Archive for June, 2011

Saints Among Us

June 28, 2011

The first few Sundays following the feast of Pentecost are set aside for the remembrance of the saints. The first Sunday is “All Saints,” much like the West observes on November 1. The second and third Sundays mark saints of national and other particular interests. In the Orthodox Church in America, we commemorate, All Saints, All Saints of America and All Saints of Russia, and lastly, All Saints of the British Isles and Ireland (noting the large number of American Orthodox who have British or Irish backgrounds). The Scriptures tell us that the saints stand about us as “a great cloud of witnesses,” as though we were living our lives in an arena. They cheer us on and urge us forward, always surrounding us with their prayers.

Life is communion – never a self-contained biology – we exist by virtue of the fact that we are in communion with others. Even in death, our bodies continue in communion with the earth around it and the many life forms that increasingly inhabit our remains. Only in our imaginations do we exist apart from the life of others. Prayer is the most common expression of this communion, particularly with the saints. They pray for us whether we ask them or not, whether we want them to or not. Prayer is the voice of love.

There are saints who are well-known, or at least, identified, in the life of the Church. However, most saints remain unknown to us, regardless of their roles in our lives. It should be remembered that Sodom and Gomorrah would have been spared had only 10 righteous men be found. As it was, the prayers of the righteous Abraham were not without effect. His kinsman, Lot, and family were delivered from the destruction of the cities  at the hands of angels. It may be that none of us who read this post are among the saints whom I describe. But we can and must join our prayers with theirs (and with the hosts of heaven) as a veil of protection in a world that often seeks its own destruction. May God make us fervent in prayer on behalf of all and for all. I pray this meditation will be useful.


Like many, I recall my highschool years somewhat vividly. Our school was of moderate size with a personal history for most students that increased its impact. It opened in 1965 with grades 7 through 12, among the earliest accomodations in our county to the “baby boom” phenomenon. Existing schools simply could not handle the growing mass of young people. By the time I reached 9th grade, plans were made and shortly implemented that placed students under the ninth grade into a middle school. But by my last year, our class consisted of students who had been together for six years, some longer than that. And so it was that we knew one another. For good or ill, we knew one another. I recall in particular a student who came to our class somewhat late – probably around the tenth grade. What was striking was not that he was the best student (though he was among the best), nor that he was a great athlete, though he made a contribution, nor that he was necessarily a “hit” with the girls, though I recall him as the sort of guy who usually had a date to school dances.

This young man had a different distinction: he was good. Or if it is improper to call another man good (in light of Christ’s teaching in Luke 18:19) then I will have to say of him that he was kind. He was not only a kind young man, but kindness towards others seemed to matter to him. Thus he was intentionally kind. I was many times the recipient of his kindness – never hearing a mean or demeaning comment from him. This was a person who was never the source of a bad day for me.

Time has moved on and I now live away from my home town. I do not know the stories of my fellow students to a large degree. I married someone “from the outside” and have a life that rarely brings me into contact with that part of my past. But I have often wondered about the kindness of such a young man and what became of him.

I use this memory as a way of thinking about the phenomenon of saints. I do not know that my friend’s kindness approached that category – but it is a reminder to me that we are not all alike. Sometimes, for whatever reason, we meet those who are singular in their kindness, their goodness, their generosity, their compassion, and the presence of the good God is made somewhat tangible.

I recently watched a movie on the modern saint Nikolai of Zicha. His life spanned both World Wars and included a time in America, part of which was spent as the Rector of St. Tikhon’s seminary in Pennsylvania. What was most striking about him was the recognition by others around him from a fairly early stage in his life, that this was no ordinary man. At numerous points in his life people who were no strangers to political power or wealth, described him as the most extraordinary man of their acquaintance. He was compared to the prophets of the Old Testament. In one case he was considered the equal of an army. Kings sought his advice, which was not noted for political brilliance but for goodness. His was the voice of God to many in his generation, including those who seemed to have the “power” of God in their ability to make life and death decisions.

In a famous prayer from his Prayers by the Lake, he wrote:

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Enemies have driven me into your embrace more than friends have.

Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world.

Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world. Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an unhunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world.

They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself.

They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments.

They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself.

They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.

Bless my enemies, O Lord, Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish.

Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me as though I were a dwarf.

Whenever I have wanted to lead people, they have shoved me into the background.

Whenever I have rushed to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand.

Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened me from sleep.

Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long and tranquil life, they have demolished it and driven me out.

Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of your garment.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Bless them and multiply them; multiply them and make them even more bitter against me:

so that my fleeing to You may have no return;

so that all hope in men may be scattered like cobwebs;

so that absolute serenity may begin to reign in my soul;

so that my heart may become the grave of my two evil twins, arrogance and anger;

so that I might amass all my treasure in heaven;

ah, so that I may for once be freed from self-deception, which has entangled me in the dreadful web of illusory life.

Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows, that a person has no enemies in the world except himself.

One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends.

It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies.

Therefore bless, O Lord, both my friends and enemies.

A slave curses enemies, for he does not understand. But a son blesses them, for he understands.

For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life.

Therefore he freely steps among them and prays to God for them.

He was imprisoned in Dachau by the Nazis and persecuted by the communists after their rise to power in post-war Serbia. Thus he finished his years in America, a saint who had not sought out our company, but was nonetheless a gift to us of a kind God.

I believe that without the presence of saints, the world could not continue to exist. They cannot be seen as a great political force, but I believe that the goodness that dwells within them and the kindness that flows from them, by God’s grace, hold back the approaching darkness that will come before the Light of God sweeps all darkness aside.

Like my childhood friend, I cannot explain their presence or their character without some sort of reference beyond environment. Without the hand of God, such men and women simply could not exist. But they do. In our places of work, sometimes in our families, in the cities in which we dwell, there is a quiet presence that we cannot account for. Our sociology and socio-biology easily explain the sad presence of evil in our midst. Evil disappoints and saddens us but it does not present us with a conundrum.

But this other presence – to be found even at an early age – transcends our science. Not often recognized to the extent of Bishop Nikolai, these silent sentinels are nonetheless there.  Their presence in an office can make an unbearable place of work into something bearable – even at times pleasant. I have no way to estimate their number or to surmise their universality, other than to suspect that they are everywhere. And I believe that they are where they are, because God placed them there and that they are where they are for our salvation. More than saints, they are like guardian angels in our social fabric. Without them, the whole world would unravel.

The Mystery of the Fullness

June 24, 2011

One of the most common words used in Orthodoxy, drawn very much from the writings of the New Testament, is the term “fullness” (pleroma in the Greek). St. Paul uses it to mean something that is in its completion or its final state, transcending things as we often know them.

Because the term often refers to things at the End of all things, or to realities that are greater than the reality that we presently know, fullness is a difficult term to discuss. The Church is described by St. Paul as “the fullness of Him that fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23). St. Paul does not describe the Church as something that shall be the fullness, but something that simply is the fullness. Of course, our daily experience generally is not aware of the Church as fullness. We are far more likely to be aware of the Church as that which fails to be fullness of God.

I will offer a personal side-trip to look at an experience of fullness (or an experience analogous to fullness). I have had the joy for a few days last week of having my children under my roof at the same time. This is a rare experience since they are now grown, and all married – and span both coasts of the United States. My oldest has been away from home for around 12 years or more.

One evening last week, as my wife and I prepared for sleep, I turned to her and said, “Can you feel it?” She replied, “What?”

“We’re all here,” I responded. We both offered contented sighs.

It was a particularly apt description in light of our common experience across the years. When the subject of children came up during the years in which we were “having” children, my wife said that she always asked herself the question: “Are we all here yet.” It was as though she was waiting for some fullness, a completion that she would know when it occurred. My inner experience has been the same. Though we lost a child, his presence continues to make up part of the fullness, and he is never “not here.”

This is only an analogy – but it is an experience of fullness that points towards a fullness I do not yet know.

This image of the Church, particularly as a present reality, is worth dwelling on. Our world, especially as seen through the lens of our culture, is always changing, always becoming something different. We see ourselves in the same manner. We see the economy and science and our culture as sharing in this same phenomenon. Few today see the world as evolving or changing towards some perfect state (or state of fullness). We have become accustomed to change and judge things largely not in light of any perfection, but in the light of usefulness.

The reality of Church long ago ceased to have a sense of perfection for most Christians. In a world where Christian denominations number over 20,000 – such an idea would not be likely. There are those who inherited the language of Scripture and the Creeds and use words such as “perfection” and “truth” and even “only” to describe the church to which they belong. As an Orthodox Christian, I belong to a Church whose language is very much marked by such ideal adjectives. Of course, we were using those adjectives when no other “Church” existed.  In such a context, the words have a slightly different meaning – one which is not necessarily polemical.

I do not believe in an “invisible” Church (in the sense taught by many Protestants). The “invisible” Church lacks the character of scandal (who can be scandalized by an invisible Church?). An invisible Church is about as helpful, and perhaps exactly the same, as an imaginary Church.

Rather, the Church is the “fullness of Him who fills all in all.” Perhaps the problem isn’t in the scandal of the messiness that seems to fill so much that we name “Church” and instead lies within our own eyes and heart. We do not see anything within our experience that could be described as the “fullness of God” but neither do we see the truth of almost everything around us. We see enemies and wickedness where something else is the case. (“The wicked flee when no one pursues…” Proverbs 28:1). The darkness of the world is often simply the projection of the darkness of our own hearts.

Christ tells us that “the pure in heart shall see God.” I would assume that the pure in heart would also be the only ones who can recognize the “fullness” of the same God. Such purity is born of love and nurtured in repentance and forgiveness.

I do not wait for the fullness to appear – the fullness waits for the purity of my heart. I give thanks that God is patient.

The Wedding Garment

June 17, 2011

My house has been suffused with joy, anxiety and eager anticipation as the family makes preparations for my youngest daughter’s marriage (this Sunday afternoon). The are inevitably so many details – thank God for my wife and friends – I would be lost if I even began to consider all that is involved.

I am reminded of the gospel account of the wedding of the King’s son, where everyone offers excuses and the invitation is then extended in a most extreme manner. I remember as well the odd ending when a stranger arrives at the wedding and is “cast into outer darkness” because he has “no wedding garment.”

There are cultural issues required to be understood before the parable itself can be understood. The family of the groom provided the “wedding garments” for the guests. Thus the late-comer has refused the gift of the King and has presented himself for the wedding having spurned the hospitality of his host.

As Christians, our “wedding garment” is nothing less than the “righteousness of Christ” which we receive in Holy Baptism, and which we renew regularly in our repentance. To arrive at God’s great wedding banquet without a proper garment, is to have come, spurning the good gift of God’s own righteousness and forgiveness. It is to arrive assuming our own merits are sufficient.

The theme of the Wedding and its garment is brought continually to mind for an Orthodox priest. As he vests for the Divine Liturgy, he blesses first his white robe, the stikharion, using these words:

My soul shall rejoice in the Lord, for He hath clothed me with the garment of salvation; as a bridegroom has He set a crown upon me; and as a bride adorns herself with jewels, so has He adorned me.

For the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharist, is nothing other than the very meal at the End of the World. It is the marriage feast of the Lamb; the feast of the Kingdom of God – our participation in the very Body and Blood of God.

To be even remotely present in a home that is preparing the marriage of a daughter is to have a strong sense of preparation involved in this major life event. The details overwhelm me (as they nearly overwhelm everyone). Watching Steve Martin’s Father of the Bride rings true even if it does not add comfort to the situation.

Weddings easily devour the fact that what is occurring is a sacrament of the Church. Our culture, in situations of relatively light religious affiliation (as in so many “wedding chapels”) easily replaces the holy with the merely romantic. The merely romantic is a very flimsy frame upon which to build a life of mutual self-sacrifice.

Within the Orthodox Church, a number of canons safeguard the sacrament: the marriage must be celebrated in a Church – not outdoor, not in a barn, not in an imaginary romantic setting. It belongs in the Church because it is indeed a sacrament – a means by which God becomes present and we participate in His grace. The couple is also required to have counseling beforehand and to make their confessions before a priest as they prepare to receive one of the Holy Sacraments. One prays that such actions add to the sobriety of the occasion and draw attention towards God and away from the manifold distractions of our silly world.

This weekend will mark the fourth time I have stood with one of my children and had a share in the celebration of this sacrament. Each time I have been blessed by the fact that the young couple standing before me were clad in the wedding garment of Christ. The Orthodox wedding also declares that “the prayers of parents are the foundations of homes,” a very sober reminder to myself and my wife that we have not completed our responsibilities as parents – they have only shifted into a yet more strenuous gear.

I rejoice with my daughter and her fiance and ask you to join my family as we pray for her and her husband.

“O God, remember your servants Clare Anne and Andrew as they enter this new way of life. May their life together always be an icon of Christ and His Church. May we all share together in the feast at the end of the world!”

Existence, Choice and God

June 14, 2011

I recall a conversation with a Russian parishioner some years back. She had been baptized as an adult (by me) and I referred to her as a “convert” in the course of conversation. She bristled slightly at my comment and said, “I am not a convert. Converts are people who choose.” She went on to explain that although she had never been baptized, she was, nonetheless Orthodox, and would not have considered any other option.

I understood her point – converts are indeed people who choose. And it is also true that there are many people whose religious life has not involved a choice, other than to be what they have always been.

In America, we live in an age of conversion – at least we live in an age of converts and particularly an age of choices. Such choices can be embarrassingly numerous when fully recounted. Many “converts” (regardless of their present loyalties) have fairly convoluted stories that include multiple church memberships or worse. Our culture does not include a lot of straight lines.

I think choices occur on many levels – though two particular levels seem to me to stand in strong contrast. We sometimes make choices on a rational level: we consider matters, weigh them, subject them to logic and a number of other processes and we choose. We make the best decision, or approximate a best decision – and can likely give impressive reasons for our actions.

The other level, I would label existential. Such decisions are often messy, or full of hesitation and hardship. Some months after my family’s reception into the Orthodox faith, I asked my wife, “Do ever just feel crazy” (referring to the life that followed our conversion). Her reply was deeply existential: “If you were floating in the North Atlantic with your family in a lifeboat, you’d probably feel ‘crazy’ – but if you looked over and saw the Titanic going down, you’d feel truly grateful, crazy or not.”

If our questions and pilgrimage are ultimately about God, and not simply about preferences, then our journey will likely be marked by such existential choices rather than purely rational ones. Abraham’s journey towards Canaan cannot truly be described as “rational” (nor can the “sacrifice of Isaac”). St. Antony’s response to the Gospel reading in which Christ tells a man to sell all that he has and “come and follow me,” cannot be described as rational. St. Antony heard the passage read and heard it as applying to himself (not to everyone – but to himself). Giving away all that he had and entering the desert is the act of someone who is driven by their desire for God. When such is the case, “choice” is probably not the right word. “Obey” is more accurate. St. Antony’s “conversion” is the choice to obey.

On this level, everyone should want to be a convert – to be so drawn toward God that our response is obedience rather than merely rational choice. I think I would modify the definitions of my Russian parishioner. Converts are not people who choose – Converts are people who obey. Consumers are people who choose.

It is here that the shape of our culture effects so many. With thousands of Christian denominations, and certainly hundreds of local choices for many urban and suburban areas, religious consumerism can become a very common mode of existence. When I was a Protestant I have met new families visiting the Church I was pastoring say, “We’re Church shopping,” without any sense whatsoever of embarrassment. It is what many people do.

I have to say that as an Orthodox priest I find very few “Church shoppers” at any given service. Becoming Orthodox is a difficult and complicated decision for most people who were not born to it. For that reason, I tend to encounter more people who stand at an existential point in their lives. To become Orthodox, they must want God and believe that He can be found here.

Such existential moments are not the exclusive property of Orthodox Christians (or their converts). Life is generally dangerous enough to offer us many such critical points. It is also true that such points need to be respected by those who see them. I can offer to help someone who is in such a place – but I dare not judge the place they are in – or even the choice that may come of it. Not all choices are equally healthy or true – but I dare not seek to transform someone’s existential crisis into just one more consumerist decision.

May God have mercy on us – converts are not people who shop.

Babylon and the Trees of Pentecost

June 11, 2011

From the Feast of Pentecost

The arrogance of building the tower in the days of old
led to the confusion of tongues.
Now the glory of the knowledge of God brings them wisdom.
There God condemned the impious for their transgression.
Here Christ has enlightened the fishermen by the Spirit.
There disharmony was brought about for punishment.//
Now harmony is renewed for the salvation of our souls.


The first time I saw trees in an Orthodox Church was at St. Tikhon’s Monastery in Pennsylvania, just after Pentecost Sunday. I was completely caught off guard. Though I had been in a number of different Churches over the years, I had never been in a parish of Russian background for the feast of Pentecost. Thus I had missed the Slavic practice of bringing trees into Church for the feast of Pentecost. It was wonderful – like going into Church only to find a forest.

My Western background left me completely unprepared for this Eastern take on the feast of the gift of the Spirit to the Church. In Western Churches, Pentecost particularly focuses on the “fire” of the Holy Spirit lighting on the disciples in the upper room and the “empowerment” of the Church for mission. Traditionally in the West, the color of the feast is red (for the fire).

In the East, the color of the feast is green – which is also the color worn for the feast days of monastic saints. In the West, green is the “ordinary” color worn in the “in between” Sundays and weekdays of the Calendar. For the Orthodox, gold serves this function.

But I found myself in the midst of trees on a major feast that was “green.” I was simply baffled.

In Russian practice the feast is normally referred to as the feast of the Trinity (Troitsa) rather than Pentecost, or “Pentecost” is listed as an afterthought (Pentecost). It is obvious that something quite different is at work in the understanding of the feast day.

Both East and West keep the feast as the day upon which the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles. Orthodoxy does not ignore the various tongues with which the Apostles began to speak as they announced the gospel to those assembled in Jerusalem. However, as noted in the verse quoted at the beginning of this article – those tongues are seen as a spiritual counterpart to the confusion of the tower of Babel, when men in their hubris sought to build a tower into heaven. The tongues which came upon them only proclaimed darkness and confusion and brought to an end the last great ecumenical effort of humanity.

The Church is God’s vision of united mankind – a union achieved through the gift of God and not by human effort. It is a union which maintains a diversity of sorts (the languages do not become one “super” language – so much for the “unity” of Latin) but a diversity whose unity is found in true union with the one, living and true God. The gospel proclaimed by the apostles on the day of Pentecost, though preached in many languages, was one and the same gospel.

One may still wonder why the feast becomes a feast of the Trinity. Like the feast of Theophany (the Baptism of Christ), Pentecost is a feast in which the revelation of the Holy Trinity is made manifest. The Spirit is the gift of the Father – given through the Son. There were many centuries that passed before a parish was named for the Trinity.

Among the first within the Orthodox world was the Lavra (Monastery) of the Holy Trinity outside of Moscow, founded by St. Sergius in the 14th century. His vision of the common life was seen as an earthly icon of the Divine Life of the Holy Trinity in which each of the Divine Persons shared a common life. The monastery was itself a place of spiritual rebirth for the Russian land as it began to come out from under the oppression of the Tatar yoke. The spiritual life of Holy Trinity monastery was a spiritual awakening for the land when Russians remembered that they were brothers of one another and shared a common life. This common life became the strength that allowed them to assert their freedom.

Of course, all of the above is both interesting and true but has yet to explain the trees. The Jewish feast of Pentecost (fifty days after the Passover) marks the beginning of the harvest feast. The first-fruits of the harvest are brought to the temple to be blessed of God. For Christians the harvest that is sought is the harvest of a renewed humanity and the renewal of creation. Thus the trees are a representation of the created order, assembled together with the people of God, awaiting and receiving the gift of the Spirit through whom everything is made new.

It is a very rich feast – one that is filled with meaning (as is appropriate). But all of the meaning takes as its source the gift to creation of the “Lord and Giver of Life,” the Holy Spirit. Just as we are told in Genesis:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

With a word, God speaks, and where the Spirit hovered, life comes forth.

So it is in the life of the Church and in creation today. Where God speaks, renewed life comes forth. All of creation groans and travails, awaiting the final great Word that will signal the renewal of all things.  For now, we see that promise foreshadowed by trees in Church and green on the priests and by the joy of our hearts.

Saving Beauty

June 10, 2011

Everything is beautiful in a person when he turns toward God, and everything is ugly when it is turned away from God.

Fr. Pavel Florensky


In thinking about darkness and light – and their role in our apprehension of the truth – I cannot but think about Beauty, which is a primary place in which the light of God is made manifest among us (if rightly perceived). The heart that is full of darkness cannot truly perceive beauty: the heart which is full of light, cannot help but perceive it. Perhaps a measure of our heart can be found in how we perceive the world around us: is it primarily a place of beauty or darkness? It is difficult in the fallen world to maintain a witness to beauty. And yet those places where it is made manifest to us are so poignant, so piercing, that I think we cannot and should not remain silent about them. Perhaps they should be shouted from the rooftops! This article is a meditation on beauty and its role in our lives within the Kingdom of God.

The quote from Pavel Florensky contains a world of truth, indeed, from a certain perspective it contains the whole of the Gospel. It is both commentary on how we see the world (as beautiful or ugly) or how we are within ourselves. The ugliness of sin is one of its most important components – and the inability to distinguish between the truly beautiful and the false beauty of so much of contemporary life offers a profound diagnosis of our lives and culture.

To say that God is Beautiful carries with it also profound insights into what we mean by knowledge of God. “How do we know God?” is a question on which I have posted several times of late. If we ask the question, “How do we recognize Beauty?” then we have also shifted the ground from questions of intellect or pure rationality and onto grounds of aethetics and relationship (communion). The recognition of beauty is a universal experience (as is the misperception of beauty). But the capacity to recognize beauty points as well to a capacity within us to know God. I would offer that this capacity is itself a gift of grace – particularly when we admit that the recognition of beauty is subject to delusion.

In a famous passage from The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s Dmitri Karamazov has this to say on beauty as well as delusion:

Beauty is a terrible and awful thing! It is terrible because it has not been fathomed and never can be fathomed, for God sets us nothing but an enigma. Here the boundaries meet and all contradictions exist side by side. I am not a cultivated man, brother, but I’ve thought a lot about this. It’s terrible what mysteries there are! Too many mysteries weigh men down on earth. We must solve them as we can, and try to keep a dry skin in the water. Beauty! I can’t endure the thought that a man of lofty mind and heart begins with the ideal of the Theotokos (Madonna)  and ends with the ideal of Sodom. What’s still more awful is that a man with the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not renounce the ideal of the Madonna, and his heart may be on fire with that ideal, genuinely on fire, just as in his days of youth and innocence. Yes, man is broad, too broad, indeed. I’d have him narrower. The devil only knows what to make of it! What to the mind is shameful is beauty and nothing else to the heart. Is there beauty in Sodom? Believe me, that for the immense mass of mankind beauty is found in Sodom. Did you know that secret? The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”

Dostoevsky’s paradox, that “beauty,” for the mass of mankind, is found in Sodom, is a paradox that can hold two meanings. Either it can mean that even the corrupted “beauty” of Sodom can be redeemed (this is not Dostoevsky’s own intention) or that our heart can be so corrupted that we perceive the things of Sodom to be beautiful (closer to Dostoevsky’s point). We can also bring in a third – that of Florensky quoted above – that the “beauty” found in Sodom is corrupted precisely because it is turned away from God. It’s repentance can also be its restoration of true beauty.

I prefer this third thought (which is more or less the same as the first) in that it carries within it the reminder that when God created the world He said, “It is good (beautiful)” [both the Hebrew and the Greek of Genesis carry this double meaning].

We were created to perceive the Beautiful, even to pursue it. This is also to say that we were created to know God and to have the capacity, by grace, to know Him. Consider the Evangelical imperative: “Go and make disciples.” What would it mean in our proclamation of the gospel were we to have within it an understanding that we are calling people to Beauty? The report of St. Vladimir’s emissaries to Constantinople that when they attended worship among the Orthodox they “did not know whether we were on earth or in heaven. We only know that of a truth, God is with them,” is history’s most profound confirmation of this proclamation.

St. Paul confirms the same when he describes the progressive work of our salvation as “the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” If we would have our hearts cured of the illness that mistakes Sodom for the Kingdom of God, then we should turn our eyes to the face of Christ. There the heart’s battle will find its Champion and beauty will find its Prototype.

Getting Past Religion

June 9, 2011

My wife inherited a habit. It was her father’s not uncommon practice to sing his way through the day, especially the morning. A devout man, his songs were his favorite hymns. My wife’s habit is similar, only as an Orthodox Christian, her repertoir has grown to include the traditional hymns of Orthodoxy. It is not an entirely conscious practice (I think) – though her heart is clearly engaged in what she is doing. It is a spontaneous outpouring of praise.

I am a sinful man, sometimes grumpy in the morning, and foolish enough to have said, “Stop!” Such outbursts reveal the darkness that continues to abide in my heart.

I knew an elderly monk, himself a convert to the Orthodox faith. In his later years, he lapsed into one of the many forms of senile dementia. To the occasional dismay of the other monks, he enjoyed walking through the monastery and singing the Protestant hymns of his childhood (loudly). It made me think of my father-in-law. It also likely revealed the thoughts of many around him.

There are a number of human activities that reveal depths transcending rational necessity while at the same time revealing the deep truths of Christian theology. Singing is certainly among them. The hunger for beauty is another. Forgiveness and sorrow, sadness and joy are all part of this often unspoken theology.

It is not that such topics or phenomenon are ignored by those who engage in formal theology – rather it is their relegation to a subsidiary status which renders much theological activity arid and uninteresting. I have heard some say, “I’m not interested in religion.” I am tempted to say, “Neither am I.” But it would be a rare thing to encounter someone who had no interest in music (of any kind) or cared nothing for beauty. Joy and sorrow are part of our common lot, though we may not think of them as “religious.”

The rationality and specialization of religious dialog have contributed greatly to the marginalization of religion within our culture. Secularism already prefers to separate God from the concerns of the world – the fascination of theological dialog with its own specialized issues makes this just that much easier. Either God lies at the very heart of the human experience (however we may have perverted it) or He rightly belongs to a place of secondary interest.

Paul Evdokimov observes:

The face of Christ is the human face of God. The Holy Spirit rests on him and reveals to us absolute Beauty, a divine-human Beauty, that no art can ever properly and fully make visible. Only the icon can suggest such Beauty by means of the taboric [Mt. Tabor, the site of Christ’s Transfiguration] light.

Beauty is no mere genetic attraction rooted in the math and pheromones of human sexuality. There is a beauty whose presence all but crushes the human soul. It is a depth that speaks at such a deep level – we have no words for its description. How do we describe a vision which is so great that a human being would give his life for it? The encounter of the face of God in the man Christ Jesus comes closer to describing the fundamental “religious” power of Christ. At its very heart, such an encounter cannot be described as “religious.” It belongs to no category of human life, for it has no rival once it has been perceived.

St. Paul speaks of the “face of Christ,” an odd expression if his only concern were the doctrinal trivialities to which many Christians have reduced him. Rather, he reserves this expression for the greatest description of Christian salvation:

For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 2 Cor. 4:6  But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. 2 Cor. 3:18  For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. 1 Cor. 13:12.

There is a theology of beauty, which harkens back to the language of the Old Testament when Moses desires to see God “face to face.” Such a vision is not granted to Moses, but many other visions which foreshadowed the vision of St. Paul are indeed given to Moses-the-God-seer. This is not the language of abstract religious thought but the language of the whole of art and its inner desire. We long for beauty, regardless of how poorly we often define it. True beauty takes our breath away and confounds our ability to describe it.

Much the same can be said of music. “God has made man to be the singer of His radiance,” St. Gregory the Theologian has said (PG, 38, 1327). We sing and we love to sing because at its very heart, we are singers of the radiance of God. It is certainly true that we sing many things that resemble in no way the radiance of God – and yet the drive towards song has its roots in God’s radiance. Perhaps the most essential writing in all of Scripture is the book of Psalms. At best, we moderns read it like poetry, though it was always meant to be sung.

God, rendered as prose, is perhaps the deepest misrepresentation of all.

This itself is the problem found in many modern expressions of Christianity – they are prosaic. This is not to say that they are without music – though they are often without good music (let the arguments begin…). Liturgical expression (particularly of the ever-changing make-it-up-as-you-go-variety) fails to rise to the level of mystery. Sacraments, even where underpinned with relatively sound doctrine, still collapse into the prosaic life of modernity. In very few cases would emissaries from a strange land return from modern Christian worship and declare, “We knew not whether we were on earth or in heaven. But of a truth we know that God is with them” (the report of St. Vladimir’s emissaries to Constantinople in the 10th century).

Far more to the point is the prosaic character of Christian lives. Beauty and poetic wonder are not only missing in our relationship with God – they are missing from our lives. My experience is that Byzantine worship is no guarantee of beauty within its participants. However, it does not underwrite the banality of modern culture.

Several years back I was speaking with a small Russian choir, touring the United States from St. Petersburg. They were all Church singers, but also singers from various opera companies in St. Petersburg as well. Needless to say they were an exceedingly talented group. One of the hymns they had sung that night was a particularly difficult and moving piece by the Russian composer, Chesnokov. In the course of the conversation I noted the great beauty with which it was written and with which it had been sung that night. One of the choral members told that that it required careful spiritual preparation (“that all needed to be without anger and at peace with one another”) before this hymn could be properly sung.

Of course, this is not only true of the exquisite music of Chesnokov or other stellar writers – it is also true of a small four-member choir offering the most simple tunes of Obikhod chant on a Sunday morning. Four average voices will never sound like the trained voices of the Russian opera – but they can find beauty – first within and then as an offering of song. In that offering, other lives are transformed and lifted to realm of beauty that is Christ among us.

I do not wish to be foolish or dishonest: beauty, transcendant beauty is and transforming beauty is not the peculiar property of Orthodox Christianity. God is indeed everywhere present and filling all things. And he desires that all participate in His life (which is also a participation in Beauty). I do not offer this as an observation of ecumenism – merely as a resurrection that God is free and “does whatsover He pleases.”

I do, however, offer this in order to encourage Christians to consider such things as Beauty and music – and many other aspects of our lives when considering devotion to God and the presentation of the Gospel. The world in which we live (much of it, anyway) is hungry less for a careful presentation of the Christian doctrine of the atonement than for an encounter with the true and living God. Of course, such careful presentations are not foreign to God, but they rarely manage to rise above the level of religious rhetoric. The desire for beauty is far more than mere aesthetics. Mother Theresa once said that she wanted to do “something beautiful for Jesus.” She did not fail.

Where We Dare Not Go

June 3, 2011

My previous article spoke about the “moment” and the unique place it holds within our lives. It is strange, therefore, that the present moment is a place we seem to avoid – a place we dare not go. There are many ways to speculate about such an avoidance. In the experience of many, it is a place that seems almost impossible to read – which is strange indeed when we consider the fact that it is actually the only thing truly present to us.

The present moment, however, has some unique properties in human experience that make it a place we prefer to avoid. It is not past or future – and is thus much less subject to imagination. The imagination is a place where we find ourselves empowered, though the power we have is delusional and only destructive of the self. We may play mental games with the past, imagining that the truth is whatever we think it is, and imagine our own reactions as well. Nevermind the fact that our imagination is most often quite wrong and our reactions utterly beside the point. The imaginary past becomes a “new history” which takes its place in the narrative of our lives. As such, our lives become a lie. They are not the product of history – indeed they are not related at all to history – only to a story we have told ourselves for whatever advantage or disadvantage. We are neither hero nor victim, only imaginary characters in a story known only in the privacy of our own imagination.

The same, of course, is true of the future. We cannot know the future, but we can well imagine it. We experience such imagination as fear or any number of false feelings. What we cannot know cannot be feared (in reality) – it can only be imagined and our fears and expectations become the stuff of our imagination.

These things are vitally important to us as Christians. God is not the product of our imagination. Because this is so, and because we rarely experience the present moment in the present moment – the God whom most people think they know is no God at all, only the imagination of past or present, one of many characters that inhabit the unreality of our unstable minds. We should not be shaken by the skepticism of those who question our thoughts and beliefs about God. We should take such skepticism as a sober encounter of the insobriety of our imaginations.

As a priest, I spend far more time helping people deal with the eradication of false images of God than I do helping them come to grips with the God who is. We are idolaters in the very deepest sense of the word – and we should be the first to acknowledge it.

This danger cannot be eliminated by artificial substitutes such as the “authority of Scripture.” Scripture is certainly authoritative, but if it is not read by a “sober” mind (in the sense of a mind that is not drunk on its own imagination) then it will simply become the occasion for more flights of fancy, fodder for the passions of an unredeemed soul, our egos enlarged beyond control.

The same can be said of the Tradition of the Church or the Writings of the Fathers. The modern Christian world, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, is largely populated by modern imaginations. We have opinions on prayer, but we do not pray. We have opinions on God, Whom we do not know. The list could be magnified.

What is required is the simple task of becoming simple. This is very hard and may even be the task of a life-time. To renounce our fantasies of past and future and accept the reality of my present moment is exceedingly difficult. It requires the renunciation of power. It requires the renunciation of false Gods (ourselves among them). It requires the discipline of a careful life of watchfulness (nepsis – also translated sobriety), and the willingness to be frequently brought up short – the discipline of learning to be wrong without complaint.

Oddly enough, God does not deny us such wonderful opportunities for salvation. Our daily lives frequently contradict our imaginations – though we refuse such obvious rebukes. Our relationships with others, whether in marriage, work, family or elsewhere also bring us the same opportunity. The wonderful mystery of confession allows us to speak the truth about the nonsense of our imaginations and have it brought face-to-face with the reality of God. In the presence of a good confessor, such an encounter is powerful indeed.

We should never discount the siren song of past and future that fills our soul. It is the song of the devil and calls us to a world that does not exist, into a version of ourselves that does not exist, with a notion of a God who does not exist. In such places we are actually powerless, despite the imagination of power. As the prayers of the Church describe it, we become “the devils plaything.”

The true God is kind enough to meet us in the present – where He is only what He is – and we are only what we are. On this common ground “like calls unto like” and we find ourselves – our true selves – and find them in the true God. Now. Here. Present.

The Moment of Small Things

June 1, 2011

“On the night in which He was betrayed…”

These words echo hauntingly through the centuries – this phrase which begins St. Paul’s account of Christ’s institution of the Eucharist. Later usage in the liturgy will make a play on the Greek word for “betray.” Strangely, it is the same word used for “tradition.” It is a word which simply means to “hand over” or to “give over.” Thus the liturgy will say, “On the night in which He was given up, or rather on the night in which He gave Himself up…” It is a quiet recognition of Christ’s teaching, “No takes my life from me; I lay it down freely of myself.”

Nevertheless, in St. Paul’s usage, and as translated in many languages, the event is framed in the language of “betrayal.” It is a pivotal moment in Christ’s ministry. The energy and dynamic move away from teaching and towards the drama of sacrifice. Christ will become, before the eyes of all, what He has always taught. The Word indeed becomes flesh!

For the eleven disciples, it was only a moment amid so many moments. Christ’s warning fell on very sleepy ears. They are asked to remain awake. They are asked to pray. St. Peter is warned that the “enemy has sought to sift you like wheat.” None of Christ’s stern warnings, none of His plaintive questions, “Could you not watch with me one hour?” have any effect. It is just a moment among moments – until it is defined by the actions the disciples had refused to accept as possible. Christ is betrayed and the disciples fall into disarray and cowardice. The Shepherd is smitten and the sheep are scattered.

Our lives consist of trillions of moments. The are “one thing after another.” Occasionally we recognize that this moment is deeply significant and we remain awake. A young man and woman at their wedding – awake – alert – and yet probably blind to much that is taking place. A parent at the birth of a child – mother or father – everyone knows this is significant – but none of us begins to imagine just how significant. Nothing will ever be the same.

Over thirteen years ago, my family was received into the Orthodox faith. My oldest daughter was seventeen – my youngest was only seven. We were surrounded by friends, strangers, some family…but I recall the utter silence that fell across the congregation as my seven year-old daughter read the traditional words of promise at her Chrismation:

This true faith of the Orthodox Church, which I now voluntarily confess and truly hold, that same I will firmly maintain and confess, whole and unchanged, even until my last breath, God helping me. And I will teach and proclaim it, insofar as I am able. And I will strive to fulfill its obligations with zeal and joy, preserving my heart in good deeds and blamelessness. In witness of this, my true and pure-hearted confession, I kiss the Word and Cross of my Savior. Amen.

In the silence, everyone wept. The purity of a seven-year-old’s confession caused us to blush. The innocence which spoke such solemn phrases as “even until my last breath” took the breath away from all who stood around. It was a moment of which the witnesses knew far more than the child whose moment it was.

Our lives move from moment to moment – and only rarely do we recognize a moment to possess a singular character. But this is a great oversight on our part. The betrayal of Judas was more than a single moment of indiscretion. His doubts, envy and greed had been defining the trajectory of his moments from long before. The betrayal was a culmination, not an accident.

There are some who would reduce the Christian life to a single moment – that time at which we first profess faith in Christ. For those who have a clear memory of such a moment – it is significant indeed. But a lifetime of significant moments follow (“even until my last breath”). The race is finished when it is finished.

However, as we move from moment to moment, we do well not to live in moments of the past (for they are not our present), nor in moments of the future (for they are yet to come, even as we ourselves are yet to come). “Today is the day of salvation…”

The Wise Thief (as he is called in Orthodox hymns) found salvation in a single moment – God is indeed gracious and willing to accept us even in such a last moment. But we ourselves must be willing to allow such moments to occur. Ever idle word, every careless thought, creates its own moment. From idleness and carelessness we can create within ourselves a heart of stone. The fathers refer to this “lack of care for our salvation” as akedia – it is sometimes known as the “noonday devil.” Such a name sounds rather innocuous – but it is the small moments of our “noonday” lives that form the arena in which our salvation is worked out.

God give us grace in the small things – even to our last breath.