Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Going Home – A Personal Journey

May 9, 2009

geo12p20I do not know enough languages to gauge how universal is the concept of “home.” It has very strong connotations in English – and is particularly strong in its usage within the Southern United States. I suspect much of this is rooted in family and place – and requires a fairly stable culture. The culture in which I grew up was reasonably stable – though I experienced major upheavals in my surrounding world around the age of 10. I was young enough to remember what had come before and old enough to nurture a hunger to return.

Some have spoken of this “homesickness” as a universal hunger – a memory reaching back to our loss of Paradise. I know that many speak of their coming to the Church as a “coming home.” It is certainly the case that Christ is our true home and that to return to Christ is the answer to the heart’s true hunger.

I have come “home” this weekend (and for the first part of the coming week). I am in Dallas, the city of my Bishop. It was here that I was ordained Deacon and here that I have always looked during my years as an Orthodox Christian. Though my time in Dallas has always meant time in a hotel and a rented car – and often time without my family – it is still home. The very sight of my Bishop (who is now retired) is a coming home for my heart – to be in the rest that I find in his welcome and the assurance within the proximity of his unshakable faith.

I arrived in Dallas a day or so early – in order to rest, to pray and to visit at leisure. Starting Monday, I am in meetings of various sorts with other priests and laity and with the Metropolitan of the OCA, the acting bishop for my diocese. On Wednesday, the Mid-Feast of Pentecost, I will concelebrate with a number of other priests and the entire Synod of Bishops of the OCA in a liturgy at the cathedral in which we will honor my retired bishop, Vladyka Dmitri.

Thus, what writing I do this week will be between meetings – though being here without my family means that when I am not in a meeting I will have much time on my hands – and a chance to write.

It is hard to explain to others, sometimes, that my experience of the Church and its hierarchy has not been the experience of an institution but of persons. Institutions are distortions are what should be personal and relational. There is nothing inherently institutional about belonging to something that involves millions of people. It’s just that our fallen experience of such things is usually only in a distorted form. When the Church ceases to be personal and becomes institutional, something has gone wrong.

I know of people who have an unspoken pleasure in institutional existence. What is unspoken is the freedom that institutional existence gives to some to indulge a critical spirit. Institutions are perceived as impersonal – which leaves others free to say and do what they will and consider their actions “impersonal.” If anyone has ever held a position of authority then you will likely know what it is to be seen only as your “role” and not as a person. I have endured things through the years associated with such positions that are among the most painful experiences I have ever known. As a sinner, I know that I have offered more than my share of such impersonal animosity as well. 

The answer to such problems is not the “reform” of institutions, but the redemption of relationships. It is necessary for power and authority to be redeemed and placed under the headship of Christ. Democracy is not a synonym for conciliarity – though some mistakenly think so. Conciliarity is, in its highest form, the embodiment of personhood in all of our relations.

It is this embodiment of personhood that is the true hunger of the human heart. Christ fulfills and raises us to the level of personhood in our redemption. Vladimir Lossky described the work of the Holy Spirit as primarily one of establishing us as persons in the true and proper sense of the word. To be a person is to know and to be known – and to know and be known in the Truth. It is to love and be loved and to know love in the Truth. 

My journey into the Orthodox Church included a relationship with Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas for four years prior to my actual conversion. We discussed that eventuality only in our first conversation. For the years following I simply found myself treated as a son who had already returned home. My conversion was only a fulfillment of something that had been taken as an accomplished reality by the man who would be my bishop. It is no wonder that I love him as I do. 

The retirement of Archbishop Dmitri is a vast change in the life of Orthodoxy in the South. For 30 years he has been a dominant force for Orthodoxy and its proclamation in this region and a figure who defined Orthodoxy as a profound practice of hospitality. Together with the Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America, I will celebrate a ministry which has extended the “home” of Orthodoxy to thousands of people who once had no knowledge of the Orthodox faith. And he has done this by creating a home rather than destroying another. 

May God grant us all to find the heart’s true home.

Conversion to the True and Living God

May 3, 2009

nikolai_bruni-candle_bearer_in_a_convent_1891I grew up in a culture where religious conversion was frequent as well as often short-lived. Religiously, the only remedy to many of the ills of life was conversion. On the face of things I could hardly argue with that now. However, the deeper problem within that particular religious culture was a very truncated view of conversion. For many, conversion was accompanied by emotion (it should be truly “heart-felt”) as well as decision. But the only action that accompanied conversion was frequently a “rededication” of one’s life to Christ. The heart of Southern evangelicalism, at the time, was to “bring people to Christ,” though that phenomenon was defined in a very narrow manner. Thus I watched numerous individuals who needed much longer and deeper “conversions” fall short and frequently “fall away.”

Today’s religious culture is far more diverse though not necessarily for the better. The range of definition of “the spiritual life” can run anywhere from “successful living” to sainthood (and this is only a description within American Christianity). Conversion today can frequently mean a “change of membership” though conversion is not usually associated with changing churches within Protestant Christianity. Americans frequently “shop” for Church as much as they shop for everything else. Recent sociological studies have shown this to be an almost dominant component of our modern religious landscape. Market forces not only drive our economy but often our ecclesiology as well.

Thus the problem of true conversion becomes yet more complicated – even if only by the plurality of strange voices. I am an Orthodox Christian and I believe that the truth of the Christian faith has not altered since its inception. It has not and cannot alter because it is nothing other than the living communion of God and man in Christ. The difficulty of conversion is to find one’s way through the multitude of voices to hear the one true voice of God.

And this carries us to our own heart. I have had many conversations with those whom I would describe as “religious seekers.” Sometimes the largest question in their mind is one brought on by the many voices they hear. How to choose? How to decide? Having been formed and shaped as a consumer, only a consumer’s heart is left when it is God we seek to find – and God cannot be bought – He is not and never will be a commodity.

Thus, even conversion to the Orthodox faith is not an immediate answer to the question of true conversion – particularly if it is simply a choice among choices – a consumer’s decision based on comparision shopping. For true conversion is also a matter of our true heart and not the heart of a consumer – which is a creation of the delusions of this age.

In a strange, semi-prophetic passage in the Epilogue of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the author describes the dreams of Raskolnikov as he lay sick and in prison:

In his illness he dreamed that the whole word was doomed to fall victim to some terrible, as yet unknown and unseen pestilence spreading to Europe from the depths of Asia. Everyone was to perish, except for certain, very few, chosen ones. Some new trichinae had appeared, microscopic creatures that lodged themselves in men’s bodies. But these creatures were spirits, endowed with reason and will. Those who received them into themselves immediately became possessed and mad. But never, never had people considered themselves so intelligent and unshakeable in the truth as did these infected ones. Never had they thought their judgements, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions and beliefs more unshakeable. Entire settlements, entire cities and nations would be infected and go mad. Everyone became anxious, and no one understood anyone else; each thought the truth was contained in himself alone, and suffered looking at others, beat his breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know whom or how to judge, could not agree on what to regard as evil, what as good. They did not know whom to accuse, whom to vindicate….In the cities the bells rang all day long: everyone was being summoned, but no one knew who was summoning them or why, and everyone felt anxious…

It is a strange delirium, one we have seen fulfilled in various ways. “Everyone was being summoned, but no one knew who was summoning them or why…” So here is the crux of the matter – reaching our own true heart. I believe this is a great gift of grace, particularly in a confused and confusing world. Apart from such grace knowledge of our heart would be likely impossible.

But, by God’s grace, having found that true heart, one must not take it lightly. Obedience to the heart in grace is important and a matter of daily struggle. We are commanded to take up the cross and follow Christ, and there may certainly be a moment at which we first obeyed that commandment – but that moment is only a beginning of conversion, the first step on a lifetime’s road of repentance. Golgotha ends in a tomb and then the resurrection. Taking up that Cross daily is also a matter of remaining faithful to one’s true heart, despite all the noise and confusion about us. It is steadfastness and courage as well as a simple tenacity. For the madness of the world is real though we are all called to be among the “few.” Being obedient to one’s true heart is a faithful obedience to Christ who is our own true heart.

I stated earlier that conversion to the Orthodox faith was not an immediate answer to question of true conversion. This is not the fault of the Orthodox faith but the fault of our heart as we approach this treasure God has preserved for us. Once having kissed the Gospel and the Cross, we then have to daily press forward, not trusting in the Church as though it were only another institution to which we have attached ourselves, but trusting in God who is our sure hope and the constant life of the Church in which we live.

The daily pressure of our world is to silence the truth of our heart and turn us again to our consumer mentality. Thus each day we say “no” that we may truly say “yes.”

Living a Personal Life

May 3, 2009

southwest-trip-345In the common use of the English language, it would seem strange or impossible to say that someone was living an “impersonal” life. And, even in our classical Christian vocabulary, we would say that God (Who is Person) has created us in His own image and that we are inherently “personal.” And yet, the Church also recognizes that it is our personhood that is most effected by the fall. 

In theological terms, to exist as a person is to exist in freedom, to exist in self-giving love, and to recognize that it is God who guarantees our existence as persons. Instead, what we often experience is bondage instead of freedom – even the freedom we do know is itself exploited as a bondage; we love but often in the most selfish of ways; we see ourselves as the origin of our daily existence, jealously guarding our rights as individuals. In such fallen terms we live in competition, seeing others as living at our expense or at the expense of our well-being. 

Of course, the opposite is true. The existence of others – a gift from God, like our own existence – never decreases us, but gives to us an increase whenever it is greated with love and the expansion of our self in loving, self-giving relationship.

To live a personal life is thus a synonym for living the Christian life. Christ is not an addition to our life – He is our life. 

It is for such reasons that words like “religion” are insufficient to properly describe the Christian life. Anything that describes our life as having a true existence apart from its relationship to God or describes our relationship with God as an aspect of our life, has diminished God and ourselves – dividing our lives and our world into “God” and “not-God” categories.

There is no true existence apart from God (“in Him we live and move and have our being”). This applies not only to human beings but to the whole of creation. Though it is not common to refer to non-human existence as “personal,” it is still closer to the true character of all existence than the word “impersonal.” 

My favorite illustration of this phenomenon is the relationship we have with our pets. It is easy to describe the “anthropomorphism” we practice with regard to animals – treating them as though they were human beings – but it is more accurate to say that we frequently treat our pets as “personal” rather than human. The account of creation in Genesis describes God as bringing the animals before Adam to “see what he would name them.” It is an interesting image – one in which man rather than God is the giver of names. That relationship with creation (particularly with our pets) continues as we name animals and observe within them aspects of personhood. This is not a product of a misdirected dotage – but rather a reflection of our God given drive to live as persons and to extend that personhood to creation itself.

We do not immediately see this same question of personhood when we think of “inanimate” creation – and yet the Scriptures frequently do: trees clap their hands; rocks sing; all creation is called on to give praise to God. Thus a proper Christian understanding of the world around us carries a sense of the personal to everything – even if those “things” cannot be spoken of in the strict terms of “personhood.” 

Thus our true existence is found in proper relation to God and to everything God has made. This relation is seen time and again in the lives of many of the saints. Animals behave in a different manner (St. Seraphim and the bear or St. Francis and the wolf of Gubbio), trees and flowers behave in different manners, even rocks obey their command (the stories of some saints and their power over earthquakes). “What manner of man is this that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” Christ’s disciples ask one another.

Such an understanding of the personal character of God’ creation does not grant us permission to begin a theology of personhood or an ethic of personhood that has no relation to God the Holy Trinity. Apart from God, personhood has no meaning. It is not an ethic nor a theology but is descriptive only of true life as lived in union with God. This is the danger that exists when Orthodox theologians seek to bear witness to an ecological ethic that can be appropriated by non-believers. To the non-believer we have only been commanded to offer Christ. Creation and its relationship to personhood requires its grounding in the personal God – otherwise people become the servants of temporality – indeed of a temporality that will itself cease to exists except as it exists in God. This earth is headed for a collision with the Sun (if not with something lesser, earlier). To make of it definer of our actions is to worship the creature rather than the Creator. Already and increasingly, the political world will offer us the opportunity to make of creation a god. Like all false gods it will be cruel and the killer of mankind. There is nothing new in this.

As Christians, we offer the world the only truth that is both new and older than all temporal existence: personal life in relationship with God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. All life comes from Him and all life belongs to Him. It is only in Him that we will find ourselves as persons and that we will be able to share in His movement of creation towards the final end of union with Him.

Unbelief and the Two-Storey Universe

April 29, 2009

vm14451I have written extensively about what I have described as a “two-storey universe.” In short, this is a description of how many modern Christians see the world. There is the first floor – the natural world which operates according to naturalist, “secular” rules, and the second floor – the world of God, heaven, hell, angels, etc. The spiritual crisis of much of modern man is the inherent disconnect in these two worlds. It is a belief construct whose history goes back some centuries but whose fruit has been a very different form of Christianity and a growing tide of unbelief. As I have written elsewhere, many Christians have serious doubts about whether anybody actually lives on the second floor.

One interesting component of this world-view is unbelief. When a Christian whose world-view is dominated by the two-storey universe ceases to believe – what he ceases to believe in is the second storey. There need be little change, if any, to the first-floor on which he perceives himself to live. He does not cease to believe in the God who is here, but in a God who is “out there.”

Of course, what remains in such a situation of unbelief, is an acceptance of a universe that is less than a full account of how things truly are.  The first floor of a two-storey universe is not the same thing as the “one-storey universe” I have described: it is simply a house with the second floor blown off. It is in this sense that I have commented on Christian fundamentalism (one of the primarily proponents of the two-storey universe) and contemporary atheism being two-sides of the same coin. Their interminable arguments are a conversation that takes place in half a universe. One argues that there is a second floor while the other argues that the truncated, detached debacle of a first floor is all there is. However, they do not disagree about the fundamentals of the first floor. The daily world (and often the daily life) of a two-storey Christian is often as empty and secular as his atheist counterpart. He differs only in his anxiety to prove the existence of a second floor.

I believe it is important to go to the heart of these matters – to realize that when arguments take place between such inhabitants of the two-storey world – nothing authentic is taking place. Both positions are inheritors of a broken view of the world and neither will ever state the truth in a satisfactory manner.

It is interesting to me that there are atheists who do not belong to this category of “two-storey unbelievers.” Their lack of belief in God includes deep questions about the very character of the universe and the nature of human existence. As such, they share much in common with the Tradition of the Orthodox faith. Many converts to Orthodoxy must undergo something of an “atheist” stage in order to leave the mythology of the two-storey world and enter into the revelation of God as Christ has given to the Church. It is for this reason that in the services for the reception of converts there is included a formal renunciation of various errors. You cannot follow the “only truly existing God” while at the same time believing in a God who does not exist. We are to believe in but one God.

I recall the first year of my life as an Orthodox Christian. Having been an ordained clergyman for 18 years prior to that, it startled people when I said that the primary question for me in my first year of Orthodox life was the existence of God. People asked, “Did you not  believe in God before?” The answer had to be “yes and no.” To embrace God as He is revealed to us in the Orthodox faith requires, as well, not believing a number of other things. That first year was a struggle.

On the other hand, the same year forced me to a far more existential level – even to the place of crisis. How to believe in a God who is “everywhere present and filling all things” is a very different way of life than to believe in a God who is “out there.” In an Orthodox life our faith in God also changes how we see everything else (or it should). Nothing remains the same. The creation is not “self-existent” (a hallmark of two-storey thought) but utterly dependent and contingent moment by moment on the good will and providence of God. “Heaven and earth are full of His glory.”

I have found it interesting in my ministry as an Orthodox priest and missionary to meet people who, upon learning of the Orthodox faith, have replied with joy, “I always thought something like that must be true.” There are many people, who though never having heard the Gospel presented in its proper fullness, have nevertheless refused to be content with something less. They are, for me, miracles of grace.

It is a commonplace to say that Orthodoxy is full of paradoxes. One of those is the paradox that many non-Orthodox Christians may have to leave their God in order to become Orthodox and that many atheists will have to learn not to believe in a different God before they can come to the Truth.

It is simply the case that in order to find our life we have to lose it.

A Faith That Cannot Be Defended

April 23, 2009

picture-019There is such a thing as a Christian faith worth defending (in some sense). However, it seems like those who enjoy attacking the Christian faith find its least worthy representatives for the marshalling of their meager intellectual forces. This often means that atheists attack a faith nobody (virtually) believes, and that defenders sometimes defend something less than Christianity.

 I have seen several recent articles (most notably in the New Statesman) that have offered characterizations of Christianity that even the 9th grade education of my first Baptist pastor could have refuted. The caricature of Christianity, some of which has been made possible by Christian fundamentalism (itself a caricature of Christianity), is generally too incorrect to be addressed by a serious Christian. If people think that Christianity is the amalgam of ancient peasant superstitions – how can you answer them? Such ignorance of history is itself a modernist peasant superstition.

 Recently a parishioner sent me a small critique from a web-site that considered itself wise for having used weak philosophical reasoning to undermine Christianity by proving that God’s omnipresence proved that “God is in hell.” Of course, Orthodox Christianity, believing the Scripture and theological testimony would immediately agree: “God is in hell.” Why do they think we get so excited at Pascha? The God-Who-Is loves us so much that He entered Hell to redeem us. It is a doctrine taught in Scripture, upheld in Tradition and celebrated in the feasts of the Church.

 The great tragedy, of course, is that contemporary Christianity has been so “gutted” by those who claim to be its reformers, that a central doctrine of the faith can now be used by non-believers in an effort to undermine a modernized Christianity that was only invented a few years ago.

 There are many reasons to be an Orthodox Christian: the greatest of which I have any knowledge, is the simple fact that Orthodox Christianity alone is true, and the fullness of the Christian faith. Defending anything else is not only a waste of time but beside the point.

The tragedy is that much time and energy will be wasted attacking something that is not the Christian faith, while what is the Christian faith remains unknown. But perhaps in God’s good pleasure this is how things should be.

 To readers who entertain criticisms of the Christian faith: be sure to attack the real Christian faith and not recent inventions that have no right to the name.

 To readers who seek to defend the faith: don’t waste your time defending something less than the complete faith. Nothing else deserves the time or trouble.

Careful Devotion to Christ

March 27, 2009

nikolai_bogdanov-belsky_in_churchIn writing about monasticism, I recently made mention of what I called “careful devotion to Christ.” In turn, a reader asked me to write further on “careful devotion.” 

In many ways the great problem of our age is the two-storey universe (which is make-believe) in which we live as religious people. We live in a secularized atmosphere, where “reality” means the hard stuff around us, but generally does not include what we believe religiously. We live in the neutral zone – the first floor of the universe where only a suspension of the natural law will yield contact with God.

This, by no means, is the dogma of the Church. Instead, it is the legacy of the history of the late years of Western Civilization, a by-product of the Reformation and the popular response to its ideas. It is, or will be, the death of Christianity as taught by Christ unless it is resisted and renounced. In time, those who live in this manner will either cease to believe in God, or will find that their children have abandoned Him, or left the faith to find Him elsewhere, having concluded that Christianity is bankrupt.

The intention I had in writing about monasticism and its importance – was the resurrection in young hearts and minds of the belief in a one-storey universe. Young hearts need to come to the fixed conclusion that God is everywhere present – is more real than the things they think of as “real” and is deeply and utterly committed to our transformation into the image of His beloved Son.

Monasticism with anything less remains a disciplined life – but without such a conviction of the heart would remain as powerless as the two-storey Church. It would be a monasticism that lacked God in anything other than an abstract sense. Such a life would be madness.

The great ascetics of the Church, throughout its history, believed with all their heart that fasting, prayer, repentance and tears, obedience and radical forgiveness of everyone for everything, were tools given us by God for our cooperation with His work of grace – and that such “spiritual labors” yielded fruit – “some a hundred-fold, some sixty-fold, some thirty-fold.” They hungered for the Kingdom of God and believed with all their heart that it was possible to enter that blessed state to some degree in this life-time. 

Orthodoxy is not faith in abstractions, or about a reward, up-there, someday. It is as real as the Incarnation of the Word. It is as real as the leprosy healed by Christ. It is as real as the storm He calmed from the boat. It is as real as the nails which held His flesh on the cross. No abstractions. Christ’s resurrection is not the victory of abstraction over reality, but the victory of Reality over the delusion of death and all its kingdom. It is the union of earth and heaven, created and uncreated. In such a union there cannot be two metaphysical floors of reality. 

It will sound somewhat silly for me to suggest that we learn to pray to God as if He really existed. Of course, God really exists. But the habit of the heart in a two-storey universe has deep and secret doubts about that very reality. True asceticism hungers for the Kingdom of God above all else, knowing that it is the only proper ground of reality.

Of course, such devotion is not meant only for monastics. I simply look for them to help lead the way. In the last analysis, every Orthodox Christian must learn a “careful devotion to Christ.” We must fast, pray, weep, repent before God, and seek to remember Him moment by moment – and never as an abstraction. Compared to God, we are the abstractions. But God has become man, and in that event the abstraction of our schismatic existence was overcome. In the life of the Church we are now united to Reality. Why do we settle for less?

Why are our enemies more important than God? They must be or we would forgive them.

I could take this question and apply it across-the-board of our Orthodox lives. God is less important to us than many things because we believe in the reality of those things more than the Reality of God. It is two-storey thinking. 

Some suggestions (all of which are aimed at overcoming the false sense of God’s distance):

1. Recognize that though “God is everywhere present and filling all things,” you often go through the world as if He were not particularly present at all and that things are just empty things. When you see this, make it a matter of confession.

2. Always approach the Church and the sacraments (where we have an even more specific promise of His presence) with awe. Never treat the building or things that have been set aside as holy as though they were common or empty. Do not divide your life into two – now He’s here, now He’s not. Syrian Christians traditionally believed that the Shekinah presence of God left the Temple and took up abode in the cross – every cross – and thus had extraordinary devotion to each and every cross. We should never be indifferent to the icon corner in our home. Cross yourself whenever you pass it or come into its presence.

3. Make careful preparation for communion. Always read the pre-communion prayers if you are going to receive communion (and perhaps even if you are not); pray Akathists that particularly focus on Christ and His presence, such as the Akathist to the Sweetest Lord Jesus. The traditional Western hymn, written by St. Patrick, known as his “breastplate” is also a very fine hymn to know. Find it and keep it with you and learn it.

4. Lay to heart Psalms of presence, such as Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” and Psalm 91, “He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High,” and any others that strike you. Repeat them frequently through the day.

5. Throughout the day – search for God. He is everywhere present, and yet our searching helps us to be more properly aware. In searching, expect to find Him. He delights in sharing His presence.

6. More than anything else, give thanks to God for all things. There is no better way to acknowledge His presence. I Thess. 5:18 (a much neglected verse) says: “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.”

The vast majority of us are not monastics and will never be. But we need not abandon ourselves to a Godless world, dotted by oases of His presence. The careful devotion to Christ recognizes Him everywhere (not as in pantheism) but in His goodness and His sustaining of all things, and in His person. We can be bold to overcome the “demons of feeble impertinence.”

Southern Orthodoxy – Personal Reflections

March 24, 2009

holyascension1I am a native of the American South, born in a time when cotton still grew in the fields and Jim Crow laws made life hell for a black man. For all of its strange contradictions – the South truly was a Christ-haunted culture. When Martin Luther King, Jr., began his preaching and marching for justice – his message was pretty much Southern gospel. It was the religion of his message that made him effective in the South – even as it brought about his assassination. For despite the evil of the Jim Crow version of Apartheid, the South was, at the time, a distinctly religious culture.

I grew up with “blue laws,” that allowed only gas stations (a few) and pharmacies to open on Sundays (and then only after Church services were over). More on the side of culture was the simple fact that people largely stayed home after Church. Too much recreation on a Sunday seemed somehow improper.

There were plenty of exceptions to these observations – gathering as family was always an acceptable Sunday activity. For me, this usually meant gathering at grandparents (my mother was one of 12 children, my father one of 5). I had cousins beyond count. There we would gather and eat (“pot-luck” as it is called) and listen to uncles swap stories, the women swap news, and my grandfather silently preside over everything.

Much of that culture has disappeared. The economic growth and large migrations beginning in the 60’s changed the face of much of Southern life. I lived near a city. What was farmland during my childhood is now suburb. The cotton is gone, along with Jim Crow laws (thank God). The family Church is slowly disappearing and being replaced by the new “mega-Churches” in which entertainment and Church are largely indistinguishable.

Southern Orthodoxy is, to my observation, largely no different than Orthodoxy anywhere in America, although in the Churches of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) the South is largely the land of converts. Thus Southern Orthodoxy is often zealous and frequently rough around the edges. Many of our Churches are barely out of the “storefront” stage.

But the quiet piety of the Orthodox faith seems to fit the Southern character. I love to visit in Clinton, Mississippi where Father Paul Yerger (the author of our previous post) serves as priest. Mississippi is simply more Southern than most of the South. To hear the service intoned with the soft tones of the Delta is a reminder that Orthodoxy will grow anywhere.

Archbishop Dmitri has been an Apostle to the South. I have written earlier of the number of Churches that have been planted through his efforts – truly Apostolic in number. He has set a tone for the Diocese that makes it at home in the South. He is among the most hospitable men I have ever known. For years, on Bright Monday, there has been a Liturgy at St. Seraphim Cathedral, attended by all the area Orthodox clergy, regardless of jurisdiction, with a dinner prepared by Vladyko himself in his home next to the Cathedral. He loves to cook (and does so extremely well). To serve the clergy after the long hours of Holy Week and Pascha is simply Christ-like. It is with such examples that he has taught his clergy. Some have learned better than others.

As a former Episcopal priest, I found myself welcomed as a convert, but never treated as a convert. I was treated as a son (I felt like the Prodigal Son because of my sins, but not because of anyone’s judgment). I am most familiar with the OCA, but I have family in the Antiochian Archdiocese as well and many friends among the Greek Orthodox. And though there are flavors and aromas of the Mediterranean to be found within more ethnic congregations, the South has left its gentle mark among them as well.

Orthodoxy in the South is very young. It is vibrant and occasionally impatient. But Orthodoxy grows here like a native plant. I pray that it flourishes and nurtures a people who have long had a love of God, regardless of the shifting culture of the post-modern era. There is more than a little work to do here, but if God continues to send Apostles such as Vladyko Dmitri – the work will move forward quicker than I would ever have thought.

It’s Nothing Personal

March 19, 2009

patriarchpavelOne of the most frightening phrases in the English language is: “It’s nothing personal.” It almost always precedes something bad. For someone to tell me that what they are about to do is not personal is already a confession of sin. But why should the word personal carry such weight?

In the life of the Eastern Church few words could be more important. Oddly there is not a single definition for the term, only, as Met. Kallistos Ware notes, “a series of overlapping approaches.” And yet there is agreement as to its importance. The Elder Sophrony stressed what he called the “cardinal importance of the personal dimension in being.”

But what is it that is so important? Personhood, which is the Latin-derived English word for the more technical Greek “hypostasis,” refers not so much to what we are as to who we are. But it refers to a manner of existing as an individual that is not individualistic. To exist as person is to exist in a unique manner of communion. Person has the capacity for ultimate self-giving (emptying) and ultimate receiving (fulness). It has an individual aspect in that the person is unique and unrepeatable, but it is a unique and unrepeatable existence that always exists by communion (emptiness and fulness).

Speaking in such a way about personhood makes it somewhat clear that none of us yet exists in such a manner in any way that we could think of as complete. Personhood is indeed the glory that is being worked within us as we are changed into the image of Christ. The Person of Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, is the Person Who is manifest to us in the incarnation. That Person Who from eternity is Divine by nature, “hypostasizes” – gives Personal existence to human nature in taking flesh of the Virgin and becoming man. Thus the image of personhood set before us as the Divine goal of our conformity is none other than the Person of Christ, human and Divine.

Personhood is the proper end of man – it is what we should have always become. Existing as less than fully personal beings – as mere individuals who do not share (emptying) nor receive (fulness) – this sinful mode of existence manifests itself in every form of selfishness and greed. Its ultimate expression is the sin of murder. The Biblical account does not wait to tell us of murder as a sin that took eons to develop, but rather in the second generation of humanity – between the brothers Cain and Abel – jealousy results in fratricide.

Murder is the utter antithesis of personhood. It does not give, nor is it interested in receiving that which may be legitimately received. It is interesting that Christ said that our enemy “was a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44).

A more subtle form of murder than Cain’s is the frequent diminishment of another human being to something less than person – or the self-murder we perform as we refuse to allow ourselves be raised up towards the level of personal existence. There are many ways in which this is done. Making of another human being nothing more than an object or granting nothing more than a collective existence are both denials of personhood. When a human being becomes for us a mere object, then we find it easy to do to them anything we might do to a stick of furniture or something else that we regularly treat as object. The collective existence is manifest when a person simply becomes an example of a larger group: worker, management, nationality, gender, etc.

“It’s nothing personal!” is the battle-cry of murderers through the ages. We hear elements of it in Cain’s defense of his murderous action: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” His “brother” in this case is less than a personal category. He does not call him by his name.

Though none of us yet exist in the fulness of personhood, we are, nevertheless called to that mode of existence and our Christian life offers us disciplines and the grace for precisely this purpose. One of the Biblical images that frequently reveals this graceful manifestation is found in the stories of the  changing and acquiring of names. Thus the Patriarch Jacob, who begins his life conniving and tricking to get everything he wants and all he feels has been promised to him. His name, Jacob, means “one you tries to take someone else’s place.” Jacob endures muc, including wrestling with the Angel of the Lord. After that experience, Jacob is partially crippled. He has been marked by his struggle with God. The end of the matter is his name is changed. He has moved from someone who does not share and cannot receive legitimately, to one who is now, “The Prince of God,” Israel.

Abram becomes Abraham. Sarai becomes Sarah. The stories surrounding these changes are the stories of personhood coming forth. Christ frequently gives new names to His disciples. Peter, the Rock, who had to live nearly an entire lifetime to fulfill the name Christ had given him. Saul becomes Paul. Indeed in the Revelations of St. John, each of us will receive a new name. Personhood is our common destiny in Christ.

But we live in a world that does not know Christ and thus does not know of the human destiny of personhood. We speak about “personal” relationships with Christ, even though we ourselves have not yet reach personhood. Thus the phrase misstates the present case. “Personal relationship” is a weak term. Of course, it is not a Biblical nor a Patristic term – but something that has largely grown out of modern American evangelical jargon. There it exists with little or no theological underpinning, just a phrase to be used.

What we seek from Christ is Personal Communion. We want to participate in Him as He is Person. The transformation that flows from that communion or participation is the transformation of our individualistic existence with its greed and self-centeredness to a growing manifestation of personhood in which our heart contains more of the universe and our lives are marked by giving (emptiness) and receiving (fulness).

Fr. Sophrony describes this transformation:

…[It is] in the utmost intensity of prayer that our nature is capable of, when God Himself prays in us, [that] man receives a vision of God that is beyond any image whatsoever. Then it is that that man qua persona really prays ‘face to Face’ with the Eternal God. In  this encounter with the Hypostatic [personal] God, the hypostasis [person] that at first was only potential, is actualized in us.

The Elder Sophrony’s Grand-nephew, Fr. Nicholai, offers this observation:

When man’s self remains his ultimate existential concern, he is existentially directed toward himself and so his potential for embracing the infinite, God, and thus himself becoming infinite, is not realized. And vice versa: when his existential concern is reoriented toward the infinite, his own infinite potential opens up and comes to its realization:

Quoting his uncle:

I is a magnificient word. It signifies persona. Its principal ingredient is love, which opens out, first and foremost, to God. This I does not live in a convulsion of egoistic concentration on the self. If wrapped up in self it will continue in its nothingness. The love towards God commanded of us by Christ, which entails hating oneself and renouncing all emotional and fleshly ties, draws the spirit of man into the expanses of Divine eternity. This kind of love is an attribute of Divinity.


“It’s nothing personal” is a statement that is almost correct. More precise would be: You are not personal. You are nothing. Beware of such men and don’t be numbered among them.

Quotes from Nicholas V. Sakharov are from his work: I Love Therefore I Am: the theological legacy of Archimandrite Sophrony.

Augustinian Surprises

March 5, 2009

copy-of-101_0508rockiesGod is He Whom we know best in not knowing Him. – St. Augustine

It is He about Whom we have no knowledge unless it be to know how we do not know Him. – St. Augustine

Both quotes are from De ordine.

Fr. Thomas Hopko is fond of saying that “We cannot know God – but you have to know Him to know that.” This statement, like those of St. Augustine’s, tease our minds towards higher considerations – particularly in a world that markets God as though he were a candy-bar. The recent spate of bus ads in London are an excellent example. Atheists ran ads suggesting that there “probably is no God” and suggested that people not waste their time. Christians countered with ads that there “probably is only one God – ours – join us!”

Of course some of this is just a sad commentary on modern culture. But it is seems to me that if God ceases to be a mystery then humanity stands no chance. The holy Tradition of the faith teaches us not only that God is a mystery – that all of our dogmatic statements cannot “capture” Him – but also that man is a mystery – “fearfully and wonderfully made.” And the two are connected. Man is a mystery because he is person, created in the image of God.

The great tragedies of the 20th century occurred when various regimes made man to be less than mystery. The material man of Marxism lost all value other than as a tool of productivity. The land that gave the world some of its greatest poets gave its imagination over to the mind of a madman.

Hitler’s reduction of man to “uebermensch” and others to less than human defined man primarily with the image of power. Instead of producing a race of Gods he produced shame in the most educated nation on earth. In all, the 20th century proved Dostoevsky to have been prophetic: “If there is no God, all is permitted.”

There are various ways that modern entities seek to redefine the human. For some we are consumers, objects of manipulation by carefully crafted marketing. For others we are infinitely malleable, not only able “to be all we can be,” but able to be anything we want – whether that includes a different gender or even the features of a wild beast (body sculpting and implants).

Only if we approach man with Biblical fear and wonder will we hold him with proper respect. The human aspect of personhood holds a transcendent quality – an ability to extend itself beyond itself – an ability to love. This is true of the least of our brethren.

But such wonders will remain opaque to the modern eye if the wonder of God does not accompany it. Human imagination, itself a powerful force, will never manage to imagine the wonder of man unless it first is seized by the wonder of God.

Thus we have the Orthodox tradition of “apophaticism,” of learning to know by “not knowing.” It is a theological and spiritual discipline that says “no” to our own limited understanding in order to say “yes” to a revelation that would carry us beyond understanding. Augustine’s statements (which came as a small surprise to me) stand within this spiritual tradition. Time has refined the practice of “not knowing,” presenting it today as a means of sharing in the life of salvation – a strange phenomenon in a world that knows too much.

Orthodoxy Where You Live

February 24, 2009

dragoncrushingI live in East Tennessee. It is an area of the nation famous for Davy Crockett (his descendants are still here). It is the place where bluegrass music originated. It was settled by Protestants – mostly Scots-Irish – which means Protestant Scots who had once lived in Scotland. It is a land of the Cherokee, though their impact is virtually invisible today.

It is an aspect of America that is hugely modern. An old city in America is 200 years old. There were places of human habitation that go back 10’s of thousands of years, but they yield very little information and they were not ancestors of my own people.

I contrast that to the time I have spent in England. There I was in my ancestral home. I am even aware of the names of Orthodox saints from those holy islands – for England was once among the Orthodox of places.

When I was in Palestine, the evidence of Christianity is simply as old as Christianity itself. I knelt in the very tomb of Christ. There are many other things in the Holy Land, many of them older than Christianity and yet related.

It is a question for me of Orthodoxy where you live. In some places – lands made holy by generation after generation of saint – the life of Orthodoxy is, or at least can be, a life lived in harmony with place and time. It is this strange aspect of America that to be faithful to Christ means to be unfaithful to the space and time in which I live. This modern land is Babylon. Almost everyone knows it other than Americans. I do not say this as praise for other places. There are worse things and places than Babylon. Some of my readers dwell in those places.

I take great comfort in the closing lines of St. Peters’ First Epistle: “She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings…” (1 Peter 5:13). Whatever city Peter was writing from (probably Rome), he identified as Babylon. It is more than “code language” it seems to me. It is Peter’s greeting from a place that seems profoundly foreign to the gospel.

The Christian is forced to remember that this world is not our home – or at least to remember that the land hallowed by the prayers of all the saints and the blood of the martyrs is no smaller than the cosmos itself. We breath the same air, and sweat under the same sun. Most importantly, we do not lose heart wherever we are. With ever icon erected, with every prayer prayed, with every Temple that is raised and consecrated, this place and all others become more fully what they were created to be – “Heaven is His Temple, the earth His footstool.”

Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
 If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!
 If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Let only darkness cover me, and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to thee, the night is bright as the day; for darkness is as light with thee.