An unworthy Deacon, named for the brother of God: James, striving to "work out his salvation with fear and trembling" within the Tradition (paradosis) of the Eastern Orthodox Faith. It is a strange and marvelous journey, and I am accompanied by the fourfold fruit of my fecundity. My wife, the Matushka or Diaconissa Sophia, is my beloved partner in the pursuit of Theosis, and she ranks me in every way.
I’m not sure who told me such or where I might have read it, but I seem to have understood that when an Orthodox family moves they will traditionally leave their Icons to be the very last items packed, and upon arrival at the new home they will be the very first items unpacked.
We followed this tradition and on the evening prior to the big move I made it a point to pause and look around at all of the home and all of the boxes and general emptiness that can be seen in a home compressed into a pre-moving state of being. I went from room to room and removed the various Icons that had found their way into our home over the past few years. And as I moved toward my packing box near the family altar I would venerate each one and then gently wrap them in paper before burying them into the depths of a most unwholesome and non-lenten box formerly used by Burger King to ship frozen hamburger patties. I tried to pay little attention to this seemingly sacrilegious fact.
Finally, at the Icon corner I began to take the various items down and wrap them tenderly in paper or cloth. Among which were the following: five white Chrismation candles brought me back to that wonderful day over a year ago when my family made the “leap”, the now very dirty and well used lampada which I purchased on my second visit to an Orthodox Church – much to the confusion of my concerned wife, some blessed palm and pussy willow branches from last year’s Palm Sunday, a wonderful little bottle I found engraved with grape vines which I use to hold Holy Water, the Incense and accompanying Hand Censer which I have no idea how to clean, a virtual cornucopia of candles, an array of Icons which have now become amazingly familiar and appealing to me – like old friends, and lastly a large wooden three-barred cross.
As I pulled the cross down though, I noticed something interesting. There was a very distinct outline of the cross left on the wall from the collection of soot, not doubt from all of the candles and incense burning. It was strikingly distinct and no matter how hard I tried I could not wash the soot off the wall…it would have to be painted, I was sure. Truthfully, I was none too interested in doing that for the new homeowners and so I left it as it was. I imagined that these poor folks would have to look and likely wonder at the strangeness of the image on their new wall. I suppose we had, in a sense left our mark on the home – then again perhaps it is not ours, but God’s mark and if I allow it, it may serve to remind me of the mark that has hopefully been made in the hearts of my family for all the times that we have gathered in that corner to seek God and one another more deeply.
I finished packing the home church items and handed the box to my wife as she would be making the expeditionary venture first thing in the morning and I would be following later with the BIG truck loaded with life’s so called necessities. I arrived at the new home around 11AM and walked inside the living room. On the wall above our old familiar altar was that very same three-barred cross – awaiting it seemed a new dose of soot. I was home.
I have finished Mountain of Silence and so will sing the praises of this work this one last time…I think. One of the intriguing aspects of this book is that it seems that Markides’ intended audience are those people in the western world have become disinterested in the Christianity they are familiar with and are seeking and exploring a “deeper” spirituality in eastern religions. In this context I think we can see the reasoning behind his unwillingness to translate certain terms as used by Fr. Maximos and other monks – a prime example being Ecclesia. Of course when the monks use this term they are talking about the Orthodox Church, but Markides leaves the term untranslated and in the original greek. However, he does define it in his glossary as: the sum total of the practices, methods, sacred texts, and testimony of the saints and their teaching on how to know God. It includes the organizational structure of the Church. The Ecclesia is seen as a spiritual hospital for the cure of the maladies of the heart that obstruct our vision of God. Not a bad definition at all, I reckon the next time I am asked “What is the Church?” I may use it.
Anyway, chapter 15, entitled The Threefold Way single-handedly made this work worth its purchase price. In it Kyriacos lays out the traditional three steps of Christian spirituality: Purification, Illumination, and Deification. Worth gold as this topic is, Markides goes a step further and illustrates the importance of this “way” and how it was lost in the west, furthermore connecting all of this to his original introductory theory that the west had lost the “eye of contemplation.”
…leading transpersonal theorist Ken Wilber in his masterful critique of western thought claims that Western civilization lacks a “yoga,” or a method of acquiring knowledge beyond the senses and the intellect. Western thought therefore remains trapped within its intellectual and scientific constructs. Wilber, like most transpersonal theorists today, finds this “yoga” in Eastern philosophy and religion, particularly Zen. Nowhere in his work is there any mention or awareness of the Hesychast tradition or the concepts behind the “Threefold Way”
Ok, well go ahead and laugh at me as I admit that I have no idea what the hell a “transpersonal theorist” is, and frankly I don’t really care to know…regardless the point is clear to me.
Okay, enough of my rambling. Read this book. At least read chapter 15! In it Markides not only lays out the heart of Orthodox Spirituality, but he also offers the briefest and most concise explanation as to how Western spirituality came to differ so much from that of the East.
As many of you no doubt read, my dear friend Imran inquired about the Charismatic movement – specifically whether there was such a movement within the Orthodox Church and in general what the Orthodox Church thinks of it.
As far as I know, there is not any sort of charismatic renewel movement within the bounds of canonical Orthodoxy in the same sense that one can find in the Anglican or Catholic faiths. Now, certainly one can find “charismatic” groups who claim to be, sound like, and even look like the Eastern Orthodox Church, but alas…
I believe it was Elder Cleopas of Romania, who when asked about the Charismatic movement said in essence: “Well, it has only been around for a hundred years or so, let us wait and see if it will produce good fruit.” I think this speaks a lot about Orthodoxy – there are no quick fixes. The Orthodox Religion can certainly never be accused of being a “fast-food” faith.
Why is there no charismatic renewal in the Orthodox Church? Well, most people will tell you that there is no need for such a “renewal” because the Gifts of the Spirit have never gone stagnant in the Church. The rub is, though, that these gifts are often used, portrayed, and expressed in ways that are different than are usually seen in the modern charismatic movement. The Church does not magnify and emphasize the “miraculous” gifts, but like St. Paul urges Christians to pursue the greater gifts of faith, hope, and love – along with all the other virtues. What good is speaking in tongues if I am perfectly willing and able to slay my children with angry words?
But this is not to say that we do not see some amazing and miraculous gifts being utilized by the Church…just usually we do not make show of such things. As we know, humility is the key virtue in Orthodox spirituality, and so in the Orthodox Church “words of knowledge” or “prophecies” and such often take place with little of no publicity. Furthermore, such gifts are perceived as a sign of great spiritual maturity – much too dangerous a thing to be thrown around to just anybody (like me) who would so easily be tempted toward vain-glory. We abstain from seeing the gifts as an goal in and of themselves (which was to a large extent the unwritten attitude of our former denomination Imran), rather they are a natural manifestation to be found in a life lived in holiness, humility, and self-denial.
All one need do is read some of the stories of the Fathers (both modern and ancient) to see that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit are alive and well in the Orthodox Church…we just don’t center our lives around them. The gifts are tools to move us along toward Theosis. Here is a very personal example.
My first very "deep" conversation with an Orthodox Priest was in regards to a particular sin with which I was struggling. I was not Orthodox at the time and it was difficult for me to discuss the matter, but I pressed on hoping to gain some insights on how to overcome the sin. As we talked, the priest said, “You know, sometimes people who struggle with this sin, also struggle with _________ and __________ as well.”
I thought I was going to fall out of my chair…I literally got dizzy because this man seemed to have looked into and pierced my soul. I am sparing you the ugly details (of course), but believe me, I just could not see the rational connection between the sin I had come to him about and these other two. I had to admit, they were also big issues in my life. Was this a word of knowledge? I don’t know…but it was a powerful and humbling experience for me.
Read Mountain of Silence for many other much more amazing examples as well. As people drain themselves of self, God can REALLY move in those people. Miracles abound in the Orthodox Church…but, shhhhh, let’s just keep it between you and me.
An excerpt from Mountain of Slence in which the author discusses the Simonopetra Monastery on Mount Athos:
The uniqueness of Simonopetra was not only the ethnic diversity of the monks but also their high level of educational and professional achievements in the world prior to their becoming members of the Monastic community. The monk responsible for the archondariki [a sort of guest house] was a forty-five year old former professor of microbiology at an American university. He was cleaning the floors when we met him. Another one was a former professor of subatomic physics at an English university. He was the cook. Yet another was a former NASA scientist. We were stunned. They had abandoned their scientific careers and high status in the world in order to join the cloistered life for the pursuit of the knowledge of God.
The monks of Simonopetra were the first to point out to us that their achievements in the world had nothing to do with what they attempted to accomplish on Mount Athos. These very scientists would sit at the feet of an elder like Paisios for spiritual counseling, a hermit who had only six years of formal schooling.
I found it rather appropriate that as I left for work this very early morning that I should notice the singing of birds for the first time since winter began. Perhaps I had simply been unattuned to their presence in the past, but no matter...it was clear to me today. They announce to me the coming of Spring, as Gabriel announces to our Lady the coming of salvation...our awakening from the death of the winter of our sins. Today, nine months before Nativity, we celebrate the Annunciation.
The Theotokos is a real stumbling block to many of my protestant friends...but for me I will steal the simple and beautifully appropriate words of an inquirer/catechumen friend of mine: "I have come to love Mary."
On my way to work as I listened to more troublesome news about the war, I found myself reflecting on why I seem to so often talk past my protestant friends and vice versa...especially in regards to our lauding of the Theotokos. I suspect it is a foundational difference in our approach to the faith and as I look back into my past I think I can identify what was different then - for me - as compared to now. Yes, I am going to beat the dead horse of East VS. West...bear with me.
To me, Christianity was like a science. It had an authoritative book, like a great science text which I could use to properly discern truth. The tools with which I approached and understood the faith were just like the tools I use here today in this lab that I work in. We discern truth through experiment (which I analogize to "proper, rational, and scholastic" interpretation of the Scripture) and reason. I would hear of doctrines and promptly be able to rattle off proof-text after proof-text conclusively showing the error of that belief or - as the case may be - the correctness of that belief. Yes, I had emotions as I certainly do here in the lab (I mean who can hold the CSF sample of a dying infant and not be moved?), but overall my paradigm was hinged on western and rationalistic thinking. I know this isn't Headline News to any of us - certainly I have rambled about such things in the past...but sometimes I have these moments of clearity while talking to a friend and these foundational differences in approach become painfully evident.
Orthodoxy seems to hold Christianity out, not like a rational science, but instead like a great work of literature and poetry. It is an altogether different approach in which paradox and mystery are fully embraced and joyfully left unexplained. It is the approach of a world in which our faith was born, a world that knew nothing of western rationalism and so-called enlightenment. It is a world in which hymns such as these can be written and sung to the Theotokos, the Mother of Light:
Today is revealed the mystery that is from all eternity.
The Son of God becomes the Son of man, that, sharing in what is worse, He may make me share in what is better.
In times of old Adam was once deceived: he sought to become God, but received not his desire.
Now God becomes man, that He may make Adam God.
Let creation rejoice, let nature exult: for the Archangel stands in fear before the Virgin and, saying to her 'Hail',
he brings the joyful greeting whereby our sorrow is assuaged.
O Thou who in Thy merciful compassion wast made man, our God, glory to Thee!
Today is the beginning of our salvation,
The revelation of the eternal mystery!
The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin
As Gabriel announces the coming of Grace.
Together with him let us cry to the Theotokos:
Rejoice, O Full of Grace,
The Lord is with You!
It is a world in which the Incarnation is so REAL that we stand in awe and reverence of the Annunciation. We do not pass over it with a shrug and say: "God can do anything"
Instead we take a break from our busy world to spend some time marveling at this wonderful thread which is so important to the Tapestry of our faith. Let us pause and marvel...pause and marvel....pause and marvel...this seems to be the endless cycle of my expereince with Orthodoxy. It is a beautiful thing.
I happened to watch the Disney film Atlantis last night. Now, I’d seen it before and had been mildly entertained, indeed there are certainly some well-done comedic parts from the strange collection of characters. But something a bit more profound stood out to me last night. Something that I had initially discounted as silly “new-agey” nonsense, but now see in a different light.
The people and culture of Atlantis survive over the centuries (even far beneath the surface of the Ocean) by the mystical power of what is known as the “Heart of Atlantis” – a sort of magical crystal. At one point, the King of Atlantis (the easily recognizable voice of Leonard Nimoy), lays out the whole story of the crystal and how it is “alive” and that the true source of its “life” is in the “collective emotions” of their ancestors. This was very interesting to me because I think it parallels the Orthodox understanding of Holy Tradition, which we often refer to as the Life of the Holy Spirit in the Church. It survives and is passed on to us through the collective “experience” (as opposed to emotions I would say) of the Church. It becomes to us more than just a “way” or a means to an end…it becomes alive and living through the power of the Holy Spirit. Interesting…
Furthermore, the King relates to us that when the crystal is threatened, it will choose a host to reside in for its protection. Can you see where I am going with this?
St. Athanasios, St. Maximos the Confessor, St. Gregory Palamas, St. Mark of Ephesus, etc.
Holy Saints of God, Defenders of Holy Tradition, Pray for us!
Today we remember the great defender of Orthodoxy and the Hesychasts, St. Gregory Palamas.
We can look back into history and see many occasions in which western thinking and spirituality has invaded and attempted to usurp – sometimes with great temporary success – the Eastern Church and Her ways. And in the mid-14th century we see just such a conflict arising, a conflict in which we can clearly see the seeds whose now gown selves continue to divide East and West.
Hesychasm is the way of quietude. It is one path of contemplation in which monastics sought to have direct experience with the Uncreated Light of God.
Barlaam, a Greek monk who was, not coincidentally, trained in the west led and anti-hesychast campaign arguing that one could not “experience” God’s essence (Uncreated Light) and that the eastern approach was one of ignorance and superstition. Barlaam instead advocated a sort of Aristotelian intellectual and scholastic contemplation of God and that God's "otherness" makes it impossible to experience Him in the way that the monastics were claiming. The Archbishop of Thessaloniki, Gregory Palamas would have none of it.
St. Gregory Palamas argued that Hesychasm and the mystical way of contemplation was the only way to Theosis. But how could these men be experiencing the very essence of God, which we presumed to be unknowable? He described what the monks were experiencing as the Energies of God – the means by which God in His essence can be made known and experienced by humankind. The Uncreated Light, said St. Gregory, as seen by the Hesychasts was the very same light seen by the Apostles on Mt. Tabor and the Apostle Paul at the moment of his conversion.
Please forgive this very simplistic explanation from a very simplistic Orthodox Christian…but I think you get the gist of the matter.
The underlying debate was essentially over whether we come to know God primarily through the mind or through the heart. I face this debate personally everyday.
Holy Father Gregory Palamas, pray unto God for us!
“We lost the knowledge of God,” he [Fr. Maximos] went on to say, “at the moment when we transformed the Ecclesia from experience into theology, from a living reality into moralistic principles, good values, and high ideals. When that happened,” Father Maximos said humorously, “we became like tin cans with nothing inside.”
There was passion in Father Maximos’ words. I still recall an incident when he jokingly rebuked a group of young theologians who introduced themselves as “theologians.” “To call yourselves theologians,” he teased them, “means that you have become graced by the knowledge of God, like Saint John the Theologian or Saint Basil the Great. Have you? Can you truly call yourselves theologians because you just read some books and earned a degree in so-called ‘theology’? Don’t you think this is rather presumptuous on your part?” Father Maximos offered them a lesson that day on the difference between knowing God through theology courses and knowing God through the heart. He told them that a poor and humble peasant may become a saint as a result of arduous spiritual practices and ceaseless prayer, and therefore have knowledge of God, whereas a scholar who publishes volumes on theology but who is proud because of his worldly achievements may be completely ignorant of God.
When I first came across this type of thinking, I was literally knocked on my ass. All of my Christian life I had believed that the way to come to know God was to study, study, pray, and then study more. The cornerstone of my religion was the Bible and it of course needed to be properly understood and interpreted – which of course requires study, study, prayer, and more study. And then I think I read in one of Bp. Ware’s books that a theologian in the Eastern Tradition is not one who is necessarily highly studied, but rather the one who PRAYS.
Father Maximos also said: “There is only one form of education: to know and love God.”
Well folks it ain’t found in books and it ain’t found in the eye of the senses or the eye of reason.
Some thoughts are bouncing around internally…about the relationship between internal and external things.
I used to think Liberation Theology was really cool. Today there is a big kosher/vogue push to see the political-revolutionary Jesus in our Christianity and to apply the teachings of Christ to our governments’ actions and the actions of us individuals in response to issues on an international scale. Now, I’m not gonna say that this is necessarily wrong or incorrect…but I WILL say that it is extremely dangerous if we turn Christianity into a social philosophy. Christianity is a religion and we must not forget that.
Christianity, as I humbly understand it, is supposed to change me – internally and externally. But I do not think it can change society as a whole externally. Fr. Maximos brings out this concept in Mountain of Silence when he informs the author that the beatitudes were not, are not, and never should be understood as being a political or sociological speech. They are instead a description of the characteristics naturally manifested by one who unites his or herself with God. Jesus came, we are told, not to heal society but to heal the individual.
It is a very grave error to mistake the Kingdom preached by our Lord as an earthly utopia that we can somehow by the might of our will bring into existence…He Himself taught:
The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, “See here!” or “See there!” For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.
Well, I don’t know to what extent it is in me, but I know that is THERE that I need to look for it. Trying to find it in the election ballot box, the war protesting rally, or the “support the troops” march is fruitless.
Let Thy mercy be upon us, O Lord, even as we have set our hope on Thee. Blessed art Thou, O Lord: teach me Thy statutes.
Blessed art Thou, O Master: make me to understand Thy statutes.
Blessed art Thou, O holy One: enlighten me with Thy statutes.
Thy mercy, O Lord, endureth forever, despise not the works of Thy hands.
I was introduced to Terry Mattingly's newest article in his On Religion Column and enjoyed it a great deal...many of my postmod friends might also enjoy reading about what this group is up to. Allow me to connect and perhaps contrast the attitudes expressed in this article and what I just wrote in the last post. A couple of quotes from the article:
"We don't think that what we're doing is getting back to the ancient ways. We think that we're using elements of the past in ways that make sense to people who are alive today."
"People want a sense of the ancient, but they still want something that they feel is appropriate to their lives, today...What we're trying to do is find out what will be meaningful to our people, what will help them experience God in their lives."
Now consider what I just wrote and the fact that in the Orthodox Church, we commune even the littlest of infants, for whom the Eucharist probably does not "makes sense", cannot possibly be perceived as being "appropriate to their lives", and naturally is not terribly "meaningful." I am intrigued by the contrasting attitudes that are presented here...it speaks, I think to the different perceptions beyond the simple and obvious fact that the Baptists in the story deny any hint of sacramental theology. There is something deeper going on that has more to do with our general sense of what is REAL and how that is discerned.
Come to think of it, I don't think the Eucharist "makes sense" to me either. But, "taste and see..."
My daughter Kelsey, echoes St. Ignatios and calls the Eucharist "medicine." Indeed it is!
Most of my life I've bought into the notion that the terms ritual and meaningless often go hand in hand. AND in the accompanying notion that when rituals happened to not be meaningless, their meaning was found solely in the effect it had on the individuals present. In other words, ritual, as I saw it, really accomplished nothing except a sort of superficial - perhaps psychological - transformation of people witnessing or performing the ritual. I was cool with rituals as long as they were fresh, new, and effective in transforming people in the manner previously suggested. A ritual I was once counseled to do - as a protestant - was to write on a piece of paper a particular sin that was burdening me and then, after confessing that sin to God, to burn the paper. Very effective to me mentally...but what if rituals do, and indeed are intended to do more than just make us feel good? What if rituals are, or at least can be REAL?
With such an understanding about rituals, would we then approach them more fearfully or cautiously? St. Paul warned the Corinthian church that communion could make you sick, and even kill you if you took it in an unworthy manner:
But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself not discerning the Lord's body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep.
Not exactly the sort of thing that you would expect to happen in a ritual intended solely for our emotional well-being, huh?
We live in a culture that downplays the mystical - do we not? The wedding ceremony (indeed the marriage itself) today is seen as an unneccesary "peice of paper." And then, even if we embrace some aspect of mysticism, we isolate it from our bodies and make it purely "spiritual"...two extremes of the same error - I think.
I am reminded of this fact because at each liturgy, as the priests and deacons pass through the Royal Doors of the Iconostasis we are exhorted: "In the fear and love of God, draw near!" It makes you pause for a moment and think about what exactly you are doing as you approach the Chalice...with fear and love. Sometimes I abstain from communion because I have not prepared (or examined as St. Paul recommends) myself properly or because I have had a bad morning with the kids and grew angry or whatever the case may be - I am learning to take sacramental theology seriously and in so doing I am also recognizing - as the Church teaches - that God's Holy Mysteries are not limited to the seven biggies. And thus, I am learning to approach ALL of life with reverence. In the fear and love of God, I am drawing near to REAL life...REAL ritual.
Icons Fit Externally speaking (an perhaps internally as well) nothing differentiates the Eastern Orthodox from the rest of Christendom than our emphasis on and use of Icons. Yes, of course there are a few traditions that give a sometimes passive nod to them, (while others dogmatically and ignorantly brand them as idolatry) but let’s be honest here, it is difficult - if not impossible - to reflect upon the Orthodox Church and not also call to mind iconography.
There is an entire theology which revolves around the use of icons in the Church, and you will note that I did not say a separate theology. Something one finds out rather quickly in Orthodoxy is the fluidity and connectivity of all the doctrines, beliefs, prayers, and liturgies - they all seem to flow in and through one another, connected primarily by a profound emphasis on the Incarnation. And it is in the Incarnation, of course, that the defense of our use of icons has historically and, I might add, effectively arisen. There really aren't varied "schools" of Orthodox theology, there is no sense of a practical or systematic theology as opposed to a mystical theology that one might emphasize one over and opposed to the other.
I could go on and o and argue for the utilitarian benefits of icons in our prayer and worship...but that is much less important and much too overly emphasized in our "me" oriented culture (more on this later). Put simply, icons are important in no small sense because they fit into the great and beautiful tapestry that is Orthodox theology and spirituality (and by the way, we ought not to mistake these two as being terribly distinct either.)
Yesterday, the first Sunday in Lent is the day we commemorate the Restoration of the Holy Icons as established in the 7th ecumenical council of 787 AD. We proclaim today in perfect accord with what we proclaimed then:
As the prophets beheld, as the Apostles have taught,
As the Church has received
As the teachers have dogmatized,
As the Universe has agreed,
As Grace has shown forth,
As Truth has revealed,
As falsehood has been dissolved,
As Wisdom has presented,
As Christ Awarded, thus we declare,
Thus we assert,
Thus we preach Christ our true God, and honor His Saints in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, in churches, in Holy Icons; on the one hand worshipping and reverencing Christ as God and Lord; and on the other hand honoring as true servants of the same Lord of all and accordingly offering them veneration. This is the Faith of the Apostles,
This is the Faith of the Fathers,
This is the Faith of the Orthodox,
This is the Faith which has established the universe.
Prior to the actual rite of Confession, my Spiritual Father will often have an informal period of time set aside for us to discuss my progress. Last night I felt compelled to ask about an issue that had been bothering me for sometime and I will share it here for all the world (or at least for all 3 people or so who read this babbling of mine) to see.
I feel that I don't feel enough remorse for my sins. I do not weep, I do not lament, I just seem to have an intellectual understanding of the wrongness of the things I do...and nothing more. Now, don't get me wrong here...I'm not looking for a return to my pentecostal need to feel feel feel, but even back then I did not have much remorse. No Godly sorrow whatsoever. Maybe because in much of my previous Christian experience there was an emphasis on being a "shiny happy - I'm not perfect just forgiven, bumper sticker" christian.
The Father's will speak of a "gift of tears" which some have been blessed with and it sounds very appealing to me. But, geez, all I'm asking for is to feel at least a little remorse so as to assist me in not repeating the same sins over and over again. I mentioned to Fr. James about my reading in The Mountain of Silence where Fr. Maximos warns us about the dangers of having a merely ideological faith and not striving to cultivate the nous to experience God. I said that I wondered whether I have ever really experienced God in this sense. We talked for quite sometime and one of his prescriptions for me was to spend some undistracted time of quietness before our icon corner...not praying and trying to leave the cares of the world behind. Sometimes, we need to ask God to show us the full ugliness of the sins we commit....I am almost scared to do this...and he cautioned me to always keep it in the context of God's immeasurable love and mercy.And I cautioned him to not think that I was ever in danger of falling into depression or despair for thinking too little of myself...hahaha...just the opposite.
It is so neccesary for us to have someone who can objectively and lovingly (with the experience of the Church in his "bag of tricks") guide us in the path to salvation. The Orthodox Tradition so often warns us of the dangers of pride and self-delusion - both of which are almost impossible to discern in ourselves. Is it humbling to come and open yourself completely to anyone, let alone someone you respect and admire? You're damn right it is....sometimes it sucks muddy water. But, hey, surgery hurts too, but it can cure what ails you.
This morning I received this quote:
A brother asked an old man, saying, "How is it that, though I desire the gift
of tears, of which I have heard the old men speak, they do not come? I am
very worried about it." And the old man said to him, "The children of Israel
entered the promised land after forty years. When you reach that land, you
will no longer fear the battle. God, indeed, wills that you should be
concerned, so that you may ceaselessly desire to enter into that land."
My newly acquired email friend Scott wrote me recently to briefly share his and his wife’s experience with Forgiveness Vespers and the Canon of St. Andrew. If my memory serves – and oh how often it does not – they are going to be received into the church prior to Pascha this year (you will of course comment here Scott and correct me if I am mistaken?) and so much of these Lenten happenings are pretty darn new to them…well hey what am I saying they still seem pretty darn new to me too. Let’s face it…the regime of Orthodox Lent is pretty foreign to all of us converts – especially for those of us whose previous traditions had no understanding of a Lenten period whatsoever.
Anyway, Scott echoed my sentiment regarding the love I sensed for all that surrounded me during Forgiveness Vespers – the People, the Faith, the Traditions, even the building and the Institution of the Church itself (uh-oh…scary, huh?). And Scott said something that struck me when he mirrored this sentiment: he never felt such a love for any “denomination.” I pondered this for a while and then as I was reading Schmemann’s Great Lent I came across the end of the introduction in which he reminds us that the Church, which bestows to us the gift of Lent and Pascha, is our Mother.
Now this is a pretty foreign concept for us dyed in the wool protestants. But it is a common line of thinking in the Orthodox Church (as well as in Roman Catholicism if my memory serves – please see disclaimer above), and so it sent me to contemplating how this is true in my life. All I can really come up with is the fact that Mom’s are nurturers…they feed us, raise us, and guide us. And as I look at the vast body of Holy Tradition that the Church hands down to us, I can see how these many things – even things that I would have in the past thought unnecessarily extravagant (you know: all the “bells and whistles”) - are in fact critical and intended to feed us, raise us, and guide us. All we need do is set aside our wants, perceived needs, and desires and then we can see – in humility – how our Mother is indeed maturing us. This is particularly intriguing to me as I prepare to go to confession tonight before the canon.
Of course, we are talking about the Body of Christ, and though I do not profess to understand what exactly that means, I am certainly learning to love that Body.
Thanks Mom…and thank you God for giving us the “pillar and ground of Truth.”
We escort Lent into existence by the chanting of the most ancient Vesperal Hymn which we have heard time and time again in the past...but it is different tonight:
O Gladsome Light of the holy glory of the Immortal Father, heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ.
The artificial lights in the Church dim to being just shy of off, and I become dramatically aware of the brightness of the hundred or so candles each of us has lit and planted around the central icons. The darkness feels right...we all stand on the precipice of Great Lent.
Now that we have come to the setting of the sun and behold the light of evening. We praise God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For it is right at all times to worship Thee with voices of praise...
The lampadas and candles on the altar and all around the church are darkened with purple sheaths, and the altar itself is now clothed in the darkness of its own lenten vestment.
O Son of God and Giver of Life, therefore all the world glorifies Thee.
As the clergy and altar servers appear from behind the Iconostasis, we see their previously gold attire is now also eclipsed by purple. The incense bells are gone and the censor swings in silence as the Temple is filled with smoke - a purple haze and Lent is now present. The tones of the hymns seem to change, a minor key? A mournful attitude? Maybe just all in my head? (Yes, all of these and more) The season has changed...the liturgical dance has changed its rhythm and we as individuals and as a community are enticed to follow along.
I feel moved by it all, despite the attention I required to give my squirmy and quickly growing tired children. I love this place, I love these people, I love this Orthodox Faith, and the Rite of Forgiveness is a more appropriate way to begin the Lenten Journey than I can possibly imagine. The Church in her collective wisdom points the way, and I lament that I had been outside of and so disconnected from this wisdom for so long.
What is the Rite of Forgiveness? Check out this excerpt from Khouria Frederica's book Facing East in which she beautifully describes the dance.
To all of you who read this blog: with my right hand I touch my forehead and then bring that hand to the ground - thus in a sense taking all that is in my self-centered head which so foolishly glories in who I am and lay it at your feet. It is worthless. I beg all of you for your forgiveness...certainly for sins I have committed directly against you (known and unknown) but also for the sins I commit each and every moment throughout my life which manifest death and darkness in the world. Please forgive me.
And now I no longer say: Lent is coming...but rather Pascha is coming!
O Gladsome Light, INDEED!
So I had been listening to a lecture given by the Abbott Jonah Pauffhausen on the subject of Shame. In it, he navigates a minor (in length) tangent where he exhorts us to be cautious of objectifying people. The example he cites is when we ignore the homeless begging on the streets…to avert our eyes – as it were – is to truly depersonalize the individual.
Out to lunch later that afternoon I found myself waiting by the car for my coworkers to return from a trip to a nearby market. On the street corner I noticed an older man holding a sign and obviously asking pedestrians who were passing by for money. Fr. Jonah’s words came to mind as I also noticed that nobody…and I mean NOBODY even answered his request, looked at him, or in anyway acknowledged his existence. I felt really bad for him.
Reaching into my pocket I found two quarters…hmmm…I’d feel kinda stupid going up to him and offering him 50 cents. I mean, really, wouldn’t he be a little insulted with such a meager amount…. shouldn’t I at least have some paper bill(s) to offer? I could run around and try and find a cash machine…but then how much can I really give him if the machine only spits out 20’s? Round and round in my head the questions, excuses, and debate continued. I just stood and watched as more and more people completely ignored the man.
Fr. Jonah also said : Even if you do not have money…at least look at the person and talk to them. Acknowledge their existence and have compassion for their situation.
Okay, I decided, I would go and at least talk to him and tell him that all I had to give is 50 cents, but that he was welcome to it and that I hope that it would help him out in someway.
As I approached him I could eventually read his sign:
A couple of weekends ago I was engaged in a thought provoking discussion with Fr. Thomas at our Parish. I have a good deal of respect for Fr. Thomas...he seems to me to be very in touch with the essence of the teachings of the Fathers and has a good deal of experience with the monastic sense of being. Now I know he would poo-poo all of my having said this....but this is my experience of him. He is quiet, but when he speaks he warrants attention...I think.
Purification - this was our general topic. But it quickly spread into an evaluation of our present day circumstances (particularly in American culture) and how this affects our pursuit of purification. Entertainment and Reality television popped quickly into my mind as Fr. Thomas related to me how we spend much of our time in this culture trying to escape and avoid reality. We hide from it in a variety of ways: some by burying themselves in work, some through drugs or alcohol, some through intense introvertedness, some through unfathomable hedonism, and nearly all of us through the many forms of entertainment. Now, let me be clear, there is indeed a place for art as it can often lead us into a clearer perception of reality...but what I speak of here is pure entertainment, which might by definition imply an escape from reality. The new trend of "Reality" television is a case and point - entertainment with no socially redeeming value.
You will hear quite frequently the Fathers warning us not to forget two things: God and Death. We are exhorted to ALWAYS have these realities in the forefront of our minds, for in so doing it will awaken us and move us toward purification. But our culture is fond of remembering neither. I can recall watching a portion of a recent re-make of Dr. Zhivago and there is a scene in which a man is being buried and they show the traditonal Orthodox practice of kissing the descedent goodbye. When I spoke of this to a coworker they recoiled at the thought, and perceived it to be macabre. It made me further think about how we deal with death here in America, because it seems nearly every aspect of how we handle it is intended to cushion and hide us from the stark reality of it. And I need not speak of how easy it is for me to forget God...I mean to really forget His REALNESS in the world.
The communist who so persecuted the Orthodox Church in Russia (and elsewhere in Eastern Europe) taught that religion was the opiate of the masses. Haha! They had not yet seen the powerful opiate of television...the strength of which cannot be underestimated. It numbs us. It gives us excuse to forget. It creates a false reality in and of itself and ALL too often it confirms and supports our own misguided and false understandings of what IS real. It teaches, it pontificates, it dogmatizes, and it babysits (all of us.)
Entertainment and its power over our culture (AND CERTAINLY ITS POWER OVER ME!) is a symptom of the disease we have suffered from since the Fall. We need healing...but as the Holy Elders teach us: we cannot obtain such healing until we go to the hospital (the Church) and receive the touch of the Physician (Christ). We...ummm, I mean I need to get up and move...to escape the tyranny of entertainment. To engage reality...the reality of who I am, and my condition, and the reality of my connectedness to those around me. We kill one another...everyday we kill one another through our sins and then we simply head home to turn on "Friends" and we forget. In time, we forget everything and all of the world becomes to us a sitcom.
I want to ever remember God....and death. I cannot forget death.
[Click] the TV is off, and I am left alone in the cold stark reality of my own muddied soul...I need to get comfortable living in this realness.
This life has been given to you for repentence, do not waste it on vain pursuits - St. Isaac of Syria
At least two of my children have become amazingly adept at wrapping rope, dental floss, extension cords, cell phone handles, and/or lamp cords around various items and then tying them into terrifyingly intricate knots. Such was the case recently when I found a long stretch of string knotted, in a fashion no doubt envied by every boy scout and fisherman on the planet, around a closet doorknob.
As I hunched over to examine and try to outwit its complexity, the weight of the day’s “difficulties” (most of which involved the abuse heaped upon me by my children) began suddenly to seem too much to bear. It is funny how these sorts of feelings arise when something as seemingly trivial as a knotted string around a doorknob becomes the proverbial “straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
As I was on the verge of losing what little cool I have on normal days, my youngest daughter strolled by and cheerfully intoned “Whatcha doin Daddy?” I stopped and looked down at her…and instead of doing as I felt (yelling “UNDOING THIS KNOT THAT YOU AND/OR YOUR ANNOYING SISTER TIED IN THIS STRING!”), I smiled and said in the most polite tone I could muster: “Oh, I’m just taking this string off the doorknob.” I don’t think I’d finished the sentence before she’d danced away in search, no doubt, for more string. Still angry, but in control, I went back to my work on the present conundrum she’d left me.
“What are you doing?” My wife asked me as she also strolled by and was perplexed to see me so intently working on something related to the closet door.
Half-joking, I replied, “I am practicing apathia and trying not to allow the knot in this string to engorge my passions.”
The Fathers will say that by eradicating personal desire one can achieve a state of apathia, a Greek term from which we obviously get the word Apathy. Now of course apathy is usually seen as a negative thing, but the Fathers saw it in terms of being apathetic toward our own needs, desires, and will. It is to be completely attuned to the will of God.
“Why don’t you just cut the string?” My wife suggested.
Not having thought of that, for some reason, I smiled, “Well, what would I learn from THAT?”