Archive for September, 2008

Jerusalem and the Modern Heart

September 17, 2008

Jerusalem, more than any city of the Holy Land, is a place of layers. This is generally true of most places here. Long before Jerusalem was the City of David, it was the city of the Jebusites, the city where Melchizedec, King and Priest, ruled and prayed – he who offered bread and wine and received tithes of Abraham.

But the city of the Jebusites, and perhaps cities before that, are only among the deepest layers. There is the Jerusalem of David and of the First Temple. There is the Jerusalem of the Second Temple, expanded by Herod and trod by Christ and His Apostles. There is the Jerusalem of the Roman Emperor Titus who left it as a pile of rubble – the Jerusalem of Hadrian who changed its name and erected Roman temples. There is the Jerusalem of Byzantium with its excavations and erection of Christian shrines. That Jerusalem is followed by the Jerusalem of the Saracens and the Crusaders. On top of all of this is modern Jerusalem that mixes everything together, patrolled by soldiers with wary eye. The streets seem like those of a Byzantine Bazaar, though the goods offered can be as modern as those found anywhere.

Through all of this the pilgrim winds his way. Amid shouts of the vendors in their medieval stalls, the blaring of a Muezzin chanting prayers and calling to the Muslim faithful, he follows signs and looks for the holy places. There he will find more layers. A recently restored Byzantine chapel, above layers (sometimes accessible) of earlier shrines. Today we entered the Orthodox shrine that marks the birthplace of the Virgin Mary. There is the Church, and there is the stairway that leads deep underground to the level of the Jerusalem at the time of Christ. There you find a home that is hollowed out of the rock. Mary lived in a structure that is more cave than house. Along with the pilgrimage you find the rare treasure. In this case it was the keeper of the shrine. A local Jerusalemite who once lived in Dallas, TX. He shared a story with several of the women pilgrims of an encounter he had with the Mother of God deep in the recesses of her home that is found at the bottom of so many stairs. He said she “thanked him for taking care of her home.” There were other details. It melted away many layers.

I see Jerusalem as something of a metaphor of our modern world. We do not simply live in the modern world, but in a world that is nothing more than a layer that hides the many worlds that have gone before. If there is any characteristic of our modern world, it is that most people are unaware of what lies beneath them – and thus of the origins of anything at anytime.

This makes the journey to the heart all the more difficult. For the heart not only knows the present – it remembers all the past. In that Holy Place can be found Paradise itself, both the deepest layer of our existence and its final goal that lies beyond all we know.

Each life is something of a microcosm of this layering. Our stories are not usually simple but frighteningly complex, often including layers that were built even before we were born. There are parts of myself that were parts of my father and his father before him – and long before that. Orthodoxy does not speak so much of “original” sin as “ancestral” sin. Our sin seems to lie in layers – and thus we confess our way deep into the heart of who we are, healing sometimes far more than our own self.

Several times since coming to Jerusalem I have heard it said, “Solve the problems of this place and you will have solved the problems of the world.” I look at this place and its reflection of our modern lives and say, “You may be right.”

As a closing thought – there is a value – a particular value – in the antiquity of Orthodox worship. Modern worship suffers from the amnesia of its age. It cannot go deeper because it has no depth. Orthodox worship has its layers – like the reality of the world itself – and it invites those who participate to reach into those same layers and come to the reality of God. Healing the Jerusalem of the heart will indeed heal the whole world.

The Hardest Pilgrimage of All

September 16, 2008

I have stated – not tongue in cheek – that “I am an ignorant man,” and I have also added that “I am a man still in need of a Savior.” These things do not change on a pilgrimage but become only clearer. The most difficult of all pilgrimages is the pilgrimage to the heart and finding there, not only the treasuries of paradise, but also all the garbage stuffed there over the decades. At times I am a fool, and like the childish boy who sat in the front of class. Other times – well – there are other times.

The Great Pilgrimage is our journey from glory to glory into the image of Christ and this is marked by sin and confession, forgiveness and the restoration that is the Father’s great mercy.

The strange politics of the Holy Land, marked by Jew, Palestinian Arab and Christian, Druze, Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox are not merely the left-overs of history the flotsam and jetsam of a land that has had too much religion. It is the collection of centuries, gathered by mankind, not only in his search for God but in his hatred of his brother. And the hearts of people here are no different than the hearts of people everywhere. I have been here long enough to see that I am not a pure-hearted pilgrim, but just another sinner on the bus, with as much nonsense in my soul as the next.

And yet the pilgrimage goes on, for we have no other help than God and we, if we wish to truly live, can only come running to Him. It is strangely fitting that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is shared by many groups – Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, etc. It is strangely fitting because our sins have brought us to the silliness in which we stand. None of this lessens the truth as proclaimed – but it underscores the confusion among Christians and the fact that there truly is only one Sepulchre, even as there is only One God. And all of us put our hope in Him.

Tomorrow they take us up on the Temple Mount. There are strict rules which govern such a visit – not all of which delight me as an Orthodox Christian – but the Christians who live in this land constantly bear the burden of restrictions. Thus I will try to refrain from complaining.

There cannot, it seems, be one sign that says, “The Pilgrimage to the Heart” – 30 shekels. The price of admission to that Holy Place usually costs so much more, and I don’t think I have enough to visit that place very long. Please pray that this poor sinner, distracted with his own shadow and his own sin, find the way to make the Great Pilgrimage, wherever it occurs.

We leave Saturday and get home sometime Sunday. That likely means that some regularity will return to the blog. I have much to do when I return home. I have writing to finish and my parish work.

The Borders of the Grace of God

September 16, 2008

Today, walking and weaving our way through the streets of Old Jerusalem, shops on each side of the alley, the smells of a rich mixture of spices and a thousand other things, shop-keepers calling with eagerness to the “foreigners” passing by – we were on a free morning, and there were gifts to be found.

We came across another pilgrim, separate from our group, who took us to a greater gift. In the environs of the Holy Sepulchre Church, there are two small chapels that are used for the local Arab Christian congregation. That chapel’s treasure is quietly situated in a corner of the rear of the Church. No sign announces its presence. It is an icon of the Mother of God – indeed – the icon which hung at the entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that spoke to St. Mary of Egypt, when, as a young harlot, she was unable to cross the threshhold of the Church. That moment led to her conversion and her immediate entrance into the trans-Jordan desert.

Everything here, things that have filled the stories of Scripture and the lives of the saints who have populated this area, are amazingly proximate. Nothing is a terribly great distance. The desert is only a hill away from Jerusalem.

But winding through alley ways and shops, we found the Icon of the Mother of God through which God showed mercy on Mary of Egypt. It stood at the border of the grace of God. God’s grace, of course, has no border, except the stoney heart that refuses Him hospitality. But He knocks on that stoney door with great persistence.

I knelt before the icon and prayed for our stoney hearts – the many places in our lives that have created borders for grace. St. Mary of Egypt pray to God for us!

A Particular Pilgrimage

September 15, 2008

One of the common aspects of my pilgrimage to the Holy Land – and this my wife and I have discussed and find we share in common – is the particularity of certain experiences. There are inherently overwhelming experiences, such as kneeling beside a priest in the actual sepulchre of Christ, and reading names aloud for him to remember in the proskomidie, as he prepared the bread and wine for the Divine Liturgy.

(For the non-Orthodox reader, the proskomedie is a service done prior to every Eucharist in which the bread and wine are prepared. The priest puts a particle of bread on the paten for every name of the living and departed being remembered that day in the service – in some settings the service of preparation –proskomidie – can take as long as the liturgy itself.)

But I would have to say that it was that particular experience which stood out for me from the larger context of that night’s Divine Liturgy. It was not that anything else was less important – indeed everything was inherently overwhelming – but that a particular moment was the vehicle in which my heart was pierced and I became aware of the encounter with God.

I have written at other times about the difference between particularity and the general and that it is in the particular that we, in fact, encounter God. My pilgrimage has only served to underscore that understanding within me.

I also had an experience which underscored the negative side of this insight. The general – especially when it is an presented in an abstract form – makes an actual encounter with reality and truth difficult, perhaps impossible. This has largely been brought home to me through my experience of art in the Holy Land. Not all shrines in this land are under Orthodox control, nor governed by an Orthodox understanding of iconography. In some cases (not all) I have seen Christ, the saints, and the particular reality that each represents, abstracted to something general and universal, and thus an ideation that is more imagination than a presentation of the truth.

The doctrine and Tradition of the Holy Icons, understands them to be as particular as Scripture itself. An icon does not say something in general, but, within the rules of its artistic grammar, says something or makes present something that is exceedingly real, describeable and particular. An icon of Christ is particularly an icon of Christ and not an abstraction of Christ nor an ideation of Christ. It is an image of “He Who Is,” which is clearly written on every icon of Christ (usually in Greek or Slavonic abbreviation).

The entire experience of pilgrimage would make no sense were the reality we seek a generality and not something quite particular. It is thus that as the Patriarchs of the Old Testament encountered God that they gave place names to mark the encounter. Whole towns in this land bear names that were given over 3,000 years ago, by men who encountered God in a way that changed their life – changed this land – changed history – and continues its impact into the present.

Israel did not proclaim a faith in an abstracted God, but in the “God of our Fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” The Christian claim is that it is this God of Israel and no other Who is incarnate as the God/Man, Christ Jesus.

The character of my pilgrimage is marked by very particular stories – particular places – particular people – a particular phrase that is spoken. It has been marked by an extraordinary hospitality, where I found myself called forward and into the altar of the House of God, to take my share as a priest with other Orthodox priests.

I have now shared in services here in Greek, Slavonic and Arabic, with the gracious allowance of my small contribution of English. We celebrated the Liturgy on Sunday in Nazareth, in the local Orthodox Church which marks the site of the well where Mary first encountered the angel Gabriel (it is St. Gabriel’s Church). The account of this first encounter is in the Protoevangelium of James (a book outside the canon of Scripture but often accepted as containing much of value within the Tradition of the faith). St. Gabriel’s community in Nazareth consists almost entirely of Arab Christians who have been in this land from very early times. The congregational participation was amazing! I do not think I have ever heard an Orthodox liturgy that was as loud! The sense of enthusiasm that filled the whole of the service was quite unique. It will not be forgotten. Neither will a chance conversation with a group of Orthodox youth from across this part of the Mid-East who were also having a retreat in Nazareth that weekend. They had many political questions to put to this American priest – for which I had little answer. It is hard to tell them that the powers that be have almost no concept of Orthodox Christianity – its history – its current vitality – or its interests. These were youth in dismay. May God help them in the difficulties they face.

The particular character of this pilgrimage is already creating “favorite” places in my heart – places I hope to see again before the week is out and we return home. What I rest in, is the assurance that wherever I am, God will make Himself known in particular ways – at home as well as in the Holy Land. It does not make pilgrimage a useless event – but rather says that we are always on pilgrimage – looking for the “heart’s true home.” And that home will always come to us in ways that can be tasted, smelled, touched, remembered, but not abstracted.

Glory to God. I pray for you all with each day.

A Brief Note from Nazareth

September 15, 2008

I have been away from computer access the last few days here in Nazareth. Yesterday we were in Cana, Capernaum, the Sea of Gallilee and the Jordan. Today we go to the Mount of Transfiguration and Qumran and return to Jerusalem. My heart overflows with many things, some of which I will share soon. Thank you all for your continued prayers. We are daily blessed.

On the Edge of Heaven

September 12, 2008

We traveled today to the Monastery of St. Saba, in the Judean desert. Founded in the 5th century, it is the longest continually functioning monastery in the Orthodox world. There are 15 monks there today, though during its height, there were as many as 5,000 in the cliffs surrounding the monastery and the monastery itself. In the 7th century, the Persians invaded and martyred a number of monks, but the monastery survived, and monks returned. It is said by the monks that the Theotokos promised that St. Saba’s would remain a living monastery until Christ returned.

As we have found all over the Holy Land, the hospitality was overwhelming. I sat in the cave that was the cell of St. John of Damascus and prayed – venerated the incorrupt relics of St. Saba (and those of the many martyrs of the monastery).

The monk who was guiding us through the monastery was asked the question about the difficulties the monastery encountered with the political situation in the area (it is situated in the Palestian Authority area). He said, “We have been here since the 5th century and have seen many political situations. We are monks. We have no enemies.”

I immediately grabbed his hand and kissed it and told him, “You’re the first man I’ve met in the holy land who proclaimed that he had no enemies. You are a blessing.”

I realized that the great peace of the monastery came not only from the holy relics and the many prayers offered in that place through the centuries, but that the monks who are there now have found paradise. For to live in the midst of so much strife but to have no enemies is indeed paradise itself!

Leaving that place has been one of the hardest things I’ve had to do since coming here.

Jerusalem – Heaven and Hell

September 11, 2008

I am taking the day off from the pilgrimage (my wife and others are in the vicinity of Jericho today). I have stayed behind to allow my back and some swollen feet to mend – they are already better after much needed sleep – and I wanted to use some free time to offer a reflection or so on my pilgrimage to date).

There has been at least one profound moment in each day of the pilgrimage – but yesterday and the early hours of this morning (Jerusalem time) were events almost beyond description.

We began the day in Bet Sahour – the “Shepherd’s Fields” near Bethlehem. The parish is a newly-built Orthodox Church with wonderful iconography. Beside it are the archeological digs on a series of Churches going back to the early 4th century.

Later we were in Bethlehem. Despite the onslaught of vendors whenever you leave the confines of the Church, the experience was profound. We have had tremendous freedom of access to sites (the presence of Met. Kallistos has likely opened doors for us). I have been able to enter the sanctuary and venerate the altar of every Church we have visited.

The shrine of Christ’s Nativity is that strange mix of knowing where you are and how important it is and yet also being aware of crowds and the crush of pilgrims. But there were many moments of especial significance.

In the late afternoon we were at the Monastery of St. John (Moscow Patriarchate) for the Vigil for the Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Forerunner (everything is Old Calendar over here). To our great surprise and delight, after the Metropolitan entered the altar, a priest came out and invited the three OCA priests in our party to enter the altar. Nuns in the sacristry provided vestments and we shared in the Vigil, taking part particularly in the Polieley. The choir of nuns were utter ethereal in their beauty – the service in Slavonic perfection. It is very hard to describe the sense of arriving at a holy place and suddenly being extended such hospitality. It was like the welcome of the Prodigal Son.

After a light supper and brief nap, we walked across Jerusalem (after midnight), arriving at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We were expected. Met. Kallistos concelebrated with Archbishop Aristarchos, one of the members of the Holy Synod in Jerusalem and an old acquaintance of the Metropolitan. Again, the hospitality and access granted to us was overwhelming. I was able to enter the Holy Sepulchre of Christ, as were many of our group, kneel by the priest who was performing the Proskomide (the preparation of the gifts) and give him the names of all those I wanted remembered in the Liturgy.

There is a very small chapel at the entrance to the Sepulchre with an altar. At the Little Entrance, the Bishops and clergy processed into that chapel and the Liturgy continued from inside the structure that surrounds the Holy Sepulchre itself. The clergy, both those in our group as well as priests of other pilgrim groups, were able to enter the small altar area and receive communion. The inner experience of this unimagined privilege is beyond my words.

We shared refreshments with the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre after Liturgy and were shown the room containing the holy relics – which is beyond description. Several of us found our way up to the chapel of Golgotha and were able to venerate the rock beneath the altar that marks the spot where the Cross of Christ stood. I can only describe the evening as a Pascha. For though every Liturgy everywhere is always a Pascha, it is also inescapably and palpably so to receive communion at the tomb of Christ. It will doubtless be an image that will feed my heart for a long time to come.

My wife and I, finally returning to our residence at St. George’s College at 5 a.m., reflected together on the day. It was a journey from Christmas to Pascha, Bethlehem to the Holy Sepulchre, with an utterly heavenly visit to the Monastery of St. John, which marks both the birthplace of the Holy Forerunner, as well as the site of the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth (all of which are very special in our family). It was a day that neither of us could fathom and only gave us the reminder that the past 10 years of our lives (the years we have been Orthodox) have been blessed beyond anything we every dreamed when we began this journey.

Our focus has not been on our own “experience” of the places we visit, but rather on the prayers we are carrying with us. And yet continual unexpected joys meet us with a kindness and hospitality I would never dream of demanding.

One of our party last night commented as we left the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that we had been blessed indeed. He recalled the experience of St. Mary of Egypt who had not been able to cross the threshhold of that holy place because of her sins. The hand of God held her back. It became the occasion of her conversion.

“We actually crossed the threshhold!” he commented, recognizing in that simple act the mercy of a good God towards sinners such as ourselves.

The wonder of this land is very much like the wonder of the world everywhere. The Holy is given to us constantly, even though we find ourselves surrounded in tragedy and confusion that seems insolvable. Everywhere you look the political reality of this troubled place is evident, and yet the places most Holy on this earth are here. It truly is like the human heart – where the treasuries of everything are to be found – both of evil – and of paradise itself. The struggle for everyone in this place – as the struggle for everyone, everywhere – is to enter paradise rather than to make of their life and this world a living hell. May God have mercy on us all.

Risky Business – Revisited

September 9, 2008

I offer this reprint from last year – my pilgrimage time in Jerusalem is not leaving much time for writing. It is obvious in this city of Holy Places that how we keep such places – including those within the heart is deeply important. This reprint seemed to fit those thoughts. May God bless.

Amoun found Abba Poemen and told him, “When I visit a neighbor or he visits me, he hesitate to talk with each other. We are afraid that we might bring up a worldly topic.

The old man replied, “Yes, young people need to guard their mouths.”

Amoun asked, “But how do old men handle this problem?”

Abba Poemen said, “Those who have advanced in virtue no longer have any worldliness in them. Nothing will taint their speech.”

Amoun continued his questioning. “When I must speak with my neighbor, should I speak of the Scriptures or of the Fathers?”

The old man answered, “It is best to keep silence. If you can’t, talk about the sayings of the Fathers. Speaking about the Scriptures is risky.”

From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers

In our modern world the above conversation of two monks in the desert sounds rather quaint. We have very little concern about our subjects for conversations. As autonomous individuals, we talk about whatever we want to talk about and never give a second thought as to whether the topic was suitable or whether our words were helpful or harmful.

I was particularly struck by Abba Poemen’s statement that “speaking about the Scriptures is risky.” It brought a smile. Of course, all this has radically changed in our culture. The Bible is no longer a rare book (or copied laboriously by hand). Everyone has numerous copies (usually) and more opinions than copies.

I was making a presentation several years ago at a fundamentalist Christian school in Tennessee. Somewhere in the course of my comments I spoke about the 6th chapter of St. John’s gospel and Christ’s discourse on the Eucharist within it (though it occurs as a commentary on the feeding of the 5,000 – it is most decidedly a teaching on the Eucharist). It is in this chapter that Christ says, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you,” and many similar things.

A young man (a freshman) in the audience approached me after the lecture and was absolutely beside himself. He began to argue and to explain how the passage could not be about the Eucharist and how Christ was speaking figuratively about something else. I pointed out to him that even Protestant scholars agree that the chapter concerns the Eucharist – but to no avail.

Discussing Scripture is risky business. Part of what is missing in our Christian culture is a proper reverence for the Word of God. Even those who claim to hold it as utterly infallible in every jot and tittle, do not hesitate to use it in an cavalier manner.

I can recall several years ago a conversation that occurred within a group of Orthodox priests. The subject was the ever-Virginity of the Mother of God. Someone mentioned some of the traditional physical details associated with this doctrine. The conversation quickly ceased. One of the priests said, “I cannot discuss such things about the Mother of God.” There was no disagreement among the priests, only a sense that somethings are better left unsaid and that respect dictates that silence is best in some matters.

It was very instructive for me. The Holy always involves “boundaries” (I have written about this before). In an Orthodox Church such boundaries are particularly emphasized in the “boundary” of the altar area, and even within the altar area, the boundary of the altar itself. Only some may enter the altar area, and then only with a blessing. And generally, only bishops, priests and deacons may touch the holy altar or the things that are on it. It is an action, or refraining from action, that helps interiorize the reality of the Holy and how we should handle such things.

The Scriptures are certainly Holy, and should be rightly handled, that is rightly interpreted. But there is rarely a Godly fear in approaching such a task. Were such respect present, we would argue less and listen more, and many times remain silent.

It is utterly essential in the Christian life that believers begin to pay attention to their inner life and the state of their souls and dwell less in the fantasy of ideas and argument. The Christian faith is a way of salvation that involves the transformation of our inmost being – it is not a set of ideas with which we are trying to conquer the world.

None of this is to suggest restricted access to the Scriptures. Neither do I mean to suggest restricting access to the Holy (indeed in an Orthodox service, the Body and Blood of Christ are brought forth from the altar and given to the faithful to eat). What I mean to suggest is that we think about what it means that something is Holy and treat it accordingly. For with such treatment our hearts will begin to recognize things in the “truth of their being” and realize as well that we are not autonomous individuals in charge of the universe, but are, at most, servants of the Most High God, to Whom be glory.

Single in the City

September 6, 2008

I’ve been in London the past two days, as we are making our way to the Holy Land. London is a marvelous city, one of my favorites. It is quite English, very international and increasingly Euro. Like many places in Europe, secularism is far more advanced than in America (or America expresses its secularism in a far more “religious” manner). Today I was thinking about clothes as we traveled around the city (they were more interesting than the clothes worn in East Tennessee).

I grew up in relative poverty in the American South. At least, if I had a definable social group, it would have been poor, white, and Southern. There were very definable social groups within the public schools beyond the elementary level, and one of the hallmarks of those schools were very identifiable groups – generally defined by what was worn. There were groups and sub-groups. What was most interesting in those years was that there was nothing that distinguished the poor except for the lack of a cohesive group. We were individuals who could not afford clothing that would mark us as belonging. Thus our belonging was mostly marked by the fact that we “did not belong.”

Much of my youth and adult years has seen fashion used to define. My teenage child can tell a particular decade by the clothes worn. My awareness of such things stopped somewhere around 1975. Here in Euro London, I have no clue as to signals that may be given by clothing. I am certain that such signals are being sent – but they are subtle, extremely diverse, and, I think, increasingly marked by individual statement rather than group identification. If you will, it is the “secularization” of clothing.

I am no sociologist, so at this point I may simply be talking through my hat, as they say, or commenting on something that has little reality about it.

I generally wear my cassock in public – it’s something many, but not all, Orthodox priests practice. It certainly draws looks even in America – though the look may be mostly one of curiosity. Here, I find that it draws looks of anger, disgust and other negative experiences that I rarely find at home. A taxi driver, angry that I was slow crossing the street, yelled an epithet out his window that a cleric back home would simple never hear (and I find London cabbies to be a very friendly and knowledgeable lot).

One of the inner difficulties of secularism is its tendency to neglect the heart (as Christianity would traditionally understand it). T.S. Eliot called us a generation of “hollow men.” C.S. Lewis described us as “men without chests.” I would more likely describe us as “people with clothes,” for it is not so much the inside that defines the modern man as the outside. This, of course, has the advantage of allowing a person to assume a number of different roles, even identities (genders in extreme cases), with a simple wardrobe change. “The play’s the thing.”

The underdevelopment of the inner life makes for a certain kind of misery or malaise, and it makes for a very shallow evangelism. It also explains the fascination that the newly Orthodox have with some of the “outward trappings” found in the culture of the Church. The inner life takes much longer to acquire. The outward things are not a problem so long as they are not substituted for the development of the inner life.

I was recently given another award by my Archbishop (Russian practice loves to give clergy various awards of distinction). I told him later, “You’re only making it harder for me on the day of Judgment.” He smiled and I know he knows. He has told that when his sister was alive and living with him, he would return from a weekend’s visit at a Church, where all the honor the Church can muster surrounds and greets a Bishop. When he would walk through the door at home, he said his sister would call out, “Bubba, take out the trash.” That is the development of an inner life.

I trust that as I make my way to the Holy Land my clearest focus will be on taking out the trash. It is the deeper need of my heart.

Scattered Thoughts Revisited

September 5, 2008

We have noticed with sadness that nowadays men suffer dreadfully because their mind is fragmented. Imagination, which is only one of the mind’s activities, is overindulged and dominates men’s lives, leading some to hardness of heart due to pride, and others to mental illness. According to the teaching of the Gospel and the Scriptures, the mind works naturally only when it is united with the heart. Mind and heart are naturally joined together when the fire of contrition is in the heart.

Archimandrite Zacharias in The Enlargement of the Heart.

I offer this reprint from last autumn. I am in England, making my way to the Holy Land. I find scattered thoughts all too easy. There is much activity occuring in my Church by home (on the national level) and I am in a foreign land. It is easy to feel I should be somewhere else, but I know that I can do nothing better than gather my mind into my heart and pray for all – everywhere. May God bless.

I’m certain that my experience of prayer is similar to that of most of my readers – a struggle to pray with a scattered mind. To read of the return of the mind to the heart is to know how far my prayers are from where they should be. It is also a realization that to “love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind,” is virtually impossible in such a scattered state. We lack the wholeness to make such an offering.

The desire of my heart is to not forget that there is such a thing as a mind united to the heart. My desire is to settle for nothing less. There is an emptiness in theology when it remains only a recitation of ideas and a fantasy of the imagination.

Thus, when I speak of a fullness (as I often do in my writings), I speak of something that belongs to God and can only come to man as a gift. There is a fullness in the sacraments of the Church, though in our scattered state we approach that fullness only with faith – with a hope for what we do not yet see. There is a need for steadfastness in that hope – a steadfastness that refuses to turn aside for something less.

We have been promised heaven – indeed I believe the union of mind and heart is a place where that promise begins to be fulfilled. Thus I will not turn aside for something else – whether argument or curiosity. For the fantasies of our scattered thoughts are not the stuff of reality – only the stuff of delusion.

There are moments of clarity – even for those whose most common experience is a scattered state. These moments come as flashes – sometimes in the Liturgy – sometimes in prayer – sometimes in very unexpected places. The flashes themselves are gifts – small insights that call us to remain steadfast and not to turn aside from hope.

In a very few cases in my life, I have had the pleasure of meeting someone whose thoughts were not scattered – who were wholly present – mind and heart. In each case it has been an encounter with humanity bordering on fullness – not something that overwhelms but something that welcomes and makes all things around seem brighter and more truly alive. I would not dare to say that I was encountering a saint, for God alone knows such a thing. But I have met those who were clearly moving in that direction in a way that we rarely see.

I saw it once in a woman who was a hospice patient. She had been homebound and bed-ridden for better than six months. I noticed that every day a constant stream of friends passed through her home. It was unusual. Generally when someone is sick for a prolonged period, vists become fewer as people readjust their lives and turn their attention elsewhere. It is sad but true. However, in this case just the opposite was happening. I cannot say that her friends were of such great quality that they never left her – but rather that she was a person of such good heart that people continued to visit because they always received more than they gave.

She was not Orthodox, but she was curious about my faith. What I was able to share with her was received with gratitude and with an understanding that immediately seemed to grasp the heart of each matter. I discovered that my visits to her (as her “hospice chaplain”) were themselves unusually frequent. I always left with more than I had brought.

She died perhaps eight years ago. As a priest, I have kept her name in my prayers of remembrance for the departed. I pray for her, for I hope that she will remember and pray for me.  

She was a fullness in an unexpected place. God’s grace appears where it appears. But the reality of it all is the heart of the matter for me. She, like several others I have known, was real and not a fantasy. She was a largeness of life that defied explanation apart from God. In such a life the mind is not scattered but brought to where it should remain – united to the heart. From such a heart love flows in a manner that draws the hungry souls of all around. And the fire of contrition burns in all who remain in its presence for arrogance and pride are reduced to ashes in such a holy furnace.