Posts Tagged ‘Thankfulness’

Whom God Would Have Us Be

October 28, 2010

When man stands before the throne of God, when he has fulfilled all that God has given him to fulfill, when all sins are forgiven, all joy restored, then there is nothing else for him to do but to give thanks. Eucharist (thanksgiving) is the state of perfect man. Eucharist is the life of paradise. Eucharist is the only full and real response of man to God’s creation, redemption and gift of heaven. But this perfect man who stands before God is Christ. In Him alone all that God has given man was fulfilled and brought back to heaven. He alone is the perfect Eucharistic Being, He is the Eucharist of the world. In and through this Eucharist the whole creation becomes what it always was to be and yet failed to be.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann in For the Life of the World.

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Perhaps the greatest single failure in the Christian life is the refusal to give thanks. Thanks that is dependent upon success or the fulfillment and pleasure of our own will is indeed thanksgiving – but is weak indeed. It is easy to give thanks for our pleasures and self-satisfactions (though even then we often forget to give thanks).

All too often in our relationship with God and others, thanksgiving is purely reciprocal: we offer thanks as though it were a token payment for that which we have received. As such, it may represent little more than a happy, greedy heart. It falls far short of the heart of thanksgiving (Eucharist) itself. The heart of true thanksgiving is not a payment for services rendered, but an existential expression of our love for God as the Lord and Giver of Life.

This fundamental attitude marks the relationship of Christ and the Father. He is always and eternally giving thanks to the Father. It is also the right and truly “whole” expression of what it is to be human in the face of God. We find ourselves beset with temptation, sickness and oppression of every sort – including the burden of our own failure and sinfulness. But true knowledge of God yields thanks despite all other temptations and trials. It is the sound of creation giving praise and thanksgiving to its Creator. Nothing is more fundamental nor more essential to the right-living of the human heart.

In the face of many circumstances that surround and crush us – thanksgiving to God can seem absurd. However, such absurdity is the voice of love that refuses to grant failure and oppression a greater place in our life than God Himself.

He is our God – and we praise Him. Let His enemies be scattered!

Thanksgiving, almost above all else, transforms us into the image of Christ – who Himself is the true Eucharist of all creation. To give thanks to God is inherently to unite ourselves with Christ and the true voice of creation.

It is truly meet and right…

Falling Short

October 28, 2010

I fail. We fail. It’s just how things are. It is not a conspiracy or the judgment of God or a universe arrayed against us – we simply fall short.

At times falling short is nothing less than embarrassing. This is especially so if we have raised our own expectations as well as the expectations of others. I do not measure up to my own expectations much less to those of others.

Falling short, however, is not the definition of my life or the meaning of my existence – at least I have not so learned it in Christ. My failure is not the bottom line of the universe – surprisingly the universe does not turn on the success of my personal journey. I am important to God – but that is sheer grace and an undeserved gift.

St. Paul said that he would “boast in his weakness” because in his weakness the strength of Christ was made complete. That, I would venture to observe, is not very American of him. In our culture, we glory in our strengths and say of our nation that “it is the best” or the “greatest” or other various superlatives.

Of course, it’s not really true. We can be grateful for what we have without insisting on superlatives. We can love what has been given to us without despising what someone else loves.

I cannot begin to share the depths of my own failure, nor would this venue be a proper place for such sharing. Thank God, there is Confession in the Church. But it is important for me, and for any of us, to remember what we are and what we are not. It is important to remember the gift of Christ, as well as why the gift is necessary in the first place.

When all else fails, Christ never fails. He is our sufficiency.

Giving and Receiving

August 9, 2010

In the immense cathedral which is the universe of God, each man, whether scholar or manual laborer, is called to act as the priest of his whole life – to take all that is human, and to turn it into an offering and a hymn of glory.

Paul Evdokimov in Woman and the Salvation of the World

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Abba Zosimas used to say: “We have lost our sense of balance.”

Reflections, XI, e.

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There is a modern translation of the Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven,” is rendered, “Blessed are they who know their need of God…”  It is an insightful rendering even though it is more paraphrase than translation. People often perceive themselves as “needy,” though not always in need of God. The “poverty of spirit” that is most often experienced is little more than an ache generated in the ego (our imaginary self) which always feels threatened in one way or another.

The very nature of the passions, in their distorted shape, is that we become passive – we are acted upon and feel helpless or addicted. I am often struck in conversations with others about various spiritual problems by our general passivity in life. The sin which so deeply infects us is less a matter of the will (with a considered choice being made) than it is a passive reaction. Most anger, for instance, is not a decision but a reaction, flowing from a distorted passion within us. Thus we say such things as, “You made me angry.”  In this manner we experience life as out of control and ourselves as victims.

It is only to be expected that such an experience awakens a desire within us to control the things around us – but it is also the case that most things around us cannot be controlled. And so we sin in yet another misguided attempt to save the ego.

Passivity is never healed passively – there have to positive actions within us to overcome the downward spiral of the passions. We were not created to be passive.

In the Biblical account, man and woman are set in a garden and given everything they need – with the single prohibition regarding one kind of fruit. Thus they were not merely passive recipients of everything in the world – they were also required to actively avoid one thing.

The heart of that Edenic life is summed up in the action of priesthood. Man receives from God and he actively returns to God all that he receives, with thanksgiving. In the Church, this is the action of the Eucharist. But it is also to be the action of everyone at all times. The activity of returning everything to God in thanksgiving is the essence of our communion with God.

The Elder Zacharias of Essex has described worship as a constant action of exchange. God gives to us and we give back to God. What we receive is obviously infinitely more than we can return. We receive the very life of God and in turn offer the life of man.

But this essential action is the opposite of passivity. All that we have is a gift from God – but a gift received without active thanksgiving quickly becomes distorted. Only those things which are given back with thanksgiving have a chance of taking their proper form and role in our lives.

St. Paul quotes Christ as saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). This is more than a statement of morally superior action – it is a description of life-creating action. To give is more blessed because it is for this that we were created.

What shall we render to the Lord?


Giving Thanks as a Way of Life

July 11, 2010

The act of giving thanks is among the most fundamental acts of love. It lies at the very heart of worship – in which, in the words of Archimandrite Zacharias of Essex, there is an exchange. In giving thanks we make an offering which itself is always inferior to what we have received – but which is itself an enlargement of the human heart. To live rightly in the presence and communion of God is to live in a state of constant thanksgiving. For from Him we receive all that we have – our life and existence, all good things, the hope of redemption, and the joy of communion. The offering of thanksgiving is the acknowledgement within our heart that we ourselves are not the author of any of these things, but are rather the recipients – those who receive gifts from God.

The offering of our heart in the giving of thanks is itself an act of joy and of love. It is a moving away from ourselves as the center of our existence and the recognition that our true life is centered elsewhere – in Christ Himself.

We are also the recipients of many things from others around us. No one is self-sufficient. There is no such thing as a “self-made” man. The offering of thanks is a matter of living in our right mind – the failure to give thanks, an act of insanity (unwholeness).

With all of these things in mind, the teaching of Scripture to “give thanks always for all things” becomes yet clearer. We offer thanks not “from time to time,” or “whenever we feel grateful,” but always and for all things. Such an offering is itself an act of communion, a receiving of the love of God through gratefully acknowledging His gifts. To refuse to give thanks is, for the same reason, a rupture in our communion with God.

The Holy Eucharist (eucharist=”thanksgiving”) is thus not simply a sacrament which is celebrated in the Church on an occasional or even regular basis – but a description and revelation of the truth of our life. We were created to live “eucharistically,” always giving thanks to God.

It seems to me no coincidence that St. John Chrysostom, the author of the most common Eucharistic prayer in the Orthodox Church, offered his last words as a Eucharistic offering. Exiled to the very edge of the empire by an ungrateful Emperor, St. John’s last words were, “Glory to God for all things.”

Indeed.

Envy and the Fullness of God

July 1, 2010

In the Praises for Matins of Holy Wednesday, we read:

Oh, the wretchedness of Judas! He saw the harlot kiss the footsteps of Christ, but deceitfully he contemplated the kiss of betrayal. She loosed her hair while he bound himself with wrath. He offered the stench of wickedness instead of myrrh, for envy cannot distinguish value. Oh, the wretchedness of Judas! Deliver our souls from this, O God.

We are also told in Scripture that Pilate perceived that Christ was being handed over to him “for the sake of envy” (Matt. 27:18). Thus, it seemed important to me to offer this small meditation on envy, or at least one of its sources – for it is rooted in false beliefs about God and His world and the hardness of our heart that keeps us from seeing the truth. There is much more to say of this primal passion. But this will have to suffice for now.

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We stand mournfully around the grave, letting the strains of the hymn find their resolution in the final chord. The priest approaches the coffin, now closed and ready for lowering into the grave. The closing of the grave begins with a single handful of dirt. The priest tosses the dirt with the words: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

Fullness seems strangely contradictory to the mood of a funeral. The pain of loss and the emptiness of a life that seems to have gone from the midst of us speak not of fullness but of scarcity. I will not hear that voice, hold you close to me or listen carefully for your footsteps.

No setting could be more stark in which to proclaim “fullness.”

But it is at the grave that we are perhaps most clearly confronted with the claims of our faith. For it is here at the grave that God made His own final assault on the myths and fears of a world dominated by death. This world of death always proclaimed the sovereignty of sorrow, the ascendency of scarcity.

From the abundance of Paradise man falls into a world in which thorns and thistles dominate:

Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, And you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground (Genesis 3:17-19).

But now, standing at this funeral, the priest proclaims, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

What fullness? Again it is the assault of God on the world man has made. The earth is not the kingdom of scarcity, but now the Kingdom of God. The grave is not the gate of Hades, but the gate of Paradise. Fullness can again be proclaimed for the grave has been ruptured and cannot hold its prey.

This struggle is a daily struggle. Is the world I live in one of scarcity or abundance? The answer to the question has much to do about almost every decision I make. The threat of scarcity tells me that whatever I have, like my own life, is limited. Nothing is ever enough. There is not enough money, enough food, enough love. The abundance enjoyed by another is always at the expense of myself and others because the world is governed by scarcity. Thus I must fight; I must wrestle to gain whatever I can and cling to it ’til death wrests it from my cold, dead fingers.

However, if the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof – if every good thing comes from God who is without limit – then scarcity has been defeated and abundance reigns within the Kingdom of God, now and always. In this abundance there is not just enough, but more than enough. I can share. I can give. I can love without fear that there will be too little to go around. The abundance enjoyed by another is not at my expense for those who have much are not the rulers of this world. Thus I need not fight; I do not need to gain or to cling. God knows “you have need of all these things.”

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. The emptiness of death has been filled with such an abundance of life that it has been trampled beneath the feet of those who walk the way of Christ. In this fullness we can do more than give – we can love even to the excess of forgiveness. My enemy has stolen nothing from the abundance that fills my life.

This proclamation of abundance has nothing in common with the prosperity gospel which is all too often driven by the fear of scarcity and the need to amass material things to prove the goodness of God.

Instead, as proclamation the abundance of the Kingdom needs no assurance greater than the resurrection of Christ. He is the abundance of Life.

In the world in which we live it is all too easy to create yet another scheme of the two-storey universe. The world we inhabit we assume to be defined and finite with scarcity as one of its leading boundaries. Abundance is shuttled off to a heaven somewhere else. But this is a failure to recognize what has happened in the world in the coming among us of the God-Man, Jesus Christ. As He Himself said:

Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.

In Biblical language, this was Christ’s proclamation of a Jubilee year – the great Jubilee Year – in which all debts are cancelled and righteousness is restored. He has extended this confidence of abundance even to the blind and the lame. They receive the abundance of sight and the ability to walk. Lepers, once trapped in the scarcity of their disease and shame, are cleansed and returned to the company of men. The world has changed. Christ did not do these miracles in a world removed from the one we inhabit. It was the blind and lame in the very midst of us and in this world who were healed. Thus it is with the same confidence that we proclaim the victory of His kingdom – in what we say and do.

What martyr disdained to live the abundance of this proclamation? What saint, in His poverty, declared God to be poor and this world to be bereft of its fullness? And yet in our own confidence in the material machine of modernity (not in God) we worry and are anxious about its limits. Modernity’s fullness has its limits for it is not the fullness of God but of man (and this as unredeemed). It offers a false promise. It’s fullness does not generally induce kindness and generosity but acquisition and envy.

True fullness will always beget generosity and kindness – it is a hallmark of the work of God. True fullness brought a cry of “the half of my goods I give to the poor” from the lips of the Publican Zachaeus. True fullness will always be marked by such cries – they are echoes of “Indeed, He is risen!”

The abundance found in the Kingdom of God is not the same as the abundance imagined by a planet enmeshed in its own cycle of scarcity and envy. The abundance proclaimed in the Kingdom of God in which the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, is an abundance in which there is not enough to waste but more than enough to share. The abundance flows from the enlargement of our heart as we expand our very existence to include the other. A world constituted by love rather than the envy of individualism will always have more than enough.

Envy plays a large role in the events of Holy Week. Strangely, it is a passion which is rarely mentioned in our culture, even though the Fathers (at least some) thought of it as the root of all sin. We frequently think of pride as the root of all sin, but some of the Fathers note that pride, unlike envy, can be completely private, whereas envy always seeks harm for another.

Many times the sins we think of as pride, are, in fact, envy, insomuch as they are directed at other human beings. We envy their success, their “good fortune,” and many other such things. If we examine our heart carefully we will discover envy to be frequently at the root of anger, our sense of injustice and unfairness. The first murder, Abel’s death at the hand of his brother, is clearly the result of envy.

Even Judas is described as envious in the hymns of the Church, as well as the rulers of Israel by the Scriptures themselves. Sometimes in our “free-market” society, our failure and the envy it engenders gets turned against us and we condemn ourselves because we are not as clever as others. The basic inequalities of life become the source of either anger towards others of self-loathing depending on our own personality (and sometime a mixture of both).

The great difficulty with having a God is the fundamental requirement that we renounce envy. As one friend told me, “The most important thing to know about God is that you are not Him.” And this is something that I must learn to be content with. God is the Lord of the universe and not I. Things work together for good according to His own redemptive plan and not according to my secret machinations.

Envy is perhaps the most subtle of sins. Even in the desert where no one possesses anything, there is always something about another that we can find to envy. Our adversary, himself dominated by his envy of God, will always have envious suggestions to make to us.

To combat envy several things are necessary:

We must believe that God is good.

We must believe that God’s will for us in particular is good.

We must believe that God’s goodness is without limit.

We must believe that God’s goodness, shed upon someone else, does not come at our expense.

Thus we can “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” We can see that it is possible to turn our lives over completely to God and trust Him in all things. We can bless who we are and where we are (even if our own sins and limitations have made of our lives a difficulty). God is good. We need not envy. Further, we can give thanks for all things for they proceed from the fullness of God and His kindness to us. Even those things we perceive as “evil” occur in the context of the world we have entered through Baptism. We may give thanks despite all the troubles that afflict us – for God is good, and His mercy endures forever.

Envy has no place within the Christian life. It belongs to those who drive nails into the flesh of God and taunt Him with their perceived victory. When all is said, they will stand as mute as fish, unable to cry, “Alleluia.”

My Deepest Thanks – At a Milestone

April 28, 2010

Today, Glory to God for All Things, passed a milestone in its history, passing the mark of 2 million views. Since its beginning there have been over 1200 posts with over 20,000 comments. This is not a testimony to my industriousness – but rather my joy of writing. It is also a record of many friendships made of a sorts. I meet readers wherever I travel across the Church – a great joy.

For all those who are readers of the blog, I thank you. The conversations that 20,ooo comments represent have occasionally been poignant, even vulnerable.

I am daily grateful for the blessing of His Beatitude, JONAH, Metropolitan of All America and Canada, for his blessing to write. Life is lived in true freedom when it is lived in obedience. Glory to God.

Making Choices

April 26, 2010

Our culture celebrates the ability we have to choose – and so we think a lot about choices. We are told every four years that we get to “choose” our leaders (though the choices given to us might not be suitable in either direction). As I look back and think of my preaching over the years I can see a change – and not just a change wrought by my conversion to Orthodoxy. In many ways it has been a change wrought by the fact that I am not a young man any more (though I do not think I am yet an “old” man).

But I can recall a lot of sermons from my late 20’s (I was first ordained and assigned to a Church at the age of 27) that were primarily concerned with choices. The thought that anything was simply a given, or that anything impinged on my freedom was uncomfortable.

As years have gone by and I have watched my children grow up, leave home and settle into their own lives, it seems to me that I have fewer choices – or rather that the most important thing in my day may not have much to do with choice at all.

The vast majority of fundamental things in my life were completely beyond any choice I made. My gender, my nationality, my race, my language, my genetic inheritance – are all matters that I have to live with and come to terms with, but not matters that I choose. Part of the madness of our modern world is that things which do not belong to the realm of choice are being turned into options: do I have this baby; do I want this gender; etc.

Fr. Thomas Hopko is very fond of quoting his father-in-law, Fr. Alexander Schmemann as saying: “Spirituality consists in how you deal with what you’ve been dealt.”

This comes much closer to my present experience. So much of my life has always been beyond my control and only delusion has made me think otherwise. There are fundamental choices – to yield my life to God and acknowledge the fact that He is Lord of my Life. But it is also true that He is Lord whether I choose to acknowledge that or not. The choice I make is whether to remain delusional or to embrace the truth. That is a large choice, indeed, and one to be made moment by moment, but it is still a far cry from the power I once thought I had.

It is interesting to have more than one child. It is certainly interesting to have four, as we do. I can recall that when we only had one, we were able to imagine that this darling little girl was largely “darling” because we were wonderful parents. The second girl came, and she was darling, too, but not in the same ways as the first. How is this possible? Because people are different from the moment of their existence. The other two (a boy and a girl) have only ratified this understanding. They belong to God, not me. He created them, even if the “stuff” of their creation was consubstantial with me and their mother.

Of course, as they grow up, they have to learn that their lives largely consist in how they deal with what they have been dealt. And thus we all pray, “Lord, have mercy!”

We are more powerful than we imagine, but not in the ways we imagine. We are utterly weak in matters where we think we are masters. Day by day, prayer by prayer, we feel our way forward. Learning to choose what God has chosen for us and in so doing find the salvation of our souls.

Favorite Thoughts and Thanksgiving

March 21, 2010

I awoke this morning from two days in bed battling a nasty little virus. My fever had broken and my appetite returned. There are no words for my gratitude. I offer this short piece on favorite thoughts and pray God’s blessing on us all.

Any reader of this blog will very quickly notice certain ideas and words that come up repeatedly in my writings. Some of my parishioners say that I only have one sermon – so perhaps it’s also true that I only have one blog article…

But I have been meditating on some of my favorite words or thoughts and why they are as important to me as they are. The first that comes to mind is the word “fullness” which I would couple with the word “smallness”  or “emptiness.” Another couplet are the words “to know” and “mystery.” A third set are the words which surround the question of existence versus non-existence. These are all words drawn from Orthodox theology – so there is no surprise in my usage. It is their importance to me on the most fundamental level that brings them repeatedly to mind (whether in writing or in speech).

Fullness is a wonderful word – common to both the Scriptures and the Fathers. It can carry meanings that other words do not. For instance, I prefer to say that within Orthodoxy is the “fullness of truth,” rather than saying, “The Orthodox Church is the True Church.” It’s not just a matter of semantics – but says something about the nature of the truth as it abides in the Church. The Church does not possess the truth as though the truth were a syllogism to be debated or memorized – but is indwelt by the truth in its fullness. Thus you can live in the fullness of the truth, but you cannot simply think the fullness of the truth. Orthodoxy is not an argument. Fullness says this better than “the complete truth,” for that simply sounds as if we have more words or better words, etc. The fact is that the fullness of the truth is something that transcends words – all the words in the world could not completely express it. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He did not become a book and dwell among us – nor can Scripture as the “word” of God be spoken of interchangeably with Christ who is the Word of God. We are not “people of the book.” In the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God we sing: “Athenian philosophers became as mute as fish” before the wonder of the Virgin Birth. Indeed. Great art Thou, O Lord! There are no words sufficient to hymn Thy wonders!

Related to fullness is the word smallness or even emptiness. This is the great mystery of our salvation – that the Fullness emptiedHimself and became man. One of the deepest aspects of the love of God is made manifest in His willingness to empty Himself, to become small for the sake of all whom He loves. It is, indeed, defining of the very character of love. This leads us to understand that if we would have the fullness of life, we must be willing to empty ourselves as well. The mystery of prayer is found in this “empty fullness.”

Not unrelated to this first set are the words to know and mystery. In my writings (and preaching) the relation of these words can be seen as an effort to keep our understanding of knowledge closer to a Biblical and Patristic model – rather than the merely rational or logical understanding that sometimes dominates the use of the various words for knowledge in our culture. There is away of knowing that is irreducible to anything that may be spoken or rationally expressed. The doctrines of the Church – her Creeds and dogmatic definitions – are not statements that exhaust the truth, but statements which set limits around our speech about the truth. They point us in the proper direction but do not contain the end to which they point. Thus, to say that “Christ is the only-begotten Son of the Father” is entirely correct and cannot be contradicted in the teaching of the Faith. However, the Fathers are quite clear that the manner of the Father’s begetting of the Son is beyond all understanding. To say that something is “beyond all understanding,” however, does not mean that we cannot know it, if we remember that knowledge is often had in the form of a mystery – that is – it has held in a unspeakable manner.

I frequently push this understanding to its farthest limits – to urge readers to see that not only is God a mystery, but all that He has created is mystery as well. It calls for a different approach to other persons, and to every tree and blade of grass. I do not suggest such things in an effort to deny science, but in an effort to reduce science to its proper place. It is not the queen of knowledge, but simply a useful form of knowledge. We may study things and know them in many ways – but having done so is not the same thing as saying that we know things in their very being. Again, I do not deny that things can be known at the very level of their being – but they cannot be known in such a manner through the means of science. Science cannot express nor understand how it was that the “winds and the seas obeyed” the voice of the Son of God.

I also write and preach frequently around the subject of existence and non-existence. In this I am following particularly the writings of St. Athanasius the Great. It is also evidence of the influence that Dostoevsky has had on my understanding as an Orthodox Christian. To me, the failure to perceive the precarious position of humanity, indeed, of all creation, is the failure to see things as they are. We are poised at the very precipice of non-existence. We are not as solid and immutable (nor is the world) as we tend to think. Some of this is rooted in my early childhood experiences in which the sudden death of beloved family members and friends was more frequent than is common in our American culture. At age 10 I was already having something of an “existential crisis.” The fragility of our existence is simply a given. I have personally ministered at the deaths of hundreds of people (part of this as a chaplain with hospice). That “we are dust and return to the dust” is staggeringly real to me.

Perhaps it is for this reason that I find St. Athanasius’ account of salvation in The Incarnation of the Word so compelling. He describes our salvation in terms of being grafted into Christ and given the kind of life that is not ours by nature. By nature we are mere creatures – whose existence is brought out of nothingness. Without the gift of God, we would fall back into our nature and into non-existence and nothingness. But by God’s gracious gift we are sustained in life and invited into His own very life. In this sense, the deepest question of my heart has never been about “how do I get to heaven?” but “how do I not cease to be?” The answer in Christ is a gift far beyond mere existence – a life that is beyond all imagining.

I remain perplexed that this question is not as universal as I would have thought.

There are doubtless other words among my favorites. You may be all too familiar with them. I suspect, however, that the readership enjoyed by these writings is an indication that some of these words are as helpful to others as they are to me. I can only write about what I know – or I can only write responsibly about what I know. Every effort I have made to do otherwise has met with what felt like disaster.

The prayers of readers and your encouragement are of deep value to me – thank you.

Death’s Boundary

March 12, 2010

Most of the Saturdays in Great Lent are “Soul Saturdays,” days when the Orthodox remember and pray for the departed. Thus my attention each week is drawn back to this great cloud of the departed who bear witness to Christ and draw my attention to Christ’s final victory over death. These are some thoughts from several years back on the topic.

Having spent two-and-a-half years as a Hospice Chaplain, I had opportunity to be present to over 200 deaths (that does not include the many I have witnessed in my years in ordained ministry. As you sit with someone who is dying, there finally arises a boundary beyond which you cannot go: death itself. I can pray for the “departure of the soul from the body” (the priestly service done at the time of death in Orthodoxy), and I can pray and even know the fellowship of the saints and the departed.

Christ told His disciples, “Yet a little while am I with you, and then I go unto him that sent me. Ye shall seek me, and shall not find me: and where I am, thither ye cannot come. Then said the Jews among themselves, “Whither will he go, that we shall not find him?”

Christ has been where we have not and entered where we cannot yet go.

The experience of death, and the boundary it represents, also hides from us a reality we can only know by faith. And, according to Scripture, it is probably the greatest occasion for fear.

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he[Jesus] himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Hebrews 2:14-15).

I sometimes think that most fears are really about death on some level. The loss of power over our own lives that we frequently imagine to be true during our healthy years. It is admitting this powerlessness that is inevitably the case that gives us pause, and engenders fear.

I had a cousin, about a year older than myself. She was diagnosed with Childhood Onset Rheumatoid Arthritis (a very virulent form of the disease) when she was only ten. In the summers I used to go and stay a week or two with her family near the South Carolina mountains to be company for her. We gained a closeness that never seemed to leave the relationship over the years. She was among the most honest people I’ve ever known.

I recall talking to her in the months before she died  (it was becoming apparent that this was the case). We were both in our forties. In the conversation the subject of faith, God, heaven, etc. came up. She spoke with great tenderness about God. I remember asking her, “How is that you’ve been in pain and crippled for 35 years and yet speak so kindly of God?”

Her answer was very enlightening: “I haven’t always felt this way about God,” she said. “There was a time when I would wake up in the morning and curse God.” But then her voice lowered and she added meekly, “That was before I knew He was good.”

It is among the greatest professions of faith I have every heard.

To stand at the boundary of life and death, and to stand without fear, we must know that there is a good God. In C.S. Lewis’Narnia Chronicles someone says of Aslan, “He’s not a tame lion, but He’s good.”

This is the fear of death: that goodness does not win in the end. I believe it therefore to be utterly necessary in the preaching of the gospel to remind people again and again, “He is a good God and loves mankind” (the words of the traditional Orthodox dismissal).

In is only in Christ, finally, that we have the perfect image of the perfect God and can say, based on that revelation, “He is good.” I rejoice in that goodness, and pray to know it more each day as we journey to Pascha and beyond.

Private Prayer – Thoughts of Met. Anthony of Sourozh

February 3, 2010

The following is an excerpt from a posting on Orthodox World. It is from the late Met. Anthony Bloom (England). There are many articles of interest on this website.

There was a time when I read with great faithfulness all the prayers which the Church offers us in the morning, in the evening and on other occasions. But I could not always identify with them. They were prayers which were strange to me. I had not grown to that measure of faith or to that measure of love for my neighbour. There were passages in the prayers which I could say sincerely; but there were passages which I could not say; partly because they went against my experience, my feeling, partly because I had not grown to that measure of faith and spiritual experience.

My spiritual father gave me advice on that. He said to me: ‘For a year I forbid you to use any of the prayers of the books of prayer. Before you go to bed, make the sign of the Cross and then lie down and say, “Lord, at the prayers of those who love me, save me,” and begin to ask yourself who are those who love you — who love you so much, so deeply, so truly, that you don’t need even to pray, because their prayers are your shield and your way?’

I tried it. One name after the other came. And every time a name floated up, I stopped one moment and said, ‘How wonderful! He loves me, she loves me! Oh God, bless him, bless her, for the love she can give me as a present. Read more…