Archive for September, 2008

Longing for Jerusalem

September 29, 2008

My wife and I, as well as other pilgrims from our group, have been spending our time since coming home letting our bodies adjust to the “jet-lag.” It is easy to blame many things on jet-lag until the excuse will no longer work. I noticed towards the end of last week, that beyond any expectation, I simply missed being in Jerusalem. In truth, I had spent several months ahead of our pilgrimage slightly afraid of what was ahead of us. Our media only report violence from the Mideast – not daily life.

I had no idea, that after a week at home I would feel a certain emptiness that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was not a 20 minute walk from my dwelling. And there are many other places that I came to value, even in a single visit – with the thought that I may not see them again in this life bringing a great sorrow. I understand the drive that took root in the hearts of faithful Christians – from the time of St. Helena forward. We were told at the beginning of our pilgrimage that the average medieval pilgrimage could expect that 30 per cent of its pilgrims would die in the effort. We had no casualties. What is of great interest is that such casualities did not discourage ancient pilgrims.

I have some sense of understanding, now, and pray that if God should so permit, I may return again and stand in those Holy Places. I know that every place I stand is a holy place and I do not mean to increase one or diminish the other. I only know what my heart longs to do. I love Jerusalem, and pray for its peace and all who dwell there.

What I would grieve most of all is the idea that I might have gone there and not brought home in my heart some portion of what was given to me. I do not think I was sent for myself alone. What I saw and what I heard was not “this happened here,” or “this is where so-and-so used to live, etc.”, but a living Church and faithful Christians. The monks of Mar Saba still encounter the great saint from time to time. He still visits the monastery after 1700 years. The keeper of the shrine of the home of the Mother of God in Jerusalem has seen her in a waking vision, in which, in tears, she thanked him for taking care of her home. Such stories abound in the Holy Land if you get out of line and just hang around. Faith speaks to faith.

But I long for faith to speak to faith – mine to yours and yours to mine. May God give us grace in the midst of this world to see with faith, to speak with faith, and to be so blessed as to encounter faith in the lives of others.

Memories – Prayers By the Lake XXX

September 29, 2008

This poem by St. Nikolai Velimirovich should not be read as looking back to a pre-existence of souls – but to the fullness of our Baptism and the purity that was ours at the font. It emphasizes in the imagery of memory, the desire to have communion with God above all else.


Blot out, O Lord, all my memories–except one. For memories make me old and feeble. Memories ruin the present day. They weigh down the present day with the past and weaken my hope in the future, for in legions they whisper in my ear: “There will only be what has already been.”

But I do not wish for there to be only what has been. I do not wish and You do not wish, O Lord, for the future to be the past repeated. Let things happen that have never appeared before. The sun would not be worth much, if it only watched repetitions.

Worn paths mislead a wayfarer. Earth has walked over the earth a long time. Earthly walkways have become boring, for they have been traveled again and again from generation to generation throughout all time. Blot out, O Lord, all my memories except one.

Just one memory do I ask You not to blot out, but to strengthen in me. Do not blot out but strengthen in my con­sciousness the memory of the glory that I had when I was en­tirely with You and entirely in You, before time and temporal illusions.

When I, too, was a harmonious trinity in holy unity, just as You are from eternity to eternity.

When the soul within me was also in friendship with consciousness and life.

When my soul also was a virginal womb, and my consciousness was wisdom in virginity, and my life was spiritual power and holiness.

When I, too, was all light, and when there was no darkness within me.

When I, too, was bliss and peace, and when there were no torments of imbalance within me.

When I also knew You, even as You know me, and when I was not mingled with darkness.

When I, too, had no boundaries, no neighbors, no partitions between “me” and “you.”

Do not blot out this memory, my Father, but strengthen it. Even if it reveals to me the abyss along which I am journeying in humbleness and nothingness.

Even if it separates me from friends and pleasantries, and demolishes all the barriers between Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.1

Even if it leads me outside of myself, and makes me seem mad in the eyes of my fellow wayfarers.

In truth, no companionship pleases me except Yours, and no memory pleases me except the memory of You.

O my Merciful Father, blot out all my memories except one alone.


1. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8).

What Do You Want From God?

September 28, 2008

This may seem an entirely innocuous question. But I ask it in earnest. What do you want from God? On the level of the trite, we may want more of what we already have, but have it in abundance. We may want less of what we have, only have it in a healthy manner (relationships come to mind).

What is more difficult, for the heart, and for the spiritual life in general is to say: “I want God, and more of Him.” This is the statement of someone who has tasted of the heavenly gift and cannot be satisfied with less. It is rare.

Though it is rare, it is the common confession of the saints.

What do you want? Is there some degree to which you want God? With what degree of desire do you approach the Holy Cup? Do you want God?

Do I want God even though it may kill me?

Do I want God even though the “me” that I am may be swallowed up in something larger?

Do I want God even though it may cause me deep and life-long grief?

There are many of things we may want from God – but it is God Himself our heart desires. And though the cost of that may appear to be everything – as it should be – do we want anything less? Anything less is to dwell outside of the Kingdom.

What do you want from God?

One response, posted on another site, seemed worth adding to the text of this posting:

What struck me most about this is those “negative” things will happen whether we seek God or not. We will have deep and life-long grief in our lives, Christian or non-Christian, weak or strong. Grief will come. The “me that I am” will be swallowed up in something larger, whether it is torment or blessing. We will die, whether we seek God or flee Him.

Christianity does not keep us from suffering. Sometimes we suffer more. But it is certain that Christianity will not keep disease and death at bay. Even with the miraculous recovery, the holy healing that could come, the grave awaits eventually.

No, we cannot escape these things, and so we should not fear asking God for Himself, seeking the Kingdom and His Righteousness. For in this we gain everything, even while we lose the present.

By Christopher Hall at The Other Side of the Pulpit

Truth and Existence – A Second Look

September 27, 2008

The original article (which follows) was published in August (not long ago). However, questions that continue to arise tell me that I need to publish it yet again. I will here emphasize its connection with the Atonement. Theories of legal indebtedness as the problem of sin are certainly popular in some circles of the Christian faith – though they do an extremely poor job of giving a proper account of the largest portion of Scripture on the point. St. Gregory Nazianzus was not unfamiliar with the image, but dismissed it as repugnant in the extreme. He is not a minor, isolated father of the Church, but one of the primary architects of the Ancient Church’s statement of the doctrine of the Trinity. He cannot simply be dismissed as “odd” on this point. Scripture, both in St. Paul and St. John, make the strongest possible connection between sin and death. Our sin is not the result of an indebtedness, but rather the failure to live in communion with God. Humanity did not incur an unpayable debt at the Fall, but rather entered the realm of death (as God had warned). Theories of the Atonement which found their popularization in the Middle Ages in the West and more recently in the Protestant world, should not be allowed to set aside the ancient inheritance of the teachings of the fathers. We are a walking existential crisis – verging on non-existence itself. This is not a result of God’s wrath, but the result of our rebellion against the “good God who loves mankind” and our preference for death over life. I can think of nothing more central to the Orthodox faith, which is to say, the faith as delivered to the Church by Christ. May God give us grace to apprehend the wonder of His gift of salvation.

Perhaps one of the greatest contributions of Orthodox theology to contemporary thought is the correlation between truth and existence. I am not well-enough versed in writings outside of Orthodoxy to know whether this correlation is made by others as well – I have to drink the water from my own cistern.

This understanding has been a particular emphasis in the teachings of St. Silouan, the Elder Sophrony of blessed memory, and the contemporary Archimandrite Zacharias, a disciple of the Elder Sophrony. Their own teaching is nothing new in Orthodoxy, but simply a restatement in modern terms of what has always been the teaching of the Orthodox Christian faith. Indeed, it is a teaching that could be solely supported by Scripture should someone so require.

But the correlation is exceedingly important for religious teaching and understanding. The modern movement of secular thought has been to move existence into an independent and self-defining realm, relegating God and religion to a specialized interest of those who find themselves religiously minded. This is the death of religion – or rather a religion of death. For as soon as our existence is moved away from God and grounded in something else, God Himself has been abandoned. It is not possible for God to be a lesser concern. Either He is the very ground of our existence or He is no God.

There were those within liberal protestantism (Paul Tillich comes to mind) who sought to make the correlation between existence and God – but frequently the result was a God who was reduced to a philosophical cypher (Tillich’s “Ground of Being”) and relieved of all particular content. To speak of God as “Ultimate Concern” as did Tillich, is only to have spoken in human terms. I recall many fellow students in my Anglican seminary years who found Tillich helpful in a way that Jesus was not. The particularity of Jesus made the demands of existential reality too specific. Indeed, it revealed God as God and not simply something that I cared about.

Instead, the Orthodox language on the subject has been that God is truly the ground of all existence, and that apart from Him, everything is moving towards non-existence. It is the Scriptural correlation between sin and death. This shifts the reality of the whole of our lives. Prayer no longer serves as a component of my personal “spirituality,” but is instead communion with the God Who Is, and apart from Whom, I am not. It teaches us to pray as if our lives depended on it – because they do.

By the same token, it moves our understanding of what it means to exist away from mere biology or even philosophy and to its proper place: to exist is to love. As Met. John Zizioulas has famously stated, “Being is communion.” In such a context we are able to move towards authentic existence – a mode of being that is not self-centered nor self-defined, but that is centered in the Other and defined by communion. Sin is removed from its confines of legalism and mere ethics and placed at the very center and character of existence itself. Sin is a movement towards non-being. In contrast, to know God is to love and its greatest test is the love of enemies. As St. Silouan taught: “We only know God to the extent that we love our enemies.”

This is not to reinterpret Christ in terms of existentialism, but instead to understand that Christ is, as He said: the Way, the Truth and the Life. His death and resurrection are the movement of God’s love to rescue humanity from a self-imposed exile from true and authentic existence which is found only in communion with God. This is a rescue of the Atonement from obscure legal theories of Divine Wrath and Judgment, and restores it properly in the context of the God who created us, sustains us, and calls us into the fullness of His life.

It presses the question upon us all: “What is the truth of my existence?” It presses us towards living honestly and forthrightly before God – not finessing ourselves with carefully wrought excuses and religious half-measures – but calling us to a radically authentic search for God.

The Orthodox faith asks nothing less of its adherents. Though even Orthodoxy can be warped into half-measures and religious distractions – this is not its truth nor the life that is taught by the Fathers, the Scriptures nor the words of her liturgies. In God “we live and move and have our being.” There is nothing that can thus be placed outside of God. There is God or there is delusion. And even delusion itself has no existence – but its mere pretence.

Pascha And Creation

September 26, 2008

There are several religious or theological mistakes to make about Christ’s resurrection. They are generally innocent, and refelct the faith as a number of people have been taught it. The problem lies in the fact that many do not rightly understand the resurrection nor the true scope of its significance. I am just a sinner and not worthy to offer corrections to others – but I will offer what I know.

1. The resurrection surely occurs in history. Christ was crucifed, dead and buried. On Sunday following, His followers found the tomb empty and encountered the Risen Lord for the first time. However, the event of Christ’s resurrection, though occurring in time, was also more than that. The resurrection is of such a character that it cannot be measured by space and time. Whatever occurred, happened as well on a level beyond our comprehension. The mistake comes in reducing the resurrection to a mere space-time event, whose primary task was to certify that Christ was Who he said He was, and to give us assurance of eternal life. Such a description is too small and fails to comprehend, the heighth, depth, and breadth of the resurrection.

2. Secondly, it is a mistake to view our lives or the debts and debtors of our lives in purely legal terms. We live in the midst of an existenial crisis, one that goes to the very character and nature of our being, and not a legal crisis. What we need from God is not legal relief, but relief from suffering and death – the burden of corruption which afflicts us all. Thus the resurection must be understood in ontological or existential terms and not in merely legal terms. To forgive by the resurrection is an existential statement and not merely a legal statement.

3. Though Pascha occurs at a specific moment in history – it is more than that moment in history – for the one who is crucified is also “one of the Holy Trinity.” He is the “Alpha and the Omega.” We crucified the One Whom Himself is both beginning and end. Thus the event that occurs cannot be limited to a day in Jerusalem but stand both in and out of time, even as Christ was both in and out of time. “The Lamb slain from the foundation of the earth” (Rev. 13:8) is an eternal offering of God on behalf of His creation and not simply an offering in space and time.

4. The universe itself – all that exists – exists for Pascha. We were created for this.

He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Everything which exists, exists for Christ, was made by Him and for Him. According to St. Maximus Christ’s Pascha is the cause of all things. God’s statement, “Let there be light,” was a Paschal moment in which the world came into existence through His infinite goodness. Thus, all that we see, every speck of dust is itself the result of Pascha.

By the same token, Pascha is also our recreation: “If anyone is in Christ, behold, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). Further, we can also say that the whole of our Baptized life is the creation of Pascha:

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Col. 3:1-4).

These things being the case, how should we then live? As one reader asked, “How do we live Pascha?” In a sense the answer is too large for it is the whole of the Christian life. As such the fullness of the answer can only be found in living the fullness of the life we have in Christ. But I will offer one small suggestion. It is found in the words of the Morning Prayer of the Elders of Optina, found in many Orthodox prayer books. To pray it and mean it, is to walk in the resurrection. It is, at least, a place to start. Particular attention should be paid to the petition that all things come from God – without this understanding, we cannot give thanks – and unless we give thanks to God for all things, we will never truly know Pascha, much less love our enemies. If we truly know God and see Him in the fullness of His Pascha, we will be able to forgive even our enemies, even those who have not asked forgiveness and intend to hurt us again. Because I am dead, I cannot be hurt. Because I live I cannot die. Great is the Mystery of God in Christ Jesus!

O Lord, grant that I may meet all that this coming day brings to me with spiritual tranquility. Grant that I may fully surrender myself to Thy holy Will.

At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things. Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is subject to Thy holy Will.

Direct my thoughts and feelings in all my words and actions. In all unexpected occurrences, do not let me forget that all is sent down from Thee.

Grant that I may deal straightforwardly and wisely with every member of my family, neither embarrassing nor saddening anyone.

O Lord, grant me the strength to endure the fatigue of the coming day and all the events that take place during it. Direct my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to be patient, to forgive, and to love. Amen.

A Single Monk

September 25, 2008

I earlier shared the story of my conversation with a monk at Mar Saba Monastery in the Judean desert. For me, it was both an oasis of rest (it really is in a desert) and an oasis of truth. We had spent the morning traveling, with our guide also giving us a political commentary – which though appreciated, easily becomes a rant in which you want to say, “OK. I get your point already.”

America has had its share (maybe more than) of political seasons. Nothing here rivals the pain and difficulty of the people living in the Holy Land. Their struggles have been around longer, at great human cost, and are daily present. Were it not for the 24 hour news cycle in America – our political season would be far less bothersome.

But I know the pain that many have during political seasons. Some conversations simply become impossible. The animosity I found towards our president among many of the residents of the Holy Land made conversation difficult (unless I simply joined the rant). Of course, you could join the rant. But when you have come to make a pilgrimage to Christ ranting is simply not on the agenda. Christ had little to say about the injustice of Roman rule. It is not that Roman rule was just – but that He represented a kingdom that trumped anything Rome ever dreamed of. It’s for the same reason that a single monk could say, “I have no enemies.”

Such a statement can only be made because you have seen the fullness of the Kingdom and nothing offers any rivalry. God is God and that is that.

I do not mean to suggest that justice in this world is to be ignored by Christians. We must speak the truth, regardless of consequence. But we must also speak the truth to ourselves – that regardless of consequence – the Kingdom of God has come in Christ and there is nothing the world can do to make it not so.

The very difficult task of forgiving our enemies – by the resurrection of Christ as the Church’s hymns sing – is also the very difficult task in believing the resurrection in a manner that is not removed from the world in which we live. Every breath we take, every grain of sand upon which we walk, all that exists – exists solely because of Pascha (Christ’s resurrection). His resurrection is not a footnote in history but the very reason there is any history. I can forgive by the resurrection because it is my very being and the being of everyone around me – even though they may not realize it or act accordingly.

I can say far more on the preceding paragraph, and undoubtedly will. The question I will place is: What part of the resurrection of Christ do you not understand? I will offer answers in the coming days.

Rocks, Desert and No Rain

September 24, 2008

Jerusalem is in a desert. Water is easily the most essential element. There are great aquifers in the area and the politics of water underlies much of the political reality on the surface of the ground.

It was observed by one of our pilgrims that the early Christians left the cities to enter the desert, there to fight with the demons and to find God. But in our modern period, the cities themselves have become deserts, and we tend to see the wilderness as a place to flee the arid emptiness of the city and find something of value (whether God or something else).

This I think is part of the testimony of Christians of that desert place through the ages. Christianity, where water is a rare treasure, places us in a different relationship with the land. Our cities, of course, have plenty of water (in the spiritual sense), but not all of the water is fit to drink. Thus our struggle includes an effort not to be poisoned.

We do not live in a world where religion is a rare phenomenon, but where it is all too common. But we live in a world where the truth amidst all that religion is rare indeed.

All of which brings us back to the heart. For it is the task of the heart to discern between good and evil – sometimes a difficult task indeed. For a Christian, more than ever, our modern world forces us to look not to ourselves, but to the wisdom that has gone before us. The truth as found in Jesus Christ is not new – but is the same truth through the ages. It does not need improvement but obedience.

May God give us the early and the latter rain.

Assimilating the Gospel

September 23, 2008

A pilgrimage is reduced to tourism if it does not become a part of the pilgrim himself.

I have been home for a little over 24 hours – most of it in the stupor of “jet-lag.” I have sat down to write several times, only to find that I was too tired to say much. This week may carry some aspect of that until my body is back on Eastern Daylight Time.

But there are far more important things to be done than to get my body adjusted – it is the daily assimilation of where I have been and what I have done. This, too, is not particularly different than the daily task of any Christian. We have heard the gospel of Christ – but hearing must become doing. We have some understanding of the gospel but, in truth, we must become the gospel itself or it remains little more than a book.

I have said before that Christ did not come into the world to make bad men good but to make dead men live. The acquisition of the Holy Spirit (to use a phrase of St. Seraphim) is a daily existential act. We either live our lives based on the reality of the Truth of God in Christ, or we live it based on some other reality. The secular world will offer us many realities, even religious realities, so long as we do not give ourselves to the Truth that God is the only source and sustainment of reality and there is no life that does not come from Him.

Thus in my return home from my pilgrimage finds me back where I started. In many ways, having seen what I have seen, I will have to struggle yet more to say, “God is good,” for the sin of mankind has erupted in dangerous and obvious ways within the Holy Land. Cain and Abel still dwell there.

But I met a man (a monk), whom I mentioned earlier, who said from his heart, “I have no enemies.” God is indeed good and I realize in hindsight that I was standing on holy ground in the presence of a true spiritual struggler. I return home yet more convinced of the Truth and reality of the Gospel. Christ rose from the dead. I have stood where Peter and John stood and seen that the tomb was empty. But the Truth of the gospel in any human life will not stand for long on mere historical evidence. It must stand on the firm rock of Christ within us – Who is “the hope of glory,” according to St. Paul.

I found that while standing in very holy places my heart was as much in need of “guarding” as ever. Evil thoughts, tempting thoughts, thoughts of judging and the like were no more a stranger to me there than at home. Thus prayer was essential to make the pilgrimage and remains at least as essential as I have returned.

The Elder Sophrony taught that every word spoken by Christ was a full of the creative energy of God as the first words, “Let there be light!” Thus to take a commandment into our bosom and there let it dwell is also an act of re-creation – our own transformation. And so the pilgrimage continues. Remember God. Say your prayers. Go to Church. Forgive your brother. Keep the commandments.

Flying Home

September 20, 2008

Today we fly home, with an overnight lay-over at Heathrow. Many thanks to all of you for your prayers. As God wills, I’ll be posting photos and writing more when I reach home. Doubtless there will be parish matters to attend to – thus how quickly I get back into rhythm is anybody’s guess. May God grant us all to make pilgrimage to the true Jerusalem of the heart.

A pilgrimage cannot be measured in photographs or souvenirs – though I have invariably acquired both. The acquisition that I think will be most lasting became clear yesterday as we visited the Tomb of the Mother of God (which, of course, is empty). My wife and I were discussing the Feast of the Dormition, which we celebrated just last month. She remembers many of the hymns for the day (she sings in our choir). In one of the hymns Mary speaks to the Apostles to “take my body to Gethsemane.” Prior to the pilgrimage those were words to simply know and sing, part of the Traditional teaching surrounding the Dormition of the Virgin Mary. But to have stood at her tomb, as did the Apostles there in Gethsemane, suddenly gave a proper form to the words. For though the words have theological meaning – meaning is not divorced from place in the Orthodox faith. Meaning transforms place as grace makes of earth the Paradise it was meant to be – one place at a time – one heart at a time.

It was this realization that made me know that none of the feasts associated with the Holy Land will ever again be quite the same for me. They will doubtless carry a double-meaning – both the memory and knowledge of the reality they proclaim as well as the memory of place, full of darkness and light, smells and sounds.

The places I have been and prayed now take their place in the silence of the heart where I may still stand and pray in wordless contemplation of God made man.

May God have mercy on us, forgive us, and may we all forgive one another by the resurrection.

Away From Home

September 18, 2008

From a modern American perspective – one of the interesting components of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land is to find yourself largely outside of the news cycle. There has been no television or radio. I have looked briefly at the internet, but mostly to answer email or tend the blog site. I am not unaware that the American economy is having difficulty, and I understood from my daughter at home that our city had the highest gas prices in the nation last week (pipeline problems). But the constant chatter that is the American news cycle has been at a great remove. It is a kindly reminder that despite the importance of the world’s “most powerful nation” it is still not the center of the world.

This morning I was again in the tomb of Christ, kneeling, praying – at the place which Met. Kallistos told us is traditionally understood as the “center of the world.” It is surely the case that Pascha is the center of the world, or the world has no center. Of course, the empty tomb in Jerusalem is not the location of Pascha, for Pascha is greater than the entire universe. Pascha subsumes everything, overcomes everything, forgives everything, raises everything from the dead, restores innocence to the fallen.

Pilgrimage is a restoration, or an attempt at restoration, of the proper order of things. To rise from bed with the sole intention of walking to the tomb of Christ seems a right way to start the day. But on what day from anywhere on earth can that journey not be made?

Economies come and go. May God keep and protect us all from harm. Politics come and go. May God keep and protect us all from harm.

Pascha abides. May God remember us all in His Kingdom, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.