Archive for February 23rd, 2009

Standing on the Edge

February 23, 2009

guardian-angelOne of the peculiar marks of life in the modern world is the sense one has of standing on the edge. We are always (it seems) either standing on the edge of disaster or on the edge of some great discovery. Of course, a lot of this is simply the way we market the world to ourselves. But it is an inherent part of modernity to constantly look towards the future and forget the past. This is not to say that our culture is eschatological – we are merely oriented towards constant change with competing visions of light and dark with regard to a relentless future. To be properly eschatological (from the Greek for “concerning the last things”) is to believe that there is an actual end-point that is the fulfillment of all things – the fullness towards which God is drawing His creation.

To stand on the edge of the future is often experienced as anxiety. Like all of modernity, we believe in progress, but the myth of constant progress towards a utopian world has been shattered by the many tragedies of the 20th century. Like previous centuries it had its wars and its oppressive regimes. But unlike previous centuries, we learned that modern wars and modern regimes are apocalyptic in the fullness of their nightmares. We are at least as certain of a bad end as we are of a good end – and, I suspect, more people expect things to get a lot worse before they get better – if they get better.

There are other experiences of standing on the edge. I think that when we confront God, we find ourselves on an edge. As it says in Hebrews, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31). It is not that the living God holds any animosity towards us, or that He intends us any harm. But the Light and the Truth that radiate from Him require light and truth to be present in the one who beholds Him. If we have no light and truth then His presence reveals within us the darkness and the lies that are present.

Any number of times in my life I have stood at that edge. To some degree, every occasion of private confession is an approach to the edge, to see the face of God. “Behold, child, Christ stands here invisibly before you receiving your confession,” the priest says. I have stood beside many, many others as they approached the edge and I have seen the wonders of the effect of God’s Light and Truth.

I can also recall very large moments – such as the time of my conversion to Orthodoxy. In some respects, I stood at the edge for nearly 20 years (and very consciously for at least seven). In various comments by readers, it is obvious that many stand at the edge of Orthodoxy and sometimes for a long time. Was I afraid? Yes, I was. Was I afraid of God? Yes I was. I was afraid of the Truth, of the Light, of myself, of everything around me. I can see now that my fear was baseless and that my waiting so long on the edge held far more drama than was necessary. But standing on the edge can be like that.

Dostoevsky had a feel for the edge. The tension that builds in the character Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment) becomes almost unbearable until the young man at last turns himself in for the murders he has committed. And like all the rest of us who murder (at least in our heart), turning ourselves in, getting past the edge, becomes the path of salvation just as it was for Raskolnikov.

My children, while quite young, became aware that I had difficulty with heights and edges, particularly while driving. A long, high bridge, or a narrow mountain switch-back, raced my pulse and pumped adrenalin throughout my body. I believe it was my son who first came up with the game (though it could have been his sister who is having a birthday today)…  When we were traveling and would reach such a frightful point, he (and his sisters) would begin to shout, “Over the edge!” Which usually sent me into paroxysms of terror and shouts of various threats. They found it great fun. To enter the kingdom of God, we must become like little children. Over the edge!

Simple Suggestions for Orthodox Study of Scripture

February 23, 2009


Saint Isaac the Syrian writes, “Very often many things are said by the Holy Scriptures and in it many names are used not in a literal sense… those who have a mind understand this” (Homily 83, p. 317).


The Holy Scriptures are indeed edifying for the Christian life – particularly as they are read and memorized. There they become a treasure in our heart that can be drawn upon at need. I find that even in simple tasks, such as trimming the wicks in the Church, that reciting psalms and other Scriptures helps center the heart and fittingly gives praise to God.

It was once an enforced part of Tradition that anyone chosen for the office of Bishop had to also know the Psalter by heart. Much of this had to do with the fact that such memorization was standard for monks at the time. Today it is not strictly enforced – though I am constantly amazed at the amount of Scripture, particularly Psalms, that my brother priests in the Church do know. Psalm 50 (LXX) “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy loving-kindness” is required memorization by priests and deacons. It is to be said quietly while they cense the Church.

St. Seraphim of Sarov read all four gospels in the course of a week, every week. My own taste of this comes every year during Holy Week when all four gospels are read aloud in the Church during the services of the hours. It is hard to describe the effect of any single gospel as it is read in its entirety.

Another great source for study is can be found in the Festal Menaion (translated by Met. Kallistos Ware and Mother Mary) and the Lenten Triodion. Both books contain reich material that is itself a commentary on Scripture that is also part of the devotional life. It is not just an education in Scripture but an education in how to read the Scripture.

Mentioned already in our comments is the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. It is a meditation on Scripture with a particularly theme – but provides a “mystical” or “moral” approach to the reading of the Holy Scriptures.

Needless to say, the writings of the Fathers – the sermons of St. John Chrysostom and the like, are also invaluable.

In all of these things we are moving away from the individualism that has marked so much treatment of the Bible in modern times. It is a return to the life of humility and a searching for the mind of the Church. It is a submitting of ourselves for the “renewing of our mind” (Romans 12:1) and a discipline that frees us from the tyranny of the individualized constructs of a consumer conscience.

Other thoughts, proven in the fire of life, are welcome.