Archive for January, 2011

Candlewax and Hedgehogs – Groundhog Day

January 29, 2011

This article, from an earlier parish newsletter is posted here by request.

Candlewax and Hedgehogs—a peculiar way to entitle an article, I’ll admit. But both have their associations with the second day of February. The first is more important so we’ll begin there. The second day of February is one of the 12 great feasts, and is also celebrated by Christians in the West. The feast is the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, described in the second chapter of St. Luke’s gospel.

There we are told that the Christ child was brought by his mother into the temple in fulfillment of the law, 40 days after his birth (February 2 is 40 days after December 25). The Old Testament Law commanded that “every male that openeth the womb (the first born child) shall be holy to the Lord.” Thus the child was brought to the Temple in Jerusalem and an offering made on His behalf in thanksgiving to God for his birth.

The Most Holy Mother of God certainly kept this teaching of the Law. We are told that she brought her child to the Temple to make offering (and to receive her purification—another required rite of the Temple). There she was met by two people, one a woman, another a man, and both of them prophets. The woman, Anna the Prophetess, spoke to her concerning her child. The aged prophet Symeon, saw the mother and Child and exclaimed in words we repeat at every Vespers:

Lord now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace. For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people. To be a Light to enlighten the nations and to be the glory of Thy people Israel.

This prophecy of St. Symeon has as its key phrase the description that Christ would be a “light to enlighten the gentiles.” It is the emphasis on light that brings these words each evening to the service of Vespers, when we give thanks to God for the Light He has given us. It is also for this reason that candles are blessed on this holy day. The candles of the Church (and especially those to be taken home and used by the faithful) are blessed on this day, because they remind us that Christ is the “light of the world.”

The associations of this feast with light is also where the hedgehogs come in. Christian cultures have usually never let the feasts of the Church stay within the Church itself, but have exported them to the house and farm. So it was that in Europe (particularly Germany) there arose a folk custom that on the Feast of the Presentation (also called “Candlemas” because candles were blessed on that day) that if a hedgehog [badgers in some areas] should come out of his burrow and see the light (and thus his shadow) he would return to his burrow because winter would last six more weeks.

German immigrants brought this folk custom to America in the 1800’s. There being no hedgehogs in North America, the groundhog was drafted to take its place. Thus the secular calendar in America celebrates “Groundhog Day.” But only the faithful Christian knows and understands the secret of the Light that shines on February 2nd. Not the light of the sun, frightening a furry creature back into his hole, but the Light of Christ, which frightens all the evil powers that would do us harm.

For an interesting theological meditation on Groundhog Day, I suggest you rent and view the movie by that title. Bill Murray finds redemption as he lives his way through a near eternity of Groundhog Days. But I will spare you.

The “Crisis” of Modernity

January 28, 2011

What do you call a Christian whose mind is so constructed that belief in God is almost impossible?

Answer: a modern man.

I occasionally make allusions to the crisis of modernity (in one form or another), as in a recent post in which I made reference to Florovsky’s term, the tragedy of Western Christianity. The crisis is not financial, though financial stumbles do reveal some of the cultural weakness within modernity. In many countries, it appears that very little is required to fill the streets with violent protest (though often the protest is itself without clear guidance or purpose).

The tragedy of Western Christianity is often shared by Eastern Christianity: that tragedy is the failure of the Church. I certainly believe Christ’s words that the “gates of hell” would not prevail against His Church. Despite its tragic failures, the Church has not disappeared (for thoughts on the historical problems within the Eastern Church, I reference an article by Met. Hilarion Alfeyev).

Much of Christian practice today has fallen into the individualism of modernity. The Christian life as a common life, lived only in the context of Christ Body, the Church, is, for many, a concept that has little content beyond a sense of camaraderie with other Christians. Such an appropriation of Christianity renders the faith as simply one of many modern “life-style choices.” It is therefore not surprising that many “life-styles” that are traditionally rejected by the Scriptures are easily embraced within a Christianity that exists only as a set of “choices.”

The earliest Christians understood the true nature of the Church and did so in the context of a hostile, pagan culture. Modern Christians, even those that perceive the Church properly in its fullness as the Body of Christ, do so in a very strange society – a secular world that is “post-Christian” rather than simply pagan and hostile.

The “post-Christian” aspects of our culture make belief in Christ, as traditionally given by the fathers and the Church in its fullness, nearly impossible. To say that Christianity is “a way of life” is not the same thing as saying that Christianity is “a life-style choice.” Many modern Christians would be hard put to explain the difference.

Answer: a life-style choice is a set of actions based on decisions of an individual. A way of life (in its true meaning) refers to the fact that true union with Christ is the only means of true existence – all else is death or a movement towards non-existence.

In the post-Christian world, institutions have become ephemeral, based, at best, on the raw, coercive power they possess and can threaten to wield. That a pope could bring the Holy Roman Emperor (Henry IV) to his knees in the snow is now a tale of things past (and was not much of a tale at the time). Christians speak, issue statements to various governmental bodies, usually to no avail. The Church is not as strong as an opinion poll.

To approach Christianity as a “way of life” is to reject the Post-Christian world itself – to recognize the emptiness of secularism – and to set one’s life on a path that has no particular public standing in the world in which we live. To recognize Christ as the very source of our existence and well-being is to place nothing ahead of Him, or in competition with Him. It is to recognize that our true life is constituted by love of God, love of neighbor, and love of enemy. Everything else is subsidiary and of less significance. It is to place our life under the judgement of the End of all Things, rather than any other time or place.

The world which we now call the “modern” is simply one of many cultural arrangements that people have used for their daily intercourse. There is nothing inherently good or true in its constitution, nothing which demands our loyalty. Though “God” has been assigned a place within the secular order, such a place is not occupied by God, but only things which “stand” for God, and therefore are modern idols. A real God, is the end of all that secularism professes.

The crisis of our present world order is that it has no particular relationship with the God Who Is. It has established itself as superior to all else and the judge of the utility of all things. As such, it can have no true God.

To reject modernity and secularism sets a Christian on a path of conflict and difficulty. It requires that we see modernity for what it is (simply another human construct) and secularism for what it is (another human effort to relegate God to a relative station). It is a path marked by tension and struggle and much misunderstanding. But this is the struggle of our time, the crisis and tragedy which belong to our age.

May we have the wisdom to know our own age, and to know the true God in the midst of all things and to discern His voice from all of the delusions which seductively call to us.

Risking Everything

January 15, 2011

In the struggle to come to the wholeness of Personhood – to become the “true self” rather than to sink into the “false self” our very existence as spiritual beings is at stake. If you read across Orthodox books that center on the issue of Personhood – a common theme becomes visible. Our fall and our brokenness leave us vulnerable, even in our religious efforts, to the development of a “false self” something quite other than the wholeness of true Personhood.  Indeed, religion might be more than just a little vulnerable to this – it may be one of the best ways to pursue a false mode of existence. It should be quickly added that most of our activities contribute to this false self – for it is simply another way in which our sinfulness manifests itself. The movement from false to true self is another way of describing the work of salvation that is wrought in us through grace.

The distinctions being made between “false” and “true” are not about identities: not a matter of my being “Bill” or “George.” It instead a distinction being made between a distorted and improper relation with God and the world around me and a whole and proper relation with God and the world around me. Through any number of life experiences we find ourselves wounded and broken. Our love becomes distorted such that we do not love as we ought. Our feelings (in the very largest and all-encompassing sense of the word) become distorted. We do not love what and who we should love in they way they should be loved. The whole range of emotions from hate, anger, joy, love, etc., all become distorted. Thus it seems that often the longer we live the more damage we receive and inflict.

The healing of the self includes the healing of the whole self. Though purification, illumination and deification (or the various ways of describing the ascetical and spiritual life of the Orthodox Christian) our emotions are restored to their proper function. We are able to love, to be thankful, to have anger even hate (in their proper sense – meaning however whatever is actually in the image of God). We do what is right (not as measured by some abstract set of principles or objective set of rules) but as is measured by the will of God: “whoever does the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

The difficulty in all of this is that it describes something dynamic, that is happening in the life of a believer. It is not static, such that it is finished before it is finished. Instead it is something of a roadmap, and looks at what is going on in the life of salvation and is a way of describing the relative merits of differing things. It is a way of saying what is important and what is at stake.

It is quite possible for a local church (as in a local parish, though we could be describing the more accurate sense of “local” church and mean the Orthodox Church in America or the Russian Orthodox Church, etc.) to go about what looks like the work of the Church, and in fact not be doing the work of the Church. The sacraments may be present (these are utterly essential aspects of the life of the Church). Fr. Alexander Schmemann is quoted as having said: “The Church is not an institution that has mysteries; it is a Mystery that has institutions. But it is quite possible to put things the other way around, and instead of serving the salvation of each member, be serving the creation and the fostering of the false self.

Our American way of life has tended to mold the local church into the local religion store. It offers various programs and activities that keep everyone involved and even maximizing the “ministries” of its members. But it can also simply be a beehive of activity, none or little of which has much to do with the healing of the soul.

In every activity of the Church, whether it is liturgical, or educational, or building buildings, what have you, each activity should serve for the healing of the soul and the nurture of the true self. If not, then the Church has simply become one more secular activity that is destroying true life rather than fostering it.

So, what is at stake? Everything. These things are easy to get wrong, and we doubtless fail at many of them most of the time. What is to be done? First we pray and seek to live our lives as though we believed in God. And not only that we believe in God, but that the goal of our life is our mystical union with Him and one another. We can engage in any Godly activity, but it will be seen as a Godly activity, if and only if, its goal is true union with God and one another. This will be marked by love, freedom, indeed the fruit of the Spirit. It may not be the most efficient of organizations (efficiency is not a criteria of Godly judgment), but if it is moving forward in this work of healing in whatever it is doing, then it is doing the work of God and He will be glorified.

Another specific activity, deeply related to this false and true self, is the knowledge of God, and all that we speak of when we say, “doctrine.” Part of the argument of St. Gregory Palamas, against those who argued for a different manner of knowing God, was his insistence on the experiential character of the proper knowledge of God. Thus when we know God properly, we know Him as Person, not as object or topic. Someone may know all of the dogmatic formulas such that they can repeat them with no trouble, or even quickly analyze a statement as somehow being contrary to the doctrine of the Church, and yet know all of this in a way that is not proper. They simply become experts, like someone studying for a game show. This is an activity that fosters the false self, and may be more dangerous than many, because the person involved can suffer under the delusion that because they “know” all of the true facts, they actually know the truth, when they do not.

In the liturgy we sing: “We have seen the true Light, we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, worshiping the undivided Trinity, who has saved us.” This in no way means, “We now have the true facts.” Anyone could have the true facts. This is almost nothing. The hymn in the liturgy refers to a living relationship that is healing us a whole persons. There is no triumphalism in this hymn whatsover (if there is then one is singing from the “false self”). Instead, there is simple gratitude. We give thanks because God has done this for us (who in no way deserved what has been done).

Thus the Orthodox life should always be marked by a knowledge of God (frequently beyond expression even though it agrees with the doctrine as it has been revealed). But it is not doctrine I wish to know, but Him Whom the doctrine reveals. Again, everything is at stake.

Christianity in a One-Storey Universe

January 14, 2011

Conciliar Press has just made my book, Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, available for pre-ordering. It is due to be released on March 1. I greatly appreciate the encouragement I have had from readers as this work has been unfolding and pray that it will be useful. I’ll keep everyone posted on any developments, should there be any.

Living Orthodox in the Modern World

January 12, 2011

We live in the modern world – a fact for which we have no antidote. It is the moment in history that is ours. Christians before us have lived in the Roman world, various pagan worlds, the Byzantine world, the world of “Holy Russia,” but we are tasked by Divine Providence to live as Orthodox Christians in the modern world. It is a setting that has its own unique challenges and its own unique temptations.

For Orthodox Christians who live in countries that historically have no (or very little) Orthodox history the chances are that their lives will be saturated at almost every point with modern secularism. This is not a philosophy of atheism, but a cultural milieu that understands the world in which we live to be somehow distinct from whatever God there may (or may not) be. A secularist often believes in God – but he believes the world is its own self-defined mode of existence.

Living in an alien culture is nothing new for Christians – we began in the surroundings of a sophisticated (sometimes) pagan culture (Rome) that was suffused with mysticism from the East, mystery cults, philosophical debate and speculation. It was, we can say, the time and place chosen by God for the manifestation of light to the Gentiles – the Church of the Ages.

By the same token, we must accept that we are appointed to live in this time of an alien (modern) culture that spans a wide range of religious, secular and scientific thought. I have found no better statement of our situation than this quote from Fr. Georges Florovsky (20th century):

Orthodoxy is summoned to witness. Now more than ever the Christian West stands before divergent prospects, a living question addressed also to the Orthodox world… The ‘old polemical theology’ has long ago lost its inner connection with any reality. Such theology was an academic discipline, and was always elaborated according to the same western ‘textbooks.’ A historiosophical exegesis of the western religious tragedy must become the new ‘polemical theology.’ But this tragedy must be reendured and relived, precisely as one’s own, and its potential catharsis must be demonstrated in the fullness of the experience of the Church and patristic tradition. In this newly sought Orthodox synthesis, the centuries-old experience of the Catholic West must be studied and diagnosed by Orthodox theology with greater care and sympathy than has been the case up to now… The Orthodox theologian must also offer his own testimony to this world — a testimony arising from the inner memory of the Church — and resolve the question with his historical findings.” – Georges FlorovskyWays of Russian Theology II, pp. 302-304

His statement that “this tragedy must be reendured and relived, precisely as one’s own,” is worthy of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos. The tragedy is the religious failure of the West in the face of modernity (as well as the errors that led to such a failure). But their correction does not come in the context of debate and argument (“the old polemical theology has long ago lost its inner connection with any reality”). The healing is more akin to Christ’s healing of our human sin. In His union with our humanity, our humanity is not destroyed, but healed and deified.

Orthodoxy should not seek to destroy the alien culture which surrounds us, but to endure it, and in the love of Christ, in the ascesis of the body and mind, heal that which is broken. In my own experience, such redemption is not the work of a single generation (I am already a generation removed from Florovsky – as well as a generation removed from many of my readers). We have not been given a commandment to change the world, but a commandment to obey the gospel. That obedience, I believe, today includes the necessity that we “reendure and relive, precisely as our own, the religious tragedy of the modern world.”

On the one hand, this means that those of us who are the children of the West, do not suddenly sound as though we had never lived here. The condemnation of the West (precisely part of the “old polemical theology”) mostly provides grist for conversation, much of which is less than fruitful. Simply being Baptized or Chrismated does not make us “Eastern.” It unites us with Christ’s Holy Church (and Christ Himself) – but it is precisely that union which must not be given short shrift.

I have perhaps best seen this displayed in the life and behavior of Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas (retired). A convert from the Baptist Church as a teenager (in 1940), he entered an American Orthodoxy that did not speak English. His analysis of Western culture, and the “religious tragedy” of the West were always keen (often the subject of his sermons) and yet he spoke with a kindness and compassion that made it clear that he did not consider himself superior to the tragedy nor somehow separated from those around him.

For myself, I first met him when I was an Episcopal priest exploring Orthodoxy. His warmth and hospitality (he wanted to know what I thought, and was quick to speak well of things we shared in common) created a space in which I could bring the “tragedy” of my own religious journey into contact with the fullness of Orthodoxy. (I was always touched by the fact that during the five or more years of our relationship prior to my conversion, he insisted on addressing me as “Father,” and continued to do so even after my conversion, though my ordination as an Orthodox priest would not come for another 13 months.)

I cited St. Silouan earlier because of his great love and his maxim: “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” Within his prayers and inner experience, his love extended to the lost, even the lost in Hades, and he prayed, not as one who was separated, but as one who was himself united to them in their tragedy (while still be united to Christ).

We live when and where we are for a reason (known only to God). But it is here and now that we will find salvation, and in the peace of that salvation in its fullness, thousands around us will be saved.

Sloshing Our Way into the Kingdom

January 10, 2011

A dear friend of mine serves as an Orthodox priest in one of our coastal cities. He told me about a visit to his port of a Russian “sailing ship.” It was a wonderful visit, as he related. The ship had a small chapel on board and a Russian Orthodox chaplain. Together they celebrated a small prayer service in the chapel, which was packed with visitors and sailors. The service including the blessing of water. Traditionally at the end of the blessing, the people are sprinkled with the blessed water. My American friend took the sprinkling brush and (in a common American way) lightly sprinkled the water. He was interrupted, he said, by a loud, “Nyet!”

The Russian priest took the brush from him, plunged it in the water and proceeded to “slosh” the gathered congregation (“sprinkle” simply doesn’t describe such a application of water).

When my friend told me the story, I asked him if he understood what had happened. “We Americans sprinkle water as though we’re afraid to get wet. The Russians “slosh” the water as though they are getting blessed!”


I think about this story each time I serve at the Blessing of the Waters. After Church this afternoon, my parish gathered down at the local river for the Great Blessing of the Waters. The service concludes with the blessing of the people with the newly-blessed water from the river. This year, my congregation received their blessing “Russian style” though I think it was greeted to some degree as “getting wet” (of course it was also 13 degrees fahrenheit today).

Such stories are light-hearted and point to subtleties in culture. But our American culture (and its response to being splashed with holy water) also reveals the latent “second-storey” that shapes our perception of the world and God’s place within it. Water can be seen as a symbol (in the modern sense of standing for something that is not there), but not as sacrament (becoming a bearer of Divine Grace). Despite the fact that Christianity is inherently linked to the material creation (“the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”) the secularized mind can only see superstition and magic when things are spoken of as holy.

The two-storey configuration of the modern religious mind (we live here in a neutral, natural world while God and things “spiritual” are somewhere else – removed) cannot cope with the reality of God’s Incarnation. For a very large number of modern Christians, sacraments have ceased to have any reality other than the meaning we ourselves impute to them.

To travel through what remains of ancient Christianity is to be shocked by the presence of incorrupt bodies of the saints, prominently displayed within the Church (as well as bone fragments and the like). How did Christians who placed such value on the bodies of the saints perceive the world? What seems macabre to the modern mind seemed indispensable to our predecessors.

The rejection of relics and icons, the desacralization of sacraments renders our modern world “safe” from a concrete encounter with the sacred. We prefer our encounters to be polite sprinkles, marked with ambiguity and never free of doubt.

But the fullness of the Tradition requires that we embrace God as He has given Himself to us. We should be plunged into the depths of His crucifixion (quite literally through the waters of Baptism). God is meant to be eaten. The fullness of the faith assaults our senses and brings us face to face with grace in the material world. It is generally delusion that carries our minds away to immaterial thoughts and imaginations of the heart. Orthodox Christianity has no lowest common denominator – it is maximal Christianity. “The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matt. 11:12).

This is not to say that Orthodox Christians are masters of fasting or that their feet don’t hurt from standing for hours in prayer. Forgiving everyone for everything and the practice of continual repentance is as difficult for them as it would be for anyone. But none of us was created to tiptoe into the Kingdom.

Many modernists criticize the commandments of God as “empty ritual,” never noticing that “empty” best describes the content of our thoughts – the imaginations of our hearts. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” the Psalmist says. “Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory.”

Forgive the crudeness of my language – but with such an abundance of grace – we need to “slosh” our way into the Kingdom – and rejoice in the rich mercies of God.

The Mystery of Theophany

January 4, 2011

This week, the Church moves from the feast of Christmas to the feast of the Theophany – the celebration of the Baptism of Christ. The intent of this feast is not to celebrate a succession of historical events (the Baptism of Christ is at least 30 years later than His birth). Rather this feast takes us into the depths of the mystery of Christ and His salvation of the world.

Many Christians, reading the gospel accounts of Christ’s Baptism, are not sure what to make of the event. They accept Christ’s own explanation to St. John, “It is necessary to fulfill all righteousness,” though they are not entirely sure what He means by this. They have no particular understanding of why Christ submitted Himself to this action of John (it was not required by the Law – but is rather a prophetic action on the part of St. John).

St. John himself does not seem to understand the purpose of Christ’s Baptism. He is told that “whoever you see the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain” is the Messiah – but he is given little information beyond that. Witnessing Christ’s Baptism and the Spirit resting upon Him, he hears the voice, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew, Mark and Luke all bear witness to the voice).  The Church later celebrates this manifestation of the Trinity (Christ in the water, the Spirit descending, the Voice of the Father – hence the title “Theophany”).

But with the text alone, on its literal level, leaves the mystery of Christ’s Baptism alone, without context or meaning. The Tradition of the Church, however, sees the Baptism of Christ in the context of Pascha (Easter) as it sees everything in the context of Christ’s Pascha. Christ’s Baptism is a foreshadowing (and on more than a literary level) of His crucifixion and descent into Hades (just as our own Baptism is seen by St. Paul as a Baptism into Christ’s “death and resurrection.”

Such possibilities of multiple means and revelations of greater meanings within the literal telling of the story suggests that the world itself is not to be comprehended entirely in its literal manifestation. Something more is at work, particularly in the workings of God. Some thoughts I have offered earlier on Fr. Andrew Louth’s thought seem appropriate to the occasion:

Andrew Louth, writing in his book, Discerning the Mystery, says:

If we look back to the Fathers, and the tradition, for inspiration as to the nature of theology, there is one thing we meet which must be paused over and discussed in some detail: and that is their use of allegory in interpreting the Scriptures. We can see already that for them it was not a superfluous, stylistic habit, something we can fairly easily lop off from the trunk of Patristic theology. Rather it is bound up with their whole understanding of tradition as the tacit dimension of the Christian life: allegory is a way of entering the ‘margin of silence’ that surrounds the articulate message of the Scriptures, it is a way of glimpsing the living depths of tradition from the perspective of the letter of the Scriptures. Of course the question of allegory in the Fathers is complex (and often rendered unduly complicated by our own embarrassment about allegory): but whatever language the Fathers use to describe their exegetical practice (and there is no great consistency here), they all interpret Scripture in a way we would call allegorical, and allegoria is the usual word the Latin Fathers use from the fourth century onwards to characterize the deeper meaning they are seeking in the Scriptures.

I have quoted Louth at some length to make a point. His characterization of a search for a “deeper meaning” is a hallmark of Patristic thought about Scripture. They do not all call it “allegory,” indeed, it was and is called by many names (theoria, etc.). But all shared a common sense that there was something behind or beyond the text that confronted them.

I have written about this topic primarily under the heading of iconicity – a word I use to connote the referential character of not just the text we read, but the world we inhabit. The world as pure object, as a collection of self-contained and self-explaining things (of which people are but examples) is a world that is foreign to the perception of traditional Christianity. Though this is true, it is, nevertheless, the world-view that is increasingly offered to us in a secularized world. Others may afford us the luxury of believing that something has reference beyond itself, but only do so as a courtesy, a social bargain. We allow others to infer meaning (where secularly none exists) simply out of respect for their will. If you want the world to be referential, I will respect that, remembering, however, that this is only “true for you.”

The classical Christian claim is not the same thing as relativist courtesy. The text has a deeper meaning not because I infer it but because I discern it. The meaning is real and true. Indeed the classical Christian claim is that the truth of things (and not just texts) is to be found precisely in their referential character and in that to which they refer.

To know the personal God is to know God in the manner in which persons are known. The content of a person always has an infinite quality (and this is especially so of God). And that content always has a referential quality as well. Thus, to know Christ is also to know Him as Son, and hence the Son of the Father. “No one knows the Father but by me,” Christ says. For the person of the Father (as is indicated by the name revealed to us) is always referential to the Son (as the Son is to the Father).

And this must be said even of human persons. We never know each other exhaustively nor in the crass manner of modern objectivism. For each of us, fearfully and wonderfully made, is also infinitely referential. Thus knowledge of another is perhaps better described as relation or participation. It cannot mean comprehension.

The same is true of the text of Scripture. To read the text of Scripture without the constant and abiding sense that there is more here than I can see or understand is not to have read Scripture at all, or at least to have read it badly.

St. Antony the Great was once asked by a philosopher where were his books. He replied, “My book, O philosopher, is the world.” St. Paul also sees this aspect of creation: “For since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead” (Romans 1:20).

This capacity of creation, for much of the modern world, has become the opacity of creation. We can see no further than the thing itself. Modern man is in danger of losing his ability to read the references of everything about him. And with that loss comes the diminution of everything, including himself.

The world and all that is in it is given to us as icon – not because it has no value in itself – but because the value it has in itself is the gift of God – and this is seen in its iconicity.

At Theophany, the waters of the world are revealed to be both Hades and the gate of Paradise. In Christ’s journey within and through the Church, everything is revealed to be such a place. You are my entry into Paradise as clearly as you may also be my entry into Hades. Love alone reveals things for what they are, and transforms them into what they were always intended to be. It is the gift of God.


January 1, 2011

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.