Archive for March, 2009

Humility and the Big Bang

March 31, 2009


The following is an excerpt from Archimandrite Zacharias’ The Hidden Man of the Heart. As we draw closer to Pascha, my own heart is drawn towards that moment – the marriage supper of the Lamb. It is impossible to exhaust the subject of Pascha for within it is contained the whole of God’s plan for mankind. Here, Fr. Zacharias, working largely from the writings of the Elder Sophrony (his spiritual father) directs our attention finally to the Pascha of the heart.

Fr. Stephen


In his book On Prayer, Fr. Sophrony also points out that when we gather all our being and install our mind in the deep heart, the entrances of the soul are protected against the temptations of the evil one, and only then do we stop falling into sin. This is also the moment when we become truly humble. The saints have given us many definitions of humility, but personally, I like that of St. Maximus the Confessor. According to him, humility is to know that we have our being ‘on loan’ from God, an acknowledgement that fills our heart with gratitude. Saint Maximus also emphasizes the significance of gratitude, saying that gratitude is equal to humility.

There exist different degrees of humility. According to Fr. Sophrony, however, man acquires true spiritual humility and finds his heart when he comes to realize that he is unworthy of such a God as Christ. Humility then enables him to receive and accept the revealed truth that Christ has given us. And in accepting it, he is given grace, and this grace functions as a tour-guide in our heart, allowing us to see all its uncleanness and filthiness, and giving us the courage to say, ‘Yes, Lord, I am a filthy rag, I am dust and earth. I am a worm and no man (cf. Ps. 22:6). I am the chief of all sinners’, to borrow from the words of the prayer of the Prophets and the Apostles. True humility involves sincerely standing before the truth revealed in Christ and confessing the uncleanness and filthiness which we bear hidden within us without realizing it. The grace of God then sheds light within our darkened soul, and in His light we see our own light. ‘In Thy light shall we see light’, as we sing in the Doxology (Ps. 36:9). Only when God illumines us by His grace are we able to see the true light of our own existence.

For Fr. Sophrony there is no greater miracle in the world than the moment when the Uncreated unites with the created. He pursued this very miracle all his life both for himself and for the people who came to seek his help. He never sought to be a wonder-worker, and attached no significance to the miracles that occurred through his prayers. But when the greatest miracle in existence took place, that is, the union of the created with the Uncreated, our Elder would rejoice, even if the person were dying physically.

This miracle is analogous to the Big Bang of the astronomers, and to the words in Genesis: ‘Let there be light and there was light.’ When it takes place in the heart of man, it reveals the ‘true man’.We recall the words of St. Gregory Palamas in his Letter to the Nun Xenia, based on St. Peter and the Psalms: ‘When the day will dawn and the morning star rises in your heart, the true man will go out for his true work.’ St. Gregory Palamas describes in beautiful poetic and theological language this spiritual event that occurs when the rays of uncreated Light penetrate our being, and the ‘deep heart’ opens, and man begins his ‘ontological work.’

The Incarnation: Cause of All Things Made, and Caused by None

March 29, 2009



The title of this post is a chapter heading in George Gabriel’s Mary the Untrodden Portal of God. Gabriel occasionally strikes hard at the West and the book would perhaps be strengthened with a less combative approach to the differences of East and West in the faith (my own opinion), but I liked the book and found Gabriel addressing many things, well foot-noted, that are not found in many other places. I share an excerpt. Post reprinted from 2007.

From eternity, God provided for a communion with His creation that would remain forever. In that communion mankind would attain to the eternal theosis for which it was made. The communion, of course, is the Incarnation through the Ever-Virgin. Mankind’s existence and, therefore, that of all creation is inexorably tied to Mary because she was always to be the Mother of the Incarnate Word. The fathers say that neither the course of human events nor necessity of any kind forced the Uncreated One to join to Himself a creaturely mode of existence. God did not become flesh because some actions of the devil or of man made it necessary, but because it was the divine plan and mystery from before the ages. Despite the works of Satan and the coming of sin into the world, the eternal will of God was undeterred, and it moved forward.

History and the course of human events were the occasion and not the cause of the Incarnation. The Incarnation did not take place for the Crucifixion; the Crucifixion took place so the Incarnation and the eternal communion of God and man could be fulfilled despite Satan, sin, and death. Explaining that there was no necessity in God the Father that required the death of His Son, St. Gregory the Theologian says of the Father “neither asked for Him nor demanded Him, but accepts [His death] on account of the economy [of the Incarnation] and because mankind must be sanctified by the humanity of God.” St. Gregory is telling us that, from before the ages, it was the divine will for mankind to be sanctified and made immortal by communion with the humanity of the Incarnate God, but corruptibility and death came and stood in the way.  By His Passion and Resurrection, Jesus Christ destroyed these obstacles and saved, that is, preserved, mankind for the Incarnation’s eternal communion of the God-Man and immortal men. St. John of Damascus repeats the same idea that the Incarnation is a prior and indeed ontological purpose in itself, and that redemption is the means to that end. Thus, he says the Holy Virgin “came to serve in the salvation of the world so that the ancient will of God for the Incarnation of the Word and our own theosis may be fulfilled through her.”

It seems worthwhile to me, for us to meditate on the fullness of our salvation which is to be accomplished in God’s great Pascha. Indeed, it seems to me that everything always was about Pascha – the “Lamb was slain before the foundation of the earth” (Rev. 12:8) We are approaching the end of all things – and, I should add, their beginning as well.

A Story of Repentance

March 27, 2009

One of my favorite books comes from the last years of the Soviet Union. It is the story of Tatiana Goricheva, a member of the “intelligentsia” and a Soviet-era dissident. Her book, Talking About God Is Dangerous, offers fascinating insights into both a period of time and the period of a human soul’s conversion by grace. The little volume is out of print but can be found on the internet for as little as a dollar. I share a sample as she tells of her first confession.


We knew virtually nothing

goricheva…I had come to make my confession for the first time in my life. Shortly beforehand I had become a Christian by the grace of God. I had no deeper knowledge either of Christianity or of the church – who could have taught me? I and my newly-converted girl friend, both in the same position, learned what to do by imitating our old women, who zealously preserved the Orthodox faith and practices. We didn’t know anything. But we had something which in our day should perhaps be treasured more than knowledge: a boundless trust in the church, belief in all its words, in every movement and demand. Only yesterday we had rejected all authority and all norms. Today we understood the deliverance that we had experienced as a miracle. We regarded our church as the indubitable, absolute truth, in minor matters just as much as in its main concern. God has changed us and given us childhood: ‘Unless you become as children, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’

I only knew that it was necessary to go to confession and to communion. I knew that both confession and communion were high sacraments which reconcile us with God and even unite us with him, really unite us with him in all fullness, both physical and spiritual. I was formally baptized by my unbelieving parents as a child. Whether they did that out of tradition or whether someone had persuaded them to do it, I never discovered from their explanations. Now at the age of twenty-six I had decided to renew the grace of baptism.

Like a hardened crust

I knew that the priest himself – the well-known confessor Father Hermogen – would ask me questions and guide my confession. Then the day before I read a little booklet in order to prepare myself for confession, I discovered that I had transgressed all the commandments of the Old and New Testaments. But quite independently of that it was clear to me that the while of my life was full of sins of the most varied kind, of transgressions and unnatural forms of behavior. They now pursued me and tormented me after my conversion, and lay like a heavy burden on my soul. How could I have not seen earlier how abhorrent and stupid, how boring and sterile sin is? From my childhood my eyes had been blindfolded in some way. I longed to make my confession because I already felt with my innermost being that I would receive liberation, that the new person which I had recently discovered within myself would be completely victorious and drive out the old person. For every moment after my conversion I felt inwardly healed and renewed, but at the same time it was as though I was somehow covered with a crust of sin which had grown around me and had become hard. So I to longed for penance, as if for a wash. And I recalled the marvellous words of the Psalm which I had recently learned by heart: ‘Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.’

The experience of a miracle

And so my turn came. I went up, and kissed the gospel and the cross. Of course because I felt dismay and apprehension, I was afraid to say that I was confessing for the first time. Father Hermogen began by asking,

‘When did you last fail to go to church? What festivals have you deliberately neglected?’

‘All of them,’ I replied.

Then Father Hermogen knew that he was dealing with a new convert. In recent times new converts have come into the Russian church in large numbers, and they have to be treated in a different way.

He began by asking about the most terrible, the ‘greatest’ sins in my life, and I had to tell him my whole biography: a life based on pride and a quest for praise, on arrogant contempt for other people. I told him about my drunkenness and my sexual excesses, my unhappy marriages, the abortions and my inability to love anyone. I also told him about the next period of my life, my preoccupation with yoga and my desire for ‘self-fulfillment’, for becoming God, without love and without penitence. I spoke for a long time, though I also found it difficult. My shame got in the way and tears took away my breath. At the end I said almost automatically: ‘I want to suffer for all my sins, and be purged at least a little from them. Please give me absolution.’

Father Hermogen listened to me attentively, and hardly interrupted. Then he sighed deeply and said, ‘Yes, they are grave sins.’

I was given absolution by the grace of God: very easily, it seemed to me: for the space of several years I was to say five times a day the prayer ‘Virgin and Mother of God, rejoice’, each time with a deep prostration to the ground.

This absolution was a great support to me through all the following years. Our sins (the life of my newly-converted friend was hardly different from my own) somehow seemed to us to be so enormous that we found it hard to believe that they could disappear so simply, with the wave of a priest’s hand. But we had already had a miraculous experience: from the nothingness of a meaningless existence bordering on desperation we had come into the Father’s house, into the church, which for us was paradise. We knew that with God anything is possible. That helped us to believe that confession did away with sin. And the starets also said, ‘Don’t think about it again. You have confessed and that is enough. If you keep thinking about it you are only sinning all over again.’

Careful Devotion to Christ

March 27, 2009

nikolai_bogdanov-belsky_in_churchIn writing about monasticism, I recently made mention of what I called “careful devotion to Christ.” In turn, a reader asked me to write further on “careful devotion.” 

In many ways the great problem of our age is the two-storey universe (which is make-believe) in which we live as religious people. We live in a secularized atmosphere, where “reality” means the hard stuff around us, but generally does not include what we believe religiously. We live in the neutral zone – the first floor of the universe where only a suspension of the natural law will yield contact with God.

This, by no means, is the dogma of the Church. Instead, it is the legacy of the history of the late years of Western Civilization, a by-product of the Reformation and the popular response to its ideas. It is, or will be, the death of Christianity as taught by Christ unless it is resisted and renounced. In time, those who live in this manner will either cease to believe in God, or will find that their children have abandoned Him, or left the faith to find Him elsewhere, having concluded that Christianity is bankrupt.

The intention I had in writing about monasticism and its importance – was the resurrection in young hearts and minds of the belief in a one-storey universe. Young hearts need to come to the fixed conclusion that God is everywhere present – is more real than the things they think of as “real” and is deeply and utterly committed to our transformation into the image of His beloved Son.

Monasticism with anything less remains a disciplined life – but without such a conviction of the heart would remain as powerless as the two-storey Church. It would be a monasticism that lacked God in anything other than an abstract sense. Such a life would be madness.

The great ascetics of the Church, throughout its history, believed with all their heart that fasting, prayer, repentance and tears, obedience and radical forgiveness of everyone for everything, were tools given us by God for our cooperation with His work of grace – and that such “spiritual labors” yielded fruit – “some a hundred-fold, some sixty-fold, some thirty-fold.” They hungered for the Kingdom of God and believed with all their heart that it was possible to enter that blessed state to some degree in this life-time. 

Orthodoxy is not faith in abstractions, or about a reward, up-there, someday. It is as real as the Incarnation of the Word. It is as real as the leprosy healed by Christ. It is as real as the storm He calmed from the boat. It is as real as the nails which held His flesh on the cross. No abstractions. Christ’s resurrection is not the victory of abstraction over reality, but the victory of Reality over the delusion of death and all its kingdom. It is the union of earth and heaven, created and uncreated. In such a union there cannot be two metaphysical floors of reality. 

It will sound somewhat silly for me to suggest that we learn to pray to God as if He really existed. Of course, God really exists. But the habit of the heart in a two-storey universe has deep and secret doubts about that very reality. True asceticism hungers for the Kingdom of God above all else, knowing that it is the only proper ground of reality.

Of course, such devotion is not meant only for monastics. I simply look for them to help lead the way. In the last analysis, every Orthodox Christian must learn a “careful devotion to Christ.” We must fast, pray, weep, repent before God, and seek to remember Him moment by moment – and never as an abstraction. Compared to God, we are the abstractions. But God has become man, and in that event the abstraction of our schismatic existence was overcome. In the life of the Church we are now united to Reality. Why do we settle for less?

Why are our enemies more important than God? They must be or we would forgive them.

I could take this question and apply it across-the-board of our Orthodox lives. God is less important to us than many things because we believe in the reality of those things more than the Reality of God. It is two-storey thinking. 

Some suggestions (all of which are aimed at overcoming the false sense of God’s distance):

1. Recognize that though “God is everywhere present and filling all things,” you often go through the world as if He were not particularly present at all and that things are just empty things. When you see this, make it a matter of confession.

2. Always approach the Church and the sacraments (where we have an even more specific promise of His presence) with awe. Never treat the building or things that have been set aside as holy as though they were common or empty. Do not divide your life into two – now He’s here, now He’s not. Syrian Christians traditionally believed that the Shekinah presence of God left the Temple and took up abode in the cross – every cross – and thus had extraordinary devotion to each and every cross. We should never be indifferent to the icon corner in our home. Cross yourself whenever you pass it or come into its presence.

3. Make careful preparation for communion. Always read the pre-communion prayers if you are going to receive communion (and perhaps even if you are not); pray Akathists that particularly focus on Christ and His presence, such as the Akathist to the Sweetest Lord Jesus. The traditional Western hymn, written by St. Patrick, known as his “breastplate” is also a very fine hymn to know. Find it and keep it with you and learn it.

4. Lay to heart Psalms of presence, such as Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” and Psalm 91, “He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High,” and any others that strike you. Repeat them frequently through the day.

5. Throughout the day – search for God. He is everywhere present, and yet our searching helps us to be more properly aware. In searching, expect to find Him. He delights in sharing His presence.

6. More than anything else, give thanks to God for all things. There is no better way to acknowledge His presence. I Thess. 5:18 (a much neglected verse) says: “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.”

The vast majority of us are not monastics and will never be. But we need not abandon ourselves to a Godless world, dotted by oases of His presence. The careful devotion to Christ recognizes Him everywhere (not as in pantheism) but in His goodness and His sustaining of all things, and in His person. We can be bold to overcome the “demons of feeble impertinence.”

Monasticism – What Is Possible

March 25, 2009


In the 4th century, the great Bishop, Athanasius of Alexandria, wrote a biography on St. Antony of Egypt. St. Antony was among the first hermits. St. Athanasius was both a first rate theologian and an outstanding writer. For a time in which books were copied by hand, his small tome on St. Anthony became a “best-seller.” More than that, it set on fire the imagination of a generation of Romans (from all over the empire). The result was a massive growth in monasticism, such that the deserts of Egypt would eventually hold hundreds of thousands of monks (as unbelievable as it seems). Indeed, the entire matter looked like a state crisis, when the sons and daughter of the well-born were no longer producing children but pursuing God in the desert.

That initial impulse yielded the Desert Fathers and contained monastics from every walk of life, including those who had left the service of the Emperor in order to enter the service of God. They established a monasticism that would come to be a hallmark, especially of the Eastern Church. Constantinople had a massive population of monks.

Some have said that Anthony’s foundation of monasticism prepared the Church for the compromises that came along with the Church’s later embracement of the State under Constantine and later. The monastics had no place for compromise in their lives. They had a vision that believed entirely that the way of asceticism was a way to know God and to truly become a partaker of His life in this life.

Ever since those times, Orthodoxy in the East has often risen and fallen with the fortunes of the monasteries. They were a consistent force for Orthodoxy against the various heresies that arose and held to the faith in such a way that compromise of the truth seemed absurd.

Every great flowering of the Orthodox faith in its subsequent history was accompanied by a flowering of the monastic life. Often the monasteries were the place where the flowering began. Such names as St. Simeon the New Theologian, St. Theodore the Studite, St. Athanasius of Athos, St. John of Damascus, St. Sergius of Radonezh, St. Seraphim of Sarov (and the roll could be ever so much longer) are all associated with monastic health and rightness of belief.

So how is this relevant for the Orthodox Church today. I do not think anything has changed. There were speculations in Europe in the mid-20th century that a new monasticism, a “hidden monasticism,” would come into being. Robbed of the great monasteries by the Communist revolution – many thought to find alternative ways to have this essential presence in the Church’s life. Some began to “re-imagine” monasticism.

As time has gone by, such “hidden monasticism” as they imagined has largely not been born. Instead, Communism is fallen, and the great monasteries are being reclaimed and thousands are filling their space. The monasticism that has seen such a rebirth since 1989, is still quite young and will take generations to come to its full maturity. But such a rebirth has begun.

In America, as recently as the early 20th century, there was exactly one Orthodox Monastery, St. Tikhon’s in South Canaan Pennsylvania. Others followed by quite slowly. With the coming of the Elder Ephraim from Mt. Athos to America in the 80’s and 90’s, monasticism began not a rebirth, but a new birth in America. Today, there are monasteries that number in the 10’s (the Elder Ephraim’s communities are around 20 simply by themselves). But there has been a birth of new monasteries with the OCA, the Greek Archdiocese, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia and a number of others. Monasticism is growing – slowly in relative terms – but growing.

The question is, whether there will be young men and women who will come to believe that the monastic life holds the same promise that the first monks saw. It is not a promise of a changed world, nor of institutionalized educational service or medical service. It is the promise that through careful devotion to Christ we can become what he promised us we would be. Generations of such men and women have changed the face of certain parts of the world – primarily because they changed their own faces first.

Southern Orthodoxy – Personal Reflections

March 24, 2009

holyascension1I am a native of the American South, born in a time when cotton still grew in the fields and Jim Crow laws made life hell for a black man. For all of its strange contradictions – the South truly was a Christ-haunted culture. When Martin Luther King, Jr., began his preaching and marching for justice – his message was pretty much Southern gospel. It was the religion of his message that made him effective in the South – even as it brought about his assassination. For despite the evil of the Jim Crow version of Apartheid, the South was, at the time, a distinctly religious culture.

I grew up with “blue laws,” that allowed only gas stations (a few) and pharmacies to open on Sundays (and then only after Church services were over). More on the side of culture was the simple fact that people largely stayed home after Church. Too much recreation on a Sunday seemed somehow improper.

There were plenty of exceptions to these observations – gathering as family was always an acceptable Sunday activity. For me, this usually meant gathering at grandparents (my mother was one of 12 children, my father one of 5). I had cousins beyond count. There we would gather and eat (“pot-luck” as it is called) and listen to uncles swap stories, the women swap news, and my grandfather silently preside over everything.

Much of that culture has disappeared. The economic growth and large migrations beginning in the 60’s changed the face of much of Southern life. I lived near a city. What was farmland during my childhood is now suburb. The cotton is gone, along with Jim Crow laws (thank God). The family Church is slowly disappearing and being replaced by the new “mega-Churches” in which entertainment and Church are largely indistinguishable.

Southern Orthodoxy is, to my observation, largely no different than Orthodoxy anywhere in America, although in the Churches of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) the South is largely the land of converts. Thus Southern Orthodoxy is often zealous and frequently rough around the edges. Many of our Churches are barely out of the “storefront” stage.

But the quiet piety of the Orthodox faith seems to fit the Southern character. I love to visit in Clinton, Mississippi where Father Paul Yerger (the author of our previous post) serves as priest. Mississippi is simply more Southern than most of the South. To hear the service intoned with the soft tones of the Delta is a reminder that Orthodoxy will grow anywhere.

Archbishop Dmitri has been an Apostle to the South. I have written earlier of the number of Churches that have been planted through his efforts – truly Apostolic in number. He has set a tone for the Diocese that makes it at home in the South. He is among the most hospitable men I have ever known. For years, on Bright Monday, there has been a Liturgy at St. Seraphim Cathedral, attended by all the area Orthodox clergy, regardless of jurisdiction, with a dinner prepared by Vladyko himself in his home next to the Cathedral. He loves to cook (and does so extremely well). To serve the clergy after the long hours of Holy Week and Pascha is simply Christ-like. It is with such examples that he has taught his clergy. Some have learned better than others.

As a former Episcopal priest, I found myself welcomed as a convert, but never treated as a convert. I was treated as a son (I felt like the Prodigal Son because of my sins, but not because of anyone’s judgment). I am most familiar with the OCA, but I have family in the Antiochian Archdiocese as well and many friends among the Greek Orthodox. And though there are flavors and aromas of the Mediterranean to be found within more ethnic congregations, the South has left its gentle mark among them as well.

Orthodoxy in the South is very young. It is vibrant and occasionally impatient. But Orthodoxy grows here like a native plant. I pray that it flourishes and nurtures a people who have long had a love of God, regardless of the shifting culture of the post-modern era. There is more than a little work to do here, but if God continues to send Apostles such as Vladyko Dmitri – the work will move forward quicker than I would ever have thought.

Orthodoxy and the Christ-Haunted Culture of the South

March 24, 2009

I continue my short series in honor of Vladyko DMITRI of the South. This wonderful talk was given by the priest, Paul Yerger, of Clinton Mississippi, a true gentleman. Archbishop DMITRI was deeply sensitive of the unique culture in parts of the South and of the proper role that Orthodox mission should play. His own Southern roots taught a generation of priest how to serve as missionaries with him. The piece follows as originally run. Though longer than my usual posts – it is well worth the read.

One of my favorite priests in the Diocese of the South is Fr. Paul Yerger who serves Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Clinton, Mississippi. His gentle demeanor and kind words are what I have always associated with the South, though it is rarely witnessed today. I had a chance to visit with him this week at the Diocesan Assembly in Miami. Three years ago he was our keynote speaker at our assembly in Dallas. His talk has become a classic for me – both as a lover of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, and of the South she loved so dearly. With his permission I reprint his copywrited article.



Address to the Twenty-sixth Annual Assembly of the Diocese of the South
Dallas, July 22, 2004
by Father Paul Yerger

parkers-backI was asked to speak on evangelizing the South, but I don’t feel adequate to the assigned title. Archbishop Dmitri has planted in us the vision of an Orthodox South, and by his own life and work has shown us how to carry it out. That’s why so many of us sit here tonight.

I’d like to speak to a particular limited aspect of that vision. We have made much progress, but it seems to me we haven’t much engaged the culture of the South. Orthodox missionaries of the past lifted up to God what they could of the culture they found. We have many Southern converts who have attempted to leave their own culture behind and embrace some other one. What do we find in the culture of the South that is somehow seeking Orthodox Christianity?

Vladyko speaks positively of his Baptist upbringing – in some respects Southern Protestants laid a good foundation, and we reap where they labored. More than most places the South still cherishes basic Christian values: marriage, family, community. Many of our Southern converts were attracted to the stability of the Orthodox Church for this reason.

It’s deeper than that: go up in one of these gleaming glass towers in Dallas, realms of high technology and global enterprise. Look at the computer screens where these workers ply their trade. When one of them leaves his desk and the screen saver comes up, as likely as not it says, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God…” or “For God so loved the world…” – or stuck around the edge of the screen may be a prayer or a Psalm verse. Scratch many an urban Southern technocrat, and not far under the skin are Bible stories and characters, memories of altar calls on hot summer nights, addictive hymn tunes, images of heaven and hell (especially the latter).

I’d like to introduce an old friend of mine, the writer Flannery O’Connor, who reposed in 1964. I did not know her in the flesh but have read her so long I call her a friend. She was a Georgia girl, a devout Roman Catholic whose short life included much physical suffering, who had a particular gift for capturing in words the spiritual warfare raging in many rural Southern souls. I recommend to you her two volumes of short stories and two short novels, as well as her letters and essays.

When asked once why the South had produced so many writers and artists, without hesitation she said, “Because we lost the War.” That’s part of who we are in the South. A culture, or a person, that has never lost doesn’t understand a big part of human experience. Here in Texas it’s the Alamo that’s remembered, not San Jacinto. Many things are somehow connected with this: a deep sense of the irony and mystery of human life, an affinity for the underdog, for some an adulation of heroes and glory, whether in wars, athletics, or automobile races; and for some a yearning for a past that never was, another life that might have been. Unfortunately it’s easy for some Southern Orthodox just to substitute another lost empire, the Byzantine or the Russian, as the place to escape to instead of the Old South.

Flannery O’Connor described the South as “Christ haunted.” I want to tell you about one of her characters, O. E. Parker, in her last story, Parker’s Back.

Parker was fourteen when he saw a man in a fair, tattooed from head to foot. Except for his loins which were girded with a panther hide, the man’s skin was patterned in what seemed from Parker’s distance-he was near the back of the tent, standing on a bench-a single intricate design of brilliant color. The man, who was small and sturdy, moved about on the platform, flexing his muscles so that the arabesque of men and beasts and flowers on his skin appeared to have a subtle motion of its own. Parker was filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when the flag passes. He was a boy whose mouth habitually hung open. He was heavy and earnest, as ordinary as a loaf of bread. When the show was over, he had remained standing on the bench, staring where the tattooed man had been, until the tent was almost empty.

Parker had never before felt the least motion of wonder in himself. Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed. Even then it did not enter his head, but a peculiar unease settled in him. It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed.

He had his first tattoo some time after-the eagle perched on the cannon. It was done by a local artist. It hurt very little, just enough to make it appear to Parker to be worth doing. This was peculiar too for before he had thought that only what did not hurt was worth doing…

Shortly after this he quit school “because he could” and joined the Navy.

…Everywhere he went he picked up more tattoos.

He had stopped having lifeless ones like anchors and crossed rifles. He had a tiger and a panther on each shoulder, a cobra coiled about a torch on his chest, hawks on his thighs, Elizabeth II and Philip over where his stomach and liver were respectively. He did not care much what the subject was so long as it was colorful; on his abdomen he had a few obscenities but only because that seemed the proper place for them. Parker would be satisfied with each tattoo about a month, then something about it that had attracted him would wear off. Whenever a decent-sized mirror was available, he would get in front of it and study his overall look. The effect was not of one intricate arabesque of colors but of something haphazard and botched. A huge dissatisfaction would come over him and he would go off and find another tattooist and have another space filled up. The front of Parker was almost completely covered but there were no tattoos on his back. He had no desire for one anywhere he could not readily see it himself. As the space on the front of him for tattoos decreased, his dissatisfaction grew and became general.

After one of his furloughs, he didn’t go back to the navy but remained away without official leave, drunk, in a rooming house in a city he did not know. His dissatisfaction, from being chronic and latent, had suddenly become acute and raged in him. It was as if the panther and the lion and the serpents and the eagles and the hawks had penetrated his skin and lived inside him in a raging warfare.

Eventually Parker married a woman named Sarah Ruth Cates. Her father was a Straight Gospel preacher, but he was away, “spreading it in Florida.” She was a plain severe thin girl who “was always sniffing up sin. She did not smoke or dip, drink whiskey, use bad language or paint her face, and God knew some paint would have improved it, Parker thought.” She was the only woman he had met who was not fascinated by his tattoos. She refused to look at them and called them “vanity of vanities.

“Parker could not understand why he stayed with her. He “did nothing much when he was home but listen to what the judgement seat of God would be like for him if he didn’t change his ways.”

…Dissatisfaction began to grow so great in Parker that there was no containing it outside of a tattoo. It had to be his back. There was no help for it. A dim half-formed inspiration began to work in his mind. He visualized having a tattoo put there that Sarah Ruth would not be able to resist-a religious subject. He thought of an open book with HOLY BIBLE tattooed under it and an actual verse printed on the page. This seemed just the thing for a while; then he began to hear her say, “Ain’t I already got a real Bible? What you think I want to read the same verse over and over for when I can read it all?” He needed something better even than the Bible! He thought about it so much that he began to lose sleep.

At this time Parker had an apocalyptic experience. Daydreaming, he drove a tractor into a tree and it burst into flames. Thrown to the ground, he looked up to see his own shoes, which he had somehow come out of, burning in the wreckage. Immediately as if fleeing something he drove furiously into the city and burst into the tattoo artist’s studio.

 …”Let me see the book you got with all the pictures of God in it,” Parker said breathlessly. “The religious one.”

. . .The artist went over to a cabinet at the back of the room and began to look over some art books. “Who are you interested in?” he said, “saints, angels, Christs or what?”

“God,” Parker said.

“Father, Son or Spirit?”

“Just God,” Parker said impatiently. “Christ. I don’t care. Just so it’s God.”

The artist returned with a book. He moved some papers off another table and put the book down on it and told Parker to sit down and see what he liked. “The up-to-date ones are in the back,” he said.

Parker sat down with the book and wet his thumb. He began to go through it, beginning at the back where the up-to-date pictures were. Some of them he recognized-The Good Shepherd, Forbid Them Not, The Smiling Jesus, Jesus the Physician’s Friend, but he kept turning rapidly backwards and the pictures became less and less reassuring. One showed a gaunt green dead face streaked with blood. One was yellow with sagging purple eyes. Parker’s heart began to beat faster and faster until it appeared to be roaring inside him like a great generator. He flipped the pages quickly, feeling that when he reached the one ordained, a sign would come. He continued to flip through until he had almost reached the front of the book. On one of the pages a pair of eyes glanced at him swiftly. Parker sped on, then stopped. His heart too appeared to cut off; there was absolute silence. It said as plainly as if silence were a language itself, GO BACK.

Parker returned to the picture-the haloed head of a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes. He sat there trembling; his heart began slowly to beat again as if it were being brought to life by a subtle power.

“You found what you want?” the artist asked.

Parker’s throat was too dry to speak. He got up and thrust the book at the artist, opened at the picture.

“That’ll cost you plenty,” the artist said. “You don’t want all those little blocks though, just the outline and some better features.”

“Just like it is,” Parker said, “just like it is or nothing.”

When he sees the tattoo with the aid of mirrors, Parker “turned white and moved away. The eyes in the reflected face continued to look at him – still, straight, all-demanding, enclosed in silence. … The eyes that were now forever on his back were eyes to be obeyed.”

He drove through the night to show his gift to his wife. “It seemed to him that all along that was what he wanted, to please her.” He arrived just before dawn to find himself locked out of his house. He knocked on the door.

“Who’s there?”

“Me,” Parker said, “O.E.”

… “I don’t know no O.E.”

When they first met, Sarah Ruth had extracted from him his real name, which he had previously revealed to no one.. . .

…”Who’s there?” the voice from inside said and there a quality about it now that seemed final. The knob rattled and the voice said peremptorily, “Who’s there, I ast you?”

Parker bent down and put his mouth near the stuffed keyhole. “Obadiah,” he whispered and all at once he felt the light pouring through him, turning his spider web soul into a perfect arabesque of colors, a garden of trees and birds and beasts.

“Obadiah Elihue!” he whispered.

The door opened and he stumbled in. Sarah Ruth loomed there, hands on her hips. . . .Trembling, Parker set about lighting the kerosene lamp.

“What’s the matter with you, wasting that kerosene this near daylight?” she demanded. “I ain’t got to look at you.

“A yellow glow enveloped them. Parker put the match down and began to unbutton his shirt.

“And you ain’t going to have none of me this near morning,” she said.”Shut your mouth, he said quietly. “Look at this and then I don’t want to hear no more out of you.” He removed the shirt and turned his back to her.

“Another picture,” Sarah Ruth growled. “I might have known you was off after putting some more trash on yourself.”

Parker’s knees went hollow under him. He wheeled around and cried, “Look at it! Don’t just say that! Look at it!”

“I done looked,” she said.

“Don’t you know who it is?” he cried in anguish.

“No, who is it?” Sarah Ruth said. “It ain’t anybody I know.”

“It’s him,” Parker said.

“Him who?”

“God!” Parker cried.

“God? God don’t look like that!”

“What do you know how he looks?” Parker moaned. “You ain’t seen him.”

“He don’t look,” Sarah Ruth said. “He’s a spirit. No man shall see his face.”

“Idolatry!” Sarah Ruth screamed. “Idolatry! Enflaming yourself with idols under every green tree! I can put up with lies and vanity but I don’t want no idolater in this house!” and she grabbed up the broom and began to thrash him across the shoulders with it.

Parker was too stunned to resist. He sat there and let her beat him until she had nearly knocked him senseless and large welts had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ. Then he staggered up and made for the door.

She stamped the broom two or three times on the floor and went to the window and shook it out to get the taint of him off it. Still gripping it, she looked toward the pecan tree and her eyes hardened still more. There he was-who called himself Obadiah Elihue-leaning against the tree, crying like a baby.

Christ-haunted — Southern Christianity is split down the middle, head and heart divided asunder. There is head religion: some tincture of Calvin, all about law and judgement, righteousness and sin, the fearful grace of the sovereign God tamed by respectability. Then there is heart religion: Pentecost, revivals, Jesus and the Holy Ghost called forth on demand to save souls and soothe the heartaches of life. And there are redneck existentialists, too, who want nothing of either, like Hazel Motes in O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood, who preaches the Church Without Christ: it ain’t got no Jesus to die for you and make you feel guilty about it.

Such is O.E. Parker when we first meet him: he says he doesn’t see what there is to be saved from. But something attracts him to Sarah Ruth; he is hungry for something: to love something greater than himself, to partake of beauty and glory and mystery, like the tattooed man he saw at the fair. But when he tries in his own way to put on Christ, to give her his whole self, his whole body, his back that he could not see, he is rejected. The deepest longings of his heart find no place in her religion.

Orthodoxy is the only Church that puts it all together: the mind in the heart, the body and the spirit, the word and the image, grace and freedom, the good God who loves mankind. This is the “evangel”: the Good News for the South. Her deepest longings are met here. As Vladyko has taught us, all that is good and true in Southern Protestantism is here. Jesus and the Holy Ghost are here: the real Jesus confessed as Lord and God and Saviour, risen from the dead. We are steeped in the Bible and love to hear its cadences. We also know that deep sense of the irony and mystery of human life, that yearning for something lost. The writers of the Bible knew this yearning well: By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. This yearning is really a yearning for the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.

Let us not make of Orthodoxy another law to be obeyed, another head religion to feel proud of, another emotional trip, another escape to some other world. Let us proclaim it as the Good News that the people of the South and every land are hungry for.

Quotations from Parker’s Back in Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories, New York, Farrar, Strauss, 1993.

Elder Sophrony and Appalachia

March 23, 2009


Why are the consequences of Adam’s disobedience so disastrous? Why does spiritual life in Christ take, in this world, the tragic form of a hand-to-hand battle against death? Why is God’s creation linked to this negation, to death, to this struggle full of pain? Why must I struggle against things which kill me without having the strength for it? I do not understand. To the degree that Christ and the Holy Spirit are, for me, the solution to all the problems which are beyond me, I can live in ignorance of many things. Christ is the foundation of my life. His way of acting attracts me. I do not understand what He said, but what He said is enough for me. I will understand when I pass from this world to the beyond.

Elder Sophrony in Words of Life


I am reminded of the Appalachian hymn: Farther Along

Tempted and tried, we’re made oft to wander,
Why it should be thus all the day long,
While there are others, living about us,
Never molested, though in the wrong.

Farther along we’ll know all about it,
Farther along we’ll understand why,
Cheer up my brother, live in the sunshine,
We’ll understand it all by and by.

Sometimes things are simply universal among faithful Christians. I have found much faith among the people of Appalachia.

Archbishop Dmitri and the Dignity of Man

March 23, 2009

bluebellsdmitri2 The attacks come from two different directions – and the object is the destruction of man. 

This, for me is a short summary of a consistent prophetic word I have heard from Archbishop DMITRI of Dallas for the past 15 years. The Archbishop is set to retire on March 31 of this year. With his retirement, one of the strongest voices for the dignity of man will be heard less often.

For the Archbishop, the only guarantee for the dignity of man is the doctrine of the incarnation – the fact that God became man in the God/man, Christ Jesus. Man is created in the image of God and nothing affirms nor defines this to the same fullness as the incarnation of Christ.

The first attack comes from a culture which seems married to the proposition that human beings are infinitely malleable. We are glorified animals with the nifty ability, through modern technology, to increasingly shape and mold our existence. Genetics holds promise against certain diseases, but it also holds promise for man the consumer, America’s highest definition of the human. We are drawn like a moth to a flame at the thought of designing our children. Perhaps not so concerned with their eyes but certainly concerned to have a “good product.” Some of the fads that promise to make our young ones into Einsteins point to this parental craving. The worth of a child can become dangerously confused with his or her ability to perform.

The second attack comes from within the modern denominations. There, the erosion of the doctrine of the incarnation also erodes the fundamental basis of our Christian doctrine of human worth. If Christ is not the God/man, but merely a good man, then we are merely men and not even so good. Many denominations have lost a sense of any particular value within genders and many have joined the onslaught on the unborn (as well as supporting euthanasia). It can be dangerous to belong to certain denominations.

In it all lurks the modern heresy that man can be remade, if not in the image of God, then at least in the image of a better man. But, of course, if we have to vote on what makes a better man we are truly lost. Hitler had a clear idea of what made a better man, and millions had to die for that idea. Lesser men don’t matter much. And make no mistake, though there was a Christian resistance to Hitler, he had plenty of Christian support. Liberal theology has no true foothold in dogma and cannot resist the fashion of this world.

His Eminence, when he speaks directly about the Orthodox Church, usually does so in the context of this ideological erosion. He has frequently stated that only within the Orthodox Church are the dogmas secure and the place of man properly identified. Only here is the Divinely Given dogma of the God/man safe. Only here is the gospel proclaimed in its fullness, among the last voices that speaks for the dignity of man.

It is ironic that in a world where “humanism” enjoys a positive meaning, that the last true humanists are Orthodox Christians. It’s because our Lord and Maker was the first humanist. “Let us make man in our own image and likeness.”

Archbishop DMITRI of Dallas Announces Retirement

March 22, 2009

bluebellsdmitriThe first Orthodox bishop I ever met was Vladyko DMITRI of Dallas and the South. He was everything I had ever thought a bishop should be – faithful, dynamic, mission-minded, and with a heart of gold. He has been the Apostle to the South here in the United States, leading many men and women into the Church and establishing around 60 parishes during his tenure. He is the first Bishop the South had known (under the OCA). He is my most beloved Father in God. Today, in Dallas, he announced his retirement from the Episcopate, effective March 31.

There is not space to say anything like the fullness that I have known in this man – but he has been an embodiment of the Orthodox fullness. I must comment on the fact that I always found him to be excited about the Gospel of Jesus Christ – and that his conversation was constantly turned to Christ. Coming to the Church under his omophor was clearly about coming to Jesus Christ and not simply coming to Orthodoxy. Thus he allowed Orthodoxy to be the fullness that it is.

My heart grieves only because time robs us of our most beloved friends from time to time. I pray he will have a long and healthy retirement. His has laid the foundation of Jesus Christ in the Diocese of the South. May all of us who dwell and serve here take care how we build on that foundation.

May God grant him many years. Eis Polla Eti, Dhespota!