Archive for May, 2009

Engaging Creation-Praise Him and Highly Exalt Him Forever

May 19, 2009

smPC310365Writing on beauty can seem an abstract approach to the created order – except that it draws our attention to see the world in a particular way. It is important, it seems to me, to at least see the world. So much of theology and what passes for religion can be mere intellectual exercise that religion and abstraction become synonymous. This is foreign to the true life of Orthodoxy and the true life of Christianity.

The sacraments of the Church are more than “seven” moments in the life of Christians that accidentally happen to use physical elements. They are “moments” but examples of the true character of the Christian life. The elements used in sacraments: bread, wine, water, oil, the laying on of hands, sight, sound, action, etc. – are all simply things that make up life as we know it. They are not discussions of bread, wine, water, oil, etc. Thus the sacraments involve eating and drinking, anointing and movement. They are very much part of what is normative in human life.

As examples of the Christian life they point us towards the right understanding and use of creation itself. There are only “seven” sacraments if your are engaged in a contest with medieval Roman Catholics and need to say that your faith is not inferior to theirs. In point of fact “sacrament” or “mystery” (the preferred Orthodox term) is simply a way of rightly understanding our relationship with God as part of His created order. Everything is mystery when rightly understood.

So the question for me has to do with how do I engage creation. Do I live among created things as the bearer of the Divine image living within the mystery of God made manifest in everything around me? Or do I live as a thinking creature who considers religious ideas while going about my normal, everyday tasks.

In a proper Christian understanding, I posit, there are no “normal everyday tasks.” This is simply more of the creeping secularization of our world. Either God is relevant to every task, every motion and action – or He is not relevant at all. There can be no limited God.

This, I think, is a very difficult part of our Christian existence. And I think it is difficult for two different reasons. First, it is difficult because we are not used to God being anything other than a limited God, restricted to specifically “religious” activities. Second, it is difficult because when we attempt to relate to God in formerly “non-religious” activities, what we experience is often an artificial attempt to “sacralize” what we believe to be inherently non-sacred. So our choice becomes something between secularism and pseudo-sacramental. Neither are satisfactory.

A key to overcoming this false distinction lies in properly locating the problem. The problem does not lie in creation. I do not need to redefine creation in order to “make it sacred.” Either it is already inherently sacred or not. Christians are not traveling magicians, bringing a new state to the created world.

The problem does not lie within creation but within ourselves. Christ did not need to change the waters and winds of the Galilee in order to speak peace to their stormy condition. Nothing changed about the wind and the sea other than their presenting condition. Creation did not become other than creation. Christ was already such that wind and sea obeyed Him. 

By the same token, it is not creation that must change in our lives – but our lives in creation must change. As an example, I would cite the Scriptures (from the LXX text of Daniel appended to the article).

This “Song of the Three Young Men,” is as complete a model for our engagement of creation as I can imagine. It does not seek to make the beasts and the cattle to be other than they are – to “sacralize them” – but engages them as they are: creatures of God and thus able to “praise Him and highly exalt Him forever.” To live as a being within a creation that is engaged in the praise and exaltation of God is to live rightly within the world.

The creation is already “eucharistic” (marked by thanksgiving). It is me as a fallen human being who has chosen to be other than eucharistic. Rather than give thanks together with creation I would rather consume it, manage it, use it, abuse it, and consider it inferior to my intellect and dead. The answer to all of that is my repentance and my embrace of the eucharistic life that is proper to the whole of the created order. For we have our place within the Song:

Bless the Lord, you priests of the Lord, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you servants of the Lord sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, spirits and souls of the righteous, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you who are holy and humble in heart, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 

Our proper engagement with creation – living the mystery – is to lift up our voice and sing and cease to be the only silence outside of Hell.

“Blessed art thou, O Lord, God of our fathers, and to be praised and highly exalted for ever; 
 …Blessed art thou in the firmament of heavenand to be sung and glorified for ever. 
“Bless the Lord, all works of the Lord, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you heavens, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you angels of the Lord, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all waters above the heaven, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all powers, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, sun and moon, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, stars of heaven, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all rain and dew, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all winds, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, fire and heat, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, winter cold and summer heat, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, dews and snows, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, nights and days, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, light and darkness, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, ice and cold, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, frosts and snows, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, lightnings and clouds, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Let the earth bless the Lord; let it sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, mountains and hills, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all things that grow on the earth, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you springs, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, seas and rivers, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you whales and all creatures that move in the waters, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all birds of the air, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all beasts and cattle, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you sons of men, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, O Israel, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you priests of the Lord, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you servants of the Lord sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, spirits and souls of the righteous, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you who are holy and humble in heart, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever….

May God Bless Your Day

May 19, 2009

A Sidebar Addition

May 18, 2009

Despite maintaining a blog site – I confess to being somewhat technology-challenged. Thus my site is not normally an example of the latest design, etc. However, I just learned how to use a piece of blog technology to enhance my sidebar. I have added a “vodpod widget” – meaning there is now a small collection of videos available on the sidebar. Most have appeared before on the site – but some are new. I will continue to add to my “video collection” – mostly examples of Orthodox music or culture. I draw your attention to its presence. There is also a wonderful lecture by Met. Kallistos Ware which is about an hour and a half long.

Why Should Beauty Matter?

May 18, 2009

IMG_0529Reflecting on my last two posts, The Nature of Things and Our Salvation and Beauty and the Salvation of the World, I have a question:

What is the nature of things such that beauty should matter?

It is a commonplace in our culture to think that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” (rendering beauty completely subjective and relative), while at the same time making a cult out of the pursuit of “beauty” (in various guises). It is thus easy for Christians in the contemporary world to be cautious around the topic of beauty. Relativism generally has a corrosive effect on its surrounding culture – while the hedonistic pursuit of “beauty” is corrosion itself.

And yet, beauty holds a very important place in Orthodox theology and practice. I do not propose to offer a theological account of beauty – there are limits to my capabilities. Instead, I want to stand with others and wonder. There is a beauty to the creation, in its fullness, in its depth and in its surface as we see it, that simply staggers the heart. We are frequently distracted and fail to see the truth of what is. But, I believe, those moments when we are present to beauty, we are beholding something of the truth (and not in a relative sense). 

In Greek, the word, kalos, carries a double meaning: it can mean “good,” and it can mean “beautiful.” The same is true of the Hebrew word tov. It is these words that we find in Genesis when God says that creation is “good.” I believe that the double sense of these words are both true. To know the goodness of creation is also to know its beauty (nor can they truly be separated). 

I am deeply aware of the fallenness of the world in which we live. It is of the very character of sin that it seeks to distort and destroy beauty – just as it would seek to redefine goodness. I am struck, however, by the fact that despite the brokenness of the world and the presence of sin within it – beauty and goodness remain. 

Christ on the cross manifests the transcendent goodness of God. Already on the cross, beauty is destroying sin and goodness revealing the emptiness and futility of evil. 

The title of this website is taken from the last words of St. John Chrysostom. He died in exile. Falsely persecuted by his enemies, he was deposed from his bishopric and exiled to the extreme limits of the Byzantine empire. Always plagued by ill health, his sickness made his exile a torture. His letters from exile reveal a lonely and depressed soul who longed for his friends. However, the profession of faith on his deathbed, like the words of Christ on the cross, reveal a vision of the goodness of God. “Glory to God for all things!” carried the last breath from his body.

I recall a patient that I served as a hospice chaplain. She was a Pentecostal from the mountains here in East Tennessee. Most of her last days were marked by a morphine coma. But in her last hour she was awake. I recall standing by her bed and praying quietly. I remember watching her saying something and bent over her to hear her words. She had raised her hands (weakly), and was repeating, “Praise you, Jesus!” Beauty radiated from her face.

Hers is not the only such death I have witnessed. Like the words of Chrysostom, such moments are the Christian witness to the goodness of God – despite every attending circumstance. My belief is that every moment is utterly filled with beauty and goodness were we only present to the moment. 

Beauty matters because it is the truth in the very nature of things. God said, “It is good.” Creation did not cease to be good, nor did beauty disappear with the entrance of sin. Glory to God for all things.

Beauty and the Salvation of the World

May 17, 2009

481px-Angelsatmamre-trinity-rublev-1410Thus the most persuasive philosophic proof of God’s existence is the one the textbooks never mention, conclusion of which can perhaps best express the whole meaning: There exists the icon of the Holy Trinity by St. Andrei Rublev; therefore, God exists.

– from Pavel Florensky’s Iconostasis

This short quote from St. Pavel Florensky’s Iconostasis is among the most startling in his extant works. It is not unlike the oft-attributed Dostoevsky quote, “God will save the world through beauty.” Both thoughts bear witness to a beauty that both transcends our world and at the same time establishes and saves our world. Rightly understood, they are also related to Holy Scripture.

Some years ago, within my thesis at Duke University, I wrote about the iconicity of language, meaning that language, especially Holy Scripture, functions in a manner similar to the Holy Icons. The Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council stated that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” I turned that succinct statement around to ask if Scripture does with words what icons do with color. It became the starting point for my thoughts on the iconicity of language.

We know, dogmatically, much about how an icon “works,” how it makes present what it represents. I sought to apply that understanding to the reading of Holy Scripture. As time has gone by (better than 15 years now) I have come to see that Scripture may indeed best be understood in an iconic fashion. An icon of Christ is not Christ Himself, but a representation of which He is the prototype. But, St. Theodore the Studite noted, it is a representation of the hypostasis, the person of Christ, rather than a representation of His nature. This is a significant dogmatic statement, because it provides a way for speaking of Christ’s presence in a manner that is not a sacrament, in the sense of the Eucharist. The Holy Fathers taught that the Eucharist is not an icon, but the very Body and Blood of Christ. Thus there is not a normal analogy between an icon and the Eucharist.

Neither is Holy Scripture to be likened to the Eucharist, for it is like the icons. An icon is holy because of the presence of the “person,” not because the wood and paint have undergone any change. Christ is “hypostatically present,” but not “naturally present.” He does not become incarnate as wood and paint.

This notion of “hypostatic representation” opened for me a whole new way of understanding the Scriptures and of speaking of their role in revelation. Icons have many strange features (at least those painted in accordance with the canons). The characters are drawn in a manner that differs from photographic reality. Time is somewhat relative – several events separated by time may be pictured together in the same icon if there is a connection between them and they enlighten one another. Other examples could be given. So, too, the Gospels have a way of presenting the saving actions and teachings of Christ in a manner that is iconic. The Gospels frequently ignore time sequence placing events in differing relationships to the whole, in order to reveal yet more of the Truth of Christ.

St. John’s gospel is perhaps the most striking in this respect. Following the Prologue there is a sequence of water stories, followed by a sequence of bread stories. Little wonder that the Church traditionally used St. John for its post-baptismal catechesis. His pericopes are far more like pictures than narratives. And so it is in John’s gospel that we read the finest commentary and teaching on the Eucharist not around the event of the Last Supper (which John does not actually mention) but around the event of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Read in a purely historic manner, Christ’s teaching on the loaves and fishes, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood…”, would not only be scandalous to some, but would literally make no sense. Equally senseless (in the light of the sixth chapter) would be the claim of some historical critical scholars that John knows nothing of the Tradition of the Last Supper. How utterly silly!

Having said all this (and there is so much more that can be said) it is possible to see how the Scriptures resist rational forces that seek to wrest them into one thing or another. One rationalist seeks to harmonize all the Scriptures in a mechanical manner that yields a narrow conception of inerrancy. Another seizes on the iconic character of Scripture and assumes that these oddities represent historical flaws. Like an icon, the Scriptures present the Truth of God to us – and do so in a way that we can indeed begin to see the truth.

There is a propositional character to be found in Scripture – after all, an icon of a human being still looks like a human being, even if it is painted in a style that is other than photographic. But the propositions of Scripture function in a manner similar to the Holy Icons. We are not led to reason God, but to know God. The propositions of Scripture, particularly the most confusing ones, lead the reader to see what cannot be seen in this world until we have the eyes to see.

St. John’s gospel is easily my favorite, if only because I know it better and have spent more time in its pages. There is a transcendent beauty in its words – a beauty never lost regardless of the language into which it is translated. The beauty is more than the sum total of the words or even the beauty of lofty concepts. It is a beauty that is nothing other than the personal (hypostatic) representation of Christ. “These things are written so that in reading them you might believe.”

There exists the Gospel of St. John; therefore, God exists. God is indeed saving the world through beauty.

The Nature of Things – And Our Salvation

May 15, 2009

Southwest Trip 344Reflecting on yesterday’s post, I thought it worthwhile to share these thoughts again on the nature of our salvation. It offers a short summary of the difference between a moral and an existential understanding of the Christian faith and why the difference matters. Indeed, as I look through my writings I know this is a recurring theme. It recurs because it is so fundamental to the Christian faith and is at the same time largely unknown in our modern world. 

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The nature of things is an important question to ask – or should I say an a priori question. For once we are able to state what is the nature of things then the answers to many questions framed by the nature of things will also begin to be apparent. All of this is another way of saying that questions have a way of determining answers. So what is the nature of things? More specifically, what is the nature of things such that Christians believe humanity needs salvation? (Non-Christians will already feel co-opted but I write as a Christian – can’t be helped).

I want to state briefly several things which seem to me to be of importance about the nature of things in this regard.

1. It is the nature of things that man does not have a legal problem with God. That is to say, the nature of our problem is not forensic. The universe is not a law-court.

2. It is the nature of things that Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live. This is to say that the nature of our problem is not moral but existential or ontological. We have a problem that is rooted in the very nature of our existence, not in our behavior. We behave badly because of a prior problem. Good behavior will not correct the problem.

3. It is the nature of things that human beings were created to live through communion with God. We were not created to live as self-sufficient individuals marked largely by our capacity for choice and decision. To restate this: we are creatures of communion, not creatures of consumption.

So much for the nature of things. (I’ll do my best to leave behind the syllogisms and return to my usual form of writing.)

Much of my experience as an American Christian has been an encounter with people who do not see mankind’s problem as existential or ontological – but rather as moral. They have seen that we behave badly and thought that the primary task of the Church (following whatever event was considered “necessary” for salvation) was to help influence people to be “good.” Thus I recall a Sunday School teacher who in my pre-school years (as well as a first-grade teacher who attempted the same) urging me and my classmates to “take the pledge.” That is, that we would agree not to smoke tobacco or drink alcohol before age 21. The assumption seemed to be that if we waited that long then we would likely never begin. In at least one of those cases an actual document was proffered. For the life of me I cannot remember whether I signed or not. The main reason I cannot remember was that the issues involved seemed unimportant to me at the time. Virtually every adult in my life smoked. And I was not generally familiar with many men who did not drink. Thus my teachers were asking me to sign a document saying that I thought my father and my grandfather were not good men. I think I did not sign. If I did, then I lied and broke the pledge at a frightfully early age.

My later experience has proven the weakness of the assumptions held by the teachers of my youth. Smoking wasn’t so much right or wrong as it was addicting and deadly. I smoked for 20 years and give thanks to God for the grace he gave me to quit. I feel stupid as I look back at the actions of those 20 years, but not necessarily “bad.” By the same token, I have known quite a few alcoholics (some of them blood relatives) and have generally found them to be about as moral as anyone else and sometimes moreso. I have also seen the destruction wrought by the abuse of alcohol. But I have seen similar destruction in families who never drank and the continuation of destruction in families where alcohol had been removed. Drinking can have serious consequences, but not drinking is not the same thing as curing the problem.

I had a far more profound experience, indeed a series of experiences, when I was ten years old – experiences that made a much deeper impression and framed the questions that burned in my soul about the nature of things.

The first experience was the murder of an aunt. She was 45 and a darling of the family. Everyone loved her. Her murder was simply a matter of “random” chance – she was in the wrong place at the wrong time or simply in a convenient place for a man who meant to do great harm to someone. No deep mystery, just a brutal death. The same year another aunt died as a result of a multi-year battle with lupus (an auto-immune disease). And to add to these things, my 10th year was also the year of Kennedy’s assassination. Thus when the year was done it seemed to me that death was an important question – even the important question.

It probably says that I was marked by experiences that were unusual for a middle-class white boy in the early 60’s. It also meant that when I later read Dostoevsky in my late teens, I was hooked.

The nature of things is that people die – and not only do they die – but death, already at work in them from the moment of their birth, is the primary issue. The failure of humanity is not to be found or understood in a purely moral context. We are notcreatures of choice and decision. How and why we choose is a very complex process that we ourselves do not understand. We can make a “decision” for Jesus only to discover that little has changed. It is also possible to find ourselves caught in a chain of decisions that bring us to the brink of despair without knowing quite how we got there. Though there are clearly problems with our choosing and deciding, the problem is far deeper.

One of the earliest Christian treatments of the human problem, hence the “nature of things,” is to be found in St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. He makes it quite clear that the root problem of humanity is to be found in the process of death. Not only are we all slowly moving towards some inevitable demise, the process of death (decay, corruption) is already at work in us. In Athanasius’ imagery, it is as though we are falling back towards our origins in the dust of the earth. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

And thus it is that when he writes of the work of Christ it is clearly in terms of our deliverance from death (not just deliverance from the consequences of our bodily dissolution and its separation from the soul but the whole process of death itself.)

This is frequently the language of the New Testament as well. St. Paul will write: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life that I now live I live by the faith of the son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Or even on a more “moral” note he will caution us to “put to death the deeds of the body.”

The importance of these distinctions (moral versus existential) is in how we treat our present predicament. If the problem is primarily moral then it makes sense to live life in the hortatory mode, constantly urging others to be good, to “take the pledge,” or make good choices. If, on the other hand, our problem is rooted in the very nature of our existence then it is that existencethat has to be addressed. And again, the New Testament, as well as the Tradition of the Church, turns our attention in this direction. Having been created for union with God, we will not be able to live in any proper way without that union. Thus our Baptism unites us to the death and resurrection of Christ, making possible a proper existence. Living that proper existence will not be done by merely trying to control our decisions and choices, but by consciously and unconsciously working to maintain our union with God. We are told “greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.” Thus our victory, and the hope of our victory is “Christ within you, the hope of glory.”

And so if we will live in such communion we will struggle to pray, not as a moral duty, but as the very means of our existence. We pray, we fast, we give alms, we confess, we commune, not in order to be better people, but because if we neglect these things we will die. And the death will be slow and marked by the increasing dissolution of who and what we are.

In over 25 years of ministry, I have consistently found this model of understanding to better describe what I encounter and what I live on a day to day basis. In the past ten years of my life as an Orthodox Christian, I have found this account of things not only to continue to describe reality better – but also to be in conformity with the Fathers. It is a strong case for Christian Tradition that it actually describes reality as we experience it better than the more modern accounts developed in the past four hundred years or so. Imagine. People understood life a thousand years ago such that they continue to describe the existential reality of modern man. Some things do not change – except by the grace of God and His infinite mercy.

Personal Issues

May 14, 2009

refusing confession by RepinThe title of this post is quite misleading – for in proper theological language – there are no “personal issues.” Our culture is quite fond of issues – both the politico-entertainment industry – and many individuals. It is a word and a phenomenon that has been baptized by the culture such that “being concerned with the issues” makes someone sound as if things matter to them in a significant way. The Orthodox response to the issues should generally be – not to respond.

The true “issue” of our time and of all times is the salvation of our souls. And, it is important to note, this is not a “legal” or “forensic” issue, but a matter of the deep healing of the spiritual disease that infects us, and, through us, all the world around us. We do not see things as they are (we are spiritually blind); we do not think as we ought (we are spiritually ignorant); we do not feel about things in a proper way (we are spiritually disordered in our emotions). Coming to grips with the passions and their disordered state (which effects our mind, emotions and our body) is very difficult work. It requires insight and honesty and a deep commitment to the Truth of Christ, through Whom we may alone find healing and salvation.

In the meantime it is possible to avoid all this by concerning ourselves with issues. Some concern themselves with political issues, particularly if those issues carry a moral component. But it is as possible to take the “right” position on a political issue as a wretched sinner as it is to take the “right” position on a political issue as a saint – though saints often have a strange way of not being involved in “political issues.” 

Others set their sights in other places and concern themselves with theological issues or local issues such as the goings-on in a parish. 

I would offer a brief definition of “issue” as I am using it here: any subject or situation with which we may concern ourselves, that having been addressed, leaves ourselves and others involved no closer to our salvation than when we began (and perhaps farther away).

The transformation of the world will not come about through the successive addressing of issues. It will, according to the Fathers of the Church, come about through the transformation of human persons, whom, having been restored to the proper image and likeness of Christ, are able to restore others and creation around them. It is thus that the “movers and shapers” of our world may never be acknowledged by the world itself. 

It is significant that the world admires Christ as a moral teacher – for He was not a moral teacher. Christ, the God-Man, was an is the Mediator between God and man, the means by which our distorted selves may be restored and transfigured and all creation set free. That transformation is simply impossible through “moral” effort.

Classical monastic spiritual teaching would speak instead about the purification of the passions and the illumination and deification of man. More recent Orthodox writers and teachers, such as St. Silouan and the Elder Sophrony have addressed the same teaching in terms of personhood. However, in both cases the nature of our salvation is described in the most profound terms of the inner life. 

Orthodoxy is a seamless garment. The sacramental life and the ascetical life are not two separate compartments. Both have to do with the healing of the soul. It is for such a reason that communion in the Orthodox Church is always linked with fasting and confession, however the discipline is applied. Communion is the “medicine of immortality” in the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch. But that same medicine must be received by a heart that has prepared itself through fasting and repentance. As Christ Himself proclaimed, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” So too, we approach the Kingdom in the Cup of Christ, and our hearts must greet it with repentance.

Our issues are not intellectual or political – but existential. Our brokenness is at the very level of our existence. 

Some years ago I heard the abbot of a monastery describe the young people who came for retreats during the 60’s and early 70’s. “They were so angry about peace,” he said. He added this thought: “The contemplative need go no further than his own heart than to find the source of all violence in the world.” 

This, indeed, is the issue.

Dostoevsky, the great 19th century Russian writer, spent his early adulthood deeply involved in a group of semi-revolutionary writers, artists and intellectuals. As a group, they were deeply committed and involved in the issues of the world. The reform of the Russian state – and in some corners – the reform of the Russian Church was an all-consuming passion. The Romanticism of the 19th century – its belief in the perfectibility of man, if only the proper state and economic system were employed – yielded the various experiments of the 20th century – with generally disastrous results.

Dostoevsky’s own existential crisis occurred when he and a small group of similar conspirators were arrested for sedition and sentenced to death. At the last moment their sentences were commuted to short terms in the Tsar’s Siberian prison system. It was in the few minutes that preceded his commutation – during which the great writer had opportunity to ponder death and his short life – that an inner change occurred. It is not that he saw everything in a flash – but rather that the issues moved away from an intellectual stage and into the deepest parts of his heart.

In what are perhaps his two greatest novels – the heart of man is revealed in the crime of murder. In Crime and Punishment a young man, Raskolnikov, convinces himself that only the will to power matters, and that he should be able to rob and kill a wretched old woman because he would put her money to better use. He succeeds in killing her only to discover that his “philosophy” is bankrupt. Utility (what works) is insufficient for the human soul. He finds salvation in prison through the unrelenting love of God.

In The Brothers Karamazov, murder again is at the center of man’s “issues.” Again it becomes the catalyst for a crisis in which the truth of God is revealed. The moral reform of the characters of the novel is a non-issue. Indeed, the most “moral” of the Karamazov brothers is arguably the unbeliever, Ivan. But Ivan, interestingly, is the devil. It takes little character to argue about justice and to be concerned with fairness. In my experience, even unredeemed humanity is born with an instinct for such arguments.

Most of us do not see ourselves as murderers and are thus content with lesser “issues,” none of which will push us to the point of repentance. I often think that Jesus asked those who sought to follow Him to give everything to the poor precisely to bring them to the point of crisis. To give away everything in the name of Christ raises the question about the name and nature of Christ to its proper place. Either He is worthy of such an action or He is not worthy of any action. The Kingdom of God is never found in half-measures, or in carefully measured actions of any sort. Anxiety and care cannot map the road into the Kingdom.

I am not suggesting that we cease to care about people or the things that effect them. I am suggesting that our concern for “issues” falls far short of actually caring about people and the things that effect them. It is possible to love humanity and actually hate people. I have seen it far too often and have done it myself.

It is much easier to trust someone who wants to “save the world,” if they have also bothered first to “save themselves” (yet another paradoxical statement). It shouldn’t take an arrest by the Tsar to bring us to our senses – though for Dostoevsky it seems to have helped. Perhaps it would be sufficient if we would recognize that we ourselves are murderers and that no amount of moral reform will return the life we have taken. Nothing short of resurrection will present us with the medicine for which our souls thirst.

Prayers By the Lake XXV – Prayers for the Departed

May 14, 2009

Picture 184This poem is from the collection of poems by St. Nikolai Velimirovich, the great 20th century Serbian saint. The Church continues its journey through the 50 days of Pascha and will conclude the feast with the celebration of the Feast of Pentecost (Troitsa) at the end of which the Kneeling Prayers are offered where (among many things) the souls of the departed are remembered before God. Christ came that the dead might live.

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You sinful souls, yearn no longer to enter the body, as though you could flee the fire that is roasting you and the smoke that is smothering you! You would only bring the fire and smoke with yourselves, and your body would not be your rescuer but your burnt offering.

Rather direct all your attention to the eternal Virginity of God, which can cast out the evil stench from you, and to the Son of the Virgin, who would illuminate you with the flame of the wisdom of the Trinity, and to the All-Holy Spirit, who would give you the strength and the wisdom to elevate you to the choirs of angels.

You purified souls, who smell more captivating than all the balsams on earth, do not separate yourselves from those of us still on earth, who for another hour or two are still wandering over your paths of suffering and your ashes. All those who are pure on earth will be pure in heaven also, and will be your companions, perfumed with the balsam of paradise and clothed in the whiteness of virginity.

Strengthen your love for us and your prayer for us. For between you and us is no partition other than the frail veil of our flesh. For even though you have gone ahead while we have remained behind, the path is the same and the city at the end of the path is the same.

You righteous souls, we pray to the Lord for you as well, so that He may make your passage to Him easy and swift. Even though we are weaker than you, we nevertheless pray to God for you. We pray out of the love with which our heart burns for you, even as a younger and weaker brother reaches out to help his older and stronger brother.

For just as younger and older brothers are one flesh in the eyes of the love that gave them birth, so also are we and you one flesh in the eyes of the exceedingly wise and exceedingly strong love of the Most High.

You countless flocks of souls of the dead, do not be distraught and confounded, and have no more regard for the cold island of life on earth, to which we, being few in number, are still stuck for another hour or two until we come to join you for the summer in warmer and brighter regions.

For all of you, both righteous and sinful, we who are half dead, half-alive pray to the Mercy of Heaven, so that you may not be confounded, so that you may not be afraid and look back, but may, in the fullness of summer, head ever forward and ever higher–

toward light and joy

toward peace and plenitude.

Negative Thoughts and the Communion of Prayer

May 14, 2009

communion_AfricaTo pray for someone else means that, because of the good disposition of our heart towards him, we help him to resist the negative thoughts that he may have, and not without cause, about us. On the contrary, not to pray for someone else means that we justify by our lack of love the negative thoughts he may have against us. Let us preserve unity in prayer around Christ’s chalice, and we will see that it is easy to love.

The Elder Sophrony

Generally speaking, our minds experience a torrent of thoughts. Finding the means to quiet the mind, to allow the mind to be united to the heart, is quite difficult. The Fathers have much to say on that matter – far more than I can begin to offer in such a setting as this. But the torrent of thoughts that flow within us are of little to no use in the spiritual life. They are a distraction and frequently have the character of sin.

On Wednesday morning of this week I took part in a Synodal Liturgy – a celebration of the Eucharist in which the entire Holy Synod of Bishops was present. There were people gathered from many places. The Cathedral in Dallas was crowded. The Cathedral was not only crowded, but the very altar and appended sacristies were overflowing with Bishops and priests. A full Hierarchical Liturgy, particularly with so many Bishops present, is a long, complicated service (even by Orthodox standards). The distractions which attend such a gathering are beyond number. 

There are priests to look at and judge, bishops to look at and judge, people in various distracted states to be looked at and judged, and all of that is only if you have managed to keep the torrent of thoughts within the confines of the Church’s walls. Of course, what I have described would be sin. We are to judge no one. But the temptation is ever present.

I found myself reaching for my prayer rope and struggling to bring my mind back to the Jesus Prayer – to offer up the prayer for others. As a priest, I also followed the service in my prayer book (something priests are always to do) and sought to bring my heart to the words and keep them there. 

I saw a man in the service whose heart was visibly present to the words of the service and to God. I felt an inward rebuke – a recognition of how scattered and disordered is my own interior life – and I prayed that God would keep him ever in such prayer for the rest of us.

Elder Sophrony’s words a very simple – we should pray and seek to avoid negative thoughts about others. Of course, there is much more to be said about our corporate prayer life. But the elder offers a simple beginning. Seek to pray and do not judge others. I share my experience from this week only to say this is not an easy thing. But I take the holy elder at his word. Strive to preserve unity in prayer around the chalice of Christ and we will see that it is easy to love.

It is good to remember, that in the chalice is not only the Body and Blood of Christ, but also the body of Christ, the Church. The one whom I have judged earlier is presented to me for communion. The approach to the Holy Cup is never an invitation to a “me and Jesus” event. It is a true participation in the fullness of the Body of Christ – a participation in Christ which is always a participation of all who are in Him.

O wondrous cup! O treacherous heart of mine! May God have mercy on us and bring us to know His perfect love. 

The Kindness of Strangers

May 13, 2009

I am sitting in the Dallas airport, waiting for my departure time, tired and ready to return to Tennessee. As always, my time in Dallas has been largely spent in Church and has been more than I could have imagined.

This year (or at least this vivm1445sit) I have been increasingly aware of the “community” of faithful readers. I met many people who are regular readers of Glory to God for All Things, and even more who are regular listeners to the Glory to God podcast on Ancient Faith Radio. I am a parish priest like other parish priests – and that is the primary commitment of my time. I also have responsibilities as a Dean giving help and support to other parishes and priests in a portion of the Diocese. But the ministry that has taken shape through writing and podcasting has brought with it a community of friends.

I had opportunity to meet many of them in Dallas this week – and am grateful for their kind words and support. Sometimes the world becomes very small. For readers or listeners – please know that I remember you all in my prayers each day (though God knows the names I do not know). I pray that what is found here is helpful and confirming of what you have found elsewhere of the Orthodox faith. I have continually met the kindness of strangers – which through the mercies of God – are strangers no more. May God be thanked!