Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Rightly Reading

July 1, 2009

isaac1This is a reprint from last October.

The course of your reading should be parallel to the aim of your way of life…. Most books that contain instructions in doctrine are not useful for purification. The reading of many diverse books brings distraction of mind down on you. Know, then, that not every book that teaches about religion is useful for the purification of the consciousness and the concentration of the thoughts.

St. Isaac of Syria quoted in The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrianby Bp. Hilarion Alfeyev

I believe that it was Stanley Hauerwas who once commented in a class I was taking that among some Jewish groups, a man was not allowed to read the book of Ezekiel until he was over 40. The idea behind that prohibition is similar to that offered above by St. Isaac.

In our democratic culture, we find it offensive that anyone should be forbidden to read anything. I would only point to the spiritual abuse found on any number of “Orthodox” websites in which serious matters, originally written for monastics or for the guidance of clergy are tossed about for even the non-Orthodox to read. As if the canons of the Church were meant for mass consumption!

Parents who care about the health of their children usually follow some regimen in the course of their young lives when it comes to feeding them. “Milk and not stong meat” is the Scriptural admonition for those who are young in the faith.

St. James offers this warning:

Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness(3:1).

And St. Peter’s Second Epistle offers this:

So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures (15-16).

It’s not that Scripture or Canons or books of doctrine are to be avoided or forbidden to those beneath a certain age, but rather that we should learn to read with wisdom in an effort to grow spiritually and not in an effort simply to gain knowledge of a questionable sort.

St. Isaac’s observation is that we give attention first to “purification of the consciousness and concentration of thoughts.” By such phrases he refers primarily to the daily regimen of what we read and how we pray (as well as fasting and repentance) towards the goal of overcoming the passions. Only someone who is not himself ruled by the passions is ready to safely guide someone else beyond those same rocks. Anger and condemnation, pride and superiority are marks of the passions and cannot read the Scriptures and the Traditions rightly, nor offer them to others without doing harm. The same can be said about most argumentation.

Again, this is not to say that we should not be regular in our reading of Scripture. But we do well to consider how we read it. To read or sing the psalms is an effort which is a sweet sacrifice of praise to God. If we have difficulty with what we read, then ask questions. The reading of the Gospels, even on a daily basis, is a common devotional activity, properly, in an effort to draw closer to Christ. Reading the daily readings appointed for the Church (most Orthodox calendars have these) is also salutary, even if there are things that we don’t always understand.

Other things should be read with some guidance. There’s nothing wrong with asking your priest the question, “Is this good for me to read at this point?” I’ve seen many people take up the Philokalia with glee (usually after reading The Way of a Pilgrim) only to be disappointed when they find that it is boring and frequently incomprehensible. The same can be said of many of the writings of the Fathers. Taking these things up at the wrong time can leave us with a false impression and lack of proper respect for what we have just put down in frustration.

I generally suggest to people that they read devotionally, with some other things (possibly in the context of a group study) as well. And we should read sparingly – only taking in what we can digest. Many books that I read – I take in only a few pages a day.

Contrary to our popular self-conception, we are not a culture that values learning. We are a culture that values opinion, and opinion as entertainment (God save us from the pundits!). Dilettantism plagues us. If we want to be Christians, we must start with the small things and the practices that make for proper discipleship and “let not many of us become teachers.” Let many of us become those who pray, who fast, who repent, who forgive even their enemies and through the grace of God come to know the stillness within which God may be known.

I readily confess again in my writing that I am an ignorant man. I know very little. But this is the heart of my writing – to urge others to come to know very little. It is so much better than knowing nothing.

Belief and Practice

June 26, 2009

russianorthodox0906aA friend sent me a review of the book The Byzantine Lists: Errors of the Latins by Tia M. Kolbaba (University of Illinois Press). The review is by Elesha Coffman, associate editor of Christian History. An excerpt from the review offers an interesting insight:

According to Kolbaba, historians have never really studied the lists because of their unusual content: a mixture of theological, liturgical, and seemingly personal disagreements. Keroularios’s list accuses Latins of, among other things, using unleavened bread in the Eucharist, eating unclean meats, shaving [this refers to clergy], adding “and the Son” to the Nicene Creed (the “filioque” clause), forbidding priests to marry, allowing bishops to wear rings, and baptizing with only one immersion. Keroularios sums up by saying, “Therefore, if they live in such a way and, enfeebled by such customs, dare these things which are obviously lawless, forbidden, and abominable, then will any right-thinking person consider that they are at all to be included in the category of the orthodox? I think not.”

In the lists, we see one of the main differences between Western and Eastern thought. Latin antiheretical works focused on doctrinal differences, but to Greeks, Kolbaba writes, “It is the things these ‘Romans’ do—not what they believe and teach—that place them beyond the pale.” To Latins, practice, including liturgy, is an outgrowth of doctrine and therefore secondary; to Greeks, practice shapes belief and is therefore of ultimate importance.

“Practice shapes belief,” a principle frequently cited by scholars both East and West in its Latin formulation: Lex orandi, lex credendi. The phrase is accurately translated, “the law of praying is the law of believing.” It is a formula primarily used to discussed liturgical practice – and frequently only in reference to the words in liturgical use. Kolbaba’s work demonstrates a more global meaning.

The Christian faith – indeed all of human life – is far more than a set of ideas to which we subscribe. It is not unusual for our professed ideological faith to differ from what we actually do – and not just because of hypocrisy or our failure to live up to what we say we believe. Our lives are grounded far more in our actions and activities than in our ideas. What we do is a far more accurate description of what we believe. Lex orandi can also be described as lex vivendi (the “law of living”).

This is an important basis for considering the place of asceticism – and all of spiritual discipline – within the Christian life. It has become commonplace for asceticism to be disregarded in modern Christian practice – to either be seen as a misguided relic of the past or as incompatible with the needs of contemporary society. It is indeed incompatible with the needs of contemporary society. In our modern cultures we best serve the “needs” of others by being as open as possible to manipulation by advertising and the many false deities that guide our daily lives. Of course that service will not be of aid in Christian formation.

I have written before that our modern lives are lived in a manner that is almost indistinguishable from that of non-believers. A secular culture offers only nooks and crannies for the practice of religion – and is not troubled in the least so long as religion “stays in its place.”

The keeping of fasts and feasts, a daily rule of prayer, disciplined almsgiving, modesty of dress and modesty of action are frequently ignored or even unknown in the contemporary Christian world. “Why should we fast?” is a common question posed by catechumens in the Orthodox Church. The answer does not appear obvious within our culture. The short list I have mentioned is only a fraction of the practices normatively expected of an Orthodox Christian. The cultivation of repentance as an attitude of heart – the constant remembrance of the name of God – the right honoring of the saints and the living experience of the communion of saints – are among the practices which properly permeate the Orthodox life.

Examined from without – it is possible to suggest that such practices are not, in and of themselves, necessary to salvation. But, I would argue, a secular lifestyle is not necessary to salvation and may very well endanger it. The errors bred by secular thought already cost our nation the lives of over a million unborn children each year (to give but a single example). “Heresy” as an ideological sin may be of less danger than the disappearance of the traditional practices of the Christian faith. Indeed, what does it matter what a secularist believes?

This same understanding is properly a challenge to the Orthodox faith as it exists in the modern world. Everywhere – including within traditionally Orthodox countries, the culture of modernism lives at enmity with the traditional practices of the Christian faith. The pressure to accommodate the practices of the faith to contemporary lifestyles is relentless. Indeed, with the growing influx of converts, Orthodoxy stands in need of greater emphasis and teaching on the daily practices of the Christian life (and I speak as a convert).

Lex orandi must always be lex vivendi. Without them there will be no lex credendi. My apologies to those who struggled with Latin (or never studied it). The Byzantine Lists today would have to be greatly expanded from the original “errors of the Latins”: the errors of the moderns exceed anything that has gone before.

The Depth of Crime and Punishment

March 13, 2008


I took on myself to re-read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment for Great Lent, and have made far greater speed than I would have thought. (Little or no television and bedtime reading can sometimes take you far.) It is a book I have loved for years – being the first Dostoevsky I ever read as a teenager. I still recommend it frequently as a means of contemplating forgiveness.

Like all of Dostoevsky (on moreso), the novel is a maddeningly psychological story in which we listen repeatedly to the thoughts of a virtual madman who is also a murderer; a drunk; a consumptive; a prostitute; petty officials and a host of others. At the deepest level of the novel, however, is the human heart and its confrontation with the gospel of Christ. For the main character, the confrontation comes in the story of the raising of Lazarus.

The power of the novel, however, lies in the power of redemptive suffering. The young madman is driven to murder by the incessant logic of a modernist train of thought. Trying to force this train of thought on the young prostitute (who is herself the closest thing to a saint in the novel), asking her to choose between whose life she would save in certain situations (typical of the utilitarian logic of some progressivist thought), she reviles him for asking such an impossible question and for blaspheming the Providence of God.

And there lies the redemption in Dostoevsky – to embrace the Providence of God and to accept bravely the consequences of our sin. When the madman confesses his sin to the prostitute, she tells him that he should immediately rush out to a crossroad, bow to the ground and ask the earth’s forgiveness (for the blood he has spilled) and then bow in all four directions and ask forgiveness of everyone (of course to be followed by turning himself over to the authorities). And she promises not to leave him but to share his hard labor. It is the love of God, calling each sinner to the truth of His sin, to the fearful feat of confession, and to the promise of redemption that will not be our own creation but a companionship with One who loves us.

I treasure Dostoevsky’s writings because they are so profoundly Christian. Not simply that they are permeated with 19th century Russia which seems to have encapsulated the struggle of the modern world, but that it is also permeated with a profound grasp of the Christian faith at its most basic level.

Forgiveness, confession, repentance, and the embracing of voluntary suffering – simply the way of the Cross – is never put so clearly in any other novel of our modern world. I am a priest and I thus carry a responsibility for souls. I have learned over the years that we all have some level of the madman about us – even some level of the prostitute (although her prostitution is actually a means of self-sacrifice). We have a mad complexity about our heart that drives us all to strange behaviors – or at least behaviors we would not want broadcast to the world (some broadcast them anyway – such is our lack of shame). But in Dostoevsky I am reminded of the truth of God and the power of that truth in the human heart. As confused as we may be – saints still rise among us and often in unexpected places.

What should not be unexpected is that in every place – the mercy of God abounds. Everyone can be saved and that part of the Gospel of Christ must remain essential for us all.

Where Do the Children Play?

November 18, 2007


I recall an old Cat Stevens song from the early 70’s, Where Do the Children Play? It runs through my head from time to time when I think about the adult world interacting with children. I had the phrase somewhat in mind when I reacted to the recent invasion of Harry Potter’s world by JK Rowling’s world. I stated then that I was sad that children can’t be left out of some things. But this is the modern world, and apparently we are at war (forgive me for saying it). Terry Mattingly, who is Orthodox and a columnist for Scripps Howard, and one of the most astute observers of the media and religion, wrote one of the most alarming columns this weekend I have seen in years.

His column deals with the up-coming movie based on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series (children’s books). The movie is a production of his first book: The Golden Compass. Quoting Pullman from an Australian interview:

I’ve been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry [Potter] has said. My books are about killing God.

And, there’s more. Mattingly notes in his column that evil incarnate has a name in Pullman’s books: the “Church.” Apparently Hollywood is too shy to be so up front and chooses in the movie to substitute the word: “Magisterium.” I’m sure that Catholics will find that comforting.

I tend not to be alarmist in culture matters. I know that in the end God wins (not in Pullman’s books but in the real world). But I continue thinking, “Where do the children play?”

Then I have to remember that we Christians have been writing children’s books for years with the understanding that introducing children to God and His Kingdom at an early age is laudatory. We even go so far as to Baptize them. But apparently an atheist writer considers it equally laudatory to educate children in killing God. This indeed is a culture war – with its merchants – Hollywood and the publishing world sitting back and making money off both sides (now I think of a song by Dylan).

Where do the children play? In the same minefield that we adults play – and the merchants are playing for keeps. It’s a topic of discussion in my house. I don’t plan to fill the coffers of those who would kill God. But the ironic thing is that this God already died for them. I recommend Terry Mattingly’s Column and all of his writings at