Archive for November, 2010

Pray About It

November 30, 2010

I readily acknowledge that some of what I write on this topic may be offensive to some. I ask that you read it carefully and reflectively before reacting.

I will offer a scene that is common enough across America (and perhaps elsewhere), leaving the identifications blank (though they may be inferred by the reader).

A young couple is greeted at their door by two young men, well-dressed and well-spoken. They ask permission to enter the home and discuss certain religious topics. Ultimately they present an account of Christianity that is new for the young couple, filled with historical judgments and observations that the early Church ceased to properly exist in its early years and remained in need of renewal. They offer an account of a unique American experience in which angels, John the Baptist, and ultimately the Apostles themselves, revealed a new book (like a Bible) with new and corrective ideas which were meant to complete and augment the Scriptures.

The discussion is interesting and new to the young couple. The first visit occasions further visits. Ultimately, the young couple is advised to, “Pray about these things,” and to make a decision about their validity on that basis. Nothing could sound more innocent or less challenging. “Pray about it.” If the evangelists were insincere would they want you to pray about it?

For many young couples, the truth (the awful truth) is that this will be the first thing they have ever prayed about together. Some (maybe the majority) will reject the new account of history and revelation offered to them. Others will find their prayer experience overwhelming and will become part of this American sectarian religion.


The awful truth contained in this story is two-fold. Most young couples (and most older couples) will never have prayed about anything together. In my experience, despite all lip-service, most families in the American spiritual tradition have never had a common prayer life and would not know where to begin (other than bedtime prayers and “Now I lay me down to sleep”).

This, of course, leaves them particularly vulnerable to an invitation to “pray about it.” How would they know what an answer to prayer looks like? Do they know the voice of God? Why were they not directed to discuss the matters with elders and pastors of their Church?

The simple truth, painful as it is, is that “pray about it” is among the worst spiritual advice ever given to someone. Not that God should not be prayed to – but most people have so little experience in such a reality that “praying about it” is tantamount to asking them to write an algorithm on the topic or express it in terms of quantum mechanics.

There is, properly, a great reverence for prayer in our culture – but very little true experience in prayer. The great American controversy about “prayer in schools” (which is officially unconstitutional) was well answered by the observation, “As long as there are math tests in schools, there will be prayers.”

But there is a much larger question involved in all of this. Should we make decisions, momentous decisions, based on “praying about things?” Is prayer the means to obtain the truth and make proper decisions in the Christian life?

Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

It is clear that prayer is an essential part of the Christian life. However, our modernized version of Christianity has rendered prayer (like everything else) as a uniquely individual and private matter. Thus young couples, devoid of a proper prayer life, find themselves easy prey to wolves who would bear witness to a false gospel and suggest that they “pray about it.”

A common refrain in Orthodox prayer services (particularly those that are dedicated to individual purposes) asks that all things be “for the benefit of our salvation.” Such a parenthesis is utterly essential to a proper understanding of the life of prayer. What benefit would anything be for us (or how could God Himself be good) if the result of prayer was something that was detrimental to our salvation? How many individuals have rejoiced at the winning of a state lottery, only to repent later, after their lives have been ruined by the infusion of such un-earned riches?

We often think we know what is best for our lives, and pray accordingly. But the simple truth is that we rarely have any idea what is necessary in our lives (or that of anyone else) in terms of salvation. Salvation is far more than coming to make a statement that “Jesus is the Lord of my life.” It is the daily living consequences of having accepted Christ as Lord of life. Such a consequence is difficult and demanding, sweeping away all false idols before it and healing even the secret thoughts of our hearts. It is terrifying.

Few of us would ever complete a short time in prayer and actually ask for such an all-encompassing event in our lives. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).

I would never want to discourage anyone from the life of prayer. But I would counsel wisdom and warn about the foolishness of modern American versions of the life of prayer. When I work with catechumens, those who are new to the Orthodox faith, I give them a traditional set of prayers to begin with as a part of a daily discipline. This discipline is gradually expanded – but carefully avoids the ego-centric prayers encouraged by our cultural religion.

I do not know what I need. I do not know what I need for my salvation. I do not know, specifically, what is needed in someone else’s life for their salvation. This is a great quandary for a priest. I do not know precisely what is needed in the life of those for whom I am accountable. I know they should pray, seek to avoid sin, come to confession frequently, and make their communion with as good a heart as possible. And I should be helpful to them in all these things.

Should their business fail and they face bankruptcy – I have no idea whether this is good or bad. If a marriage ends – I cannot always tell whether this is good or bad. Many things admit of a variety of understandings, and God alone knows what is good. And even the God who knows what is good promises us that for those who love God and are called according to His purposes, “All things work together for good” (Romans 8:28). I am certain only that it is bad to abandon God – to willingly place oneself beyond His help (though this is not to actually place ourselves beyond His help). We cannot make God abandon us or hate us. It is simply not within our power.

We should pray. Mostly, we should pray for our salvation. We should make our requests known to God with thanksgiving, and accept our lives with equal thanksgiving. Otherwise, we make ourselves the judge of God – a very precarious existence indeed.

It is possible to admonish someone to “pray about it.” It is far more mature and honest to say, “Come let us pray about it – let us lay it before the elders of the congregation and let them judge.” The individualism and supposed competency of every person is simple nonsense.

Seek God and be wise.

Waking Up

November 27, 2010

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10). This fear descends on us from on High. It is a spiritual feeling, firstly of God and then of us ourselves. We live in a state of awe by virtue of the presence of the Living God together with awareness of our own impurity. This fear places us before the Face of God to be judged by Him. We have fallen so low that our distress over ourselves turns into profound suffering, more painful than the torments of seeing ourselves in the darkness of ignorance, in the paralysis of non-feeling, in slavery to the passions. The dread is our awakening from the age-old sleep in sin. It brings us the light of perception – on the one hand, of our fatal condition and, on the other, of the holiness of God. It is an astonishing phenomenon – without its naturally purificative action the way to perfect love of God will not be opened to us. It is not only ‘the beginning of wisdom’ but of love, too. It will also alarm our soul with a revelation of ourselves, as we are, and bind us to God in longing to be with Him.

From We Shall See Him As He Is by the Elder Sophrony.

I remember the intense joy of waking up on Christmas morning as a child. The anticipation of the surprise to come was overwhelming. My father could be quite creative when my older brother and I were very young. I recall that my brother had once asked for a “stalk of Bananas,” something we had only seen in books. That my father actually found one and had it under the tree was beyond belief that Christmas Day. Every house in the neighborhood had a share in that surplus!

As years have gone by, waking up has taken on many different and more profound meanings – and increasing difficulty. The sleep that a child tosses aside so easily in anticipation of the joy that awaits him is a very light blanket indeed compared to the heaviness of delusion in which we so easily rest in later years.

Orthodox theology rests, finally, in the utter certainty of the knowledge of God. We do not simply speak about God – we knowHim. Anything less than such a knowledge would be an emptiness and speculation. No dogma is secure if it rests merely on bald assertion.

It is for this same reason that perhaps the most important spiritual discipline in the Orthodox life is to be freed from delusion. If you read the Philokalia, or, better yet, Branchaninov’s The Arena, you will hear the repeated chorus of warnings against spiritual delusion. It matters because there is such a thing as being awake and not being deluded.

None of us lives free from all delusion – none other than perhaps the greatest saints. But the process of awakening is itself the beginning of the spiritual life. It is the fear of God in the sense used by Fr. Sophrony and in the Scriptures that marks that awakening. Indeed, it begins with believing that there actually is a God, which strangely, is far less common than you would think.

The entrance of Christ into the world on that first Christmas morning was also an awakening. Mary was awake and understood what it meant to be the handmaiden of the Lord. Joseph, that good man, was awake and understood what it meant to act in obedience. The wise men were awake and found the Daystar from on High. The Shepherds were awake and heard the night sing.

But Herod slept, and doubtless dreamed. The soldiers who kept his orders slept with the peace that comes from a mission accomplished. The better part of the whole world slept, though there were some, like watchful children, who knew that joy was coming. The lightest footfall will arouse such sleepers.

Awake, O Sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.


The Life of Thanksgiving

November 24, 2010

This year I will make the annual pilgrimage back to South Carolina to be with family for the (American) Thanksgiving holiday. Fewer of my children will be there – a mark of the maturing of their own families and the difficulty of travel at this time of year. The year is different as well for it will be another Thanksgiving holiday without my mother’s presence (may her memory be eternal). With years, the life of my family is changing.

What does not change in this holiday is the centrality of giving thanks. These reflections make much mention of my late father-in-law, a man who was the embodiment of thanksgiving. He unceasingly gave thanks to God for all things at all times and lived as a faithful witness of the goodness of God. Glory to God for all things!


Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann


I do not believe it is possible to exhaust this topic. I have set forth a few suggestions of how we might build and maintain a life of thanksgiving. Particular thought is given to those times when giving thanks is difficult.

1. We must believe that God is good.

I struggled with this for many years. I believed that God was sovereign; I believed that He was the Creator of heaven and earth; I believed that He sent His only Son to die for me. But despite a hosts of doctrines to which I gave some form of consent, not included (and this was a matter or my heart) was the simple, straight-forward consent that God is good. My father-in-law, a very simple Baptist deacon of great faith, believed this straight-forward truth with an absolute assurance that staggered my every argument. I knew him for over 30 years. When I was young (and much more foolish) I would argue with him – not to be out-maneuvered by his swift and crafty theological answers (it was me that was trying to maneuver and be swift and crafty) – but often times our arguments would end with his smile and simple confession, “Well, I don’t know about that, but I know that God is good.” Over the years I came to realize that until and unless I believed that God is good, I would never be able to truly give thanks. I could thank God when things went well, but not otherwise.

This simple point was hammered into me weekly and more after I became Orthodox. There is hardly a service of the Orthodox Church that does not end its blessing with: “For He is a good God and loves mankind.” A corrollary of the goodness of God was coming to terms with the wrathful God of some Western theology (or the misunderstandings of the “wrathful God”). At the heart of things was a fear that behind everything I could say of God was a God whom I could not trust – who could be one way at one time and another way at another.

This is so utterly contrary to the writings of the Fathers and the teachings of the Orthodox faith. God is good and His mercy endures forever, as the Psalmist tells us. God is good and even those things that human beings describe as “wrath” are, at most, the loving chastisement of a God who is saving me from much worse things I would do to myself were He not to love me enough to draw me deeper into His love and away from my sin.

The verse in Romans 8 remains a cornerstone of our understanding of God’s goodness: “All things work together for good, for those who love God and are called according to His purpose” (8:28). There are daily mysteries involved in this assertion of faith – moments and events that I have no way to explain or to fit into some overall scheme of goodness. But this is precisely where my conversations with my father-in-law would go. I would be full of exceptions and “what ifs,” and he would reply, “I don’t know about that. But I know that God is good.”

As the years have gone by, I have realized that being wise is not discovering some way to explain things but for my heart to settle into the truth that, “I don’t know about that. But I know that God is good.”

2. I must believe that His will for me is good.

This moves the question away from what could, for some, be a philosophical statement (“God is good”) to the much more specific, “His will for me is good.” Years ago, when my son was child, he encountered a difficulty in his life. As a parent I was frustrated (secretly mad at God) and my faith shaken. I had already decided what “good” was to look like in my son’s life and reality was undermining my fantasy. In a time of prayer (which was very one-sided) I found myself brought up suddenly and short with what I can only describe as a divine interruption. I will not describe my experience as an audible voice, but it could not have been clearer. The simple statement from God was: “This is for his salvation.”

My collapse could not have been more complete. How do reply to such a statement? How am I supposed to know what my child needs for His salvation (and this in the long-term sense as understood by the Orthodox?). I had prayed for nothing with as much fervor as the salvation of my children. Ultimately, regardless of how they get through life, that they get through in union with Christ is all I ask. Why should I doubt that God was doing what I had asked? In the years since then I have watched God’s word in that moment be fulfilled time and again as He continues to work wonderfully in the life of my son and I see a Christian man stand before me. God’s will for me is good. God is not trying to prevent us from doing good, or making it hard for us to be saved. Life is not a test. No doubt, life is filled with difficulty. We live in a fallen world. But He is at work here and now and everywhere for my good.

My father-in-law had a favorite Bible story (among several): the story of Joseph and his brothers. In the final disclosure in Egypt, when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers – those who had sold him into slavery – Joseph says, “You meant it to me for evil, but the Lord meant it to me for good.” It is an Old Testament confession of Romans 8:28. The world may give us many situations, and the situations on their surface may indeed be evil. But our God is a good God and He means all things for our good. I may confess His goodness at all times.

3. I must believe that the goodness of God is without limit.

I did not know this for many years and only came upon it as I spent a period of month studying the meaning of “envy.” In much of our world (and definitely in the non Judaeo-Christian world of antiquity) people believe that good is limited. If you are enjoying good, then it is possibly at my expense. Such thought is the breeding ground of envy. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed this to so much be true that they feared excellence lest they provoke the jealousy of the Gods. We do not think in the same metaphysical terms, but frequently on some deep level, we believe that someone else’s good will somehow lessen our own. Within this eats the worm of jealousy and anger.

To bless God for His goodness we also need to bless God for His goodness towards everyone and to know that He is the giver of every good and perfect gift – and that His goodness is without limit.

4. I must believe that God is good and know this on the deepest personal level.

God has manifested His goodness to us in the revelation of His Son, Jesus Christ. In Christ, we see the fullness of the goodness of God. The goodness of God goes to the Cross for us. The goodness of God searches for us in hell and brings us forth victorious. The goodness of God will not cease in His efforts to reconcile us to the Father.

My father-in-law had another favorite Bible story (I said he had several): the story of the three young men in the fiery furnace. This story is, incidentally, a favorite of Orthodox liturgical worship as well. It stands as a Biblical image of our rescue from Hades. In the midst of the fiery furnace, together with the three young men, is the image of a fourth. Christ is with them, and in the hymnography of the Church, “the fire became as the morning dew.” For my father-in-law it was the confession of the three young men before the evil threats of the wicked King Nebuchanezer. To his threats of death in a terrible holocaust they said, “Our God is able to deliver us, O King. But even if He does not, nevertheless, we will not bow down and worship your image.” It was their defiant “nevertheless,” that would bring tears to my father-in-law’s eyes. For much of our experience here includes furnaces into which we are thrust despite our faith in Christ. It is there that the faith in the goodness of God says, “Nevertheless.” It is confidence in the goodness of God above all things.

I saw my father-in-law survive a terrible automobile accident, and the whole family watched his slow and losing battle with lymphoma in his last three years. But none of us ever saw him do otherwise than give thanks to God and to delight in extolling the Lord’s goodness.

Many years before I had foolishly become heated with him in one of our “theological discussions.” I was pushing for all I was worth against his unshakeable assurance in God’s goodness. I recall how he ended the argument: “Mark the manner of my death.” It was his last word in the matter. There was nothing to be said against such a statement. And he made that statement non-verbally with the last years of his life. I did mark the manner of his death and could only confess: “God is good! His mercy endures forever!” For no matter the difficulties this dear Christian man faced, nevertheless, no moment was anything less than an occasion for thanksgiving.

I have seen the goodness of God in the land of the living.

The Doors of the Heart

November 22, 2010

In the summer of 1952, an obscure event took place in London that would have a profound impact on the future of Orthodox Christianity in the English-speaking world. A seventeen year-old English lad walked through the doors of St. Philip’s Russian Orthodox Church on Buckingham Palace Road (the Church has long since been torn down). Today he is known as Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, one of the most important figures in the contemporary Orthodox world. His own worlds vividly recount his experience:

I can remember exactly when my personal journey to Orthodoxy began. It happened quite unexpectedly one Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1952, when I was seventeen. I was walking along Buckingham Palace Road, close to Victoria Station in central London, when I passed a nineteenth-century Gothic church, large and somewhat dilapidated, that I had never noticed before. There was no proper notice-board outside it — public relations have never been the strong point of Orthodoxy in the Western world! — but I recall that there was a brass plate which simply said “Russian Church.”As I entered St Philip’s — for that was the name of the church — at first I thought that it was entirely empty. Outside in the street there had been brilliant sunshine, but inside it was cool, cavernous and dark. As my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, the first thing that caught my attention was an absence. There were no pews, no chairs in neat rows; in front of me stretched a wide and vacant expanse of polished floor.Then I realized that the church was not altogether empty. Scattered in the nave and aisles there were a few worshipers, most of them elderly. Along the walls there were icons, with flickering lamps in front of them, and at the east end there were burning candles in front of the icon screen. Somewhere out of sight a choir was singing. After a while a deacon came out from the sanctuary and went round the church censing the icons and the people, and I noticed that his brocade vestment was old and slightly torn.My initial impression of an absence was now replaced, with a sudden rush, by an overwhelming sense of presence. I felt that the church, so far from being empty, was full — full of countless unseen worshipers, surrounding me on every side. Intuitively I realized that we, the visible congregation, were part of a much larger whole, and that as we prayed we were being taken up into an action far greater than ourselves, into an undivided, all-embracing celebration that united time and eternity, things below with things above….

…Before the service had ended, I left the church; and as I emerged I was struck by two things. First, I found that I had no idea how long I had been inside. It might have been only twenty minutes, it might have been two hours; I could not say. I had been existing on a level at which clock-time was unimportant. Secondly, as I stepped out on the pavement the roar of the London traffic engulfed me all at once like a huge wave. The sound must have been audible within the church, but I had not noticed it. I had been in another world where time and traffic had no meaning; a world that was more real — I would almost say more solid — than that of twentieth-century London to which I now abruptly returned.

Everything at the Vigil Service was in Slavonic, and so with my conscious brain I could understand not a single word. Yet, as I left the church, I said to myself with a clear sense of conviction: This is where I belong; I have come home. Sometimes it happens — is it not curious? — that, before we have learnt anything in detail about a person, place or subject, we know with certainty: This is the person that I shall love, this is the place where I need to go, this is the subject that, above all others, I must spend my life exploring. From the moment of attending that service at St Philip’s, Buckingham Palace Road, I felt deep in my heart that I was marked out for the Orthodox Church.

The full account may be read here.

A young man and his curiosity take him through a door – behind which are both an absence and a fullness. There are a large variety of doors within our lives – some are marked by time and place – others inexpressible except in the silence of the heart. There are a number of stories told of doors in the life of the Church. St. Mary of Egypt, a prostitute and drunkard, found herself unable to enter the door of the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem – prevented by an unseen hand. The obstacle of that doorway became the occasion for her conversion. The patriarch Jacob’s dream-encounter with a ladder to heaven is greeted upon waking with the exclamation, “This is none other than the gate of heaven!” Jacob enters into covenant with God.

Like Jacob’s dream, not all doors are physical. My own “doorway” was the first time I heard Rachmaninov’s Vespers. It was being played on the radio – and I heard it by chance. Both my wife and myself were utterly struck by the music. We listened carefully until it ended, wanting above all to find out what music this was. It was like nothing I had heard before – and opened the door to a deep longing that years later found its fulfillment in the Orthodox Church.

Doors commonly play a large role in the services of the Orthodox Church. The doors of the iconostasis open and close both for practical reasons and for mystical reasons (frequently “practicality” carries a mystery within). The doors are not essential – liturgies have been celebrated without them – but the doors of the heart are utterly essential – we cannot enter the Kingdom of God except we go through them.

Christ refers to Himself as “the Door,” and encourages us to “knock.”

In my experience, the doors of the heart are rather exceptional. We are not always able to find them (or certainly not without difficulty). They are encounters with God and His kingdom and are thus not subject to our beck and call. Instead, such doors are a call to us, an invitation to enter.

Lift up your heads, O you gates!
Lift up, you everlasting doors!
And the King of glory shall come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The Lord of hosts, He is the King of glory (Psalm 24:9-10).

The First Kathisma – Sunday Vigil – St. Vladimir’s

November 15, 2010

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The First Kathisma – Sunday Vigil at St. Vladim…, posted with vodpod

The Nativity Fast – Why We Fast

November 15, 2010

November 15, marks the beginning of the Nativity Fast (40 days before Christmas). The following article offers some thoughts on the purpose of fasting.


Fasting is not very alive and well in the Christian world. Much of that world has long lost any living connection with the historical memory of Christian fasting. Without the guidance of Tradition, many modern Christians either do not fast, or constantly seek to re-invent the practice, sometimes with unintended consequences.

There are other segments of Christendom who have tiny remnants of the traditional Christian fast, but in the face of a modern world have reduced the tradition to relatively trivial acts of self-denial.

I read recently (though I cannot remember where) that the rejection of Hesychasm was the source of all heresy. In less technical terms we can say that knowing God in truth, participating in His life, union with Him through humility, prayer, love of enemy and repentance before all and for everything, is the purpose of the Christian life. Hesychasm (Greek Hesychia=Silence) is the name applied to the Orthodox tradition of ceaseless prayer and inner stillness.

But these are incorrectly understood if they are separated from knowledge of God and participation in His life, union with Him through humility, prayer, love of enemy and repentance before all and for everything.

And it is the same path of inner knowledge of God (with all its components) that is the proper context of fasting. If we fast but do not forgive our enemies – our fasting is of no use. If we fast and do not find it drawing us into humility – our fasting is of no use. If our fasting does not make us yet more keenly aware of the fact that we are sinful before all and responsible to all then it is of no benefit. If our fasting does not unite us with the life of God – which is meek and lowly – then it is again of no benefit.

Fasting is not dieting. Fasting is not about keeping a Christian version of kosher. Fasting is about hunger and humility (which is increased as we allow ourselves to become weak). Fasting is about allowing our heart to break.

I have seen greater good accomplished in souls through their failure in the fasting season than in the souls of those who “fasted well.” Publicans enter the kingdom of God before Pharisees pretty much every time.

Why do we fast? Perhaps the more germane question is “why do we eat?” Christ quoted Scripture to the evil one and said, “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” We eat as though our life depended on it and it does not. We fast because our life depends on the word of God.

I worked for a couple of years as a hospice chaplain. During that time, daily sitting at the side of the beds of dying patients – I learned a little about how we die. It is a medical fact that many people become “anorexic” before death – that is – they cease to want food. Many times family and even doctors become concerned and force food on a patient who will not survive. Interestingly, it was found that patients who became anorexic had less pain than those who, having become anorexic, were forced to take food. (None of this is about the psychological anorexia that afflicts many of our youth. That is a tragedy)

It is as though at death our bodies have a wisdom we have lacked for most of our lives. It knows that what it needs is not food – but something deeper. The soul seeks and hungers for the living God. The body and its pain become a distraction. And thus in God’s mercy the distraction is reduced.

Christianity as a religion – as a theoretical system of explanations regarding heaven and hell, reward and punishment, is simply Christianity that has been distorted from its true form. Either we know the living God or we have nothing. Either we eat His flesh and drink His blood or we have no life in us. The rejection of Hesychasm is the source of all heresy.

Why do we fast? We fast so that we may live like a dying man – and in dying we can be born to eternal life.

The Texture of Life and the Kingdom

November 13, 2010

There is a “texture of life” that cannot be reduced. It has a richness that rational descriptions cannot capture. Though we battle with powerful forces that draw us towards the destructiveness of sin – there is written deep within us a hunger for wholeness and the capacity for God. In the words of St. John, “Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

This texture also belongs to the Kingdom of God, though in even greater measure.  Christ Himself brought the Kingdom into our midst. Wherever He went the signs of the Kingdom followed: the blind received their sight, the lame walked, the lepers were cleansed, the dead were received back to life, and the poor had good news preached to them. How do you measure the gift of sight to a blind man, or the joy of a family who receives back into its midst one whom they thought dead?

The Orthodox Tradition, which is often described by many as “mystical,” is not “mystical” in any sense of “esoteric” or “strange.” Such adjectives for the faith are simply a reaching for words to describe a reality that is richer than any merely rational scheme or metaphysical explanation. It is the largeness of a Kingdom that cannot be described or circumscribed, and yet is found in the very heart of the believer. What words do we use to describe something which dwarfs the universe and yet dwells within us?

It is the texture of depth – or to use St. Paul’s expression: “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). This is not merely a statement that nothing has the power to separate us from God, but that nothing has such height or depth as the love of God. It is a rich mixture of images – from the measurement of space, to the angels of heaven, to the elements of time – nothing reaches to the end of the love of God – the very stuff of His Kingdom.

It is for such reasons that I always find myself repelled by efforts to reduce doctrine to simplified formulas. Doctrine – the teaching of the faith should not reduce our understanding but enlarge it – to the very point of silence – and beyond. It is why it is so frustrating to try and explain icons. No one has an argument with the presence of words in the Church – the icons do the same things words do – only with color and in the language of silence. I can enter the Church, remain in silence and yet see (and hear!) something other than the incessant chatter of my own mind. The icons speak with the texture of the Kingdom – opening windows and doors that transcend every height and depth, things present and things to come.

Becoming aware of this texture requires the careful attention of an Orthodox life. Our lives are often filled with tensions and judgments with jealousy and greed – all of which serve to deaden our hearts and make us blind to the true character of the Kingdom in our midst. The Kingdom is reduced to slogan – a cypher for a set of opinions. Patience, inner stillness, love and forgiveness are the disciplines that make it possible for us to perceive the texture of the Kingdom. It allows its depth to be formed in our hearts.

The stillness of an icon should be approached with a stillness in our heart. The rhythm of the liturgy should be allowed to become the rhythm of our souls. The words of Scripture should not sail over our heads but echo within us. The texture of all these things is the same texture as that being formed within us by the work of God’s Spirit. It will become the texture of our true existence.

Eastern Christian New Media Awards

November 12, 2010

Glory to God for All Things has again been nominated for “Best Individual Blog” by the Eastern Christian New Media Awards. I have been honored to have won this award for the past two years. The honor is based on votes of readers. There are an increasing number of excellent blogs, for which I give thanks to God. There are a number of categories and very good nominations. To vote, go here.

“A Sword Will Pierce Your Soul”

November 11, 2010

The Mother of God, while bringing the Christ child to the temple, was greeted by an elderly man, the “just and devout man,” Simeon. Taking the child into his arms he spoke the well-known prophetic words of the Nunc Dimittis, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace….” He spoke as well of the child’s future, with dark tones that hinted at the suffering he would endure. He turned as well to the young Mary and said, “And a sword will pierce your own soul also.” This inner suffering of the Mother of God, a mystical communion in the suffering of her Son, is, I believe, an unavoidable communion for all who would enter the Kingdom of God.

Human beings dislike suffering and in our modern age have directed much time and money to reduce and eliminate it. It is well and good to care for one another and to use God’s world and the gifts of healing that it affords. But there is no elimination of suffering – it remains an integral part of life.

The crucifixion of Christ and His death on the Cross are not removed from His proclamation of the Kingdom of God – the Cross is an inherent and integral part of the encounter of the Kingdom with the broken and fallen world in which we live. St. John’s gospel speaks of Christ’s crucifixion as His “glorification.” In the same manner, Christians are commanded by Christ to “take up your cross and follow me.” There is no description of the Christian life consistent with the gospels that does not contain a cross.

In many ways, Christ’s ministry can be described as a continual confrontation with the suffering world. In sending out the Twelve, he charged them:

…as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give (Matt. 10:7-8).

The preaching of the Kingdom is here described as synonymous with these encounters with brokenness, disease and bondage. In answer to inquiries from John the Baptist, Christ describes His ministry in terms that are unmistakeable in their proclamation of His messiahship:

Go and show John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them (Matt. 11:4-5).

Our daily lives are not commonly marked by our victorious prayer in the face of suffering. Often, the sick remain sick, the blind remain blind, lepers remain lepers, the deaf remain deaf and the dead remain dead. Needless to say that the poor remain with us always. But such encounters and spiritual weakness in our lives are not to be excused by consigning the blind, the lepers, the deaf and the dead to the “stuff of life” – as inevitable and unavoidable parts of the natural order. In much of modernity such a consignment is not only seen as “natural” – the Kingdom itself is consigned to the “supernatural” and postponed to some later date at the end of history. Those who accuse Christians of believing in “pie in the sky, by and by,” are speaking of this displaced and postponed Kingdom – which is decidedly not the gospel of Christ.

The inauguration of the Kingdom of God – announced in the preaching of Christ – is the confrontation between heaven and earth. It is not a preaching of a Second Storey to which we may all someday go when we die – it is a frontal assault on a world which sought to declare itself as secular territory – uninhabited by God. This proclamation does not cease with the Cross and Ressurection – it is Christ’s commission to His disciples – the very life of the Church.

But the character of this proclamation continues to hold the promise that “a sword will pierce your own soul also.” St. Paul describes his hope in the faith, praying that he might have:

the righteousness which is of God by faith: That I may know him [Christ], and the power of his resurrection, and the communion of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead (Philippians 3:9-11).

Nor does the great apostle see this as his own peculiar desire. At the conclusion of his expression of hope he encourages his readers to take on the same goal:

Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. (Philippians 3:15).

The Mother of God knew the communion of Christ’s sufferings at the Cross – a sword pierced her own soul. Her communion in the sufferings of Christ certainly included her grief as His mother, but far more as well. How does the grief of every mother not have some participation in the sword which pierced Mary’s soul? The grief of Mary, sanctified by its communion with the suffering of Christ, sanctifies the grief of all mothers in the same manner. It does not take away the grief, but it makes possible a transformation in which our grief is no longer the “stuff of this world,” but a communion in the Kingdom of God.

The commandment to “heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons” remains. St. Paul certainly fulfilled this commandment according to the measure of his faith. In our own life of faith such dramatic encounters may be present as well (according to the measure of faith), but even without such encounters we must refuse to cede territory to the adversary (including the disguise of neutrality in the secular account of life). The inauguration of the Kingdom of God includes Christ’s descent into Hades. There nowhere that is off-limits to Christ’s Kingdom.

Our encounter with suffering, whether in ourselves or in others, is also a place of the Kingdom. The Kingdom is not its cause, but its hope and redemption. Thus we can obey the commandment:

Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…(Ephesians 5:17-20).

It is doubtless the case that in our thanksgiving a sword may often pierce our own soul – but that, too, is a communion with Christ. In Christ it is also a communion with Mary and with all the saints who have taken up their crosses in obedience to Christ. Our souls, pierced by such a sword, groans together with all creation, awaiting the final triumph of the Kingdom. Our thanksgiving is an act of Eucharist (eucharistia=thanksgiving), a transformation of the world into the Kingdom of God. It is the fulfillment of the priesthood of all believers.

Such a life is not a freedom from suffering, but a communion in the sufferings of Christ that we might know the power of His resurrection.

Glory to God for all things!

The Holy Angels

November 6, 2010

This 8th of November is the Feast of St. Michael and All the Bodiless Powers of Heaven. The feast marks its own special occasion, but it seems entirely appropriate that the feast should be so close to the beginning of the Nativity Fast. There are very few Biblical stories where angels do not play a part, and their presence only grows greater with the incarnation of Christ. In the life of the Church they surround our every action. And thus it is good to celebrate these humble messengers of God.

I offer here a few thoughts on their many occasions of help to mankind.

  • Cherubim were posted at the entrance of the Garden of Eden protecting us from the damage we would do to ourselves by entering where we should not yet go.
  • An angel ministered to Hagar, saving her and her child from death.
  • An angel intervened and spared the life of Isaac staying the hand of Abraham at Mount Moriah.
  • An angel accompanied Abraham’s servant as he returned to Mesopotamia to find a wife for Isaac.
  • An angel spoke to Jacob in a dream directing him how to find his freedom from his father-in-law Laban.
  • An angel appeared to Moses in a flame of fire out of the midst of the burning bush.
  • In all of the travels of Israel during the Exodus, the Angel of the Lord went with them and protected them.
  • All of the Judges of Israel seem to have guided and protected by angels.
  • Angels are found in the visions of the prophets.
  • An angel speaks to Joachim and Anna and brings good news to that barren household.
  • An angel speaks to Zechariah as he ministered in the Temple.
  • An angel speaks to the Theotokos and brings the glad tidings of salvation for all mankind.
  • An angel speaks with Joseph and told him that the child she had conceived was of the Holy Spirit.
  • Angels spoke to the shepherds of the salvation that had been born in Bethlehem.
  • Again an angel told Joseph to take the Theotokos and the Christ Child into Egypt.
  • Angels ministered to Christ after His temptation in the wilderness.
  • An angel appeared to Christ strengthening Him in the Garden of Gethsemane.
  • An angel greeted the women at the tomb and announced the resurrection.
  • Angels stood by and explained the meaning of the ascension to the disciples.

I could, of course, amplify this small list – but these few mentions serve to show how constantly the angels have looked after us and been a part of God’s saving work among us. Thus it is always fitting that we should give thanks to God for their work and not forget the good they have done.