Archive for the ‘Saints’ Category

Raising A Saint

August 31, 2008

Most of us would be satisfied to raise children who remain faithful believers. It is not always an easy thing and every parent who has such a child should rejoice constantly. There is no method to raise a child to be a saint, for God alone gives the grace that results in the mystery of such wonderful lives. However that may be, I am often struck in reading the writings of St. Silouan by his stories about his father. It would seem that the most fundamental spiritual lessons are not ones he gained from an Elder, but from the simple peasant that was his father – but a simple peasant with the faith of a saint. A small example:

Let us not be distressed over the loss of worldly goods, such losses are a small matter. My own father taught me this early in life. When some misfortune happened at home, he would remain serene. When our house caught fire and the neighbors said, ‘Ivan Petrovich, your house is burnt down!’ he replied, ‘With God’s help I’ll build it up again.’ Once we were walking along the side of our field, and I said, ‘Look, they’re stealing our sheaves!’ ‘Aye, son,’ he answered me, ‘the Lord has given us corn and to spare, so if anyone steals it, it means he’s in want.’ Another day I said to him, ‘You give a lot away to charity, while some who are better off than we are give far less.’ To which he replied, ‘Aye, son, the Lord will provide.’ And the Lord did not confound his hope.

From St. Silouan of Mount Athos

There is no better way to teach a child Christianity than to actually live it – truly and from the heart. You cannot teach what you do not live.

He Shall Exalt the Humble and Meek

August 27, 2008

All heaven and earth exalt the humble Saints, and the Lord grants them the glory of being with Him. ‘Where I am, there shall also my servant be.’

The humility of the Mother of God is greater than any, wherefore all generations on earth exalt her, and all the heavenly hosts serve her; and this His Mother the Lord has given us to intercede for us and be our help.

There is no better way than to live in humility and love. The soul then knows a great peace within her, and will not set herself above her neighbor. If we love our enemies, there will be no place in our souls for pride, for in Christ-like love no one ranks above another. Pride like a burning fire consumes all that is good, whereas the humility of Christ passes description and is sweet. Did men but know this, the whole world would be apprenticed to this science. Day and night, all my life long, have I striven after humility, yet am I not able to prevail. My soul ever reflects: I have not attained to that which I desire, I cannot rest, but I humbly entreat you, brethren, you who know the love of Christ – pray for me, that I may be delivered from the spirit of pride, that the humility of Christ take up her abode in me.

St. Silouan in St. Silouan the Athonite

I often wonder when discussion reaches towards the Mother of God and becomes contentious – whether those who are uncomfortable with her veneration by Orthodox Christians have not become enmeshed in the “idea” of the Mother of God, rather than looking directly at her. For many, she remains a collection of verses in the Scripture, a cypher to be debated. What is lacking in this is the utter and complete depth of her humility that resides in her personally. To look at her is to blush – because we ourselves are so full of pride yet she whom God has exalted, remains so utterly and completely humble. She abides in the humility of Christ which was manifested in her even at the high greeting of an angel.

Those who fear her veneration do not see the person who is the recipient of that veneration – or they would see the vast humility that so far from vaunting itself against God, instead eternally cries, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to Thy word!”

How can Christians who have actually gazed upon the reality that is the Mother of God not love her and give her honor – an honor that flows into the vast expanse of her humility before God? Woe to those who accuse the Orthodox of giving to her an honor that belongs to God! Her own humility rebukes such honor!

Instead, she beckons us, fearful humans as we are, to walk the humble path she trod to the Cross, and to stand by the crucified Lord, able to hear His wondrous words from the Cross. So many love His words – but to whom were they spoken? Who was it that bore witness? Perhaps John or Mary Magdalene, but surely His own mother who did not abandon Him, whose own soul was pierced by a sword also. Who else would have understood His words as she did and does?

God grant us grace to lift our gaze towards the heights of humility and not just our arguments, so devoid of reason. God grant us grace to call blessed she whom He has blessed.

The Most Holy Mother of God

August 13, 2008

On August 15, the Orthodox Church (new calendar) commemorates the Dormition (falling asleep) of the Most Holy Mother of God. The feast is considered to be one of the 12 Great Feasts of the year and thus an integral part of the proclamation of gospel of Jesus Christ.

Many who are not familiar with Orthodoxy, or its manner of understanding saints, easily see feast days and the veneration of saints as distractions from the gospel. The thought is: “If it’s not about Jesus, then somehow the gospel is not being preached.”

I am willing to grant the point – but to quickly add that the veneration of the Mother of God is inherently about Jesus and that without paying proper attention to Mary, Christ is being short-changed and not fully understood.

In the history of the Church the first dogmatic proclamation concerning Mary was the use of the title, Theotokos, meaning “the one who gave birth to God.” Nestorius, for whom the heresy of Nestorianism is named, objected to the use of the term saying that she should be called Christotokos instead. This would mean that she was the mother of Christ, but not properly called Mother of God. The Church condemned Nestorius’ teaching and affirmed the use of this title for Mary, for Christ is not properly divided into a schizophrenic being (God and Man but not united), but is instead but one Person, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Eventually the Church would declare that He was one Person with two natures (Divine and Human) but never sought to contemplate Him in a manner that divided His person.

Thus the title given to Mary was and is about Jesus and was solemnly defined in order to protect the proper understanding of His incarnation.

The Scriptures themselves bear ample witness to her unique position. “All generations will call me blessed,” are words spoken by Mary in her dialog with her cousin, Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptist). To refuse this honor to Mary is to violate the clear word of Scripture.

At the Wedding at Cana, where St. John records Christ worked his first miracle, we have a story of an encounter between Christ and His mother. For what reason we do not know, the problem of the wine shortage is brought to Mary. She takes the problem to Christ who responds: “What is this to me and you, woman? My hour has not yet come.” Idiomatically the statement means, “What concern is that of ours?” Addressing her as “woman” is not derogatory as some claim (why would Jesus fail to honor his mother in violation of the law?). Her response to His statement is interesting. She turns to the servants and tells them to “do whatever He tells you.” At her intercession Christ works His first miracle. Argue with it if you will, but on the plain face of the story that is what happens. Why does St. John record the story? It is certainly a story that points towards the great wedding feast at the end of the age, but Mary plays a central role.

This same role is played throughout Scripture in the lives of the righteous. They intercede before God for others and God hears them. Abraham interceded for Sodom and Gomorrah; Moses interceded many times for Israel and God heard him; the stories of these righteous men and women can be multiplied many times over(Read Hebrews 11).

This same communion of saints has continued through the ages adding to its list those who have followed Christ and in union with Him offered intercession for the world. Those who have known the communion of the saints and their fervent prayer before God on our behalf have known something of the fullness of the Church. For it is they (and us) whom St. Paul has in mind when he says that the Old Testament saints awaited a promise which is now ours, that, together with them, we are made complete (Hebrews 11:40). That promise, of course, is Christ, born of the Holy Spirit and the Most Holy Virgin Mary who is blessed through the ages.

Eternal life is to know God, and Jesus Christ Whom He has sent (John 17:3). But the Christ we are called to know is to be known in His fullness. That fullness includes His incarnation and the communion of saints He established when He united Himself to our flesh in the Virgin.

The Seven Holy Maccabbees

July 31, 2008

August 1 is the Feast of the Precious and Life-Giving Wood of the Cross, but also the feast of the martyrdom of the Seven Maccabees. Since Protestant Christians do not include the books of First and Second Maccabees in their canon, they will be unfamiliar with this historically accurate and Godly tale of the courage of these holy martyrs from the Old Testament. In their honor I share the story of their martyrdom. I should add that their death was preceded by their teacher, Eleazar, who, at age 90, refused an easy ruse offered to him to spare his life, fearing that the young might misconstrue him and believe that he had yielded to the wicked King (who was trying to force him to eat unclean meat). Thus he taught us that the appearance of righteousness can be as important as the letter of the Law. The mother of the seven brothers, Salome, also gave her noble life as a martyr.

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2 Maccabees 7:1-42  It happened also that seven brothers and their mother were arrested and were being compelled by the king, under torture with whips and cords, to partake of unlawful swine’s flesh. One of them, acting as their spokesman, said, “What do you intend to ask and learn from us? For we are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our fathers.” The king fell into a rage, and gave orders that pans and caldrons be heated. These were heated immediately, and he commanded that the tongue of their spokesman be cut out and that they scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of the brothers and the mother looked on. When he was utterly helpless, the king ordered them to take him to the fire, still breathing, and to fry him in a pan. The smoke from the pan spread widely, but the brothers and their mother encouraged one another to die nobly, saying, “The Lord God is watching over us and in truth has compassion on us, as Moses declared in his song which bore witness against the people to their faces, when he said, `And he will have compassion on his servants.'”

After the first brother had died in this way, they brought forward the second for their sport. They tore off the skin of his head with the hair, and asked him, “Will you eat rather than have your body punished limb by limb?” He replied in the language of his fathers, and said to them, “No.” Therefore he in turn underwent tortures as the first brother had done. And when he was at his last breath, he said, “You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.” After him, the third was the victim of their sport. When it was demanded, he quickly put out his tongue and courageously stretched forth his hands, and said nobly, “I got these from Heaven, and because of his laws I disdain them, and from him I hope to get them back again.”

As a result the king himself and those with him were astonished at the young man’s spirit, for he regarded his sufferings as nothing. When he too had died, they maltreated and tortured the fourth in the same way. And when he was near death, he said, “One cannot but choose to die at the hands of men and to cherish the hope that God gives of being raised again by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life!”

Next they brought forward the fifth and maltreated him. But he looked at the king, and said, “Because you have authority among men, mortal though you are, you do what you please. But do not think that God has forsaken our people. Keep on, and see how his mighty power will torture you and your descendants!”

After him they brought forward the sixth. And when he was about to die, he said, “Do not deceive yourself in vain. For we are suffering these things on our own account, because of our sins against our own God. Therefore astounding things have happened.

But do not think that you will go unpunished for having tried to fight against God!” The mother was especially admirable and worthy of honorable memory. Though she saw her seven sons perish within a single day, she bore it with good courage because of her hope in the Lord. She encouraged each of them in the language of their fathers. Filled with a noble spirit, she fired her woman’s reasoning with a man’s courage, and said to them, “I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of man and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws.”

Antiochus felt that he was being treated with contempt, and he was suspicious of her reproachful tone. The youngest brother being still alive, Antiochus not only appealed to him in words, but promised with oaths that he would make him rich and enviable if he would turn from the ways of his fathers, and that he would take him for his friend and entrust him with public affairs.

Since the young man would not listen to him at all, the king called the mother to him and urged her to advise the youth to save himself. After much urging on his part, she undertook to persuade her son. But, leaning close to him, she spoke in their native tongue as follows, deriding the cruel tyrant: “My son, have pity on me. I carried you nine months in my womb, and nursed you for three years, and have reared you and brought you up to this point in your life, and have taken care of you. I beseech you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. Thus also mankind comes into being. Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again with your brothers.”

While she was still speaking, the young man said, “What are you waiting for? I will not obey the king’s command, but I obey the command of the law that was given to our fathers through Moses. But you, who have contrived all sorts of evil against the Hebrews, will certainly not escape the hands of God. For we are suffering because of our own sins. And if our living Lord is angry for a little while, to rebuke and discipline us, he will again be reconciled with his own servants. But you, unholy wretch, you most defiled of all men, do not be elated in vain and puffed up by uncertain hopes, when you raise your hand against the children of heaven. You have not yet escaped the judgment of the almighty, all-seeing God. For our brothers after enduring a brief suffering have drunk of everflowing life under God’s covenant; but you, by the judgment of God, will receive just punishment for your arrogance. I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our fathers, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by afflictions and plagues to make you confess that he alone is God, and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty which has justly fallen on our whole nation.”

The king fell into a rage, and handled him worse than the others, being exasperated at his scorn. So he died in his integrity, putting his whole trust in the Lord. Last of all, the mother died, after her sons. Let this be enough, then, about the eating of sacrifices and the extreme tortures.

The Feast of the Dormition of St. Anne

July 25, 2008

Today is the patronal festival of my parish, the feast of the Dormition of Righteous Anna, mother of the Theotokos. The details we know about her life, and that of her priest-husband, Righteous Joachim, are from sources within the Tradition (though not within the Scriptures). They are often pointed to as one of the great examples of married saints. Their story, like many in the Old Testament, include a time of barrenness and no child, and the promise and gift of a child in the old age. This child, Mary, was chosen of God and appointed to be the mother of the Incarnate God.

Orthodoxy is very “inclusive” when it speaks about salvation. Our salvation, of course, is accomplished and could only be accomplished through Christ Himself. And yet Christ Himself does not become incarnate except at the humble words of Mary, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to Thy word.”

By the same token, Mary is not an accident, a random choice from among the virgins of Israel, but is the culmination of Israel’s history, according to the flesh. She stands in the place of Eve, offering to God a “yes,” where our ancestor had offered “no.” In the new life of the Kingdom, she is the mother of all living, just as Eve had been called by that name according to the flesh.

But as Mary is no accident, so her parents are no accident, nor the entire history of Israel. It is all the economy of God, working out the salvation of mankind, through mankind and His grace.

My wife says frequently, “You never really get to know a saint by reading their story. It’s only in calling on them in prayer, asking for their help, that you get to know them.” I know there’s much to be discussed for those who do not understand this part of Orthodox Tradition. But in the 10 years I have served as the priest of a parish whose patroness is St. Anne, I have come to know her well, as a mother who cares for her spiritual children, and who is a great friend and intercessor for the needs of our spiritual family.

I like the fact that my parish is named for a grandmother. My wife reminds me that the parish is named for the wife of a priest (Joachim was a priest in the Old Temple). Good choice on both accounts.

Scattered Thoughts

June 29, 2008

We have noticed with sadness that nowadays men suffer dreadfully because their mind is fragmented. Imagination, which is only one of the mind’s activities, is overindulged and dominates men’s lives, leading some to hardness of heart due to pride, and others to mental illness. According to the teaching of the Gospel and the Scriptures, the mind works naturally only when it is united with the heart. Mind and heart are naturally joined together when the fire of contrition is in the heart.

Archimandrite Zacharias in The Enlargement of the Heart.

I’m certain that my experience of prayer is similar to that of most of my readers – a struggle to pray with a scattered mind. To read of the return of the mind to the heart is to know how far my prayers are from where they should be. It is also a realization that to “love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind,” is virtually impossible in such a scattered state. We lack the wholeness to make such an offering.

The desire of my heart is to not forget that there is such a thing as a mind united to the heart. My desire is to settle for nothing less. There is an emptiness in theology when it remains only a recitation of ideas and a fantasy of the imagination.

Thus, when I speak of a fullness (as I often do in my writings), I speak of something that belongs to God and can only come to man as a gift. There is a fullness in the sacraments of the Church, though in our scattered state we approach that fullness only with faith – with a hope for what we do not yet see. There is a need for steadfastness in that hope – a steadfastness that refuses to turn aside for something less.

We have been promised heaven – indeed I believe the union of mind and heart is a place where that promise begins to be fulfilled. Thus I will not turn aside for something else – whether argument or curiosity. For the fantasies of our scattered thoughts are not the stuff of reality – only the stuff of delusion.

There are moments of clarity – even for those whose most common experience is a scattered state. These moments come as flashes – sometimes in the Liturgy – sometimes in prayer – sometimes in very unexpected places. The flashes themselves are gifts – small insights that call us to remain steadfast and not to turn aside from hope.

In a very few cases in my life, I have had the pleasure of meeting someone whose thoughts were not scattered – who were wholly present – mind and heart. In each case it has been an encounter with humanity bordering on fullness – not something that overwhelms but something that welcomes and makes all things around seem brighter and more truly alive. I would not dare to say that I was encountering a saint, for God alone knows such a thing. But I have met those who were clearly moving in that direction in a way that we rarely see.

I saw it once in a woman who was a hospice patient. She had been homebound and bed-ridden for better than six months. I noticed that every day a constant stream of friends passed through her home. It was unusual. Generally when someone is sick for a prolonged period, vists become fewer as people readjust their lives and turn their attention elsewhere. It is sad but true. However, in this case just the opposite was happening. I cannot say that her friends were of such great quality that they never left her – but rather that she was a person of such good heart that people continued to visit because they always received more than they gave.

She was not Orthodox, but she was curious about my faith. What I was able to share with her was received with gratitude and with an understanding that immediately seemed to grasp the heart of each matter. I discovered that my visits to her (as her “hospice chaplain”) were themselves unusually frequent. I always left with more than I had brought.

She died perhaps eight years ago. As a priest, I have kept her name in my prayers of remembrance for the departed. I pray for her, for I hope that she will remember and pray for me.  

She was a fullness in an unexpected place. God’s grace appears where it appears. But the reality of it all is the heart of the matter for me. She, like several others I have known, was real and not a fantasy. She was a largeness of life that defied explanation apart from God. In such a life the mind is not scattered but brought to where it should remain – united to the heart. From such a heart love flows in a manner that draws the hungry souls of all around. And the fire of contrition burns in all who remain in its presence for arrogance and pride are reduced to ashes in such a holy furnace.

The Fullness of the Fullness

June 28, 2008

It is frequently the case that Orthodox theology uses the word “fullness” to describe its understanding and life of the gospel. This is a far more apt expression than simply saying “we have the truth.” Fullness, I think, better describes something. Truth, in our modern vocabulary, can mean something quite flat – as in a correct answer on a test. However, “fullness” describes not only the truth but the truth with an embodiment, the life of grace, but life as it is lived. The truth, but as it is incarnate.

Part of the celebration in which I participated during this last week, was a recognition on the part of the Diocese of the South (OCA) of a fullness – most particularly as we have experienced in the life and ministry of our Archbishop DMITRI. It is a recognition that for 30 years, the diocese has been formed and shaped by someone whose primary concern has been for the fullness of the faith and its embodiment, both in himself and in his priests, and not simply a concern for the machinery of the diocese.

Most of the priests of the diocese have been ordained by him, and their ministries have been formed and shaped by this living model we have before us.

It is the case in Orthodoxy, that when we speak of Holy Tradition, that, although we mean the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church, we also mean that presence as it is mediated to us in the liturgical life of the Church, in our communion with God, and as embodied in our midst through the minstries which God has set among us. Without the gospel expressed in a life, it is only the gospel as an idea – some abstract. It is the incarnation of the gospel in the ministries in which God has set in His Church that saves us from the obscurity of the Gospel as mere “idea.” Anybody can preach an idea – but an idea that has become incarnate is a different thing. The life itself says more than words, and it gives to its words a meaning that the words would never have by themselves.

That is the experience of the Diocese of the South. We have both heard the Gospel, but it has also been enfleshed among us. I am challenged by the humility of Christ because I have lived with the meekness of my Archbishop.

This, of course, is the great crisis of Christianity. It’s modern temptation is to be reduced to ideas and slogans. Indeed, this has often been its temptation during times of safety. By the grace of God, monastics and other Christians of serious commitment have rescued the gospel from the mediocrity of mere idealism.

Humility is a difficult task, as is the kindness of a good heart. I have never known anything else from my father in God.

I know that “God resists the proud,” and I have seen this illustrated amply in my years of ministry. I know what it is for God to resist my own pride or the pride of a parishioner. I have seen Him resist the pride of those who believe that their titles “entitles” them to something – which is simply not true.

We honored 30 years of the gospel enfleshed in the Diocese of the South last Thursday night at a banquet. We also celebrated the possibility of an Auxiliary Bishop (Jonah Paffhausen) who is himself a model of meekness.

Orthodoxy faces many deep challenges in the modern world. Some of them are brought on us by both the abuses of the past century as well as the new challenges of the present century. Our ecclesiology, which is never more than love (a canon cannot produce the Church), is and will be tested to the maximum. But the world is not hungry for the Canons or for pride of place, but for the self-sacrificing love of Christ and the fullness of His emptiness on the Cross.

The way forward for Orthodoxy in America will only be through the Cross, God help us. But there is no other way forward for anyone, ever, anywhere.

The Cross is the emptiness of God, but also His fullness. The Church will truly embody that fullness only as it embraces the emptiness set before us.

I am only an Orthodox priest with a limited scope of responsibility. I stand in awe of the men who have been brave enough to embrace the Cross of the Episcopacy. I believe that as much as anyone is not more than everyone, they will have to face the temptation to live something less than the Cross. I pray for grace for each and all of them. May God grant us servants of the Cross – crucified Bishops who proclaim the crucified God – crucified priests who proclaim the crucified Christ – crucified laity who proclaim the crucified life of the Gospel.

For this the world has hungered for all its life – for the Crucified life is the only life. May God hear us and keep us. May God give us grace to take up the cross and live for nothing else. Glory to God.

Why the Intercession of the Saints is a Dogma

June 22, 2008

Biblical interpretation and doctrine based on Scripture have certain parameters that anyone rightly handling the word of truth must observe. The particular rule that I have in mind in this posting is the simple avoidance of anachronisms. That is, if an idea did not exist at the time of the New Testament, or shortly thereafter, but is, in fact, a modern development, then, whatever the writer might have meant, he could not have meant something that wasn’t an idea until the modern period. This is a fairly simple rule. If it can be shown that an idea is uniquely modern, then, if it is used as an interpretation of Scripture, we can be sure that the interpreter is reading back into Scripture something that is not there nor can be there.

In no case is this sort of anachronism more flagrant nor more distorting of Christian doctrine, than the notion of the self – and thus of the nature of what it is to be human. The idea of what it means to be a person, or “the self”, etc., is not a given. It varies widely from culture to culture (particularly between ancient cultures). Evidence of this would be quite strong if one was comparing the Christian understanding of the self (in any form) and the Buddhist conception of the self (or the non-self).

But within Christianity, the self has undergone radical change in its definition and the cultural understanding of what it means to be a person. One of the most magisterial treatments of this topic was published in 1989, Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: the Making of the Modern Identity. For years, Taylor taught Moral Philosophy at Oxford and more recently at McGill University. He has his own philosophical agenda that is not of particular interest to me, but in the course of his work he offers one of the best descriptions of the evolution in Western thought of the conception of the human person.

He notes that a radical change took place at the time of the Reformation and the early Enlightenment. The arguments of the time succeeded in redefining what it meant to be a person – particularly a person in relation to God. At stake was the theological effort to undermine the traditional claims and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, many of which were simply the common inheritance of both Orthodoxy and Catholicism, the understanding and teaching of the early Church.

In a very insightful passage, Taylor has this to say about the Church and the change it underwent with regard to the emerging modern identity:

If the church is the locus and vehicle of the sacred, then we are brought closer to God by the very fact of belonging and participating in its sacramental life. Grace can come to us mediately through the church, and we can mediate grace to each other, as the lives of the saints enrich the common life on which we all draw. Once the sacred is rejected, then this kind of mediation is also. Each person stands alone in relation to God: his or her fate – salvation or damnation – is separately decided. [emphasis added]

As his description of this change develops he describes what happens to the Catholic Christian who is redefined by the Reformation (which happened throughout the Protestant world).

I am a passenger in the ecclesial ship on its journey to God. But for Protestantism, there can be no passengers. This is because there is no ship in the Catholic sense, no common movement carrying humans to salvation. Each believer rows his or her own boat. [emphasis added]

The great shift that occurred was to move from seeing a human being as a person participating in a common human nature – indeed whose existence and salvation are to be understood almost entirely in terms of participation (koinonia). The shift was a move towards the modern autonomous individual who is defined primarily by the choices made in his/her life. The modern individual, understood as consumer, is an almost perfect example of the evolution of this thought. Taylor’s book is a must-read for anyone who wants to follow this movement in the history of Western thought.

However, the modern conception of autonomous man is a concept not shared by Scripture. It does not undergird the thought of St. Paul or St. John, indeed it undermines both if it is wrongly brought into the realm of Scriptural interpretation. Its application in Christian doctrine has tended to shift the emphasis in modern Christian teaching away from a sacramental (participatory) understanding and towards a form of volunteerism where the decision of an individual for Christ is the sole defining characteristic of salvation.

Interestingly, Christ never said, “Except a man accept me as His personal Lord and Savior He shall not inherit eternal life,” even though many modern Christians would think that much of what He said means precisely that.

Christ does say, “Except a man be born again (or “born from above” the Greek is purposefully ambiguous) he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” But birth is not an autonomous act, nor does it ever involve a decision by the one being born. I am not arguing here that the role of the human will plays no role in salvation, for it does – but not in the way imagined by modern volunteerists. 

In the classical Christian understanding of what it means to be human – we do not exist alone – but as participants in a common nature – and though our fall from grace has left us damaged – so that we generally experience ourselves as autonomous individuals – this is not our proper end – salvation restores us to a place of proper communion with God and with other persons. There is an extension, an enlargement of the self, such that our life can no longer be defined simply by reference to the self, but must be seen as it exists in communion with God and others. Thus love becomes the defining act of our existence.

In no place does this participatory understanding of human existence play a greater role than in the life of the Church – both the Church that we see – and the Church that we do not see – the saints who surround us and pray unceasingly before the throne of God.

It is this proper understanding of human salvation that is safeguarded in the Church’s teaching of the communion and intercession of the saints. And it is the self understood in its modern, autonomous form that makes the doctrine of the intercession of the saints seem so foreign to many modern believers. Saints for them simply get in an individual’s way when he seeks to relate to God.

But if the human person and his salvation are understood in a proper participatory sense – nothing could be more normal than the intercession of the saints. It is simply a description of what it means to actually share a common life – the life of God. How can those who share in the common life of God not care for and pray for one another? How can they not solicit each other’s concern? Far from distracting from God – it draws us towards a right understanding of God – who is the Lord of Hosts – not the God of the autonomous individual.

Thus St. Paul when looking for ways to describe proper Church life will use images such as the body to describe how we are to relate to Christ and to one another. We cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you.” We cannot say to the saints, “I have no need of you.”

In classical Christian teaching we are told, “No one is saved alone. If we fall, we fall alone. But no one is saved alone.”

Our will has its role. Orthodoxy strongly teaches the importance of asceticism (acts such as fasting and prayer, almsgiving, etc.). But the purpose of asceticism is not self-improvement, but simply to learn cooperation with the communion of grace that is saving us. In fasting and prayer we learn that our life depends not on ourselves but on others – God who is the Source of all life – and our proper communion with the rest of creation.

The Church never teaches a doctrine or dogma simply for the sake of teaching. Such proclamations are always about the truth as revealed to us in Christ – particularly as it relates to our salvation. The intercession of the saints is one such dogma. For it safeguards the revealed teaching concerning what it means to be a human created in the image of God and the very nature of our salvation. Human beings are created such that we are meant to share and live a common life – the life of God. The Communion of Saints is simply a dogmatic expression of that reality – a verbal icon of the truth of our being.

True Knowledge of God

June 19, 2008

The Elder Sophrony made a strong distinction between the knowledge we gain by rational speculation and the knowledge of God that comes as a gift of grace. He used the term “dogmatic consciousness” to express the knowledge of God as found in the lives of the saints and great ascetics. It is not a contradiction of the dogma of the Church, but an existential encounter with God that ineffably confirms the teaching of the Church. As a side note, it is interesting that he thinks there is a time extending better than fifteen years between the knowledge gained in such an encounter and its verbal expression. It takes time to properly assimilate such knowledge and yet more time to find words.

The dogmatic consciousness I have here in mind is the fruit of spiritual experience, independent of the logical brain’s activity. The writings in which the Saints reported their experience were not cast in the form of scholastic dissertations. They were revelations of the soul. Discourse on God and on life in God comes about simply, without cogitation, born spontaneously in the soul.

Dogmatic consciousness where asceticism is concerned is not a rational analysis of an inward experience – it is not ‘psychoanalysis’. Ascetics avoid this rational speculation because it only weakens the intensity of their contemplation of the Light but, indeed, interrupts it, with the result that the soul sinks into darkness, left as she is with a merely abstract rational knowledge devoid of all vitality.

What is the use of reasoning about the nature of grace if one does not experience its action in oneself? What is the use of declaiming about the light of Tabor if one does not dwell in it existentially? Is there any sense in splitting theological hairs over the nature of the Trinity if a man has not within himself the holy strength of the Father, the gentle love of the Son, the uncreated light of the Holy Ghost?

Dogmatic knowledge, understood as spiritual knowledge, is a gift of God, like all forms of real life in God, granted by God, and only possible through His coming. This knowledge has by no means always been expressed in speech or in writing. The soul does not aspire to expound her experience in rational concepts when God’s grace descends on her. She needs no logical interpretations then, because she knows with a knowledge that cannot be demonstrated but which equally requires no proof that she lives through the true God….

…God is made known by faith and living communion, whereas human speech with all its relativity and fluidity opens the way to endless misunderstandings and objections. (From St. Silouan the Athonite).

 This short passage itself expresses the faith of the Orthodox Church as expressed in its life and councils. Though the study of dogma or doctrine is certainly part of every priest’s education and in some form part of every catechumen’s training, it is never enough by itself. It is the deeper and truer expression of the ancient formula, lex orandi lex credendi (“the law of praying is the law of believing”). For many in our modern context, this ancient formula has been interpreted to mean that the texts of the Church’s liturgical worship should be the basis for the Church’s dogmatic expressions. In many ways this is true. The liturgical language of the Church gives a very full expression to the Church’s faith. But in another sense, implied by Father Sophrony, we may say that the actual participation in the liturgical life of the Church, our existential encounter with God in the worshipping context, is the proper meaning of the ancient formula. For without the knowledge that is known “by faith and living communion” words fall flat and fail to say the little that can be said.

The dogmatic expressions of the Church, though providing a grammar for worship, are not the proper object of worship itself. They provide a grammar but direct us to the worship of the True and Living God, knowledge of Whom is eternal life.

As one contemporary American Orthodox theologian has said recently, “After all, it’s really all about God.” Indeed.

What is the use of reasoning about the nature of grace if one does not experience its action in oneself? What is the use of declaiming about the light of Tabor if one does not dwell in it existentially? Is there any sense in splitting theological hairs over the nature of the Trinity if a man has not within himself the holy strength of the Father, the gentle love of the Son, the uncreated light of the Holy Ghost?

St. Nikolai Velimirovich – Prayers By the Lake

June 3, 2008

This video contains text from Prayers by the Lake by St. Nikolai of Zicha,  a contemporary Serbian saint. May God grant our hearts to hear them.