Archive for the ‘Orthodox’ Category

You Must Be Born From Above – John 3

April 12, 2007

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Absolutely one of the strangest conversations to occur anywhere in the gospels takes place between Jesus and the inquiring Nicodemus in the third chapter of John. Of course, at least one of its verses (or at least its Stephanus Pagination verse number) has become nationally famous as an attendee at almost all televised American sporting events (3:16).

The language of being “born again” has passed into American Evangelical popular parlance for probably the last 200 years or more and has become synonymous with a certain form of politics, with an aberrant doctrine, and with almost everything other than this most peculiar of conversations. This is to say, it is a verse that has lost all of its context. For Christ did not say this at an evangelism crusade, nor did he shout it out in coliseums across the Roman Empire. He said it in this very odd conversation in John’s gospel.

The context:

There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God. After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized.

A short note on the organization of John’s gospel. Just as it was used for catechesis, so it seems to have been laid out for just such a purpose. There is the Prologue, then we begin a series of stories, all of which have water as a central element. Each of them offers insight in the mystery of Baptism (not coincidentally). Following this are a number of “bread” stories, which, interstingly have a Eucharistic character. After that begins St. John’s passion narrative, leading up to Christ’s arrest, crucifixion and resurrection.

However, the third chapter is quite clear in its reference to Baptism. To Nicodemus, Christ says, “You must be born of water and the Spirit.” The Church has always seen this as a reference to Holy Baptism. Removing the notion of “born again” from the context of Holy Baptism is a fairly late notion in Christianity, popularized by the various “Awakenings” of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Orthodoxy would in no way seek to eliminate the reality of our experience of God – indeed we are to know God experientially. But the particular “conversion” experiences associated with frontier revivals, and today rather standardized by Evangelicals, is not historically the Christian Church’s understanding of the third chapter of John. There is no doubt that we receive something real and true in Holy Baptism. We are buried with Christ and born anew, “from above.” Our life has changed and is now centered in the Crucified and Resurrected Christ. He Himself is now our life.

But divorcing this from Holy Baptism has tended to denigrate the meaning of that holy mystery and to make it little more than act “act of obedience.” Holy Baptism is one of the great “Mysteries” or Sacraments of the Church. In Holy Baptism we are united to Christ in His death and raised (from the waters) in the likeness of His resurrection. We are given the Holy Spirit and are initiated into the life of the Kingdom of God.

As St. Paul would say, “We are dead to sin but alive to Christ.” This is the great truth of Holy Baptism. Our life now has a new source. We no longer live “according to the flesh,” but following Christ we are enabled to live in union with Him, triumphing over sin and death in our own lives.

It is all too true that we have set our sights very low as the centuries have gone on, and sometimes settle for Baptism being little more than the formal admission of ourselves or our children to Holy Communion. The early Church expected a person’s life to change following Baptism. It was serious enough that a major sin following Baptism, such as adultery or theft, could result in being re-enrolled with the Catechumens and foregoing communion for as much as 20 years (if you were not contrite and repentant). That, in my opinion, is a very high expectation.

We should expect a new life in Christ. We should expect such a new life on a day to day basis. If my life is constantly falling into serious sin, I need serious help.

We indeed are born again (or anew – the Greek is purposefully ambivalent) in Holy Baptism. God is our Father. Thus we are bold to say, “Our Father….”

Finally, notice that Christ centers His conversation on light and darkness. Everyone who loves the light will come to Him. Those who hate the light and love darkness will turn away from Him, condemning themselves. This is and should be for us one of the major touchstones of our daily examination of our lives. Do I love the light or do I love darkness? Do I run to Christ or do I run from Him. Do I do that which I feel I need to hide from God?

These are deep indications (wanting darkness) of the need for repentance. God help us to run to Him and cling to His mercies. Save us from the darkness that grows about us!

Mystagogical Catechesis and the Gospel of John

April 11, 2007

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I promise to get “off topic” from time to time – but I would like to do a bit of a “series” here in the post Pascha period – doing what has been done in the history of the Church – and look at the Gospel of John and what it means for us as believing Christians. I’m not suggesting a straightforward Bible study – but to look at a number of key points across the Gospel from an Orthodox catechetical perspective.

 For instance, the Prologue.

The Prologue (Chapter 1:1 through about 1:18) begins with more or less “creedal” statements about Christ – that He is the Logos or Word of God. That He was before the created world (as the Nicene Creed would later phrase it, “eternally begotten of the Father”) and that everything that was made was made through Him.

This is itself an important statement. St. Paul will push this further and say:

…for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Col. 1:16-17).

Thus both the Gospel and St. Paul assert that everything that exists – has its grounding in the Logos of God. We can say that the nature of everything bears the stamp of Christ – there is something “logikos,” to use the Greek, about everything that exists. This is not to say that creation is logical in our modern sense of the word, but logikos in its ancient, Christian sense. There is something about everything that reflects Christ. This is not always apparent to us – but it has much to do with later incidents in the Gospel where “even the winds and the sea obey Him.” How could they not? They belong to Him in a way that mere ownership cannot express. They are His in that He is their cause, their very reason for existence and even how things “hold together” (this is far more than physical “holding together”). Though the creation is logikos – it is not the place we begin in our coming to knowledge of God. If I know the Logos, then, and only then, I may begin to see that the creation as logikos. But I’ll say more about this at another time.

Most importantly, and what I would underline in the Prologue, are St. John’s statements concerning Christ and the knowledge of God. For St. John, Christ alone reveals the Father. “No one has ever seen God; the only-Begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (1:18). What is interesting, and very much in line with discussions we have had before on this site, is that John does not assert that Jesus made the Father known by what He said, but rather He made the Father known by being who He is – the Only-Begotten Word of God.

And from his fulness have we all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (16-17).

Again, the assertion is that through the Person of Christ, grace and truth are given. This is a world removed from saying that “what he taught was grace and truth” (though what He taught was certainly true).  Knowledge of God is personal – received only in freedom and in love and is perceived and received in a manner that cannot be codified or reduced to something less than Personal.

It is in this sense that St. Philip’s famous invitation to St. Nathaniel (John 1:46), “Come and see,” continues to be the proper Orthodox invitation to knowledge of God. I can say to someone, “Come and see,” with regard to the life of the Church. They may or may not “see” at first. But when they do “see” it is quite likely that the context will be there – in the life of the Church.

I remember a woman (not in my own congregation but elsewhere) who shared the story of her relationship with the Mother of God. She had come to the Orthodox Church from a Pentecostal background. The Church she was received in was Greek Orthodox (thus there is a bit of a culture leap for a Southern Pentecostal). She expressed her continuing difficulties with the Theotokos (we do mention her a lot in our services). The priest at her parish very wisely told her: “Go into the Church and just sit there for an hour in front of her icon.”

That is a very non-rational response. I am sure she had read and heard all of the Orthodox explanations about why we say what we do about the Theotokos. Her problem was on a different level.

As I recall in her later sharing of her story she said that at the end of the hour her difficulties had disappeared. “I don’t know why, but suddenly everything was fine.” Her experience, I would assert, is quite Orthodox. Instead of arguing, she simply allowed herself to be quiet and encounter the Mother of God personally. (Icons are quite useful in that way.)

My own reflection was that her priest had directed her to do something that would not have occured to me (I’m still young at this). But “Come and see,” still works.

The problem in our culture is that much of what people have seen of Christianity has been something other than the fullness of God in Christ. They have encountered “culture Christs,” shrunken accounts of Jesus – God reduced to commodity. “Come and buy,” is somehow a world removed from “Come and see.” We live in a bewildering religious culture. Fortunately, the God who exists, actually does exist and is able to take care of Himself. We can, without fear, be patient, and say to someone, “Come and see.” Making Himself known is something I cannot do for God, and, thank God, I do not have to. My task is to invite and to do my best to stay out of God’s way. “The Only-Begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father – He has made Him known.”

Knowing God – After Pascha

April 10, 2007

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We approach things so differently in our modern world (as opposed to the ancient world). All of us have access to a great deal of information, although the information that comes to us when we are in the passive mode is less than useless (here I mean television and popular media). Thus I would paraphrase Our Lord and say, “How hard it is for a couch potato to enter the Kingdom of God!”

Having said that by way of introduction – how was the approach to things different in the ancient world? (I confess to thinking of several things said by Mel Brooks at this point but I will resist that temptation). For one – the Christian faith was not presented as an argument most of the time – and was not even presented in its fullness until after someone had been Baptized.

Thus we have the ancient phenomenon of “Mystagogical Catechesis.” This was the training and teaching that was given to the newly Baptized and Illumined members of the Church. By and large this was done in the season after Pascha (which was also the season when the Gospel of John was read in the Church). We have examples of such catecheses in the preserved Mystagogical Catechesis of St. Cyril of Jerusalem and other writings.

Generally what makes these catecheses “mystagogical” was that the teaching led the newly initiated members of the Body of Christ into an understanding of the “mysteries,” that is, of the sacramental life of the Church. This is more than simply lectures on the sacraments or the correct approach to receiving communion, etc. (although there are references to such), but rather a deeper understanding of God in Christ as known in the life of the Church (which is primarily expressed in the Church’s worship and thus is sacraments or “mysteries” as they are more commonly called in the Eastern Church).

What separates this approach from our modern world is that it presumes that you can only know God by living your life in a certain manner and through worship and the inner life of the Church’s mysteries. Our modern world, particularly the American modern world, presumes that knowledge, like all of our modern culture, is a consumable product. If I want to know something, I deal with the “sales pitch” and then decide to purchase it. Much of modern Christian evangelism is given in this consumerist approach. Many understand this to be taking the culture seriously on its own terms, but fail to consider that a consumerist approach may be a false presentation of the Christian gospel.

Many have commented when approaching the Orthodox Church that it seems almost “uninterested” in new members. This is not true – but the Church is properly reluctant to engage in sales.

I recall my own approach to the Orthodox faith. The priest with whom I had most of my conversations over a seven-year period, never once tried to “close the deal.” I asked him about this after I was received into the Church. “Oh,” he laughed, “I assume that everyone who comes through the doors of the Church is called to be an Orthodox Christian – but that’s God’s problem. My task is to practice hospitality.” And so he did. I was always made to feel welcome and my questions were always treated seriously. But there was never the pressure to “make a decision.” In time everything came together and my family and I were received into the Church. There was serious preparation (confessions, renunciation of false doctrine, etc.), but not until we were making ourselves ready to be received.

I wrote earlier of a “last minute word to catechumens.” In truth, the preparation for Baptism or Chrismation is only a preparation for catechesis. The “longer catechism” (to borrow a term from Protestant history) is the catechesis of the mysteries – which in one way or another lasts the rest of your life. Now we enter into the day to day participation of the life of the Church in its fullness, which is a path deeper into the knowledge of the Living God.

There are no arguments that can make the knowledge of God known for God is not a syllogism. We must finally know Him as a Person alone can be known: in freedom and in love. This is the mystagogical life of a Christian. In freedom and in love we yield ourselves constantly to God – who has Himself already yielded the same to us. In our mutual union with Him, we come to know Him, “even as we ourselves are known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

The Lamb – Slain from the Foundation of the World

April 3, 2007

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It was granted to him [the beast] to make war with the saints and to overcome them. And authority was given him over every tribe, tongue, and nation. All who dwell on the earth will worship him, whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. If anyone has an ear, let him hear.

These are strange verses from the Revelation of St. John (chapter 13), but like many things in Scripture they reveal an understanding that we do not immediately consider. When discussing questions such as the Atonement, everything focuses on Good Friday (at least) and theories of sacrifice abound. At their worst the theories become quite literal and fixed and nearly mechanical in their forensic certainty.

But here we have just the sort of verse that throws everything into a new light. Here, the Lamb is slain “from the foundation of the world.” The death of Christ is placed in a cosmic (literally the word used here is “kosmos”) context. History has not yet begun, and yet the Lamb is already slain. So much for literalism.

But, for me, the greater meditation is that Pascha is itself not simply an event of 2,000 years ago, but is and always was at the very center of things. Pascha is not only God’s rescue of His people, it is also revelatory of Who God Is. Before ever the world was, there is Pascha. 

Of course, it is possible to minimize this and say it is merely God’s Providence, His provision for what He knew would be required by the foreknown fall of man. But I think this is just that – a minimalization. The God Who has Made Himself Known to Us is not known by us as anyone other than the God Who Is Known in Pascha. We do not know Him apart from Pascha. And if the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world, we never could have known Him otherwise.

For myself, I believe it is another way of saying, “God is Love.” For the love we know of God is never love that is not laying down its life. There is no other love.

I recognize that the Book of Revelation does not play a large role in Orthodox liturgical usage (we never read from it) – but it is itself an Orthodox liturgy, envisioned in its most cosmic setting. We read of Pascha and the Lamb as seen from heaven. And are we not in heaven? Is not this the Pascha that we keep? Is this not the Lamb who was slain? At Pascha we stand both before the world began and at the end of all things.

Behold, the Bridegroom comes.

The Gift of Hospitality

November 5, 2006

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This delightful gem from the Desert Fathers comes from Benedicta Ward’s The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers (157)

There was a saint in Egypt who dwelt in a desert place. Far away from him there was a Manichean who was a priest (at least what they call a priest). Once, when this man was going to visit one of his confederates, night overtook him in the place where the orthodox saint was living. He was in great distress, fearing to go to him to sleep there, for he knew that he was known as a Manichean, and he was afraid he would not be received. However, finding himself compelled to do so, he knocked; and the old man opened the door to him, recognized him, received him joyfully, constrained him to pray, and after having given him refreshment, he made him sleep. Thinking this over during the night, the Manichean said, “How is it that he is without any suspicions about me? Truly, this man is of God.” And he threw himself at his feet, saying, “Henceforth, I am orthodox,” and he stayed with him.

Words from St. Isaac of Syria

November 1, 2006

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St. Isaac stretches love and mercy to it’s farthest limits, occasionally beyond the bounds of canonical understanding. He remains a saint of the Church and his words are very important to hear.

Let yourself be persecuted, but do not persecute others.

Be crucified, but do not crucify others.

Se slandered, but do not slander others.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep: such is the sign of purity.

Suffer with the sick.

Be afflicted with sinners.

Exult with those who repent.

Be the friend of all, but in your spirit remain alone.

Be a partaker of the sufferings of all, but keep your body distant from all.

Rebuke no one, revile no one, not even those who live very wickedly.

Spread your cloak over those who fall into sin, each and every one, and shield them.

And if you cannot take the fault on yourself and accept punishment in their place, do not destroy their character.

What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation. For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God.

The person who is genuinely charitable not only gives charity out of his own possessions, but gladly tolerates injustice from others and forgives them. Whoever lays down his soul for his brother acts generously, rather than the person who demonstrates his generosity by his gifts.

God is not One who requites evil, but who sets evil right.

Paradise is the love of God, wherein is the enjoyment of all blessedness.

The person who lives in love reaps the fruit of life from God, and while yet in this world, even now breathes the air of the resurrection.

In love did God bring the world into existence; in love is God going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of the One who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised.

Question: When is a person sure of having arrived at purity?

Answer: When that person considers all human beings are good, and no created thing appears impure or defiled. Then a person is truly pure in heart.

Love is sweeter than life.

Sweeter still, sweeter than honey and the honeycomb is the awareness of God whence love is born.

Love is not loath to accept the hardest of deaths for those it loves.

Love is the child of knowledge.

Lord, fill my heart with eternal life.

As for me I say that those who are tormented in hell are tormented by the invasion of love. What is there more bitter and violent than the pains of love? Those who feel they have sinned against love bear in themselves a damnation much heavier than the most dreaded punishments. The suffering with which sinning against love afflicts the heart is more keenly felt than any other torment. It is absurd to assume that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is offered impartially. But by its very power it acts in two ways. It torments sinners, as happens here on earth when we are tormented by the presence of a friend to whom we have been unfaithful. And it gives joy to those who have been faithful.

That is what the torment of hell is in my opinion: remorse. But love inebriates the souls of the sons and daughters of heaven by its delectability.

If zeal had been appropriate for putting humanity right, why did God the Word clothe himself in the body, using gentleness and humility in order to bring the world back to his Father?

Sin is the fruit of free will. There was a time when sin did not exist, and there will be a time when it will not exist.

God’s recompense to sinners is that, instead of a just recompense, God rewards them with resurrection.

O wonder! The Creator clothed in a human being enters the house of tax collectors and prostitutes. Thus the entire universe, through the beauty of the sight of him, was drawn by his love to the single confession of God, the Lord of all.

“Will God, if I ask, forgive me these things by which I am pained and by whose memory I am tormented, things by which, though I abhor them, I go on backsliding? Yet after they have taken place the pain they give me is even greater than that of a scorpion’s sting. Though I abhor them, I am still in the middle of them, and when I repent of them with suffering I wretchedly return to them again.”

This is how many God-fearing people think, people who foster virtue and are pricked with the suffering of compunction, who mourn over their sin; They live between sin and repentance all the time. Let us not be in doubt, O fellow humanity, concerning the hope of our salvation, seeing that the One who bore sufferings for our sakes is very concerned about our salvation; God’s mercifulness is far more extensive than we can conceive, God’s grace is greater than what we ask for.

When we find love, we partake of heavenly bread and are made strong without labor and toil. The heavenly bread is Christ, who came down from heaven and gave life to the world. This is the nourishment of angels. The person who has found love eats and drinks Christ every day and every hour and is thereby made immortal. …When we hear Jesus say, “Ye shall eat and drink at the table of my kingdom,” what do we suppose we shall eat, if not love? Love, rather than food and drink, is sufficient to nourish a person. This is the wine “which maketh glad the heart.” Blessed is the one who partakes of this wine! Licentious people have drunk this wine and become chaste; sinners have drunk it and have forgotten the pathways of stumbling; drunkards have drunk this wine and become fasters; the rich have drunk it and desired poverty, the poor have drunk it and been enriched with hope; the sick have drunk it and become strong; the unlearned have taken it and become wise.

Repentance is given us as grace after grace, for repentance is a second regeneration by God. That of which we have received an earnest by baptism, we receive as a gift by means of repentance. Repentance is the door of mercy, opened to those who seek it. By this door we enter into the mercy of God, and apart from this entrance we shall not find mercy.

Blessed is God who uses corporeal objects continually to draw us close in a symbolic way to a knowledge of God’s invisible nature. O name of Jesus, key to all gifts, open up for me the great door to your treasure-house, that I may enter and praise you with the praise that comes from the heart.

O my Hope, pour into my heart the inebriation that consists in the hope of you. O Jesus Christ, the resurrection and light of all worlds, place upon my soul’s head the crown of knowledge of you; open before me all of a sudden the door of mercies, cause the rays of your grace to shine out in my heart.

O Christ, who are covered with light as though with a garment, who for my sake stood naked in front of Pilate, clothe me with that might which you caused to overshadow the saints, whereby they conquered this world of struggle. May your Divinity, Lord, take pleasure in me, and lead me above the world to be with you.

I give praise to your holy Nature, Lord, for you have made my nature a sanctuary for your hiddenness and a tabernacle for your holy mysteries, a place where you can dwell, and a holy temple for your Divinity.

Adapted from Bp. Hilarion Alfeyev’s The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian (Cistercian Studies 175), Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 2000.


Without Expecting in Return

October 31, 2006

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Our culture is famously ordered along commercial lines. We work, we earn, we spend, we spend until the card maxes out. Though there need not necessarily be any conflict between a free economy and the practice of the faith, many find Mammon to be a formidable foe.

On November 1, the Orthodox Church celebrates the memory of Sts. Cosmas and Damian, the “unmercenary physicians.” The short life given in the OCA’s official menologian says:

Trained and skilled as physicians, they received from the Holy Spirit the gift of healing people’s illnesses of body and soul by the power of prayer. They even treated animals [you gotta love these guys!]. With fervent love for both God and neighbor, they never took payment for their services. They strictly observed the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, “Freely have you received, freely give” (Matt. 10:8). The fame of Sts. Cosmas and Damian spread throughout all the surrounding region, and people called them unmercenary physicians.

I still find people to be generous – indeed the U.S. is historically the most generous nation on earth. And, more interestingly still, the great state of Mississippi’s citizens (the poorest in America) give a larger portion of their income to charity than any other.

Where we frequently fail, is to have the time to give to anything. We also work more hours than any other nation with the least amount of time taken for vacation. Then our lives become entangled in activities to where there is little time to notice the needs around us, much less practice the unmercenary faith we have inherited.

I wanted to go somewhere on my day off this week to just sit and be around people – sort of a hunger for a village. We have few villages other than those places people congregate in a hurry to spend money. Something is wrong in how we have configured our lives.

Unmercenary living includes time given that I do not expect to get paid for. Creating the time and space where human beings are able to meet and speak and live life face-to-face is perhaps one of our most desperate needs of all.

My first living experience in a suburb back in 1980 introduced me to the faceless neighbor. The neighbors across the street from us were new. We took cookies when they moved in. It was the last time we ever got a chance to speak. Shortly thereafter a garage door was opener was installed, and the fortress was complete. Arriving home, “up!” the door would swing. “Down” it would go. Even on weekends, “Up” the door would swing. “”Out” the riding lawnmower would appear with rider intact. Lawn mowed, “In” goes the mower, “Down” comes the door. Each man with his castle. May the holy unmercenary Physicians Cosmas and Damian pray for us. May our doors to one another stay open.

Lutheran Pastor to Convert to Orthodoxy

October 30, 2006

Pastor John Fenton, of Allen Park, MI, announced to his parish his resignation and intention to seek reception into the Orthodox Church along with his family. The text is found on his blog: Conversi ad Domini.

The Icon as Proof of God’s Existence

October 26, 2006

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God “adorns himself in magnificence and clothes himself with beauty.” Man stands amazed and contemplates the glory whose light causes a hymn of praise to burst forth from the heart of every creature. The Testamentum Domini gives us the following prayer: “Let them be filled with the Holy Spirit…so they can sing a doxology and give you praise and glory forever.” An icon is the same kind of doxology but in a different form. It radiates joy and sings the glory of God in its own way. True beauty does not need proof. The icon does not prove anything; it simply lets true beauty shine forth. In itself, the icon is shining proof of God’s existence, according to a “kalokagathic” argument.

Paul Evdokimov in The Art of the Icon

 

“Kalokagathic” – what a wonderful word! It’s is a Greek coinage, combining the word for beautiful(kalos) and the word for good (agathos). To see an icon is so very far removed from viewing an art object. First off, an icon is never an object. Faces in an icon are never in profile, but look at us face to face. To rightly see an icon is to see it in relationship, that is, to see it personally. And the person whom we see is not the wood and paint, but the one whom the image on the wood and paint represents. It is this encounter that makes it possible to speak of an iconographic proof of the existence of God. I know there is a God because I have seen His image.

In the most perfect sense of this understanding, Christ is the proof of the Father’s existence, because He is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Thus Christ is the visible of the invisible. “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” (John 14:9).

It is also true that man is created in the image and likeness of God – though only in Christ, the perfect man (and perfect God), is the image and likeness truly realized. But Christ Himself extends the image – gathering into Himself, “the least of these my brethren” (Matthew 25:40). Thus every human being offers the opportunity of an encounter with God – if we have the eyes to see. Every human being is proof, poor though it may be, of the existence of God.

Pavel Florensky in his wonderful book Iconostasis, says that “Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity exists, therefore God exists.” The first time I read the statement I was brought up short. It took time to see what he meant and to see that it was true. A couple of years later one of my daughters was visiting Moscow. She sent a postcard say, “I have seen Rublev’s Trinity. It’s true.” What a marvelous witness!

Saving Beauty

October 22, 2006

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“God will save the World Through Beauty”

 

This saying, often attributed to Fyodor Dostoevsky, never occurs in precisely this form in his novels – though the idea is present in such a strong sense that the phrase is correctly attributed to him. It is a phrase that is easily misunderstood. For Dostoevsky, in good Orthodox fashion, beauty is far more than a matter of aesthetics – it is the very goodness of creation itself.

 

However (and this is the great writer’s genius), Dostoevsky sees beauty in strangely contradictory forms. The beauty that Dostoevsky sees as potientially salvific is itself a great mystery. In a very powerful paragraph in the Brothers Karamazov, the Brother, Dmitri, states the problem very clearly. Drawing on a line of poetry that says that God gave to the insects “sensual lust,” Dmitri begins by calling himself an insect and says that all the Karamazovs are insects.

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

There is no simple definition of beauty for Dostoevsky. He recognizes the contradictions within it. “I can’t endure the thought that a man of lofty mind and heart begins with the ideal of the Mother of God and ends with the ideal of Sodom.” He even recognizes that the man who has fallen into the clutches and bondage of the ideal of Sodom still has in his heart the ideal of the Mother of God. Such contradiction.

 

Dmitri Karamazov speaks of beauty as a hunger, a passion: sometimes for the Mother of God, the Madonna, sometimes for Sodom. But we are people whose heart envisions and propels us forward. This sense of passion is expressed in the Fathers as eros, or desire. Eros can be desire for God when rightly directed, or misdirected becomes the engine of our destruction.

In gospel terms, we would say that everyone has a hunger for theKingdom of God. It is a deep hunger for the most profound relationship, for a beauty that is beyond the reckoning of this world. It is a beauty that is made manifest in forgiveness and responsibility for all and to all. It is the beauty of suffering love

But Dmitri says more about this seed – this passion. He indicates that from his perspective, the madness of humanity is that it can direct its passion in either direction: the Madonna or Sodom – and even when it is in Sodom, still maintain a passion for the Madonna. There have been many examples of this in our modern world: the ugliness of the totalitarian state and yet the beauty of Shostakovitch.

 

In Dmitri’s notions, I hear later echoes in Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. Zhivago (whose name is itself a play on the Russian word for life) is both doctor and poet. Surrounded by the collapse of his world, both as a child, and later as an adult, he nevertheless has this heart and passion for life. In David Lean’s movie version of the novel (which is different enough to make it almost mandatory that one read the novel), this passion for life is represented by the music of “Lara’s Theme.” From the moment of his mother’s funeral, to the end of his life, this drive for life compels him. And like the ambiguity of Dmitri’s beauty, Zhivago is able to find beauty in his marriage to Anna or in his adulterous relationship with Lara. His relationship with both is a reaching for life – despite the immorality of his life with Lara. Both he and Lara are aware of the wrongness of their situation (Sodom) but are sustained by the sheer beauty of the life they have between them (Madonna).

 

There is this strange contradiction and mystery to beauty within the hunger of the human heart. Dmitri expresses this with great insight: “What’s awful is that beauty is not only a terrible, but also a mysterious thing. Here the devil struggles with God, and the field of battle is the human heart.”

The field of battle is the human heart.

 

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great survivor of the Soviet Gulag and prophetic giant among the Dissidents of the Soviet Union, said much the same thing:

 

It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil. (From Gulag Archipelago)

 

Beauty, whether a hunger for the Mother of God or a thirst for Sodom, are both found within the human heart. One is a true hunger, man’s true end – the other a distortion, a missing of the mark.

 

In Orthodox teaching this is the very nature of sin. Sin is not the breaking of a law and thus the acquiring of guilt. Sin is missing the mark. Man was created, the early Fathers taught, not as an absolutely perfect being who fell from paradise – an infinite sin – worthy of an infinite guilt (and punishment). Rather man was created with a proper end. He is created without sin, with no imperfection, but he was not made at the beginning as he was to become.

 

St. Irenaeus of Lyons, writing in the late 2nd century, described Adam and Eve as adolescents. Their turning aside from God was a turning aside from the fullness of life in union with God that was intended for them. Thus St. Paul calls Christ, “the Second Adam.” He is the true Adam, the true man, the One who is what man was always meant to be. As Christ will say of himself, “I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.” Or as St. Paul will say of Jesus, “He is the author and finisher of our faith.”

 

In the world of Orthodox Tradition, no story captures the transformation from the distortions of passion to the pure desire of God more deeply than that of St. Mary of Egypt. Far more than an obscure story about an obscure desert saint, hers is perhaps the best known story of a woman saint in the Church (not including the Mother of God). The fifth Sunday of Great Lent is always dedicated to her. Earlier in the week, in preparation for her service on Sunday, a lengthy service of repentance is done in the Church, during which her Life, first told to the Ven. St. Zossima (another 6th century saint), is read aloud in its entirety.

 

She begins life (at least in her teen years) as a prostitute in Alexandria. She makes it clear that she did not do this out of necessity, but because she liked it. She added to this all of the debauchery and drunkenness that one might have. She admits that she often engaged in evil not for profit, but simply for the pleasure she found.

 

One day, hearing a party going on (or what she supposed to be a party) she followed the sound down to the wharves. There a group was gathering and preparing for a pilgrimage to Holy Jerusalem. As a lark, she decides to join them (working the price of her passage off by corrupting various young male pilgrims). Arriving in Jerusalem she goes with them to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christ’s true Cross was exposed for veneration, as well as his empty tomb. Coming to the doors of the Church, something like an invisible wall, prevented her from entering. She tried repeatedly but could not enter.

 

In a single moment she is struck with the reality of her life and the work of repentance begins. It matures over the course of a lifetime as she becomes an anchorite in the desert. By the end of her life she has lost all outward beauty. Withered by sun and heat she is almost ghost-like in her appearance. But within there is a beauty that is the glory of sainthood.

 

Her story is read aloud in the Orthodox Church every year. It is a model of repentance and of the forgiveness of God. The most vile prostitute becomes a most holy woman. She has abandoned false beauty and been redeemed by a beauty that is not of this world but of God. This transformation is at the heart of the Orthodox way of life. It does much to explain the more or less canonical requirement that our churches be made beautiful. (Sometimes it’s a challenge if you’re doing church in a warehouse, a storefront, or buildings not designed to be used for Orthodox worship. Nonetheless buildings, like the people in them, should strive for beauty, the beauty of heaven.) It certainly is a large component in the making and veneration of icons.

 

In the creation story in Genesis, God looks at what He has made and says, “It is good.” In the Greek translation of the passage, God looks at the world and says that it is kalos a word that means “good” – but also means beautiful. The Hebrew carries some sense of this as well. The goodness God sees can be described as Beauty.We can thus say with great confidence that whether God will save the world through Beauty, Beauty certainly will be the result of salvation.

 

May God make us truly beautiful with the beauty that is ours in Christ Jesus.