Archive for February, 2010

A Southern Lent

February 28, 2010

One of the hallmarks of my generation in the South is that we never grew up without a great deal of attention to God. Whether it was the absolute assurance in the sermons of preachers who could say with some precision who was going where when they died, or even with assurance describe heaven, or the far more mundane mutterings of public figures giving lip-service to the God in Whom we believed. I have mentioned before that I am grateful for the fact that in my childhood, memorizing Psalms in public school was considered normal.

What was missing, strangely, was God Himself. There was a mystical South, to be sure. Pentecostalism was thriving (in my childhood it was almost completely confined to Mill Villages), and you could hear stories of people jumping in and out of windows at Church and many other sorts of wild things that may never have happened.

What was missing was any sense of a quiet, deep knowledge of the Living God, garnered over a life-time of prayer and repentance. I’m sure it existed – but not anywhere you could notice. To read Flannery O’Connor is to engage in some level of self-recognition for many of us in my Southern generation. We love her writings, but wince at some passages that tell more of the truth than any of us would like to see. “Tell it not in Gath” (2 Samuel 1:20).

The discovery by some of the historic Church (whether Catholic or Anglican) was the discovery of a different world, with tales of saints and heroes that bore no resemblance to the experience we had known as children. I recall being in high school before I ever heard the phrase, “Giving up something for Lent.” Living in a household that was not of a single religious mind, I don’t remember ever giving up anything for Lent.

In seminary (Anglican) I once gave up anger for Lent. It’s the hardest fast I’ve ever kept.

What strikes me the most in my Orthodox life are the stories of many saints, living and departed, who (particularly in our modern world) came from atheism into Orthodoxy. In Russia, the more common term for a Christian is simply, “Believer.” And this is as it should be.

Our default position within modern America is some form of atheistic or agnostic materialism. On a bad day, we barely believe in God but remain utterly convinced of the power of the market and the engine of industry.

Lent comes to take on even greater importance in such a setting – for we are not only seeking to repent – we seek to believe. And Lent makes it clear that the two are not separate things but mutually interdependent. Without repentance, there can be no belief in the God Who Is. To know God – to actually know Him – repentance is indispensable. Only a broken and contrite heart can know God.

There are many things that break our hearts, and many others that bring us to the point of contrition. But often these very crushing blows drive us only deeper into ourselves and despair. Thus the need of Great Lent.

To be broken by grace and crushed by the hand of God is far kinder than the treatment we receive from the world. To take up the Church’s Way of Life during Lent, and to lean into it, will always put us on a path towards brokenness and contrition. But there is a world of difference between the brokenness and contrition that comes as the gift of grace and the brutality of the world’s humiliation.

St. Paul said, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). To fast and pray, to give alms and show mercy, for the sake of knowing God is to take up a cross of “godly grief” and the fruit it bears in our life is salvation itself. The grief of the world can be submitted to God and become a godly grief, at least in my experience I have found it so.

But whatever we do in Lent, we should be looking for God. There is no other purpose to our existence than fellowship with God and with His creation. We simply need to take up the journey that follows that path.

Of course, this journey is not peculiar to the South: it is simply new for many.

For Southerners, and others who may be fans of Flannery O’Connor, I recommend an article by my dear friend, Fr. Paul Yerger. I first heard it at an assembly in Dallas and find it good to reread now and again. It may be found here.

The Slow Work of Grace

February 24, 2010

In the minds of many, grace is a legal concept – an expression of the kindness of God in the forgiveness of sins. As such, grace is instant and complete. This fits well within the legal conceptions of salvation. In the classical understanding of the Orthodox faith, salvation can indeed have a quality of “suddenness” – the thief on the Cross found paradise “in a single moment” according to the hymns of the Orthodox Church. But for most people – salvation is a life-long process in which we “work out our salvation from day to day in fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). That experience, like most of life, has a slow quality to it.

From Prayer by the Elder Sophrony:

At times prayer seems over-slow in bringing results, and life is so short. Instinctively we cry, “Make haste unto me.” But He does not always respond at once. Like fruit on a tree , our soul is left to scorch in the sun, to endure the cold wind, the scorching wind, to die of thirst or be drowned in the rain. But if we do not let go of the hem of His garment, all will end well.

We live in a culture of fast food, and tend to want grace to operate on the same speed track. Some versions of Christianity make grace as “quick” as walking the aisle. This, of course, is misleading.

In my experience, grace works on a level that is proper to human beings with some notable exceptions (but even then one can wonder). Grace takes time because we are not built on a fast track. Human beings don’t wean until about 2 1/2 years, properly (women you may correct me). We take 9 months of gestation, and we do not reach puberty for 13 years, traditionally. We are not instant people.

Neither does grace work on such an instant level (or is not at least noticeable on such an instant level). We should know that to be human requires years for some things, including things pertaining to God.

I am comforted, that, unlike physicists, theologians do not reach their best work until near retirement age. I’m waiting for my maturity!

But each of us would do well to slow down our expections and speed up our efforts of prayer. Pray more, but wait on God. This lesson of patience is not something God does to us to torture us, but is something He does to bring us back into line with our humanity. Let patience have her perfect work (James 1:4).

Restoring the Image of Christ

February 22, 2010

Today marked the Sunday of Orthodoxy, a day on which the Orthodox celebrate the return of the images to the Church’s during the time of the Empress Theodora. It is also a day on which the Orthodox faith in its fullness is reaffirmed by the people and the clergy. This year I spoke at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Parma, Ohio, for the gathering sponsored by the Greater Cleveland Council of Orthodox Clergy (as well as concelebrating and preaching at St. Innocent’s in Olmstead Falls on Sunday morning). They were joyful occasions. These are some thoughts on the holy icons:

My first thought is about a natural human impulse to make icons. Created in God’s image, we are created as iconodules (those who honor icons – images). The distortions within us mean that we often crave images that are not the Truth (see my article, The Icon We Love the Most). Sitting in airports, as I have been this weekend, I have seen a huge range of “image seekers.” We decorate ourselves, adopt fashions, etc., all in an effort to create an image and to give ourselves a defining image. I’m wearing a cassock (as I usually do when I travel) so I have to include myself in this number. It makes for frequent and interesting conversations and opportunities to share the Christian faith.

My second thought is about  another impulse – a drive towards iconoclasm (image smashing) – that is as much in evidence in our daily lives as anything in our modern world. Indeed, modernity can almost be defined as the age of Iconoclasm. We sweep away the past as if it were only so much clutter standing in the way of progress to a world we always assume will be better. Some of our most powerful technology is aimed specifically at re-designing the human. We will be new and improved (we imagine) if only some research has its way.

Other forces are working rapidly to redefine things that already exist, so that things that might have once been considered wrong or dysfunctional are now considered desirable and good. There is almost a sense that we can redefine the world into a state of goodness (though nothing will have changed in such schemes) and thereby bring ourselves closer to God’s kingdom.

Some of our iconoclasm is dangerous, indeed. Changing the image of an unborn child into a “foetus,” and thus rendering the child somehow more clinical, and less human, allows us to destroy the image with less guilt and concern. Redefining life can also allow us to euthanize the weak and the elderly without remorse. Stanley Hauerwas has frequently noted that “compassion” in ethics is almost always a prelude to murder.

Thus when we celebrate the return of icons to the Churches, we also have to look at ourselves. The icon, the image of God, must be restored to the Temple of our self. We must renounce false images and embrace what God has revealed of Himself. The Holy Icons of Christ are precisely part of that revelation. We honor Him in His icon lest we fail to honor Him in the Truth.

At the same time we have to renounce iconoclasm. In so doing, we inherently set ourselves against certain forces within modernity. The truth is indeed eschatological, that is, it lies in the future, but we also believe that this eschatological reality was incarnate in Christ, the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega. We do not oppose the future in embracing the Tradition we have received. We embrace the future that is coming in Truth, rather than the false utopias of modern man’s imagination.

May the Holy Icons truly be honored and may we all be restored to the image in which we were created. Thy Kingdom Come, O Lord!

Just the Shell

February 19, 2010

An entertainment personality, fresh from various surgeries (augmentations, alterations, etc.), recently opined in an interview, “But in the end, this is just a shell.” It was a very revealing cultural moment. The body is “just a shell” but worthy of tens of thousands of dollars to alter its appearance. It has been observed that modern man lives his life as a hedonist and dies like a Platonist.

The hedonist believes that life is defined by pleasure (particularly physical pleasure). The Platonist believes that the body and the material world are but passing moments – only the non-physical is real and of value. Among modern Christians this same cultural attitude is too frequently common. We gage the value and desirability of many things (sometimes including worship) on the basis of the pleasure we receive. For some, “edifying” and “enjoyable,” are too often the same thing.

There has long been a bifurcation within some forms of Christianity between “spiritual” and “physical.” The use of physical actions, incense, etc. (any form of ritual), is immediately dubbed “empty ritual” by some. It’s as though the word “ritual” only comes with the modifier “empty.” Faith is considered something that has no physical content.

There have been other bifurcations in history – where the body was seen as the enemy of the spiritual life and in which extreme forms of asceticism were encouraged for reasons that bordered on Manicheeism (a heresy that taught that matter was evil).

The body is not “just the shell.” Properly understood, the human person is both body and soul – neither are the fullness of the person alone. It is in this sense that the Church teaches the necessity of the resurrection of the body. That at death the soul is departs from the body is the understanding of the Church. But it also understands that though the soul “is in the hands of God” it enjoys an anticipation of the life to come – rather than the fullness of the life to come. The fullness awaits our fullness – the resurrection of the body.

For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body (Romans 8:22-23).

In the meantime – if our hope includes the redemption of our body – how can our daily life as Christians ignore the spiritual reality of the body? Fasting and other bodily acts of devotion to God are normal for a Christian living in the body. The body does not pray alone, but neither does the soul.

In the same manner, it matters what we do with the body. It is not a shell whose function is to become as attractive as possible to other shells. Body and soul are united: what is done with one effects the other. Thus the “beauty” of the soul, as it is adorned with virtue and kindness, has an effect on the body. It is difficult to describe the beauty of the soul that radiates from the body, but I have seen it numerous times.

In the same manner, the crass treatment of the body in which it is made to serve vices rather than virtues, works not beauty in the soul – but its opposite. I have seen this many times – and in my own mirror.

The body is not a shell. It is created to bear the fullness of the image of Christ. I have heard some (at funerals) look at a body and say, “That is not him.” It is “him” in the same manner that the soul is “him.” The person is body and soul. For this very reason the Orthodox faith is careful in its teaching regarding the honor that is due to the body even in death. Though it rests in hope – it rests awaiting a hope that we cannot begin to imagine. If God will so honor it – how can we not?

My body is not a shell.

The 15th Antiphon of Great and Holy Friday Matins Sung by Archbishop Job of the Midwest

February 18, 2010

This is a wonderful video of the late Archbishop of Chicago and the Midwest. May his memory be eternal!

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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The Instinct of Repentance

February 16, 2010

Repentance is a difficult journey in the modern world. Our psychologized culture has lost the language and the instinct of repentance. When such language and instinct last existed is itself a significant question.

A large measure of the language of repentance is found in the word repentance itself. It is a Latin cognate (coming into English through the French). Rooted in the Latin word paenetentia, repentance has long held associations with crime and punishment. Our prisons are penitentiaries, though repentance of a true sort is rarely their result. To be given a penance also has had a sense of a punishment given for sins forgiven.

This differs greatly from the original language of the New Testament in which repentance is metanoia, a change in the mind (nous). The word nous, in Eastern Christian tradition, is often used interchangeably with the word heart. Repentance is an inner change of heart. Repentance is not concerned with clearing our legal record but with being changed – ultimately into the likeness of Christ.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me (Psalm 51:10).

The language of repentance is part of a forensic legacy within a segment of Christian history that has marked our culture. To hear Christ say in Scripture, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” is often misheard – with the forensic message embedded in our language replacing the language of the heart proclaimed by Christ. Thus the Christian who seeks to follow the gospel (in English) finds that he has to make an effort to re-translate what he hears. This deeper matter of repentance (metanoia) is heard even in the prophets of the Old Testament:

“Now, therefore,” says the Lord,“Turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. So rend your heart, and not your garments;return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm (Joel 2:12-13).

The inner life of the modern world has largely been surrendered to the practice of psychology. I have no argument with psychology – its goal of mental health is important and the relief offered to many is a great mercy. But psychology has long worked with a variety of “inner roadmaps,” in which one theorist’s guess is as good as another’s. Freud’s theories of the human inner world have provided many of the words and concepts of our modern, inner-life. Ego and complex, obsession and projection, introvert and extrovert, and a host of other such words are the legacy of theorists such as Freud and Jung as well as others. Not all of their maps agree (in fact most don’t). They are imaginary accounts of how the mind works –  are drawn out of reflection on actual cases but are still the work of imagination. Other “inner” words have even stranger origins. There are words such as melancholy and unbalanced (and others) that are rooted in medieval theories of the bodily humours. These theories seem laughable to the modern mind – but their language persists.

The fathers of the Church – particularly those who strove the most deeply for repentance (found predominantly in the desert tradition of the ascetics) – borrowed the language of their own day, as well as that of Scripture. Terms from neo-Platonism were borrowed and redefined in accordance with Christian tradition. The result is the language of the canons and the patristic writings. Most of the “road map” that is attached to these words is an experiential map. It is a reflection on how the heart changes in practice that dominates the teaching of the desert fathers and the tradition that flows from their labors. Theory is not driven by a priori assumptions about the constructs of man’s inner life. Thus there is no particular account of the mechanics of the inner life, other than a description given from experience – what works.

But the coherence of this patristic language is found in its common assumption that the human heart (nous) – the core of our being – is capable of change and can indeed be conformed to the image of Christ. Thus the goal of repentance is this very metanoia – a change of heart. There is nothing within modern psychology that reflects this particular concern (although some existential theorists come close).

Modern man is not predisposed to think about a change of heart. We think of psychological wholeness or well-being, but we do not have a language of conformity to Christ. We do speak of “hardness of heart,” but we know very little about how such a heart is changed.

This creates difficulties for us. Our temptation is to translate the language of the Church into concepts with which we are more familiar. Those coming to confession often give evidence of our psychologized world. We not only confess our sins, but we often want to give a small psychological analysis of where our sins came from and a progress report on how we are doing. (I have often thought that this makes a confession sound much like a monologue from Woody Allen, the comedian).
So, how do we repent?

The Scriptures give one of the clearest examples of how we should think about repentance. The encounter of John the Baptist with the crowds who came to and heard his message of repentance contain an interesting exchange:

Then he [John the Baptist] said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

So the people asked him, saying, “What shall we do then?”

He answered and said to them, “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.”

Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?”

And he said to them, “Collect no more than what is appointed for you.”

Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, “And what shall we do?”

So he said to them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.” (Luke 3:7-14).

John’s response to the people who came was not to launch them into a world of introspection. The heart changes in the crucible of our actions. Generosity and kindness are begotten of generosity and kindness. If you have enough to share – then share.
I have always been bemused by the great lengths that modern interpreters of Scripture go when trying to account for sayings such as, “Sell what you have, give to the poor and come and follow me.” Or “How hardly shall a rich man enter the kingdom of God.” We are often told that such passages are really about how we feel about our wealth – that our wealth should not be the center of our lives. But if we have and do not share, then “feeling good” about our wealth is just delusion.

The commandments of Christ are not difficult because they are so complex or mystical – they are difficult because they are so clear and we do not want to keep them.

The disciplines traditionally practiced during the season of Great Lent, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, are given to us not in order to generate a season of introspection. They are given to us as a call to a season of action. Prayer is something we do. It is a struggle, but it is an action (Orthodox prayer is particularly marked by action – even physical action). Fasting is an action as well. In our psychologized culture, it is hard for many to understand fasting as having anything to do with repentance. But it is the experience of Scripture and generations of the Church, that the discipline of fasting (abstaining from certain foods and eating less) has a clear effect on the heart – our inner disposition – particularly when that fasting is coupled with prayer and almsgiving. Almsgiving is an action that is all too often ignored in our thoughts about repentance. Charitable giving (in our culture) is even perversely thought by some to be a way of getting more money, such that “give and it will be given unto you” is seen as a success formula. We are indeed a brood of vipers.

Giving is an action. Give money away. Give sacrificially of your time. Give mercy and kindness to others. Forgive the sins of others as if your own forgiveness depended on it (it does). If we would see our hearts change in the direction of the image of Christ – the “roadmap” is not hidden. Pray, fast, be merciful and give.

This is the instinct of repentance. With practice it becomes the habit of the heart. Kindness, practiced consistently over a period of time, by the grace of God results in our becoming kind. To be kind is to be like God (Luke 6:35). Repentance is the path to the kingdom of God. The actions of repentance (under grace) – given to us in the Tradition of the Church – are the means by which such a changed heart will be formed within us.

The Great Fast

February 15, 2010

Monday (tomorrow) marks the beginning of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church (which liturgically begins at Forgiveness Vespers on Sunday). Though Great Lent is kept with rigor in Orthodox Tradition, there is nothing unusual asked of believers – nothing that we do not do on many days throughout the rest of the year. We fast; we pray; we give alms; we attend services, etc. But we do these with greater intensity and frequency during the Great Fast (the more universal name of the season). As preparation for the feast of Pascha, the “feast of feasts,” all of these disciplines drive the point of the Christian faith further and deeper.

Much of modern Christianity lives as a stranger to ascetical discipline. Few Christians fast, and the fasting of many others has forgotten the traditions of earlier generations. Various historical factors have turned the Christian life into a set of beliefs rather than a way of life. Monasticism seems exotic to many.

There is nothing exotic about asceticism. The New Testament assumes fasting and similar activities as normative for the Christian life. The Pharisees observed that the disciples of Jesus did not fast. When Christ was asked about this omission (something that seemed entirely unusual in the Judaism of the time), He responded:

Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast (Matt. 9:15).

The days in which “the bridegroom is taken away” are the days in which we live. Fasting is normative. Fasting is part of the practice of continual repentance – the proper attitude of the Christian heart. Repentance is not a single action taken in response to having done something wrong – repentance is a state of the heart – the state of brokenness and contrition:

A broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise (Psalm 51).

To a large extent – this is the goal of the Christian way of life – to cultivate a heart of repentance. King David is called “a man after God’s own heart,” not because he was without sin (he was an adulterer and a murderer). He was a man after God’s own heart because when confronted with his sin – his heart is broken. He makes no defense and offers no excuse.

St. Paul offers this admonition:

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him (Romans 12:1-3).

No other single passage, it seems to me, manages to gather as many aspects of the Lenten life (and thus daily life at all times). Our bodies become “a living sacrifice.” I can only wonder which sacrifice St. Paul had in mind (there were many different ones in the Old Testament). Or it may be that the sacrifice of Christ is now the dominant image for him. But our bodies, now “crucified” with Christ are offered up in what St. Paul calls our  “spiritual worship” logike latrein.

To offer our bodies as a sacrifice, through fasting and prayer, is itself lifted up to the level of worship, and interestingly our logike worship (“spiritual” is perhaps a more accurate translation than “reasonable” as some render it – though it would also be quite accurate to translate it as “natural” or “the worship that is proper to us as human beings”). It is a struggle to fast, to present our bodies as a “living” sacrifice. This is so much more than a “one time” offering: it stretches through the days and nights of this great season.

St. Paul then admonishes us not to be conformed to the world but to be transformed by the renewal of our mind (nous) which could easily be rendered “heart.” Fr. John Behr describes the passions, in his The Mystery of Christ, as “false perceptions,” our own misunderstanding of the body and its natural desires. Thus renewing our minds is an inner change in the perception of our selves and our desires, or in the words of St. Irenaeus (quoted frequently by Behr) “the true understanding of things as they are, that is, of God and of human beings.”

I find it of great importance, that St. Paul concludes this small admonition by pointing us towards humility (as he does as well in Philippians 2). It is in embracing the cross of Christ, in emptying ourselves towards God and towards others that our true self is to be found and that our minds are renewed. We cannot look within ourselves to find our true selves. “For he who seeks to save his life will lose it.” Rather the true self is found when we turn to the other and pour ourselves out towards them. We find ourselves by losing ourselves in the beloved. This is the love that makes all things possible for us.

The Fast, like all things in the gospel, is ultimately an act of love. It is an act of love for it is a training in the sacrifice of self. Having denied ourselves in such small things (such as abstaining from various foods and drink), we learn to deny ourselves in much larger things – such as pride and anger, self-love and envy. By God’s grace such efforts are molded into the image of Christ – who Himself began His ministry with a fast of 40 days – and this for love.

A Sermon on Repentance (after St. John Chrysostom)

February 13, 2010

This sermon was written by Fr. John Parker, Rector of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Mount Pleasant, SC. It is modeled on the well known and beloved Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom.  It offers an interesting echo of the end of the Fast here at its beginning. A recording of Fr. Thomas Hopko reading the sermon can be heard and downloaded on Ancient Faith Radio.


If anyone be devout and love God,
Let him commence this radiant fast with joy!
If anyone be a wise servant,
Let him, rejoicing, enter into the school of repentance.

We who have wallowed long in sin,
Let us now begin our return.
If anyone has strayed from the first hour,
Let him today repent with zeal.
If anyone has sinned from the third hour,
Let him with gratitude embrace the fast.
If anyone has fled God from the sixth hour,
Let him have no misgivings about his prompt return;
Because he shall in nowise be turned away therefore.
If anyone has indulged the flesh since the ninth hour,
Let him draw near, fearing God alone and trusting in His mercy.
And if anyone has turned away only at the eleventh hour,
Let him also not hesitate to turn back with haste.

For the Lord, who is longsuffering and full of compassion and mercy, will accept the last even as the first.
He restores him who repents at the first hour,
As He does him who turns back at the eleventh.
And He shows mercy upon the last,
And cares for the first;
And to the one He gives,
And upon the other He bestows gifts.
And He both accepts the confession,
And welcomes the intention,
And honors the contrite heart and rejoices in the return.

Wherefore, enter all of you into the holiness of your Lord;
Offer your repentance,
Both the last, and likewise the first.
You rich and poor together, repent, for today we stand outside the closed gates of paradise.
You sober and you heedless, prostrate yourselves before your King!
Return to the Lord today, both you who have sinned with knowledge and those who have done so in ignorance.

Your pantries are full; empty them to the hungry.
The belly enslaves us, let no one be dominated thereby.
Enter all of you into the Great Fast;
Stripped of heavenly wealth by sin, all draw near to God’s rich loving-kindness!
Let no one despair in his sinfulness,
For the Bridegroom comes at midnight.
Weep all of you for your iniquities,
And draw near to the life-giving Cross of our Lord.
Let no one put confidence in the flesh,
For the Devil has deceived us all thereby, and therewith enslaves us to sin.

By turning from God, we are made captives.
We have called good evil and evil good, and put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.
And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry:
Woe to those who put darkness for light, and light for darkness!

We are embittered, for we are banned from Eden.
We are embittered, but it is we who have mocked God.
We are embittered, for now we shall surely die.
We are embittered, for we have succumbed to the serpent.
We are embittered, for we are fettered in chains.
We partook of a fruit, and met the deceiver.
We were entrusted with paradise, but we chose Hell.
Our eyes were opened to see the nakedness of sin.

Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver us!
O Lord, make haste to help us!

This is the acceptable time, let us repent!
This is the day of salvation, let us crucify the passions!
The end is at hand and destruction hangs over us!
The end draws nigh, let us come again to our senses!
The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, what first-fruit shall we offer?
Let us delay not, lest we remain dead in the grave, sold under sin!
For God desires not the death of the sinner, but that he should turn from his wickedness and live!
So, let us choose life, and live, for the mercy of God endures forever!
To Him be glory and dominion
Unto ages of ages.  Amen.

The Journey to Repentance

February 13, 2010

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

…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 thestarets 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.’

By the Waters of Babylon

February 11, 2010

A traditional hymn from the Lenten season.

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. Alleluia.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. Alleluia.
For there they that had taken us captive required of us a song;
and they that had carried us away required of us a hymn, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. Alleluia.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? Alleluia.
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten. Alleluia.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem as my chief joy. Alleluia.
Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem;
who said, Down with it, down with it, even to the foundation thereof. Alleluia.
O wretched daughter of Babylon, happy shall he be that shall reward thee as thou hast served us. Alleluia.
Happy shall he be, that shall take and dash thy little ones against the rock. Alleluia.

In Orthodox tradition, the fathers interpret the last verse as a reference to the “little thoughts – the logismoi” and dashing them against the Rock, who is Christ. Thus we rise early in the day and dash our wayward thoughts against the Rock of Christ who frees us from their tyranny. Alleluia.

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