Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

The Chariot of Israel and Its Horsemen – The Repose of Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas

August 28, 2011

And so it was, when they had crossed over, that Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask! What may I do for you, before I am taken away from you?” Elisha said, “Please let a double portion of your spirit be upon me.” So he said, “You have asked a hard thing. Nevertheless, if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so.”  Then it happened, as they continued on and talked, that suddenly a chariot of fire appeared with horses of fire, and separated the two of them; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it, and he cried out, “My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and its horsemen!” So he saw him no more. And he took hold of his own clothes and tore them into two pieces. (2 Kings 2:9-12)


These verses came to mind when I heard the news this morning of the repose of Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas. There are a number of saints within Orthodox history who are given the title: “Equal to the Apostles.” I cannot rush beyond the Church and declare a saint where the Church has not done so, but I can think of no better description of the life and ministry of Vladika Dmitri here in the South than “equal to the Apostles.”

Many people whose familiarity with the presence of the Orthodox faith in English-speaking lands are unaware that until 1962 there was no particular standard work of introduction to Orthodoxy available in English. Thus pioneers, such as Met. Kallistos Ware in England (who wrote that first standard work), or Archbishop Dmitri (who entered the faith along with his sister – as teenagers – in 1941) were extremely rare individuals and generally found conversion a nearly impossible feat.

Vladika Dmitri began life as a Texas Baptist, and, in my experience, never spoke ill of his background. I can recall him saying, “I like Baptists – they make great Orthodox!” accompanied by a sly smile. Indeed, I frequently heard him caution converts to Orthodoxy to refrain from disparaging their roots: “Most likely, it’s where you first heard of Christ.” His conversion as a teen led to a life as a scholar, missionary, teacher, leader, pastor – all in the context of kindness and love.

He cared deeply about the Christian faith and expressed concern, even dismay, as he saw many surrounding Churches that once would have been considered “traditional,” moving away from many of the primary teachings of the Christian faith. He was particularly expressive about the weakening of the doctrine of Christ’s Incarnation. He insisted that the understanding of God becoming Man was the only possible foundation for the dignity of human beings. It was a thought shared by men such as C.S. Lewis.

His advice to priests was very clear: “When you have opportunity to speak about the faith, never turn it down. And when you speak, don’t waste time on ethnic concerns. Preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ – that is the great treasure of Orthodox and that is what you have to offer.”

In 1977 he was almost elected as the Metropolitan of the newly-autocephalous Orthodox Church in America. The Holy Synod seemed less than sure that the OCA was ready for a convert-bishop to be Metropolitan. In 1978, the Holy Synod formed the Diocese of the South, with Dallas as its see city. Bishop Dmitri was appointed as its first diocesan bishop. The new diocese had little more than a half dozen parishes, strung from Florida to Virginia to New Mexico (mostly Florida). Vladika Dmitri would always smile and call it his “consolation prize.”

However, it became a great apostolic opportunity for a man uniquely suited to its apostolic task. He saw the Diocese grow over ten-fold with a remarkable spirit of kindness and hospitality. During World War II he met an Orthodox priest in California who spoke about a vision of an American Orthodox Church. It was the first time the young Dmitri had encountered the concept. It became his vision as well. In the course of a life-time, he saw that vision mature in his beloved South. Having been its apostle, he now becomes its intercessor. May his memory be eternal!

A Culture of Remembrance

August 31, 2010

America is torn in a debate at present over the building of a Mosque at Ground Zero, the former location of the Twin Towers in New York, destroyed by an act of terrorism. At the same time, an Orthodox Church that was crushed by the falling towers has been ignored by New York authorities. It is a painful time, full of the anger and recriminations that seem to accompany all political discourse in America today.

Many nations have suffered many things – most of which overwhelm the Twin Towers in their numbers and historical significance. As a planet we can be a “culture of remembrance.” The pain of our memories is something of a false memory, in that it will not last forever. Only memory that is grounded in the End of things – memory that is eschatological – has true significance. There are forces that are seeking to re-write history at this very moment. There are false believers who imagine that acts of violence can shape the outcome of history.

This is not so. The outcome of history took place in the Resurrection of Christ. Regardless of whatever madness we may imagine year by year, the Resurrected Christ is at the center of all things, He is the Alpha and Omega. He cannot be seen with eyes of hatred and anger. That vision is normatively given to the pure in heart.

For those who want to know, I do not favor a mosque at Ground Zero, and I do favor that the state keep its promises and rebuild the demolished Orthodox Church that stood until September 11, 2001. But triumph will only come if our memory is of the only meaning given to us as human beings. It is to behold fallen towers and to say, “Christ is risen!” I offer some reflections on the “culture of remembrance” written shortly after my return from pilgrimage to the Holy Land.


I grew up in a “culture of remembrance.” By that, I mean that the history of the place in which I lived was far more a matter of discussion and meaning than the present or the future. That culture was the American South. Much of the remembrance we discussed was not true – just a left-over from the sentimentality of the 19th century. My childhood was spent in the 1950’s, which may have been the last decade in America (or in many places of America) before the modern period became the norm. Modernity is not a culture of remembrance but a culture of forgetfulness. My children sometimes ask, “Which war was it Granddaddy fought in: Vietnam or World War II?” (The answer is World War II). But their forgetfulness staggers me. It is not that they are poor students of history (they were all great students) but history plays a different role in their culture than it did in mine.

My wife and I have swapped stories about our Southern childhoods and the experience of playing “Civil War” or “War Between the States” in our youth. The difficulty came in the fact that the game always involved where you were born. My wife was born in Washington, D.C. (where her native South Carolinian father was working at the time) which automatically meant she would have to play on the Northern side, which, in South Carolina, was always greatly outnumbered.

The culture of remembrance, however, is frequently false. We remember wrongs and hatreds that were not done to us and may not have even been done to our ancestors. No one in my father’s family fought in the Civil War (my mother’s family did). But no one burned our houses down or any of the other things we saw in “Gone With The Wind.” Many of those things happened to others – but not to all.

I was struck some years back when we took my home-schooling son to the Chickamauga Battlefield near Chattanooga. It is one of the oldest Battlefields preserved as a national monument. Reading about the history of its founding as a park is to read the story of soldiers from both sides working to set aside the area as a place of remembrance. It’s dedication was attended by men of both armies who met, ate, walked the fields and wept together. This is the remembrance of soldiers and was part of the healing of a nation. The culture of remembrance that I inherited included no such stories – it was the culture of a false memory.

The world has many cultures of remembrance – many of them bitter and angry. Many have continuing stories of violence and oppression – both of which feed the poisoned memories.

One of the promises in St. John’s Revelation is: And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away (21:4).

There is a proper culture of remembrance – a culture which is born of the mercy and forgiveness of God. It abides and will remain when the former things are passed away. The toxic remembrance of past wrongs does not build a culture of life, but a culture that serves the dead. There are some wrongs that are so great that we cannot easily ask another to forgive. Forgiveness is always a gift, never a demand.

Orthodox Christianity practices remembrance in a number of ways. The Sacraments of the Church are always a remembrance – but always an “eschatological” remembrance in which our focus is on the transcendant truth of things tabernacling among us.

Our Churches are usually filled with icons – some are covered in frescoes from floor to ceiling. And these icons are always a remembrance – of Christ, His Mother, the Saints, the Parables, etc. But icons, when painted according to traditional norms, are never mere historical records. We do not walk into a Church of photographs of the past. Rather, the saints – everything and everyone – is painted in an artistic grammar that points towards the final truth of things – the world to come which is already coming into the world.

Thus as I visited the Holy Land and stood in the chapel of the Monastery of Mar Saba, I saw in a side transcept the skulls of the monks of the monastery who have been martyred for the faith – the largest number of which died in 618 A.D. It was a remembrance of the most vivid sort, and yet not a reminder of a wrong that had been done, but of the transcendant power of the prayers of the saints. We venerate their relics – and do not mourn their martyrdom.

I noticed during my pilgrimage that Jerusalem itself is like a monument of remembrance. The Jerusalem whose streets were walked by Christ is some 30 or 40 feet below the surface of the present city. To visit those streets and other sites, you often have to go underground. Below that layer is the city of Jebusites (and perhaps others still lower), and the city of David. And above the city through which Christ walked are yet more layers – the city of the Romans – the city of the Byzantines – the city of the Muslims – the city of the Crusaders – the city of the Turks – and today the city that holds all of those things in one place – a center of pilgrimage. For some, to be there is a pilgrimage to a lost past and the pain of wrongs not forgiven. For a Christian, it must be a place for pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre – which belongs not to the past but to a past transcendant – for it is not a place of the dead but a place where tears are wiped away.

For all the peoples of the world – the reality of that Sepulchre is the only way forward. Modernity would move forward, not in forgiveness but in forgetfulness, which is not the same thing at all. For tears to be wiped away, they must also be shed. For the dead to rise again, they have to die. To remember the truth is, finally, to remember the End of all things when the Truth shall be revealed. The former things – which were always distortions – will pass away. What remains will abide forever.

The End of History

July 15, 2009

The first part of this article is from one of my earliest posts. Appended to it are some current reflections. If it was worth reading the first time…

O, Mama, can this really be the end?
To be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues again.

Bob Dylan

DaisyAdOk. I’ll confess it right up front – I’m a Dylan fan. It shows my age and generation. My children have had to learn to put up with his voice, but more than that, to put up with a parent who seems to find lines from Dylan songs that fit almost anything – at least anything significant. It must be ok. One of my daughters took me to my first Dylan concert as a gift. And I took my youngest to her first Dylan concert as a gift to her. There’s nothing liked shared pleasures with your children!

I read a review recently of Dylan: The Essential Interviews. In it, the reviewer says of Dylan: “…he started off singing about the end of the world, and he ended up adopting the theological beliefs that made sense of his musical prophesying.” The comment made me realize much of what I enjoyed about Dylan. His sense of the “end of things” (it is indeed a frequent theme in his lyrics) inevitably gives meaning to the songs themselves. Because, in the end – it is only in the end that anything has meaning.

Back at the fall of the Soviet Union, the historian, Francis Fukuyama, spoke about “the End of History.” Such would have been possible (one supposes) if the end of the Soviet Union had meant an end that carried meaning. But, as it is, the end has not been much of anything.

I used to ponder (in my college years) what the end of the Soviet Union might mean. I was reading a lot of Solzhenitsyn at the time – not to mention a heavy diet of 19th century Russian writers. I was able to imagine an end that would mean the beginning of a new spiritual rebirth for the whole of the West. But I probably had higher hopes in the spiritual resources of Russia, and seriously underestimated the power of our own vapid commercialism.

The great battle in the West today is not about democracy (though we are told democracy is what it’s all about), but about the end of history. For democracy, and the freedom it presumes, has no meaning unless it has an end in mind. Freedom is useless if it is not freedom for something.

I went shopping this afternoon (or, more accurately, I accompanied my wife and daughter as they went shopping). I had a lot of extra time on my hands – time to stand outside and think. I don’t smoke anymore so thinking is about all that’s left to me. Looking at the newly constructed vast commercial enterprise that has recently been driving our shopping malls out of business (it is a massive commercial development on the West end of Knoxville – I suppose it has clones all over the country but it is a wonder to behold), I could not help but ask, “Why?” What are we shopping for? For what end? And Dylan came echoing into my head, “Can this really be the end?”

For us to survive as a culture for any serious length of time it will be necessary for us to be able to answer the question: For what end? Militant Islam has an answer to the question and not the answer we would choose. But no answer is not the answer.

Christianity is inherently eschatological – it is precisely about the end of things and about a very specific end. The meaning of Orthodox worship is found in the fact that we believe ourselves to be standing in the very end of all things as we celebrate the Divine Liturgy. Even the Second Coming is referred to in the past tense. The End has come and Christ is victorious and as His people, Baptized into His death and resurrection, that End is our hope and our own victory.

But democracy and freedom for the sake of commercial enterprise are not the same thing and they will consistently prove insufficient for us as a nation and as a people. One of the stores we visited this afternoon was inexplicably decorated with crosses. Jewelry – crosses with clocks in them – crosses that were just pieces of wall art. One splatter of crosses had words scattered among them. One of the words, “Indulge,” stood out. If the cross has become one more bit of art to indulge, then the End will never come. We’ll be stuck inside of Mobile for ever so long, with only the Memphis blues. We will be stuck in one place wishing we were somewhere else while the End of history never comes to redeem the time in which we live. Can this really be the end?


Every age in the West seems to have its own mythology – particularly its own version of the apocalypse. We live in a culture that has enough of a Christian basis that the idea of an apocalyptic end to things is a significant idea even for some of the most hard-bitten secularists. One manifestation of this is that things are important – particularly if they can be described in apocalyptic terms.

As I wrote above – it is the end of a matter which gives meaning to the thing itself (or so it seems to our Western mind). I do not deny this – its truth is an inherent part of my Orthodox Christian faith. But just so, it is important to ask about the end of things and how that end relates to us.

I take it as a given that there are many false ends – both religious and non-religious. There are many ways that we seek to describe the world, and its end, in order to understand where we are, why we are, and why others should agree with us about both. It is thus that political parties, frequently in their most strident elements, describe one another in apocalyptic terms. A president of the opposite party whom one opposes is not just a poor choice, but is “the worst president in history.” The other party’s candidate is a threat to the entire American Way of Life. I am sure that such conversations can be extended and found elsewhere across the globe (though not necessarily everywhere).

Current apocalyptic imagery includes mysterious musings about the year 2012. I lived through the end of the world in 2000 when computers across the world were supposed to fail and bring civilization as we know it to an end. I was not very well prepared.

Current interest in climate politics generally describes the threats to the environment in apocalyptic terms. I grant the possibility, even the inevitability of radical climate change. It’s something that happens on this planet from time to time regardless of the culprits. But, it is not the apocalypse. It is, to quote the title of a book, an “inconvenient truth.” How inconvenient is a matter of conjecture. My guess is that it will be worse than those who oppose the idea will admit and not as bad as its apocalyptic preachers predict.

My concern as a believing Christian is the creation of a false apocalypse. The meaning of the world is not to be found in avoiding radical climate change. It would be a good thing if it is possible – but it is not the defining apocalyptic event by which all life must be judged. Even Christian rhetoric on the environment would do well to speak in measured terms and be wary of the abuse of apocalyptic imagery.

There is a very grounded understanding of the end of things within the Tradition of the Church. It is not an end that will be understood outside of the life of the Church – or not well understood. Our faith is that Christ is the End of things (He is also the Beginning – the “Alpha and Omega” in the words of Scripture). His life, death and resurrection are the meaning and definition of history. They, in some sense, precede all history, occur within history, and summarize and complete all history.

A purely linear approach to the end of things (such as is common in fundamentalist protestantism) does not comprehend the fullness of Christ as the beginning, middle and end of all things. The end of the world is simply a culmination of events – which many fundamentalists believe can be predicted through a study of “Biblical prophecy.” We have passed so many failed predictions within my lifetime that I wonder at the power of such predictions to sustain themselves.

A proper Christian understanding of the “end of things” sees Christ triumph over history as well as over sin and death. Thus, every week I stand at the end of all things as I stand at the Holy Altar and offer the Holy Eucharist. To not see this meal as the end of all things, the Messianic Banquet, is to miss a large part of the meaning, power and presence of the Eucharist itself. Thus for many Christians, the meal is only a memorial, an action as trapped within history as they imagine to be the very event which they memorialize. For the same reason the elements of bread and wine cannot be understood by them as the “Body and Blood of Christ.” For if this meal is a true participation in His body and blood, then how is this not the end of all things?

The Christian life is formed and shaped by the risen Christ (or it is misformed and misshapen). The Christian life formed by an ending that is other than Christ will have an apocalyptic shape – but only the apocalypse of modern mythology. Such mythologies abound – some even find intersection with appropriate Christian concerns. But such concern does not and should not raise them to the level of apocalypse. It is Christ Himself who is that which shall be revealed and has been revealed and is revealed even now. Let us keep the feast.

Civilizations and the Kingdom – A Call for Prayer

July 3, 2009

OurLadyofDCThis reprint (with changes) seems fitting for America’s Independence Day celebrations this weekend.

I give thanks to God that priests are forbidden (by canon law) to hold political office – not that I would ever be elected – but that I would never want to stand in the place where my Christian faith was so torn – between what I might think good for the state and what would seem obedient to God. Anyone who sits in such a position needs prayer – whether they are Christian or not.

Someone recently shared an article with me in which the author was commenting on a growing sense of connection between the powers that be in Russia and the historical legacy of Byzantium. These are simply natural thoughts for an Orthodox Christian – particularly one living in an historically Orthodox nation. But they are filled with contradictions and dangerous delusions.

Equally delusional is our own American mythology, with its Puritan heritage and its confusion of America with the Promised Land (or something like that). We dare not think ourselves less tempted by religious fantasy.

There have been moments of clarity in Orthodox civilizations that properly inspire and call to the imagination. There have been terrible times of betrayal and persecution which can also create a sense of isolation and unique privilege before God.

But in the end – whether in Russia, America, or anywhere else on earth, the call is the same: to know, love and live in communion with God. This is not a political destiny but the destiny of the human race. It is only made more complicated by utopian dreams or visions of empire. The repentance of nations, a theme that runs through some of the essays of Solzhenitsyn, is a very rare thing indeed. I do not know if I have ever witnessed such a thing. I know that a nation will not live in repentance unless I live in repentance.

And I return to a thought that I’ve mentioned before – the fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. The prayers of the righteous somehow hold everything before God and play a vital role in their existence. In seasons that draw our attention to life within a political entity, it seems to me, my thought should be less about whose nation is greatest or what political system is the best on earth – but whether I will pray – and pray in such a manner that my feeble words will have contributed to the continued existence and even well-being of our world. The world needs God as I need God. Who will pray for the world? Who will pray for me?

You Are Not A Bible Character

June 28, 2009

KingDavidTripleHarpEvents which receive more than their share of news coverage are not my favorite topics for blog posts. However, this past week’s revelations of yet another politician’s infidelity offered one aspect worthy of comment (or so it seems to me). That is the use of the Bible as a means for reflecting on one’s personal situation in life.

There is a long history of just such usage. The pilgrim fathers who came to America read their situation into the Bible (or the Bible into their situation) with the result that white pilgrims were seen as fulfilling the role of the Israelites in this, the Promised Land, while native Americans were cast in the role of Canaanites. Thus generations of Joshuas arose feeling Biblically justified in the genocide of America’s native population. Some of that Biblical reading continues to echo in the popular imagination to this day. It was Bad theology in the 17th century and it is bad theology today. Stated in a fundamental way: you are not a Bible character.

This past week saw a sitting governor confessing his infidelity, choosing to stay in office, and reflecting out loud to his cabinet members about the story of King David. King David was, of course, guilty of adultery (and in the Biblical account it cost him the life of his child). It is a story of great repentance and internal suffering as well as the mercy of God.

But it is not a pattern story to which individuals are invited for their own comparisons.

The Old Testament is authoritative Scripture for Christians and has a history of interpretation by the Church. Largely, that interpretation is typological in character – its stories are seen as types and foreshadowings of the truth to be revealed in Christ Jesus. Thus Christ is the “second Adam,” and the opening chapters of Genesis are best read with that interpretive fact in mind. Had the pilgrims read the Old Testament correctly (in the light of the new) they might very well have applied the story of the Promised Land, but only as the Kingdom of God to which they might have gently offered as servants of those to whom they preached. The story does not bless a Christian to violate the commandment: thou shalt not kill. Holy war is foreign to Christianity and is heresy plain and simple where it is preached.

Some years ago I recall the story of an Episcopal priest who abandoned his vocation with a great flourish during the course of a Sunday service. The confusing detail for many was his explanation: he saw himself as Jonah – his Church as the sinking ship. The only way to save the sinking ship was to throw Jonah overboard. It seems not unlikely that whatever was the case, he needed to resign his position. But the story of Jonah is not about throwing priests overboard to save “sinking” congregations. It has a different meaning. It is better for a priest with a problem to seek help and repentance and not Biblical drama. The drama is delusion.

The problem with such use of Biblical imagination is that it simply has no controlling story. Nothing tells us which story to use other than our own imagination (which is generally a deluded part of our mind). A governor gets to play King David, and, surprise, he should be forgiven and not resign his office. A group of white settlers get to play conquering Israelites and feel no compunction about murdering men, women and children. A priest, likely in need of therapy, plays the role of Jonah before a crowd who has no idea they are in a play. The gospel is not preached – souls are not saved – the Bible is simply brought into ridicule.

For all of us – Scripture is relevant. However, its relevance should not come as a personal revelation that tells us which character we are within its pages. Such games seem frightfully like the games on Facebook: “Which ancient civilization are you?” or some such nonsense.

You are not a Bible character – other than the one indicated in the New Testament – those who have put their faith in Christ and trusted him for their salvation. Our conversion experiences are whatever they may have been – but the Damascus Road conversion of St. Paul is not required of any but St. Paul.

The behavior of pilgrims, priests and governors should be guided by the same moral teaching that applies to all Christians. There are no special circumstances that, as Bible characters, exempt us from the repentance and responsibility required of all. The words of Christ addressed to each and everyone are the same: “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” If such repentance should cost us a political office or even a continent – so be it. This is the character we were meant to be.

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.

Babylon and the Trees of Pentecost

June 6, 2009

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.

Holy Resurrection at Pentecost, 1My 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.

In the Secret Place of the Most High God

June 3, 2009

This article first appeared in 2007. It speaks of one of the most essential elements of our spiritual life – the secret place. I have not written often on the topic – but it bears repeating. Without a proper regard for the ‘secret place of the Most High God’ and the secret place that is our own true heart – then we will know neither God nor our own selves. Fr. Meletios Webber (Bread & Water, Wine & Oil) writes about the ‘ego’ and describes it as a narrative we develop over the years woven from the wants and fears of our lives (the logismoi). Into such madness only a mad religion can take root, itself becoming part of our human disease. The faith of Christ (rather than madness) must take root in the heart, the secret place of the Most High. From there we can begin to find healing and quiet for the incessant chatter of our sin. I highly recommend Fr. Meletios book. You’ll read it and give thanks.


He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. Psalm 91:1

refusing confession by RepinThere aren’t many secrets anymore. I live in a city that is known as the “Secret City,” because in the Second World War it was one of the main sites of the Manhattan Project where the atom bomb, or elements of it, were developed. I have lived here for 20 years and have come to take the name as a comonplace. But secrets are all too commonplace. During the war this city held nearly 100,000 people, most of whom had no idea what they were working on. Those who lived around the town had no idea at all.

It is obvious to me that secrets can be kept. But it is also obvious to me that, for whatever reason, secrets are being kept less and less. For some, the word “secret,” is synonymous with something nefarious and evil. Things that are secret must be bad or we would let everyone know.

There is another place for secrets. Psychologists would place them in the category of “boundaries.” In theology we would see them as an essential part of what it means to be a Person.

It is important, it seems to me, that Scripture uses the phrase “Secret Place” to describe the most intimate of places we can be with God. It is secret because I cannot share it, I cannot find words to speak of it. I am in it only because I was invited and once there (having removed by shoes) I am on holy ground and the “secret” is nothing evil, but the very Good Himself.

What do I do with the Secret? When I stand in the Secret Place of the Most High, I can worship. Anything less would be sacrilege. I can adore the Most High God, even if I can find no words to give voice to my praise.

Every human being has a “secret place” – that within them that is most intimate – that is beyond words – that is made for God. Learning to enter this place is a very difficult thing and only comes with time and practice. Our culture, the world where the most secret things in our lives are shouted from the rooftops, tells us to profane even our secrets and shout them to the world as well. And thus we lose something at the very core of our Personhood. Violated, every man and woman becomes a harlot.

The Church, particularly the Orthodox Church, has a very different attitude towards the Secret. It is not to protect the evil or to create a conspiracy – it is to honor the most holy within each of us. Thus we learn to approach the Secret Place with great reverence, even in silence and awe. Many modern Americans visit an Orthodox Church and find it offensive that the altar is occasionally hidden from their sight behind closed doors and a drawn curtain. It is an offense to their ingrained sense of democracy (a sentiment which has no place in the Presence of God). Where the Church would seek to teach them that there is such a thing as the “Secret Place,” that there are things before which they should be silent and into which not all can enter – we seek in our Promethian madness to democratize everything, defiling every secret place we can find, including the one within ourselves. [n.b. You will find some variation of doors, curtains, silence, in Orthodox Churches, including some whose doors stand open for the whole service, etc.]

The Church would bid us come to a very secret place – to come and discover that place within ourselves. Standing before the icon of Christ in the presence of His priest, we enter the secret place of our heart and speak what should often be spoken to no one else, and confess our sins. There is no legal exchange taking place (God’s forgiveness for your contrition). Here the priest only listens – he is forbidden to judge (though he may offer advice if it seems to help, it is nevertheless considered a great sin for a priest to judge the confession of someone repenting before God). The priest stands beside the penitent “only as a witness” as the prayers of confession make clear. He will speak the words of forgiveness when all is said as God’s representative, and then all that he has heard will be wrapped in silence, hidden in the Secret Place of the Most High, where God will purge and destroy our sins and make us new. The Fathers of the Church called the sacrment of confession, “a second baptism.”

It is also learning to recover our hearts, our secret place. The priest will never speak of it (on pain of being deposed). Indeed, it is normally understood that the penitent should not speak to others of what he or she has said in confession. Unless there is forgiveness of others that needs to be sought, all is done.

There is much in Orthodox worship and life that seeks to teach humanity of the Secret Place of the Most High and of the secret place that lies within our own heart. The lack of such knowledge robs us of our ability to worship God, of our ability to fully understand our own Personhood, of our ability to love others rightly, and of our right mind. Only a crazy world would destroy the secret places. Without them, we become human beings who have no center. Violated by the presence of others where we should be alone, we become mad with the madness of Legion.

Many visit, as I have noted, in an Orthodox Church and are offended at its practice of secret things, of the hiddeness of God. Some draw back at doors and curtains, others draw back at the exclusivity of the altar. I am asked, “Why can only men be priests?” And I respond, “It is not ‘only men’ who can priests, but only a few men.” Some few are set aside to stand in that most Secret Place and offer the Holy Oblation. Democracy and equality stop at its doors because before God no one is justified, no one is worthy, no one may make a claim. We come only as we are bidden. And those who have been bidden to stand in that place at the altar and to hold in their hand the Most Holy Body of our Lord, God and Savior, do so with trembling if they do so rightly. For they stand in the Secret Place of the Most High God.

The most profound moment in all of the Liturgy (if I dare say such a thing) occurs as the curtains are opened along with the doors and the Deacon cries out: “In the fear of God and with faith and love draw near!” And the faithful come forward to receive the Body and Blood of God. That which is Most Holy, which lies in the Most Secret Place, is now brought forward as a gift to the believer who receives in joy, in faith, in repentance, and in a renewed knowledge of the God Who dwells in the Secret Place, and Who now enters into our most secret place.

I live in a city that is nicknamed “the Secret City,” but I long for the true, Secret City, that is known only to God and to those to whom He reveals it. Interestingly, one of my parishioners is a native of Nagasaki, Japan. My joy is that in Christ she and I can meet in Christ’s Secret City and know that in that place, all are safe, for God will not violate nor harm any. Even He, the Most High God, will enter our own secret place only at our invitation. Such is His humility and love. Such is His respect for our Person, a reflection of His own Personhood: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me. (Rev. 3:20)

I will offer a short exhortation: if you keep a website or a blog, do not make it a place for your secrets (as is too often done). There is no virtue in this, but only sin. Bring your secrets to God and stand next to His priest. There you will find love and respect, not judgment. And you will find a balm for your soul. This most public of all places (the internet) hates your secrets and would only use them to destroy you. Learn to be silent and speak to God in your heart. I offer this begging…if you have posted your secrets – remove them! Close the doors, draw the curtain and stand in secret before the Most High God!

To Change the World

May 25, 2009

This is a reprint from the summer of 2007. Some recent meanderings have brought up yet again the subject of “social progress” as a Christian goal. Our cultural metaphor is deeply indebted to 19th century Liberal Protestant theology (Rauschenbusch, et al). I think the utilitarian approach (we need to be “practical”) can be very alluring – and also a vm354contradiction of the Christian faith. I believe no one has changed the world at all in comparison to Christ. And yet, I think many social historians might argue that Christ had very little impact on the world. It all depends on what you see when you turn on the light. Thus, these musings…

In a recent exchange on one of my postings I was congratulated for my advocacy of attention to small things, and told that thereby we will change the world. I wrote a light-hearted response in which I demurred from such a lofty goal – but have thought much of it since – and have decided to post on the present topic – why changing the world is not the agenda of the Christian life. I will quickly say that I do not mean by such an assertion that we are not to care about justice nor to correct wrongs that are done or any other such thing. But I want to think aloud on the subject – particularly in the light of Scripture.

First it must be noted that Scripture itself never speaks of a charge to the Church to change the world. It is not a Scriptural notion in itself and I hope to show why this is so.

There is certainly a change prophesied for the world:

But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. (2 Peter 3:8-13)

And this:

And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever. Rev. 11:15

A much larger list could be assembled with quite the same effect. The New Testament vision of the world and “its kingdoms,” is not very sanguine. The general tenor of prophecy in the New Testament is not only to recognize the difficulty of the times in which the saints are living at that time, but warns that times will grow much worse before all is done.

It became the fashion in 19th century Protestant thought – and has continued to the present to some degree – to treat such warnings as mistaken notions of the early Church. It was a common assumption by liberal Biblical scholars that Christ had expected to see the Kingdom ushered in quite soon (an idea shared by the disciples) and that things just did not happen that way. Nineteenth Century liberal thought both in Europe and in America began to substitute “progress” for the coming of the Kingdom. Instead of a cataclysmic end to history, mankind would work towards the justice and peace of God’s Kingdom. “Working for the coming of the Kingdom” became a common notion (I can recall having said such things in prayers and the like prior to my conversion to Orthodoxy).

It is easy to mistake material progress for a change in the nature of things. Of course, material progress is change of a sort. Most of us would not vote to rid ourselves of such conveniences as plumbing and electricity, antibiotics, etc. But these conveniences have not apparently changed the world towards the coming of the Kingdom – only made it a bit more comfortable – and not for all.

There are important social changes that have occurred, as well. Human rights have been extended though they remain embattled in many places. And, of course, they seem to be redefined almost at will depending upon who’s in charge of the largest and most numerous guns at any one time.

So what are Christians doing? If we are not changing the world, what is our life about?

First, it’s useful to think of the nature of the Church compared to the nature of the world. The Church, the Body of Christ, transcends the world. It is in the world but not of the world. Receiving communion, we take into ourselves the very Body and Blood of God. The world cannot contain Him and yet we receive Him into ourselves.

Thus to a certain extent, changing the world would be a diminution of the Church’s role. The Church is larger than the world in which it dwells.

Another important consideration is a principle that has been articulated by the theologian Stanley Hauerwas on any number of occasions. He says that so soon as we agree to take responsibility for the outcome of history, we have agreed to do violence. His contention is that the outcome of history has already been determined (and in some sense completed) in the death and resurrection of Christ. Efforts to make things turn in a certain direction inevitably mean that we take up the sword in order to accomplish that goal.

Doubtless there is a role within the world for the kingdoms of this world, and there has always been the need for the voice of the Church to be directed to those kingdoms, calling them to repentance and to do justice.

But we cannot measure the Church and its life by its effect on the Kingdoms of this world. Sometimes we seem to have a great effect, sometimes we get martyred. In all times we are subject to the mercy of Christ and the workings of His salvation within the life of the world.

Some years back I pastored a parish that had entered into a joint agreement with the local school board to provide a location for a daycare program for the children of young mothers at the local high school (which was next door). When the agreement was drawn up, I had insisted that there be mutual veto power for the parties involved. I did not want the school setting the agenda for my parish, nor did they want me setting the agenda for the school.

The board had school administration representatives, parish representatives and members from the community at large. Of great interest to me was how driven some of the board members were to “change” the young women. There was a parenting program included with the daycare that offered opportunities for young women (and young men if we could get them to be involved) to learn better parenting skills. But there were repeated efforts to include rules that would “punish” (usually by expelling them from the program) any young woman who became pregnant while involved. I saw in this simply another incentive for young women to have abortions – and I vetoed it. I stated then a single goal that the board adopted: for young women to graduate high school.

Change, particularly change within a person, requires their assent and their freedom. My own belief in that case was that the problem of teen pregnancy was fairly complex – at least it included a number of factors – not all of them the same for each individual involved. I believed then and now that every young mother who had a high school degree had a gift of greater freedom – more possibilities and choices were available to her than would have been the case as a high-school drop out. I do not know how the program fared after I left that parish. But I do know a number of young women whose possibility for change was improved by the care we gave their children and the support we gave them as parents. I also know that while I was involved, attempts by others to control, reward and punish young women was thwarted. And I think this was a proper Christian action.

Love of others, as commanded by Christ, would bid us do many things on behalf of others. But the nature of our actions has to finally be judged simply by the measure of goodness. Utilitarianism (“the greatest good for the greatest number”) has been a great temptation for Christians in the modern world. In its name, much evil can be justified. On the other hand, doing something good simply because it is good frees us from the delusions of moral calculus. Is it good to help someone finish school? I think so. Is it good to set up rules so that the only easy option for a young pregnant woman is to abort her child? Absolutely not. The Kingdoms of this world have already conspired against such a young woman and her child. The Church and the Christian have no need to add their support to such evil efforts.

In this life we have no measure of success. Faithfulness to Christ, perservance in the faith – these are perhaps the only things that approach such a measure – but only God can judge the truth of these. Judgment is in His hands. There will come a day when everything will be revealed. On that Day, the world will have changed, and no one can delay or hasten its advent.

Blue Highways

May 24, 2009

Miami 373A few years back there was an American travel book called Blue Highways. The title referred to American maps on which the smaller roads are printed in blue, while the major arteries, the Interstate System, are printed in red. The book was about a trip across America on the “blue” highways. It was almost time-travel since America prior to the 1960’s was largely without an Interstate system. Blue highways are the land of my childhood.

My wife and I, along with my son and his wife, took a “blue highway” adventure this afternoon, traveling some backroads onto the Cumberland Plateau and spending time at “Great Falls,” one of the many waterfalls along the rivers in that part of Tennessee. The trip was accompanied by a picnic worthy of the 1950’s.

As we traveled back home we continued the blue highway route and enjoyed the scenes of back-road Tennessee life on a Sunday afternoon. 

I suspect that our modern age (particularly in America) is an “Interstate” experience. Speed and efficiency are hallmarks of the work place. Commuting by car (as many do) is generally an experience bereft of sight-seeing. We go from place to place and from task to task, spending great portions of our time in something other than full human mode.

I cannot speak for the rest of the world – or all of America. I can only reflect on suburban life as I know it. I have traveled across England’s version of “blue highways” and was stunned by the beauty of its rural character. I have also traveled in the Holy Land and can only say that large portions of that land continue as desert – probably unchanged for centuries.

I believe there is such a thing as a “human” pace to life – a way of living that is rightly suited to who we are. The myth of the malleability of the human has created undreamt of forms of misery – from mechanized boredom to the insanity of “multi-tasking.” 

Prayer, when rightly attended to, is a “blue highway” experience. There is a reason for the length and pace of the traditional Orthodox service. It is a cultural memory of the speed proper to human beings and the attention properly given to God. Modernized services whose agenda is to hold the attention of “worshippers” with the pace of a television show, are not being “culturally relevant,” but culturally destructive – just as certain aspects of our culture deform our humanity and seek to make us into something we are not intended to be.

I am not anti-modern in the sense of being opposed to machines or automobiles or the like. But I am opposed to things that push us in the direction losing our proper humanity. God did not create us for efficiency – nor is His likeness to be revealed in productivity. Speed of travel is meaningless when we are going nowhere. May God grant our daily lives more “blue highways,” and the good sense to take our time when we are there.