Archive for the ‘Saints’ Category

Grace and “the Inverted Pyramid”

May 19, 2008

Fr. Sophrony [Sakharov], in his book on St. Silouan, presents this theory of the “inverted pyramid.” He says that the empirical cosmic being is like a pyramid: at the top sit the powerful of the earth, who exercise dominion over the nations (cf. Matt. 20:25), and at the bottom stand the masses. But the spirit of man, by nature [unfallen nature as given by God], demands equality, justice and freedom of spirit, and therefore is not satisfied with this “pyramid of being.” So, what did the Lord do? He took this pyramid and inverted it, and put Himself at the bottom, becoming its Head. He took upon Himself the weight of sin, the weight of the infirmity of the whole world, and so from that moment on, who can enter into judgment with Him? His justice is above the human mind. So, He revealed His Way to us, and in so doing showed us that no one can be justified but by this way, and so all those who are His must go downwards to be united with Him, the Head of the inverted pyramid, because it is there that the “fragrance” of the Holy Spirit is found; there is the power of divine life. Christ alone holds the pyramid, but His fellows, His Apostles and His saints, come and share this weight with Him. However, even if there were no one else, He could hold the pyramid by Himself, because He is infinitely strong; but He likes to share everything with His fellows. Mindful of this, then, it is essential for man to find the way of going down, the way of humility, which is the Way of the Lord, and to become a fellow of Christ, who is the Author of this path.

Archimandrite Zacharias in The Enlargement of the Heart

 

The teaching of St. Silouan, itself a continuation of the unbroken Tradition of the Church, was continued in the life and writings of the Elder Sophrony. Today it continues in the life and teachings of the elders and community of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England, of whom Archimandrite Zacharias is an example. His recent visits to the United States to conduct retreats have now become books which continue to expand and confirm the teaching of St. Silouan and the Tradition of the Holy Orthodox Christian faith.

One of the strongest elements drawn out in both the life and teachings of St. Silouan is just this word of humility as illustrated in my opening quote. To be a follower of Christ is to accept a “downward path,” to follow Christ into the depths of His humility. This is not a new word, but echoes that of the Apostle (which itself seems to have been a hymn which the Apostle was quoting):

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 himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phillipians 2:5-11).

This clear teaching of the Apostle, which only echoes the utterly consistent teaching and example of Christ, has a history of being obscured within Christianity – with Christians forgetting this essential teaching and following after a human Lordship and model of salvation.

In a wide variety of places and situations, Christians have thought to establish some image of the Kingdom of God (or even the Kingdom itself) here on earth through means other than the path of humility set forth by Christ and the faithful Tradition of the Church. The result has been varied – but has often been merely a tyranny in the name of God, which is no better than a tyranny in the name of something else.

I am reminded of a statement by Stanley Hauerwas, Protestant theologian and professor at Duke University:

The Christian community’s openness to new life and our conviction of the sovereignty of God over that life are but two sides of the same conviction. Christians believe that we have the time in this existence to care for new life, especially as such life is dependent and vulnerable, because it is not our task to rule this world or to “make our mark on history.” We can thus take the time to live in history as God’s people who have nothing more important to do than to have and care for children. For it is the Christian claim that knowledge and love of God is fostered by service to the neighbor, especially the most helpless, as in fact that is where we find the kind of Kingdom our God would have us serve.

in A Community of Character

In countless lectures and seminars in which I participated while a student at Duke’s Graduate School of Theology, I heard Hauerwas echo this quote with the assertion that “so soon as Christians agree to take responsibility for the outcome of history, we have agreed to do violence.” This violent outcome is a complete perversion of the “downward Way” described by Archimandrite Zacharias and the Orthodox Tradition. Our goals are thus never measured by the “outcomes of history” but by the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

This same contradiction, in narrative form, can be found in Dostoevsky’s classic chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor,” in The Brothers Karamazov. The Grand Inquisitor lashes out at Christ for His failure, as measured in the outcomes of history, and justifies Christians’ use of tools such as the Inquisition as an improvement over the weakness of God. The argument of that famous chapter, as well as the previous chapter, “Rebellion,” mark the high-point of Dostoevsky’s summary of the argument against God and the Orthodox Christian faith. The answer to that diatribe is not a counter argument, but the person of the Elder Zossima, who lives in the Tradition of the Holy Elders of the Faith such as St. Silouan, St. Seraphim of Sarov, the Elder Sophrony, and a host of others. Their lives, frequently hidden from the larger view of the world, are the continuing manifestation of the Kingdom of God in our midst – fellows of the sufferings of Christ – who freely and voluntarily bear with Christ the weight of all humanity. It is this secret bearing that forms the very foundation of the world – a foundation without which the world would long ago have perished into nothing. It is the emptiness of Christ, also shared in its depths by His saints, that is the vessel of the fullness of God, the source of all life and being. We can search for nothing greater.

 

Silent Sentinels and the Saints among Us

May 16, 2008

I originally ran this post last December. I have watched the film mentioned in it many times. The thoughts in the post came back to me again today.

Like many, I recall my highschool years somewhat vividly. Our school was of moderate size with a personal history for most students that increased its impact. It opened in 1965 with grades 7 through 12, among the earliest accomodations in our county to the “baby boom” phenomenon. Existing schools simply could not handle the growing mass of young people. By the time I reached 9th grade, plans were made and shortly implemented that placed students under the ninth grade into a middle school. But by my last year, our class consisted of students who had been together for six years, some longer than that. And so it was that we knew one another. For good or ill, we knew one another. I recall in particular a student who came to our class somewhat late – probably around the tenth grade. What was striking was not that he was the best student (though he was among the best), nor that he was a great athlete, though he made a contribution, nor that he was necessarily a “hit” with the girls, though I recall him as the sort of guy who usually had a date to school dances.

This young man had a different distinction: he was good. Or if it is improper to call another man good (in light of Christ’s teaching in Luke 18:19) then I will have to say of him that he was kind. He was not only a kind young man, but kindness towards others seemed to matter to him. Thus he was intentionally kind. I was many times the recipient of his kindness – never hearing a mean or demeaning comment from him. This was a person who was never the source of a bad day for me.

Time has moved on and I now live away from my home town. I do not know the stories of my fellow students to a large degree. I married someone “from the outside” and have a life that rarely brings me into contact with that part of my past. But I have often wondered about the kindness of such a young man and what became of him.

I use this memory as a way of thinking about the phenomenon of saints., I do not know that his kindness approached that category – but it is a reminder to me that we are not all alike. Sometimes, for whatever reason, we meet those who are singular in their kindness, their goodness, their generosity, their compassion, and the presence of the good God is made somewhat tangible.

I recently watched a movie on the modern saint Nikolai of Zicha. His life spanned both World Wars and included a time in America, part of which was spent as the Rector of St. Tikhon’s seminary in Pennsylvania. What was most striking about him was the recognition by others around him from a fairly early stage in his life, that this was no ordinary man. At numerous points in his life people who were no strangers to political power or wealth, described him as the most extraordinary man of their acquaintance. He was compared to the prophets of the Old Testament. In one case he was considered the equal of an army. Kings sought his advice, which was not noted for political brilliance but for goodness. His was the voice of God to many in his generation, including those who seemed to have the “power” of God in their ability to make life and death decisions.

In a famous prayer from his Prayers by the Lake, he wrote:

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Enemies have driven me into your embrace more than friends have.

Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world.

Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world. Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an unhunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world.

They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself.

They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments.

They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself.

They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.

Bless my enemies, O Lord, Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish.

Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me as though I were a dwarf.

Whenever I have wanted to lead people, they have shoved me into the background.

Whenever I have rushed to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand.

Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened me from sleep.

Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long and tranquil life, they have demolished it and driven me out.

Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of your garment.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Bless them and multiply them; multiply them and make them even more bitter against me:

so that my fleeing to You may have no return;

so that all hope in men may be scattered like cobwebs;

so that absolute serenity may begin to reign in my soul;

so that my heart may become the grave of my two evil twins, arrogance and anger;

so that I might amass all my treasure in heaven;

ah, so that I may for once be freed from self-deception, which has entangled me in the dreadful web of illusory life.

Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows, that a person has no enemies in the world except himself.

One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends.

It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies.

Therefore bless, O Lord, both my friends and enemies.

A slave curses enemies, for he does not understand. But a son blesses them, for he understands.

For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life.

Therefore he freely steps among them and prays to God for them.

He was imprisoned in Dachau by the Nazis and persecuted by the communists after their rise to power in post-war Serbia. Thus he finished his years in America, a saint who had not sought out our company, but was nonetheless a gift to us of a kind God.

I believe that without the presence of saints the world could not continue to exist. They cannot be seen as a great political force, but I believe that the goodness that dwells within them and the kindness that flows from them, by God’s grace, hold back the approaching darkness that will come before the Light of God sweeps all darkness aside.

Like my childhood friend, I cannot explain their presence or their character without some sort of reference beyond environment. Without the hand of God, such men and women simply could not exist. But they do. In our places of work, sometimes in our families, in the cities in which we dwell, there is a quiet presence that we cannot account for. Our sociology and socio-biology easily explain the sad presence of evil in our midst. Evil disappoints and saddens us but it does not present us with a conundrum.

But this other presence – to be found even at an early age – transcends our science. Not often recognized to the extent of Bishop Nikolai, these silent sentinels are nonetheless there. I do not know even that they are all Orthodox. God’s purpose needs more of them than He has of us. Their presence in an office can make an unbearable place of work into something bearable – even at times pleasant. I have no way to estimate their number or to surmise their universality, other than to suspect that they are everywhere. And I believe that they are where they are, because God placed them there and that they are where they are for our salvation. More than saints, they are like guardian angels in our social fabric. Without them, the whole world would unravel.

Kinder, Gentler

May 12, 2008

The following quote (of St. Seraphim of Sarov) is framed and mounted in the narthex of my parish. I first obtained the quote from my Archbishop:

You cannot be too gentle, too kind.

Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other.

Joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of him who gives and kindles joy in the heart of him who receives.

All condemnation is from the devil. Never condemn each other…

Instead of condemning others, strive to reach inner peace.

Keep silent, refrain from judgment. This will raise you above the deadly arrows of slander, insult, and outrage and will shield your glowing hearts against all evil.

I am continuously puzzled by the fact that people are frequently unkind and just as frequently not gentle. I cannot point to myself as a model in this – I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. But it nevertheless remains a puzzle.

As I ponder the human heart I can see that judgment comes easily to many of us. And most people who are harsh in their judgments of others are just as harsh in their judgment of themselves. It’s as if we had a Freudian Super-Ego living inside our heads judging everything in sight. Of course, this gives us no peace and robs us of compassion.

It is particularly difficult for religious people – for the expectations we allow ourselves to entertain may be nothing less than perfection. If you are Orthodox and you’ve dabbled in the canons or rubrics there are entirely new areas in which to expect perfection.

Of course, the answer to this is not “lowering expectations.” Some fear that anything less than the strictest approach will lead to wanton libertinism. The answer is have the right expectations. St. Seraphim did not say, “You cannot be too kind, too gentle,” because he was a famous libertine or had low expectations of the human capacity for a spiritual life. He spoke as he did, primarily, because he knew God. His admonitions do not differ from those of Christ – unless the reader of Scripture is reading with a bitter heart.

The question of right expectations is a matter of reading the gospels correctly and flows from truly knowing God. Religious knowledge can easily be substituted for knowledge of God – they are not at all the same thing. The conflict between Christ and the Pharisees has been there for us from the beginning to tell us that religious knowledge is the wrong expectation. Perfect conformity to religious regulation may indeed be demonic. It is the Publican who returns home justified rather than the Pharisee (Luke 18:14).

“You cannot be too kind, too gentle,” is itself a proper statement of right expectation. We cannot be too kind, because God Himself is kind, “to the unthankful and the evil” (Luke 6:35). For various reasons, the religious culture which most of us have internalized maximizes the importance of avoiding sexual temptation, performing certain religious actions (particularly outward ones), maintaining correct belief (this is particularly important for many Orthodox – and is not incorrect – when rightly practiced), and violations of certain moral matters.

These things are not wrong in and of themselves – but they can also be performed (to some degree) with no reference to God. There is the danger of simply becoming conformed to the general and accepted standards of middle-class behavior. This is a far cry from the Sermon on the Mount, and may completely ignore the matter of the heart – where grace alone can make a difference.

Thus St. Seraphim offers an admonition: “You cannot be too kind, too gentle.” Both are actions of the heart (unless we are simply being unctious like Dicken’s Uriah Heap). Compassion for others and sympathy for their failings will bring the heart closer to the heart of God than any form of judging.

As St. Seraphim boldly stated: “All condemnation is of the devil. Never condemn each other.”

Somewhile back someone (not Orthodox) wrote to me about a recurring problem of anger in dealing with their children. My suggestion (very Orthodox) was to fall down at the feet of the child whenever this happened and to ask for their forgiveness (like the Orthodox do at Forgiveness Vespers). Such an act of humility not only teaches a valuable lesson to a child but also applied frequently enough to the heart will curb anger (by God’s grace). How do we see a heart change? By repentance and the sooner the better.

I think the same action, used in a marriage, would often have a beneficial effect.

In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the Prostitute Sonja (who is truly a saint), tells the murderer Raskolnikov, “Go to the crossroads, bow down to people, kiss the earth  because you have sinned before it as well, and say aloud to the whole world: ‘I am a murderer.'”

Her concern is far more for the redemption of his heart, and not for any outward shame or embarassment. Embarrassment be damned! A man’s soul is at stake!

The same is true for us when we turn to questions of kindness or gentleness. Kindness and gentleness require patience, require restraint, require a compassion that sees the truth of another human being rather than the abstract form of an imagined perfection. Kiss the earth and do not fear to confess before all men – not if your heart is at stake.

May St. Seraphim pray for us and ask the good God to teach us the true meaning of kindness and gentleness and give our poor hearts the grace to do what seems so hard.

Myrrhbearers and the Truth

May 10, 2008

The second Sunday after our Lord’s Pascha is always remembered as the “Sunday of the Myrrhbearers,” when the Church remembers the women and men who cared for our Lord’s body after His death on the Cross. Joseph and Nicodemus are the two men remembered. Mary and Martha of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife of Cleophas, Salome, Susanna and Joanna (and in some accounts Mary, the Mother of God) are those numbered as Myrrhbearers.

Some of them are among the first witnesses to the Resurrection of Christ. They are certainly the most fearless in their love and devotion to Christ when everyone else was hiding. Theirs is also an excellent example of how the Church “reads” Holy Scripture. There are the bare facts listed in Scripture, from which we may glean names and deeds attempted or accomplished. What we do not find there is theological commentary (at least not on this particular action) or more than the bare facts.

But the Church does not gather to rehearse bare facts: it gathers to worship. In its worship it affirms as much of the fullness of the faith as has been given to us – in Scripture – in doctrine – in the whole of Tradition. The Church does not stop with the facts for the facts point beyond themselves to eternal truth – and it is this eternal Truth that the Church proclaims.

Thus in Orthodox worship, Christ is almost always mentioned together with His Father and the Holy Spirit, for now the Church proclaims the fullness of the Trinitarian faith. We can do no less. We cannot speak of the Cross without at the same time saying all that the Cross has accomplished.

And thus it is, when hymns honoring the Myrrhbearers are sung, they reach into the depths of theology and sing what was True that day, though the Myrrhbearers would not yet have known it. It is the Church singing the fullness. For as the “Fullness of Him that filleth all in all,” how can the Church sing less?

Hymn to Joseph and Nicodemus from the Vespers of the Sunday of the Myrrhbearers:

Joseph, together with Nicodemus,

took Thee down from the Tree,

Who clothe Thyself with light as with a garment.

He gazed on Thy body – dead, naked, and unburied,

and, in grief and tender compassion, he lamented:

“Woe is me, my sweetest Jesus!

 A short while ago, the sun beheld Thee hanging on the Cross,

And it hid itself in darkness.

The earth qualked in fear at the sight.

The veil of the Temple was torn in two.

Lo, now I see Thee willingly submit to death for our sake.

How shall I bury Thee, O my God?

How can I wrap Thee in a shroud?

How can I touch Thy most pure body with my hands?

What songs can I sing for Thy exodus, O compassionate One?

I magnify Thy Passion.

I glorify Thy burial.

and Thy holy Resurrection,

crying, ‘O Lord, glory to Thee.'”

Through the Prayers of Our Holy Fathers…

February 21, 2008

silouan.jpg

It is a phrase that is heard frequently in Orthodox services: “Through the prayers of our holy fathers, have mercy on us and save us!” The meaning of that phrase is enlarged and enlightened in the writings of the Elder Sophrony. The following excerpt is from his book, St. Silouan the Athonite.

Prayer for the whole world, for all Adam, in many instances distracts the monk from putting himself at the service of individuals. One may question whether this withdrawing from individual service means refusal of the concrete for the sake of the abstract? Not at all, for the whole Adam is not an abstraction but the most concrete fullness of the human being.

The ontological unity of humanity is such that every separate individual overcoming evil in himself inflicts such a defeat on cosmic evil that its consequences have a beneficial effect on the destinies of the whole world. On the other hand, the nature of cosmic evil is such that, vanquished in certain human hypostases [persons] it suffers a defeat the significance and extent of which are quite disproportionate to the number of individuals concerned.

A single saint is an extraordinarily precious phenomenon for all mankind. By the mere fact of their existence – unknown, maybe, to the world but known to God – the saints draw down on the world, on all humanity, a great benediction from God. The Staretz [St. Silouan] writes:

‘Because of these people, I believe the Lord preserves the world, for they are precious in His sight, and God always listens to His humble servants and we are all of us all right because of their prayers.’

‘Prayer keeps the world alive and when prayer fails, the world will perish…”Nowadays,” perhaps you will say, “there are no more monks like that to pray for the whole world.” But I tell you that when there are no more men of prayer on earth, the world will come to an end and great disasters will befall. They have already started.’

The saints live by the love of Christ. This love is Divine strength, which created, and now upholds, the world, and this is why their prayer is so pregnant with meaning. St. Barsanuphius, for instance, records that in his time the prayers of three men preserved mankind from catastrophe. Thanks to these saints – whom the world does not know of – the course of historical, even of cosmic events, is changed. So then, every saint is a phenomenon of cosmic character, whose significance passes beyond the bounds of earthly history into the sphere of eternity. The saints are the salt of the earth, its raison d’etre.  They are the fruit that preserve the earth. But when the earth ceases to produce saints, the strength that safeguards it from catastrophe will fail.

Father Sophrony’s Prayer

February 12, 2008

sophrony.jpg

A dear friend shared this with me:

Fr Sophrony’s Prayer

O Eternal Lord and Creator of all things, in your inscrutable goodness you have called me into this life and have given me the grace of baptism and the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.  You have instilled in me the desire to seek your face.  Hear my prayer!

I have no life, no light, no joy, no strength, no wisdom without you, O God.   Because of my unrighteousness, I dare not lift my eyes in your presence.  But I obey you who said:

Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.  (Mark 11)

Truly, truly I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father He will give it to you in my name.   Until now you have asked nothing in my name.  Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.  (John 16)

Therefore I now dare to approach you.  Purify me from all stain of flesh and spirit.  Teach me to pray rightly.  Bless this day which you give to me, your unworthy servant.

By the power of your blessing enable me at all times to speak and to act with a pure spirit to your glory;  with faith, hope and love, humility, patience, gentleness, peace, purity, simplicity, sobriety, courage and wisdom.  Let me always be aware of your presence.

In your boundless goodness, O Lord God, show me your will and grant me to walk in your sight without sin.

O Lord, unto whom all hearts are open, you know what I need and what is necessary for me.  You know my blindness and my ignorance.  You know my infirmity and corruption.  My pain and anguish are not hidden from you.  Therefore I beg you:  Hear my prayer and teach me by the power of your Holy Spirit the way in which I should walk.  And when my perverted will leads me otherwise, O Lord, do not spare me, but force me back to your way.

Grant me, Lord, to hold fast to what is good by the power of your love.  Preserve me from every word and act which corrupts the soul, and from every impulse that is unpleasing in your sight and harmful to the people around me.  Teach me what I should say and how I should speak.  If it be your holy will that I be quiet and make no answer, inspire me to be silent in a peaceful spirit that causes neither harm nor hurt to my fellow human beings.

Establish me in the path of your commandments, and until my last breath do not let me stray from the light of your ordinances.  May your commandments be the sole law of my being in this life and for all eternity.

O Lord, I pray to you:  Have mercy on me.  Spare me in my affliction and misery and hide not the way of salvation from me.

In my foolishness, O God, I plead with you for many and great things.  Yet I am ever mindful of my wickedness, my baseness, my vileness.  Have pity on me!  Cast me not away from your presence because of my foolish presumption.  Increase rather in me the right presumption of your grace and grant that I, the worst of people, may love you with all my mind, all my heart, all my soul and all my strength, as you have commanded.

By your Holy Spirit, Lord, teach me good judgment and sound knowledge.  Let me know the truth before I die.  Maintain my life in this world until the end that I may offer worthy repentance.  Do not take me away while my mind is still blind and bound by darkness.  When you are pleased to end my life, give me warning that I may prepare my soul to come before you.  Be with me, Lord, at that awesome hour and assure me by your grace of the joy of my salvation.

Cleanse me from secret faults.  Purify me from hidden iniquities.  Give me a good answer at your dread judgment seat.

Lord of great mercy and measureless love for all people:  Hear my prayer!  Amen.

with editing by Fr. Thomas Hopko

The Alpha and the Omega

January 18, 2008

st-catherines-monastery-500As Christ walked in the midst of the people of Israel an event that was far more than historical took place. The One who was in the midst of them is also the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Strange paradox that you should meet and encounter a person who is Himself the beginning and the ending of all things. This paradox has led to many of the more profound insights of the Christian faith.

St. Maximus, reflecting on this, said that “the Incarnation of Christ is the cause of all things,” thus paradoxically placing the cause not “before everything” but in their midst, for the one who was in their midst was “before all things.”

Christ Himself would utter strange paradoxes that were completely true though opaque to his listeners: “Before Abraham was I am.” (John 8:58)

This aspect of who Christ is lies very much at the heart of much Orthodox understanding. Thus we understand that when we gather together for the Divine Liturgy, it is “heaven on earth.” It is not a change of locations of which the Church speaks, but a change in the nature of the location in which we gather – for as we gather “two or three,” “there am I in the midst of them.” And so our remembrance uttered in that service transcends the bounds of time:

Remembering this saving commandment and all those things which came to pass for us: the cross, the grave, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the sitting down at the right hand, the second and glorious coming again…

The language of the service has us speak even of the second coming in the past tense – not because we believe this is an event which has preceded us historically, but because in the presence of the Risen Christ, we stand at the end of things as well as their beginning. The Lord of time and space is not bound by his creation but raises His creation “into the glorious liberty of the sons of God.”

It is this reality that is also proclaimed by the holy icons. They are not placed in the Church as though they were a photograph album of heroes now long dead. They are instead the “great cloud of witnesses” made present to us in the image, not as wood and paint, but hypostatically (i.e. personally). Thus icons are described as “eschatological” images – images that are painted according to the end of all things and not according to the historical record. The language of inverse perspective becomes the grammar of the age to come in the icons of the Church – pointing us not to what has come and gone, but to what is coming and now is.

And the whole congregation is invited into this new existence. Baptized into the death of Christ and raised in the likeness of His resurrection (Romans 6:3-6). It governs our actions. Being dead to this world, we forgive the things of this world (“by his resurrection” we sing at Pascha). A life lived in forgiveness toward enemies and love for all is a life that is lived in confidence that all has turned out as it is promised by Christ. Christ defines history and gives it its meaning in His death and resurrection. His sentence of forgiveness, spoken from the Cross, is nothing less than the justice of God echoing across our world. For there can be no other justice than His freely offered forgiveness. Such light may be unbearable to some, particularly if they were counting on God to smash their enemies for them.

It is to such an Alpha and Omega, such a fount of forgiveness, such a liberty of resurrection, that we are invited to draw near as the Holy Cup of the Body and Blood of God is brought forth to us. God help me to forgive all by the resurrection and to stand before the cup of the New Covenant – and in everything to remember where I am and when I am.

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers entreat that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:18-24).

Words on Prayer from the Elder Cleopa of Romania

January 14, 2008

This short interview on prayer is perhaps the last film of the Elder Cleopa of Romania, one of the greatest spiritual figures of 20th century Orthodoxy. Many times in his life the authorities sought to arrest him and he would flee to the wilderness. His words are filled with reference to the Scriptures and bear the weight of an authentic life.

The Remembrance of Wrongs

January 10, 2008

stephenprotomarty.jpgRemembrance of wrongs comes as the final point of anger. It is a keeper of sins. It hates a just way of life. It is the ruin of virtues, the poison of the soul, a worm in the mind. it is the shame of prayer, a cutting off of supplication, a turning away from love, a nail piercing the soul. It is a pleasureless feeling cherished in the sweetness of bitterness. It is a never-ending sin, an unsleeping wrong, rancor by the hour. A dark and laothesome passion, it comes to be but has no offspring, so that one need not say much about it.A man who has put a stop to anger has also wiped out remembrance of wrongs, since offspring can come only from a living parent.

St. John of the Ladder, 9

Reading works such as The Ladder by St. John Climacus is fruitful work for the soul during seasons of repentance. Such writings often show us far more about our hearts than we are ready to learn. Associating with other human beings on a regular basis (either as a pastor, or even as an active Church member, or simply from being observant at work on any given day) offers a constant education in the ways of the human heart. The remembrance of wrongs is just one of many burdens which weigh heavily on the soul and make it impossible for it to rise above itself to anything heavenly. Such remembrance also has the capacity to weigh down everything around it.

A vast amount of our planet is engaged at any given moment in the remembrance of wrongs. It seems the older the country or civilization, the longer the list of wrongs, and the more deeply they run. For a youthful America it is sometimes baffling. But I can recall growing up as a child of the South and being taught the remembrance of wrongs from my elders as they rehearsed a heavily edited version of the American Civil War. I got over it, but the wrongs suffered by my family were few (if any). There was not so much to remember.

The wrongs that have been done by one human family to another are incalculable. They frequently run for centuries and carry vengeance for vengeance and wrong for wrong. As has been said, “An eye for an eye and the whole world’s blind.”

I know that on the individual level the remembrance of wrongs is a dead end – as St. John said, “It comes to be but has no offspring so one need not say much about it.” But it can be a confining memory, one whose existence grows ever smaller until we find our heart so squeezed that nothing but pain can come from it.

And thus we come to the formidable act of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the infinity of God – it has no limits. It opens the heart to light and truth and banishes the darkness of unforgotten evils. It is perhaps the most difficult of all tasks that human beings undertake. I do not believe that it lies within our power. Only the mercy of God and great grace (the very Life of God) working in us can make forgiveness possible. This is all the more reason we should seek to have our hearts filled with forgiveness – for when they are such – they are filled with God and are truly great.

Among the most godlike acts in all of Scripture are the final words of the Protomartyr Stephen, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” (Acts 7:60). In that single act of forgiveness he comformed his life to that of Christ. I believe as well that he sowed the seeds of the conversion of St. Paul (Saul at that time) who stood by “consenting to his death.” There was no remembrance of wrong to crush the heart of Paul, but a remembrance of a right that was so astounding that his own heart must have ached at its every echo.

In many ways, the whole of the Gospel is to be found in St. Stephen’s words, for nothing so marks the actions and deeds of the Gospel than God’s unrelenting forgiveness and refusal to remember our wrongs. Instead He is the God to whom a thief can dare to say, “Remember me this day when you come into your kingdom.”

 

Preaching the Gospel to All Nations

January 8, 2008

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One of the striking experiences of Theophany (Jan. 6) is the public Great Blessing of the Waters. I have done this service at several rivers, once in Columbia, S.C., where the ruins of one of the older, more infamous State Prisons, overlooked the site of the blessing. To pronounce the words of blessing over the waters in sight of those ruins could not help but conjure up thoughts of the ruined walls of Hades (to use a metaphor). That place (the prison), once the home of such much suffering and torment (I’m not talking about state-inflicted torture or anything – just the torment of being in prison), stood as an icon of the torment and imprisonment we often carry within our own hearts. To hear the gospel proclaimed in such a place was indeed a true word of freedom.

It seems interesting to me that the specific commandment in the Scriptures (in Matthew’s gospel) is:

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world (28:19-20).

And in Mark’s gospel:

And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature (16:15).

What strikes me as interesting here is that neither gospel wording says, “to all people,” or “to every man,” or something to that effect. In one case the gospel is directed to nations (ethnos) and in the other to a word that goes beyond humanity to include every created thing (ktisis). Neither, of course, excludes the preaching of the gospel to all humanity – but it is interesting how that preaching is envisioned.

First, there is a regard for the ethnos, or nation (not to be confused with the modern nation-state). Thus St. Paul will say that there is “neither Jew nor Greek, Scythian or Barbarian, male or female, etc.” when he addresses a certain aspect of the gospel, but in other aspects there are certainly Jews and Greeks, Scythians, Barbarians, British, Germans, Russians, Chinese, etc. These “peoples” to whom we all belong (though America seeks to identify us in new ways for a new political entity) seem to have some standing within the gospel, even if that standing is not something meant to separate us from one another, nor to confer a special relationship with God. Nevertheless, we are not merely individuals who have no ethnos.

Neither does the preaching of the gospel single us out as human beings who are somehow separate from the rest of creation. Ktisis includes us as well as the trees and rocks (and all that is)- and the gospel is to be proclaimed to all. One of the liberating aspects of this proclamation is to say that the gospel is not a consumer product. The gospel is not an idea about which we must become convinced. You do not preach to a tree in order for it to reach a decision. The proclamation of the gospel is an announcement of good news which is as true for every rock and tree as it is for every human being. Human beings do possess the ability to choose – an ability which will itself be an aspect of who we are that must embrace the gospel – but, as creatures, let us understand that the gospel is true whether we respond favorably or not. God has acted without invitation, without approval, without a vote. God is love and the Kingdom of God has come among us in the Person of Jesus Christ.

The lives of the saints are frequently marked by a peculiar relationship to creation – whether tree, rock, or beast. Wild animals are known to behave as virtual pets in the presence of a saint. Plants bloom and grow in ways that defy all that nature would expect. Even rocks are not immune from this peculiar behavior.

Such proclamation obviously goes beyond preaching as we generally understand it. Lives whose very presence is the gospel preached can be articulate even in silence. Such silence can be heard by the whole of creation – and doubtless will be.