to everyone that He is the true love. Impelled by the fact that “God is love” (1 John 4:8), we should love Him in return and believe that He is our God, for “we know no good apart from Him.”

If someone, who sees Christ’s sacrifice and love, does not believe that He is our God, and in order to believe asks for miracles, he will neither be able to truly love, nor to truly believe in Him.