Archive for the ‘Orthodoxy’ Category

Jerusalem – Heaven and Hell

September 11, 2008

I am taking the day off from the pilgrimage (my wife and others are in the vicinity of Jericho today). I have stayed behind to allow my back and some swollen feet to mend – they are already better after much needed sleep – and I wanted to use some free time to offer a reflection or so on my pilgrimage to date).

There has been at least one profound moment in each day of the pilgrimage – but yesterday and the early hours of this morning (Jerusalem time) were events almost beyond description.

We began the day in Bet Sahour – the “Shepherd’s Fields” near Bethlehem. The parish is a newly-built Orthodox Church with wonderful iconography. Beside it are the archeological digs on a series of Churches going back to the early 4th century.

Later we were in Bethlehem. Despite the onslaught of vendors whenever you leave the confines of the Church, the experience was profound. We have had tremendous freedom of access to sites (the presence of Met. Kallistos has likely opened doors for us). I have been able to enter the sanctuary and venerate the altar of every Church we have visited.

The shrine of Christ’s Nativity is that strange mix of knowing where you are and how important it is and yet also being aware of crowds and the crush of pilgrims. But there were many moments of especial significance.

In the late afternoon we were at the Monastery of St. John (Moscow Patriarchate) for the Vigil for the Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Forerunner (everything is Old Calendar over here). To our great surprise and delight, after the Metropolitan entered the altar, a priest came out and invited the three OCA priests in our party to enter the altar. Nuns in the sacristry provided vestments and we shared in the Vigil, taking part particularly in the Polieley. The choir of nuns were utter ethereal in their beauty – the service in Slavonic perfection. It is very hard to describe the sense of arriving at a holy place and suddenly being extended such hospitality. It was like the welcome of the Prodigal Son.

After a light supper and brief nap, we walked across Jerusalem (after midnight), arriving at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We were expected. Met. Kallistos concelebrated with Archbishop Aristarchos, one of the members of the Holy Synod in Jerusalem and an old acquaintance of the Metropolitan. Again, the hospitality and access granted to us was overwhelming. I was able to enter the Holy Sepulchre of Christ, as were many of our group, kneel by the priest who was performing the Proskomide (the preparation of the gifts) and give him the names of all those I wanted remembered in the Liturgy.

There is a very small chapel at the entrance to the Sepulchre with an altar. At the Little Entrance, the Bishops and clergy processed into that chapel and the Liturgy continued from inside the structure that surrounds the Holy Sepulchre itself. The clergy, both those in our group as well as priests of other pilgrim groups, were able to enter the small altar area and receive communion. The inner experience of this unimagined privilege is beyond my words.

We shared refreshments with the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre after Liturgy and were shown the room containing the holy relics – which is beyond description. Several of us found our way up to the chapel of Golgotha and were able to venerate the rock beneath the altar that marks the spot where the Cross of Christ stood. I can only describe the evening as a Pascha. For though every Liturgy everywhere is always a Pascha, it is also inescapably and palpably so to receive communion at the tomb of Christ. It will doubtless be an image that will feed my heart for a long time to come.

My wife and I, finally returning to our residence at St. George’s College at 5 a.m., reflected together on the day. It was a journey from Christmas to Pascha, Bethlehem to the Holy Sepulchre, with an utterly heavenly visit to the Monastery of St. John, which marks both the birthplace of the Holy Forerunner, as well as the site of the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth (all of which are very special in our family). It was a day that neither of us could fathom and only gave us the reminder that the past 10 years of our lives (the years we have been Orthodox) have been blessed beyond anything we every dreamed when we began this journey.

Our focus has not been on our own “experience” of the places we visit, but rather on the prayers we are carrying with us. And yet continual unexpected joys meet us with a kindness and hospitality I would never dream of demanding.

One of our party last night commented as we left the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that we had been blessed indeed. He recalled the experience of St. Mary of Egypt who had not been able to cross the threshhold of that holy place because of her sins. The hand of God held her back. It became the occasion of her conversion.

“We actually crossed the threshhold!” he commented, recognizing in that simple act the mercy of a good God towards sinners such as ourselves.

The wonder of this land is very much like the wonder of the world everywhere. The Holy is given to us constantly, even though we find ourselves surrounded in tragedy and confusion that seems insolvable. Everywhere you look the political reality of this troubled place is evident, and yet the places most Holy on this earth are here. It truly is like the human heart – where the treasuries of everything are to be found – both of evil – and of paradise itself. The struggle for everyone in this place – as the struggle for everyone, everywhere – is to enter paradise rather than to make of their life and this world a living hell. May God have mercy on us all.

Psalm 124:6-8 – Good News for the Day

March 26, 2008


Blessed be the LORD, who hath not given us as a prey to their teeth. Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers: the snare is broken, and we are escaped. Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

May God keep us all this day without sin – may we not be devoured – may we forgive everyone and everything by the resurrection!

The Depth of Crime and Punishment

March 13, 2008


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mystery of the Human Heart

November 12, 2007


St. Macarius is famously quoted:

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. (H.43.7)

This, of course, only opens the mystery of the heart – it does nothing to explain it. There is this capacity within us – whether witnessed by the depths of repentance or the darkness of cruelty that is simply described as heart. Somehow, the language of modern psychology, even the clinical complexities of the DSR, fail to do justice to this most essential of all aspects of the human.

As a priest, I major in the heart.

I know that whatever it is that ails a parishioner, the answer lies within the heart. There is no absence of grace – God is not willing that any should perish. We, however, are not so generous – even with our own selves. We cannot expect the heart to act in its own self-interest (at least not in its own long-term self-interest). And, strangely, God’s approach to us is not to appeal to our self-interest. The Kingdom of God calls to the heart to empty itself and look to the interest of the other. The heart will only find itself if it loses itself. Wooing the heart to this place of self-effacement is, indeed, the great mystery of the faith in the course of our daily lives.

In the Mystery (as the Eastern Church most commonly terms the sacraments) of Marriage, we bring a couple into the presence of God, whose own love and whatever else has brought them together, and crown them with the crowns of martyrs. We pray for them and invite them to take up a life of martyrdom that is synonymous with marriage. And this is, in fact, no different than the life we initiate at Baptism. That both Mysteries include a “dance” – circling three times around a table in the nave (or around the font) is simply because both are journeys through life. Both are journeys led by the cross and destined to lead to the Cross – the ultimate place of self-abandonment.

But in every step of the dance, in every day that is lived, the mystery of the heart seems to govern at least part of every step. Each step will be met by grace (else who could walk?) but the shape of the step will be marked to some extent by the heart that meets grace. Darkness will bring its own stumbling, staggering either towards more light or deeper darkness. A broken and contrite heart can bring the poignancy of a dance that only God could choreograph.

I find that when I pray for others it is not the mystery of grace that strains my prayer – but the mystery of other hearts. What will prayer bring? What will the heart of another do with the grace it is given? What mystery surrounds the pattern of the dance that this life now displays before us? I find little solace in the complexity of my own heart, nor in the opaque riddles of others. Solace comes finally only in the constant goodness of God’s grace – a grace that never draws back nor turns away from the hardness we present. This grace and its goodness crushes the heads of dragons, including those that lurk in the darkest places of the heart. It also kindles a fire where we thought no flame could burn. May paradise consume us!

A Smaller World – A Larger World

October 24, 2007


I posted an addition to my blogroll today, an Orthodox Blog in Macedonia (former Yugoslav Republic), Digital Areopagus. I added this link both because it seems a good site, and to return the favor of being added as a link to his site. The internet has a way of making our world both smaller and larger.

Digital Areopagus found its way to this site through the postings of Fr. Dorin Piciorus on his Romanian site, Teologia Pentru Azi. Father Dorin has been a very good friend of Glory to God for All Things, and has offered words of kindness on his blog that go far beyond anything I deserve.

The sum of such contacts for me is both a smaller and a larger world. Orthodoxy, though characterized as an “Eastern” Church, is, in fact, a global Church (there is even an Orthodox Chapel in Antartica). Though here in the West, Orthodoxy is frequently accompanied with an ethnic adjective (Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, etc.), in truth there is only one Orthodoxy which rightly respects the cultures in which it dwells and incarnates the gospel in those very places. The “ethnic” aspects of Orthodoxy in America are sometimes bewildering to those on the outside – but some of that is because many of us imagine America to be “American” (meaning, mostly Anglo) when in fact this land is filled with many cultures and one culture (e pluribus unum). 

I never realized how “ethnic” my own background and experience as an Anglican was until I became Orthodox. My congregation today contains Anglos (like me), Greeks, Russians, Macedonians, Romanians, Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, British – and the Anglos aren’t really that simple – they are a mix of English, Scots, Irish, German, French and you-name-it. We have cradle Orthodox and convert and stories that make each a fascinating world in itself.

My world becomes smaller when nations that are far away are personalized through contact with particular persons – with other Blogs – in internet language. To know as I write, that my words will be read not just in America, but elsewhere across the globe, occasionally even in translation, makes my world ever so much larger when I write, and yet ever so much smaller. It makes me know that to be Orthodox does not mean to be American, or Greek, or Russian, or Romanian or Macedonian, or Serbian, but to be human. But it is also to remember that to be human always comes with a very specific, personal, even ethnic flavor.

It is like the Gospel itself. God who could not be contained has become contained in the man Christ Jesus, who may be described, even cirumscribed in icons. But He who is depicted in icons is also “He Who Is,” the One who is beyond the ability to describe or circumscribe.

So, too, the faith is beyond our ability to contain. We are contained by it. And yet we only know and experience it in its particular forms, whether in America, Greece, Russia, England, China – wherever it has become incarnate. Thus we contain the mystery and the mystery contains us.

Glory to God for All Things!

A Russian Tale

October 17, 2007


This is not a tale from old Russia, or even so much a new tale, but it is a tale told by me, an American, born in 1953, who lived through the events of the 60’s, Vietnam, the whole mess. And strangely, Russia played an important role.

At the end of the 60’s my older brother was in the Navy (long story that) and by the early 70’s was on a destroyer heading to Hanoi harbor. I had been through several religious epiphanies and was deeply subject to the incipient cynicism that was growing throughout young America. A war that was increasingly unpopular, a Presidency that had fallen into disgrace, and an atmosphere that simply left authority in shambles was the legacy I was living into in those years.

I lived in a commune (Christian) for 2 years between high-school and college (grist for another post on another day) and so entered college in the fall of ’73. I carried more questions and few answers and more attitude than someone that young is entitled to have.

My cynicism was shaken up in those mid 70’s by the actions and words of Alexander Solzhnitsyn. Here was a man of integrity (unquestioned at the time and I think still intact) who was standing up to overwhelming odds and surviving to tell the tale. He was someone who captured the imagination.

When I began to read his works, and discovered in reading his essays, that he was, in fact, a practicing Orthodox Christian, something within me soared – not because I knew anything about Orthodoxy, but that such a hero had Christian reasons for the hope that drove his heroism. It saved me from despair.

It also created within me an interest to know more. I began to read Russian novels such as those by Dostoevsky and discovered that Solzhenitsyn was not an aberration but an example. Again my hope soared.

I had opportunities occasionally to meet people who knew the man personally (one particular time I remember was while I was in seminary). But in all of this a seed was planted that created a friendship and a kinship that remained unfulfilled.

At a retreat in an Anglican monastery I was given a book on the life of St. Seraphim of Sarov to read. I did not go to sleep that night until it was finished. At the book’s completion I had a friend in heaven I had not known before and a devotion to one of Russia’s greatest saints. It’s odd how many Americans have been touched by the life of this early 19th century Russian staretz.

Time has gone on, and though I think I am a very American priest (we do all English at St. Anne), I remain a man who is deeply indebted to a culture that is not my own, which gave me heroes when my own culture was failing me.

I believe in the long run the culture that was saving me was nothing other than the culture of the Kingdom of God which cannot be identified with Russia, Byzantium or any of this world’s kingdoms but is nevertheless present wherever God pleases. But if you have encountered it in any form, you cannot help but have a love for the place that harbored it. In time such places as Africa, Greece, the Mideast, Ninevah, Romania, and many others have come to have places in my heart. It is as though the whole globe is (within my heart) being transformed into a bearer of the Kingdom.

And so it should be. It remains to me and for those of us who live here, to make of Appalachia a place that so bears the Kingdom that it, too, may rescue others from whatever place they have wandered and bring them home to the only place any of us can ever call home: the Kingdom of God.

Why I Am Not Concerned about the Church as Failure

October 11, 2007


I suspected that having written about the “Church as Failure,” today’s post would be a required follow-up. I am not concerned about the Church as failure – because I believe the Church was meant to fail – if you’ll allow me explain. I have chosen the word “failure” to translate St. Paul’s description of Christ on the Cross as “weakness” and “foolishness.” I think those words were powerful when he was speaking to the Judeao-Hellenistic world of his time – but that those translations are not particularly powerful or scandalous to modern folk. American modern folk are far more scandalized by the notion of failure. We hate failure. Which is why I think it is such a good translation.

There are two ways for the Church to “fail.” The first is that the Church fails because it has embraced the cross and the Divine Failure of God (which saves us). It is the Church living utterly vulnerable to the Cross and knowing that it will only be as we fail and God succeeds that the Church will do what it is called to do.

A Christian standing in confession (as we do it in the Orthodox Church) and admitting that they have failed, is a Christian now ready for the Grace of God to work in them the righteousness of Christ.

The other way for the Church to fail (and this one does tend to dominate) is when it tries to succeed and be the thing it imagines God has called it to be, but by its own efforts. The result of such madness is failure of a catastrophic sort, with the Church being nothing of what Christ has called it to be.

The great good news in all of this is that even the second failure – if it is recognized as such – can become the first kind of failure, and thus the place where Grace begins the work of healing. The Good God has so established things that we cannot fail other than when we refuse to admit our failures.

I am not in the least saddened or dismayed by the failure I see across the Christian landscape – even the failures within the Orthodox Church. Or I should say that the only sadness I have is the sadness at human sin. But where sin did abound, Grace did more abound, as St. Paul tells us in Romans. Thus we stand at a landscape that could also be the place where an abundance of Grace begins to work.

For Orthodoxy in America, I pray that Grace will abound. We have our failures, which I choose not to ennumerate. It’s not my job. But for those whose job it is – I pray that they will call things by their right names and pray that Grace will abound (which it most assuredly will).

As an Orthodox Christian I cannot say what Grace abounding outside the bounds of Orthodoxy would look like. It is mysterious territory to me but it could only be a good thing because Grace does not work us harm.

In individual lives our failures can and should be moments that the Cross of Christ is triumphant. For what we cannot do (and we cannot do anything), Christ in us can do abundantly well. Thus to fail is to come to the Cross of Christ, if only we will.

O Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace, help me in all things to rely upon Thy holy will. In every hour of the day reveal Thy will to me. Bless my dealings with all who surround me. Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with the firm conviction that Thy will governs all. In all my deeds and words, guide my thoughts and feelings. In unforeseen events, let me not forget that all are sent by Thee. Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others. Give me strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring. Direct my will, teach me to pray. And pray Thou, Thyself, in me. Amen.

The morning Prayer of St. Philaret of Moscow

More on the Mystery of Salvation

August 9, 2007


I am almost always caught off guard by the number of readers an article on very simple (from an Orthodox point of view) matter of our salvation seems to generate. I forget that the treasury of doctrine that we live in is not part of the daily treasure that others know. I find tremendous comfort, particularly in everything taught by the Orthodox Church regarding our salvation. It is probably my favorite topic. This is largely because it came as an answer to questions I had that were utterly and completely unsatisfactorily dealt with elsewhere.  I have created a page on this blog with the teaching of Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev of Austria on the topic of Christ Descent into Hades, which necessarily involves talking about our salvation within an Orthodox understanding. I cannot recommend it too highly. And it’s only a click away! I have published here but a small paragraph in which he writes briefly on the Orthodox interpretation of St. Paul’s mention of predestination. There are no accidents, but our choices do play a role in our relationship with God and others. I commend this small post and urge you to read his entire article.

In the history of Christianity an idea has repeatedly arisen that God predestines some people for salvation and others to perdition. This idea, based as it is on the literary understanding of the words of St. Paul about predestination, calling and justification [35], became the corner-stone of the theological system of the Reformation, preached with particular consistency by John Calvin [36]. Eleven centuries before Calvin, the Eastern Christian tradition in the person of John Chrysostom expressed its view of predestination and calling. ‘Why are not all saved?’ Chrysostom asks. ‘Because… not only the call [of God] but also the will of those called is the cause of their salvation. This call is not coercive or forcible. Every one was called, but not all followed the call’ [37]. Later Fathers, including Maximus and John Damascene, spoke in the same spirit. According to their teaching, it is not God who saves some while ruining others, but some people follow the call of God to salvation while others do not. It is not God who leads some from hell while leaving others behind, but some people wish while others do not wish to believe in Him.

The teaching of the Eastern Church Fathers on the descent of Christ into Hades can be summed up in the following points:

1)      the doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades was commonly accepted and indisputable;

2)      the descent into Hades was perceived as an event of universal significance, though some authors limited the range of those saved by Christ to a particular category of the dead;

3)      the descent of Christ into Hades and His resurrection were viewed as the accomplishment of the ‘economy’ of Christ the Saviour, as the crown and outcome of the feat He performed for the salvation of people;

4)      the teaching on the victory of Christ over the devil, hell and death was finally articulated and asserted;

5)      the theme of the descent into Hades began to be viewed in its mystical dimension, as the prototype of the resurrection of the human soul.


[35] Rom. 8:29¾30.

[36] See John Calvin, Instruction in Christian Faith, V. II, Book III (‘Concerning the pre-eternal election whereby God predestined some for salvation while others for condemnation’).

[37] 16th Discourse on the Epistle to the Romans.

Some Things Have to Be Posted

July 9, 2007


My house is quickly being swallowed up by impending nuptials. Tomorrow my oldest daughter and my second’s daughter’s husband arrive. News continues to reach us of family the will be joining us in S.C. for my son’s wedding. He is marrying an Orthodox girl who delights our heart. Indeed our hearts are very full. But I post a photo of my son from much earlier years. I treasure it because it speaks of the unbounded joy that he brings to life. Why is God so good to me? I’ll say more this week – how could I not?

Things I Never Did for Summer Vacation

June 28, 2007


I am frequently impressed by the things done by youth these days  (yes, they do many positive things). When I was in high-school summer was job time. In college, summer was again, job time. Of course, I had no international connections at the time.

One of the youth from our parish, Ryan Erickson, is a student at the University of Chicago, active in the Orthodox Christian Fellowship (the college organization). This summer he is in Georgia (the one that is not to my South) where he is learning Georgian (an amazing feat to me) and assisting in hospital settings. He is a pre-med student. His trip is under the auspices of the Orthodox Christian Fellowship. There are many activities such as this available each year – one of my daughters went to Guatemala for Spring Break one year to help in an orphanage. Again, I am more than impressed by such youth – I am in awe.

I offer a link to Ryan’s website. Keep up with him and ask God’s blessings on young people whose idea of a summer vacation is serving others around the world.