Archive for April, 2008

And Now the Journey Begins

April 18, 2008

I write in brief today. The liturgical journey of the Church through Holy Week and into Pascha begins tonight (with Vespers). In my parish it began this morning, since I begin the hours and reading of the Gospels on this Friday, rather than waiting to Monday. Thus, this morning we heard the whole of St. Matthew’s Gospel. A truly sobering experience.

In a side note, I followed that service by traveling over to the University of Tennessee for their International Day Festival where the local OCF chapter had a booth. I took part in a four-man choir which offered a number of Orthodox hymns as part of the diversity of the day. And now I return to prepare for tonight’s service and tomorrow morning’s Liturgy for Lazarus Saturday – which will include Chrismations and Baptisms.

And the rest of the week will be marked with services morning and evening, and as the week deepens, services in the afternoons as well, until at last we reach the Day of Days and the Queen of Feasts, our Lord’s Pascha!

I make myself available for confessions throughout the week – and it is such work that comes first. Thus, I cannot predict how much attention I will pay to blogging. But with this post I ask your prayers and assure you of mine, that all have a good Holy Week and a most joyous Pascha, and that the non-Orthodox remember us in their prayers as well (thank you).

I will try to post from time to time this week – and hold all of you in my prayers. It is a most Holy time.

Is Hell Real?

April 17, 2008

On one of the roads leading into my small city a billboard has recently appeared. It is part of a larger campaign by a nationally known evangelist who is to have a revival in Knoxville. The sign is simple. In very large bright yellow letters (all caps), the sign says: HELL IS REAL. In small letters beneath it, in white, that can be read as your car nears the sign is the statement: so is heaven. Like the small bulliten boards outside of many Southern churches, this sign belongs to a part of our culture that has been with us a long time. But everytime I see this sign, my mind turns to the subject of ontology (the study of the nature of being). Thus I offer today some very basic thoughts on the subject of being – a classical part of Christian theology.

The first thing I will note is that you cannot say Hell is real and Heaven is real and the word real mean the same thing in both sentences. Whatever the reality of Heaven, Hell does not have such reality. Whatever the reality of Hell, Heaven is far beyond such reality.

St. Athanasius in his De Incarnatione, sees sin (and thus hell) as a movement towards “non-being.” The created universe was made out of nothing – thus as it moves away from God it is moving away from the gift of existence and towards its original state – non-existence. God is good, and does not begrudge existence to anything, thus the most creation can do is move towards non-being.

I’m certain that the intent of the billboard was to suggest that hell is not imaginary or just a folk-tale. It is certainly neither of those things. But in Orthodox spiritual terms I would say that hell is a massive state of delusion, maybe the ultimate state of delusion. It is delusional in the sense that (in Orthodox understanding) the “fire” of hell is not a material fire, but itself nothing other than the fire of the Living God (Hebrews 12:29). For those who love God, His fire is light and life, purification and all good things. For those who hate God, His fire is torment, though it be love.

And these are not simply picky issues about the afterlife – they are very germane issues for the present life. Christ Himself gave this “definition” of hell: “And this is condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).

It is of critical importance for us to understand that being, reality, life, goodness, beauty, happiness, truth are all synonymous with reality as it is gifted to us by God. Many things that we experience in our currently damaged condition (I speak of our fallen state) which we describe with words such as “being, reality, life, goodness, beauty, happiness, truth, etc.”, are, in fact, only relatively so and are only so inasmuch as they have a participation or a relationship with the fullness of being, reality, life, etc.

Tragically in our world, many live in some state of delusion (even most of us live in some state of delusion). Christ said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” We are not pure in heart, and thus we do not see God, nor do we see anything in the fullness of its truth. Our delusion makes many mistakes about reality. The most serious delusion is that described by Christ, when we prefer darkness to light because our deeds are evil.

I have in my own life known what moments in such darkness are like – and I have seen such darkness in the hearts and lives of others many times. The whole of our ministry and life as Christians is to move from such darkness and into the light of Christ. “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship (communion) one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1John 1:7)

Is hell real? Only for those who prefer to see the Light of God as darkness.

Is heaven real? Yes, indeed, and everything else is only real as it relates to that reality. God give us grace to walk in the Light.

End of ontology lesson.

Icons and the Heart

April 15, 2008

The following comment was posted in response to my recent thoughts on icons:

I’m interested in learning to experience more of what you describe in your experience with icons. I’ve started praying with them, but not sure “how to,” if there is a “how”. I have an icon of Christ the Pantocrator and one of Christ at a young age — not sure what to make of that one at all, but I like it. I look forward to learning to see or realize or experience the Kingdom of Heaven, as well, the reality and presence of which is a new thing to me. Until recently it has been just a confusing phrase that I didn’t think too much about.

The questions are good and worth spending some time with. These, again, are some of my personal observations. Comments of others are quite welcome.

I first encountered icons when I was in college. I liked them, but knew little about them. I think I thought that if I looked at one long enough it was supposed to tell me something. I was wrong.

Though I did learn one thing that was years in being fulfilled:

There is a relationship that is established in our prayers with icons.

The first icon I owned was a print (which I mounted) of Our Lady of Vladimir. I did not know then that it was a print of the Our Lady of Vladimir, whose original is at St. Vladimir’s Seminary (which is quite different in many ways from the famous Vladimirsakya Icon in Moscow). This icon was simply in my prayer corner for years. It accompanied me through college and seminary and became always a part of our family’s prayer corner. I had no idea of the relationship that had grown with this icon until 1998, the year of my reception into the Orthodox Church and also the year of my first visit to St. Vladimir’s Seminary.

To my surprise, when I entered the chapel, the original of the icon I had now known for more than 25 years seemed to leap from the wall. My response was one of overwhelming emotion that completely surprised me. I had a sense that this icon, this window to the Mother of God, had always known of my devotion to her, and had always prayed for me through so many years and such a long, long journey home to the Orthodox faith. I have no rational explanation for that knowledge. It is simply what I felt and knew.

There have been other particular icons in my life, each with its own story. Mostly they are stories of my “prayer partners” to use a common Protestant phrase. At one point in my life I would say I was sort of “icon crazy,” collecting all I could get my hands on. My prayer corner was unbelievably crowded – in many cases with icons who had no story I could tell. I just bought ’em and hung ’em.

At some point I overheard someone speaking about icons and suggesting that we should “let them come to us.” That’s a very difficult thing to explain. But it is something I began to practice. I gave away many icons and kept primarily the ones with which I could describe a relationship. I now add to what I have as they “come my way.” And they come, from one direction or another, one person or another. Often revealing the reason for their presence at a later time.

I also still give icons away, when it seems the right thing to do. I am sharing a story, a window, a perception with someone else who seems to fit.

Not unlike the relics of saints, there is a degree to which “icons go where they want to.” I don’t want to speak in a superstitious manner or create false impressions. But there is something to the old phrase.

I have a number of special things associated with my priesthood. Some of them are relics that have been given to me. Some are oils from the shrines of certain saints. Some are vestments that have been handed down to me. One is a censer with a unique history. Another is the sponge I use at the altar (a gift at my ordination from a Protodeacon who got the sponge on a visit to Mt. Athos) – and so the stories go. My blessing cross is from St. John the Baptist Monastery in Essex, England (procured during a personal pilgrimage) – the Crucified Christ is carved on one side, and St. Silouan is carved on the other. When I stand in the altar before any given Liturgy, and begin the service of Proskomide, I am surrounded with objects that carry stories – stories of relationships and remembrance – deeply connected and deeply rooted in my heart. For it is in the heart that the service must be celebrated most of all.

Icons are no different, or at least are very much like such objects. Many times, fewer are better, but always the slow and steady growth of relationship is best. The Fathers compared icons to Holy Scripture, saying that they did with color what Scripture does with words. Every student of Scripture knows what it is for a passage to “open itself” to you. One can hardly explain what this means to someone else. A verse or passage we have known for years suddenly becomes new – speaking and opening vistas of understanding previously undreamt. It is the same thing with icons. There is no “technique” to make Scripture yield itself to you – it is the gift of God. The same is true of icons. Only God can make them yield and open to us – inviting us into places of the heart where we have never been.

I once read a quote from a saint who said, “There are things about Christ you cannot know unless His mother tells you.” I would not state it as a dogma – but I know it by experience. The same can be said of many things in the life of the Church – for the whole of it is Christ. They reveal Him and He reveals them. And in the revelation we know the Truth.


Civilizations and the Kingdom

April 15, 2008

I give thanks to God that priests are forbidden to hold political office – not that I would ever be elected – but that I would never want to stand in the place where my Christian faith was so torn – between what I might think good for the state and what would seem obedient to God. Anyone who sits in such a position needs prayer – whether they are Christian or not.

Someone recently shared an article with me in which the author was commenting on a growing sense of connection between the powers that be in Russia and the historical legacy of Byzantium. These are simply natural thoughts for an Orthodox Christian – particularly one living in an historically Orthodox nation. But they are filled with contradictions and dangerous delusions.

Equally delusional is our own American mythology, with its Puritan heritage and its confusion of America with the Kingdom of God (or something like that). We dare not think ourselves less tempted by religious fantasy.

There have been moments of clarity in Orthodox civilizations that properly inspire and call to the imagination. There have been terrible times of betrayal and persecution which can also create a sense of isolation and unique privilege before God.

But in the end – whether in Russia, America, or anywhere else on earth, the call is the same: to know, love and live in communion with God. This is not a political destiny but the destiny of the human race. It is only made more complicated by utopian dreams or visions of empire. The repentance of nations, a theme that runs through some of the essays of Solzhenitsyn, is a very rare thing indeed. I do not know if I have ever witnessed such a thing. I know that a nation will not live in repentance unless I live in repentance.

And I return to a thought that I’ve mentioned before – the fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. The prayers of the righteous somehow hold everything before God and play a vital role in their existence. In a political season, it seems to me, my thought should be less about who will win, or who should win, or even how I will vote – but whether I will pray – and pray in such a manner that I feeble words have contributed to the continued existence and even well-being of our world. The world needs God as I need God. Who will pray for the world? Who will pray for me?

The Texture of the Kingdom

April 14, 2008

I posted yesterday on the “texture of life,” noting that there is a richness to our lives that cannot be reduced and which seems to have an inherent tendency to reach towards wholeness – for life itself. I concluded with the observation that this texture is an echo of Pascha sounding its way through all creation.

I want to turn the same observations towards the Kingdom of God – which Christ taught us was already among us, or “within us.” He Himself brought that very Kingdom into our midst. Wherever He went the signs of the Kingdom followed: the blind received their sight, the lame walked, the lepers were cleansed, the dead were received back to life, and the poor had good news preached to them. How do you measure the gift of sight to a blind man, or the joy of a family who receives back into its midst one whom they thought dead?

The Orthodox Tradition, which is often described by many as “mystical,” is not “mystical” in any sense of “esoteric” or “strange.” Such adjectives for the faith are simply a reaching for words to describe a reality that is richer than any merely rational scheme or metaphysical explanation. It is the largeness of a Kingdom that cannot be described or circumscribed, and yet is found in the very heart of the believer. What words do we use to describe something which dwarfs the universe and yet dwells within us?

It is the texture of depth – or to use St. Paul’s expression: “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). This is not merely a statement that nothing has the power to separate us from God, but that nothing has such height or depth as the love of God. It is a rich mixture of images – from the measurement of space, to the angels of heaven, to the elements of time – nothing reaches to the end of the love of God – the very stuff of His Kingdom.

It is for such reasons that I always find myself repelled by efforts to reduce doctrine to simplified formulas. Doctrine – the teaching of the faith should not reduce our understanding but enlarge it – to the very point of silence – and beyond. It is why it is so frustrating to try and explain icons. No one has an argument with the presence of words in the Church – the icons do the same things words do – only with color and in the language of silence. I can enter the Church, remain in silence and yet see (and hear!) something other than the incessant chatter of my own mind. The icons speak with the texture of the Kingdom – opening windows and doors that transcend every height and depth, things present and things to come.

Strangely, they open windows and doors into the heart, as do the words of Scripture and the rhythms of the Liturgy, all of them echoing the texture of the Kingdom, which, finally, is the very texture of our existence.

The Texture of Life

April 13, 2008

A parishioner told me the other evening, “Our bodies have an incredible desire to live. If we give them a chance it is amazing what healing can take place.” At least, that is the paraphrase of what I remember. My mind immediately flashed to my years as a hospice chaplain. Each day brought a round of visits with dying patients – patients who had accepted the option of hopice, which means only palliative care. The majority of my patients were older and most had some form of cancer. What I recall from many, many occasions was how someone’s body clung to life. I have always had a sense of the fragility of life, but I saw there, at the very gate of death, a fierce tenacity that would not go easily. I came to realize that this same tenacity which was sometimes a torment for families and others who stood by, was also a gift. It is the tenacity of our bodies that battles through every cold, every childhood disease – indeed everything we encounter until we encounter our last. I learned to bless the battle, even when we might wish an easier ending – but to bless the battle because it has been a faithful friend for the whole of our life.

There are many things about us that make up the texture of our lives. We are not simple, we cannot be easily codified (if at all) or qualified – and though we label ourselves with medical terminologies and psychological profiles, in truth, we are none of us just the same. I may share a diagnosis with another human being, but neither of us are the same thing as a disease.

Nor can a biography capture who I am or tell the story in a way that is more than caricature. For no one person’s story is free of all other stories. A biography creates a fiction that of necessity leaves out most of the facts – for not even the subject of a biography knew all of the facts. The texture of each life is rich and complicated – deeply intertwined with everything around us.

And like our bodies – our lives want to live. Given the opportunity they want to be whole. It is never the disease that someone has that surprises me. We live in a world of bacteria, errant DNA, and more toxins than at any time in history (or so it would seem). Getting sick is not a surprise. What surprises me is health. And it can be found struggling to show forth in the most amazing of places. What surprises me is goodness and the desire to be kind – both are inherent elements in becoming whole.

This wonderful, rich texture of our existence is for me a reflection of the God who loves us, Who created us and sustains us. It is the texture of a creation that even in the throes of death yearns for life. It is for me, an echo of Pascha that resounds throughout the whole of creation. Death loses its grip as Pascha draws near to us. Lazarus slipped through its cold fingers and came forth from the tomb. One day, the whole of creation will slip through the gates of death and into the glorious liberty of the Sons of Light. Soon, please.

The Problem with History

April 11, 2008

One of the first times I noticed a problem with history, as generally conceived, occurred during an Orthodox Liturgy (of all places). I been used to serving in an Anglican context (largely modernized liturgy) where the nature of a service is what I describe as “linear.” First one thing happened, then another, almost never two things at once. The bulletin was therefore very useful, for, just as it indicated, first one thing and then another happened.

The first liturgy I participated in as an Othodox Christian, that is with a liturgical role other than as a layman, was the service in which I was ordained to the Holy Diaconate. Indeed, in the course of that service, I was tonsured a reader, a taper-bearer, ordained as a subdeacon, and later as a Deacon. I had a service book in my hand, but I quickly began to notice that the book was only marginally helpful for someone trained in a linear fashion. For an Orthodox liturgy is highly non-linear. Many things happen at once. They are all written in the book, but while you’re looking at what someone else is supposed to be doing or saying, you yourself may very well be required to do something else and say yet another thing. At some points, it will seem like the entire liturgy is like juggling six or seven things. That none of them are dropped is nothing short of amazing. I would like to say that nothing was dropped during that service of my ordination – but that would not be the truth. Newly ordained as I was, I lost my place, almost hopelessly, and was rescued by a very kind Proto-deacon.

It is hard to describe this to someone else unless they are used to team sports, or playing in an orchestra, or have participated in many of the non-linear events available to us. I like jazz (or at least certain forms of it) and have had the pleasure of occasionally playing some with others in a small combo (this is many years ago). The sheer joy when a band is playing and the score, in any strict sense, has been left behind. Everyone is improvising, and yet everything works. It’s hard to describe unless you’ve had the experience. Jazz is very non-linear.

For that matter, the whole universe seems pretty non-linear. At any given moment a billion, billion things are happening (I know the number is bigger but that’s as high as I can count) and more, some of them so mysterious we have no names for them.

This becomes the problem of history – at least for me. It is often told in a linear fashion (“discuss the three main causes of the Civil War,” the history test asked). But such an accounting never really does justice to the truth of any event. Every telling, if it is told truly, has a “multivalent” character – it means more than it says because nothing is every simply linear.

This is true of Scripture as well, I think. A linear (purely literal) reading is too thin, not nearly rich enough to convey the fullness of truth. Thus Scripture rightly has a liturgical context (especially). The story of Jona and the Whale, read on Holy Saturday (as it is in the Orthodox Church) takes on a completely different meaning because it is read in that context. Thus Scripture is never just Scripture (a book to be read), but is a reading to be heard in the context of the worshipping community and in that context far more of its fullness is revealed.

Of far less import is the question of what an author may have meant than “when is the Scripture read in the Church?” “What season?” “What feast?” What else is read and where else might it be read? Are verses of this Scripture also brought into other places of the Liturgy? When and why?

And so go the questions that begin to realize that Scripture is not able to be read in a merely linear fashion, for the “linear” world is purely the product of imagination – a rational construct and not a description of reality.

A page of Scripture may consist of several thousand words. But the words are several thousand feet deep (at least and some have no bottom at all). Thus reading and interpreting are very difficult things indeed – much like knowing the Living God.

Drawing Near to Pascha

April 11, 2008

I can feel the pace of Lent quickening (it begins to reveal itself in my schedule). I also feel the march of time towards the Day of all Days, the Pascha of our Lord. In my experience, Lent brings not only the discipline of the fast and additional services, but seems to carry with it as well a series of events in my life and in the parish. Rough edges appear. Crises manifest themselves. There are days when getting out of bed is difficult or hearing a phone ring.

But all of these “trials” are occasions for yet more prayer and shout aloud to us: “My Soul, My Soul, arise! Why are you sleeping? The End is drawing near.” (The Kontakion from the Great Canon)

I remember that the witness of Scripture, when it speaks of the Last Days, speak of days of great difficulty and tribulation. As Christ Himself draws near, it’s as if “all hell breaks loose.” I think this is not only so at the End of all time, but at every drawing near of Christ. He is the true Judge of the universe, and to draw close to His presence is to invite judgment into our lives. Things that can be shaken are shaken. Things that need His light begin to reveal themselves as nothing more than darkness. And so we draw near.

But my memory of Pascha, which is itself a liturgical experience of the Last Judgment, is also a memory of the words of St. John Chrysostom’s Easter Oration, that bids all to come – even those who have been heedless. It is a simple, straight-forward presentation of the good news of Christ. And in my joy I see as well just how truly heedless I have been and am overwhelmed that such goodness should still greet me come that great day.

So I offer encouragement to my brothers and sisters. If your Lent is like the ones I know and many others, be patient. The End is drawing near and even your heedlessness will be forgiven.

Kalomiros on Creation Posted

April 9, 2008

I have published the article “The Six Days of Creation” by Kalomiros in the Pages section and commend it to you for reading. My thanks to Jason for posting the link that gave me access to this fine material.

Christ – the End of All Things

April 9, 2008

I have written on this subject in other contexts, but wanted to bring it front and center: Jesus Christ is described in Scripture as the “Alpha” and “Omega,” the “Beginning and the End.” This is not simply a statement of who Christ is at the beginning of things, or who He is at the end of all things – but who He is always, everywhere and at all times.

To speak with Christ in prayer is to have conversation with Him who is both beginning and end. Thus our prayer not only has a timeless quality – it brings us into a personal relationship with both the beginning and the ending of Creation. In prayer, we are taken out of time as we know it, and enter into Him who is before time and after time.

Years ago, I had an old “Jesus freak” (as we were known at the time) buddy who told me that he used to pray for the Apostle Paul. Since the context in which I knew him was Protestant – indeed – virtually Anabaptist – I was taken aback by his confession. “Why do you pray for the Apostle Paul, I asked?”

“Because He asked me to in his epistles.”

Of course, this was one crazy Jesus freak who didn’t do much theology, but I was impressed by his obedience. St. Paul asked it, and he obliged. Indeed, he was entering into the “fellowship of the saints,” far beyond anything he knew. But he knew, that if Jesus was Lord of heaven and earth, then he could pray for St. Paul and let Jesus worry about the space-time continuum.

There are far too many Christians in the world who have figured out the space-time continuum and are living as though they took their orders from a physicist instead of the Lord of the Universe. Have been translated already into the Kingdom of God, my true life (hid with Christ in God) transcends even space and time as do my prayers and the rest of my Christian experience.

For many Christians, it’s not just that they’re “God is too small,” so is their universe and their conception of their place within it.

When a saint of the 4th century appears and has a conversation with a monk of the 21st century, what do you call that? It happens far more than people know.

There are things afoot in this world of ours that are already turning space and time upside down. This is only as it should be and what the followers of Christ should expect to be the norm. If Christ is Lord of heaven and earth – how do these things not happen?

I have had converts to my parish because the Holy Royal New-Martyrs of Russia appeared to them in the midst of a carwreck and saved them. When that person came to be part of my mission, my first thought was, “If the Royal New-Martyrs of Russia are going to make an appearance in East Tennessee in order to spare the life and save the soul of someone, then my mission is probably going to be ok.” I was right.

By the same token, everything will be alright. The Church in America (I think especially of the OCA) has produced a fine crop of saints in its little more than 200 years. Some of them were actually the Metropolitans or ruling Bishops. Despite any problems we now face, we have an overwhelming majority on the side of Christ (Christ and one saint are an overwhelming majority anywhere and anytime – at the least). Thus my heart is filled with confidence and hope. I know the One who is both the Beginning and the End. I know how all this started and I know how it will end. What more do you need to know?