Archive for September, 2009

Light Mind

September 12, 2009



There is an interesting book titled “The Name of the Rose”, written by Umberto Eco. It tells the story of a 14th century Franciscan monk who comes to a monastery which is plagued by a series of murders. Of course, William of Baskerville is a brilliant mind and he has to solve the murders.

The reason for the murders is most interesting. Apparently, someone had brought in documents that contained the “New Teaching”; that is, the writings of Aristotle. These writings had been forbidden by the Vatican to be distributed or taught. In the story, Benedictine piety forbade humor or laughter because they believed that it produced light-mindedness and irreverence. Benedict said, “For it is a fool who lifts up his voice in laughter.” Aristotle, on the other hand, taught that laughter was a good thing and most helpful in moral living. The Benedictine hierarchy could not allow this to get out, so when monks read the documents, murder occurred to stop them from telling others what they had read.

Is humor and laughter unspiritual? As most of you know, from painful personal experience, I tend to look at the humorous side of things. I suppose that this makes me more Aristotelian than Benedictine. Now, I recognize that humor can go too far, that it can be demeaning and even used as a weapon against others. Yet, I often find it helpful in establishing relationships, in overcoming barriers, or in illustrating a point. Of course, I’m sure that it soothes my ego and makes me feel good about myself, but I also believe that there is a difference between enjoying good humor and being light-minded.

In the Gospel of St. Matthew, Chapter 22, Jesus tells the story of a great king who goes to great pains to create a wonderful banquet. What a wonderful, incredible, and terrifying thing it must be to attend such a feast. Most of us have been to parties, but few of us have been invited to dine with a king. You can just picture the setting, the richness of the food, the aromas, and the fine wine.

Now, imagine getting an invitation to such an event, and then refusing to go. How could they have refused a King? Jesus said that they “made light of it.” Made light of it? How could you make light of such an invitation. After all, not only would it have been the best feast ever, the King was all powerful and his word was law! To refuse such an invitation could have dire consequences. How could anyone make light of such an invitation?

On the first read, it is clear that the Jews understood that the story applied to them. Yet, haven’t you and I been invited by the great King to his feast? And I am sure that you and I would never make light of it. In the story, the people went to their farms or their merchandise. Well, don’t we excuse ourselves when any demand of life and family, any chance of entertainment or diversion comes our way? We may not make jokes about the things of God, but in truth we are very light-minded about them.

You might object that you make it to church quite often; therefore this story does not apply to you. Oh, not so fast. Being light-minded doesn’t always result in being absent. In the story, the King asks the man why he had no garment. In ancient days, a King would have garments available for his guests, so that no one would feel ashamed because they were under-dressed. So, there was no excuse and the King had his servants show the poor man the door. We can show up for Church, but we are improperly dressed. In our light-mindedness, we are most naked.It always surprises the King when he sees us in attendance and so unprepared.

How can we properly dress for the Feast? We can pray the Prayers of Preparation. We can read about the saint or feast that is being celebrated. We can read the Scripture lessons for the service and study them. We can attend Vigil (or Vespers and Orthos) and make our confession so that our garment is clean and ready for the Feast. Above all, the Saints tell us that the most prominent feature of the Wedding Garment is that it is made of love. Yet this is not the light-minded love of the world, it is love that forgives enemies and seeks to be a servant to everyone.

The alternative is to stand in Church with a light mind –with little idea of what is being said or chanted. We fail to enter into the richness of the feast because with no wedding garment, we did not dare approach the Banqueting Table. We leave little better off than when we came. It’s as if the King told his servants to bind our minds, and we walk out into the dark world “where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Someday, this story will take on a frightening reality when the King returns and we find ourselves with no garments to wear.

Dear brothers and sisters, the invitation is still open. The Feast has been prepared. Wedding garments are still available.

Got something better to do?

PS:  the picture is Clem Kadiddlehopper, a character played by the great comedian, Red Skelton. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Skelton in the 1980s when I attended Duke University. We sat and talked for over an hour. He was a real gentleman, and a funny, funny man.

I’ve Got Rhythm!!

September 6, 2009








 Let’s review a bit of American history (don’t worry, it will be painless). In the past, American men and women went into the wilderness to start new communities. There were Shakers and the Oneida community, the Mormons, the Bruderhofs, the Ephrata communities, and one might even include the various Amish and Mennonite groups. The original Pilgrims came to the New World in hopes of establishing a new community. This isn’t just a past phenomenon. In recent years, we saw the establishment of communes, some secular and some religious. Some of them were benign, but some ended in tragedy (David Koresh and Jim Jones).

Actually, the desire for community has been with us since the beginning of human history. In our hearts, we hold to a hope that a new lifestyle might restore a bit of paradise and give life more meaning and purpose. Certainly, when you read the writings of St. Paul, you find him working, struggling, pleading and praying for community. To him, it was the Body of Christ in the world and he told us that we should never forsake it. What did a Christian community look like in those days?

In the last chapter of 1 Corinthians, St. Paul refers to Priscilla and Aquila. From both historical and archaeological studies, it is clear that Priscilla came from a wealthy Roman family. Her estate was on the “posh side” of Rome. Within the walls of her estate, she nurtured a house church and it was more than just a place to meet. Apparently Christians, of all ages and rank, lived in Priscilla’s compound. Archaeologists have unearthed graves that show the people from all the ranks of Roman society were buried there. It seems that people would sleep and eat there. During the day they would go out to do their work, but would return for the evening meal and worship. Now, that’s what I call a community.

From St. Paul’s writings, the theme of unity prevails as the essence of community. There was oneness of heart, and this meant that above all, love was the ground, the context, and the environment of Christian community. If love was present, then the next aspect of community followed naturally: unity of mind. Not only did they believe the same Creed, but they shared a common vision of what should happen next. With unity of heart and mind, the last thing followed easily – unity of activity, or the sharing of a common life.

I must admit that for most of my life, I have searched for community. Locally, I have seen community in action. The year I graduated from high school, 1969, Hurricane Camille hit our part of Virginia. Across the mountain, the people of Nelson County were swept away by walls of water and mud. They say that it rained 26 inches of water that night. The next morning, we many of us heard the news, we joined with the rescue squads and went over to try and find survivors. Many of us did what we could for as long as we could, but eventually, we had to return to work. The people who stayed were the Mennonites. It wasn’t a matter of desire; it was a matter of lifestyle. The Mennonite lifestyle gave many of them the freedom to stay and help.

One would think that the Orthodox Church would be the place where community would be a given. Sadly, this is not the case, at least not in the fullest sense. There are aspects of community, of course, but I believe that the lack of community has been the source of much grief among Orthodox Christians. Many times in the past, church members talked to me about their loneliness and sense of isolation, yet many of them were the most faithful workers and attendees. How is this possible?

Allow me acquaint you with a couple of terms that are used about monasteries. The words are “coenobitic” and “idiorhythmic.” The word “coenobitic” comes from the ancient Greek word “koinóbios” which means “a life in common, living together.” Later it comes to refer to monks living together and sharing a common life. (A side note: this seems to be an origin of the name Kenobi…as is Obi Wan Kenobi). The word “idiorhythmic” means that there is not a shared rhythm of life- everyone has their own rhythm. So a hermit or solitary would live an idiorhythmic life.

So far, it has been my experience that most Orthodox churches, at least in this country, are idiorhymic. Again, there are aspects of a common life: the Liturgy, trapeza, festivals, studies, etc. Yet, after these events, we return to own rhythm and on a daily basis, share little with the other members of our Church. We pattern our life after the demands of work, family, sport and cultural events, recreation, etc. Oh, we got rhythm, but it’s the rhythm of the world.

In Genesis, God establishes His rhythm in Creation. It says, “And the evening and the morning was the first day.” This is odd to us because our day begins in the morning and ends in the evening. God seems to have His day backwards! The Church has tried to maintain the rhythm of God in the way in which it worships. We do this because we know that the rhythm of God’s activity will bring salvation to our lives. So, the Church day begins in the evening at Vespers and ends the following morning with the conclusion of the Liturgy. Being attuned to the rhythm of the world, we are sure that the Church day begins on Sunday morning.

Here is where the battle is waged. The world has its own rhythm, and this rhythm does not lead to holiness or salvation, but to death. The rhythm of the world is very powerful and very subtle and we struggle between the rhythm of the world and the rhythm of the Church. One example would be the services on Saturday night. It’s the same everywhere and no jurisdiction is exempt– to be in church on a Saturday night just doesn’t seem to fit the rhythm of American life, and so the Church is usually almost empty for Vespers or Vigil.

What can we do? Again, St. Paul gives us some clues in the last chapter of 1st Corinthians. First, watch! It is important that we see and understand how the rhythm of the world can takes over life. Then, stand fast. We need to understand unity is a gift of the Spirit, but we must stand fast and not be moved from it. We must stand against the compromise demanded by the rhythm of life. Then, be strong. The struggle against the rhythm of the world is a powerful struggle, and the weak will have great difficulty overcoming it. We need to pray for the strength to fight this battle.

I’m not saying that we need to sell our houses and all move in together, but surely there are ways that each of us could begin to have a better sense of God’s rhythm, a rhythm that we share with the other members of our Church community. It is also vital that we get our children to have rhythm, because once they are attuned to the rhythm of the world, it will be difficult to get them to Church when they get older.

I hope you got rhythm, but I hope it is the right one. It’s up to us really.

Almond Joy Orthodoxy

September 4, 2009








Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t!

“He is mad…” John 10.20  “We are fools…” I Corinthians 4:10

People tell me that they have a hard time crossing themselves in public or even praying over a meal. Strangers will stare and sometimes shake their heads or even laugh while making comments to their friends. It is difficult because it seems that our society is bent on removing all references to God from the public realm. Being Orthodox today can make you feel like a “fish out of water.”

You should be with me on a Friday night when I walk into Wal-mart. Being a Russian priest, I am dressed in my black prodrasnik , ryassa and skufia (long robes with big sleeves and a black hat).With my long white hair and white beard, I am quite a sight. People have never seen anything like me.The reaction can go something like this: “Hey, Bubba, take a look at that! Is that a woman? Of course, if I have a chance to talk to them, I try to make them feel more at ease with humor. Lifting up my cross, I tell them that I am a “cross dresser.” That usually breaks the ice.

We might as well face that fact that if we try to live the Orthodox life, people will think we are foolish or crazy. Yet, what is better – to be a fool or to be crazy?

In his book, Hesychia and Theology , His Grace, Hierotheos, Metropolitan of Nafpaktos, writes “According to the patristic meaning of the word, everyone is a psychopath, that is to say, his soul is sick….For the psychiatrist, the psychopath means…he is suffering from a psychosis: a schizophrenic. From the Orthodox standpoint, however, it is someone who has not undergone purification of the passions or attained illumination…” (pg.26) You see, we are all “crazy.”

Given the dreams and ambitions of this life, what would you think of a person who would describe his life in this way and says that he is committed to it: “I am hungry and thirsty and I have bad clothes. I have no home to live in and people assault me. I do manual labor all the time, but people call me names. I try to be nice to people, but they curse at me.People think I am trash, and they treat me like crap.” Anyone in his right mind would never intentionally embrace such a life. He must be mad, indeed. Maybe with some career training or crisis intervention, he could take on a different career path. The world is full of possibilities for a man with ambition and intelligence. Why should anyone intentionally live such a life unless they are mad or foolish?

The man who said this is St. Paul. I’m glad that he didn’t take on a new career path. His job description was “fool for Christ”, and he took it on gladly because he knew it was better to be a fool than to be a psychopath, for only a fool can reach those who are sick in soul.

One of my favorite movies is “Quo Vadis.” Towards the end, they take St. Peter to Vatican Hill to crucify him. He demands that they crucify him upside down because he is not worthy to be crucified as the Lord was crucified. After he has been nailed to the cross, they put the crucifix in the ground upside down. St. Peter remarks that now he can see the world as it really is. It might do most of us a lot of good to go out on the porch and stand on our heads. Then maybe we could see the world as it truly is and understand the depth of its madness.

If we practice piety in public, we feel foolish. Wanting to be respectable and fit in, we are loathe to practice piety where others will see us and criticize us. I once heard Fr. Daniel Byantoro, an Orthodox priest from Indonesia, say that the conversation between Muslims might go something like this:“Muhammad, do Christians pray?” “I don’t know, Kareem, I’ve never seen them pray. Have you?” “Mohammad, do Christians fast?” “I don’t know, Kareem, I’ve never seen them fast. Have you?” “I wonder, Mohammad, if they believe in God at all.” “Kareem, there is no way to tell.”

Now, it is against the law to try to convert Muslims to Christianity, but Fr. Daniel says that they are beginning to have greater success. How is this possible? Well, each day Fr. Daniel goes into the bell tower and calls the Christians to come and pray the Hours.The Muslims are amazed. Then when they come to visit, they are shocked. “You prostrate! Allah be praised. Your women cover their heads and are modest. Allah be praised. You fast…what….180 days of the year? Impossible! That is more than we do.” By the practice of piety, the power of the Faith is made real to them.

Why do I wear my robe in public? Well, of course, I am required to do so, but I’ve actually made converts that way. Sitting in a MacDonald’s or walking in a Home Depot, people will ask me who I am and why do I dress this way. Entering into a conversation, I always invite them to Church. Sometimes, they end up becoming members. I’ll be honest -sometimes I feel foolish out in the world in my priestly ensemble. Yet, I know that there is no way to live the faith in this culture and not be considered foolish by family, friends, and co-workers. Soon, we will approach Nativity and the world will “prepare” by throwing parties. They will think we are fools for not joining in and we will feel foolish for not doing so.

Its Almond Joy Orthodoxy: sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t. I know that it is a balance because the Lord told us to pray in our closets and do our good work in secret. Yet, He also said that we should let our lights shine before men so that they could see our good works, and glorify God. Somewhere, between those two commands, we can find our Orthodox lifestyle, a life of piety.

Still, when it’s all said and done, it’s better to be fool than a psychopath!