Archive for the ‘Orthodoxy’ Category

The One Thing Needful

June 16, 2007

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Having spent half of the last week at Sts. Mary and Martha Monastery, it is unavoidable to think about these Holy Myrrhbearers. Among those who were the first witnesses of Christ’s resurrection, these Myrrhbearing women are perhaps better known for their conversations with Christ when he visited in their home and at the time of their brother Lazarus’ death. In our encounters with them in the gospel we learn that Martha was “busy with many things” (when there’s a crowd under your roof, somebody seems to always assume Martha’s role). Mary sat at Christ’s feet. When Martha complained that her sister was not being very helpful, Christ said, “One thing is needful. Mary has chosen the better part.”

Without belaboring that particular event, the phrase, “One thing needful,” has passed on into monastic and spiritual writing in Orthodox tradition as synonymous with prayer. The one thing we must have, even if we have nothing else, is prayer. The simple reason behind this is the better part that Mary chose: prayer is choosing God Himself. God is truly the One Thing Needful. We should not and must not substitute things for God – not even things we think to be good. For nothing is good in and of itself except for God. Every other good is relative to Him Who alone is good.

I sit visiting with tomorrow’s gospel – the ending of chapter 6 of Matthew – “Seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness and all these things will be added to you as well.” It’s the same message. We need God and if we seek Him first and above all, other things will have a way of falling into place. Not that this is a key to the “American Good Life.” The Kingdom of God and its righteousness and the American Dream are not the same thing. Perhaps this reality is something that shakes the faith of many. They sought God and did not get the American Dream.

In its final analysis, that dream is a delusion. It is a substitute for God and His kingdom and as such makes itself an enemy of the gospel. I heard a Bob Dylan quote the other day which said, “The Commandment: ‘Thou shalt have no other God before me,’ is just fine if its the right God.”

The question for me today and tomorrow – and every day beyond – is always, “How do I seek God today and His righteousness?” If I can manage to ask the question honestly and not deceive myself in the answer, then it will be a good day.

One Thing Needful.

Music from Heaven

June 12, 2007

I thought all might enjoy this singing from Russia, written by Chesnikov, it is marked by his love of Basso Profundo. I think of it as praising God from the very bottom of your feet.

A Prayer Request

June 11, 2007

I was deeply embarrassed when I came home this evening, checked the web site and found that a flagrant piece of filth had managed to slip through the various screenings and post itself on my site. I apologize to any who may have seen it before I was able to remove it. I will continue to work with the WordPress management to prevent such things.

More than that – if you are a reader – please join me in prayer for those who do these things. May God forgive them and forgive all of us because we have fostered such an industry in our nation. People only do these things because it makes money for them and we must all bear the blame. Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us, and on Thy whole world!

May God bless all who hate us and seek to do us harm and teach us to forgive and not to judge our brothers, or reduce one another to objects.

I am temporarily making some modifications to at least slow all this down if not stop it completely. Please be patient if you find your comment has been put into the group being moderated (you’ll post it and it won’t seem to post). It’s not personal. Postings that contain a url in them will be moderated (approved) before being allowed to post. The reason is that spammers and pornographers love to put links (many of them) into their work. It’s a fact that allows them to be caught and blocked.  I will be out of town for part of next week, leading a retreat for youth. I will try to keep up with the site each evening and will moderate comments at least by then. Be patient with me and pray for safety. If I guard this blog a bit more carefully, we can perhaps continue our conversations.

If all else fails I would be forced to turn off all comments – a great tragedy since I think the conversation would become too much one way. Not good for me.

Also if any of you have suggestions (apparently I could not use the protect web plugin that had been suggested. My wordpress program lies with wordpress so that kept it from being added. Again, forgive everyone by the resurrecton!

Where the Truth Abides

June 6, 2007

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The old addage, “Seeing is believing,” pretty much sums up our modern attitude to the world around us. Common sense and a modest commitment to reason both accept the notion that the world is, pretty much as we see it, and that what we see is the truth of things. Over the years I’ve heard any number of believers suggest that they would like to be able to go back in a time-machine and witness the events in the life of Christ. Some utter such a wish for sentimental reasons, others, more cautiously would like to go back so they could see for themselves, the idea being that once having seen for themselves, they would then know the truth of the matter.

The problem is, we have a clear Scriptural witness that this did not work the first time. The disciples, despite being in close proximity to miracle after miracle still seem to have their doubts. Rather staggeringly, we are told in the last chapter of Matthew’s gospel:

Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them. And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted (Matthew 28:16-17).

Miracles do not apparently make believers out of skeptics. If time machines, common sense, general reason and “just taking a look for ourselves” are insufficient for belief, how do we get at the truth of things? This common sense approach to the gospels will never arrive at the truth of things for two simple reasons: there are no time machines and, as just noted, seeing is not necessarily believing.

The Scriptures have a very different claim about the truth. It is Christ Himself who claims that He is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). Such a statement should change our very concept of truth itself. If Christ Himself is the Truth, then the truth of anything can only be known in its relationship to Christ. Here Truth has been transformed, even made relative, if we understand that it is relative to its relationship with Christ.

Thus if we were to ask, “What is the truth of myself?” we would not look to ourselves to find the answer, much less exercise our freedom and simply define our own truth. “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The truth of my life and its direction and even of my existence is not in me, but in Christ. Thus the truth of things remains hidden.

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory (Colossians 3:1-4).

This applies not only to ourselves but to all that is. The truth of everything is not yet made clear. Like a mystery story, we read clue after clue, but not until the last page is turned do we realize that a man we thought was important was unimportant; the woman who appeared to be guilty was innocent; and the butler did it after all.

For Christians, truth is eschatological: it is coming to us from the very End of things. Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, but the Alpha and the Beginning will not be clear until we know the Omega and the End.

Thus it is that the Church points its life towards the End. We believe that the End of all things has dwelt among us, and continues to live among us and make Himself accessible, most particularly in the mysteries of the Church (Baptism, Eucharist, etc.). At the feast of the Eucharist we believe that we in fact stand at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, that the End is somehow contained or made present within the actions we take at that time.

It is also a key to forgiveness. Sin is the past – it is what I have done – it is what has been done to me. But if the End of all things reaches back to me and makes me His own, then the truth of who I am is redefined. I am forgiven for my fall and made into a new creation. If others around me see nothing of this truth, or, at best, catch only a glimpse, it is still true. For as I remain faithful to Christ and draw ever closer to the End of all things, the truth of who I am (which is defined by my relationship to Him) will become ever more clear.

Icons have many aspects that make for their peculiarity (particularly those painted in a traditional manner). Faces have a particular shape; hands and bodies seem elongated; eyes are enlarged as well as the forehead; ears, nose and mouth are reduced. Is this a portrait of what we think the saint looked like? An icon is a painting that seeks to reveal the truth of the saint – to show us who they are in relationship to Christ. Thus each of these artistic conventions that are the common language of icons are defined by the End of things. They are painted in the truth of their being. No longer bound by earth, their bodies are painted in a way that the earthbound weight of things is replaced by the lightness of being. The senses are reduced for we are no longer sensualists in the End. Eyes and forehead are enlarged for we shall see and know as we do not now. And though saints among us may be hidden now – they will be revealed then. Thus, a Church filled with icons, is also filled with the truth of these human lives. Entering the Church, we are standing at the End of all things.

I enter the Church with my candle, ready to pray. I look up and by grace I realize: it’s later than you think.

A Few Quiet Thoughts

May 31, 2007

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I spent the day with one of my daughters, taking care of business needs, and visiting my aging parents. Tonight I’m back in my hotel room and ready for the drive home tomorrow. Looking back over the blog for the past several days – and maybe because I’m tired and my emotions are a little brittle tonight (seeing people I love and don’t see enough always leaves me a little brittle) – but I find again that I return to my own self-reminder, and reminder to readers of what I am not.

I write, and reflect, and hope those reflections are of help and are true. I answer questions when I know the answer (which is only sometimes). But I am not a wise man or a priest whose task it is to solve the mysteries of the canons or all the ins kand outs of Orthodox life. I have written (twice now) that I am an ignorant man. And I keep coming back to that – both for my sake and for yours. I come back to it for my sake, especially if I’ve written something that worked well for me and for others. That’s just the generosity of God to us all. But I remind myself that I must still be an ignorant man or I would not sin as I still do, or fumble around in the darkness within myself as much as I do.

I had an opportunity to reflect on a young priest friend recently – what I reflected on was how much I liked him and how much I admired the kind of priest he will be (from the start). Most of this was based on conversations in which he was so terribly aware of what he didn’t know – it took me years before I began to know even a portion of how little I knew. We do not, I do not, have a deep enough appreciation for human ignorance. We are largely ignorant of the things that matter, and we will be that way most of our lives – most likely. To know that is a gift from God – and maybe the beginning of wisdom – but it doesn’t feel like wisdom. It feels like ignorance (not the blissful sort).

My prayers for all of you tonight, and I ask yours for me, even if you only cross yourself when you finish reading. Many blessings!

On Loving Your Enemy

May 31, 2007

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From Fr. Sophrony: However wise, learned, noble a man may be, if he does not love his enemies – that is, love his every fellow-being – he has not attained to God. Contrariwise, however simple, poor and ignorant a man may be, if he carries this love in his heart, then ‘he dwelleth in God and God in him.’

A question was recently raised in our conversations about what exactly constitutes an enemy. I think the simplest answer is: “anyone we do not love as God loves.” That is the broadest way of stating the issue. Were it weakened to mean only those people whom I actively hate, we would find apathy and an unfeeling heart falsely supplying us with a sense that we have fewer enemies than is the case, or that we are further along the road to Christ than we are.

I once had a woman in a class I was teaching to ask, “What if you do not have any enemies?” This was a class I was teaching for the general public. Most of those participating were not Orthodox Christians – not that this mattered with regard to the question.

My answer was straightforward: “Do you ever go to Church?” She looked puzzled. I explained that if she would become actively involved in a Church she would soon have plenty of enemies. 🙂 Though I said this somewhat light-heartedly, I meant it in all seriousness. It is easy to love humanity (a generalization that means almost nothing). What is hard is to actually love another person. Life in the Church, at the very least, is a kind requirement of our loving God, to rescue us from the delusion we would create for ourselves had we not the daily trials and temptations of life in a real Church.

Church nurtures and feeds me – but it also gives me all of the struggles required to gain my soul – to “work out my salvation.” As far as I can tell from listening to the members of my parish, and occasionally those from others, we have plenty of things to work on – all of us.

These simple facts should cause us to daily give thanks for all whom we know (and many whom we know not). We should give thanks with the sure and certain knowledge that they are not accidents in our lives – but deliberate acts of a loving God.

We should not blame others for the struggles we must endure – for they often have little knowledge of the struggles they have created for us – and to blame them would be to deny God credit for what He Himself has done. God does not tempt any man, the Scriptures tell us. Thus we should not look at those around us as though they were placed there for our temptation. They are a gift from God, and we should be confident of that. We should give thanks, pray for all, and be aware of just how lacking we are in grace such that we find others irritating or problematic. God is not only aware of all this – He meant it to be so. You cannot go from where we began (in bondage to sin) to where we are destined (utter union with Christ) without encountering many people who will require of us much prayer, and all the grace we can obtain.

Who is my enemy? Almost everyone I know – myself most of all.

Reading the Readers

May 29, 2007

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I like to buy books at a bargain – when I can and if I can. These days, books often come at a bargain with Amazon’s listing of used books. Occasionally the prices are almost irresistable (especially for a book lover). What has become of occasional interest to me can only happen with a used book. The ad reads, “some writing in the margins.” I can hardly resist. There is the book to read and the reflections of someone else who read the book.

It’s an incomplete experience – you are reading snatches of a conversation between the reader and the writer. If you’re fortunate an insight might be hidden among the notes. And often as not the reader is just emoting along the margin and the book gains an echoe.

One of my earliest such experiences was in seminary. One half of my seminary (in modern times it was the offspring of a marriage between two older seminaries) was founded in the mid 1800’s. One of the early founders had made a trip to England to raise money for the American Midwestern adventure – and to raise something far more valuable – a library. He prevailed upon various English dons to share the abundance of their private libraries with their less well-equipped American cousins. The result was a delight. My own adventure into that delight was to study St. Gregory Nazianzus in a text that had once belonged to John Henry Newman.

Those were notes worth deciphering (indeed, they were occasionally in Latin).

My largest volume of Father Sophrony’s work, Saint Silouan of Mount Athos, is heavily notated. But in this case it is not the notes of a scholar – simply the notes of someone who likes to disagree occasionally with the text. It can be rather jarring to turn the page of someone’s work whom you pretty much revere as a saint and to see a large “NO!” scribbled in the margin. It makes me read more carefully. It also makes me wonder what the reader actually thought. That mystery will remain unsolved.

But the contrast between note and text have reminded me of Tradition. Tradition is not a 2,000 year old argument among Christian scholars. There are long-running arguments among Christian scholars – but they have little to do with Tradition. Tradition is a stream of life – a continuity running through the life of the Church and the lives of her saints. It is the Life of Christ, finally, that we encounter in place after place. Winding its way through languages and media, it bears witness not to many truths, but to a single Truth.

Though I have my own likely differences with Newman, I recognize that he is likelier car closer to Saint than I, and I realized when I was handling his book, that he and I were in deep agreement on at least one thing: the text in front of us was the text of a saint. There were no “No!”‘s scribbled in his steady hand just the gentle assent of the human spirit to the work of the Holy Spirit. This is the work of Tradition – deep speaking unto deep.

There are those books you own that you know belong to such a Tradition. They are not the stuff with which we argue but the stuff which we ponder. To me they are made only more valuable by having been held in hands before mine.

One of my sons-in-law has been assigned to a Russian-speaking parish. I had a valuable treasure that was given me several years ago. I have made it his treasure now. It is a Sluzhebnik, a service book, in Slavonic, for the Divine Liturgy. Only this one is written in pencil in a small notebook. It was written in the Displaced Persons camps after World War II by a Russian-priest acquaintance whom I helped bury several years ago. His family gave me a number of his priestly tools for my own. It is a Tradition that continues flowing. It is a joy to think of one, written in pencil, flowing in the tongue of my daughter’s husband. For this is so much the life of the Church. Not just the Tradition you know, but the life from which you received it. I often think that when someone asks me to explain Apostolic Succession that there are no words to completely explain it. It is hands laid on the head of a man, but it is also the stories and the lives of those who laid their hands. It is Chrismation, an oil mixed and blessed only once every three years – but containing a portion of the oil that went before it – and for how many years now? When I smell the Chrism at Baptism, I know that I share an experience, a smell, with thousands of saints before me. The Holy Spirit is the Life given us – the Living Tradition that leads us into all truth. But sometimes He does so on the margins of a page, or in an odor in the air. How rich and wonderful are Thy ways, O Lord!

That the Gospel Should be Shared in Love – St. Silouan

May 25, 2007

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The following is another excerpt from Father Sophrony’s Saint Silouan of the Athonite.

Father Silouan’s attitude towards those who differed from him was characterized by a sincere desire to see what was good in them, and not to offend them in anything they held sacred. He always remained himself; he was utterly convinced that ‘salvation lies in Christ-like humility’, and by virtue of this humility he strove with his whole soul to interpret every man at his best. He found his way to the heart of everyone – to his capacity for loving Christ.

I remember a conversation he had with a certain Archimandrite who was engaged in missionary work. This Archimandrite thought highly of the Staretz [Saint Silouan] and many a time went to see him during his visits to the Holy Mountain. the Staretz asked him what sort of sermons he preached to people. The Archimandrite, who was still young and inexperienced, gesticulated with his hands and swayed his whole body, and replied excitedly,

‘I tell them, Your faith is all wrong, perverted. There is nothing right, and if you don’t repent, there will be no salvation for you.’

The Staretz heard him out, then asked,

‘Tell me, Father Archimandrite, do they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, that He is the true God?’

‘Yes, that they do believe.’

‘And do they revere the Mother of God?’

‘Yes, but they are not taught properly about her.’

‘And what about the Saints?’

‘Yes they honor them but since they have fallen away from the Church, what saints can they have?’

‘Do they celebrate the Divine Office in their churches? Do they read the Gospels?’

‘Yes, they do have churches and services but if you were to compare their services with ours – how cold and lifeless theirs are!’

‘Father Archimandrite, people feel in their souls when they are doing the proper thing, believing in Jesus Christ, revering the Mother of God and the Saints, whom they call upon in prayer, so if you condemn their faith they will not listen to you…. But if you were to confirm that they were doing well to believe in God and honor the Mother of God and the Saints; that they are right to go to church, and say their prayers at home, read the Divine word, and so on; and then gently point out their mistakes and show them what they ought to amend, then they would listen to you, and the Lord would rejoice over them. And this way by God’s mercy we shall all find salvation…. God is love, and therefore the preaching of His word must always proceed from love. Then both preacher and listener will profit. But if you do nothing but condemn, the soul of the people will not heed you, and no good will come of it.’

Back to Metaphors

May 24, 2007

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Suppose you have the occasion to sit with someone, an interested party, and explain to them the Christian faith. How do you tell the story? When I was in college we had groups who shared the 4 Spiritual Laws – a version of a Christian story, but not the one I would tell.

We do not think long and hard enough about the imagery and language that we use. Frequently, our religious faith becomes ingrained in jargon that we no longer notice when we use it. What are the fundamental images that your sharing of the Christian faith uses?

My earlier arguments about essential elements of the Christian story is to argue that we should have digested the whole of the New Testament, as well as a couple of centuries’ worth of Patristic writings (the 1st two centuries are not really that much), before we begin to give an account of what Christ came to earth to do. If your version of the story requires the lens of the Reformation – then you’re probably telling a 16th century story and not the New Testament, despite whatever verses you may cite.

But back to the fundamental question at hand. How do you tell the story and what images do you use?

It is these fundamental images – Virgin Birth, Crucifixion, Death, Descent into Hades, Resurrection, Ascension into Heaven, Coming of the Holy Spirit – that make up the Christian faith. Interestingly, all of these images can be rendered in picture – form. Indeed, in the Orthodox Church we do render them in picture form and place the icons of these events in the middle of the Church on their feast days.

I can recall an old Evangelical tract called “the Roman Road” that gave an account of salvation solely from verses drawn from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It’s a nice turn, but was quite truncated in its account of the Gospel and our salvation.

If we read St. Irenaeus or even St. John of Damascus (5 or more centuries later), we will encounter the same Gospel that will carry us through the same images. But I suggest to my readers – take some time. How would you share the saving story of Christ? What are its images? Are those images faithful to the whole gospel?

I can recall an incident that occurred early in my ministry. I was serving as a Deacon in an Episcopal Church – a woman came to me who wanted to be baptized. As I recall, she had grown up in Hawaii. She had never been “churched.” She said that she mostly knew the name of Jesus as a curse word but did know that He was some sort of religious figure.

I remember feeling more pressure than I ever had on an exam in seminary. This was a true test for a Christian. Could I share the good news of Christ with someone who was well-favored towards conversion – and give her enough information to lead her to the path of salvation? I know that I worked harder for that Baptism than almost any of which I have ever had occasion to be a part.

I am convinced that we need to live closer and closer to the very root images of the story of our salvation – that the more we abstract the more likely we are to go astray. I am not arguing for any sort of anti-theology (I care deeply about theology) but for a theology that is, in fact, a mediation on the good news of Christ, and not an intellection five to ten steps removed from that good news.

Strangely, although Orthodoxy is 2000 years old, it continues to maintain this dogged affection for the most primitive layers of the Christian story. I believe that this is a correct instinct – a prompting of the Holy Spirit – Who seeks to lead us into all truth.

Go back to the story. How do you tell it? 

Flattery and a Secret Plot by the Kremlin

May 23, 2007

All flattery, my friends, as Josef Pieper well taught us, is a form of manipulation. Mass flattery manipulates the soul of a culture. It drags a nation to hell.

A quote from Ochlophobist‘s May 19 posting.

The thought is worth slow contemplation. I am reminded of a tee-shirt (admittedly too cute) with the picture of a kitten in a basket. The caption on the shirt reads: “Where are we going? Why are we in this handbasket.”

One question for other bloggers out there. Everytime I go to an E Blogger site, everything directional, etc., is in Russian. I read some Russian but not enough. Is there a switch to read you guys comment apparatus in English? Or is this another Kremlin Plot? Sitting at someone’s website with my Russian dictionary in front of me is not my favorite web experience. If you can help, let me know.