Archive for the ‘Podvig – Spiritual Struggle’ Category

Just what the Doctor ordered!

June 29, 2012


All things medical seem to be on the minds of many people today.There’s hardly a single news broadcast that doesn’t feature a story about it.We wonder if “Obama-care” will pass through Congress and if it does, we wonder what the impact will be.Will there be adequate healthcare for the elderly, will families be able to afford coverage for their children, and will employers continue to offer insurance if there’s a public option, and so on? So, as I said, these seem to be very fearful and anxious times.

We are told that the answer to our fears is to just stay healthy. We are told that much of what we suffer could have been prevented. It’s just a matter of lifestyle choices. Therefore, it may be that in the future, our insurance and its cost will be tied to the lifestyle that we choose.I read somewhere that some states are trying to tie the cost of your premium to your BMI, or body mass index.Just the other day, I heard a dialogue between a student and a college administrator about the college’s new policy of making obese students take a class on losing weight or they would not be allowed to graduate.

So, preventive medicine may be just what the doctor ordered.I wonder though, if we all took better care of ourselves, would there be a need for so many doctors? I sometimes kid people by saying when we part company, “Stay out of trouble.” Then I add, “Well, I’m not sure about that because if you stay out of trouble, then I’ll be out of a job.”They just look back and smile. If we all stayed well, as much as possible, what would doctors do for a living?

We often speak of the Church as our spiritual hospital and that we are here because we are sick. There is preventative medicine –like prayer, fasting, and study-but because of our lifestyle choices, we have not followed the path to health. So, what would the Doctor order?

The Pharisees grumbled when Jesus went into the house of Matthew, the writer of the Gospel. After all, he was a tax collector, and they were the most hated people of all. Why would anyone in their right mind enter into a place filled with such uncleanness and spiritual disease? It is here that the Lord reminds them that the sick need a doctor.Then the Great Physician gives us his prescription: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”Mercy – this is a strange recommendation for the spiritually sick, or is it?

Every time we come to the Church, in fact any time we turn to the Lord, he meets us withmercy and not with judgment. If this were not so, then despair would most certainly kill us. Mercy renews us and strengthens us to continue our battletowards salvation.Yet, is the Lord’s mercy the only thing that Jesus meant? He did say earlier that the merciful would obtain mercy. So, mercy is something that we are to show as well.How might mercy be the very thing that the doctor ordered?

First, I can show mercy to myself.

I start with myself because I have found that if I have little mercy for myself, I will not be able to show it to others. I don’t mean that I simply justify and excuse everything that I do. I mean that I need to show mercy to my soul. I constantly hand my soul over to the robbers who take away for it everything that is good and leave my soul wounded and bleeding.Like the Samaritan, I could bind and dress my soul’s wounds. I could give it a little time to pray, a few morsels of spiritual reading, or an occasional visit to the hospital. Is that so hard to do? Why then, am I so reluctant to be merciful to myself?Like the Sadducee, the Pharisee, and the Scribe in the story of the Good Samaritan, I just pass by and show no mercy to my soul.I am too busy to bother.By showing no mercy to my soul, I find I have no mercy for others because my poor beaten and starve soul has nothing to give.

Then, I can show mercy to my family.

It used to be said that charity begins at home. I use to jest if charity begins at home, it usually stays at home. Yet, in truth, if I cannot show mercy at home, it is likely that I will not show it elsewhere.I used to counsel married couples who had a Christian orientation that they should try to practice the Sermon on the Mount in their marital
relationship.If Jesus said that if an enemy compels us to go one mile, we should go two. If we are struck on one
check, then turn the other. Most Christians would acknowledge that this is the way a Christian should act; yes that is until the Christian gets home, and then mercy sits outside the door.Disagreements occur between all loving couples and between parents and children.We all fail each other continually and the lack of mercy in a family can be shocking.I also counseled many couples bound for divorce, and not long into the interview, it was clear that mercy never lived in the house.

I can show mercy to my priest and to my Church.

The same truth applies here. If I cannot show mercy at Church, it is unlikely that I will show it elsewhere. Of course, disagreements are natural and we fail each other constantly.Yet, you would think that people seeking mercy from God would easily show mercy to each other.I would ask you to take a moment and look at your brothers and sisters in Church. What do you really know about them? What sorrows and burdens do they carry? If you don’t have a clue, then you never have to show mercy by binding up their wounds.Does your priest have wounds as well? I guarantee you that he does, and he has many burdens to carry. When you offer to lift them a little, you show mercy to your priest.

Finally, I can show mercy the stranger and to my neighbor.

If I am merciful to myself, merciful to my family, and merciful to my church family, then I am better able to be merciful to strangers or to my neighbor.Again, we must be honest. What do we know about our neighbors other than that they are bothersome and irritating at times?The Lord said that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. God help me then because I don’t love my neighbors at all. Frankly I don’t really know much about them. If they have some personal problem, I’m sure that I’ll be the last to know. Life could beat them up and I wouldn’t see them because mercy does not guide my vision. If I am a merciful person, then I would have a merciful eye that would see the wounds in the manby the side of the road

“Go learn this,” the Great Doctor says. “I desire mercy instead of sacrifice. Happy are you when you show mercy, for you shall obtain mercy.”

Real Love

July 23, 2011

Sometimes when you read the Scriptures for Sunday, there is a phrase that is used over and over. In Romans 12, St. Paul says “Be affectionate to each other” and also “let love be genuine between you.” In 2 Corinthians 6, he writes that he proves his ministry by, among other things, “love unfeigned.” You begin to catch a drift of meaning here. Though we may find it difficult to practice in the world, in the Church, love has to be the real thing. Orthodoxy has always been and will always be most fundamentally a matter of the heart. We can try to substitute religion or even piety for love, but it will never work. Don’t get me wrong, religion and piety play their part, but they must be expressions of love and not a substitute for love. Hear the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moons and Sabbaths and the calling of convocations wearies me.”

Well, for heaven’s sake, it seems like a direct put down of the Orthodox Faith. Why does God say this? Here is the answer: “…this people come near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor me, but they have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men….”

This seems like a harsh word, and feels like a threat. Being a sinner, I know that most of the time my love for God and for my neighbor is anything but genuine. I do just enough and say just enough to get people to move on so that I can do the things I want to do. This doesn’t mean that I don’t honestly feel love at times, but I know that love is demonstrated not by what I feel but by what I do.

The Gospel story found in Luke 7 drives the point home. Simon, I have something to say to you. From the moment I came into your house, you’ve done nothing for me. A host is supposed to see that his guests have their feet washed. You did nothing, but this woman has washed my feet continually. You gave me no kiss of greeting as hosts are supposed to do, but she has kissed my feet continually. You did not anoint my head with oil as hosts are suppose to do, but this woman did even more and anointed my feet with oil. I tell you Simon, her sins are forgiven.

In this story, we come to understand why it is important that love be genuine and unfeigned and demonstrated by what we do. It is a very great and important truth – more than anything else, forgiveness depends upon love, a love shown in action.

Jesus makes this connection. Forgiveness and love are bound together and cannot be separated. Her sins, which are many, are forgiven. Why? Because, she loved much. But why does she love so much? Because, she was forgiven much. It seems very circular, does it not? Jesus tells the parable again about the man who owed a lot of money, and a man who owed little. Both debts were forgiven, but which one  loved the banker most? Obviously, it was the one who had the greatest debt.

So, I am driven to a conclusion about why my love is so shallow. I know the Church is trying to help me understand how great the debt that I owe is. If I can fully grasp this, my love will be great. Since my love is not so great, I really don’t have a clue as to how much has been forgiven me. Oh, I can grasp the concept in my mind, but my heart is another matter. So, it’s just easier to burn incense and attend services and flatter God with my lips as I chant about how much I love him.  Will he believe it more if I chant it in Greek or in Slavonic? Maybe tone 6 would do better than tone 2?

I am a good Pharisee, you see. I do all things right. Jesus knocked on the door of my heart and I opened it and invited Him in. Yet, how sad it is that Jesus entered into my house, and I have done so little for Him. What a sorry host I am. If I really loved him, I would be kissing feet and anointing heads and my love for God and for my brothers and sisters would be genuine.

May I come to know how great was the debt forgiven, so that my love will be great, and may that love and affection be genuine and demonstrated by the feet I wash and the heads I anoint.


June 9, 2011


I’m sure you’ve had this experience. You’re just about to fall asleep when suddenly you hear the tiniest of sounds go by your ear. You know immediately that a mosquito has targeted you for lunch. So, you cut on the light, but no matter how much you look around, you just can’t see it. So you cut off the light, and in just a little while you hear the buzzing again. You cut the light on, but nothing. So you cut the light off and try to ignore it. You know that sometime during the night, you’ll be donating blood.

It’s the same in spiritual life. You’re trying your best to be positive, to have some sense of spiritual progress, and then the mosquitoes start buzzing in your brain. Sometimes it seems that they have sucked all of the blood from your spiritual life. These spiritual mosquitoes are called logismoi. Logismoi are random thoughts that just seem to pop into your head without invitation. You know these thoughts (here’s a short list) – gluttony, fornication, avarice, sorrow, discouragement, anger, vainglory and pride. Those are big mosquitoes and there are small ones too – the football game, the last TV show, unfinished work, deadlines, etc.

No matter how often we resolve to start again, or to pray with greater concentration, the logismoi are relentless. Each sting, no matter how small, begins to put in us the belief that we are faithless and without piety, lost and worthless, and our hope for holiness futile.

When the logismoi land, they seem to be true, but in fact they are only partially true. This gives them the hook that catches us. There is enough truth to make us believe them. A personal example: I break something and the logismoi bites, “You always screw up”. Now I’ve just screwed up, so there is some truth to the thought. Yet, if the thought comes often enough (I do mess up a lot), I believe them.  A hole begins to develop in my soul. I conclude that I am in fact a screw-up and I can never do anything right. Therefore, I am worthless. From this conclusion, depression and dejection will follow. The logismoi are somewhat Orthodox because they constantly repeat their litany. Paci…Paci – Again and again!

Jesus said, “Thy word is truth. Sanctify them with your truth.” The greatest shield against logismoi is God’s truth. No matter what our random thoughts try to say to us, only God tells us who we are and what we are, and his word is true. The devil does not define us, other people do not define us, family does not define us. Most of all, we cannot define ourselves. We are slaves to the Lord Jesus, bought by his Blood. Only He can tell us who we are. A slave cannot judge another slave, and a slave cannot judge himself. Only the Master judges him. The Master may convict us, but he will never condemn us. He will sanctify us because His word will help to purify our souls. His word is the mirror into which we should look to see ourselves. All other mirrors are distorted.

It is vital that we get this truth, otherwise we constantly fall before the logismoi. Now, understand, as the Fathers teach, that for 99.9 percent of us, the logismoi, random thoughts, will be with us until the day we die. God does not disdain us because of this. It is not sin that the logismoi buzz about our minds. Yet, is there anything else we can do?

A brother asked one of the elders, “What shall I do? My thoughts are always turned to lust without allowing me an hour’s respite, and my soul is tormented by it.” He said to him, “Every time the demons suggest these thoughts to you, do not argue with them. For the activity of demons always is to suggest, and suggestions are not sins, for they cannot compel. But it rests with you to welcome them, or not to welcome them. Do you know what the Midianites did? They adorned their daughters and presented them to the Israelites. They did not compel anyone, but those who consented, sinned with them, while the others were enraged and put them to death. It is the same with thoughts.” The brother answered the old man, “What shall I do, then, for I am weak and passion overcomes me?” He said to him, “Watch your thoughts, and every time they begin to say something to you, do not answer them but rise and pray; kneel down, saying, ‘Son of God, have mercy on me.'”

There are some things we must learn from this story. First, we must become aware –“Watch your thoughts.” Be aware that thoughts by nature are random, and any thought can come, but they cannot compel us to do anything. Even more, we must not be shocked, since we are fallen people, at the nature of the thoughts. Some will be minor, some will be scandalous, and some even blasphemous.

Second, you are not condemned by the experience of random thoughts – suggestions and thoughts are not sins. The Lord of the mosquitoes would have us feel condemned just because the mosquitoes are flying around. Condemnation will only provide the breeding ground for more mosquitoes.

Finally, as the Fathers say, 99.99 percent of us will never be free of logismoi. It is a rare saint who attends hesychasm, or internal stillness. This may be due in part to the fact that most of us don’t take prayer and meditation very seriously or we allow the busyness of life to move prayer the the edges of our daily life.

Even if it is true that the logismoi will be with us always, we must fight, but we need to fight well. Here is the most remarkable recommendation about how to fight – we combat our obsessive thoughts by ignoring them. Ignoring them? At least this means that we draw no conclusions from what we think. This may seem a bit naïve since random thoughts are so relentless.

Ignoring them would not be enough if that is all that we did. Listen again: “Watch your thoughts, and every time they begin to say something to you, do not answer them but rise and pray; kneel down, saying, ‘Son of God, have mercy on me.'” Repentance? This is the way to fight the mosquitoes? Yes, it is because when we turn our backs to them we must turn to Jesus Christ to ask for his mercy. We must do both, or we will not fight well.

This is how St. Mary did it fighting against “the beasts.”  This is how anyone can use repentance and the Jesus Prayer to become as mentally and spiritually healthy as possible. Please, don’t misunderstand me. There is genuine mental illness, so sometimes medicine and therapy is necessary. Yet we have a powerful tool to add to our therapy, a weapons in this mental and spiritual war. Imagine if you went to therapy, and the Doctor said, I recommend repentance! It would be shocking no?

I can dream of a life free of the logismoi. Yet even as I wrote this, a bunch landed on my brain and wanted blood. I ignored them and ask for mercy. So, may the Lord help you to fight, and to fight well. The mosquitoes are buzzing. Ignore them for they speak no truth, and turn to the Lord for mercy.

Where Do I Begin?

June 1, 2010

Ok, so you have to reach back for this one. There was this movie called “Love Story” which was made in 1970. Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neal were the main actors. I was 18 years old and I remember thinking that it was a pretty sappy movie. One nugget of wisdom served as a hallmark of the story. Ryan did something stupid (as men are prone to do) and realizing his mistake, he apologized to Ali. She replied, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Even at 18, I thought “Oh, really? If you love someone, you never need to apologize?” It just didn’t seem right to me and many of my peers made fun of it. Even Ryan O’Neal made fun of it in a movie he made after Love Story. It’s necessary and healing to apologize. I would hate to be in a relationship where I never had a chance to check my pride and say “I’m sorry.”

If the Orthodox followed this advice, then our constant apology (confession) to God would either means that God doesn’t love us or we don’t love God. Love means never having to say you’re sorry-this axiom is foolishness, but it’s made me how much we base our love for God on a romantic model. For example, I hear often hear someone say that they have lost their passion or their zeal for God. For them, Orthodox life has become dry, boring, and routine. Such a person will even ponder if converting to Orthodoxy was the right thing to do. After all the promises made by Orthodoxy about spiritual life, where was the zeal they once had? Where is the passion of their first love?

Marriage counselors speak about a moment in all relationships when the romantic bubble pops. This is called the “domestic moment.” At this moment, you look at your wife and think, “Oh no! She’s just like her mother.” You look at your husband and think, “Oh no! He’s just like his father.” Passion has disappeared and it’s a moment of real crisis in a relationship. It can happen in a year, or two, or even in seven years. If a couple does not understand that this is a natural part of the process, they will suffer. With patience and forgiveness, eventually passion will return. Some people never figure this out and the result is divorce. Even after their third or fourth marriage, some folks can’t live beyond the domestic moment. Our poetry, music and art have convinced us that love is feeling. The Righteous Brothers warned us how terrible it is when “you’ve lost that lovin’ feeling.”

If a couple passes this crisis point, the relationship will deepen and come to rest on a solid foundation of love, friendship, and commitment. The couple will discover that feelings will come and go, and that’s all right. They learn that the quality of their relationship can never judged on how they are feeling at any particular moment. Love is measured by commitment. I would say that if no feeling of love has appeared in months, then there may be a problem that needs to be addressed.

We seem to have the same problem with faith. Entering into the Faith, we are enchanted with and passionate about Holy Orthodoxy. It’s a true spiritual (romantic) bubble and it’s a wonderful place to be. Then, inevitably the bubble pops and the once beautiful Bride who seemed so exotic and enticing is now the Old Lady who tells us to stand in vigils, repeat the same prayers over and over, and fast. Surely, we didn’t sign on for this and we wonder if this is all there is or ever will be. It’s a moment of spiritual “domestic moment” and many fall away because they don’t feel anything. Rest assured that at such times our spiritual enemies are ready to parade before us all kinds of interesting and entertaining enticements to get us away from our first love so that we can feel once again.

We must learn to be patient and allow our faith and obedience, and not our feelings, to become the bedrock of our Orthodox life. Consider these words from Jesus: “He that loves Father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he that love son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Ouch! Who do we love more that family? Do we really think that when Jesus talks about the love we have for family that he is speaking about our feelings? No, Jesus is putting love on a much higher plane than feelings.

Orthodox readers will forgive me, but I wanted to speak about Mother Theresa, once of the Catholic faith, now departed. In a book that appeared some time after her death, she spoke about her feelings towards God. She said that during her time as a novice (about two years), she felt many wonderful consolations from God. Then, the consolations left and never returned, not even once. Now consider the fact that she cared for the dying in streets of Calcutta for decades. How could she have embraced such a difficult life without the reward of at least some small consolation from God? I think that she knew that loving God was not about feeling. It was about faith, obedience and commitment. If this is really the case, then she loved God more than most of us.

I wish that Orthodox Christians would quickly get past their domestic moment so that they can become the true friends of God. Again the Lord told us, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” His Grace, Hierotheos Vlachos said that a Saint is someone who is a friend of God. Friendship with God is the hallmark of holiness. We might have thought that being a saint meant that you are swept up by a mighty wave of passion about the Lord that carries you to the Kingdom. No, the love of a friend for a friend is not Eros –burning passion and zeal. It is an abiding love that keeps the commitment strong and carries the friendship over the years ahead. Even if a friend disappoints you or belittles you, you remain committed. This is true friendship and the Lord showed his friendship even to those who abandoned him. He remained faithful and true even to the Cross.

The wonderful feelings of your First Love for God will return and  leave again, return and leave, return and leave. This cycle will repeat many times because the Lord watches to see if we will stand and remain a friend of God when his consolation is absent. The Lord knows that dry times are difficult, but watches to see if we will slip away again and go running after other pleasures that promises to make us feel better, or we will remain the friends of God and trust in His love and stand on our Faith and not on our feelings.

Our relationship to God is a love story. We must deepen our understanding of what love is and how it is experienced. We need a firm conviction that God love’s us whether we feel it or not. This is how it was for all the saints. Feelings come and feelings go. So be it. I will remain a committed friend of God no matter what I feel.

Lying with dogs

November 7, 2009


My mom use to tell me, “If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.” She told me this because she didn’t like the company I was keeping. I have to admit that I often ran with dogs and ended up with fleas. Yet, I found that it is not always a bad thing to be in the company of dogs.

Lazarus laid at the gates of Dives, the rich man. Day after day, he begged for bread and Dives ignored him. The Lord doesn’t give us any reasons why the rich man was so hard hearted. It seems that Lazarus never complained about his situation or cursed the rich man for his hard heart. No one else seemed to help him either.

Is this story without any charity at all? Well, charity can come from unusual sources. It seems that only the dogs had compassion, for they licked Lazarus’ sores. This may sound gross, but it was an act of mercy because it kept the sores clean and free of infection. It’s such an incredible contrast: the rich man with a poor heart, and the poor dogs with big hearts. Who knows, maybe all dogs do go to heaven.

How hard hearted can we be? Would you tend to believe someone that had just returned from the dead? The brothers of Lazarus wouldn’t believe it because they had refused to believe Moses or the Prophets. They would never believe a dead man come to life. I’m glad that we modern folks are not so hard-hearted. Oh wait! We did hear from someone who came back from death. Did we believe Him?

What makes us so hard hearted that we never see Lazarus? It’s a matter of perspective, really. We never see it from dog’s level.

First, we pay our taxes and the state runs the welfare system, and so we rarely see a beggar. But does it have to be a man lying by our door? There are so many around us, even in our church, who hurt and cry and beg for love, but we do not see them. We are not at dog level.

Then, we believe that since we have a welfare system, anyone who sits by the interstate exit begging for bread is just lazy and chooses not to work. I’ve had the experience of being chased by a beggar who would not be refused. I thought that if he had the strength to chase me, he had the strength to work. Of course, I was sure that he would just spend it on booze. I was not at dog level.

Finally, we are building the ancient tower of Babel. Science and technology promise to open the gates of paradise, where there will be no sickness or hunger, and we are true believers. I remember the day when the Challenger Shuttle exploded. We were sitting in a pizza restaurant watching a big screen TV. What a shock it was. It was a tragic loss, but to me this event was a bit of an icon. It reminded me that no matter how high we build our towers, we are not gods and our technology will not make it so. And so, we are blinded by our own cleverness and we rarely see Lazarus starving in agony at our gates. Jesus said that the poor would always be with us. Our cleverness keeps us from seeing things from the dog level.

To lie with the dogs means that we see the world through the eyes of humility. Lazarus kept the company of dogs and learned humility. He kept a soft heart and ended up in the bosom of Abraham (that is a soft place for soft hearts). The hard heart of Dives led him to hell.

Lord, may I forever lie with the dogs and lick the wounds of Lazarus.

P.S. To the aficionados of grammar, I understand the lie/lay situation. I just wanted to play with it and quote it as my mother
quoted it to me.

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!

Nobody Bothers Me!

June 16, 2009

Several weeks ago, my son and I went to see several friends test for their black belt in Taekwondo. On the testing floor were about 30 people of all shapes and sizes, ages and genders. I was amazed at the energy and dedication displayed. I wondered at the many hours spent in instruction and the hours spent at home practicing. It was truly inspiring. Even more, I surprised to see Jhoon Rhee arrive for the test. Considered the “Father of American Taekwondo” and now in his late 80s, I first saw him on a television commercial in the 1960s. He is a truly impressive man who teaches the Bible and believes in the human capacity to excel and overcome all obstacles. Of course, I was very impressed when I saw him do a flexibility move that three-fourths of the class could not do. I got to chat with him during the break (well, being in my cassock, I drew his attention and he was curious). I remarked about his commercial and that I remember that at the end, two cute little kids winked at the TV audience and said, “Nobody bothers me.” He laughed and said that those kids were now 50 years old. Oh no!

As I sat there watching the test, it all seemed a bit odd to me. After all, what did these people get for of all of this blood, sweat and tears? Practically, they got a piece of black cloth to wear around their middle. Now, this black cloth certainly signifies a great accomplishment, but it also signifies a rather odd arrangement. Black belts have mastered a skill, but it is a skill they have vowed to never use, except to maintain the right. I don’t mean to minimize the accomplishment at all, but on the surface, it did seem like a lot for a little. Well, thus saith the couch potato.

Then it hit me! What we need are belts for Orthodoxy. Think of all of the money that these people had spent, the hours in training, the exercising, the pain, and the fatigue – all so that they could wear colored
cloth around their middles. Then take the Orthodox – little money to give, poor in training, lax in exercising,
little focus, avoidance of pain, and only fatigued at the length of the service. By comparison, what would the Orthodox gain for their effort? Why only the Kingdom of God and life eternal, but what is that compared to a colored cloth around the middle?

Yet, maybe, if we began to measure our progress and awarded belts in the Church, things would change. Priests would need to be like Jhoon Rhee and inspire the group by instilling in their minds that we believe absolutely in the realization of their perfection. They would  let folks know that they demanded commitment and effort and perfect attendance. We would put them through difficult exercises to strengthen their hearts with spiritual discipline. We would focus their minds with prayer.  Becoming breathless from the effort, they would return for more and say that they actually enjoyed it! As Orthodox people advanced in their spiritual life, we could award them with colored cloth. Finally, the day would come when we would give them the big test, and if they passed, we could award them the Orthodox black belt. What do you think?

Though this piece is a bit of ironic humor, there is in the heart of most Orthodox priests that I know a longing for the day when people will advance in their spiritual life. At the moment, most of us are white belts, and mere beginners.  Priests hear of how they are being beaten up by the world, the flesh, and the devil. Sadly, though some of them have been white belts and have been coming to the “dojo” for a long time, they just don’t seem to be able to defend themselves or advance to the next belt level. Priests long for the day when they can award people with a different colored belt and say to them, “well done – now strive for the next level.” Most of all, we work and strive and pray for the day when we will put a black belt around them. Then they can say with blessed assurance, “No body bothers me!”

I wish I had a church filled with such black belt Orthodox warriors! (I noticed that monks wear black belts. Hmmmm…)


Furniture Mover

May 9, 2009


During the Sundays after Pascha, we hear about the ways people respond to the Resurrection. On Thomas Sunday, we found that some respond with doubt. In the Myrrh-bearing women, some respond by becoming servants to the Body of Christ. Today, we will find that another response is to become furniture movers.

This is the way St. Bede sees it the story of the healing of the paralytic. Thirty eight years is a long time to suffer from paralysis. Bede finds the number 38 to of interest. It is two less than perfection. How did he get that idea? Well, multiply 10 (for the Ten Commandments) by 4 (for the Four Gospels), and you get the number 40, a number  which represents the full number of virtues. We are behind by two/ What do we lack?

To find healing, we must move the furniture.

First, the Lord said “Rise!” Simply, there’s not going to be any healing if we continue to roll about in our beds. I know the bed is comfortable. We become use to it and in many ways the bed has become a part of our personality. Yet, if there is to be healing, we must throw off the covers and place our feet on the floor and stand up. Can we do it? Yes, if we have faith in the power of the Lord’s command. After all, didn’t His command still the winds and calm the seas?

Second, the Lord said “take up your bed.” St. Bede’s take on this may surprise you. He wrote that to take up your bed means that you are to “lovingly carry your neighbor, by tolerating his weakness.” I leave behind my sins by rising up and now I carry my bed by bearing the burdens of others. Well, this is different, but how else can it be? Would the Lord have me carry the bed of my old sins? If so, then I would continue to be a slave to them. St. Paul reminds us that it is by bearing the burdens of others that I fulfill the Law of Christ. I forget this truth and I believe that I must be a martyr. After all, I carry such a heavy load of my own stuff.

Third, the Lord commands that I am to “walk.” Here, St. Bede tells us that this means to love God. Therefore, walking involves loving God with the heart, mind, soul, and strength. He puts it this way: Walk…”so that you may be worthy to reach the vision of Him. Go forward by making daily strides of good works from virtue to virtue. Do not desert your brother…nor turn aside from the right direction of your path…In everything that you do, see to it that you do not fix your mind upon this world, but that you hurry to see the face of your Redeemer.”

The end result was that the man became well, took up his bed, and went on walking. Well, as always, it’s up to us. We can lie around and hope that someday, all the circumstances of life will line up and the timing will be just right. Then, we’ll get into the water and all will be well. It is a tragic attitude because we can lie on this bed for 38 years hoping to be the lottery winner. This kind of attitude reminds me of a calling card that a protestant minister once showed me. On the front was the all of the important contact information, but on the back was a picture of a man in a casket located at the front of the church. Under the picture were these words, “Well, he always said he’d get to church as soon as he got straightened out!”

We need wait no longer if we will rise, take up our bed, and walk.

Don’t you think it’s time to move some furniture?

The New Atlas

May 2, 2009

He was a Titan who lead a rebellion against the Olympians. In his failure, he was made to hold up the sky on his shoulders. (He is often shown holding up the world, but this is incorrect) This would be his eternal punishment. Once, he almost tricked Hercules into holding up the sky for him, but Hercules saw through his scheme and was able to escape. Poor, heroic Atlas!

Carrying burdens seems to be an inescapable fact of life. Sometimes, the burdens are so heavy it feels like Atlas holding up the sky. I’ve carried heavy loads of wood or stone until my shoulders and arms and legs ached with the effort. I managed this weight because I knew I would soon set it down. The terror of the story of Atlas is the hopelessness of it, knowing that you can never set your burden down. The terror of my life is the feeling that there are some burdens I will never lay down.

Some one once referred to the 20th Century as the “Age of Anxiety.” When you read the history of that time, there was certainly much to be anxious about. I wonder if that tag continues to be applied to the 21st Century? Certainly, these are fearful times. The economy has crashed and our financial security has largely vanished. Now, we hear of impending pandemics and nuclear terrorism, and the level of anxiety is reaching new heights.

I was reading The Missionary Letters of St. Nikolai Velimirovich. In letter 59, he wrote to an American, John Davis, who had a deep fear about the population explosion of the human race. He wrote, “Of course, one who forgets God, takes God’s worries upon himself. And God’s worries are not something that weak human backs can carry.” What an interesting thought– fear makes us forget God, and by forgetfulness, we carry God’s worries. When this happens, we become the New Atlas– we take the sky upon our shoulders. Yet, we are not Titans and our backs cannot carry the load.

The most difficult thing about an emotional, physical, or spiritual burden is when, like Atlas, we have no hope of ever setting it down. Despair only adds to the weight of the load that we carry. It is no wonder that Christ taught us “Do not worry. Tomorrow will take care of itself. Enough for today is the evil thereof.” Even at His birth, the angels said “Fear not!”

The Lord says to all who would be like Atlas, “Come unto me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Cast your cares upon me…Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Christ is the only true Atlas, and in his Cross, He took upon himself the full weight of the world. Weak sinner that I am, I’ve found that its easier to pull the yoke with Christ than to be an heroic Titan carrying the sky on my shoulders.

The heavy stone has been rolled away. Christ is Risen! Hey, Atlas! Lay that burden down!

Goat Boy

February 22, 2009


Be honest! Do you really think about the second coming of Christ? After all, it’s been about 2,000 years, so why worry now? Maybe, we don’t think about judgment because we hate to be accountable to anyone. I sometimes wish that 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 our sins, passions, and mistakes.

The Bible portrays the end of all things and usually, its not a pretty picture. You only have to read the book of Revelation to find some rather disturbing images. The Church has never taught that it’ll be all warm fuzzies and bright lights, and then Jesus speaks of the last judgment and said it would be a sheep and goat kind of experience. Sheep and goats? Compare to other images about the end, this seems a bit…pastoral.

In his parable of the Judgment, the Master separates the two with the sheep on the right and the goats on the left.  Is there something, some mark or characteristic, by which he tells the difference?  Is it how pure they were in this life? No. Is by how much they prayed and fasted? No. Is it by how much they read the Bible or how well versed they were in theology? No. Is it by how often they attended Church and went to confession and communion? No. Well then, what is the distinguishing mark that divides them? It is compassion. Compassion? Oh, I wish he hadn’t of said that. Why can’t it at least be some of the other things like  how well I followed the rules, or kept the fast, or prayed, or how well I avoided gossip or conquered my lustful thoughts?

Blessed Augustine said that we should not resist the first coming of Christ so that we will not dread the second. By first coming, does he mean Nativity? No, it is when Christ comes to us in the poor, the imprisoned, the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the depressed, the lonely, the desperate, etc.

Is compassion difficult? Not really.  It doesn’t take intelligence or wisdom to be compassionate. I don’t have to be rich or beautiful. What does it take? Heart.

“Ever let mercy outweigh all else in you. Let our compassion be a mirror where we may see in ourselves that likeness and that true image which belong to the Divine nature and Divine essence. A heart hard and unmerciful will never be pure.”   —St. Isaac of Syria

Seeing that compassion is easy for all of us to do, how then do I explain the poverty of my own compassion? When I take an honest look at my so called achievements, they aren’t so great really. Most of what I think I have accomplished  will fade into obscurity and be remembered no more. What will last in the memory of God is the mercy and compassion I have shown, or not.

At the moment, as I see it, I’m pretty much a goat boy. Yet, if I could get a sheep-like heart, it might even change every thing I do. For example, when I fast, instead of fretting over how “kosher” it is,  I can eat more simply and then take the extra money I save 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, if I could get a sheep’s heart.

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.” Of course, a heart that is “broken and humbled God will not despise.”

The last word is from the Prophet.

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.”

The mouth of the Lord has spoken it!