Archive for the ‘Orthodox’ Category


May 29, 2009

IMG_0408I offer a brief apology to Buddhists – forgive me if I have mischaracterized your religious practices.

We are enjoined by St. Paul to have within us the mind that was in Christ – specifically in His self-emptying love in going to the Cross (Philippians 2:5-11). It is the very heart of humility. Of course there are difficulties when we seek to practice such a thing – difficulties for which I have already apologized.

Christians are not Buddhists.

We cannot undertake an effort of self-emptying in a vacuum. We cannot be humble merely in reference to ourself. The Christian goal is the “loss of self” in a certain context, but never in a manner in which there is nothing to be found where a self should be.

The point of St. Paul’s admonition, as well as the point of Christ’s own self-emptying, is not negative, nor may it be achieved through negative efforts. Self-emptying is an act of love – an enlargement of the heart – and extension of our person towards the person of others.

Thus self-emptying is never a matter of looking inwards – but always a matter of extension beyond ourselves.

The Christian vision of love always includes love of the other. There can be no “love” that exists apart from the personal. Even in our understanding of the Trinity – we may say, as does St. John – that “God is love,” but not in any sense of a self-existing non-referential love. The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father. The Father loves the Spirit and the Spirit loves the Father. The Son loves the Spirit and the Spirit loves the Son.

Thus to say, “God loves,” is something of an incomplete sentence. Christian theology would argue that only in the Trinitarian revelation does the statement “God is love” make sense.

By the same token, humility is not a negative act, a “negation” of the self. Rather it is an opening of the self that allows room for the life of the other. God, who is ‘meek and lowly in heart,’ is just so because His life is open to creation and to His human creatures as it is open, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Humility and self-emptying are not the loss of self but the gaining of a true self (where self is understood to be synonymous with “life”). I often marvel at discussions of over-population. Ignoring the Malthusian nightmares of various Cassandras, I find that we are only crowded because there is not enough room for “false selves.” The world is hardly big enough for a single false self. However, love always has room. It is how God can be everywhere present and filling all things and yet have room for us.

Is there any room at the inn?

Traditional Byzantine Christmas Hymn in Arabic

December 17, 2008

The Habit of Prayer

July 9, 2008

Though created in the image of God – man has fallen far. The image is not demolished, but we have not fulfilled the likeness and we frequently distort the image beyond recognition. Part of the true human life described in Genesis, are the “walks in the Garden” with God. Man and God converse – they share communion with one another. We see the restoration of this in the life of Christ whose constant life of prayer is frequently referenced in the Scripture.

Man makes a return to the Garden when he turns to God in prayer. The essence of all prayer is communion with God. Prayer, even intercessory prayer, is always about communion with God. We do not pray in order to change God’s mind. We do not pray in order to get things. We do not pray in order to make things happen. We pray in order to be in communion with God, Who alone does what He wills, gives what He wills, and governs the universe without advice from anxious men.

As we pray, and the more truly we pray, we unite ourselves to God, and His actions. His will and His gifts become things for which we can give thanks.

I have often read about the “habit of prayer.” The one problem with this description is that it can be seen as an activity that we ought to do often, when prayer is, in fact, a state of being in which we should dwell constantly. We are not ever truly ourselves when we are not in prayer.

As communion with God, prayer is itself life-giving. How could we want a life-giving activity to be less than constant? If we are engaging in activities that are not life-giving, then we are exercising communion with death. There is no neutral ground.

This does not mean that we may not go about our daily chores and responsibilities. But learning to go about them in a state of communion with God is to learn what it is to live our lives as truly human. We were not created for death, but for life and communion with God.

There are many ways we maintain such a communion: use of the Jesus Prayer; the use of frequent or constant thanksgiving; the use of small verses of Scripture offered up to God throughout our activities. There is nothing we do, apart from sin, that cannot be done better in communion with God. If it is an activity that we cannot ask God’s blessing for, then it is an activity that we should avoid. As St. Paul said, “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin.”

Most important to me as I think on this topic is the true nature of prayer and communion with God. Prayer will not be a habit so long as it seems a laborious activity that we carry out because we “ought to.” This is the thought of a slave and not a son. Until we come to know God as our Father we will not be able to pray in such a way that it can become our true life. This is a gift of grace, a kindness from God. If you pray like a slave, then ask for the gift to pray like a son. God is a good God and wishes to free us from slavery and adopt us as His children.

Though the desert fathers said, “Prayer is a struggle to a man’s dying breath,” it is also true that prayer should increasingly be a source of life for us, so that even if we struggle, it is as if a man who has difficulty breathing still struggles to breathe. He doesn’t just give up on breathing because it’s too much trouble. He will breathe until he can breathe no more. We must pray until we can pray no more.

Prayers By the Lake – I

June 18, 2008

Saint Nicholai Velimirovich, of whom I have written before, is the author of the wonderful, Prayers By the Lake, which he composed on the shores of Lake Ochrid. They are a treasure of modern Orthodox verse. His first poem in the cycle reflects a sense of the creation as God’s own, rather than an inert arena for secular life. I offer this poem and a link to an online edition of His prayers.



Who is that staring at me through all the stars in heaven and all the creatures on earth?


Cover your eyes, stars and creatures; do not look upon my nakedness. Shame torments me enough through my own eyes.


What is there for you to see? A tree of life that has been reduced to a thorn on the road, that pricks both itself and others. What else-except a heavenly flame immersed in mud, a flame that neither gives light nor goes out?


Plowmen, it is not your plowing that matters but the Lord who watches.


Singers, it is not your singing that matters but the Lord who listens.


Sleepers, it is not your sleeping that matters but the Lord who wakens.


It is not the pools of water in the rocks around the lake that matter but the lake itself.


What is all human time but a wave that moistens the burning sand on the shore, and then regrets that it left the lake, because it has dried up?


O stars and creatures, do not look at me with your eyes but at the Lord. He alone sees. Look at Him and you will see yourselves in your homeland.


What do you see when you look at me? A picture of your exile? A mirror of your fleeting transitoriness?


O Lord, my beautiful veil, embroidered with golden seraphim, drape over my face like a veil over the face of a widow, and collect my tears, in which the sorrow of all Your creatures seethes.


O Lord, my beauty, come and visit me, lest I be ashamed of my nakedness—lest the many thirsty glances that are falling upon me return home thirsty.

Sacraments: The World as Mystery

June 17, 2008

My recent post on Pentecost and Evangelism occasioned several thoughtful responses. One of the responses seemed to me particularly worth further reflection. I start with an excerpt:

Truly it is God we need and want, nothing less. I experienced in my heart, but didn’t realize in my head until I began to study Orthodoxy, that in my evangelical world we affirmed “by faith” having God living by His Spirit within us and that His Presence was with us in our corporate context. But in reality, because a sacramental view of reality had largely eluded us, we failed to really experience that Presence in any consistent way, especially in the context of corporate worship.

The comment goes to the very heart of the modern Christian dilemma. Without a truly “sacramental” world-view, the presence of God and of all things holy remain alien to our life and are reached only occasionally and with great difficulty (if at all). The writings I have offered on Christianity as a One-Storey Universe are precisely an effort on my part to find language to describe the alienation of the holy from a secularized world.

The whole of Orthodoxy is rooted in an understanding of the world that is not only non-secular, but even pre-secular. The language of Orthodox worship, hagiography, and writings of the Fathers, never imagines a situation in which God is removed from the world and inherently inaccessible. The world itself is a sacrament – or in Orthodox language – the world is mystery (mysterion).

It is important to say just this much – “the world is mystery” – for if we say less – we run the danger of saying that the world is indeed secular, but that there are “sacramental” moments within it. This is the danger carried by the notion of limiting the sacraments to seven in number. Of course those actions and occasions which the Church formally refers to as “mysteries” or “sacraments” are precisely what the Church says of them – but in actions such as the annual blessing of the waters on Theophany – the Church reveals that all of creation is intended to be an occasion of communion with God. Indeed, it is the very purpose of creation.

I am not suggesting anything here that has not already been better said by Fr. Alexander Schmemann in his classic For the Life of the World, nor is he asserting anything there that is not simply a clear statement of the Orthodox mind. In many ways such expressions are simply commentaries on St. Paul’s theology (in any number of passages). I quote only one for this purpose:

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us. For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth (Ephesians 1:7-10).

There is a vast difference and distinction between a world-view which allows for such things as sacraments and a world-view which understands that all of creation is a sacrament. With the first, one can be religious from time-to-time. With the latter, communion with God is a way of life and the whole of life.

Everything is changed in such an understanding. It is in just such a context (and quoting from Scripture) that we can understand that the Church not only reads the Scriptures, but is itself the Scriptures (see my earlier series on an Orthodox hermeneutic). In the same way we not only eat the Body of Christ, we also are the Body of Christ.

Prayer and worship cease to be specialized activities that we attend and become the very fabric of our lives. This in no way diminishes the worship of the assembled Church, but we do not cease to be Church when we exit the doors of a building. We are commanded to “pray without ceasing,” and to “give thanks always for all things.” In the language of Fr. Schmemann, human beings live rightly when we live as “eucharistic, doxological beings,” that is, human beings exist to give thanks to God and to worship Him.

As the angels ceaselessly cry: “Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!” Even so we can reply: “Glory to God for all things.”

He Ascended on High

June 4, 2008

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

Ephesians 4:4-10

Of Calendars and Christians

March 21, 2008


This year the Gregorian Calendar and the Julian (and the Revised Julian) differ on the date of Pascha (Easter) by about as much as possible. The story of the calendars, both in the East and West is a very convoluted tale, sometimes requiring a knowledge of math (hence my reluctance to go into the matter). We know that even in the early 2nd century there was a difference on when the Pascha of our Lord was to be kept (apparently St. John the Theologian was a ‘Quartodecian’ which was a calculation that did not win out). Later, missionaries from Rome encountered Celtic Christians in the British Isles and had a small dust-up over the dating of the Feast of Feasts. Many of the Orthodox were more than a little chagrined when a Patriarch of Constantinople, in the 20th century, convened a modest council, and adopted the Revised Julian Calendar, thus shattering the unity of the Orthodox Church in matters of time (with the exception of the date of Pascha and all things that are dated by Pascha).

I do not have an opinion, other than to obey the Bishops of my Church – and I hold that “opinion” as virtually as close as I hold my salvation. But if they told me tomorrow that the Holy Synod had adopted something else, I would lose no sleep. I do pray continually for unity among Orthodox on the Calendar (and secondly with the rest of Christendom). My own family (which counts three priests in its number) has two Calendars. I’d like less complexity in planning an extended family vacation.

But as I drove around Oak Ridge and Knoxville today, doing my priestly chores leading up to our second Sunday of Great Lent, the atmosphere of things around me was clearly different than the usual Friday. Some businesses were closed. People would greet me with “Happy Easter,” which either received a reply in kind, or, time-permitting, a short dissertation on the difference between Orthodox and Western calendars, followed by a “Happy Easter” as well. Would that everybody celebrated our Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection as sacred, holy days.

But it is part of the strangeness of being Orthodox in America, that you are frequently out of sync with the culture (not nearly as much as my Old Calendar Son-in-law and my daughter, his wife). It underlines the differences that exist between East and West and adds the additional problem of the feasting of others surrounding your fast. But the unity of Orthodox Pascha (which includes the dating of Lent) brings a season’s worth of Orthodox unity that reminds me of how things ought to be, and, God willing, shall be.

But for the many readers I have who are Protestant, Anglican or Catholic or keep the Gregorian Calendar for Easter – may God bless you on this holy weekend! May you unite yourself with the crucified Christ and remember His descent into Hades to rescue us all! May you know the joy of His resurrection!

And (as is always appropriate to say) I greet you: Christ is risen!

Let the Righteous Rejoice

July 27, 2007

To Depart in Peace

July 27, 2007

My prayer for all today is that wherever you go you may arrive and depart in peace, your eyes “having seen the Savior.” I offer this short video as a prayer. The music if the Nunc Dimittis from Rachmaninov’s Vespers.

Reflections on Florovsky

April 16, 2007


The following is from my earlier post of Florovsky on Ecumenism:

 The entire western experience of temptation and fall must be creatively examined and transformed; all that “European melancholy” (as Dostoevsky termed it) and all those long centuries of creative history must be borne. Only such a compassionate co-experience provides a reliable path toward the reunification of the fractured Christian world and the embrace and recovery of departed brothers. It is not enough to refute or reject western errors or mistakes – they must be overcome and surpassed through a new creative act. This will be the best antidote in Orthodox thought against any secret and undiagnosed poisoning. Orthodox theology has been called upon to answer non-Orthodox questions from the depths of its catholic and unbroken experience and to confront western non-Orthodoxy not with accusations but with testimony: the truth of Orthodoxy.

Some of my thoughts may strike you differently depending on what age you are, or any number of different factors. Many observers are noting a serious problem that has existed in Europe for many years, long enough for Dostoevsky (mid 19th century) to have referred to it as “European Melancholy.” Life goes on, but Christianity continues a cultural decline in Europe, hastened in many ways by the post-war world. Today that situation is complicated by a growing and vocal minority of Muslims.

Florovsky was both a Russian and a true European. He trained in Russia, fled to Europe and came finally to America. He had friends across all of that world – and as friends, he took them seriously whether they were Orthodox or not. Many of them were not Orthodox and yet many of them extended to him a kindness and hospitality that at times was literal life-saving.

Thus he could write about an Orthodoxy that did not shut itself away in a closet and ignore the West – but came face to face with its questions and in that engagement offered answers and solutions that the West itself could not find alone.

I believe beyond any shadow of a doubt that this is the material of my own conversion. Many of the problems the West has encountered were quite real to me, without solution, for many of my early years and through college and beyond. It was not that I was not engaged with the problems (I was) but that I had found no abiding solution nor a place to stand from which to be of any use to others.

In hindsight, the fact that Florovsky, Lossky, Schmemann, Meyendorff, and a growing list of Orthodox writers were increasingly available in English, provided a source for me that had not been available a generation before. Today, the amount of Orthodox writing available in English is astounding. Indeed, the amount that is available also means, almost for the first time, that there is plenty of useless and harmful material that bears an Orthodox label. Search the net – it’s everywhere.

It is why I tend to confine myself either to the Fathers or to those who in the 20th century have acted as “Fathers,” engaging our Western world and from the riches of Orthodoxy offering vision and salvation. This is a new phenomenon and one that has yet to completely mature.

In our American scene, the “problems” presented by the West are not always found among the intellectuals and whatever it is we have that passes for an intelligentsia. There is instead, a mass culture, in which some forms of Christianity are deeply enmeshed. I have ministered to many who are refugees from that mass culture – others who are refugees from Churches who have all to unquestioningly embraced the culture Hollywood. And yet others who, not believing in God, needed to hear news of a God who was “none of the above,” that is, the God revealed to us in Christ but distorted by the culture in which we live.

But there can be no construction of an Orthodox “ghetto.” We must have monasteries, but as citadels of prayer, not as an escape from the world. They are the front line in Orthodox spiritual warfare, not “behind the lines.”

I am fascinated by Florovsky’s suggestion that there awaits us a “new creative act,” not meaning that Orthodoxy somehow modernizes itself (God forbid), but that we so engage the West and its problems that we do not see them as “someone else,” but see them for who they are – they are us. I am not an Easterner. Born in the American South, and the descendant of the British Isles, it would be silly for me to pretend to be from the East. But England was once an Orthodox nation. My ancestors were evangelized by Orthodox monks and priests. This faith is also my inheritance.

But I have to recognize that as I engage Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy is also engaging the West. The result is not a “Western Orthodoxy,” but simply a Christianity that is the truth. That’s all Orthodoxy ever claimed for itself. There can be no pining away for Byzantium. That’s about as realistic as me pining away for a return of Orthodox Britain. Too many Normans have flowed under the bridge for that to come about (with apologies to any Normans who are readers).

Instead we live where we do and when we do and here we stand as Orthodox Christians. Not people born out of time, but people born for just such a time as this.

Glory to God for all things!