Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

Poems of Pentecost

June 9, 2009

Pentecost Icon

Among the many friends I have had who have now entered the larger life, several were poets. Francis Hall Ford was a parishioner in St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Mission in Chattanooga, which I had a share in founding. She and her family had year’s before entered Orthodoxy through the Greek Church. In later years she split her time between little St. Tikhon’s in Chattanooga and St. Seraphim Cathedral in Dallas where her daughter, Katie, now lives. Katie has been kind enough to share some of her mother’s poetry. With her permission I share it here. As for Frances (whom I knew better by her Orthodox name, Kassiane) may her memory be eternal!

The first poem is a Japanese tanka (31 syllables, 5 lines, 5-7-5-7-7).

 

In mid-June’s muteness
When scarce birdword breaks languor
Flame azaleas speak.  
Sudden over path, up hill
Their Pentecost throats give tongue. 

 The second is a brief meditation.

THE ICON OF PENTECOST

At the Church’s birth,
Licked clean by flames of Spirit
Maid and Apostles in horseshoe
Make sweet maternal crib
In whose dark cave
The World, that Old King,
Waits with a swaddling cloth.
 

 Frances Hall Ford
1931-2008

The Strange Land of Liturgical Knowledge

June 8, 2009

AgiaSophiaLiturgyI have been involved in Christian liturgical life for most of my adult experience. The first part of that experience was as an Anglican – a liturgical experience that is both Western and reformed. I have been involved in the liturgical life of Orthodox Christianity on one level or another for the past 16 years or so – and as an Orthodox priest since 1999. The two experiences are difficult to compare.

There is something “linear” about the reformed liturgies of the West (and by “reformed” I do not mean “Reformed” but “redesigned after 1500 and some after 1960”). The linear character of these liturgies is the simple fact that they tend to do one thing at a time, and in a manner in which actions are simplified and straight-forward. Orthodox liturgies are, in contrast, frequently engaged in several actions at the same time and often bring together varieties of images and events in a single service. 

Principles that have driven reform over the centuries, and particularly in the 20th century, have often been quite rational and even sloganeering. My Anglican training reduced all ritual motion by a priest to things that could be seen and easily interpreted by the congregation. Actions only had meaning as they amplified the accompanying words and only had meaning within the mind of the people observing. No action had significance within itself (thus ritual became “pantomime”).

Despite efforts by some to reform the Byzantine heritage of Orthodoxy, it remains largely immune to the rationalizing and pantomiming principles of Western liturgies. Actions often occur out of sight of the congregation (even behind closed doors). Such actions can only have meaning because something is actually supposed to be happening. There is also a mammoth non-linear aspect to Eastern liturgies. Though liturgical texts are necessarily written in a linear fashion (unless you’ve ever seen the old Hapgood translations) what is described is a service in which many things may be happening at once. It is quite normal for choir, Deacon and Priest to all be doing things in a fairly simultaneous manner (which means that if you are not familiar with the service – a book can be more confusing than helpful).

More than the non-linearity of the service text is the lack of simplification in the liturgical event itself. One of the simplifying principles of the modern West has been the elimination of liturgical aggregates (you only celebrate one thing on a day). Thus it is frequently the case that feasts are moved away from Sundays in order to maintain the focus on the resurrection (notable exceptions are All Saints’ Sunday and the like). According to the Orthodox Typicon (the book which contains the directions and reasoning for liturgical practice) the greatest possible liturgical celebration is the concurrence of Pascha and the feast of the Annunciation on the same day. When this occurs, the Annunciation is not moved to a later or earlier time but is celebrated alongside and within Pascha itself (the rules for this being fairly complicated). This coincidence only occurs under Old Calendar usage since the “New Calendar” mixes the Old Calendar reckoning of Pascha along with the Gregorian reckoning of fixed dates. 

The thought of celebrating both the Annunciation and the Lord’s Pascha simultaneously is utterly foreign to Western liturgical usage. What becomes impossible under a regime of liturgical simplicity is the dialog that occurs when the Annunciation and Pascha are able to speak at the same time. This “polyphonic” character of Eastern liturgies is quite common. Every day of the week has a particular dedication (Monday for the angels, Tuesday for St. John the Forerunner, Wednesday the Betrayal of Christ, Thursday the Apostles and St. Nicholas, Friday the Crucifixion, Saturday the Theotokos and the Departed, and Sunday the Resurrection). Each day also has its saints (of whom there are very many each day). A day may also be a particular feast. It is not unusual in the course of the services for a particular day (which would include Vespers, Matins, as well as the Divine Liturgy) to have touched on all of these liturgical aspects rather than simplifying everything to a single point.

The result (particularly over a period of years) is a richness of experience in which each thing in the faith is brought into contact with everything in the faith. There is a fullness expressed in this experience that cannot be duplicated in another manner. This manner of liturgizing is reflected in the Orthodox resistance to separation and codification as a means of knowledge. The habits of a millennium in the West have been to break things into separate components and to seek to understand the whole by understanding its parts. The result is often an impoverishment of the faith and the experience of the faithful. 

To know something in its fullness by experiencing it in the context of everything instead of in isolation is a difficult path. It requires greater stretches of time and often results in a knowledge that cannot easily be spoken. If such knowledge could be spoken in simplicity then it probably would be – but it cannot. The Christian faith, in its fullness, is inimical to reductionism.

The knowledge granted to us by God which is unspeakable is just so because it is too large for words. Liturgies which are less are just that – less.

Liturgy is a primary means given to us in the Church for encountering God. Why should such a thing be reasonable and simple and easily understood?

Babylon and the Trees of Pentecost

June 6, 2009

From the Feast of Pentecost

The arrogance of building the tower in the days of old
led to the confusion of tongues.
Now the glory of the knowledge of God brings them wisdom.
There God condemned the impious for their transgression.
Here Christ has enlightened the fishermen by the Spirit.
There disharmony was brought about for punishment.//
Now harmony is renewed for the salvation of our souls.

The first time I saw trees in an Orthodox Church was at St. Tikhon’s Monastery in Pennsylvania, just after Pentecost Sunday. I was completely caught off guard. Though I had been in a number of different Churches over the years, I had never been in a parish of Russian background for the feast of Pentecost. Thus I had missed the Slavic practice of bringing trees into Church for the feast of Pentecost. It was wonderful – like going into Church only to find a forest.

Holy Resurrection at Pentecost, 1My Western background left me completely unprepared for this Eastern take on the feast of the gift of the Spirit to the Church. In Western Churches, Pentecost particularly focuses on the “fire” of the Holy Spirit lighting on the disciples in the upper room and the “empowerment” of the Church for mission. Traditionally in the West, the color of the feast is red (for the fire).

In the East, the color of the feast is green – which is also the color worn for the feast days of monastic saints. In the West, green is the “ordinary” color worn in the “in between” Sundays and weekdays of the Calendar. For the Orthodox, gold serves this function. 

But I found myself in the midst of trees on a major feast that was “green.” I was simply baffled.

In Russian practice the feast is normally referred to as the feast of the Trinity (Troitsa) rather than Pentecost, or “Pentecost” is listed as an afterthought (Pentecost). It is obvious that something quite different is at work in the understanding of the feast day. 

Both East and West keep the feast as the day upon which the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles. Orthodoxy does not ignore the various tongues with which the Apostles began to speak as they announced the gospel to those assembled in Jerusalem. However, as noted in the verse quoted at the beginning of this article – those tongues are seen as a spiritual counterpart to the confusion of the tower of Babel, when men in their hubris sought to build a tower into heaven. The tongues which came upon them only proclaimed darkness and confusion and brought to an end the last great ecumenical effort of humanity. 

The Church is God’s vision of united mankind – a union achieved through the gift of God and not by human effort. It is a union which maintains a diversity of sorts (the languages do not become one “super” language – so much for the “unity” of Latin) but a diversity whose unity is found in true union with the one, living and true God. The gospel proclaimed by the apostles on the day of Pentecost, though preached in many languages, was one and the same gospel. 

One may still wonder why the feast becomes a feast of the Trinity. Like the feast of Theophany (the Baptism of Christ), Pentecost is a feast in which the revelation of the Holy Trinity is made manifest. The Spirit is the gift of the Father – given through the Son. There were many centuries that passed before a parish was named for the Trinity.

Among the first within the Orthodox world was the Lavra (Monastery) of the Holy Trinity outside of Moscow, founded by St. Sergius in the 14th century. His vision of the common life was seen as an earthly icon of the Divine Life of the Holy Trinity in which each of the Divine Persons shared a common life. The monastery was itself a place of spiritual rebirth for the Russian land as it began to come out from under the oppression of the Tatar yoke. The spiritual life of Holy Trinity monastery was a spiritual awakening for the land when Russians remembered that they were brothers of one another and shared a common life. This common life became the strength that allowed them to assert their freedom. 

Of course, all of the above is both interesting and true but has yet to explain the trees. The Jewish feast of Pentecost (fifty days after the Passover) marks the beginning of the harvest feast. The first-fruits of the harvest are brought to the temple to be blessed of God. For Christians the harvest that is sought is the harvest of a renewed humanity and the renewal of creation. Thus the trees are a representation of the created order, assembled together with the people of God, awaiting and receiving the gift of the Spirit through whom everything is made new. 

It is a very rich feast – one that is filled with meaning (as is appropriate). But all of the meaning takes as its source the gift to creation of the “Lord and Giver of Life,” the Holy Spirit. Just as we are told in Genesis: 

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

With a word, God speaks, and where the Spirit hovered, life comes forth.

So it is in the life of the Church and in creation today. Where God speaks, renewed life comes forth. All of creation groans and travails, awaiting the final great Word that will signal the renewal of all things.  For now, we see that promise foreshadowed by trees in Church and green on the priests and by the joy of our hearts.

In the Secret Place of the Most High God

June 3, 2009

This article first appeared in 2007. It speaks of one of the most essential elements of our spiritual life – the secret place. I have not written often on the topic – but it bears repeating. Without a proper regard for the ‘secret place of the Most High God’ and the secret place that is our own true heart – then we will know neither God nor our own selves. Fr. Meletios Webber (Bread & Water, Wine & Oil) writes about the ‘ego’ and describes it as a narrative we develop over the years woven from the wants and fears of our lives (the logismoi). Into such madness only a mad religion can take root, itself becoming part of our human disease. The faith of Christ (rather than madness) must take root in the heart, the secret place of the Most High. From there we can begin to find healing and quiet for the incessant chatter of our sin. I highly recommend Fr. Meletios book. You’ll read it and give thanks.

+++

He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. Psalm 91:1

refusing confession by RepinThere aren’t many secrets anymore. I live in a city that is known as the “Secret City,” because in the Second World War it was one of the main sites of the Manhattan Project where the atom bomb, or elements of it, were developed. I have lived here for 20 years and have come to take the name as a comonplace. But secrets are all too commonplace. During the war this city held nearly 100,000 people, most of whom had no idea what they were working on. Those who lived around the town had no idea at all.

It is obvious to me that secrets can be kept. But it is also obvious to me that, for whatever reason, secrets are being kept less and less. For some, the word “secret,” is synonymous with something nefarious and evil. Things that are secret must be bad or we would let everyone know.

There is another place for secrets. Psychologists would place them in the category of “boundaries.” In theology we would see them as an essential part of what it means to be a Person.

It is important, it seems to me, that Scripture uses the phrase “Secret Place” to describe the most intimate of places we can be with God. It is secret because I cannot share it, I cannot find words to speak of it. I am in it only because I was invited and once there (having removed by shoes) I am on holy ground and the “secret” is nothing evil, but the very Good Himself.

What do I do with the Secret? When I stand in the Secret Place of the Most High, I can worship. Anything less would be sacrilege. I can adore the Most High God, even if I can find no words to give voice to my praise.

Every human being has a “secret place” – that within them that is most intimate – that is beyond words – that is made for God. Learning to enter this place is a very difficult thing and only comes with time and practice. Our culture, the world where the most secret things in our lives are shouted from the rooftops, tells us to profane even our secrets and shout them to the world as well. And thus we lose something at the very core of our Personhood. Violated, every man and woman becomes a harlot.

The Church, particularly the Orthodox Church, has a very different attitude towards the Secret. It is not to protect the evil or to create a conspiracy – it is to honor the most holy within each of us. Thus we learn to approach the Secret Place with great reverence, even in silence and awe. Many modern Americans visit an Orthodox Church and find it offensive that the altar is occasionally hidden from their sight behind closed doors and a drawn curtain. It is an offense to their ingrained sense of democracy (a sentiment which has no place in the Presence of God). Where the Church would seek to teach them that there is such a thing as the “Secret Place,” that there are things before which they should be silent and into which not all can enter – we seek in our Promethian madness to democratize everything, defiling every secret place we can find, including the one within ourselves. [n.b. You will find some variation of doors, curtains, silence, in Orthodox Churches, including some whose doors stand open for the whole service, etc.]

The Church would bid us come to a very secret place – to come and discover that place within ourselves. Standing before the icon of Christ in the presence of His priest, we enter the secret place of our heart and speak what should often be spoken to no one else, and confess our sins. There is no legal exchange taking place (God’s forgiveness for your contrition). Here the priest only listens – he is forbidden to judge (though he may offer advice if it seems to help, it is nevertheless considered a great sin for a priest to judge the confession of someone repenting before God). The priest stands beside the penitent “only as a witness” as the prayers of confession make clear. He will speak the words of forgiveness when all is said as God’s representative, and then all that he has heard will be wrapped in silence, hidden in the Secret Place of the Most High, where God will purge and destroy our sins and make us new. The Fathers of the Church called the sacrment of confession, “a second baptism.”

It is also learning to recover our hearts, our secret place. The priest will never speak of it (on pain of being deposed). Indeed, it is normally understood that the penitent should not speak to others of what he or she has said in confession. Unless there is forgiveness of others that needs to be sought, all is done.

There is much in Orthodox worship and life that seeks to teach humanity of the Secret Place of the Most High and of the secret place that lies within our own heart. The lack of such knowledge robs us of our ability to worship God, of our ability to fully understand our own Personhood, of our ability to love others rightly, and of our right mind. Only a crazy world would destroy the secret places. Without them, we become human beings who have no center. Violated by the presence of others where we should be alone, we become mad with the madness of Legion.

Many visit, as I have noted, in an Orthodox Church and are offended at its practice of secret things, of the hiddeness of God. Some draw back at doors and curtains, others draw back at the exclusivity of the altar. I am asked, “Why can only men be priests?” And I respond, “It is not ‘only men’ who can priests, but only a few men.” Some few are set aside to stand in that most Secret Place and offer the Holy Oblation. Democracy and equality stop at its doors because before God no one is justified, no one is worthy, no one may make a claim. We come only as we are bidden. And those who have been bidden to stand in that place at the altar and to hold in their hand the Most Holy Body of our Lord, God and Savior, do so with trembling if they do so rightly. For they stand in the Secret Place of the Most High God.

The most profound moment in all of the Liturgy (if I dare say such a thing) occurs as the curtains are opened along with the doors and the Deacon cries out: “In the fear of God and with faith and love draw near!” And the faithful come forward to receive the Body and Blood of God. That which is Most Holy, which lies in the Most Secret Place, is now brought forward as a gift to the believer who receives in joy, in faith, in repentance, and in a renewed knowledge of the God Who dwells in the Secret Place, and Who now enters into our most secret place.

I live in a city that is nicknamed “the Secret City,” but I long for the true, Secret City, that is known only to God and to those to whom He reveals it. Interestingly, one of my parishioners is a native of Nagasaki, Japan. My joy is that in Christ she and I can meet in Christ’s Secret City and know that in that place, all are safe, for God will not violate nor harm any. Even He, the Most High God, will enter our own secret place only at our invitation. Such is His humility and love. Such is His respect for our Person, a reflection of His own Personhood: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me. (Rev. 3:20)

I will offer a short exhortation: if you keep a website or a blog, do not make it a place for your secrets (as is too often done). There is no virtue in this, but only sin. Bring your secrets to God and stand next to His priest. There you will find love and respect, not judgment. And you will find a balm for your soul. This most public of all places (the internet) hates your secrets and would only use them to destroy you. Learn to be silent and speak to God in your heart. I offer this begging…if you have posted your secrets – remove them! Close the doors, draw the curtain and stand in secret before the Most High God!

Heaven On Their Minds

June 2, 2009

mandylion_str_01Years ago, I recall hearing someone complain about zealous Christians, “They are so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good.” The truth of the statement depends entirely on the understanding of heaven and earth. It is possible to pursue a version of “heaven” such that the spiritual life is undermined. It is also possible to pursue heaven in such a way that the world around us is transformed. It is an important difference.

The principle difference lies in a heaven of the imagination and a heaven that is an in-breaking reality. History, particularly modern history, is replete with various fanciful utopias. The promise of a “better world to come,” does not always come with a proper commentary to guide the hopeful. Thus everything from Marxist totalitarianism to America’s Shining City on a Hill have been thrust forward as “better worlds.” Both, of course, have their dark sides though I by no means draw an equivalence.

But for the Christian, a concern for the “things to come” is right and proper. Eschatology (the study of the “last things”) is an irreplaceable part of Christian understanding. The eschatology on which I was raised was a version of Darbyite Dispensationalism. There was a fascination with world events and the expectation of a soon return of Christ. But the end of things only brought another literalism – a world better than the one we inhabit – but in many ways, not so different. The imagination was not concerned with the “things of heaven” but with the events that would bring us there. Of course there are dangers associated with this form of eschatology, primarily from its inherent involvement with politics. It is a dangerous thing to vote on the Second Coming of Christ.

Orthodox eschatology could best be illustrated from Scripture:

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known (1 Cor. 13:12).

Of course, I could choose many other passages to consider Orthodox eschatology – but, rightly read, the entirety of Scripture is eschatological. For the Scriptures bear the truth to us (which is always from the eschaton, the end). The truth of things is only to be found fully in their end.

It is this in-breaking of the truth to which the faith bears witness. Though it be seen but dimly in a mirror – it is still the Face which we shall behold ourselves when all has been done.

It is this same Face that is manifest in everything about us (though some mirrors are far more dim than others). It is the sight of a Face that does not render us “too heavenly minded to be of earthly good,” but a Face that reveals to us the true character of earthly good. 

To see the Face of Christ in the face of another human being is not becoming “of no earthly good,” but to begin to see clearly the true character of our brothers and sisters. The Face also reveals to us the true character of the sinful distortions we would cast into the mirrors around us. Only with the vision of the one true Face, are we able to correct the distortions and find ourselves corrected as well.

Orthodox eschatology makes no extreme claims of “realized eschatology” (as in Dodd’s work), but of an unrealized eschatology that nonetheless makes itself manifest to us in a manner that is frequently more real than the mirror in which it is beheld. The theology of icon and the revelation of beauty both point beyond themselves to the Image that has already come among us, is already abiding with us, and is yet to come (Rev. 1:8).

Christ offered a glimpse of the eschatological principle when he said: “Do not think that I came to destroy the law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). The union of heaven and earth (which is how St. Maximus the Confessor describes the eschaton) is not the destruction of earth – but its fulfillment. The Face that we behold is the True Image – in which we were created and according to which we will be recreated. That is a great earthly and heavenly good.

The Hypostatic Nearness of You (A Repost)

May 31, 2009

Originally posted in February 2007. I have updated a few things. It is a piece that is quite relevant as my youngest child graduates high school this week. The fullness only grows.

n1024029530_30231163_7220Sometimes I sit down to write with an idea and I know that I am either getting ready to write something good, or something really bad. That is how I feel about this particular topic. I have good feelings about it because I am writing about something that is close to my heart and which I think about frequently. I have forboding, because such things are notoriously hard to capture.

Some years ago when I was writing academically on the doctrine of the holy icons, I came across a distinction made by St. Theodore the Studite in which he spoke of “hypostatic representation.” In short, he made a distinction between representing the “essence” of something and the “hypostasis” of something – between the “is-ness” of some one or thing and its “personhood.” In short, he said that icons were representations of the hypostasis (the person) and not the essence. There are many theological implications to be drawn from his writings, but I will not do that here (I largely wrote a thesis on the topic).

Instead, I want to contemplate for a moment an idea that I first encountered in Met. John Zizioulas’ writings, in which he recognized a “presence in absence,” that is not unrelated to St. Theodore’s thought. Suppose you are in a restaurant waiting for someone about whom you care a great deal. There may be any number of people who come and go while you wait, but you pay them no attention. In fact, you are so aware of the absence of the one who has not yet come, that the presence of others is no presence at all. Met. John has much to say about this, and if you are totally devoid of reading material and have several months, I suggest you read his book Being as Communion.

But as years slip by, and the “nest” in which I live changes with age, much of my life is filled with the “absence” of others. I have two married daughters and a married son who live away, and many times their absence is “hypostatically real” for me. It is as though I could touch them and converse. These days, everyone works or is in college or school (our youngest graduates high school this week). Thus, most of the time, what I know is known in absence.

The same is also true in the parish. Most of the time, everyone is somewhere else. They are at work, at home, wherever. And so I stand at the altar each day to pray for them and they become present, like so many icons round about the altar, as I remember them before God.

Finally, as someone who has buried around 400 people in his ministry, there is this other hypostatic cloud of witnesses. Never all at one time, it seems, but often, and poignant.

To speak of someone being hypostatically present, is also to speak of them being “personally” present (but in a way that is meant in the Church’s technical sense of “person” and not in popular parlance).

I am slowly learning that these are moments for thanksgiving and prayer and not moments for grief or longing. Though I miss those who are absent from my immediate awareness, I rejoice that I remember them, and that they are present to me. As children grow older, parents have present to them their children at a variety of ages. I remember them all in their growing up and can hear them now. This is not a loss, but a great gain.

I think, too, that God’s eternal remembrance of us, is a remembrance of the fullness of our person which is more, somehow, than who I am at this moment. It is me through time and in my fullness. It is one of the reasons that I have never been happy with the “as a tree falls so it lies” theology taught by some out there with regard to our death and judgment.

Some say that the whole of our eternity depends on the final state of our soul. Hamlet famously refrains from killing his stepfather when he comes across him in prayer, lest he thus dispatch him to heaven. The idea’s been around for a while. But we are so much more than this moment. This moment is not even the sum total of all other moments in your life. None of us seem to live with such fullness.

But God remembers such fullness and intends that for us. I hold that in my heart for my children, and I cannot separate them from the fullness of who they are and who they have been. Thus I hold their triumphs (even when they are small) in great esteem if I see that triumph in the context of their true personhood.) Surely God does this and more.

May God bless all who touch my day, from the past, the present and the future. Those present, and those absent (who are not truly absent).

May we come to know each other in a way that knows no absence.

A Mystery Solved

May 30, 2009

IMG_0537If you practice an excellent virtue without perceiving the taste of its aid, do not marvel; for until a man becomes humble, he will not receive a reward for his labor. Recompense is given, not for labor, but for humility.

-St. Isaac of Syria

+++

I cannot count the number of times that people have complained of their lack of “progress” in the spiritual life. In our cause and effect model of life, we are used to doing something and seeing some result from our action. Things are not like that in the spiritual life where Christ is the cause of all good things – and He does not behave as an impersonal cause.

Thus, in the words of St. Isaac, “recompense is given… for humility.” And it is well that it is so – for recompense “given for labor,” would establish only the strong and never the weak. We would see the same oppression in the Kingdom that we experience in our fallen world. Instead, God gives us what is “necessary for our salvation,” and it is humility that is required above all for “God resists the proud.” 

I recall Archimandrite Zacharias (of Essex) saying, “Never praise a monk – it’s bad for him.” He had just been introduced with a  typical American flourish. You could hear the pain in his voice when he asked not to be spoken of in such a way again. It was the sound of true humility – the sound of knowing how dangerous is the cult of personality.

How dangerous is the cult of all things proud.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. And not a single voice of “I told you so” will be whispered on that day.

Self-Emptying

May 29, 2009

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

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

Christians are not Buddhists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there any room at the inn?

Isaac of Syria on Humility

May 28, 2009

isaac_of_syriaFrom Met. Hilarion Alfeyev”s The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian:

To speak of humility (mukkaka or makkikuta) meant to Isaac to speak of God, for God in his vision is primarily the One who is ‘meek and lowly in heart’. God’s humility was revealed to the world in the Incarnation of the Word. In the Old Testament, God remained invisible to and unattainable by everyone approaching him. But when he clothed himself in humility and hid his glory under human flesh, he became both visible and attainable:

Humility is the raiment of the Godhead. The Word who became human clothed himself in it, and he spoke to us in our body. Everyone who has been clothed with humility has truly been made like unto Him who came down from his own exaltedness and hid the splendor of his majesty and concealed his glory with humility, lest creation be utterly consumed by the contemplation of him.

Every Christian is called to imitate Christ in humility. In acquiring humility, a person becomes like the Lord and clothes himself in Christ:

Wherefore every man has put on christ when he is clothed with the raiment wherein the Creator was seen through the body that he put on. For the likeness in which he was seen by his own creation and in which he kept company with it, he willed to put on in his inner man, and to be seen therein by his fellow servants.

The Church and the Cross

May 26, 2009

IMG_0625This article is also found in my pages section as The Ecclesiology of the Cross. It seems that as the Orthodox world begins another level of internal discussions on ecclesiology – that these thoughts are worth re-posting. I was pleased to see the article quoted recently in an Orthodox discussion on another site. Of course, sense the subject is the true nature of the Church, it is a matter of concern for all Christians – for the Church is not a matter of taste or personal preference – it is Divine and properly deserving an article of the Creed. I ask my readers’ indulgence for the length – it is actually a series of articles published as one. But I think the subject worth time and effort. I will add that recent conversation here about evangelism is proper to this topic as well. Our salvation – like the Church itself – is properly brought about by the Cross of Christ. The character of the Cross, as discussed in the following article, is also, I would think, the correct way to think about evangelism. The mystery of the Cross lies at the heart of every point of the faith.

Part I

Writing to the young Timothy (first letter) St. Paul gives this homey admonition:

These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.

Paul does not then go on to give us several chapters’ explanation of ecclesiology, expounding and unpacking the phrase, “pillar and ground of the truth.” The phrase simply hovers as a statement of fact beckoning the brave to “come up higher.”

Some have done so over the years: most famously in modern times Paul Florensky’s book by that very title – a massive tome of writing by the mathematician/mystic/theologian who is himself often as enigmatic as he is interesting.

Being Orthodox means living with words like “pillar and ground of truth.” Or singing gleefully in a liturgy, “We have seen the True Light, we have found the true faith.” In the wrong hands such words can be dangerous indeed. They are true enough, but such truth can be uttered well only as praise to the Living God, rarely as apologetics or as “war words” in our confused scene of Christianity. Uttered in “battle” (if the little dust-ups that occur hither and yon can be called such) these words take on the fearful character of “that by which we will be judged” (Matthew 12:36).

The insanity of modern American Christianity is the product of sola scripturapoor or no ecclesiology, and theentrepreneurship of the American spirit. Thus almost every Christian group that exists has something excellent to say about itself (like so many car dealerships). The perfect ratiocination of Reform theology, an Infallible Pope with a Magisterium, or the perfections of an invisible Church (really, how can you discuss an invisible Church?) Even Anglicans, born of divorce and compromise (I know they don’t like to say it like that in Anglican seminaries, but it’s history), can brag about Via Media, or today, “Inclusivity.”

Into this playing field of discussion come the Orthodox. We are familiar with Pillar and Ground of Truth, True Light, True Faith, Fullness, etc., words of excellence and perfection. Of course, as soon as they are uttered, gainsayers will point to everything about us that appears less – and there is so much at which to point (our messy jurisdictionalism, internal arguments, etc.) People who have mastered cut-and-paste functions on their computer can quote concatenations of the fathers proving that our Pillar and Ground of Truth was always sitting in Rome. What’s an Orthodox boy (or girl) to do?

I do not think we give up conversation, but we have to be aware of the nature of our conversation. We utter “Pillar and Ground of Truth,” etc. “in a sacred mystery.” Pulled out of its context (that is the living Church) and placed in argument, the phrase becomes words weakened by every other word we have ever spoken, and particularly the actions we have performed or failed to perform. Such phrases are no less true, but they were never meant as offensive weapons (except perhaps in spiritual warfare).

I would start, as an Orthodox boy, with the fact that everyone who is Orthodox has agreed to “deny himself, take up his cross and follow Christ.” The ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, is found precisely in its weaknessand is found there because God wants it that way.  If salvation means loving my enemies like God loves His enemies, then I am far better served by my weakness than my excellence. If humility draws the Holy Spirit, then my weakness is far more useful than any excellence I may possess.

The Orthodox Church has perhaps the weakest ecclesiology of all, because it depends, moment by moment, on the love and forgiveness of each by all and of all by each. Either the Bishops of the Church love and forgive each other or the whole thing falls apart. “Brethren, let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” These are the words that introduce the Creed each Sunday, and they are the words that are the bedrock of our ecclesiology.

We live in a wondrous age of the Church. Having suffered terrible blows at the hands of the Bolsheviks, we were smashed into jurisdictions (they don’t really start until the 1920’s), and often turned on one another in our rage. Today, the Bolshevik has been consigned “to the dustbin of history.” Moscow and the Russian Church Outside of Russia are actually going to gather at the Lord’s table together. We still have the spectre of a powerful Patriarch of Constantinople bumping into a powerful Patriarch of Moscow here and there, first in Estonia, then in London, who knows where next.

But in each and every case the only ecclesiology that will work, that will reveal the Church to be the Pillar and Ground of the Truth will be an ecclesiology of the Cross: mutual forgiveness and abiding love. This will be the Church’s boast: that it became like Christ in all ways; or it will have no boast at all.

I rejoice that I am alive in such a time as this. We stand at the edge of an abyss. We can embrace each other in joy and forgiveness or fall into the abyss itself (I trust Christ’s promise to keep us from such a misstep – though He has pulled us out of such places more than once). I rejoice because I don’t want anything other than to be conformed to the image of the crucified Christ. Let everybody else be excellent if they need to be. I need to die.

 Part II

I suggested in my previous post on this topic that the Cross be a central part of our understanding of the Church. There is a natural tendency to compartmentalize in theology – it’s hard to think of everything all the time and everywhere. And yet, it is important that we always remember that our salvation is not a series of discreet, compartmentalized events and undertakings – our salvation is one thing. Thus it is never entirely appropriate to speak of the Eucharist as one thing, Confession as another, Christology as another, iconography as another, etc. – everything, all of our faith, is one. All is encompassed in the saving work of Christ. It is hard for us to think like this but it is important to make the effort.

I would like to suggest several points for reflection on the Cross and the Church:

1. The self-emptying of God on the Cross, including his descent into Hades, is not accidental but utterly integral to understanding the saving work of Christ.

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.

3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Today, the first point:

1. When St. Paul writes of Christ’s “emptying” Himself (Phil 2:5-11), he is not describing something that is somehow alien to God, regardless of its profound irony. In Rev. 13:8 Christ is described as the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Thus we cannot look at the Cross as an event that is somehow alien to God. Rather, it is a revelation of Who God Is, perhaps the fullest revelation that we receive.

Christ speaks of his crucifixion, saying, “for this cause came I unto this hour”  (John 12:27).   Other aspects of Christ’s ministry, even His revelation of the Father to the world, should not be separated from the event of the Cross. In His self-emptying, Christ reveals the true character God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Writing about this self-emptying (kenosis), Fr. Nicholas Sakharov describes its place in the teachings of the Elder Sophrony:

The eternal aspect of Christ’s kenosis is perceived in the framework of the kenotic intratrinitarian love. Fr. Sophrony remarks that before Christ accomplished his earthly kenosis, “it had already been accomplished in heaven according to his divinity in relation to the Father.” The earthly kenosis is thus a manifestation of the heavenly: “Through him [Christ] we are given revelation about the nature of God-Love. The perfection consists in that this love humbly, without reservations, gives itself over. The Father in the generation of the Son pours himself out entirely. But the Son returns all things to the Father” (I Love Therefore I Am, 95).

Indeed, in this understanding we would say that this self-emptying is not only integral to Christ’s saving work, but to the revelation of the Triune God. Thus when we say, “God is love,” we understand that God pours Himself out: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is into this life of self-emptying that we are grafted in our salvation. We lose our life in order to save it. This is no reference to a single act, but to the character of the whole of our life as it is found in Christ. “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live” (Galatians 2:20).

Tomorrow: the second point, “Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.”

Part III

Following earlier posts on this subject, I take up the second of four points: 

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying [as the self-emptying of God on the Cross].

There is a tendency when we think of the Church to think in institutional terms – to speak of hierarchies, the role of Bishops, etc. Scripture uses a variety of images for the Church: the body of Christ, the messianic banquet, the pillar and ground of the truth, etc.

But of course, one simple reality of the Church abides and colors all of our experience: we are human beings in relationship with God and with other human beings who are part of the Church. That relationship, whether characterized in Eucharistic terms, or the language of the body of Christ, is still always quite relational (excuse the tautology). This inescapable fact makes it necessary for us to keep this aspect of the ecclesial life before us at all times.

What then does it mean for us to be in relationship? St. Paul, in his famous discourse on the Church as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12-13), focused on its most central aspect in the very core of that discourse. Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is the great chapter of love (agape). St. Paul subjugates all other concerns to that measure of reality. “If I have not love, then I am nothing” (13:2).

All too easily this passage is relegated to the category of ethics. (Recall that I noted in the last post it is all too easy to compartmentalize our thoughts about the Christian life). There is not an “ethics” department and an “ecclesiology” department. The ethics of 1 Corinthians is as much ecclesiology as Paul’s speech about the “body of Christ.” One is simply what the other looks like when it is actually lived.

The love of 1 Corinthians 13, is nothing less than the agapaic love of God – the love the Father has for the Son; the love the Son has for the Father; the love the Spirit has for the Father and the Son (and all the ways we may permutate those statements). Love is nothing other than the self-emptying of one person towards the other – it is the kenotic (emptying) relationship of one for the other that is the hallmark both of the intra-Trinitarian life as well as the life of the Church (how could the life of the Church be any different from the life of God?).

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…

This is as poetic and accurate a description of kenotic love as can be found in Scripture. This is synonomous with Christ’s claim that he does only that which He sees the Father doing (John 5:19). The Son empties Himself towards the Father and only does His will. The Father empties Himself towards the Son, and has given “all things into His hands” (John 13:3). The Spirit “does not speak of the things concerning Himself” (John 16:13), etc. These are not discreet revelations about intimate details of the Trinity, but are revelations of the very Life of God. Kenosis (self-emptying) is descriptive of each Person of the Trinity. It is in this that we speak of “God is love.” For greater love cannot be measured than that we “lay down our life for our friends.”

Thus when we come to speak of our life in the Church, St. Paul characterizes it by this same act of kenotic love. We do not look towards our own good, but for the good of the other. We “weep with those who weep” and “rejoice with those who rejoice.” Our lives in the Church are not marked by centers of activity and importance (individuals) who then negotiate with other centers of activity and importance for their respective positions. Such a model is a description of secular life (at its best) and Hell (at its worst).

That our membership in the Body of Christ begins by our Baptism into Christ’s death (Romans 6:3) and also includes Baptistm “into the Body of Christ” (I Corinithians 12:13) gives an explanation of the meaning of “Baptized into the Body.” To exist in the Body of Christ is to do so by existing in the death of Christ, as well as His resurrection. How this makes us “His body” is amplified when we see that “His death” is more than the event on Calvary, but the fullness of His divine self-emptying that was made manifest to us on the Cross of Calvary. We are Baptized into the self-emptying love of Christ, for this is the only way of life. If we are to be transformed “from one degree of glory to another” then it is towards the “glory” of the crucified, self-emptying Christ that we are being transformed. Deification (theosis) is also kenosis (self-emptying) for there is no other kind of life revealed to us in Christ.

Next: 3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

And: 4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Part IV

We continue from our previous posts with the last two points:

3. All discussion of the Church and its life must include this self-emptying [of Christ], not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

These last two points probably belong together as a single point – and so will be treated together in this posting.

The self-emptying of God, revealed to us on the Cross of Christ, is enjoined by the Apostle Paul to be the “mind” of the Church:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of god, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled [emptied] himself and and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).

Typical of the Apostle, even his most profound theological statements are integrated into the life of the church – for theology concerning Christ is not an abstraction or a theory to be discussed, but a revelation of the truth – both the truth of God and the truth of ourselves, inasmuch as we are His body. There is no proper division between our contemplation of the truth and our living of the truth.

In another place the Apostle writes:

Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).

Here, even the separation or distinctin between Church and Scripture is overcome! The Church, rightly lived, is itself the true interpretation of Scripture. Thus, when we speak of the self-emptying of Christ on our behalf, we must also live in a self-emptying manner towards one another and towards God.

The Church has often been described as a “Eucharistic Community,” and it is said that the Church is most fully manifest in the Divine Liturgy. But this is true only as the Church itself lives in a proper Eucharistic manner. Just as Christ pours Himself out for us to the Father, and the Father gives Himself to His Son, so all the members of the body of Christ must pour themselves out towards one another and towards Christ. We “empty ourselves” so that we might be the “fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Ephesians 1:23).

This same self-emptying is also proper to the unity of the Church. The context for St. Paul’s writing of Christ’s self-emptying is precisely in a passage where he is concerned to speak of the unity of the Church.

Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself…(Philippians 2:2-7)

 The unity of the Church is unimaginable without this mutual self-emptying. Indeed, such a unity (should there be one) would be without the mind of Christ, and thus would be a false unity.

As noted in the first post on this subject, the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church is rooted in its weakness. Our imitation of the self-emptying love of Christ is precisely the weakness in which our ecclesiastical life is grounded. thus, though the Church has a hierarchy (a “holy order”), that order is not properly an earthly hierarchy, a ranking of privilege and power.

As Christ Himself warned His apostles,

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28)

Thus the primacy which exists in the Church is a “primacy of love,” not a primacy of coercion. St. Ignatius, in his letter to the Romans, referred to that Church as the one which “presides in love.” (Nicholas Afanassieff famously wrote an Orthodox essay on the Petrine ministry by this title).

However, just as our salvation is not properly seen as a juridical event, neither can the life of the church be seen as juridical in nature. To say this does not deny the concept of jurisdiction, nor the necessity of the church to make judgments and practice discipline within its life and the lives of its members, but it is to assert that such jurisdiction, judgment and discipline are not properly juridical in nature. Thus, depriving someone of Holy Communion, or deposing them from Holy Orders, is not rightly understood as a juridical action of the Church, but an action whose sole purpose is the healing of that member of the Church. God’s chastisement is for no purpose other than our salvation – how can the chastisement of the Church serve any other purpose?

The great difficulty in all of this is that the true life of the church, and thus all ecclesiology, is never anything less than miraculous. Ecclesiology cannot be a study of those things the Church “has to do” because it “lives in the world.” This would make the Church’s life one long compromise with “practicality” and declare that the life of God is trumped by some version of necessity. This kind of reasoning eventually yields the evil fruit imagined in Dostoevsky’s famous chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor.” The church is driven by no necessity other than the self-emptying love of God manifest in her life and in the life of all of her members.

This self-emptying life of God, understood as the life of the Church, is of particular importance for Orthodoxy. Here, there is very little of a juridical nature. Those who see Orthodoxy from the outside see this ecclesiological lack as a fundamental flaw in the life of the Orthodox Church. Instead, it is a fundamental faithfulness to the mind of Christ. But to live in such faithfulness requires that our lives be ever yielded to God. So soon as the Church turns away from God and the True Life which makes this self-emptying possible, so soon does the Church fall towards anarchy and strife. Church history is full of examples of such failures – just as it is full of examples of Christ’s faithfulness and promise to the Church to preserve it against the gates of hell. But each time the Church has been victorious over such stumbling, it has been because she returned to the path set forth by the self-emptying Christ.

Whatever dialog the Church has within itself (between “Churches” as the Orthodox would say) or with those with whom there is schism, the dialog must be rooted in the mind of Christ, the self-emptying love of God. This in no way calls for an ignoring of dogma, for dogma itself is but a verbal icon of Christ (to use a phrase of Fr. Georges Florovsky). But to “speak the truth in love” is to speak from within the mind of Christ, that is, from within His self-emptying love. There is no sin that such love does not heal, no emptiness that this Emptiness cannot fill. Our hope is in Christ, thus we shall not be ashamed (Romans 5:5).