Archive for May, 2008

Spiritual Fatherhood

May 31, 2008

I am the father of five children, four who are living and one who has gone to his rest. The oldest of my children is now 27, soon to be 28, and, by God’s grace, soon to give birth to my first grandchild. God is truly gracious.

Closely related to this is the notion of spiritual fatherhood – the unique relationship a priest has to those who have been given to him for their spiritual care. Like natural fatherhood – there are no easy formulas. It is never a simple case of obedience (it certainly wasn’t and isn’t for my natural children). Nor is it the case of “father knows best,” because father does not always know best. I am not a Staretz (elder), just a parish priest.

This weekend I am serving in one of the neighboring parishes of the Deanery (St. Tikhon in Chattanooga) while their priest is on vacation. It is a parish that I assisted in its founding, having chrismated many of its members. It is also a parish that has given a larger portion of its membership to service in the priesthood and as wives of priests, than almost any that I know. It is small but vital.

Spiritual Fatherhood, like natural fatherhood, is a recognition both that you have had some role in the birth of something (even if far removed) and bear a unique responsibility in comparison to other relationships. For me, this is most true of my local parish. I am confessor to almost all of my parishioners, and bear the responsibility before God for the soul of each. On the great day of Judgment, I will have to give an account for the stewardship I have exercised or failed to exercise.

But like natural children, we cannot snap our fingers and make something happen. In both cases we have a responsibility towards other free persons – indeed their growth in Christ is absolutely dependent upon that freedom. “For where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty.”

And thus like natural fatherhood, one finds oneself largely powerless over something that has been given to your charge. I have always wanted, above all, for my children to love God and to serve Him above all things. To date, two of my daughters are married to priests, which does not mean that I can “bask in success” but rather that two of my children require an extraordinary amount of parental prayer for they have accepted a very difficult life for the sake of Christ. May God keep them!

By the same token, we are largely powerless over the lives of our “spiritual children.” We can pray, exhort, confess, do all that we know to do, but their lives are a small sovereignty lived before the face of God. Mostly, spiritual fatherhood means a life of prayer in which you agree to hold someone in your heart before God and suffer with them as well as rejoice with them.

I am frequently reminded as I enter the altar, of the fringe on my epitrahelion (stole). It is a common tradition within Orthodoxy, that the fringe upon the stole of a priest represents the laity for which he is responsible. And so as I enter the altar, I take them with me, and that is likely the most important thing about the event. They are with me, and I am to pray for them and intercede before the all-merciful God of heaven for their well-being and salvation.

I think today (as I sit in a motel room in Chattanooga) of priests everywhere who bear the responsibility of fatherhood and of the burden they carry. May God make their burden light, by making them aware that it is Christ who is the true priest and the Father of us all. That, at most, we stand at the altar as His icon, and that as much as we fail to be proper spiritual fathers, He never fails. May we all learn to cry out to Him to help us who are so utterly inadequate to the task for which we were ordained. May God save the faithful and have mercy on all, for Christ stands as the great High Priest before the throne of the Father and makes intercession for the whole world. May God’s children everywhere pray for those who have responsibilities for them before God. May we wish no judgment upon them that we do not wish upon ourselves. Glory to God.

Orthodox Serbian Monasteries in Kosovo

May 31, 2008

This is a beautiful sharing from the heart of the earliest Serbian Orthodox homeland.

The Truth of Ourselves

May 29, 2008

Abba Poemen believed that the only time you could observe a person’s true character was when that person was tempted.

From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers

There is obvious wisdom in the saying about Abba Poemen: it is not our strengths that best define us, but our weaknesses. In our culture, where virtual reality – both of the entertainment world and the political world – are defined by carefully managed personalities (not to be confused with “person”), it is hard for us to deal straightforwardly with our weaknesses. There is a tendency to think of our weaknesses as something lacking – “what I am not good at” – and to define our reality by our strengths – “my talents, my gifts.”

I have long observed that a person’s strengths are rarely the things that comprise the gate to the Kingdom of God. People rarely turn to God or the Church because of the success of a “strength.” Frequently, we come to God in desperation in the midst of failure where our own frailty and mortality are best revealed.

St. Paul heard from God, “My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

I suspect that I am no different than others and that I prefer for people to see my strengths and talents and to cover my weaknesses as any other shameful thing. But it is a habit that hides from us the truth of ourselves. Not that we are defined by our weaknesses – but our weaknesses reveal the true character of who we are as we stand before God.

What would it mean for me to stand before God and say I have a talent for writing? Before Christ Who is the Word and Wisdom of God – what boasting would there be in a mediocre talent? In what way would such a talent, even a great talent reveal to us anything of who God is or who we are in Him?

And yet as we come to God in our weakness and in our failure, there we frequently find the door to our heart and the beginning of true prayer. Man’s proper existence before God is a state of constant repentance (not a cosmic guilt but a constant sense of our need of God and our emptiness before Him). What is there in our strength that ever brings us to repentance?

I have always found it troubling that many in our modern culture judge St. Paul rather harshly. He is caricatured as a misogynist, as judgmental, as very harsh. In truth, we know more about him than probably anyone in Scripture apart from Christ Himself. And we know much about his weakness – and only through his own testimony.

What humility is found in his words to the Corinthians (first letter)!

And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God (2:1-5).

I try to imagine a modern day evangelist describing himself in such terms. We value success and crave to hear stories of success.

Life goes on, and despite our championing of success and strength, our weaknesses are often revealed, accompanied by shame and embarassment. For some, such revelations are the destruction of all they valued. But of course, all that is revealed is true character. For others, such revelations are like a new birth, the beginning of true knowledge and the gate of paradise.

But who would accept an invitation to shame?

Christ did.

Nothing but the Whole Truth

May 28, 2008

Because Christ Himself is the Truth, we cannot have any such thing as “partial” Truth. Something or someone can be close to the Truth or moving towards the Truth – but in a proper Christian sense – only Christ is the Truth and Christ is one.

And thus within Orthodoxy it becomes problematic to speak of anything in isolation from everything else, for the Church is not the summary of its parts, but is the Body of Christ and is one. Fr. Serge Verhovskoy of blessed memory, is quoted as having said, “Orthodoxy is the absence of one-sidedness.” I have always taken this to be a comment on the character of Orthodoxy that it is “whole” and not “partial.” This aspect of the faith requires an effort on our part, particularly in an atomizing culture, that is, a culture which almost always focuses on the parts rather than the whole.

Fr. Sophrony, in his writings and teachings, frequently makes a distinction between what is merely “psychological” and what is “spiritual” or what he will term “hypostatic” or “ontological.” It is a distinction he makes particularly when he addressing the subject of Spiritual Fatherhood. Some who come to a Spiritual Father will only understand things on a pyschological level and are not ready to hear a “word” from God. They, indeed, might be crushed by such a word, or simply let it pass unnoticed.

There is an entire level (or more than one) at which our faith can be lived where things are understood psychologically, morally, or politically, never rising to the level of true communion with God nor the transformation of the inner life in which we not only forgive our enemies, but enter into a communion with them in such that we pray with bitter tears and anguish for their salvation and the salvation of the whole world.

By the same token, the Sacraments can be seen in a lesser way and not entering into the depth which they contain. I dare say all of us (certainly myself) live on a level that is less than what God intends.

The danger comes when these levels begin to be substituted for the true gift of God in Christ Jesus as though they were the true end for which we live (the whole truth). I can think of several areas where this can be a problem.

On the personal level, it is possible to remain enmeshed in a psychological understanding of the Church and the sacraments. We see that an inner change is to take place in us, but that change is seen largely in psychological terms rather than the depths of ontological change taught by the fathers of the Church. We see our sins as “problems” but not in fact as the evidence of death and corruption at work in us. We are sorry for things we have done wrong, but we do not see that these things are in fact dragging us deeper into the realm of death. Thus our repentance remains shallow and grace for a greater and deeper work is refused.

By the same token, it is possible to understand sin or the teachings of the Church in a purely “moral” way – the rules by which we should live. I have said elsewhere that God did not become man in order to make bad men good but in order to make dead men live. Our problem is not a “moral” one, in the weaker sense of the word, but truly existential and ontological. There is something mortally ill and wrong with us – something that is not described by mere moral description. The Church’s life, when presented or lived merely on the moral level, is robbed of supernatural life and rendered into little more than a human institution.

The same can be said of the Church as a “political” entity. The Church has a proper role to play in speaking to ills of our society, and to the social inadequacies of our institutions. But were the world to turn from its present mis-doings, and tomorrow have a perfect environment, and proper living arrangements, etc., it would still be placing fallen man in an ersatz paradise. Even desert monasteries have occasionally fallen into carnal life and become little more than outposts of hades.

None of this is to say that there is no place or use in addressing the social and just issues of our culture, or that the Church is meant to live without monasteries, etc. But the sickness which infects us can be healed, finally, in any setting in which the Church dwells. The thief on the cross found paradise “in a single moment,” we sing in Holy Week. It is not a normative setting (in a certain sense) and yet the thief on the cross is quite normative in another way. The thief perceived (by God’s grace) the depth of His own sin and accepted the shame of his condemnation. He also perceived the goodness of Christ and begged for His mercy – and found it – in a single moment.

The world has been filled with various movements, particularly in the modern period. Different problems have seemed of cosmic significance and worthy of all possible attention. The end of slavery is one – though there is a deeper slavery which has not ended for most. The prohibition of alcohol is another – but it ended in a very deep failure. I lived through the 60’s and even spent a couple of years in a very serious Christian commune, but not one possessing the wisdom to do what a commune (or monastery) should.

The slow maturation of true Orthodox life, in its fullness, without “one-sidedness,” is precisely that – slow maturation of true Orthodox life. St. Vladimir, Prince of the Rus, received Baptism in 988 A.D., but the story of Orthodox life in Russia generally marks the life and ministry of St. Sergius of Radonezh in the 14th century as the point at which there came a flowering of Orthodoxy in its fullness in that land.

There are perhaps, many Vladimirs among us today, but few, if any, of Sergius’ vision or stature. It is for his like that we pray, struggling to live faithfully what we have been given, and to live it on levels deeper than is obvious in our culture.

The Truth will always be and always must be, measured by the fullness of the stature of Christ (Ephesians 4) which will be marked by the depth of our communion with God, with all mankind, with the universe itself, and our willingness to follow Christ towards the Cross and the kenotic fullness of hypostatic being (forgive the obscurity of my language here).



May 27, 2008

When someone asked a hermit to define humility, he answered, “Humility is when you forgive someone who has wronged you before he expresses regret.”

I cannot think of how many times in my experience the subject of apologies has come up along with the subject of forgiveness. Of course when someone asks forgiveness we should forgive – indeed, it would seem that according to Christ’s commandments we sin if we refuse such a request. But there is a certain satisfaction, even a certain affirmation of our own correctness when such an apology is forthcoming. Many an unbeliever could be so magnanimous.

But to forgive before we have been asked can be a great act of humility – not if we do so because we are so good – but that we do so because we are empyting ourselves of the demand for human justice (on a personal level) and equality. We “take the lower seat.” And we can do so because such emptying holds the promise of the fullness of God. Such lowering holds the promise of exaltation with Christ.

Before ever He was asked, Christ extended forgiveness to the world. From the Cross he prayed for us, “For they know not what they do.” He had already emptied Himself. We may forgive, indeed should forgive as Christ forgave, in order to be like Him. Or do we despise such an honor?

Is a Relationship with God What We Want?

May 24, 2008

An excellent question was raised in the comments of my previous post – the question being about the nature of relationship. It is commonplace in our modern parlance to speak of a “personal relationship” which is either redundant, or a way of weakening the true meaning of “personal.” I suspect that the modern meaning of “relationship” is in fact not capable of bearing the true weight of theological meaning and is simply a shallow way of speaking about the Christian faith. What Scripture invites us into is communion with God. I have written on this topic previously, addressing the substitution of the word “fellowship” for communion. I have reprinted here two articles on the topic from my previous writings. They seem quite on topic. One could substitute “relationship” for “fellowship” and the articles would work in that way as well. God has offered so much to us – it is a pity if we allow language to lessen the magnificence of that gift.

Is “Fellowship” with God Possible?

Too little has been written about the politics (and theology) of Bible translations. From the very first instance, the goal of English translations has not been a primary concern with a faithful rendering of the meaning of the text. Much of the history of the English Bible has been precisely over the agenda carried by the translation itself. Most readers remain unaware of such issues. Most will not notice that the King James version rendered the Greek word episcopos as Bishop, while the Geneva translation rendered it as overseer. The King James version, authorized by the Anglican King as the official Bible of the Church of England, was insistent on the correctness of Bishops as the proper form of Church government. The Geneva Bible, as the name suggests, was a Calvinist product, equally insistent on the absence of bishops – hence the neutral term overseer. Both could argue that their translation was accurate. Yes, but.

This is only one of the most famous instances of theologically driven translation issues. There are many more. It is important to read Scripture, but it is equally important to know who translated the Scripture that you read and why. In many cases, modern translations exist in order to give a publishing company a product to which they alone hold copyright.

But all of the above is preliminary. I have a concern with a particular word in Scripture that has its own history of translation issues. The Greek is koinonia. The root of the word is the adjective: koinos, meaning common. The noun is one of the great abilities of ancient Greek – the ability to create abstract concepts from adjectives (this is not common in ancient languages). It is this linguistic ability that caused philosophy in Western Civilization to first be practiced by the Greeks. Without abstract nouns there is nothing to discuss.

The word koinonia had a fairly clear religious, even sacramental meaning by the time of the New Testament. It had a history of usage even in pagan religious settings. Its meaning was fairly clear: communion, participation or sharing. In each of these meanings the strongest sense of the word is meant. To have koinonia is to have communion, to actually participate in the life of another in the sense that your life and the life of the other share a common existence.

In the history of English translation the word receives a mixed treatment. In the King James Bible the word is generally translated either as communion, or, occasionally, by the weaker word fellowship. Interestingly, as time and Protestantism move along, translations have tended to move more often to the weaker rendering fellowship. Thus in the Revised Standard Version we read:

If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:6-7).

What on earth does this mean? In our modern two-storey world, fellowship is a very weak word. It refers to a relationship between two very discreet individualities. Rotary clubs meet for fellowship. It’s not unlike comradery with the exception that the term comrade sounds as if you actually shared a common experience.

The Greek is clear. If we say we have communion with Christ while we walk in darkness, we lie. We lie because to have communion with Christ is literally to have a share in His life, to dwell in Him and He in you. It is of the very heart of our salvation. By the same token, if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, because we are sharing in one and the same life. And it is this sharing in the life of Jesus that is itself the sharing in His blood that cleanses us from all sin.

My complaint, as I am raising it here, is that translations frequently mislead. The entire concept of Church as a fellowship of believers, meaning a free association of like-minded Christians, is simply not a Scriptural notion, unless your Bible happens to be one of the many that has bowdlerized the clear Orthodox meaning of Scripture. We are saved by union with Christ, by participation in His life. We are Baptized into his death and raised in His resurrection. We eat His Body and drink His Blood. We have participation in the life of one another such that we cannot say to one another, “I have no need of you.” Such examples can be multiplied from every page of the New Testament and not one of them will support the weak image of an associational fellowship. This sad translation of a powerful word has helped support a notion of the individual believer with a relationship with Christ (what sort of a relationship is fellowship?) and his Bible. This is not the language or imagery of Scripture nor the doctrine of the Church.

Is fellowship with God possible? I’m not certain how to answer the question. I’d rather have communion.

What Does It Mean to have Communion with God?

I am sure that the title of this section seems obvious and as though I had pulled a question out of a catechism. And yet, my experience tells me that things that seem as though they ought to be obvious often are not, particularly the more basic and fundamental they are in our life as Orthodox believers. I noted in the section above that the world fellowship is often found in English Bibles as a mistranslation of the Greek word koinonia, the result being that frequently when Scripture is giving us information about communion with God, our translations are giving us something completely different.

One of the best places to begin thinking about communion with God is to ask the question: “What’s wrong with the human race anyway?” What is it about us such that we need saving?

The answer to that question is perhaps the linchpin of Christian theology (at least what has been revealed to us). Among the most central of Orthodox Christians doctrines is that human beings have fallen out of communion with God – we have severed the bond of communion with which we were created and thus we are no longer in communion with the Lord and Giver of Life, we no longer have a share in His Divine Life, but instead have become partakers of death.

This lack of communion with God, this process of death at work in us, manifests itself in a myriad of ways, extending from moral failure, to death and disease itself. It corrupts everything around us – our relationships with other people and our families, our institutions and our best intentions.

Without intervention, the process of death results in the most final form of death – complete alienation and enmity with God (from our point of view). We come to hate all things righteous and good. We despise the Light and prefer darkness. Since this is the state of human beings who have cut themselves off from communion with God, we substitute many things and create a “false” life, mistaking wealth, fame, youth, sex, emotions, etc., for true life.

Seeing all of this as true of humanity – Orthodoxy, it can be said, does not generally view humanity as having a “legal” problem. It is not that we did something wrong and now owe a debt we cannot pay, or are being punished with death  – though such a metaphor can be used and has its usefulness. Be we need more than a change in our legal status – we need a change in our ontological status – that is we must be filled with nothing less than the Life of God in order to be healed, forgiven and made new. Jesus did not come to make bad men good; He came to make dead men live.

Thus God came into our world, becoming one of us, so that by His sharing in our life, we might have a share in His life. In Holy Baptism we are united to Him, and everything else He gives us in the Life of His Church, is for the purpose of strengthening, nurturing, and renewing this Life within us. All of the sacraments have this as their focus. It is the primary purpose of prayer.

Thus, stated simply, to have communion with God means to have a share in His Divine Life. He lives in me and I in Him. I come to know God even as I know myself. I come to love even as God loves because it is His love that dwells in me. I come to forgive as God forgives because it His mercy that dwells within me.

Without such an understanding of communion, these vitally important parts of the Christian life usually become reduced to mere moralisms. We are told to love our enemies as though it were a simple moral obligation. Instead, we love our enemies because God loves our enemies, and we want to live in the Life of God. We’re not trying to be good, or to prove anything to God by loving our enemies. It is simply the case that if the Love of God dwells in us, then we will love as God loves.

Of course all of this is the free gift of God, though living daily in communion with God is difficult. The disease of broken communion that was so long at work in us is difficult to cure. It takes time and we must be patient with ourselves and our broken humanity – though never using this as an excuse not to seek the healing that God gives.

If you have lived your Christian life and never heard the story of our relationship with God put in the sort of terms used above, then you have missed out on hearing most of the New Testament. You have missed the story as told by the Fathers of the Eastern Church (which means, most of the Church Fathers). It is possible that you have heard such a distortion of the Christian faith that you have wanted nothing to do with it.

But if what I have described above sounds like good news – then the news is very good – because this is the teaching of the New Testament and the Church founded by Jesus Christ and which continues to be proclaimed by the Orthodox Church.

The Depths of the Personal

May 22, 2008

I have written on modern distortions of “personal relationship” in which “private” relationship is one of its corrupted meanings. I have also noted that, properly understood, “personal” always carries a meaning of “corporate” as well. To be in personal relationship with Christ necessarily means that I am in relationship with His Body, the Church. There is a mutual sharing of life – my life becomes Christ’s – His life becomes mine – and so forth. All of this means that what happens to one happens to all.

There are yet greater depths to the fullness of what is meant by a personal relationship, far more than I can begin to say here, or to say with much experience. But I will frame this depth by saying that when we speak of person in the language of the Church – then we have begun to speak in language which the Church first used and continues to use with regard to the three Persons of the Holy Trinity and the Personhood of Christ (in its teaching on the 2 natures). That is to say that when we speak of personhood, we are not speaking about something that we in fact immediately understand just because we are modern people.

This is one of the great fallacies contained in the popular preaching of “personal relationship with Christ.” There is enough truth in what is said in that preaching that I do not wish to say that it should not be preached. I use such language myself (generally with much explanation). Our modern world believes that it understands a great deal about personhood when, in fact, most of what it knows are only in the distortions of the individual as a private entity and the rights that might be associated with that.

The gift of personhood that we receive from God is intimately involved both with our being able to properly appropriate the fullness of our own human nature, as well as the means by which we are able to appropriate the divine (here it is the energies rather than the nature that we appropriate). This is to say, that personhood is the mode of existence which is given us in our relationship with Christ, through which the whole life of grace, our communion with God and one another, and our likening to God Himself, is made possible.

In this I am abbreviating almost to the point of absurdity – but only to point to the greatness contained in the Church’s teaching on God’s gift of “personal relationship.” This is so much more than modern preaching either says and is certainly something which is utterly unknown to Evangelical thought. However, it is deeply and carefully taught, and lived, in the fullness of Orthodox life (particularly as evidenced in those lives to which we would point as examples of a rightly-lived Christian life).

That people everywhere should learn to call upon the name of Jesus for salvation is a joy to me. That they should come to know more and more what it means to call upon the name of Jesus for salvation is a ministry which God has set before us and with the fullness of Tradition that is given to us we should be utterly derelict in our responsibility should we not teach and preach this fullness.

May God teach us to live by grace through faith.

The Orthodox Church and Personal Salvation

May 21, 2008

A priest friend sent me an article from Franklin Graham’s website, describing a revival in the Ukraine. Like others who have gone to Eastern Europe to preach the gospel, there is frequently a mistaken assessment of the Orthodox Church. Graham’s article recognized a holiness present in the Church’s there, but described it as “Old Testament,” and generally likened the Church to “religion” and not the same thing as “personal relationship.” These, of course, are improper descriptions, and in some cases, “cheap shots.”

The “Christian” world, is filled with organized churches – some are Protestant, some are Roman Catholic, soom are Pentecostal, some are Orthodox. Without examining their differences (it is not important for the purposes of this post), there is a commonality that can be found universally. Stated by St. Augustine: “There are some whom God has whom the Church has not, and some whom the Church has whom God has not.” Were Graham to travel to Scotland, Holland, England (I am mentioning countries where Protestant Evangelicalism had some original roots) he would find Church attendance as a tiny fraction of the population and a great need for the acceptance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I state this to say it is not an Eastern European problem, nor an Orthodox problem. It is simply a fact of life in the early 21st century.

We recently had a Franklin Graham crusade in our metro area. I am told that there are flyers being passed out by some associated with the crusade that describe Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches as places to avoid because they do not teach a “personal” relationship with Christ – which, of course, is simply not true.

Do the Orthodox do a good job of preaching and teaching the Gospel wherever it exists? Even in the first century, based on the evidence of St. Paul’s letters, there were churches where the gospel was not being properly proclaimed. Apparently such problems have always existed, and will until our Lord’s return. Could the same be said of Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists and Independent Evangelicals? I know so.

The Orthodox Church does not teach that we are saved by our own works. That would be a Pelagian heresy. Anyone who says we teach this is misinformed. If there are weaknesses in the Orthodox Church then they should be correctly identified and dealt with as one does a brother. We have them. After 70 years of persecution, the Church in the East is emerging into a new-found freedom and into an unstable political world. The restoration of the fullness of the Church will take time – not mischaracterizations. It will take prayer, not Americanization. It will take sacrificial support and not taunting by its wealthy Christian neighbors.

I offer here a short article on “personal” salvation from an earlier post. It is an example of Orthodox writing (mine) on the topic. My writing is but a shallow presentation. There is not time to present the depth of Orthodox teaching on the subject. For such teaching I recommend the current writings of Archimandrite Zacharias, referenced in recent articles, or the writings of Fr. Sophrony, frequently referenced on this blog. May God help all Christians and bless them – despite our shortcomings. May God help the Orthodox Christians of Eastern Europe and beyond to be fully who they are called to be and manifest to the world around them the gospel that has been entrusted to them. And may God bless the Church’s enemies everywhere, and forgive those of us within the Church, myself included, who may be a cause of stumbling for others.


Perhaps the most difficult theological truth to communicate in the modern world is that of personal existence. Modern English has taken the word person from the realm of theology and changed it into the cheapest coin of the realm. Today it means that which is private, merely individual. As such, it becomes synonymous not with salvation but with our very destruction. Life lived as a mere individual is no life at all but a progressive movement towards death and destruction.

Thus there is always something of a hesitancy when someone asks (in newspeak), “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” If only we would, it would be truly significant. But in our modern street-wise theology, Christ as personal savior becomes synonymous with Christ as private savior, and as such is no savior at all. For no one and nothing can save the false existence we have created in the privacy of our modern existence. We were not created for such an existence.

In the story of Genesis – the first appearance of the phrase, “It is not good,” is applied to man – in an existence that is private. “It is not good for man to be alone.” We do not exist in the goodness which God has created for us when we exist alone. The most remote hermit of the Christian desert does not live alone, but lives radically for others and to God. Of all men he is the least alone. No one would take on the radical ascesis of the desert for themselves alone: it is an act of radical love.

And thus the personal God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, determined that salvation for humanity could only take place as we lived fully and truly into the existence for which we were and are created: the Church. In the Church we do not exist as mere individuals but as members of the Body of Christ. My life is the life of Christ. What happens to me is essential to what happens to all the members of the Body and what happens to the members of the Body is essential for what happens to me. Their life is my life.

Thus when we approach the cup of Christ’s Body and Blood, we never approach it for our private good but as members of the Body. We are thus enjoined to be in love and charity with our neighbor and to forgive the sins of all – otherwise the cup is not for our salvation but our destruction.

The salvation into which we are Baptized is a new life – no longer defined by the mere existence of myself as an individual – but rather by the radical freedom of love within the Body of Christ. To accept Christ as our “personal” savior, thus can be translated into its traditional Orthodox form: “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” And this question is more fully expounded when we understand that the Christ to whom we unite ourself is a many-membered body.

After the resurrection, Christ appeared to the Apostle Peter. Their dialog must have been the most profound dialog ever to take place between man and God. “Do you love me?” Christ asked Peter. Peter hedged his answer. But Christ responded, “Feed my sheep.” For to love Christ and to feed His sheep are not two things but one. For Peter to finally know this was indeed his personal salvation. It is ours as well. Glory to God.

For More on the Way of Humility

May 20, 2008

For those interested in reading more on the Way of Humility described by Archimandrite Zacharias, read the pages on the Ecclesiology of the Cross published on this blog.

Grace and “the Inverted Pyramid”

May 19, 2008

Fr. Sophrony [Sakharov], in his book on St. Silouan, presents this theory of the “inverted pyramid.” He says that the empirical cosmic being is like a pyramid: at the top sit the powerful of the earth, who exercise dominion over the nations (cf. Matt. 20:25), and at the bottom stand the masses. But the spirit of man, by nature [unfallen nature as given by God], demands equality, justice and freedom of spirit, and therefore is not satisfied with this “pyramid of being.” So, what did the Lord do? He took this pyramid and inverted it, and put Himself at the bottom, becoming its Head. He took upon Himself the weight of sin, the weight of the infirmity of the whole world, and so from that moment on, who can enter into judgment with Him? His justice is above the human mind. So, He revealed His Way to us, and in so doing showed us that no one can be justified but by this way, and so all those who are His must go downwards to be united with Him, the Head of the inverted pyramid, because it is there that the “fragrance” of the Holy Spirit is found; there is the power of divine life. Christ alone holds the pyramid, but His fellows, His Apostles and His saints, come and share this weight with Him. However, even if there were no one else, He could hold the pyramid by Himself, because He is infinitely strong; but He likes to share everything with His fellows. Mindful of this, then, it is essential for man to find the way of going down, the way of humility, which is the Way of the Lord, and to become a fellow of Christ, who is the Author of this path.

Archimandrite Zacharias in The Enlargement of the Heart


The teaching of St. Silouan, itself a continuation of the unbroken Tradition of the Church, was continued in the life and writings of the Elder Sophrony. Today it continues in the life and teachings of the elders and community of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England, of whom Archimandrite Zacharias is an example. His recent visits to the United States to conduct retreats have now become books which continue to expand and confirm the teaching of St. Silouan and the Tradition of the Holy Orthodox Christian faith.

One of the strongest elements drawn out in both the life and teachings of St. Silouan is just this word of humility as illustrated in my opening quote. To be a follower of Christ is to accept a “downward path,” to follow Christ into the depths of His humility. This is not a new word, but echoes that of the Apostle (which itself seems to have been a hymn which the Apostle was quoting):

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 himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phillipians 2:5-11).

This clear teaching of the Apostle, which only echoes the utterly consistent teaching and example of Christ, has a history of being obscured within Christianity – with Christians forgetting this essential teaching and following after a human Lordship and model of salvation.

In a wide variety of places and situations, Christians have thought to establish some image of the Kingdom of God (or even the Kingdom itself) here on earth through means other than the path of humility set forth by Christ and the faithful Tradition of the Church. The result has been varied – but has often been merely a tyranny in the name of God, which is no better than a tyranny in the name of something else.

I am reminded of a statement by Stanley Hauerwas, Protestant theologian and professor at Duke University:

The Christian community’s openness to new life and our conviction of the sovereignty of God over that life are but two sides of the same conviction. Christians believe that we have the time in this existence to care for new life, especially as such life is dependent and vulnerable, because it is not our task to rule this world or to “make our mark on history.” We can thus take the time to live in history as God’s people who have nothing more important to do than to have and care for children. For it is the Christian claim that knowledge and love of God is fostered by service to the neighbor, especially the most helpless, as in fact that is where we find the kind of Kingdom our God would have us serve.

in A Community of Character

In countless lectures and seminars in which I participated while a student at Duke’s Graduate School of Theology, I heard Hauerwas echo this quote with the assertion that “so soon as Christians agree to take responsibility for the outcome of history, we have agreed to do violence.” This violent outcome is a complete perversion of the “downward Way” described by Archimandrite Zacharias and the Orthodox Tradition. Our goals are thus never measured by the “outcomes of history” but by the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

This same contradiction, in narrative form, can be found in Dostoevsky’s classic chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor,” in The Brothers Karamazov. The Grand Inquisitor lashes out at Christ for His failure, as measured in the outcomes of history, and justifies Christians’ use of tools such as the Inquisition as an improvement over the weakness of God. The argument of that famous chapter, as well as the previous chapter, “Rebellion,” mark the high-point of Dostoevsky’s summary of the argument against God and the Orthodox Christian faith. The answer to that diatribe is not a counter argument, but the person of the Elder Zossima, who lives in the Tradition of the Holy Elders of the Faith such as St. Silouan, St. Seraphim of Sarov, the Elder Sophrony, and a host of others. Their lives, frequently hidden from the larger view of the world, are the continuing manifestation of the Kingdom of God in our midst – fellows of the sufferings of Christ – who freely and voluntarily bear with Christ the weight of all humanity. It is this secret bearing that forms the very foundation of the world – a foundation without which the world would long ago have perished into nothing. It is the emptiness of Christ, also shared in its depths by His saints, that is the vessel of the fullness of God, the source of all life and being. We can search for nothing greater.