Archive for the ‘The Journey of Faith’ Category

The Chariot of Israel and Its Horsemen – The Repose of Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas

August 28, 2011

And so it was, when they had crossed over, that Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask! What may I do for you, before I am taken away from you?” Elisha said, “Please let a double portion of your spirit be upon me.” So he said, “You have asked a hard thing. Nevertheless, if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so.”  Then it happened, as they continued on and talked, that suddenly a chariot of fire appeared with horses of fire, and separated the two of them; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it, and he cried out, “My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and its horsemen!” So he saw him no more. And he took hold of his own clothes and tore them into two pieces. (2 Kings 2:9-12)


These verses came to mind when I heard the news this morning of the repose of Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas. There are a number of saints within Orthodox history who are given the title: “Equal to the Apostles.” I cannot rush beyond the Church and declare a saint where the Church has not done so, but I can think of no better description of the life and ministry of Vladika Dmitri here in the South than “equal to the Apostles.”

Many people whose familiarity with the presence of the Orthodox faith in English-speaking lands are unaware that until 1962 there was no particular standard work of introduction to Orthodoxy available in English. Thus pioneers, such as Met. Kallistos Ware in England (who wrote that first standard work), or Archbishop Dmitri (who entered the faith along with his sister – as teenagers – in 1941) were extremely rare individuals and generally found conversion a nearly impossible feat.

Vladika Dmitri began life as a Texas Baptist, and, in my experience, never spoke ill of his background. I can recall him saying, “I like Baptists – they make great Orthodox!” accompanied by a sly smile. Indeed, I frequently heard him caution converts to Orthodoxy to refrain from disparaging their roots: “Most likely, it’s where you first heard of Christ.” His conversion as a teen led to a life as a scholar, missionary, teacher, leader, pastor – all in the context of kindness and love.

He cared deeply about the Christian faith and expressed concern, even dismay, as he saw many surrounding Churches that once would have been considered “traditional,” moving away from many of the primary teachings of the Christian faith. He was particularly expressive about the weakening of the doctrine of Christ’s Incarnation. He insisted that the understanding of God becoming Man was the only possible foundation for the dignity of human beings. It was a thought shared by men such as C.S. Lewis.

His advice to priests was very clear: “When you have opportunity to speak about the faith, never turn it down. And when you speak, don’t waste time on ethnic concerns. Preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ – that is the great treasure of Orthodox and that is what you have to offer.”

In 1977 he was almost elected as the Metropolitan of the newly-autocephalous Orthodox Church in America. The Holy Synod seemed less than sure that the OCA was ready for a convert-bishop to be Metropolitan. In 1978, the Holy Synod formed the Diocese of the South, with Dallas as its see city. Bishop Dmitri was appointed as its first diocesan bishop. The new diocese had little more than a half dozen parishes, strung from Florida to Virginia to New Mexico (mostly Florida). Vladika Dmitri would always smile and call it his “consolation prize.”

However, it became a great apostolic opportunity for a man uniquely suited to its apostolic task. He saw the Diocese grow over ten-fold with a remarkable spirit of kindness and hospitality. During World War II he met an Orthodox priest in California who spoke about a vision of an American Orthodox Church. It was the first time the young Dmitri had encountered the concept. It became his vision as well. In the course of a life-time, he saw that vision mature in his beloved South. Having been its apostle, he now becomes its intercessor. May his memory be eternal!

The Benefits of Ignorance

August 15, 2011

I have had conversations in recent comments sections on the role of reason in the Orthodox life. I readily acknowledge that no one lives without some use of reason – but I contend that most of what forms the content of our life in Christ is not reason. The faith does have to contend with attacks and challenges from many arenas – and yet its success will not be established by the superiority of its arguments, but by faith in Christ. Arguments are often unfruitful in “reasonable” exchanges, for the form of Orthodox reason often differs from the form reason takes in many places. Alisdair MacIntyre has, to my mind, firmly established the growing incommensurable character of the many “rationalities” of our culture. Orthodoxy speaks itself most properly when it speaks “as the oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11). This difficult apologetic requires that deep speak to deep. It is a very difficult discipline, but it saves both the speaker and the hearer, whereas argument may destroy them both. This article is a reprint, with small changes, on a theme I have addressed a number of times.


Of course, I have to begin this post with the acknowledgement that I am an ignorant man.

Having gotten that out of the way, I want to spend just a few moments on the benefits of ignorance. Several years ago I was blessed to have a conversation with Fr. Thomas Hopko while we waited in line to greet the new Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in America. Fr. Thomas is the retired Professor of Dogmatic Theology at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, NY.  He has taught a generation of priests.

Our conversation turned to writing. My comment came from my reflection on the experience of writing this blog. I noted that the more I write, the less I seem to know. Part of this realization flows from the fact that I try to restrict my writing to those topics of which I have some knowledge (experience). His smiling response came immediately: “Someday you won’t know anything and then you’ll be holy!”

It was not entirely spoken in jest. There are many forms of knowledge – or many kinds of knowing which our limited language describes as “knowledge.” For Christians the most dangerous form of knowledge is that which we simply acquire through reading and study. It is largely just information. Of course, if you have enough information you can manage the illusion of actual knowledge.

I know a lot of numbers, but I am not a mathematician. I have met mathematicians. Most of what they know is not about numbers – strangely.

There is no great sin in ignorance – or at least there is far less sin in ignorance than in knowledge. The simple truth is that we will not know anything of value until we first know that we do not know. In the competitive world of American Christianity, this is hard. It is not hard for ignorant people to argue – but it is very hard to argue while at the same time admitting that you are ignorant.

This ignorant man has spent a lot of years acquiring “knowledge” (falsely so-called). Knowledge of the sort that is readily available is not at all the same thing as knowing God – the only knowledge that has worth (though every true form of knowledge flows from that single knowledge). Somewhere in the course of my life I came to the place of spiritual exhaustion – I wanted to know God badly enough that I didn’t want to know something else in His place. So I became an ignorant man.

Today I know very few things. And though I write almost every day – if you go back and read what I have written you will see that I know very little. I say many of the same things to different questions, for they are the answers I know.

Thus when I wrote a while back that I had never seen a case of righteous anger – I did not mean to say there was no such thing, only that I’ve not seen it in 57  years of life. I have seen anger that would seem well justified (the anger a husband has over the senseless murder of his wife). But I have seen the same anger kill the man who bore it.

I was born into an angry world. “Jim Crow” South was full of anger. Whites were angry at Blacks and Blacks were angry at Whites. We were angry at Communism. We were angry about the Civil War. We were angry at poverty (especially our own). Others were angry at those who were angry and the injustice of the entire system.

I remember an Abbot, a friend now deceased, who said that after the Vietnam War many young people came to the monastery – “They were so angry about peace,” he observed.

I served as an Anglican priest while the Episcopal Church inexorably jettisoned its traditional doctrine. I was consumed with anger. My anger did not save that Church and did me (and likely many others) great harm.

It is not just anger that works in such a fashion. Any of the passions could be chosen. An ignorant man is frequently on the losing end of battles with the passions. It is therefore important for an ignorant man to be aware of his ignorance. Can such an ignorant man argue theology? Not to any benefit.

The great good news is that Christ came to save ignorant men. We are easier to save if we admit our ignorance up front. Our opinions are so much dead weight. I know very little of God. I know that He is good – beyond any grasp of my knowing. I know that He loves in the unfathomable measure of the good God entering Hell in order to bring us out.

I have been in several versions of hell and rescued numerous times. Ignorant men are always getting themselves into stupid, dark places.

That God is good, that He loves us without measure, that He will go to any lengths to rescue us – I know a little about these things, though even of these things I am mostly ignorant. But I will not tire of speaking this good news. Ignorant men everywhere may be glad to hear it.

We Have Seen

June 11, 2009

DSCF0321St. John, in the prologue of his gospel, says the following:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father (John 1:14).

In his first Epistle he says the following:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us — that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship [koinonia: communion] with us; and our fellowship [koinonia: communion] is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1-3).

In a very similar vein, one of the hymns for Pentecost Sunday proclaims:

We have seen the true light! We have received the heavenly Spirit! We have found the true Faith! Worshipping the undivided Trinity, who has saved us.

This same hymn is sung every Sunday as part of the Divine Liturgy.

All of these share in common a similar theme – our witness of Christ is not a testimony to an idea or to a theory about an idea or story. The witness of the Church is rooted in our experiential knowledge of God. St. John does confine himself in his prologue to the mere “literal” witness of “the tomb was empty.” This, of course, is part of the witness. But the greater witness is to the communion with God found in knowing the risen Christ. “The word of life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us…” The risen Christ is known not only as the one raised from the dead, but is understood as the “word of life…the eternal life which was with the Father.”

This understanding transcends the “bare facts” of a newspaper account – indeed the witness of Scripture is that the one who was raised from the dead is none other than the Word of Life, Eternal Life with the Father. This realization is contained in the confession of faith of every Christian: “Jesus is Lord.”

All theology finds its proper root in this true knowledge of God. It should never be mere speculation based on a rational system of thought – but rather the unfolding of the mystery made known to us in the risen Christ. The hunger for this true knowledge of God is the very core of the Christian life: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.”

The safeguarding of saving knowledge (true participation in the life of God) is the purpose of all doctrine. Every dogmatic statement of the Church has as its sole purpose the safeguarding of true participation in the life of God. Dogma is not an argument over ideas, but a statement that guards the Apostolic witness (which is living and true).

I ran across the following story from the Desert Fathers (in the parish newsletter, The Light, of Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Wesbster, MA, edited by Fr. Luke Veronis – my thanks):

There is a story from the Desert Fathers about a young monk who asked one of the holy men of the desert why it is that so many people came out to the desert to seek God and yet most of them gave up after a short time and returned to their lives in the city.

The old monk responded:

“Last evening my dog saw a rabbit running for cover among the bushes of the desert and he began to chase the rabbit, barking loudly. Soon other dogs joined the chase, barking and running. They ran a great distance and alerted many other dogs. Soon the wilderness was echoing the sounds of their pursuit but the chase went on into the night.

After a little while, many of the dogs grew tired and dropped out. A few chased the rabbit until the night was nearly spent. By morning, only my dog continued the hunt.”

“Do you understand,” the old man siad, “what I have told you?”

“No,” replied the young monk, “please tell me, father.”

“It is simple,” said the desert father, “my dog saw the rabbit!”



Living on the First Floor

June 10, 2009

DSC_0270I am currently working on a small book that gathers many of my thoughts on the metaphor of the “one-storey universe.” Readers of this blog should be well familiar with the image. I cannot claim to be its originator – I can think of several sources that first suggested this way of explaining things. It is a verbal effort to share a visual and kinesthetic experience. I think that much of my public ministry (in speaking or writing) is an effort to find ways to say things to contemporary Americans (and others) that can make the life of faith possible. It seems clear to me that a wholesale adoption of the vision of the world as offered by our culture is little more than an agreement with death. The gospel necessarily involves the giving of sight to the blind.

I have been fascinated by artists for most of my life. I can think of any number of such gifted persons who have been important in my life. Their importance for me was this strange ability (I call it “strange” because it is not native to me) to see things that others cannot see or to see things in ways that others do not. The thought that two people can look out at the same scene and see something different fascinates me. I can understand that we all see different emphases – different parts of the puzzle. But I mean something much stronger than that. Often the artist relates to what he/she sees in a different manner. Colors manifest themselves in different ways. Relations between objects appear that others do not see.

I see something of the same thing in the stories of saints (particularly those of the Orthodox with whose stories I am most familiar). They walk in the same world in which I walk, and yet it is clear that they do not see the world as I do (most of the time). Saints are not people inhabiting the same space that I inhabit and yet looking away to a world about which they have been told. They are not “heavenly minded” in this sense of heavenly absence, a world that belongs somewhere else. They clearly perceive heaven among us, within us.

A reading of the gospels quickly reveals a Christ who sees and knows something about the world that others around Him either do not see, will not see, or do not understand. He is a walking Jubilee Year (when all debts are cancelled under the law of the Torah). He is the age to come, already walking among men. Around Him, the lame walk, the blind see, prisoners are set free. In the cities of “Roman-controlled” Galilee and Judaea He is not controlled. His Kingdom pours into the lives of those around Him. A crooked tax-collector suddenly proclaims that he will restore four-fold what He has taken from others – a simple response to Christ’s entrance into his home. He surely saw the world in a manner radically different before and after such a rash statement. There is no other explanation.

For me, a key to the vision of the Kingdom of God begins with refusing to allow the Kingdom to be removed from our midst, to be shuttled off the planet and placed somewhere yet to be or open only to those who have died. If Christ has come and accomplished what we are taught in the Gospels, then the world is already different than it commonly appears. To see what has come among us requires that the proper light shine on everything before us.

My experience as an Orthodox priest has been to be frequently plunged into a different light. Words and stories, music and actions are all set beside one another in a way I have never seen before. It is a liturgical combination whose purpose is to reveal the Kingdom of God. It reveals the Kingdom that we might learn to sing the song that belongs to that presence. In other words – it reveals the Kingdom of God that we might learn to worship. I have come to believe that we exist to worship God.

Along with other Orthodox Christians across the world, I have just completed the Paschal cycle – beginning with the pre-Lenten Sundays, through the 40 days of Lent, Holy Week, through Pascha itself, and on to the completion found in the feast of Pentecost. How can I describe an experience that stretches over 100 days, all of which reveal the truth of Christ’s Pascha? It cannot be described – else the Church would have a description instead of 100+ days of liturgically ordered activities.

But I can say something about what I have experienced. The language I have found for this revelation is that Christianity belongs in a one-storey universe. God is here. In the words of the Pentecost liturgy: “He is everywhere present and filling all things.”

I am not an artist – I cannot quite do with words what others do with colors. A single icon speaks with an eloquence that remains beyond my reach. But God is the great Artist. He has so colored our world that, in the Light of Christ, we can see and know heaven among us. As heaven appears – then we begin to see others as persons to be loved rather than objects to be used. We see trees and all of creation as belonging to the same choir as we ourselves. We begin to hear a song that will never end. God give us grace to see and to sing.

A blessed Pentecost to all.


Beauty and the Salvation of the World

May 17, 2009

481px-Angelsatmamre-trinity-rublev-1410Thus the most persuasive philosophic proof of God’s existence is the one the textbooks never mention, conclusion of which can perhaps best express the whole meaning: There exists the icon of the Holy Trinity by St. Andrei Rublev; therefore, God exists.

– from Pavel Florensky’s Iconostasis

This short quote from St. Pavel Florensky’s Iconostasis is among the most startling in his extant works. It is not unlike the oft-attributed Dostoevsky quote, “God will save the world through beauty.” Both thoughts bear witness to a beauty that both transcends our world and at the same time establishes and saves our world. Rightly understood, they are also related to Holy Scripture.

Some years ago, within my thesis at Duke University, I wrote about the iconicity of language, meaning that language, especially Holy Scripture, functions in a manner similar to the Holy Icons. The Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council stated that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” I turned that succinct statement around to ask if Scripture does with words what icons do with color. It became the starting point for my thoughts on the iconicity of language.

We know, dogmatically, much about how an icon “works,” how it makes present what it represents. I sought to apply that understanding to the reading of Holy Scripture. As time has gone by (better than 15 years now) I have come to see that Scripture may indeed best be understood in an iconic fashion. An icon of Christ is not Christ Himself, but a representation of which He is the prototype. But, St. Theodore the Studite noted, it is a representation of the hypostasis, the person of Christ, rather than a representation of His nature. This is a significant dogmatic statement, because it provides a way for speaking of Christ’s presence in a manner that is not a sacrament, in the sense of the Eucharist. The Holy Fathers taught that the Eucharist is not an icon, but the very Body and Blood of Christ. Thus there is not a normal analogy between an icon and the Eucharist.

Neither is Holy Scripture to be likened to the Eucharist, for it is like the icons. An icon is holy because of the presence of the “person,” not because the wood and paint have undergone any change. Christ is “hypostatically present,” but not “naturally present.” He does not become incarnate as wood and paint.

This notion of “hypostatic representation” opened for me a whole new way of understanding the Scriptures and of speaking of their role in revelation. Icons have many strange features (at least those painted in accordance with the canons). The characters are drawn in a manner that differs from photographic reality. Time is somewhat relative – several events separated by time may be pictured together in the same icon if there is a connection between them and they enlighten one another. Other examples could be given. So, too, the Gospels have a way of presenting the saving actions and teachings of Christ in a manner that is iconic. The Gospels frequently ignore time sequence placing events in differing relationships to the whole, in order to reveal yet more of the Truth of Christ.

St. John’s gospel is perhaps the most striking in this respect. Following the Prologue there is a sequence of water stories, followed by a sequence of bread stories. Little wonder that the Church traditionally used St. John for its post-baptismal catechesis. His pericopes are far more like pictures than narratives. And so it is in John’s gospel that we read the finest commentary and teaching on the Eucharist not around the event of the Last Supper (which John does not actually mention) but around the event of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Read in a purely historic manner, Christ’s teaching on the loaves and fishes, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood…”, would not only be scandalous to some, but would literally make no sense. Equally senseless (in the light of the sixth chapter) would be the claim of some historical critical scholars that John knows nothing of the Tradition of the Last Supper. How utterly silly!

Having said all this (and there is so much more that can be said) it is possible to see how the Scriptures resist rational forces that seek to wrest them into one thing or another. One rationalist seeks to harmonize all the Scriptures in a mechanical manner that yields a narrow conception of inerrancy. Another seizes on the iconic character of Scripture and assumes that these oddities represent historical flaws. Like an icon, the Scriptures present the Truth of God to us – and do so in a way that we can indeed begin to see the truth.

There is a propositional character to be found in Scripture – after all, an icon of a human being still looks like a human being, even if it is painted in a style that is other than photographic. But the propositions of Scripture function in a manner similar to the Holy Icons. We are not led to reason God, but to know God. The propositions of Scripture, particularly the most confusing ones, lead the reader to see what cannot be seen in this world until we have the eyes to see.

St. John’s gospel is easily my favorite, if only because I know it better and have spent more time in its pages. There is a transcendent beauty in its words – a beauty never lost regardless of the language into which it is translated. The beauty is more than the sum total of the words or even the beauty of lofty concepts. It is a beauty that is nothing other than the personal (hypostatic) representation of Christ. “These things are written so that in reading them you might believe.”

There exists the Gospel of St. John; therefore, God exists. God is indeed saving the world through beauty.

Prayers By the Lake XXV – Prayers for the Departed

May 14, 2009

Picture 184This poem is from the collection of poems by St. Nikolai Velimirovich, the great 20th century Serbian saint. The Church continues its journey through the 50 days of Pascha and will conclude the feast with the celebration of the Feast of Pentecost (Troitsa) at the end of which the Kneeling Prayers are offered where (among many things) the souls of the departed are remembered before God. Christ came that the dead might live.


You sinful souls, yearn no longer to enter the body, as though you could flee the fire that is roasting you and the smoke that is smothering you! You would only bring the fire and smoke with yourselves, and your body would not be your rescuer but your burnt offering.

Rather direct all your attention to the eternal Virginity of God, which can cast out the evil stench from you, and to the Son of the Virgin, who would illuminate you with the flame of the wisdom of the Trinity, and to the All-Holy Spirit, who would give you the strength and the wisdom to elevate you to the choirs of angels.

You purified souls, who smell more captivating than all the balsams on earth, do not separate yourselves from those of us still on earth, who for another hour or two are still wandering over your paths of suffering and your ashes. All those who are pure on earth will be pure in heaven also, and will be your companions, perfumed with the balsam of paradise and clothed in the whiteness of virginity.

Strengthen your love for us and your prayer for us. For between you and us is no partition other than the frail veil of our flesh. For even though you have gone ahead while we have remained behind, the path is the same and the city at the end of the path is the same.

You righteous souls, we pray to the Lord for you as well, so that He may make your passage to Him easy and swift. Even though we are weaker than you, we nevertheless pray to God for you. We pray out of the love with which our heart burns for you, even as a younger and weaker brother reaches out to help his older and stronger brother.

For just as younger and older brothers are one flesh in the eyes of the love that gave them birth, so also are we and you one flesh in the eyes of the exceedingly wise and exceedingly strong love of the Most High.

You countless flocks of souls of the dead, do not be distraught and confounded, and have no more regard for the cold island of life on earth, to which we, being few in number, are still stuck for another hour or two until we come to join you for the summer in warmer and brighter regions.

For all of you, both righteous and sinful, we who are half dead, half-alive pray to the Mercy of Heaven, so that you may not be confounded, so that you may not be afraid and look back, but may, in the fullness of summer, head ever forward and ever higher–

toward light and joy

toward peace and plenitude.

What Is My Life?

May 11, 2009

Mikhail_Nesterov-Holy_RusI have written often on the subject of “personhood,” drawing to a large extent on the writings of the Elder Sophrony, and to a lesser extent on the theology of Met. John Zizioulas. The heart of their thought is to direct us to the reality that to exist as “persons” is precisely the same thing (or similar) when we speak of the “persons” of the Holy Trinity. And further, that this is true existence for human beings.

In our popular speech, we use the word person in a manner that is interchangeable with individual. This is to equate personhood with a word that stand for its near opposite.

We are used to thinking of ourselves in individual terms – terms which emphasize our role as active, choosing agents. A collection of individuals is especially a collection of unique and competing wills. Thus it is always possible that the competing wills with whom I associate will be in direct competition with myself. Their good and my good may not be at all the same thing.

Thus we wind up with various versions of the social contract, in which we agree by various means, to give as much room to other competing wills as possible, while allowing sufficient attention to our own. It is like belonging to a merchant’s organization.

These social contracts exist primarily to keep us from killing each other and to help maximize one another’s profits, whether they be profits of the material kind or otherwise. It is so strong a force in our culture that even Christians, within the “mega church” movement, speak of their “target” congregation as a “market.” We are defined by the market to which we belong. We are the consumers of religious product. This has a way of working and even of prospering, in that a market approach tends to separate Christians from one another before they become “competing agents.” A congregation that is a statistical slice of our culture would argue over music, sermon, reason for existence, etc. 

Of course, regardless of the rhetoric used to support a marketing approach to human beings for religious ends is simply sinful. It is disrespectful of the purpose of Christ’s body and erects monuments to human sin (as manifest in our marketing choices). Such efforts, regardless of intention, are simply not the Church. They are anti-Church.

Among many things for which Christ gave us His body, our growth and fulfillment of our lives as true human persons is among the greatest. To exist as person is to exist as free, as loving, as sacrificing of self, as having an existence which can only be defined by its relational existence to others. So St. Paul uses the metaphor of body parts. We are like hands and feet, ears and eyes. We have a true existence, and yet that existence only makes sense because it is part of something else. An eye by itself does not “see.” An ear by itself does not hear. We are members of the Body of Christ and we only have true existence inasmuch as we are functioning members of that Body. It is in this manner that we are persons.

Personhood is not a moral goal – it is not a description of how we “ought to behave.” We do not live “as if” the existence of others were an inherent and necessary part of our proper existence. Personhood is a description of what it is to truly exist. To live in a manner that is not properly personal is not an “immoral” existence, it is a falling away from existence itself.

It seems to me that this distinction is important. I have written elsewhere that Christ did not die to make bad men good but to make dead men live. Our living in communion and participation with others is not a metaphorical act of moral behavior but a description of the manner in which we truly existence. Forgiveness of my enemy is more than an act of kindness – it is a recognition of the proper mode of my existence. 

I love my enemy for he, too, is my life. These are not choices we make – or rather they are not things that are true because I choose them to be true. They are simply true. My choice is whether to accept them or reject them. This is our salvation by grace. By grace we have been given an existence that is greater than we might ever have morally wanted (apart from this grace). It is the feast God has set before us. It is the richness of life in His image. It is what salvation looks like.

Going Home – A Personal Journey

May 9, 2009

geo12p20I do not know enough languages to gauge how universal is the concept of “home.” It has very strong connotations in English – and is particularly strong in its usage within the Southern United States. I suspect much of this is rooted in family and place – and requires a fairly stable culture. The culture in which I grew up was reasonably stable – though I experienced major upheavals in my surrounding world around the age of 10. I was young enough to remember what had come before and old enough to nurture a hunger to return.

Some have spoken of this “homesickness” as a universal hunger – a memory reaching back to our loss of Paradise. I know that many speak of their coming to the Church as a “coming home.” It is certainly the case that Christ is our true home and that to return to Christ is the answer to the heart’s true hunger.

I have come “home” this weekend (and for the first part of the coming week). I am in Dallas, the city of my Bishop. It was here that I was ordained Deacon and here that I have always looked during my years as an Orthodox Christian. Though my time in Dallas has always meant time in a hotel and a rented car – and often time without my family – it is still home. The very sight of my Bishop (who is now retired) is a coming home for my heart – to be in the rest that I find in his welcome and the assurance within the proximity of his unshakable faith.

I arrived in Dallas a day or so early – in order to rest, to pray and to visit at leisure. Starting Monday, I am in meetings of various sorts with other priests and laity and with the Metropolitan of the OCA, the acting bishop for my diocese. On Wednesday, the Mid-Feast of Pentecost, I will concelebrate with a number of other priests and the entire Synod of Bishops of the OCA in a liturgy at the cathedral in which we will honor my retired bishop, Vladyka Dmitri.

Thus, what writing I do this week will be between meetings – though being here without my family means that when I am not in a meeting I will have much time on my hands – and a chance to write.

It is hard to explain to others, sometimes, that my experience of the Church and its hierarchy has not been the experience of an institution but of persons. Institutions are distortions are what should be personal and relational. There is nothing inherently institutional about belonging to something that involves millions of people. It’s just that our fallen experience of such things is usually only in a distorted form. When the Church ceases to be personal and becomes institutional, something has gone wrong.

I know of people who have an unspoken pleasure in institutional existence. What is unspoken is the freedom that institutional existence gives to some to indulge a critical spirit. Institutions are perceived as impersonal – which leaves others free to say and do what they will and consider their actions “impersonal.” If anyone has ever held a position of authority then you will likely know what it is to be seen only as your “role” and not as a person. I have endured things through the years associated with such positions that are among the most painful experiences I have ever known. As a sinner, I know that I have offered more than my share of such impersonal animosity as well. 

The answer to such problems is not the “reform” of institutions, but the redemption of relationships. It is necessary for power and authority to be redeemed and placed under the headship of Christ. Democracy is not a synonym for conciliarity – though some mistakenly think so. Conciliarity is, in its highest form, the embodiment of personhood in all of our relations.

It is this embodiment of personhood that is the true hunger of the human heart. Christ fulfills and raises us to the level of personhood in our redemption. Vladimir Lossky described the work of the Holy Spirit as primarily one of establishing us as persons in the true and proper sense of the word. To be a person is to know and to be known – and to know and be known in the Truth. It is to love and be loved and to know love in the Truth. 

My journey into the Orthodox Church included a relationship with Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas for four years prior to my actual conversion. We discussed that eventuality only in our first conversation. For the years following I simply found myself treated as a son who had already returned home. My conversion was only a fulfillment of something that had been taken as an accomplished reality by the man who would be my bishop. It is no wonder that I love him as I do. 

The retirement of Archbishop Dmitri is a vast change in the life of Orthodoxy in the South. For 30 years he has been a dominant force for Orthodoxy and its proclamation in this region and a figure who defined Orthodoxy as a profound practice of hospitality. Together with the Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America, I will celebrate a ministry which has extended the “home” of Orthodoxy to thousands of people who once had no knowledge of the Orthodox faith. And he has done this by creating a home rather than destroying another. 

May God grant us all to find the heart’s true home.

What Matters – Still True

May 2, 2009

img_1024Perhaps I am in an introspective mood – but I find myself lately going back and reading my earliest posts – they only go back to October of 2006 – though there have been nearly a thousand of them. It is an exercise in consistency and in growth. Would I have said something differently now than I said then? This is among my earliest efforts and remains as true to me now as it did when I wrote it. Indeed, it has been something of a litmus test for writing. To proclaim from the beginning of my effort, “This blog doesn’t matter.” This is not to say it is not worth the effort, but to say that the effort only has worth if it serves a proper end – in this case the knowledge of God. It is a reminder not to take myself too seriously but to take God very seriously. Nothing has changed about that. I offer it here again, unchanged.

God matters and what matters to God matters. I know that sounds very redundant, but I’m not sure how else I want to say it. There are many things that do not matter – because they do not matter to God. Knowing the difference between the two – what matters to God and what does not requires that we know God.

And this is theology – to know God. If I have a commitment in theology, it is to insist that we never forget that it is to know God. Many of the arguments (unending) and debates (interminable) are not about what we know, but about what we think.

Thinking is not bad, nor is it wrong, but thinking is not the same thing as theology. It is, of course, possible to think about theology, but this is not to be confused with theology itself.

Knowing God is not in itself an intellectual activity for God is not an idea, nor a thought. God may be known because He isperson. Indeed, He is only made known to us as person (we do not know His essence). We cannot know God objectively – that is He is not the object of our knowledge. He is known as we know a person. This is always a free gift, given to us in love. Thus knowledge of God is always a revelation, always a matter of grace, never a matter of achievement or attainment.

It matters that we know God because knowledge of God is life itself. “This is eternal life,” Jesus said, “to know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.”

The Orthodox way of life is only about knowing God. Everything we do, whether it is prayer, communion, confession, forgiveness, fasting – all of it is about knowing God. If it is about something else, then it is delusion and a distraction from our life’s only purpose.

Knowing God is not a distraction from knowing other persons, nor is knowing other persons a distraction from knowing God. But, like God, knowing other persons is not the same thing as thinking about them, much less is it objectifying them.

Knowing others is so far from being a distraction from knowing God, that it is actually essential to knowing God. We cannot say we love God, whom we have not seen, and hate our brother whom we do see, St. John tells us. We only know God to the extent that we love our enemies (1 John 4:7-8).

And this matters.

This blog does not matter – except that I may share something that makes it possible for someone to know God or someone may share something that allows themselves to be known. This matters.

The Presence in the Absence – A Timely Re-posting

April 30, 2009

southwest-trip-392This short post is among the first to appear on this blog – dating back to October of ’06. In the light of conversations here over the past few days, it seemed timely to bring this back to our attention. I I have written on the topic of the absence of God (or our sense of it) since the beginning of my work. And even though conversations with contemporary non-believers can be tedious – they are very much worth having – if for no other reason than most Christians have a great deal of non-belief in their hearts. I also believe it is the particular calling of contemporary Orthodox (in this I follow St. Silouan of Mt. Athos) to empty ourselves and enter the abyss of the spiritual hell our world has created for itself and there preach and pray – for it is there that the contemporary Adam has confined himself – and it is there that we must also find Christ. The emptiness of the secularized world – the first floor of a two-storey universe – is a man-made hell, the place in which we have exiled ourselves from God. We will not find God by looking elsewhere for it is here that He is present and filling all things. It is the mystery of our faith. I have reposted this original article without change.


There is a strange aspect to the presence of God in the world around us. That aspect is His apparent absence. I read with fascination (because I am no philosopher, much less a scientist) the discussions surrounding “intelligent design” and the like. I gather that everybody agrees that the universe is just marvelous and wonderfully put together (I can’t think of a better universe). But then begins the parting of ways as one sees God everywhere and another sees Him nowhere. Reason surely need not deny Him, though reason does not seem forced to acknowledge Him. I have spent most of my life around these arguments – one place or another. I can stand in either place and see both presence and absence.

But as the years have gone by, I have come to see something I never saw before – the Presence within the absence. I don’t mean to sound too mystical here – only that I see in the hiddenness of God a revelation of His love. The Creator of us all draws us towards Himself and knowledge of Him, with hints and intimations, with seen and yet unseen signs.

The strange deniability that He leaves us is the space in which love is born. Love cannot be forced, cannot be demanded. It must come as gift, born of a willingness to give. To give God trust that what I see is indeed evidence of the wisdom in which He made all things is also a space – one which God fills with Himself and the echo, the Yes, that the universe shouts back to us.

It is where I grow weary of the arguments – not because they need not be made – but because it becomes hard to hear the silence in the noise of our own voices – a silence that invites us to hear the sound of the voice of God that rumbles all around us.

There’s more to say – but not now.