Archive for the ‘The Sacraments’ Category

Salvation, Ontology, Existential, and Other Large Words

September 17, 2011

In recent posts I have contrasted morality with ontological, as well as existential, etc. I’ve had comments here and elsewhere in which people stumbled over the terms. The distinction offered is not a private matter. Orthodox theologians for better than a century have struggled to make these points as being utterly necessary to the life of the Orthodox faith. The following is a small article of mine that tries to do some of the same. In a nutshell: morality is “life according to rules or reasonable philosophies.” The Orthodox contention is that morality fails to describe the true nature of the Christian life. Rather the world ontological is more proper: it means have to do with the very being of someone – their essence. What we need is not a change in behavior (morality) but a change in who we are (ontology). Christ came to change us, not reform us. 

Morality does not use Orthodox means – it’s all in the “head.” It is rules. Ontological change requires that our very being or existence (thus the word existential) be united with Christ, His life becomes our life and thus we live a new life. Once this fundamental approach is understood, so we can begin to under the mysteries of the Church and the true character of our life in Christ. Thus this article – a meager thing meant to be of some help. 


The nature of things is an important question to ask – or should I say an a priori question. For once we are able to state what is the nature of things then the answers to many questions framed by the nature of things will also begin to be apparent. All of this is another way of saying that questions have a way of determining answers. So what is the nature of things? More specifically, what is the nature of things such that Christians believe humanity needs salvation? (Non-Christians will already feel co-opted but I write as a Christian – can’t be helped).

I want to state briefly several things which seem to me to be of importance about the nature of things in this regard.

1. It is the nature of things that man does not have a legal problem with God. That is to say, the nature of our problem is not forensic. The universe is not a law-court.

2. It is the nature of things that Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live. This is to say that the nature of our problem is not moral but existential or ontological. We have a problem that is rooted in the very nature of our existence, not in our behavior. We behave badly because of a prior problem. Good behavior will not correct the problem.

3. It is the nature of things that human beings were created to live through communion with God. We were not created to live as self-sufficient individuals marked largely by our capacity for choice and decision. To restate this: we are creatures of communion, not creatures of consumption.

So much for the nature of things. (I’ll do my best to leave behind the syllogisms and return to my usual form of writing.)

Much of my experience as an American Christian has been an encounter with people who do not see mankind’s problem as existential or ontological – but rather as moral. They have seen that we behave badly and thought that the primary task of the Church (following whatever event was considered “necessary” for salvation) was to help influence people to be “good.” Thus I recall a Sunday School teacher who in my pre-school years (as well as a first-grade teacher who attempted the same) urging me and my classmates to “take the pledge.” That is, that we would agree not to smoke tobacco or drink alcohol before age 21. The assumption seemed to be that if we waited that long then we would likely never begin. In at least one of those cases an actual document was proffered. For the life of me I cannot remember whether I signed or not. The main reason I cannot remember was that the issues involved seemed unimportant to me at the time. Virtually every adult in my life smoked. And I was not generally familiar with many men who did not drink. Thus my teachers were asking me to sign a document saying that I thought my father and my grandfather were not good men. I think I did not sign. If I did, then I lied and broke the pledge at a frightfully early age.

My later experience has proven the weakness of the assumptions held by the teachers of my youth. Smoking wasn’t so much right or wrong as it was addicting and deadly. I smoked for 20 years and give thanks to God for the grace he gave me to quit. I feel stupid as I look back at the actions of those 20 years, but not necessarily “bad.” By the same token, I have known quite a few alcoholics (some of them blood relatives) and have generally found them to be about as moral as anyone else and sometimes moreso. I have also seen the destruction wrought by the abuse of alcohol. But I have seen similar destruction in families who never drank and the continuation of destruction in families where alcohol had been removed. Drinking can have serious consequences, but not drinking is not the same thing as curing the problem.

I had a far more profound experience, indeed a series of experiences, when I was ten years old – experiences that made a much deeper impression and framed the questions that burned in my soul about the nature of things.

The first experience was the murder of an aunt. She was 45 and a darling of the family. Everyone loved her. Her murder was simply a matter of “random” chance – she was in the wrong place at the wrong time or simply in a convenient place for a man who meant to do great harm to someone. No deep mystery, just a brutal death. The same year another aunt died as a result of a multi-year battle with lupus (an auto-immune disease). And to add to these things, my 10th year was also the year of Kennedy’s assassination. Thus when the year was done it seemed to me that death was an important question – even the important question.

It probably says that I was marked by experiences that were unusual for a middle-class white boy in the early 60’s. It also meant that when I later read Dostoevsky in my teens, I was hooked.

The nature of things is that people die – and not only do they die – but death, already at work in them from the moment of their birth, is the primary issue. The failure of humanity is not to be found or understood in a purely moral context. We are not creatures of choice and decision. How and why we choose is a very complex process that we ourselves do not understand. We can make a “decision” for Jesus only to discover that little has changed. It is also possible to find ourselves caught in a chain of decisions that bring us to the brink of despair without knowing quite how we got there. Though there are clearly problems with our choosing and deciding, the problem is far deeper.

One of the earliest Christian treatments of the human problem, hence the “nature of things,” is to be found in St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. He makes it quite clear that the root problem of humanity is to be found in the process of death. Not only are we all slowly moving towards some inevitable demise, the process of death (decay, corruption) is already at work in us. In Athanasius’ imagery, it is as though we are falling back towards our origins in the dust of the earth. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

And thus it is that when he writes of the work of Christ it is clearly in terms of our deliverance from death (not just deliverance from the consequences of our bodily dissolution and its separation from the soul but the whole process of death itself.)

This is frequently the language of the New Testament as well. St. Paul will write: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life that I now live I live by the faith of the son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Or even on a more “moral” note he will caution us to “put to death the deeds of the body.”

The importance of these distinctions (moral versus existential) is in how we treat our present predicament. If the problem is primarily moral then it makes sense to live life in the hortatory mode, constantly urging others to be good, to “take the pledge,” or make good choices. If, on the other hand, our problem is rooted in the very nature of our existence then it is that existence that has to be addressed. And again, the New Testament, as well as the Tradition of the Church, turns our attention in this direction. Having been created for union with God, we will not be able to live in any proper way without that union. Thus our Baptism unites us to the death and resurrection of Christ, making possible a proper existence. Living that proper existence will not be done by merely trying to control our decisions and choices, but by consciously and unconsciously working to maintain our union with God. We are told “greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.” Thus our victory, and the hope of our victory is “Christ within you, the hope of glory.”

And so if we will live in such communion we will struggle to pray, not as a moral duty, but as the very means of our existence. We pray, we fast, we give alms, we confess, we commune, not in order to be better people, but because if we neglect these things we will die. And the death will be slow and marked by the increasing dissolution of who and what we are.

In over 30 years of ministry, I have consistently found this model of understanding to better describe what I encounter and what I live on a day to day basis. In the past twelve years of my life as an Orthodox Christian, I have found this account of things not only to continue to describe reality better – but also to be in conformity with the Fathers. It is a strong case for Christian Tradition that it actually describes reality as we experience it better than the more modern accounts developed in the past four hundred years or so. Imagine. People understood life a thousand years ago such that they continue to describe the existential reality of modern man. Some things do not change – except by the grace of God and His infinite mercy.

Engaging Creation-Praise Him and Highly Exalt Him Forever

May 19, 2009

smPC310365Writing on beauty can seem an abstract approach to the created order – except that it draws our attention to see the world in a particular way. It is important, it seems to me, to at least see the world. So much of theology and what passes for religion can be mere intellectual exercise that religion and abstraction become synonymous. This is foreign to the true life of Orthodoxy and the true life of Christianity.

The sacraments of the Church are more than “seven” moments in the life of Christians that accidentally happen to use physical elements. They are “moments” but examples of the true character of the Christian life. The elements used in sacraments: bread, wine, water, oil, the laying on of hands, sight, sound, action, etc. – are all simply things that make up life as we know it. They are not discussions of bread, wine, water, oil, etc. Thus the sacraments involve eating and drinking, anointing and movement. They are very much part of what is normative in human life.

As examples of the Christian life they point us towards the right understanding and use of creation itself. There are only “seven” sacraments if your are engaged in a contest with medieval Roman Catholics and need to say that your faith is not inferior to theirs. In point of fact “sacrament” or “mystery” (the preferred Orthodox term) is simply a way of rightly understanding our relationship with God as part of His created order. Everything is mystery when rightly understood.

So the question for me has to do with how do I engage creation. Do I live among created things as the bearer of the Divine image living within the mystery of God made manifest in everything around me? Or do I live as a thinking creature who considers religious ideas while going about my normal, everyday tasks.

In a proper Christian understanding, I posit, there are no “normal everyday tasks.” This is simply more of the creeping secularization of our world. Either God is relevant to every task, every motion and action – or He is not relevant at all. There can be no limited God.

This, I think, is a very difficult part of our Christian existence. And I think it is difficult for two different reasons. First, it is difficult because we are not used to God being anything other than a limited God, restricted to specifically “religious” activities. Second, it is difficult because when we attempt to relate to God in formerly “non-religious” activities, what we experience is often an artificial attempt to “sacralize” what we believe to be inherently non-sacred. So our choice becomes something between secularism and pseudo-sacramental. Neither are satisfactory.

A key to overcoming this false distinction lies in properly locating the problem. The problem does not lie in creation. I do not need to redefine creation in order to “make it sacred.” Either it is already inherently sacred or not. Christians are not traveling magicians, bringing a new state to the created world.

The problem does not lie within creation but within ourselves. Christ did not need to change the waters and winds of the Galilee in order to speak peace to their stormy condition. Nothing changed about the wind and the sea other than their presenting condition. Creation did not become other than creation. Christ was already such that wind and sea obeyed Him. 

By the same token, it is not creation that must change in our lives – but our lives in creation must change. As an example, I would cite the Scriptures (from the LXX text of Daniel appended to the article).

This “Song of the Three Young Men,” is as complete a model for our engagement of creation as I can imagine. It does not seek to make the beasts and the cattle to be other than they are – to “sacralize them” – but engages them as they are: creatures of God and thus able to “praise Him and highly exalt Him forever.” To live as a being within a creation that is engaged in the praise and exaltation of God is to live rightly within the world.

The creation is already “eucharistic” (marked by thanksgiving). It is me as a fallen human being who has chosen to be other than eucharistic. Rather than give thanks together with creation I would rather consume it, manage it, use it, abuse it, and consider it inferior to my intellect and dead. The answer to all of that is my repentance and my embrace of the eucharistic life that is proper to the whole of the created order. For we have our place within the Song:

Bless the Lord, you priests of the Lord, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you servants of the Lord sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, spirits and souls of the righteous, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you who are holy and humble in heart, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 

Our proper engagement with creation – living the mystery – is to lift up our voice and sing and cease to be the only silence outside of Hell.

“Blessed art thou, O Lord, God of our fathers, and to be praised and highly exalted for ever; 
 …Blessed art thou in the firmament of heavenand to be sung and glorified for ever. 
“Bless the Lord, all works of the Lord, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you heavens, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you angels of the Lord, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all waters above the heaven, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all powers, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, sun and moon, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, stars of heaven, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all rain and dew, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all winds, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, fire and heat, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, winter cold and summer heat, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, dews and snows, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, nights and days, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, light and darkness, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, ice and cold, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, frosts and snows, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, lightnings and clouds, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Let the earth bless the Lord; let it sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, mountains and hills, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all things that grow on the earth, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you springs, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, seas and rivers, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you whales and all creatures that move in the waters, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all birds of the air, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all beasts and cattle, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you sons of men, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, O Israel, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you priests of the Lord, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you servants of the Lord sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, spirits and souls of the righteous, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you who are holy and humble in heart, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever….

Personal Issues

May 14, 2009

refusing confession by RepinThe title of this post is quite misleading – for in proper theological language – there are no “personal issues.” Our culture is quite fond of issues – both the politico-entertainment industry – and many individuals. It is a word and a phenomenon that has been baptized by the culture such that “being concerned with the issues” makes someone sound as if things matter to them in a significant way. The Orthodox response to the issues should generally be – not to respond.

The true “issue” of our time and of all times is the salvation of our souls. And, it is important to note, this is not a “legal” or “forensic” issue, but a matter of the deep healing of the spiritual disease that infects us, and, through us, all the world around us. We do not see things as they are (we are spiritually blind); we do not think as we ought (we are spiritually ignorant); we do not feel about things in a proper way (we are spiritually disordered in our emotions). Coming to grips with the passions and their disordered state (which effects our mind, emotions and our body) is very difficult work. It requires insight and honesty and a deep commitment to the Truth of Christ, through Whom we may alone find healing and salvation.

In the meantime it is possible to avoid all this by concerning ourselves with issues. Some concern themselves with political issues, particularly if those issues carry a moral component. But it is as possible to take the “right” position on a political issue as a wretched sinner as it is to take the “right” position on a political issue as a saint – though saints often have a strange way of not being involved in “political issues.” 

Others set their sights in other places and concern themselves with theological issues or local issues such as the goings-on in a parish. 

I would offer a brief definition of “issue” as I am using it here: any subject or situation with which we may concern ourselves, that having been addressed, leaves ourselves and others involved no closer to our salvation than when we began (and perhaps farther away).

The transformation of the world will not come about through the successive addressing of issues. It will, according to the Fathers of the Church, come about through the transformation of human persons, whom, having been restored to the proper image and likeness of Christ, are able to restore others and creation around them. It is thus that the “movers and shapers” of our world may never be acknowledged by the world itself. 

It is significant that the world admires Christ as a moral teacher – for He was not a moral teacher. Christ, the God-Man, was an is the Mediator between God and man, the means by which our distorted selves may be restored and transfigured and all creation set free. That transformation is simply impossible through “moral” effort.

Classical monastic spiritual teaching would speak instead about the purification of the passions and the illumination and deification of man. More recent Orthodox writers and teachers, such as St. Silouan and the Elder Sophrony have addressed the same teaching in terms of personhood. However, in both cases the nature of our salvation is described in the most profound terms of the inner life. 

Orthodoxy is a seamless garment. The sacramental life and the ascetical life are not two separate compartments. Both have to do with the healing of the soul. It is for such a reason that communion in the Orthodox Church is always linked with fasting and confession, however the discipline is applied. Communion is the “medicine of immortality” in the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch. But that same medicine must be received by a heart that has prepared itself through fasting and repentance. As Christ Himself proclaimed, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” So too, we approach the Kingdom in the Cup of Christ, and our hearts must greet it with repentance.

Our issues are not intellectual or political – but existential. Our brokenness is at the very level of our existence. 

Some years ago I heard the abbot of a monastery describe the young people who came for retreats during the 60’s and early 70’s. “They were so angry about peace,” he said. He added this thought: “The contemplative need go no further than his own heart than to find the source of all violence in the world.” 

This, indeed, is the issue.

Dostoevsky, the great 19th century Russian writer, spent his early adulthood deeply involved in a group of semi-revolutionary writers, artists and intellectuals. As a group, they were deeply committed and involved in the issues of the world. The reform of the Russian state – and in some corners – the reform of the Russian Church was an all-consuming passion. The Romanticism of the 19th century – its belief in the perfectibility of man, if only the proper state and economic system were employed – yielded the various experiments of the 20th century – with generally disastrous results.

Dostoevsky’s own existential crisis occurred when he and a small group of similar conspirators were arrested for sedition and sentenced to death. At the last moment their sentences were commuted to short terms in the Tsar’s Siberian prison system. It was in the few minutes that preceded his commutation – during which the great writer had opportunity to ponder death and his short life – that an inner change occurred. It is not that he saw everything in a flash – but rather that the issues moved away from an intellectual stage and into the deepest parts of his heart.

In what are perhaps his two greatest novels – the heart of man is revealed in the crime of murder. In Crime and Punishment a young man, Raskolnikov, convinces himself that only the will to power matters, and that he should be able to rob and kill a wretched old woman because he would put her money to better use. He succeeds in killing her only to discover that his “philosophy” is bankrupt. Utility (what works) is insufficient for the human soul. He finds salvation in prison through the unrelenting love of God.

In The Brothers Karamazov, murder again is at the center of man’s “issues.” Again it becomes the catalyst for a crisis in which the truth of God is revealed. The moral reform of the characters of the novel is a non-issue. Indeed, the most “moral” of the Karamazov brothers is arguably the unbeliever, Ivan. But Ivan, interestingly, is the devil. It takes little character to argue about justice and to be concerned with fairness. In my experience, even unredeemed humanity is born with an instinct for such arguments.

Most of us do not see ourselves as murderers and are thus content with lesser “issues,” none of which will push us to the point of repentance. I often think that Jesus asked those who sought to follow Him to give everything to the poor precisely to bring them to the point of crisis. To give away everything in the name of Christ raises the question about the name and nature of Christ to its proper place. Either He is worthy of such an action or He is not worthy of any action. The Kingdom of God is never found in half-measures, or in carefully measured actions of any sort. Anxiety and care cannot map the road into the Kingdom.

I am not suggesting that we cease to care about people or the things that effect them. I am suggesting that our concern for “issues” falls far short of actually caring about people and the things that effect them. It is possible to love humanity and actually hate people. I have seen it far too often and have done it myself.

It is much easier to trust someone who wants to “save the world,” if they have also bothered first to “save themselves” (yet another paradoxical statement). It shouldn’t take an arrest by the Tsar to bring us to our senses – though for Dostoevsky it seems to have helped. Perhaps it would be sufficient if we would recognize that we ourselves are murderers and that no amount of moral reform will return the life we have taken. Nothing short of resurrection will present us with the medicine for which our souls thirst.

Take, Eat

April 16, 2009

bro-ephraim-mar-sabaThe simple words of Christ to His disciples at the Last Supper were profound on many levels: the commandment was short and straight-forward; it reversed an ancient prohibition; it set the primary manner for human beings to receive grace and thus teaches us much about how it is we receive grace in a normative manner (and were always meant to).

The Orthodox are somewhat fond of quoting this simple commandment, only if it is to pick a friendly fight with Roman Catholics. Western Christianity developed a devotion to the Body of Christ which became manifested as a visual devotion. Thus the service of the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament has as its focus the showing forth of the Eucharist in a manner to be seen by all.

Orthodoxy has almost the opposite instinct. The holier something is, the more likely we are to hide it until the last moment. Thus during Great Lent and part of Holy Week, when the Holy Eucharist is frequently only celebrated with “Pre-sanctified” Body and Blood of Christ (consecrated at the Sunday Liturgy), the entire service takes place with profound devotion, but without seeing the Body and Blood of Christ until the very moment in which we come forward to receive Him, in obedience to His commandment: “Take, eat.”

I will leave it to other Orthodox writers to concern themselves with the relative merits or faults in the Roman Catholic practice, or yet, the explanations for the historical development of the Eucharistic practices of Orthodoxy during Lent and Holy Week. I am simply concerned with the commandment to “take, eat” and to “drink ye all of this” (which, by the way means “all of you drink this” and not “drink all this.”

First, the commandment is simple – an action described in two words. It is also an action that can (and is) taken even by very young children. In Orthodoxy we commune children as soon as they are Baptized and Chrismated (from about 40 days old or so). It is not only a simple commandment but reverses the oldest of prohibitions in man’s story with God. We refused to keep the proper fast in the Garden, eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil when we had been told it was the only tree from which we were not to eat.

Left untouched was the Tree of Life. To guard that tree, and to prevent man from becoming an everlasting, unrepentant demon, we were cast out of the Garden and an angel with a flaming sword was set to guard the tree’s approach. Of course, we now understand that the Cross is itself the Tree of Life, and Christ Himself is the Life that hangs from that Tree.

It is the fruit of the Tree of Life that is brought forth in the Cup in the Holy Eucharist. The doors of the iconostasis are opened (like the very gates of paradise) and the Deacon comes forth chanting, “In the fear of God, with faith and love draw near.” The Banquet of Life begins.

Christ told us:

Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.Whosoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down from heaven—not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever (John 6:53-58).

And this banquet is the normative means of receiving grace, God’s own Life. This is the grace of forgiveness, of healing, of union with God (there are not several graces but one grace which does all). There I sit and marvel. It is normative for us to receive grace by eating and drinking. As I tell my catechumens: “God has so purposed to give you grace that He put it on a spoon lest you miss it” (Orthodox are communed by a spoon with the Body and Blood mixed together).

Thus like babies, or even young chicks, we approach the cup with our mouths opened, humbling ourselves to receive the Life of God.

This simple act of receiving grace is not unique among God’s work with human beings. There has developed in some parts of Christianity an effort to “spiritualize” the reception of grace. Most of this development has come from the usual suspect: the nefarious “two-storey universe.” Thus we live normal lives, eating and drinking, washing and bathing, etc., but surround the receiving of grace with unusual activities: most particularly mental activities. For in the warped version of the faith that is the two-storey world, we equate our bodies with the secular and our minds with the spiritual. It is pure nonsense and a failure to properly understand the Scriptures.

God did not give us bodies in order to trap us in the lower storey of the universe. Neither does he intend to raise us up to heaven as disembodied minds. Such Platonistic nonsense has no proper place in Christianity.

I have heard the phrase “empty ritual” so many times in my life that I know I confront a cliche when I hear it. The speaker has put no great thought into his/her words. Nor do they understand the most basic gifts of God. Worse still, there is an anti-Semitic component to this phrase. The Old Testament, filled with instructions for the ritual of the Temple, is seen as somehow inferior (by nature) to what is imagined to be a “spiritual” approach in the New Testament. Though the first Passover in historical terms (in Christian understanding) was but a shadow of the eternal Pascha of Christ – the feasts are both quite physical in form. One eats the meat of a lamb in a ritual manner; the other eats the Body and Blood of God in a ritual manner.

For those who think of ritual as “empty ritual,” the argument is with God, not with me. He gave us these forms.

Liturgical actions are not to be done mindlessly, but with deep care and concern. Mishandling the Body and Blood of Christ can get an Orthodox priest deposed from his priesthood, or, at least, suspended for a time as a disciplinary measure. It is a most serious matter. In the same way, the laity is not to approach Christ’s Body and Blood in a nonchalant manner. 

The “ritual” aspects carry no inherent value, but instead a discipline and a respect, lest we treat holy things in an unholy manner. Those who despise the outward forms of this great gift are gnostics who are despising Christ’s gift to us. There can be no “drive-through” communions, or lunch bag communions (I’ve heard of both). These are ignorant blasphemies on the part of a people who have been taught that physical things do not matter, only the spiritual. As a result they do not know the spiritual things of God, only thoughts about spiritual things.

Take, eat. It is a simple commandment. But it gives us what had once been forbidden. It teaches us as well how grace is generally received. It comes to us in cup and spoon, in oil and water, in smoke and fragrance. In the bowing of the head or the prostration of our bodies. It comes to us in our words of forgiveness for another and in the daily rituals of kindness we perform for one another. 

God has not made the acquisition of His Life hard for us – unless you despise the simplicity of His method. Those who do may go with Naaman and enjoy the beauty of the rivers in Syria. But do not expect to be healed on your own terms.

A Story of Repentance

March 27, 2009

One of my favorite books comes from the last years of the Soviet Union. It is the story of Tatiana Goricheva, a member of the “intelligentsia” and a Soviet-era dissident. Her book, Talking About God Is Dangerous, offers fascinating insights into both a period of time and the period of a human soul’s conversion by grace. The little volume is out of print but can be found on the internet for as little as a dollar. I share a sample as she tells of her first confession.


We knew virtually nothing

goricheva…I had come to make my confession for the first time in my life. Shortly beforehand I had become a Christian by the grace of God. I had no deeper knowledge either of Christianity or of the church – who could have taught me? I and my newly-converted girl friend, both in the same position, learned what to do by imitating our old women, who zealously preserved the Orthodox faith and practices. We didn’t know anything. But we had something which in our day should perhaps be treasured more than knowledge: a boundless trust in the church, belief in all its words, in every movement and demand. Only yesterday we had rejected all authority and all norms. Today we understood the deliverance that we had experienced as a miracle. We regarded our church as the indubitable, absolute truth, in minor matters just as much as in its main concern. God has changed us and given us childhood: ‘Unless you become as children, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’

I only knew that it was necessary to go to confession and to communion. I knew that both confession and communion were high sacraments which reconcile us with God and even unite us with him, really unite us with him in all fullness, both physical and spiritual. I was formally baptized by my unbelieving parents as a child. Whether they did that out of tradition or whether someone had persuaded them to do it, I never discovered from their explanations. Now at the age of twenty-six I had decided to renew the grace of baptism.

Like a hardened crust

I knew that the priest himself – the well-known confessor Father Hermogen – would ask me questions and guide my confession. Then the day before I read a little booklet in order to prepare myself for confession, I discovered that I had transgressed all the commandments of the Old and New Testaments. But quite independently of that it was clear to me that the while of my life was full of sins of the most varied kind, of transgressions and unnatural forms of behavior. They now pursued me and tormented me after my conversion, and lay like a heavy burden on my soul. How could I have not seen earlier how abhorrent and stupid, how boring and sterile sin is? From my childhood my eyes had been blindfolded in some way. I longed to make my confession because I already felt with my innermost being that I would receive liberation, that the new person which I had recently discovered within myself would be completely victorious and drive out the old person. For every moment after my conversion I felt inwardly healed and renewed, but at the same time it was as though I was somehow covered with a crust of sin which had grown around me and had become hard. So I to longed for penance, as if for a wash. And I recalled the marvellous words of the Psalm which I had recently learned by heart: ‘Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.’

The experience of a miracle

And so my turn came. I went up, and kissed the gospel and the cross. Of course because I felt dismay and apprehension, I was afraid to say that I was confessing for the first time. Father Hermogen began by asking,

‘When did you last fail to go to church? What festivals have you deliberately neglected?’

‘All of them,’ I replied.

Then Father Hermogen knew that he was dealing with a new convert. In recent times new converts have come into the Russian church in large numbers, and they have to be treated in a different way.

He began by asking about the most terrible, the ‘greatest’ sins in my life, and I had to tell him my whole biography: a life based on pride and a quest for praise, on arrogant contempt for other people. I told him about my drunkenness and my sexual excesses, my unhappy marriages, the abortions and my inability to love anyone. I also told him about the next period of my life, my preoccupation with yoga and my desire for ‘self-fulfillment’, for becoming God, without love and without penitence. I spoke for a long time, though I also found it difficult. My shame got in the way and tears took away my breath. At the end I said almost automatically: ‘I want to suffer for all my sins, and be purged at least a little from them. Please give me absolution.’

Father Hermogen listened to me attentively, and hardly interrupted. Then he sighed deeply and said, ‘Yes, they are grave sins.’

I was given absolution by the grace of God: very easily, it seemed to me: for the space of several years I was to say five times a day the prayer ‘Virgin and Mother of God, rejoice’, each time with a deep prostration to the ground.

This absolution was a great support to me through all the following years. Our sins (the life of my newly-converted friend was hardly different from my own) somehow seemed to us to be so enormous that we found it hard to believe that they could disappear so simply, with the wave of a priest’s hand. But we had already had a miraculous experience: from the nothingness of a meaningless existence bordering on desperation we had come into the Father’s house, into the church, which for us was paradise. We knew that with God anything is possible. That helped us to believe that confession did away with sin. And the starets also said, ‘Don’t think about it again. You have confessed and that is enough. If you keep thinking about it you are only sinning all over again.’

Crushing Dragons in the Waters Across the World

January 4, 2009


I must add to this post from last year, my memory of standing by Met. Kallistos Ware and other pilgrims for the Great Blessing of the Waters at the Jordan River this past September. As the Metropolitan’s voice rang out, a school of fish gathered in the water as an audience. The scene was surreal, as though standing within an icon, which indeed we were. The weather was hot – but the waters were cool.

This coming Tuesday (New Calendar) marks one of the greatest feasts of the Orthodox year, the Feast of Theophany, Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan river. Across the world Orthodox Christians will gather after the Liturgy to bless the waters: the ocean, a river, a spring, etc.  

Every feast day in Orthodoxy is connected to the Feast of Pascha, because Pascha is God’s great act of salvation. However, some feasts show this connection more clearly than others. Three feasts in the year share the same pattern of services: Pascha, Nativity, and Theophany. Each has a Vesperal Liturgy on its Eve and a Vigil the night before (with occasional variances).

The icons of the three feasts are strikingly similar, with Christ descending into a background that is usually rendered with darkness. At Pascha the darkness is the darkness of death and Hell where Christ has gone to raise the dead. At Nativity the darkness is the cave in which he is born. This darkness is the darkness of the world that is caught in sin and death – but it is the same darkness as Hell. At Theophany the icon depicts Christ standing on the waters of the Jordan – but the waters themselves are depicted as dark, or at least highlighted with a dark background. The darkness at this feast is precisely the same darkness as that pictured in the icon of Pascha. For Theophany is the feast of Christ’s baptism – and baptism, St. Paul tells us is a baptism into the death of Christ. His Baptism is a prefigurement of His death.

Thus the waters of the Jordan become symbolic of Hades. Christ’s descent into the waters becomes his descent into Hades where he “leads captivity captive” (Ephesians 4:8) and sets free those who have been held in bondage to death. The vigil of Theophany, like the vigil of Pascha, includes the reading of the book of the prophet Jonah – the reluctant messenger of God who was thrown overboard by his companions and swallowed by a great fish. This book is read because it contains the same image as the icons – the descent into the depths of Hades.

Then Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish’s belly, and said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice. For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me. Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple. The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God.

At the Vespers of Theophany we hear this phrase:

Thou hast bowed Thine head before the Forerunner and hast crushed the heads of the dragons. Thou hast descended into the waters and hast given light to all things, that they may glorify Thee, O Savior, the Enlightenment of our souls.

The phrase, “crushed the heads of the dragons,” comes from Psalm 74:

Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth. Thou didst divide the sea by thy might; thou didst break the heads of the dragons on the waters. Thou didst crush the heads of Leviathan, thou didst give him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.

In this Psalm, God is recalled both as Creator, but also as the one who has brought order into the chaos of the world. He not only creates the waters, but crushes the heads of the dragons that dwell there. The “dragons” in the Psalm are an old English translation of the Hebrew word for whales. But the word “dragon” is an apt description of the demonic forces that are defeated in Christ’s death and its prefigurement in Baptism.

In the prayer over the waters, the priest says:

Thou didst sanctify the streams of Jordan, sending down from heaven Thy Holy Spirit, and didst crush the heads of the dragons that lurked therein.

This same prayer is prayed over the waters blessed on the day of Theophany. The service for the blessing of the waters usually takes place by a local body of water.. At the very heart of the blessing a hand cross is thrown out into the water three times and retrieved with the singing of the festal troparion:

When Thou O Christ wast baptized in the Jordan,

the worship ofthe Trinity was made manifest.

For the voice of the Father bear witness to Thee,

and called Thee His beloved Son.

And the Spirit in the form of a dove,

confirmed the truthfulness of His word.

O Christ, our God who hast revealed Thyself,

and hast enlightened the world glory to Thee!

The same troparion is sung throughout the homes of the faithful during the season after Theophany as the priest carries the same blessing into our homes. Theophany is a proclamation to nature itself of Christ’s salvation. Our lives have plenty of “dragons,” in all shapes and sizes. But Christ is victorious over everything that would destroy his creation – particularly the people who are His own.

The Beginning of the End

December 26, 2008


Living year in and year out with a liturgical calendar – worship which moves from feast to feast – there is a freedom of sorts from the tyranny of your own one-sidedness. The liturgical calendar of the Church inevitably takes you through the whole story of salvation – in a manner that simply requires a year to be unfolded. On the other hand, this same liturgical calendar, particularly as it is manifest in the Orthodox Church, does not unfold the story of our salvation in a manner that is merely historical. Such an unfolding would simply order the events of our salvation along a timeline and place them one after another. The inner relationships between each event would be lost – or would simply be seen as governed by time. Instead, the liturgical life reveals an understanding in which time as a succession of things  (chronos) is repeatedly overturned. Instead events are placed in such a way that their critical content (time as kairos) is revealed.

A few examples:

The great feast, the “Feasts of Feasts,” is that of Holy Pascha (Easter). Everything governing the liturgical celebration of this feast clearly marks it as the greatest feast of the year. There is no debate within Orthodoxy of Pascha versus Christmas – “which feast do you like the most?” That Pascha is the greatest feast is clearly stated in the Church’s Typicon (the directions for liturgical celebrations). For instance, no feast is, by Tradition, to be celebrated earlier in the day than the feast of Pascha. It holds the place of highest honor.

It also has a particular shape – from an Orthodox perspective. Thus there is a Vesperal Liturgy on the Eve of the Feast (a combination of Vespers and the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil in which there are generally 15 readings in Vespers, as well as the remaining required material for Vespers and Liturgy – with a few exceptions). There is also a Vigil of the Feast and, finally, the Divine Liturgy of the Feast itself.

Interestingly, this particular pattern occurs only two other times in the Liturgical Year: Christmas and the Feast of Theophany (the Baptism of Christ). These facts may seem like so much liturgical detail – the sorts of things that priests like to think about – but these patterns are themselves meant to point to the very meaning of the feast itself. It is one of the keys to its interpretation. Thus Pascha becomes the means by which both Christmas and Theophany are to be understood. Christmas is not called the “Winter Pascha” for no reason.

In both Christmas and Theophany – the central, saving action is paschal in nature. In each of these events, Christ saves us through His union with us – His Divine condescension. He humbles Himself to be born; He humbles Himself to be Baptized; He humbles Himself even to death on the Cross. It is His humility by which He unites Himself to our flesh and takes our nature upon Himself. Thus what He accomplishes in Himself is accomplished for all. St. Paul is able to say:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his (Romans 6:3-5).

It is worth noting that such statements by St. Paul are as far removed from Baptism as an “Ordinance,” a mere sign of obedience, as is possible. His language is clearly the language of union. We are saved through our union with Christ. Indeed, the whole of our Christian life, in every aspect, is a life lived in union with Christ. Union with Christ is our salvation.

This liturgical commentary on the meaning of particular feasts is also reflected in the icons of those feasts. The icons for Christmas, Theophany and Pascha all have a similar pattern in which the action is set in the context of a cave, or cave-like space (this is often accomplished in the Theophany icon through the framing of the central picture with stylized mountains that echo the shape of a cave). This artistic similarity of the icons of the feasts is a “grammatical” clue by which the faithful are again instructed to understand the feast through the lens of Pascha.

Indeed, these liturgical and iconographic elements are not isolated nor are they later Byzantine constructs. The Scriptures themselves use a similar “iconic” shape in the telling of certain stories, by which we are taught to see one thing through another. Fr. John Behr of St. Vladimir’s Seminary has commented in particular on the similarity between the stories of Good Friday (part of Pascha) and of Christ’s birth.

The New Testament (particularly the Gospels) tends to be written in this manner because it was already the means of reading the Old Testament. The events of the Old Testament were radically reinterpreted by Christ (as He instructed His disciples) in which He made known to them “beginning with Moses and the Prophets all the things concerning Himself.” Everything in the Old Testament was seen as pointing to our salvation in Christ. The story of Creation, the Fall, the Passover, etc., are all foreshadowings of later events. Their meaning transcends their own history and points to the shape of Christ’s saving mission.

Thus history was not seen by the Church as a chronology – a series of events that lead up to the birth of the Messiah – but rather as a constant foreshadowing of the things that were to be revealed in the coming of Christ. The meaning of these things of “the beginning,” were to be found in their End. Christ is both Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. The Lamb is slain “from the foundations of the earth.”

Thus it is that in the Beginning we see the End. In Christmas we see Pascha – for in Pascha we see revealed the fullness of the love of God and of our redemption. How can it be that anything point elsewhere?

What Shall This Man Do?

December 5, 2008


From the Desert Fathers:

A brother asked the abba Poemen, saying, “If I should see my brother’s fault, is it good to hide it? The old man said to him, “In what hour we do cover up our brother’s sins, God shall cover ours: and in what hour we do betray our brother’s shames, in like manner God shall betray our own.”

Recent comments have raised the perennial question of our responsibility towards others – particularly with regard to their sins. Should we rebuke and exhort them (as is encouraged in certain places in the Scriptures), or do we look the other way and simply pray?

It is always dangerous to suggest one answer that fits every situation because not all things are the same. Nevertheless there are some general principles that are worth considering:

First, the primary passages in Scripture that speak of exhorting or rebuking are not directed towards everyone, but to pastors and elders of the Church. The democratization of Christianity (in so many ways) has tended to forget that not everything written in the Scripture is meant for everyone. When St. Paul gives advice to Timothy or Titus, he is advising fellow Apostles and Bishops of the Church. We can glean wisdom from hearing his advice to them – but not every Christian is Timothy or Titus.

Second, actually discerning sin is a very difficult thing – for we are not told that God judges from without, but from within. Who knows the heart of another?

Third, when is the right time to speak to someone else concerning their sin? For some this may seem simple or obvious, but not if we are seeing rightly. The purpose of every word to another believer, particularly regarding matters such as sin and righteousness should be solely for their salvation. The time for correction is easily as important as the word itself. We may be correct in our judgment but only crush another with our righteousness. The Scriptures say: “A word in due season, how good it is!” (Proverbs 15:23)

For some it would seem that certain sins rise to the level of demanding rebuke – perhaps this is true. I do not think I could stand idly by and watch a child be abused (nor should any of us). There is also a place for gentle correction of false doctrine and beliefs.

But even as a confessor, I tremble with fear at the responsibility that is taken up when I begin to rebuke or exhort another. My Archbishop (whom I have heard address the subject of confession on numerous occasions) always says, “A priest should have less to say than a penitent.” There are obvious exceptions to this – but correction is a fearful thing. A priest is not a psychologist nor a lawyer, but “only a witness, bearing testimony of all things you shall say.” Thus I am not responsible to analyze the sins of another, nor to issue hard legal rulings. My task as a confessor is to hear the sins of a penitent and to pronounce the forgiveness of God. If a word should occur to me, then it can be offered, again with fear and trembling.

Salvation is a dynamic work in the soul. It cannot be achieved by the law (“the letter kills,” St. Paul tells us), nor can it be wrought without the cooperation of our free will (however feeble it might be). Finding the right word, a “word in due season,” is a wondrous thing – a great gift from God. It is a word that carries healing of the soul and true salvation.

The Archimandrite Zacharias, one of the elders at the Monastery of St. John in Essex, serves as one of two confessors in that community. When I was visiting there, I saw him hearing confessions for nearly the whole of a weekend as pilgrims by the bus load came in from London. I have heard him speak and read his writings. He is certainly among the better confessors that I know. His words on confession and offering advice are deeply sobering. With his years of monastic experience and discipleship under Elder Sophrony, he still hesitates to speak or does so with great fear.

On the other hand, the Church and Scripture have much to say about the dangers inherent in judging another. The saying from the Desert Fathers quoted at the beginning of this post is typical of what is found in the Fathers. Which is easier – to judge someone and offer advice – or to refrain from judging and pray? The very difficulty involved should tell us much of what we should consider. Anyone who has read a little can offer advice or correct another – but not necessarily to their salvation. I am aware of far more occasions when such conversations have resulted in damaged relationships and fractures in the Church. Do we trust our priest enough to let him carry out his ministry of reconciliation, or shall we all pitch in and help?

Being troubled about the sins of another is itself something to take to confession – not as a means of informing the priest and asking him to fix someone else – but because our own souls are troubled and damaged by our judgments. In general, a priest cannot discuss with you the sins of someone else. If he is their confessor as well, should he speak of what he is bound to keep secret?

Perhaps my most general thought is that we should marvel at the mystery of salvation and recognize how glorious and even secret such a work is. We are commanded not to judge because it is not given to us to judge, except by the Spirit of God, and thus always as a gift and a treasure – one that can only be received with great humility. Grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother.

[After the resurrection, Peter spoke with the risen Lord who told him to “Feed my sheep.”]  Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned on his breast at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth thee? Peter seeing him saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do? Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me.

Faces in the Dark

November 6, 2008


One of the finest short contemporary classics of Orthodox spiritual writing is Tito Colliander’s Way of the Ascetics. The following excerpt is from his “Chapter Thirteen: On Progress in Depth.”

THE external rudiments lead us now to the welfare that goes on in the depths. As when one peels an onion, one layer after another is removed, and the innermost core, out of which growth reaches up toward the light, lies revealed. There, in your own innermost chamber, you will glimpse the heavenly chamber, for they are one and the same, according to St. Isaac the Syrian.

When you strive now to enter your inmost depths, you will be aware, beside your own true face, of what St. Hesychius of Jerusalem calls the gloomy faces of thought’s [dark figures], but what St. Macarius of Egypt likens to a crawling serpent that has nestled there and wounded your soul’s most vital organ. If now you have slain this serpent, he says, you may pride yourself on your purity before God. But if you have not, bow humbly, as a needy sinner, and pray to God about all that lurks within you.

How can we make a beginning, then, we who have never penetrated into the heart? We stand outside, but let us knock with fasting and prayer, as the Lord commands when He says: Knock and it shall be opened unto you (Matthew 7:7). For to knock is to act. And if we stand fast in the word of the Lord, in poverty, in humility, in all that the injunctions of the Gospel require, and night and day hammer upon God’s spiritual door, then we shall be able to get what we seek. Whoever will escape darkness and captivity can walk out into freedom through that door. There he receives the disposition to spiritual freedom, and the possibility of reaching Christ, the heavenly King, says St. Macarius.

Coming to grips with the fact that, spirtually, the world is not “two-storey” or bifurcated into sacred and secular, is primarily an act of coming to grips with our own heart. It is in the heart that we find both the gate of paradise as well as the “gloomy dark faces.” And these things will not be found by contemplating the stars or thinking about a heaven that is somewhere else.

Listening recently to the newly-ordained Bishop Jonah, I noted the emphasis he placed on frequent confession. For it is particularly in this sacrament that, with time, patience and fearless honesty, we begin to see the outlines and contours of our heart. We can learn, through prayer, how to enter and remain in the heart (when confession becomes even yet more important) and to have an inward communion that is the gift of God dwelling in us.

I particularly appreciate Colliander’s last statement:

And if we stand fast in the word of the Lord, in poverty, in humility, in all that the injunctions of the Gospel require, and night and day hammer upon God’s spiritual door, then we shall be able to get what we seek. Whoever will escape darkness and captivity can walk out into freedom through that door. There he receives the disposition to spiritual freedom, and the possibility of reaching Christ, the heavenly King, says St. Macarius.

From Khomiakov’s The Church Is One

October 27, 2008

Alexei Khomiakov (1804-1860) was a Russian lay theologian. One of his most important essays was The Church Is One. In a private conversation with Met. Kallistos Ware, I asked questions about the story of his conversion to Orthodoxy. There were few Orthodox writings available in English at the time (Met. Kallistos’ The Orthodox Church [1962] was probably the first major work in English on the Orthodox Church). He said to me that Khomiakov’s The Church Is One was a very influential work in his conversion. The following is a small excerpt:

THE CHURCH, even upon earth, lives, not an earthly human life, but a life of grace which is divine. Wherefore not only each of her members, but she herself as a whole, solemnly calls herself “Holy.” Her visible manifestation is contained in the Sacraments, but her inward life in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, in faith, hope, and love. Oppressed and persecuted by enemies without, at times agitated and lacerated within by the evil passions of her children, she has been and ever will be preserved without wavering or change wherever the Sacraments and spiritual holiness are preserved. Never is she either disfigured or in need of reformation. She lives not under a law of bondage, but under a law of liberty. She neither acknowledges any authority over her, except her own, nor any tribunal, but the tribunal of faith (for reason does not comprehend her), and she expresses her love, her faith, and her hope in her prayers and rites, suggested to her by the Spirit of truth and by the grace of Christ. Wherefore her rites themselves, even if they are not unchangeable (for they are composed by the spirit of liberty and may be changed according to the judgment of the Church) can never, in any case, contain any, even the smallest, admixture of error or false doctrine. And the rites (of the Church) while they are unchanged are of obligation to the members of the Church; for in their observance is the joy of holy unity.

External unity is the unity manifested in the communion of Sacraments; while internal unity is unity of spirit. Many (as for instance some of the martyrs) have been saved without having been made partakers of so much as one of the Sacraments of the Church (not even of Baptism) but no one is saved without partaking of the inward holiness of the Church, of her faith, hope, and love: for it is not works which save, but faith. And faith, that is to say, true and living faith, is not twofold, but single. Wherefore both those who say that faith alone does not save, but that works also are necessary, and those who say that faith saves without works, are void of understanding; for if there are no works, then faith is shown to be dead; and, if it be dead, it is also untrue; for in true faith there is Christ the truth and the life; but, if it be not true, then it is false, that is to say, mere external knowledge. But can that which is false save a man? But if it be true, then it is also a living faith, that is to say, one which does works; but if it does works, what works are still required?

The divinely inspired Apostle saith: “Show me the faith of which thou boastest thyself by thy works, even as I show my faith by my works.” Does he acknowledge two faiths? No, but exposes a senseless boast. “Thou believest in God, but the devils also believe.” Does he acknowledge that there is faith in devils? No, but he detects the falsehood which boasts itself of a quality which even devils possess. “As the body,” saith he, “without the soul is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” Does he compare faith to the body and works to the Spirit? No, for such a simile would be untrue; but the meaning of his words is clear. Just as a body without a soul is no longer a man, and cannot properly be called a man, but a corpse, so faith also that does no works cannot be called true faith, but false; that is to say, an external knowledge, fruitless, and attainable even by devils. That which is written simply ought also to be read simply. Wherefore those who rely upon the Apostle James for a proof that there is a dead faith and a living faith, and as it were two faiths, do not comprehend the words of the Apostle; for the Apostle bears witness not for them, but against them. Likewise when the Great Apostle of the Gentiles says, ‘What is the use of faith without love, even of such a faith as would remove mountains?” (1 Cor. 13:2) he does not maintain the possibility of such faith without love: but assuming its possibility he shows that it would be useless. Holy Scripture ought not to be read in the spirit of worldly wisdom, which wrangles over words, but in the spirit of the wisdom of God, and of spiritual simplicity. The Apostle, in defining faith, says, “it is the evidence of things unseen, and the confidence of things hoped for” (not merely of things awaited, or things to come), but if we hope, we also desire, and if we desire, we also love; for it is impossible to desire that which a man loves not. Or have the devils also hope? Wherefore there is but one faith, and when we ask, “Can true faith save without works?” we ask a senseless question; or rather no question at all: for true faith is a living faith which does works; it is faith in Christ, and Christ in faith.

Those who have mistaken a dead faith, that is to say, a false faith, or mere external knowledge, for true faith, have gone so far in their delusion that, without knowing it themselves, they have made of it an eighth Sacrament. The Church has faith, but it is a living faith; for she has also sanctity. But if one man or one bishop is necessarily to have the faith, what are we to say? Has he sanctity? No, for it may be he is notorious for crime and immorality. But the faith is to abide in him even though he be a sinner. So the faith within him is an eighth Sacrament; inasmuch as every Sacrament is the action of the Church in an individual, even though he be unworthy. But through this Sacrament what sort of faith abides in him? A living faith? No, for he is a sinner. But a dead faith, that is to say, external knowledge, is attainable, even by devils. And is this to be an eighth Sacrament? Thus does departure from the truth bring about its own punishment.

We must understand that neither faith nor hope nor love saves of itself (for will faith in reason, or hope in the world, or love for the flesh save us?). No, it is the object of faith which saves. If a man believes in Christ, he is saved in his faith by Christ; if he believes in the Church, he is saved by the Church; if he believes in Christ’s Sacraments, he is saved by them; for Christ our God is in the Church and the Sacraments. The Church of the Old Testament was saved by faith in a Redeemer to come. Abraham was saved by the same Christ as we. He possessed Christ in hope, while we possess Him in joy. Wherefore he who desires Baptism is baptized in will; while he who has received Baptism possesses it in joy. An identical faith in Baptism saves both of them. But a man may say, “if faith in Baptism saves, what is the use of being actually baptized?” If he does not receive Baptism what did he wish for? It is evident that the faith which desires Baptism must be perfected by the reception of Baptism itself, which is its joy. Therefore also the house of Cornelius received the Holy Ghost before he received Baptism, while the eunuch was filled with the same Spirit immediately after Baptism (Acts 10, 44-47, 8. 38, cf. 2. 38). For God can glorify the Sacrament of Baptism just as well before, as after, its administration. Thus the difference between the opus operans and opus operatum disappears. We know that there are many persons who have not christened their children, and many who have not admitted them to Communion in the Holy Mysteries, and many who have not confirmed them: but the Holy Church understands things otherwise, christening infants and confirming them and admitting them to Communion. She has not ordained these things in order to condemn unbaptized children, whose angels do always behold the face of God (Matt. 18:10); but she has ordained this, according to the spirit of love which lives within her, in order that the first thought of a child arriving at years of discretion should be, not only a desire, but also a joy for sacraments which have been already received. And can one know the joy of a child who to all appearances has not yet arrived at discretion? Did not the prophet, even before His birth, exult for joy concerning Christ (St. Luke 1. 41)? Those who have deprived children of Baptism and Confirmation and Communion are they who, having inherited the blind wisdom of blind heathendom, have not comprehended the majesty of God’s Sacraments, but have required reasons and uses for everything and, having subjected the doctrine of the Church to scholastic explications, will not even pray unless they see in the prayer some direct goal or advantage. But our law is not a law of bondage or of hireling service, laboring for wages, but a law of the adoption of sons, and of love which is free.

We know that when any one of us falls he falls alone; but no one is saved alone. He who is saved is saved in the Church, as a member of her, and in unity with all her other members. If any one believes, he is in the communion of faith; if he loves, he is in the communion of love; if he prays, he is in the communion of prayer. Wherefore no one can rest his hope on his own prayers, and every one who prays asks the whole Church for intercession, not as if he had doubts of the intercession of Christ, the one Advocate, but in the assurance that the whole Church ever prays for all her members. All the angels pray for us, the apostles, martyrs, and patriarchs, and above them all, the Mother of our Lord, and this holy unity is the true life of the Church. But if the Church, visible and invisible, prays without ceasing, why do we ask her for her prayers? Do we not entreat mercy of God and Christ, although His mercy goes before our prayer? The very reason that we ask the Church for her prayers is that we know that she gives the assistance of her intercession even to him that does not ask for it, and to him that asks she gives it in far greater measure than he asks: for in her is the fullness of the Spirit of God. Thus we glorify all whom God has glorified and is glorifying; for how should we say that Christ is living within us, if we do not make ourselves like unto Christ? Wherefore we glorify the Saints the Angels, and the Prophets, and more than all the most pure Mother of the Lord Jesus, not acknowledging her either to have been conceived without sin, or to have been perfect (for Christ alone is without sin and perfect), but remembering that the pre-eminence, passing all understanding, which she has above all God’s creatures was borne witness to by the Angel and by Elizabeth and, above all, by the Saviour Himself when He appointed John, His great Apostle and seer of mysteries, to fulfill the duties of a son and to serve her.

Just as each of us requires prayers from all, so each person owes his prayers on behalf of all, the living and the dead, and even those who are as yet unborn, for in praying, as we do with all the Church, that the world may come to the knowledge of God, we pray not only for the present generation, but for those whom God will hereafter call into life. We pray for the living that the grace of God may be upon them, and for the dead that they may become worthy of the vision of God’s face. We know nothing of an intermediate state of souls, which have neither been received into the kingdom of God, nor condemned to torture, for of such a state we have received no teaching either from the Apostles or from Christ; we do not acknowledge Purgatory, that is, the purification of souls by sufferings from which they may be redeemed by their own works or those of others: for the Church knows nothing of salvation by outward means, nor any sufferings whatever they may be, except those of Christ; nor of bargaining with God, as in the case of a man buying himself off by good works.

All such heathenism as this remains with the inheritors of the wisdom of the heathen, with those who pride themselves in place, or name, or in territorial dominion, and who have instituted an eighth Sacrament of dead faith. But we pray in the spirit of love, knowing that no one will be saved otherwise than by the prayer of all the Church, in which Christ lives, knowing and trusting that so long as the end of time has not come, all the members of the Church, both living and departed, are being perfected incessantly by mutual prayer. The Saints whom God has glorified are much higher than we, but higher than all is the Holy Church, which comprises within herself all the Saints, and prays for all, as may be seen in the divinely inspired Liturgy. In her prayer our prayer is also heard; however unworthy we may be to be called sons of the Church. If, while worshipping and glorifying the Saints, we pray that God may glorify them, we do not lay ourselves open to the charge of pride; for to us who have received permission to call God “Our Father” leave has also been granted to pray, “Hallowed be Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.” And if we are permitted to pray of God that He will glorify His Name, and accomplish His Will, who will forbid us to pray Him to glorify His Saints, and to give repose to His elect? For those indeed who are not of the elect we do not pray, just as Christ prayed not for the whole world, but for those whom the Lord had given unto Him (St. John 17). Let no one say: “What prayer shall I apportion for the living or the departed, when my prayers are insufficient even for myself?” For if he is not able to pray, of what use would it be to pray even for himself? But in truth the spirit of love prays in him. Likewise let him not say: “What is the good of my prayer for another, when he prays for himself, and Christ Himself intercedes for him?” When a man prays, it is the spirit of love which prays within him. Let him not say: “It is even now impossible to change the judgment of God,” for his prayer itself is included in the ways of God, and God foresaw it. If he be a member of the Church his prayer is necessary for all her members. If the hand should say that it did not require blood from the rest of the body, and that it would not give its own blood to it, the hand would wither. So a man is also necessary to the Church, as long as he is in her; and, if he withdraws himself from communion with her, he perishes himself and will cease to be any longer a member of the Church. The Church prays for all, and we pray together for all; but our prayer must be true, and a true expression of love, and not a mere form of words. Not being able to love all men, we pray for those whom we love, and our prayer is not hypocritical; but we pray God that we may be able to love all and pray for all without hypocrisy. Mutual prayer is the blood of the Church, and the glorification of God her breath. We pray in a spirit of love, not of interest, in the spirit of filial freedom, not of the law of the hireling demanding his pay. Every man who asks: “What use is there in prayer?” acknowledges himself to be in bondage. True prayer is true love.

Love and unity are above everything, but love expresses itself in many ways: by works, by prayer, and by spiritual songs. The Church bestows her blessing upon all these expressions of love. If a man cannot express his love for God by word, but expresses it by a visible representation, that is to say an image (icon), will the Church condemn him? No, but she will condemn the man who condemns him, for he is condemning another’s love. We know that without the use of an image men may also be saved and have been saved, and if a man’s love does not require an image he will be saved without one; but if the love of his brother requires an image, he, in condemning this brother’s love, condemneth himself; if a man being a Christian dare not listen without a feeling of reverence to a prayer or spiritual song composed by his brother, how dare he look without reverence upon the image which his love, and not his art, has produced? The Lord Himself, who knows the secrets of the heart, has designed more than once to glorify a prayer or psalm; will a man forbid Him to glorify an image or the graves of the Saints? One may say: “The Old Testament has forbidden the representation of God;” but does he, who thus thinks he understands better than Holy Church the words which she herself wrote (that is, the Scriptures), not see that it was not a representation of God which the Old Testament forbade (for it allowed the Cherubim, and the brazen serpent, and the writing of the Name of God), but that it forbade a man to make unto himself a god in the similitude of any object in earth or in heaven, visible or even imaginary?

If a man paints an image to remind him of the invisible and inconceivable God, he is not making to himself an idol. If he imagines God to himself and thinks that He is like to his imagination, he maketh to himself an idol — that is the meaning of the prohibition in the Old Testament. But an image [eikon] (that is to say, the Name of God painted in colors), or a representation of His Saints, made by love, is not forbidden by the spirit of truth. Let none say, “Christians are going over to idolatry;” for the spirit of Christ which preserves the Church is wiser than a man’s calculating wisdom. Wherefore a man may indeed be saved without images, but he must not reject images.

The Church accepts every rite which expresses spiritual aspiration towards God, just as she accepts prayer and images [eikons], but she recognizes as higher than all rites the holy Liturgy, in which is expressed all the fullness of the doctrine and spirit of the Church; and this, not only by conventional signs or symbols of some kind, but by the word of life and truth inspired from above. He alone knows the Church who knows the Liturgy. Above all is the unity of holiness and love.