Archive for April, 2009

The Presence in the Absence – A Timely Re-posting

April 30, 2009

southwest-trip-392This short post is among the first to appear on this blog – dating back to October of ’06. In the light of conversations here over the past few days, it seemed timely to bring this back to our attention. I I have written on the topic of the absence of God (or our sense of it) since the beginning of my work. And even though conversations with contemporary non-believers can be tedious – they are very much worth having – if for no other reason than most Christians have a great deal of non-belief in their hearts. I also believe it is the particular calling of contemporary Orthodox (in this I follow St. Silouan of Mt. Athos) to empty ourselves and enter the abyss of the spiritual hell our world has created for itself and there preach and pray – for it is there that the contemporary Adam has confined himself – and it is there that we must also find Christ. The emptiness of the secularized world – the first floor of a two-storey universe – is a man-made hell, the place in which we have exiled ourselves from God. We will not find God by looking elsewhere for it is here that He is present and filling all things. It is the mystery of our faith. I have reposted this original article without change.


There is a strange aspect to the presence of God in the world around us. That aspect is His apparent absence. I read with fascination (because I am no philosopher, much less a scientist) the discussions surrounding “intelligent design” and the like. I gather that everybody agrees that the universe is just marvelous and wonderfully put together (I can’t think of a better universe). But then begins the parting of ways as one sees God everywhere and another sees Him nowhere. Reason surely need not deny Him, though reason does not seem forced to acknowledge Him. I have spent most of my life around these arguments – one place or another. I can stand in either place and see both presence and absence.

But as the years have gone by, I have come to see something I never saw before – the Presence within the absence. I don’t mean to sound too mystical here – only that I see in the hiddenness of God a revelation of His love. The Creator of us all draws us towards Himself and knowledge of Him, with hints and intimations, with seen and yet unseen signs.

The strange deniability that He leaves us is the space in which love is born. Love cannot be forced, cannot be demanded. It must come as gift, born of a willingness to give. To give God trust that what I see is indeed evidence of the wisdom in which He made all things is also a space – one which God fills with Himself and the echo, the Yes, that the universe shouts back to us.

It is where I grow weary of the arguments – not because they need not be made – but because it becomes hard to hear the silence in the noise of our own voices – a silence that invites us to hear the sound of the voice of God that rumbles all around us.

There’s more to say – but not now.

Eastern Christian Blog Awards

April 30, 2009

Eastern Christian Blog Awards is receiving nominations in a variety of categories. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a category “Best Eastern Christian Blog that Atheists Read”. But here is the web address should you want to nominate a blog. My blogroll contains some excellent blogs – any number of which could be called “best.” This blog won an award last year. Awards may only be a measure of readership, etc., but for those who do the work to maintain these things – a pat on the back is a kindness. The address:

A Pascha of Incorruption

April 30, 2009

1_I urge readers to follow the link to the website Ora et Labora and read the newly translated article: A Pascha of Incorruption, written by the New Hieromartyr Hilarion (+1929). It is an exquisite commentary on the Orthodox teaching of Pascha, but also demonstrates how the theology of the Church survived and prevailed through its liturgical life and prayers, despite official efforts (in Russia in the 19th century in this case) to put Western models into place in our seminaries. It was a sad chapter in Orthodox history. But the repudiation of those efforts (which has occupied much of the 20th century) is living proof of the rule: Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi.

Unbelief and the Two-Storey Universe

April 29, 2009

vm14451I have written extensively about what I have described as a “two-storey universe.” In short, this is a description of how many modern Christians see the world. There is the first floor – the natural world which operates according to naturalist, “secular” rules, and the second floor – the world of God, heaven, hell, angels, etc. The spiritual crisis of much of modern man is the inherent disconnect in these two worlds. It is a belief construct whose history goes back some centuries but whose fruit has been a very different form of Christianity and a growing tide of unbelief. As I have written elsewhere, many Christians have serious doubts about whether anybody actually lives on the second floor.

One interesting component of this world-view is unbelief. When a Christian whose world-view is dominated by the two-storey universe ceases to believe – what he ceases to believe in is the second storey. There need be little change, if any, to the first-floor on which he perceives himself to live. He does not cease to believe in the God who is here, but in a God who is “out there.”

Of course, what remains in such a situation of unbelief, is an acceptance of a universe that is less than a full account of how things truly are.  The first floor of a two-storey universe is not the same thing as the “one-storey universe” I have described: it is simply a house with the second floor blown off. It is in this sense that I have commented on Christian fundamentalism (one of the primarily proponents of the two-storey universe) and contemporary atheism being two-sides of the same coin. Their interminable arguments are a conversation that takes place in half a universe. One argues that there is a second floor while the other argues that the truncated, detached debacle of a first floor is all there is. However, they do not disagree about the fundamentals of the first floor. The daily world (and often the daily life) of a two-storey Christian is often as empty and secular as his atheist counterpart. He differs only in his anxiety to prove the existence of a second floor.

I believe it is important to go to the heart of these matters – to realize that when arguments take place between such inhabitants of the two-storey world – nothing authentic is taking place. Both positions are inheritors of a broken view of the world and neither will ever state the truth in a satisfactory manner.

It is interesting to me that there are atheists who do not belong to this category of “two-storey unbelievers.” Their lack of belief in God includes deep questions about the very character of the universe and the nature of human existence. As such, they share much in common with the Tradition of the Orthodox faith. Many converts to Orthodoxy must undergo something of an “atheist” stage in order to leave the mythology of the two-storey world and enter into the revelation of God as Christ has given to the Church. It is for this reason that in the services for the reception of converts there is included a formal renunciation of various errors. You cannot follow the “only truly existing God” while at the same time believing in a God who does not exist. We are to believe in but one God.

I recall the first year of my life as an Orthodox Christian. Having been an ordained clergyman for 18 years prior to that, it startled people when I said that the primary question for me in my first year of Orthodox life was the existence of God. People asked, “Did you not  believe in God before?” The answer had to be “yes and no.” To embrace God as He is revealed to us in the Orthodox faith requires, as well, not believing a number of other things. That first year was a struggle.

On the other hand, the same year forced me to a far more existential level – even to the place of crisis. How to believe in a God who is “everywhere present and filling all things” is a very different way of life than to believe in a God who is “out there.” In an Orthodox life our faith in God also changes how we see everything else (or it should). Nothing remains the same. The creation is not “self-existent” (a hallmark of two-storey thought) but utterly dependent and contingent moment by moment on the good will and providence of God. “Heaven and earth are full of His glory.”

I have found it interesting in my ministry as an Orthodox priest and missionary to meet people who, upon learning of the Orthodox faith, have replied with joy, “I always thought something like that must be true.” There are many people, who though never having heard the Gospel presented in its proper fullness, have nevertheless refused to be content with something less. They are, for me, miracles of grace.

It is a commonplace to say that Orthodoxy is full of paradoxes. One of those is the paradox that many non-Orthodox Christians may have to leave their God in order to become Orthodox and that many atheists will have to learn not to believe in a different God before they can come to the Truth.

It is simply the case that in order to find our life we have to lose it.

The Unplanned Life

April 27, 2009

bro-ephraim-mar-saba1The following article was first written and posted in March of 2007. I have added a few additional thoughts to the end.

One of the geniuses of modern life is the plan. It is certainly the case that if you have a company and a product, or whatever passes for those in these days, there is probably a plan to go with them. Occasionally you hear from Christians, “God has a plan for my life.”

Several years ago I was flying from Dallas back to Tennessee and was sitting in the middle of two very interesting young seatmates. On the aisle was a very frightened young coed who gripped the armrest ever tighter with the slightest bump.

It was a summer flight – meaning lots of thunderstorms between Dallas and Tennessee –  and therefore lots of bumps. On my right was a young college student from one of the Christian colleges in the Dallas area.

After a particularly difficult set of bumps, the young man, in an effort to be helpful, turned to the woman seated on my other side and said, “You don’t need to be worried. God has a plan for my life. This plane cannot go down.” Apparently God had also told him what the plan was.

I thought to myself, “I’ve served God for many years and as far as I know, he can take me at any minute.”

Is there a plan for our lives?

The closest thing that I can think of in Scripture for “the plan” is this statement in Ephesians:

For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him, according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will, we who first hoped in Christ have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory. (1:9-12)

 It seems to me that there is a world of difference between the sort of plan St. Paul describes here and the sort of plan envisioned by my young evangelical seatmate. Clearly, God has a plan. St. Paul says so. But the most essential aspect of that plan is that we are destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory – which, of course – one can do as the plane plunges to the earth as well as anywhere.

Our culture is marked by planning. We are all “teleologically” wired in our society – that is we are always thinking that we’re headed somewhere. Some of this is Christian – we believe that Christ will come again and that this age will come to an end. But there has been a “trickle down” effect of such notions into the very fabric of our culture.

Of course, one of the problems with this cultural habit is that it makes it very hard for us to ever be where we are when we are there (we’re always going somewhere else). And so it is hard to waste time (which is an interesting expression in and of itself). It is hard to pray (a thousand things lying just ahead in the future beckon us to leave such quiet moments behind).

But if we actually read St. Paul and think of what we have been told – then we realize that we can be “at the end” in any given moment. To “live for the praise of God’s glory” is always immediately at hand. And it is probably the case that when we are not doing so we are in fact in sin.

There are many questions which I cannot answer about my life. I assume it will be lived where I am (I do not “plan” to be elsewhere). I do not know the future of my parish (I am frequently asked, “Do you have plans to build a larger Church?”). I certainly hope to, but we do not have plans as of yet [though today we are a little further down that road].

But the one plan that matters is the one St. Paul mentioned. I plan to live for the praise of God’s glory – this plan is sufficient. This is not to throw planning out the window. If you’re going to take a trip you’ll likely have to plan what sort of things to take. And many things in our lives require such “planning.” But if in the middle of everything else you have forgotten the only plan that matters, then all the other “plans” will have been for nothing.

“To the praise of His glory,” an excellent plan indeed.


An additional reflection I would add to this original piece, is that the great “plan” for our life is found primarily in the Cross of Christ. Christians are specifically told that “anyone who would be my disciple must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). St. Paul also enjoins us to have “the mind which is yours in Christ Jesus,” and describes that as the mind of humility that empties itself and is crucified (Philippians 2:5-11).  

The path that our life takes is a mystery. Sometimes we see a pattern and sometimes we do not. There is no promise to us that we will know the shape our life will take – other than the promise that if we live in obedience to Christ our life will take a shape that is conformed to the image of Christ – most specifically Christ crucified. God will raise us up.

Everywhere Present

April 26, 2009

BOSNIA MONASTERY WINEEverything you do, all your work, can contribute towards your salvation. It depends on you, on the way you do it. History is replete with monks who became great saints while working in the kitchen or washing sheets. The way of salvation consists in working without passion, in prayer….

May God give you the strength to keep your spirit, your mind, and your heart in the spirit of Christ. Then everything that happens to you can very quickly be radically transformed. What was tiresome and discouraging will disappear, transfigured by your desire to be there where Christ your God is….

Elder Sophrony



The wise elder’s words are not only good for our salvation (which is always at hand) but reminds us that we should not divide our lives into two worlds. Even monks have to wash dishes…

If we concede that some of our life is drudgery, mindless, but needful, while other parts of our life are interesting and of value to God, then we have ourselves created a two-storey universe of our inner world. This part of my life is of no value – while this part is of great value. This, of course, is nonsense. Even service in the Holy Altar frequently consists in washing dishes.

The words of the elder teach us that the problem of the two-storey universe is to be found primarily in our own heart – not in the culture around us nor in the tasks we find at hand. God is everywhere present and filling all things. He is even present and filling the various tasks of “drudgery” we undertake. No task is beneath us. The Mother of God changed the diapers of the God of heaven. Our love for those around us should be no less. We are moved when we read in John that ‘Jesus wept’ at the grave of Lazarus, His friend. The Theotokos had long before heard Him weap and wail as all children do. Nor should any mother (or father) give less value to the weeping of their own children. God has invested everything with His love, transforming the world into the stage of our salvation. Glory to God for all things.

On Behalf of All and For All

April 25, 2009
picture-184There is a great mystery in the life of the Christian faith. An example can be found in words of St. Nikolai of Zicha (Prayers of the Lake XXIX). It is this mystery of communion that is so easily missed by those who dismiss Orthodox Christianity, or reduce Christianity to an argument about miracles. The Orthodox faith teaches us the truth about what it means to exist as a human being. We know these things because we know Christ – Who alone is the perfect man (and perfect God). The rejection of the Christian faith (in the fullness of Orthodoxy) is not the rejection of an argument, much less of peasant superstition, but a rejection finally of humanity itself. St. Nikolai stands in the heart of Orthodox Tradition as he offers these prayerful, poetic words.
For all the sins of men I repent before You, Most Merciful Lord. Indeed, the seed of all sins flows in my blood! With my effort and Your mercy I choke this wicked crop of weeds day and night, so that no tare may sprout in the field of the Lord, but only pure wheat.1

I repent for all those who are worried, who stagger under a burden of worries and do not know that they should put all their worries on You. For feeble man even the most minor worry is unbearable, but for You a mountain of worries is like a snowball thrown into a fiery furnace.

I repent for all the sick, for sickness is the fruit of sin. When the soul is cleansed with repentance, sickness disappears with sin, and You, my Eternal Health, take up Your abode in the soul.

I repent for unbelievers, who through their unbelief amass worries and sicknesses both on themselves and on their friends.

I repent for all those who blaspheme God, who blaspheme against You without knowing that they are blaspheming against the Master, who clothes them and feeds them.

I repent for all the slayers of men, who take the life of another to preserve their own. Forgive them, Most Merciful2 Lord, for they know not what they do. For they do not know that there are not two lives in the universe, but one, and that there are not two men in the universe, but one. Ah, how dead are those who cut the heart in half!

I repent for all those who bear false witness, for in reality they are homicides and suicides.

For all my brothers who are thieves and who are hoarders of unneeded wealth I weep and sigh, for they have buried their soul and have nothing with which to go forth before You.

For all the arrogant and the boastful I weep and sigh, for before You they are like beggars with empty pockets.

For all drunkards and gluttons I weep and sigh, for they have become servants of their servants.

For all adulterers I repent, for they have betrayed the trust. of the Holy Spirit, who chose them to form new life through them. Instead, they turned serving life into destroying life.

For all gossipers I repent, for they have turned Your most precious gift, the gift of speech, into cheap sand.

For all those who destroy their neighbor’s hearth and home and their neighbor’s peace I repent and sigh, for they bring a curse on themselves and their people.

For all lying tongues, for all suspicious eyes, for all raging hearts, for all insatiable stomachs, for all darkened minds, for all ill will, for all unseemly thoughts, for all murderous emotions–I repent, weep and sigh.

For all the history of mankind from Adam to me, a sinner, I repent; for all history is in my blood. For I am in Adam and Adam is in me.

For all the worlds, large and small, that do not tremble before Your awesome presence, I weep and cry out: O Master Most Merciful, have mercy on me and save me!”


1. For the parable of the wheat and the tares, see Matt. 13:24-30.

2. Cf. Luke 23:34.

A Faith That Cannot Be Defended

April 23, 2009

picture-019There is such a thing as a Christian faith worth defending (in some sense). However, it seems like those who enjoy attacking the Christian faith find its least worthy representatives for the marshalling of their meager intellectual forces. This often means that atheists attack a faith nobody (virtually) believes, and that defenders sometimes defend something less than Christianity.

 I have seen several recent articles (most notably in the New Statesman) that have offered characterizations of Christianity that even the 9th grade education of my first Baptist pastor could have refuted. The caricature of Christianity, some of which has been made possible by Christian fundamentalism (itself a caricature of Christianity), is generally too incorrect to be addressed by a serious Christian. If people think that Christianity is the amalgam of ancient peasant superstitions – how can you answer them? Such ignorance of history is itself a modernist peasant superstition.

 Recently a parishioner sent me a small critique from a web-site that considered itself wise for having used weak philosophical reasoning to undermine Christianity by proving that God’s omnipresence proved that “God is in hell.” Of course, Orthodox Christianity, believing the Scripture and theological testimony would immediately agree: “God is in hell.” Why do they think we get so excited at Pascha? The God-Who-Is loves us so much that He entered Hell to redeem us. It is a doctrine taught in Scripture, upheld in Tradition and celebrated in the feasts of the Church.

 The great tragedy, of course, is that contemporary Christianity has been so “gutted” by those who claim to be its reformers, that a central doctrine of the faith can now be used by non-believers in an effort to undermine a modernized Christianity that was only invented a few years ago.

 There are many reasons to be an Orthodox Christian: the greatest of which I have any knowledge, is the simple fact that Orthodox Christianity alone is true, and the fullness of the Christian faith. Defending anything else is not only a waste of time but beside the point.

The tragedy is that much time and energy will be wasted attacking something that is not the Christian faith, while what is the Christian faith remains unknown. But perhaps in God’s good pleasure this is how things should be.

 To readers who entertain criticisms of the Christian faith: be sure to attack the real Christian faith and not recent inventions that have no right to the name.

 To readers who seek to defend the faith: don’t waste your time defending something less than the complete faith. Nothing else deserves the time or trouble.

Singleness of Heart

April 22, 2009

167502985_1130add41dPerhaps the most scathing reading during Holy Week occurs in the Bridegroom Matins of Great and Holy Tuesday of when we hear Chapter 23 of Matthew’s gospel. There is a refrain which marks many of the verses: “Woe to you scribes and pharisees, you hypocrites!” A single such sentence would carry a punch, but in this particular chapter of Matthew, Jesus says this 8 times (with many other such invectives added in). Hypocrisy is a difficult sin – one to which the religious are particularly susceptible. It is the opposite of hypocrisy that occupies my thoughts in this post.

We read frequently in the Fathers about “uniting the mind with the heart.” Most often we think of something quite mystical and mysterious. For myself, I have prayed for years waiting on such a phenomenon with mostly the experience of waiting.

There is another form of the union of heart and mind that is a prerequisite for the former: the simple union of heart and mind that occurs whenever we actually say what we mean.

Scripture offers criticism of the lack of this (and it is echoed in Christ’s teaching):

…this people honors me with their lips but their hearts are drawn far from me” (Isaiah 29:13).

It may seem a simple thing to actually mean what you say and say what you mean – but such guileless speech is much less common than we imagine. For a large variety of reasons we often fail to give voice to our heart (some of those reasons are not bad or wrong).

There is a common experience in prayer when our mind wanders. The words continue but our hearts have been “drawn away.” Some might think that this only happens to those who pray by reading prayers from a book (it is certainly a hazard for such prayer), however, our hearts are such that even in “extemporaneous speech” the heart can just as easily be absent. Thus we hear “formulas”, frequently repeated phrases from those who “extemporaneously” pray “from the heart.” 

The simple truth is that it is hard to unite our heart and our mouth. This fundamental lack of integrity is simply one of the many ways in which our brokenness manifests itself. We are a people of “lying lips.”

Our human relationships are full of banter that comes from somewhere other than the heart. It is not only God who is deprived of the witness and testimony of our heart. “I love you” often means something else.

Among the teachings of the Fathers on prayer is the simple instruction to allow ourselves to settle down and our speech and our heart to be one. It is a simple union of heart and mouth.

In such a simple union our heart and its content are often revealed to us (we certainly hide from its content in most other forms of speech). Of course this revelation is not always a pleasant discovery – for the heart is often filled with darkness and thoughts we prefer to hide. Such discoveries, of course, are excellent fodder for confession. Without such knowledge, confession is greatly weakened. “I have lied” should be a far more frequent item of confession. We say to God, “With my whole heart…,” when in fact we mean, “My heart is somewhere else entirely.” It is a lie – one so common that we place it in a category of “my mind wandered.” It is not nearly the case that our mind wandered – our heart was drawn away. A far more serious matter.

The concentration required to unite our heart and mouth (mind) are and should be part of our normative spiritual arsenal. It requires that we learn to listen as well as to speak and to be frequent in making confession (as we discover the true content of our heart). The New Testament seems to go out of its way to mention the problem of lying, noting both that Satan is the “father of lies,” as well as:

I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and that no lie is of the truth.Who is a liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist who denies the Father and the Son. Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either; he who acknowledges the Son has the Father also.

Telling the truth is far more than meeting the criteria of moral uprightness – it is deeply and essentially related to our knowledge of God. We cannot know the Truth if we ourselves refuse to be among those who speak the truth. Nor can we be among those who speak the truth if there is no union between the heart and what comes out of our mouth.

In earlier years as an Anglican priest, I would be deeply troubled by the fact that many within that denomination (and I do not exaggerate) found it perfectly acceptable to say things (such as the Nicene Creed) within a service of worship which they themselves did not actually believe. As time has gone on, I have seen that though many others would claim that they believe the creed and say it with unalloyed enthusiasm – the remains a division between heart and mouth. Is it an improvement to say the Creed (which theoretically you believe) but for your mind to wander and your heart to be far removed?

Were I in a marriage relationship in which a person said they loved me but in fact did not, or in a marriage in which a person “loved me” but found that their heart was somewhere else – I’m not sure the distinction would matter a great deal. In both cases you are left with the emptiness of a loveless relationship.

It is like the parable of the two sons in which one, asked by his father to go to the fields says, ‘Yes,’ but does not go. While the other says ‘No’ but later changes his mind and goes. Christ taught that the second was the faithful. Not words – but words, heart and action – a unity in the very soul of our being.

May Christ find the welcome home of truth in the heart of each of us this Paschal season!

Relative to Pascha

April 20, 2009

karl_bryullov-christ_resurrected_1840sIf you have attended Pascha services, or served them, it is quite possible to suffer some of the “natural consequences,” which for me means that after a somewhat disordered sleep I am sitting, having coffee and writing at 3:30 in the morning, wide-awake. I have no complaints. I generally like to be up by around 5 or so, so I am only off by a couple of hours…. There is also the Bright Monday Liturgy to be served this morning as well.

It underlines in the language of sleep, that things are all relative to Pascha. Rightly observed, we do not adjust the Pascha to fit the world, but rather the World to fit Pascha. Even if the time of services may be adjusted somewhat in some places, it remains the case that we must be “adjusted” to fit Pascha.

The simple reason is that everything that exists does so only in relation to this event. This is Creation. This is salvation. This is purification and deification. Everything we want and everything we are must find its basis in Pascha or it will find no basis at all (utimately).

We are told in Scripture that the “Lamb was slain from the foundation of the earth” (Rev. 13:8). What takes place at Pascha is more than a resurrection that holds out promise to the human race for everlasting life. When viewed in such a manner, humanity becomes the center and the meaning of Pascha. Rather we are told that creation itself is groaning for this very thing. The description of Good Friday to Pascha in Scripture (which is one long event), is replete with creation’s reaction. The sun is darkened – an earthquake shakes Jerusalem (there is to this day a long split in the rock beneath Golgotha, said to date to that earthquake). What occurred was more than the moral tidiness of God, but an event that is both the foundation and the meaning of all creation.

Pascha, in its eternal consideration, is simply older than all creation (Rev. 13:8). It underlines the fact that “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten son…” The Son was given before ever Adam and Eve drew their first breath.

Thus when we encounter Pascha in our own day and age, it is not simply a piece of ancient Church ceremony. We stand as witnesses to the foundation of the earth. Time does not exist for us in Pascha, or rather, time begins in Pascha. 

I stood in the altar Saturday night, and looked over to a clock in the Sanctuary. We were running “late.” We had already passed the published time for the beginning of the service –  but people continued to arrive. My deacon looked over to me, smiled, and said, “Pascha is never late.” 

For some days to come, I am sure that my internal clock will operate on “Pascha time.” I only hope and pray that the rest of me will remain forever set to that event – that might life become a Pascha for everyone around me. St. Seraphim of Sarov, regardless of the time of year, greated everyone with, “Christ is risen!” For those who met him – they met Pascha in the form of humbled, bent-over Russian staretz. May Pascha greet you in a hundred ways today and may others who meet you encounter Pascha as well. 

Christ is risen!