Archive for the ‘Lent’ Category

Restless

March 5, 2012

When we think of Adam and Eve, we think of the Fall, of sin and its impact upon the world and upon each of us individually. Rightly so, but there is another aspect to consider. Certainly, to live outside of Eden in the physical world meant struggle and sweat and pain and toil. But I also think that my Ancestral Parents lived with a great sadness that came from their remembrance of Eden, and this sadness was deepened by the frustration of not being able to return to it. This existential reality, the remembrance of Eden and the frustration of being kept from it,  has remained in the hearts of all of the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. Generation after generation has, in its own way, attempted to get back to the Garden and has felt the frustration of the failure to do so.

One biblical account of this effort was the tower of Babel. We believed that if we could just build high enough we would converse with God.  We would regain our status as children of God just as it was when He walked and talked with us in the Garden “in the cool of the evening.” The problem was that  God  placed an angel with a flaming sword  at the gate, and every attempt to enter would fail. At Babel, the tower experiment failed and the human family was divided by language, a tragedy that continues to shape and form our  history and society today. One theologian speculated that the formation of cities was an attempt at Eden, but often Sodom was the result.

Some years ago, I attended a lecture on architecture and the professor skilfully showed how that many abiding features of architecture psychologically reached back to the remembrance of our primitive past. For example, he stated that columns represent trees and architecture uses them to create not only an aura of strength, but also to remind us of the times when we lived among the trees.  With this insight, I began to notice expressions of the Garden in many things. I walked into a shopping mall and there was Eden with trees and fountains. I saw it in  hotel lobbies. I saw it in the way some commercials on TV were crafted to imply that should I buy this car, I would be driving in a self-contained, temperature controlled, rolling paradise. I begin to notice how we create our gardens and lawns and public parks-all of them to make us feel “at home.” You can even see it in rock music concerts with the haze and smoke and special lighting. Surely, we modern folk are striving to fulfil an inner and sometimes undefined desire to re-enter the Garden.

As with the tower of Babel, this remembrance of the Garden and our desire to enter is frustrated, often with tragic consequences. We might call this deep seated urge the “pursuit of happiness.”  Though it is our birthright guaranteed to us by the founding documents of our society, the pursuit of happiness rarely results in the possession of it. The angel with the flaming sword still stands at the gate of Eden and will not allow us in. This produces a deep frustration  that creates a sadness or anxiety that our lives will never be complete, or happy, or of any lasting value and this thought makes us frantic to prove that it is not so.

Despite our frustration and all evidence to the contrary,  we continue to pursue it with vigour. We believe that if we can just get that promotion, if we can get a raise in pay, if we can find a partner who will serve all of our physical needs, if we can live in a finer home, or write a better book, lose weight, gain weight, get some plastic surgery, win the lottery, be a star, better drugs, more parties, another drink, etc., we will cross over the threshold into our own gated community and happiness will be assured. We hang on to this conviction despite the evidence that many who gain these things eventually end up broken, divorced, addicted, or dead. The power of our desire for Eden blinds us to these facts.

It has always seemed to me that we have come to believe that science will lead us to a new utopia. I am no luddite and I appreciate all that science has accomplished. Yet I remember the day that the Challenger exploded over Florida. Besides the shock and sadness at the loss of so many talented people, I thought of the tower of Babel. This tragedy was a reminder that the angel still stands at the gate.

Let me reverse my thoughts about this.  This desire for Eden is important and God allows it for a good reason.

Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”  The Lord Jesus said, “Blessed are they who hunger, for they shall be filled.”  This hunger for Eden is important because without it, we would give up our pilgrimage. Desire and longing are vital because they will not let us rest with what is. This desire propels us to scan the horizon for a new place to dwell.  We would surely die without this inner thirst and hunger. As a priest I often pray, “Lord, give us all a sense of starvation that we might seek the Bread of Life.”

Yet if the way is blocked,  is God only torturing us with this restless desire?  In fact, the gate to Eden can be opened and the angel will let us pass. The key to the gates of Paradise is the Cross of Christ.  By it and only by it, can we  enter into the Paradise of God. Remember what the Crucified Lord said to the thief, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” When the gates of Eden open in our hearts, and we find the Kingdom is within us, we again converse with our Father because the Lord Jesus said he would come into our house and sit down with us. The Fathers also say that humility opens the gates of Eden. There is no difference here because it is only by embracing the Cross that anyone can attain true humility.

Fine architecture, nice homes, good automobiles, health, well-being – there is nothing wrong about any of these things as long as we understand that we will not find paradise by them.  The momentary happiness they bring will pass. There is a joy that can remain and we can abide in that paradise. St. Paul said that the Kingdom of God was “joy in the Holy Spirit.”  That joy will not come and go with the circumstances of life. That is certainly paradise.

I want to end by saying that we err if we think that Paradise is just an inner state of being.  I will refer you to the life of St. Euphrosynos the Cook for further details.

 

 

99 and 44/100% Pure!

February 15, 2010

ivory-soap

I’m sure that most of you have used Ivory Soap. In the old days, they used to advertise by saying that Ivory Soap was 99 and 44/100% pure. It was so pure it would float on the water. It wasn’t expensive soap, so mom would let us carve it into a boat shape and put a little sail on it. This would encourage us to stay longer in bath. Maybe mom hoped that her usually dirty children would eventually become 99 and 44/100 percent clean.

How clean do we have to be before God will accept us? Is it true that in God’s sight, we are just dirty children and no amount of Ivory soap will ever make us clean enough? Think about how much you hear “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” in an Orthodox worship service. The Orthodox must be especially dirty!

I remember reading about a great monastic father who on his death bed proclaimed tearfully that he was not ready to die, but wanted to live longer. The brothers were astounded because they had experienced the holiness of this elder. They cried out, “You, Father, have no need for further repentance.” The Elder replied, “Brothers, I have not yet begun to repent!”

How could this great ascetic still feel so unclean that he was not ready to go? I didn’t like the story because I thought that if this elder felt he needed more repentance, by comparison, I am dirty beyond redemption! Raised in the western tradition, I believed that my dirt came from my father, who got it from his father, and so on all the way back to Adam.This dirt was passed in the dirty act of sexual intercourse, and in like manner, I will pass the dirt to my children. Since God is holy (even purer than Ivory Soap), it is impossible for a dirty creature like me to hope for any direct contact with Him. So I must try my best to get cleaner, yet how clean do I have to be? Would it be enough for God if I am 50% pure – 70% pure – 90% pure – 99 44/100% pure, or do I have to be purer than Ivory Soap?

If this theology is correct, then what am I to do with the feast of “The Meeting of the Lord?”The Mother of God came to be “purified.” Purified? Why would she need to be purified? There was no act of sexual intercourse that produced the Lord Jesus, and after the birth, she remained a virgin. This law of purification came from Leviticus 12 and it reflects the tradition of “Churching”, when a woman who has given birth is absent from church for forty days.The Mother of God needed no such purification, yet she came anyway.

This is a dilemma. Either there is something wrong with the western tradition, or I am missing something here. In fact, both of these are true. First, we must reconsider the idea that we are dirty children. I’ve learned that Orthodoxy does not hold me personally responsible for the sin of Adam, nor am I compelled to commit that sin because I have inherited my dirtiness. St. John Chrysostom refuted the idea that the sexual act is sinful and said that we accuse God of sin, since He is the author of the act. St. John said that it is sinful only when it is devoid of love and fidelity within the sacrament of marriage. So, there is no dirt to be passed from one generation to the next (drat! I had gotten used to blaming old dad for everything!)

Still, the fall of our Parents continues to have its effect because by their disobedience, sin entered into the world. What effect did this have? The biblical word used most for “sin” means “to miss the mark.” Because of sin, the entire human race is missing the mark.The whole goal and purpose of life is contact with God, yet despite the best of our intentions, we are not moving towards that goal. As a consequence of our loss of communion with God, we are mortal, broken, and misguided, but the idea that sin makes us dirty in the eyes of God is absent from Orthodoxy.

So then, we come back to the question: In what way was the Virgin in need of purification? When Moses came before the Burning Bush, the Lord said that Moses had to take off his shoes because he was standing on holy ground. Are shoes unholy? No, that isn’t the point. The point is that Moses was having a direct contact and experience of God and a response was needed. The Mosaic Law stated that when any human being came into direct contact with God, they were to offer rites of purification in response to that encounter. Of course, how could anyone have an encounter with God and not respond?

The Virgin came to the Rite of Purification not because she was involved in some sinful act that made her dirty in God’s sight. She was not “immaculately conceived” (as the West believes because they want to protect her from being dirty), and even though she was “filled with grace,” she was a member of the human race, a race that needed salvation. But more to the point, she had participated in the holiest act ever known, an encounter with God more direct and personal than experienced by Moses and the Prophets before her. Her presence at the Rite of Purification was a joyful response to that encounter, by which God became present to us all.

When we come to Church, we have the opportunity to have a direct and personal encounter with God. Christ will be present on the altar and those who commune will touch and taste the Lord. Could there be any more direct encounter than this? So, the Church asks us to prepare ourselves for this great and awesome spiritual event by fasting, prayer, and confession. But have you thought about what your response should be after communion? Like the Virgin, our Champion Leader, we should submit to the Rite of Purification.

Now, a great purifying rite is upon us – Lent! Here is a chance for us to respond to our encounter with Christ by using the tools of this season to help us overcome the wayward wandering of our hearts. If all we do is struggle to abstain from meat, then fasting serves no real purpose. But if fasting helps us to refrain from being judgmental, hard hearted, mean, angry, lustful, spiteful, etc., then we have truly entered into the Rite of Purification and it gives witness to the fact that “God is with us.” The Theotokos did it and she was purer than a bar of Ivory Soap.

It’s time for me to get in the bath!

Goat Boy

February 22, 2009

1425987583864-goatboy

Be honest! Do you really think about the second coming? After all, it’s been about 2,000 years, so why worry now? I don’t like thinking about judgment because I hate to be accountable to anyone. I wish God would follow His own advice: don’t judge lest you be judged. God should be so loving and forgiving that he will just pass over all of it. Most people today seem to believe that when you die, you just walk into the warm light and all is well. Did anyone see the movie “Ghost?”

When you consider how fearfully the Bible portrays the end of all things,  it might do us good to consider what it will be like when we stand before the judgment seat of Christ. Certainly, the Church doesn’t teach that it’ll be all warm fuzzies and bright lights. The Lord said it would be a sheep and goat kind of experience. What does that mean and what’s the difference between sheep and goats anyway?

I looked it up and you can tell them apart by outward appearance. Sheep say “baa” and goats say “maa.” Sheep have 54 chromosomes and goats have 60. Goats have a beard and divided upper lip, which sheep do not have. Sheep tails also hang down, even when short or docked, while the tails of goats are held upwards. Fascinating, isn’t it? But really, why do the goats get all the bad stuff?

In his parable of the Judgment, he separates the two and gives us the distinguishing mark that divides them – compassion. Compassion? Oh, I wish he hadn’t of said that. Why can’t it be something else like how well I followed the rules, or kept the fast, or prayed, or how well I avoided gossip or turned from lustful thoughts?

Blessed Augustine said that we should not resist the first coming so that we will not dread the second. By first coming, does he mean when Christ comes to us in the poor, the imprisoned, the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, etc. The measure of judgment will not be how well we kept the rules, but how much compassion we had and how that compassion was expressed.

Considering the poverty of my compassion, I must be a goat boy then. This goat boy would like to ask-is this a fair way to judge? After all, I’ve been doing religious work for over 40 years. I’ve learned to do the services, I go to confession. I’ve prayed and fasted and stood in 3 hour vigils. Shouldn’t I be judged on my many achievements and compliments and sacrifices?

When I take an honest look at my so called achievements, they aren’t so great really. Most of what I’ve accomplished happened because I had a lot of people who loved me enough to help me succeed. Anything that I ever did by myself amounted to little.

Actually, I’m glad that I won’t be judged on how well I keep the spiritual disciplines. I make a lot of excuses. Yet absolutely everyone can exercise compassion and show mercy. It doesn’t take training, or intelligence, or wealth or beauty. It just takes heart.

If I could get a sheep-like heart, it might even change how I see fasting. I can eat more simply, but take the extra money and support the food bank. Maybe I could empty my closet of clothes I haven’t worn in years and give them to the local mission. The possibilities are endless.

Goat boy would rather not do any of this.  He would rather prove his love for God with piety. Of course, piety is important but the Judge said, “forgive and you will be forgive, show mercy, and mercy will be shown to you. I was hungry and you fed me, naked and you clothed me, thirsty and you gave me water to drink.” Goat boy wishes that he would hear something like, “Good job. You didn’t eat that burger during Lent”, or “Way to go! You really nailed that prayer rule.”

Isaiah agreed with the Lord(no surprise). In chapter 58, he says.

5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying on sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD ?

6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?

7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness a]”>[a] will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.

9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,

10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.

Sigh! Ok, goat boy understands. It’s time to say “baaaaaa” instead of “maaaa.”

The Voice

May 20, 2008

 
In the time of Jesus, sheep were not raised specifically to be slaughtered for food, but they were raised for their wool, and so they remained in the flock all their lives. Sheep came to know the voice of their shepherds and hey would flee away from the voice of other shepherds. Jesus said, “The sheep know the voice of their shepherd and they follow him, but they will never follow a stranger. They will run away from him because they do not recognize a strange voice.

Honestly, I’ve spent a lot of my life following voices that were not that of the Shepherd. Also, there were times when I thought I was following the Lord, and it was another voice. People often confess that they are confused and uncertain about God’s will. We have trouble figuring out just what the Shepherd wants us to do. Certainly, this may be due to the fact that many things speak to us and compete for our attention. So how do we recognize the voice of Christ in the midst of all the voices that speak to us?

Let’s go back to Genesis for a moment, a time when creation first heard the voice of the Shepherd. The Bible says that God created by speaking a word: Let there be…and it was so. The Fathers point out that God doesn’t have lips or a tongue or a voice box, nor did he utter sounds that travel through the air to strike some cosmic eardrum. The idea of speaking has to do with expression, a revelation of the inner hidden being of God. (a side note: the Vigil begins with a silent censing to remind how God began creation in silence; that is in a place beyond our hearing.)

The voice of the Shepherd is the same today. It is heard primarily with the “ears” of the soul, and it creates something in us because the Voice reveals the unseen God. Yet, like the sheep of Palestine, it may take us a while until we only hear the voice of the Shepherd, and no other. It is important then, that we sharpen our hearing by immersing our selves in all the ways that God has made available to us to hear His Voice. What are those ways?

For the Orthodox, the sources of the Voice are rich indeed. The Voice of the Shepherd can be heard in the prayers of the Church, in the beauty of the liturgy, in the grace of an icon, in the diligent study of the Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers, in the lives of the Saints, and even in our dialogue with other Orthodox Christians: bishops, monastics, priests, and brothers and sisters. From these kinds of sources, we can begin to sharpen our ears to hear the Voice so that we can hear the Voice that speaks in the solitude of our hearts.

Is it any wonder then that our enemy does all he can to separate us from these sources? His goal is to deaden our hearing and then fill our hearts with all kinds of voices until we know only confusion and uncertainty. The hunter of the sheep distracts us with noise, hurry, and burdens. He increases the volume to drown out the Voice. He increases the pace of life so that we don’t have time to listen to the Voice. He doesn’t have to do much with our burdens for we excel in burdening ourselves until we have no ears for the Voice. In the end, we become separated from the flock and are easy prey for the hunter.

There is one good thing about this: if we become separated, the Good Shepherd will come to find us. And he has help. Every good shepherd has a sheepdog or two to help keep the sheep together. The Good Shepherd has two sheepdogs. Do you know their names? David the King wrote: “Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…”  All my life, these two dogs, Goodness and Mercy, have been at my heels, barking and trying to get me back into the flock. Thank God!

Perhaps I have finally learned that it is best to stay in the sheepfold of the Good Shepherd, the Church. In this place, I must listen carefully for the voice of the Shepherd until the day comes when I hear no other, or at least flee from the ones that I know are not the true, life giving Voice of the Shepherd.

Someday, that Voice will call me from the grave.

Can I get a witness?

May 20, 2008

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


I don’t know if you heard the recent news about the convert that was beheaded by muslim extremists.  Given our rather protected and cultured way of life, it comes as shocking news to many of us that even today people are dying for the Faith. Certainly, most of us will never have to die a cruel death as a martyr. We know that life can be uncertain, but we do not expect physical death as a consequence of our witness. It is more likely that we will die from cancer or some affliction of old age than for what we confess. However, this event reminds us that the age of the martyrs has not ended. Christians are dying and will be killed for the Faith.

Yet, the way we use the word “martyr”, we might think that it just means to die for something. In fact, the word “martyr” is translated as “witness.” Anytime that we can witness for the Faith it is martyrdom, especially in this present world

As a group, the New Martyrs of Russia are representative of all of us -some were monastics and ascetics, some were clergy or hierarchs, but most of them were laypeople who had families and worked jobs. In other words, they were just like us. When it came to the ultimate sacrifice, they found the courage to be a witness for Christ. Some were shot, hung, or poisoned, and many were sent to prisons where they died from hunger or exposure. Some managed to live until they were released, and went on to serve the church in other ways. These living martyrs we call “Confessors.” Today, many of these confessors have now died and left us. There were a treasure, a blessing to the Faith, but often they escaped our attention.

Such a cloud of witnesses (millions) may overwhelm us. Where did so many find the courage? By comparison, what is the witness of my life? I would like to believe that if faced with a life and death decision for Christ, I would choose Christ. Oh, I like to believe it, but then I have trouble deciding on whether to go to Church or not, or keep the fast or not, or even to pray or not.

What we need to change is the belief that martyrdom is only real when it is done under extreme circumstances. With the seduction of our material well-being, the advances of science, and the atmosphere of religious pluralism and secularism, being a witness for Christ seems more a matter of wading through gray and muddy water than making a clear witness. Most of us live a lifestyle that is no different from our neighbors, so we wonder if we witness to the truth of Christ at all. Then there is the fear that if we do witness, we will be seen as being a fanatic or worse.

Indeed, it is a difficult world in which to witness. Listen to the wisdom of an Elder:

The Holy Fathers prophesied about the last generation, saying to each other in wonderment: “What have we achieved?” One of them Abba Ischyrion, a great Elder, replied: “We have fulfilled the commandments of God.” The others said: “What about those who will come after us, what will they do?” The Elder answered: “They will accomplish half of our work.” And again the Fathers asked: “What about those who come after them?” Abba Ischyrion replied: “the men of that generation will accomplish no work at all; temptation will come upon them. But those who are found worthy in that epoch will be greater than us and our Fathers.”   – from the Evergetinos

Think of it. If we can attain to any holiness in this present age, we can be greater than the Fathers who have gone before us. How is such a thing even remotely possible?

Anyone who hangs around Orthodoxy soon realizes that the Faith is ascetic. The Lord commanded that we pick up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow Him. This command alone gives us plenty of material for a witness to the world. The Church tries to help us by giving us disciplines that will help us to separate from the world. Certainly, things like prayer, fasting, and attending service help us personally, but they also give a witness to those around us. Our Orthodox piety says that there is another reality beyond this world, and we are called to live in that reality.

Is it difficult to do this today? Yes, it is difficult, but then it has always been difficult. The New Martyrs of Russia show us that as difficult as it might be, it can be done. They were not special people who had some monastic or spiritual calling from the time they were born. They were common folks like you and me. They waded through the muddy water of the 20th century and they show us that while we wade through the mud of the 21st century, we too can be witnesses of the Faith.

The age of the martyrs has not ended. We may not be asked to die for the Faith, but if we try to live for the Faith, we too are witnesses and martyrs.

Can I get a witness?

Holy saints, martyrs and confessors of the Russian church, pray to God for us.

Goat

May 20, 2008

Those who have read the article, The River of Fire, encounter in the text a rather interesting idea: if we embrace the life of God in this life, then, in the next life, we will naturally embrace what we have already experienced. If we reject His presence in this life, then it will be our tendency to reject it in the next.

 This is an interesting idea, especially when we consider the idea of a Last Judgment.  In the west, we tend to think of judgment like a scene from a courtroom drama. This is a bit ridiculous because who among us would stand before God and pretend to be innocent about anything? If judgment is like a court, then as soon as the judge would ask how I plead, the answer could only be “guilty.”

 Yet, is this really how it’s done? Does God really need to consider evidence for and against a defendant? Does He need a prosecutor, a defense, witnesses and a jury?

 The Blessed Augustine said, “Let us not resist the first coming so that we will not dread the second.”  The first coming-does that mean the Incarnation? No, Augustine means that Christ is coming to us right now in the poor, the imprisoned, the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, and the lost. We can experience the presence of God at Church, and respond. We can experience the presence of God in prayer, and respond. We can experience the presence of God in the shining eyes and loving heart of a friend or loved one. We can experience the presence of God in a glorious sunset or in the quiet stillness of the forest.  Yet, the Shepherd says that none of these will determine whether we stand on His right or on His left! Apparently, the measure of judgment will not be how well I kept the fasting rules, but how much compassion I had in my heart.

Is this a fair way to judge? Well, let’s go back to the idea of the article, The River of Fire. Christ said that he came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many. He fed the hungry and healed the sick. He sought the lost and opened the eyes of the blind. He sealed his identity as a servant by dying on the Cross for all of us. Well, if he was that way in his earthly life, why does it surprise us that He is still this way today, and that he comes to us in the person of those who are in need? 

 The goats are shocked and cry out, “When Lord did you come to us?” They had not known him in his first coming to them in the guise of the poor, the hungry, the naked, and the thirsty. The Lord’s word to depart is a simple recognition that it is impossible to have fellowship with someone that you previously rejected. They did not know him, and though they now see plainly that he is the Lord, they do not really know him. He who sits on the throne of judgment had said, “Forgive and you will be forgive, show mercy, and mercy will be shown to you.”  Mercy is the essence of the Shepherd. The merciful will be most comfortable in his presence. The Merciless just won’t know him.  The scripture says that even at his appearance they will flee from Him.

 It isn’t up to us to choose whom we are to help, or not help. If the Lord is truly our Shepherd, then each day He will come to us as He chooses. We will find Him in the troubled teenager and in the lonely widow. We will find him in the poor man on the street or in a broken-hearted spouse. We find him in the lost that have never heard the Good News of Jesus Christ. He comes to us in neighbors and even in our enemies.

 Christ did not come into the world to condemn it. St. Paul said that for those who are in Christ, there is not condemnation. It seems to me that judgment is a matter of how I condemn myself, because I choose to reject the Lord when he comes to me. And should I continue to reject him, his word to me will be true: “Depart, because you don’t know who I am, and I don’t know you.

 May all of us embrace Christ in His first coming so that we will embrace Him in his last coming.

 

I can’t proclaim the Victory of Orthodoxy

May 20, 2008


 

The first Sunday of Lent is called the Sunday of Orthodoxy, or the Victory of Orthodoxy. Historically, this Sunday commemorates the restoration of the use of Icons in worship in 843 AD. 

Someone will always ask how the Orthodox came by all of this icon business. Surely, they maintain, the word “icon” is not in the Bible. In fact, it is – St. Paul wrote in Colossians: “Christ is the image of the invisible God.” The word “image” is “icon” in Greek. The issue of icons is more than how we look at art. The issue of icons is the truth that God became flesh and dwelt among us. The Incarnation is the victory of Orthodoxy.  In Christ, God wrote the first icon. God became visible. He, who had no form before and could not be represented in any work of art, has now taken shape. When we look into the face of Christ, we see the Father. Therefore, we can represent God in art because he has represented Himself. To claim that such representation is wrong is to reject the truth that God became flesh lived among us. It is to leave God in the invisible realm.

 Orthodoxy is not just an ancient faith, a museum piece meant to arouse curiosity. This faith, which until recently seemed to be the quaint, old world faith of minorities and immigrants, has become a faith that not only answers the questions of 21st century North Americans, but challenges the self-identity and pre-suppositions of those of us raised in the West. We believe that we are beginning to witness the rise of American Orthodoxy. We are not sure of its course, but we have no reason to doubt its victory, for in all cultures and in all places the Faith has held its ground. It withstood pagan Rome and transformed it. It suffered and survived Islam and the Turkish Empire. It suffered greatly under communism, but emerged purified and triumphant.

So, I recognize and affirm the image of God in the Incarnation is the victory of Orthodoxy. I recognize and affirm that the Holy Church has weathered every storm and repelled every heresy thrown against it and has been victorious. I recognize that Orthodoxy in America is gaining ground and moving towards a brighter future. I have faith in the victory of Orthodoxy.

Yet, I cannot proclaim the victory of Orthodoxy for myself. Why? -because Orthodoxy has not yet been victorious in me. You see at this point I cannot say what St. Paul said: “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” I know that I am created in the image of God, yet the icon of Christ has not yet been made in me. This icon is being written in me and it’s a work in progress, but it is not finished. The victory of Orthodoxy is not yet in me, though I long for it.

Well, I say that I long for it, but in fact, I am an iconoclast.  I am a slave to my passions, and so smear whatever image of Christ there is in me. By my selfishness and love of pleasure, I refuse to acknowledge the reality of the image of Christ in others. Even more, I set myself up as a judge and by condemning others, I smash the image of Christ in them (at least in my own mind). I demonstrate my belief that God is invisible, and being invisible, He is certainly not in you or in anyone else. As John the Beloved would say, “How can you love God whom you cannot see…”

Against this sinful old iconoclast, the Spirit struggles to write the image of Christ in me. May God gain victory over me, so that someday, others might look at me and see God made manifest in Christ in me. May the day come when this image is so complete that I can say with St. Paul, “the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God.”

I look forward to the Victory of Orthodoxy.

 

 

 

I am climbing St. John’s Ladder

May 20, 2008

 

For the Lenten Sunday of St. John Climacus

I have come to the conviction that God is pleased with me.

This might seem like a ridiculous idea for those who know me. Spend a little bit of time with me and you will find me to be a foolish, silly old man who really ought to be farther along in his spiritual life than he is. After all, I’ve been a Christian since my youth, so how is it possible that I am still such a foolish, sinful, and silly old man?

Most Sundays, someone will say to me that they are ashamed because when they come to confession because they seem to confess the same sins week after week. They wonder if it will ever change. Sometimes, because of persistent sins, despondency sets in. They say, “It seems like I take one step forward and two steps back. Surely God is tired of me and isvery displeased with me.” Oh, I understand how they feel. At times, I hear the same voice- “you can’t get a leopard to change his spots.” In my case, it might be more appropriate to say “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

Yet, I have come to the conviction that God is pleased with me.

Centuries ago, it was decided that the Church was not meant to be a place where only the perfect would gather to meet. The Church was meant to be a place where sinners could gather so that by the ministry of the Church, they might overcome their sin. Confession became a place where those who were not yet perfect could come and find refreshment. Admittedly, there have been saints who took the fast track, who by martyrdom or great ascetic feats reached heights of piety and perfection. Yet, they seem more like the exception than the rule. 

So, I have come to the conviction that God is pleased with me.

For most of us, salvation (theosis) will be a long, long journey of one step forward, and two steps back. God is pleased with us precisely because we are trying to climb this ladder and its a struggle. The Lord said that there would be a whole lot of people who won’t struggle for the sake of the Kingdom of God. In fact He said the road that most people travel is a broad and straight and carefree road. It’s easy going on that superhighway because like Interstate 81, there are no stoplights. Those on the easy road do not stop to question their motives or their destination. 

The ladder of the  Kingdom is much different. It is one rung at a time and you cannot climb it road without struggle and effort and here are many stops and starts on the ladder of divine ascent. Since we are trying to climb, to question and to struggle with ourselves, God is most pleased with us even if its one rung up and two down. 

Giving up is a constant temptation when its one up and two down.  At that point we should ask ourselves what will be at the end  if we take the spiritually carefree way. I once read a story of a desert monk who struggled mightily with lust. This had been going on for years and years, until one day, a great monastic saint came to the monastery. Upon hearing of the monk’s terrible struggle, he prayed to God that the brother would be set free from lust. The next day, the monk came to the great monastic and asked him what he had done. “Brother, I saw that you were in great distress and I learned that you had been fighting this passion for decades. So, I asked the Lord to relieve you of it.” The monk began to cry and pleaded with the saint to ask the Lord to return him to his former state. The Saint was amazed and asked why he would want such a thing. The monk replied, “Because by this struggle I was attaining salvation. Now that it is gone, what am I to do?”

I am climbing St. John’s ladder-one rung at a time,. One rung up, and often I slip back two. I am sad that I have slipped back, but shall I stop? No! I will reach again and step again and this time I will try to hold on a bit harder. Why? Because my Father is pleased that I am on the ladder, that’s why. Know this strengthens my arms and gives me resolve.

Climb, my brothers and sisters, though your arms grow weary from the effort. For by struggling for the next rung, God is so pleased with you.

Chasin’ Granny

May 13, 2008

 

You have to think pre-video game days. We had a TV in the house and mom didn’t mind using it as a baby-sitting tool. We only got 2 channels (both in black and white-no color), and most of the time there wasn’t much for us to watch. We became easily bored especially during long hot summer days. We’d complain to mom, but she was unmoved by our pain. She would tell us to go outside and play. That didn’t help us because it didn’t take long until there wasn’t much to do. So, when we complained again, she replied as she showed us the door, “Well, go chase your granny ‘round  a stump.”

Chasin’ granny ‘round a stump – it’s a curious phrase and I don’t know the origin of it, but we children knew what it meant. You see back in those days, parents didn’t feel obligated to entertain their children. It was up to us to entertain ourselves, even if that meant hours of idle and meaningless activity. There were no smart phones or Ipads available. We were left to our own devices and imaginations.

There is a story in the Old Testament about Moses and the Congregation of Israel. It says that they camped around the same mountain for 3 and ½ years. Three and ½ years!! You can imagine that this situation became extremely boring. Truly, they were chasin’ granny ‘round a stump.

Why did they do it?  They should have been in the Promised Land enjoying the good life. The fact is they had their chance. God brought them to the River Jordan, and even though the scouts came back loaded with grapes and fruit, the people would not cross over. Besides the milk and honey, there were giants and high-walled cities and fierce warrior kings in the Promised Land.

God forgot to mention that part of the deal. He failed to mention that getting the milk and honey would take effort and force. Well the Israelites were not going to have any of that. I guess they envisioned a paradise where they would lay in a hammock and sip mint-juleps. Battling giants wasn’t their idea of the good life. And so they turned back; to what, I have no idea.  How often do we humans dream of walking into a cozy situation without a fight or struggle?

Here’s the good part of the story. God didn’t abandon them because they refused to cross the River Jordan. He continued to be the God of Israel. That’s the way God is- always faithful and always keeping true to His side of the contract. But what could He do with them? So for 40 years, they wandered in the desert. For 40 years, they chased granny ‘round a stump.

We shouldn’t be too hard on them. God brings us to our own River Jordan and shows us a new land of a deeper spiritual life. It looks really sweet, and we are tempted to cross over. However, we can also see struggles and giants and high walled cities over there. As the monks have told us, the kingdom will have to be taken by force.

Thanks, Lord, but no thanks! I’ll stay over her where I am comfortable. Chasin’ granny seems a whole lot easier.  God will remain my God, so it won’t be too bad if I stay in my comfort zone. Of course, we begin to get bored with Church and yawn at our spiritual life. Its just the same thing Sunday after Sunday -the same liturgies and the same prayers and the same calendar. We are chasin’ granny around the stump.

In the beginning of the story of St. Mary of Egypt, Elder Zosimas says that he was convinced that he had reached the pinnacle of monastic life. He believed that there was no monk anywhere that had anything to teach him. All that was left for him was to run around the stump chasing granny. Of course, God had other plans for him. He would end up chasing a granny, but oh, what a granny she was!

“If you cross the Jordan, you will find true peace.” These are the words that the Theotokos spoke to Mary, the harlot, in Jerusalem. Mary crossed over and for 47 years struggled to take the kingdom by force. There were fierce animals that she had to battle (that’s what she called her passions). The force she used to defeat them was the power of repentance. Given her former life, it was a mighty battle indeed.

When Zosimas met her, St. Mary had won the battle. Looking at St. Mary, he saw the far horizon of spirituality and it shook him to the core of his being. He had hardly taken the first step on the path to God.

The words spoken to Mary of Egypt are addressed to each of us: “If you cross the Jordan, you will find true peace.” How will you respond? I can’t sugar-coat it for you. It will be a battle and a struggle. In the soul, there are giants and high-walled cities, so Christian life is never free from struggle.How can it be any other way? As the Master put it, “pick up your cross, deny yourself, and follow me.”  Try any part or all of that command and you soon know what struggle is all about.

Sadly, many of us think that we can just stay where we are. After all, I’ve been baptized, attended Church and have been Orthodox for many years. What else does God expect of me?  The story of the wandering of Israel in the Sinai will disavow you of the thought that you can just stay where you are. The testimony of that story shows that the generation that turned away from the Jordan never inherited the Promised Land. They never found true peace.

It would be the next generation that would cross over to posses it. The promise made to Joshua is made to you. ” Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon, I have given you, as I said to Moses.” God is with us and promises us that we will be victorious. It is a fight, but how strong are our enemies? By faith,the walls came down with the blast of trumpets. Trumpets?  How tough were those giants? By faith, a little shepherd boy killed one with a pebble and a sling.

The stone in our sling is the same as St. Mary’s – repentance- and before it no giant  and no high wall can stand. An Orthodox Christian is one who repents and repents and repents….

The choice is ours: we can cross over and find peace; or we can play it safe, and stay in the Sinai desert.  Either way, God is with us, but if we do not cross over, we may never know true peace. We will spend the rest of our time wandering in the Sinai, chasin’ granny around a stump.

Holy Mother Mary of Egypt, pray to God for us!

 

Orthodox Mummy

May 13, 2008

 

My dear brother, Fr. Seraphim, Abbot of the Holy Cross Monastery, said in a video, From the Little Mountain,  that when a man comes to the monastery, he soon has a very sobering experience. Now as he enters into a deeper life of prayer, he begins to see the flaws in his personality and life. Its like coming out of a dark closet. In the dark, you feel that your appearance is acceptable, but when you begin to open the door and the light pours in, you find that your clothes are dirty and you are covered with sores.   (www.youtube.com/watch?v=ooZiPrSm8sI)

I have opened my door very slowly. I’ve been Orthodox for over 20 years but I have not stepped out into the full light. There has been enough light that I find that like Lazarus, I am dressed in grave clothes.  I think that makes me an Orthodox mummy.

Jesus commanded that the grave clothes be taken off of Lazarus, and that means that mine are to be removed as well.  In other words, salvation begins with the voice of the Shepherd calling me to life, but then there must be an undressing. As St Paul said, we must put off the “old man” with all of his dirty garments so that we can put on Christ. Yet, I cannot effectively put on Christ, until I take off my grave clothes. My mom use to always chide us that we were never allowed to put clean clothes over a dirty body!

 I heard the voice calling me from the grave and I have come slowly into the light. However,  I’ve come like a mummy bound by my clothing and with a napkin covering my face.  I hear that voice again –“Remove those things”- and this removal is taking a long time. How do I undress? The main way is by confession, but I also take off my rags as I encounter the voice of the Shepherd in the Scriptures. This is what theosis is (salvation in Orthodoxy): taking off and putting on. You can’t do one without the other. You can’t put good garments over filthy rags and you cannot simply take off the rags and the be like the king who had no clothes. (Remember the party guest who did not have on the appropriate clothing. The King threw him out!)

I take comfort in the fact that Lazarus had friends and family to help undress him. I look to my Orthodox brothers and sisters to help me.

The grave clothing that binds me so tightly is my way of thinking. I find that while my heart yearns for the Lord, I have a fleshly mind. It is here that the battle is most fierce. “As a man thinks, so is he.”  Since I have a carnal mind, so am I!

Its been 20 years, and I’m still unwrapping myself. Thank God, he is patient, long-suffering and merciful!