Archive for November, 2008

Axios! Axios! Axios!

November 12, 2008

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As a personal rule of thumb, I do not write on the inner news of the Church – or at least not often. I have been in attendance this week at the All American Council, the national assembly of the Orthodox Church in America. One of the central tasks before us was the election of a new Metropolitan (the Bishop who serves as the primate of our Orthodox Church in America).

Eleven days ago I was present in Dallas, TX, at the Cathedral for my diocese, witnessing the consecration of an Auxiliary Bishop for the South. I had come to know the newly ordained Bishop over the past several months (both before and after his consecration) and was deeply grateful for his election in the South.

Today, I was humbled to witness his election as Metropolitan of the OCA, in one of the most moving events I have been a part of in my short Orthodox life. He is a monastic, formerly the Abbot of the Monastery of St. John of San Francisco and Shaghai in California. He served his novitiate (formative years) as a monk at the Monastery of Valaam in northern Russia. I see his election as a very positive grace in our Orthodox life in America, and pray God’s blessing for him in this new work.

For a more detailed account, read here.

The Creation and the Christian

November 11, 2008

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This week I am in Pittsburgh for the All American Council of the Orthodox Church in America. We have many difficult things to deal with and I ask your prayers. I will try to work with the blog as I have time. Today I offer some thoughts of Met. Kallistos Ware, who led the pilgrimage I recently made to the Holy Land. His thoughts are on creation and our Christian relationship to the world around us. He offered a small book (The Beginning of the Day) to the pilgrims on our last night – which contained this small meditation, and quite a bit more. I share it with gratitude to God.

The  Cosmic Christ

Before I end my reflections upon the Orthodox vision of creation – upon the bonds that unite us with the animals in a single ‘earth community’ – I ask you to recall with me how every part of the created order played a part in the story of Christ’s life and death:

  • a star appeared at His birth (Matt. 2:9-10);
  • an ox and and ass stood beside His crib as He lay in swaddling clothes (cf. Isa. 1:30)\
  • during the forty days of His temptation in the wilderness He was with the wild beasts ( Mark 1:13);
  • repeatedly He spoke of Himself as a shepherd, and of His disciples as sheep (Luke 15:3-7; Matt. 18:10-14; John 10-1-16);
  • He likened His love for Jerusalem to the maternal love of a hen for her chickens (Matt. 23:37);
  • He taught that every sparrow is precious in the sight of God the Father (Matt. 10:29);
  • He illustrated His parables with references to the lilies (Matt. 6:28-30), to the mustard bush full of nesting birds (Mark 4:32);, to a domestic animal that has fallen into a pit on the Sabbath day (Matt. 12:11);
  • He urged us to show reptilian subtlety and avian guilelessness: ‘Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ (Matt.l 10:16);
  • as Lord of creation, He stillled the storm (Mark 4:35-41) and walked upon water (Mark 6:45-51);

Most notably of all, the created order in its entirety participated in the Savior’s Passion: the earth shook, the rocks were split, the whole cosmos shuddered (Matt. 27:51). In the words of St. Ephrem the Syrian, ‘humans were silent, so the stones cried out’. As the old English poem The Dream of the Rood expresses it, ‘All creation wept.’ This all embracing participation in the death of God incarnate is memorably expressed in the Praises or Enkomia sung in the evening of Good Friday or early in the morning on Holy Saturday:

‘Come, and with the whole creation let us offer a funeral hymn to the Creator.’

‘The whole earth quaked with fear, O lord, and the Daystar hid its rays, when Thy great light was hidden in the earth.’

‘The sun and moon grew dark together, O Savior, like faithful servants clothed in black robes of mourning.’

‘O hills and valleys’, exclaims the Holy Virgin, ‘the multitude of mankind and all creation, weep and lament with me, the Mother of God.’

Most remarkably of all in what is truly an amazing statement, it is affirmed: ‘the whole creation was altered by Thy Passion: for all things suffered with Thee, knowing, O Lord, that Thou holdest all in unity.’

Do we reflect sufficiently, I wonder, upon the environmental impliations of our Lord’s Incarnation, upon the way in which Jesus is ecologically inclusive, embedded in the soil like us, containing within His humanity what has been termed ‘the whole evolving earth story’?

Do we allow properly for the fact that our Savior came to redeem, not only the human race, but the fullness of creation? Do we keep constantly in mind that we are not saved from but with the world?

Such, then, is our Orthodox vision of creation; such is our vocation as priests of the created order; such is our Christian reponse to the ecological crisis. Such is the deeper meaning implicit in the words that we say daily at the beginning of Vespers: ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul’.

Faces in the Dark

November 6, 2008

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One of the finest short contemporary classics of Orthodox spiritual writing is Tito Colliander’s Way of the Ascetics. The following excerpt is from his “Chapter Thirteen: On Progress in Depth.”

THE external rudiments lead us now to the welfare that goes on in the depths. As when one peels an onion, one layer after another is removed, and the innermost core, out of which growth reaches up toward the light, lies revealed. There, in your own innermost chamber, you will glimpse the heavenly chamber, for they are one and the same, according to St. Isaac the Syrian.

When you strive now to enter your inmost depths, you will be aware, beside your own true face, of what St. Hesychius of Jerusalem calls the gloomy faces of thought’s [dark figures], but what St. Macarius of Egypt likens to a crawling serpent that has nestled there and wounded your soul’s most vital organ. If now you have slain this serpent, he says, you may pride yourself on your purity before God. But if you have not, bow humbly, as a needy sinner, and pray to God about all that lurks within you.

How can we make a beginning, then, we who have never penetrated into the heart? We stand outside, but let us knock with fasting and prayer, as the Lord commands when He says: Knock and it shall be opened unto you (Matthew 7:7). For to knock is to act. And if we stand fast in the word of the Lord, in poverty, in humility, in all that the injunctions of the Gospel require, and night and day hammer upon God’s spiritual door, then we shall be able to get what we seek. Whoever will escape darkness and captivity can walk out into freedom through that door. There he receives the disposition to spiritual freedom, and the possibility of reaching Christ, the heavenly King, says St. Macarius.

Coming to grips with the fact that, spirtually, the world is not “two-storey” or bifurcated into sacred and secular, is primarily an act of coming to grips with our own heart. It is in the heart that we find both the gate of paradise as well as the “gloomy dark faces.” And these things will not be found by contemplating the stars or thinking about a heaven that is somewhere else.

Listening recently to the newly-ordained Bishop Jonah, I noted the emphasis he placed on frequent confession. For it is particularly in this sacrament that, with time, patience and fearless honesty, we begin to see the outlines and contours of our heart. We can learn, through prayer, how to enter and remain in the heart (when confession becomes even yet more important) and to have an inward communion that is the gift of God dwelling in us.

I particularly appreciate Colliander’s last statement:

And if we stand fast in the word of the Lord, in poverty, in humility, in all that the injunctions of the Gospel require, and night and day hammer upon God’s spiritual door, then we shall be able to get what we seek. Whoever will escape darkness and captivity can walk out into freedom through that door. There he receives the disposition to spiritual freedom, and the possibility of reaching Christ, the heavenly King, says St. Macarius.

The Death of Religion

November 5, 2008

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In August of 2007 I wrote an article on Christian Atheism. At the time I was seeking to describe the strange phenomenon of modern Christianity – one in which life as we live it and life as we say we believe it are two separate things. This is not a problem of hypocrisy but of shipping Christianity to an off-shore location in which all significant spiritual activity is accomplished somewhere other than where we live.

Thus salvation is something accomplished in history (on the cross) or in the mind of God (a forensic or legal atonement) or anywhere other than here and now. Sacraments become memorials, a testimony to Divine Absence rather than Divine Presence. Initiation into the Church is accomplished by an “ordinance” which is simply viewed as a sign, a public act of obedience in which nothing happens (except perhaps in the off-shore location).

The result of this bifurcation of faith is an empty world in which we may speak of the “death of religion.” Modern Christians have a relationship to faith much the same as they have a relationship to a political point of view. Indeed, in many modern churches, the substance of the faith is itself the subject of political debate. What God would have us do as sexual creatures, for instance, is a matter of cultural perception and persuasion – not revelation. Such approaches to Christianity only guarantee that modern Christianity in America will be just that – American. Churches become the constitution at prayer (with all of the various views of the constitution represented by denominations or various wings thereof). We become a nation of red Church, blue Church, neither of which have any relation with The Church, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all.

This also makes the Church into a political instrument, or politics into a churchly instrument. Thus the victory of one party or the loss by another is seen as a victory of religious significance. Both major parties this election season embraced “faith,” and generally found themselves embraced in return.

But the truth is that Christianity with an off-shore Christ is not Christianity at all. Christianity that can be affected by a shift in the political winds is no Christianity at all. The ship of the Church was launched against the tide of Roman paganism and against the wind of growing state dominance of all life. The blood of many thousands was shed before the winds changed and allowed a certain freedom to the Church – and yet the Church against the tide and against the wind was stronger when the winds and tides changed than when it began its journey. For the Church sails upon a tide and wind blowing in this world oblivious to the political weather of kingdoms destined to fail.

The ability to repent and to walk in union with the Divine Light of God is as available in the Gulag as it is to the middle-class American who enjoys almost unlimited freedom. For “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3:17).

The death of religion, of the true Christian religion, occurs when the God who became flesh and dwelt among us, is seen as the God who has removed Himself (having accomplished His work here) and is found only in the distance of theological thought. It is little wonder that in the sterility of Christian atheism the vacuum of a true spiritual life should be filled with the vacuity of the political life.

The Republican party is dead. The Democratic party is dead. Neither of them can give you life. They belong to a world that is passing away. What remains is what has been established by God and still sails before the winds and on the tide that obey His voice.

There is a Kingdom of God, found in communion with the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. It is not removed from us but has come among us. It breaks forth in human lives and burns with spiritual fire in the sacraments of the Church. It heals the sick, raises the dead, casts out demons and gives freely what it has freely received. It knows no economy other than the fullness of God who causes the barren woman to be the joyful mother of children, who brings forth water in the desert and changes water into wine.

Religion is not dead – only the false pretense of religion begotten in the delusion of the modern world.

“Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered. Let those who hate Him flee from before His face.” And all these enemies live in me and in us all and God must arise in us and drive the enemy from within us. His Kingdom come, His will be done. Let the ship sail straight and true and know the Wind that blows where it will.

Glory to God for all things!

A Single Moment and Paradise – Revisited

November 4, 2008

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I am leading a retreat this coming weekend at another parish in Tennessee. I have interiorly entitled the retreat, “Are We Not in Paradise?” The thoughts are on the immediacy of Christ and heaven – so wonderfully described in the passage quoted here from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It is a passage that is never far from my thoughts. This is a reprint from last June.

During Holy Week, one of my favorite hymns in the Church is the Wise Thief (the Exapostelarion of Holy Friday). It recalls the thief, crucified on Christ’s right hand, who repents and finds paradise “in a single moment.” It demonstrates the fullness of God’s love who would take the repentance of a single moment and transform it into life eternal.

The Wise Thief didst Thou make worthy of Paradise,

in a single moment, O Lord.

By the wood of thy Cross illumine me as well, and save me

I often think of this hymn because I also believe that we generally stand but a single moment from paradise, even when we find ourselves tempted and filled with every other sort of thought. We stand but a single moment from paradise, for the same crucified Lord stands beside us. Either we rail at him with the other thief (though the one whom I rail at may not look like Christ, but only one of the least of His brethren). And while I rail, paradise stands beside me, even urging me towards that heavenly goal with the words, “I thirst.” It is for our love and repentance that He thirsts – He who endured so much for the love of man.

Another moving example of such repentance is found in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I have printed this excerpt before, and doubtless will again. It is the story of the Elder Zossima’s brother, Markel, who found paradise in a very short moment as he approached his death.

I am reminded of the Scripture:

For he says, “At the acceptable time I have listened to you, and helped you on the day of salvation.” Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 5:2).

From the Brothers Karamazov:

…but the doctor arrived and quickly whispered to dear mother that it was galloping consumption and that he would not survive the spring. Mother began to weep, began to ask my brother with circumspection (mainly in order not to frighten him) to fast for a little and then attend communion with God’s holy mysteries, for he was at that time still up and about. Upon hearing this, he lost his temper and gave God’s temple a good rating, but then he grew meditative….. Some three days went by, and Holy Week began. And then, from the Tuesday evening, my brother went to fast and take communion. ‘I am doing this, properly speaking, for you, dear mother, in order to please you and to calm your fears,’ he told her. Mother wept from happiness, and also from grief; ‘It means his end must be near, if there is such a sudden change in him.’ But not for long did he go to church; he took to his bed, and so was given confession and communion at home. The days were starting to be bright, serene and fragrant – it was a late Pascha. All night he would cough, I recall; he slept badly, and in the mornings would always get dressed and try to sit in a soft armchair. That is how I shall remember him: sitting there quietly meekly, smiling, in reality ill, but with a countenance of cheerfulness and joy. He had undergone a complete spiritual alteration – such a wondrous change had suddenly begun within him! Our old nurse would enter his room: ‘Let me light the lamp before your icon, dearie,’ she would say. And previously he had not allowed it, would even blow it out. ‘Light it, dear nurse, light it, I was a cruel monster to forbid you earlier. As you light the lamp you say your prayers, and I, in rejoicing for your sake, say mine also. That means we pray to the same God.’ Strange did those words seem to us, and mother would go away to her room and weep and weep, though when she came in again to him she would wipe her eyes and assume an air of cheerfulness. ‘Dear mother, don’t cry, my darling,’ he used to say. ‘I have much time to live yet, I shall make merry with you both, and my life, my life will be joyful and merry!’ ‘Oh, dear boy, what kind of merriment can there be for you, when all night you burn in a fever and cough till your chest nearly bursts apart?’ ‘Mama,’ he replied to her, ‘do not weep, life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we don’t want to realize it, and if we did care to realize it, paradise would be established in all the world tomorrow.’ And we all wondered at his words, so strangely and so resolutely did he say this; we felt tender emotion and we wept….’Dear mother, droplet of my blood,’ he said (at that time he had begun to use endearments of this kind, unexpected ones), ‘beloved droplet of my blood, joyful one, you must learn that of a truth each of us is guilty before all for everyone and everything. I do not know how to explain this to you, but I feel that it is so, to the point of torment. And how could we have lived all this time being angry with one another and knowing nothing of this?’ [He spoke even of being guilty before the birds and all creation] …’Yes, he said, ‘all around me there has been such divine glory: birds, trees, meadows, sky, and I alone have lived in disgrace, I alone have dishonored it all, completely ignoring its beauty and glory.’ ‘You take too many sins upon yourself,’ dear mother would say, weeping. ‘But dear mother, joy of my life. I am crying from joy, and not from grief; why, I myself want to be guilty before them, only I cannot explain it to you, for I do not know how to love them. Let me be culpable before all, and then all will forgive me, and that will be paradise. Am I not in paradise now?’

 

In the Normal Course of Things

November 3, 2008

There is an expectation that most of us share – at least in its general shape – and that is that the normal course of things will largely remain the normal course of things. Each day much like another and though changes occur they are often of an occasional or casual nature.

There are certain aspects to this expectation that are healthy. Constant change, if not a sign of insanity, will soon likely produce the same. Stability is generally good for human beings and our culture.

Having said that, it also raises the question about what we consider normal. In Christian terms what is normal for human beings is nothing less than the “measure of fullness of the stature of Christ”. Thus what we take as normal is something far less than is intended for us by God.

Perhaps the most devastating understanding of normality, is to assume our fallen normality as a given, while relegating all spiritual matters to a different place or level of understanding. In such a situation we speak easily of the “righteousness of God which is ours in Christ Jesus,” but mean by this something that exists elsewhere (perhaps in the mind of God) while we continue along in the same normality we have always taken for granted. For some, such an understanding is definitive of a life of faith. We believe that God has done saving things for us, but those saving things are removed from our daily lives to a greater extent. Thus the average Christian is known mostly by the outward signs of loyalities to “Christian” symbols and issues.

Arriving in Dallas Forth Worth Airport last week, my assistant priest and myself (in cassock) were suddenly confronted by a “businessman” (for so he was dressed) who looked at us and said, “Christians?” I must admit that when dressed as an Orthodox priest it seems a silly question. I replied, “Yes.” He immediately shouted a Bible reference to us (from Deuteronomy). We looked it up later and found only a nonsensical verse. For our confronter, Christians are people who quote Bible verses. I’m certain he enjoyed himself.

Normalcy has a tendency to avoid two extremes: it neither comprehends the depth of sin, nor does it extend itself towards the treasures of God. As sinners, we are not so bad and as saints, we’re not so good.

A brief excerpt from Archimandrite Zacharias on the “radical event of man’s renewal by divine Light”:

The radical event of man’s renewal by divine Light and his transition from the psychological to the ontological level of existence does not, however, signify a permanent state in the present life. While it affords true knowledge of God’s merciful condescension to man on the one hand, yet, on the other, it brings man’s despicable nothingness firmly home to him. The vision of God’s eternal holiness floods the soul with hitherto unknown gratitude and strength, but at the same time man is challenged by unbearable horror at his spiritual poverty, for he now knows how grave would be his failure to fulfill his pre-eternal destiny, which is to be united with the God of love for all eternity.

For most of us, “the radical event of man’s renewal by divine Light,” is not an apt description of the events in the normal course of things. We give ourselves to God, at most, on the “psychological” level, rather than on the “ontological” level (that, is the level of the very depth of our being). There are rare moments in which conversions consist of such events – but generally life runs its “normal” course.

This is also where we must refuse the normal course. The way of the Christian life is described in this manner by Christ:

And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force (Matthew 11:12).

Traditionally this verse has been seen to point towards the extremes of asceticism. However, for those of us who do not live the monastic life, there are many “violent” opportunities in the normal course of the day. The violence of which Christ speaks, does not have to be measured in extreme fasting and all night prayer vigils.

The violence of setting our will aside for the will of another is one of the most common opportunities. It can be as simple as allowing someone else to make a decision or choice without our argument. We can “violently” give alms, stretching ourselves to do for others what we so easily do for ourselves.

We can endure the violence of rushing to ask forgiveness.

Such “violent” acts, and many similar ones, may not appear to readily change the normal course of things – but indeed they do. Coupled with the sacraments of the Church they are the stuff that “take heaven by force.”

I can recall a man once saying to me, “You cannot buy your way into the Kingdom of God.” I replied, “Yes, I think you can, but I’m not sure you want to spend that much.” It would take more than money, of course, but many a saint began his or her journey into heaven through the violence of giving away all they had. It certainly has a way of disrupting the “normal course of things.”

Whether or not we can buy the kingdom of heaven may be a matter for debate, but I am sure that it cannot be rented.

That Which Completes What Is Lacking

November 2, 2008

St. Paul in speaking of the full responsibility that weighed on his ministry stated plainly, “Who is sufficient for these things?” This same thought has crossed the mind of the ordained ministry ever since, except for those who have not yet learned that they cannot do what has been given them to do.

Yet again, yesterday, I heard three times this phrase describing the Holy Spirit who “completes what is lacking.” It is part of the words used in every ordination in the Orthodox Church. There is a recognition that as St. Paul said, “We have these treasures in earthen vessels, that the excellency might be of Christ.”

The joy of ordination is watching a candidate present himself, in all humility, realizing that he cannot be sufficient and that God alone can do this work in him. I recall the day that I was ordained deacon in the Orthodox Church in which I prayed quietly, “I hope that this day I am the dumbest deacon in Orthodoxy,” mostly because given the poverty of my knowledge, I could only hope no one else was as lacking. But the Holy Spirit completes that which is lacking – and does it in His own way. It may very well have been that what was lacking in me was not encyclopedic knowledge, but a frank admission of my ignorance. I say that because to a large degree that seems to have been the way of things in my ordained Orthodox life.

The same feeling can accompany those who enter the Church as converts. Orthodoxy is such a fullness and an ethos, that a convert cannot help but feel woefully ignorant and unprepared. This is not a bad thing, but a good place to start. For a lifetime’s learning will not have exhausted God, and it is God Whom we want to know, not necessarily the rules for everything or various other things of seeming importance.

“Blessed art Thou, O Lord, teach me Thy statutes.”

The refreshment for me was to see others accepting this same yoke which was placed on me and to hear the words again which explain the nature of my calling. It reminds me of who I am and why I am. The Holy Spirit must complete that which is lacking and the only treasure I have to give is in this broken, earthen vessel (some days more broken than ever).

Later this morning I’ll concelebrate at the liturgy, an earthen vessel among earthen vessels, receiving and dispensing the treasure of Christ, Who alone can fill the insufficiencies of our lives.