Archive for April 2nd, 2009

Worth the Time to Think It Through

April 2, 2009


There are many things written in theology that are difficult to understand. Certain writers, certain realities are difficult if not impossible to grasp with reason alone. I can recall spending several days with a single sentence from Met. John Zizioulas’ Being As Communion. However, after several days, “the coin dropped,” as the saying goes, and it started a chain reaction that changed my life. Three days well spent. I am offering here a two paragraph’s from Fr. Nicholas Sakharov’s I Love Therefore I Am – his magisterial work on the life and thought of Elder Sophrony (Sakharov). It is worth noting that Fr. Nicholas is the grand nephew of the Elder and is himself a monk at St. John the Baptist Monastery in Essex, England, the Elder’s monastery. If you want to spend time with something – these paragraphs will be worth whatever it takes. At the very least it should make you want to read the works of Fr. Sophrony, as well as those of St. Silouan, his spiritual father.


Elder [St.] Silouan pays particular attention to the type of prayer “for the whole creation”: “Let the whole world come to know Thee.” Elder Silouan precedes Fr. Sophrony in using the expression the whole Adam, which indicates the ontological oneness of the human race. His chapter “Adam’s Lament” expresses his universal application of the term “Adam”: Adam is “the father of the universe” and, as such, he emerges as a collective personality. Christ-like love is the bond that links the whole Adam.

The universality of this love is often expressed by elder Silouan as “love toward one’s enemies,” which was central to his thinking to an unprecedented extent. It became his criterion for the authenticity of any Christian message. Christ’s commandment (Matt. 5:44) is a projection of the divine mode of being onto the level of human relationship, since it reflects the absolute character of divine love.

Fr. Nicholas Sakharov


This morning I’ve thought to add some meditation on Fr. Nicholas’ paragraphs. They can be difficult indeed. First, the thought on the “ontological oneness of the human race.” According to the teaching of the Church – humanity shares but one nature, our human nature, though in our fallenness there is something of a fragmentation of this in our experience. We experience ourselves as individuals – not connected to others. St. Silouan concentrated not on our “nature,” but on our person – that “individual-like” identity which is whole because it is connected with others (and thus is often treated as the almost opposite of “individual”). But the great saints teaching, as well as that of the Elder Sophrony, was that in the practice of love of neighbor (and love of enemy), we extend our personhood into a communion with others that enlarges the spiritual heart and unites us together as one. This common humanity, both men referred to as the “Whole Adam.”

More importantly in these paragraphs is the insistence by St. Silouan on the one hand that “love of enemy” was the only proper measure for authenticity in the Christian life. I have stated this elsewhere as, “You only know God to the extent you love your enemy.” It is a pure teaching. But, as noted by Fr. Nicholas, it is more than a mere moral teaching. Love of enemy is a “projection of the divine mode of being on to the human relationship” – which is to say that love of enemy is indeed that action which, by grace, makes us like God. Love of enemy becomes for us as well our “mode of being,” and not simply a good thing to do. Through such love we come to live more fully as a person in the “whole Adam.”

I attended a panel discussion earlier this week between an Orthodox priest, a Rabbi, and an Imam. At one point, in discussing forgiveness, the Rabbi commented that if he got to heaven and found Adolf Hitler walking around, he would be disappointed in God. It was clear in his remarks that “justice” was his greatest concern. His has been noted by Orthodox teachers that if we ask for justice we will all be in hell. The universe and “God’s mode of being” are not founded on justice. No where in the Scripture are we told, “God is justice.” He is, indeed, a just God, but the meaning of that statement is still a deeply hidden mystery. Far more clear is the revelation, “God is love.” If we cannot bear God’s love for our enemy, then our relationship with God will be deeply hindered, even broken.

The gravity and anguish of even contemplating God’s love of political mass murderers is the sort of thing that breaks, even crushes the heart. But we have hearts of stone that find themselves crushed by the love of God. We must pray that the outcome is a broken and contrite heart. There is not a limit on the love of God. May He have mercy on me and my stoney heart.

My Heart Is Heavy

April 2, 2009


I received official notice this afternoon that the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America officially accepted the retirement request of Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas and the South, my diocesan bishop. The heaviness of my heart is made lighter by the fact that His Beatitude Jonah, Metropolitan of the OCA will become Locum Tenens, taking care of the needs of our diocese as we look for a new bishop.

It is hard to express to the non-Orthodox (and even some Orthodox) the relationship between a priest and his bishop. Imagine someone who teaches the faith in all its fullness, holds you accountable to do the same, and is merciful to all as God has taught us to be merciful. This, of course, describes my Archbishop.

But it had long been the hunger of my heart to serve such a Bishop, and a deep pain, forgive me, during my Anglican years, that such was not the case. To be told by your Bishop (Anglican) that the Virgin Birth, “was not a necessary doctrine,” is simply to remain speechless. It’s like your father telling you that faithfulness in marriage is not necessary.

I suppose that to some degree such pain increased my joy in becoming Orthodox, that my conversion was not to leave something but to gain something – I gained everything. The Orthodox Church is not made up of perfect people (they let me be a priest) – but remains the true Church, faithful to Christ who founded her. This is not a triumphalist statement for me, but a confession of what I believe to be true. I also find it to be particularly painful when Orthodox Christians or hierarchs act as though this were less than the truth of our calling. It increases, as well, the intensity of my own confession, for I am truly an unworthy priest.

My joy is that God heard my prayer and gave me a time in my life in which I have known what it is to serve under a man of holiness. I know, as well, that I will serve under another such man in the person of Vladyka Jonah. Part of the mystery of the Church is that it is founded upon “the Apostles and Prophets,” that is, it has always been a matter of the persons to whom Christ entrusted the care of His Church.

I have known a true Bishop. I have served an Apostle. I have been loved and nurtured in the faith. I can ask for little else in this life. Christ is in our midst!

At the Center of Everything – the Cross

April 2, 2009

img_1007Fr. John Behr, in his book, The Mystery of Christ, takes a very close look at the earliest centuries of the Christian faith, and at the very heart of Orthodoxy itself which is to be found there. In particular he speaks with great clarity about the “rule of faith,” certainly known to all of the Apostles and to the Apostolic Church. If placed in words it sounds much like the Apostles’ Creed (which is, indeed, one of its earliest verbal expressions). We hear echoes of that same rule in various places in the New Testament, which bears witness that the writers of the New Testament, such as St. Paul, knew full well the “rule of faith” before ever they wrote a word. (It is also interesting that Creeds in some form are older than the New Testament).

The early Christian community, despite being surrounded by false teachers, Judaizers, gnostics, and what-have-you, were nonetheless not a confused bunch. It was not the “California-believe-what-you-want” paradise that the neo-gnostics such as Elaine Pagels and some others would have us imagine. Orthodox Catholic Christianity was steady on from the beginning and silenced everyone around them, not through the machinations of the state (they were not even legal yet), nor of some plot of sinister paternalism that modern feminists like to conjure.

This small minority clung to an understanding of Christ because they both knew the “rule of faith” – that is they could recite the Tradition that had been given them – but also because the Tradition that had been given to them was itself living and true. The truly Great Tradition of the Church was and is the Crucified God. It sings through every page of the New Testament. Unknown in the gnostic writings with their Ogdoads and Aeons, the gospel of Christ was and is the good news that God became man, and became the very least of us, entering even into the depths of death and hell to rescue us from the hell we had created for ourselves.

The Gospel of the Crucified God is that strength is found in weakness, triumph in forgiveness; evil is overcome by good; losing ourselves is finding ourselves; wealth is poverty and poverty is wealth; and the list could be multiplied many times over. Most importantly these are not abstract principles, but descriptions of Who God Is and How God Is in His revelation of Himself to us.

The “dogmatic consciousness” of which the Elder Sophrony occasionally writes, is finally having the truth of the Crucified God written into the very core of your heart and soul. It is knowing the God who emptied Himself and yielding yourself to be conformed to His image.

The wonder of the writings of an Elder Sophrony, and of others like him through the years of the Church, is that both they themselves and many whom they knew, embodied this knowledge of God and became bearers of the light in their own generation. The saints are the great treasury of Orthodoxy, living proof of the rightness of our doctrine. Indeed, they are what the doctrine looks like.

St. Paul, writing to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 3:3) …”you are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.” This gives a new meaning to the “New Testament Church.” Now we can see that it means the Church which is the “New Testament,” and this same New Testament continues to be read in the Churches who have preserved that same faith.

It is simply not enough to study the Scriptures. We must become the Scriptures so that all might read Christ in our heart and know the Truth of the gospel. Talk about the gospel will not save the world. Only the gospel enfleshed in human lives can be said to constitute preaching. This is what Christians are ordained (Baptized) to do.

In a couple of weeks we will gather again around the Cross of the Christ and remember its centrality. Orthodox Christians should never make the mistake that this event is only momentary or an accidental rescue of fallen man. It is the revelation of God that must become the revelation of our own true self.