Archive for the ‘Podvig – Spiritual Struggle’ Category

Baby Kisser

February 20, 2009



I don’t follow the presidential campaign closely enough to know if it always  happens, but I suspect that it does. Usually, it’s a regular part of the campaign and you see lots of pictures taken when it occurs. Someone will hand the candidate their baby, and the candidate will duly kiss the baby. Now, I’m not sure about exactly what this means. Is it a blessing for the baby? Will the baby’s life be forever changed because this particular person kissed it? It’s funny to me that people want to hand their babies to famous people.

In Luke 2, the situation is turned around. The time of purification had passed and Mary and Joseph brought the Child to the Temple to offer the prescribed sacrifice. They weren’t there because they heard that someone famous was there. In fact, if they had handed the Baby to the famous and the powerful in the Temple, the elite wouldn’t have kissed this baby anyway. Joseph and Mary were poor people and would hardly be noticed. How do we know they were poor? Well, the law allowed the poor to offer two birds instead of two sheep or two cows.

The elite of the Temple did not understand that the history of the Old Testament had come to completion that day. For in this baby, God had returned the Temple. If they had known this, all of them would have lined up to kiss the baby. Yet, the significance of the moment was not lost on everyone. There were two people there who kissed the baby. One was an old man and the other was an old woman. Why is it that they, among all the people who were there, were able to kiss the baby?

It says that Symeon was a just and pious man. Well, I’m sure that there were many pious people in the Temple that day. Yet, Symeon was a man who came to the Temple each day with an expectation and hope. Each day he came to see “the consolation of Israel.” He believed, in fact he had been promised, that he would not die before he had seen the Christ. A lot of people believed in a Messiah, but how many believed that they would see him before they died?

What is life without hope? For that matter, what is faith without hope? Do I come to the Temple thinking that today, yes even today, I will kiss the Baby? See, I believe in God and I believe in Christ. Yet, is there any conviction in me that before I die, my eyes will actually see God’s salvation fulfilled in my life? Another way to say this is do I really believe that holiness is possible for me, that what God started in me He will actually finish? Is today the day that this will be done? I know that he did this for the Saints, but they were saints after all. For me personally, I am very skeptical because I am no saint. After all,  the times was so different then. Everything today is weak and watered down and compromised. Holiness is a slim possibility.

Anna, daughter of Phanuel, got to kiss the baby. What made her so special? Well, she never left the Temple and she worshipped God with fasting and prayers. You know, it never occurred to me that I worship God by fasting. I thought fasting was just one of those disciplines that we do to constrain our flesh.Yet, Anna had learned to worship God with her piety and so she gained the spirit of a prophetess. When the Baby came into the Temple, she knew who this Baby was and she spoke to people many about him.

Each time I come to the Temple, I can kiss the Baby. I kiss him when I embrace my brothers and sisters. I kiss him when I kiss the hand of the priest.I kiss him in the icons. Above all, I kiss him in the holy Eucharist. Do I have the eyes to see it? Having prepared myself with prayer and fasting, do I come with hope and expectation that today, in this very hour, I will see the salvation prepared before the face of all the people. Hope and piety-with these two things, I can kiss the Baby. Then, when I leave the Temple, or when God sends his angel to take my soul from the temple of my body, I will be able to say, “Now let your servant depart in peace.”


February 1, 2009

A group of people who had entered into hell were taken to a beautiful dining room. It was finely apportioned with the best furniture, silverware, and glassware. On the table, every possible food was present and it was all of the highest quality. They were told to take a seat. Their punishment would be that they could eat all they wanted and they would never get sick or tire of the food.

Hardly able to contain their joy and surprise, they sat down, placed the fine linen napkin on their lap, picked up a fork, and began to eat. The fork would pick up the food, but just before it got to their lips, it would fall from the fork. If they tried to take the food by hand, it would just slip between their fingers or disappear.Try as they might, no one could get a morsel in their mouth. This was truly suffering as they grew ever more hungry, angry and frustrated. This would be their lot for eternity.

It would seem that the solution to the problem would be obvious. All they had to do was to feed each other, but it never occurred to them. In life it never occurred to them to consider others before themselves. Hell has a way of enhancing the worst of our human traits.

I once took a class in seminary on evil, suffering, and the Christian faith. I remember one thing that the professor told us. Most of us are insulated from suffering. This may be a survival technique or even a gift from God, because if we experienced all the suffering that goes on in the world in just a small moment of time, the experience would kill us or drive us insane. Evil and suffering may be an inescapable part of human life, but all of want a break from it all. We want to rest.

Jesus said, “Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of Me, for I am meek and humble in heart; and ye shall find rest to your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.

The Lord makes it sound so simple and so inviting. Rest is found by taking His yoke and learning about Him. Why is it then that is so few are willing to do it? We seem almost like masochists who prefer to suffer instead of rest. Here is a way offered to us by God, a way to be at rest, but we would rather take upon ourselves the yoke of the worldliness and sin.  Why would we prefer a hard yoke to an easy one?

The answer is that we believe the yoke of the Lord is too heavy. It is too much to ask that we pray. It is too hard to fast. It is too much to ask that they spend 4 hours out their week to come to the liturgies of the church. It is too much to ask that they come to Sunday school or Bible Study. It is too much to ask that they confess regularly. The yoke is too heavy. Refusing the yoke of the Lord, we struggle and suffer under the yoke of life’s demands. Weakened by the yoke of the world, there is little defense against the devil, the world, and the flesh.

There’s so much suffering in families today, even Orthodox families. Many wives suffer because their husbands refuse to serve them as Christ serves the Church. Instead of taking the Lord’s yoke of service, men demand that they be served. When wives fail to serve them because of weakness or frustration,  they resort to anger and sullenness, mental and even physical abuse. Husbands suffer because while they serve as best they can, wives refuse to show them honor and love. Men feel belittled by the sharp words of criticism from their wives. Parents suffer because children will not be obedient to them, and children suffer because parents forget that they are not to “stir their children to wrath.”

There’s suffering the Church today. We are told to forgive each other, but often we hold grudges. We are called to bear each other’s burdens, but we are too busy sharing our burdens than to bear them. We are called to build each other up, but we tear each other down. We are supposed to speak the truth in love, but we whisper behind doors. We are to admonish each other “with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, making melody in our hearts to the Lord,” but we admonish with biting words and harsh criticisms, or show a cold shoulder to the offender. Instead of sitting with visitors or the elderly or the youth so that we might share our faith and build them up, we sit with friends who can match our sophistication and wit. Some of members of our church are lonely or hurting – do you know who they are? To the Church, the Lord says, “take my yoke.” We refuse and so there is much suffering at Church. As a result, the Church is not a place of rest.

Zacchaeus was man who carried a heavy yoke. He was a tax collector and thought of little else than financial gain. But for all of his money, he was hated and despised and rejected. How he must have suffered in his loneliness and isolation. Yet, when Jesus entered his house, Zacchaeus said with joy, “Lord, today, half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone, I restore to him fourfold.” Jesus said that at that very moment, salvation had entered the house, and Zacchaeus had become a true son of Abraham. Imagine giving away half of your possessions and then repaying all your debts fourfold. Zacchaeus did it with joy because he found it to be an easy thing to do. The yoke of Christ was light and Zacchaeus found rest, a rest that all the in the world could not buy him.

I invite you to take the Lord’s yoke. The result will be rest, not suffering. Learn of Him, and then do it his way. You will find that suffering will cease. I didn’t say that struggling would cease, for we live in a world that is not a place of rest. No, life will be a struggle, but if you struggle under the yoke of the Lord, you will find rest. Why is the yoke of Christ easier? The yoke of the world is a single one and you pull the plow alone. The yoke of Christ is a double yoke. The Lord will be in the yoke with you, helping you to pull the plow and break up the hard soil of life.

My Mother’s Voice

January 10, 2009

I would give most anything to hear my mother’s voice again. She died some years ago, but I can still hear her speak in my mind. There’s something about a mother’s voice that touches deep into the heart of a child. Nothing soothes more than a mother’s voice, and nothing can bring such terror. I could measure my situation by the tone and the volume of her voice. If the tone was right, it could make my heart leap for joy. If the tone was wrong, I got that burning sensation in my stomach.

Our Mother spoke and the babe leaped for joy in Elisabeth’s womb.That is the power of grace present in our Mother’s voice. So, our Mother speaks and we should listen. (Luke 1)

“All generations will call me blessed.” The Greek word for blessed is “makarion” (many saints were named Makarios). The word is sometimes translated as “happy”, but somehow that just doesn’t seem adequate. In classical Greek, the word “makar” was associated with the gods who lived beyond death and fate.The gods were the hoi Makarioi, the blessed ones. For Christianity, to be blessed is more than an emotional feeling or financial well-being. Blessedness is a sharing in the life of God, and that goes far beyond mere happiness. When we call her blessed, we affirm that our Mother has within herself the life of God.

“His mercy is to those who fear Him from generation to generation.” Since our Mother is “the champion Leader”, her children can also be named “markarios” because we can also share in the life of God. But listen carefully to her words because she links fear to gaining this mercy. This fear is not a sense of dread but of reverence. When I begin to see the beauty of holiness, I know that mercy is at the heart of that holiness, and it is a mercy that never ends.

“He scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” Sometimes, we question God’s mercy because we believe that our sin is too great to be forgiven. The demons and my thoughts gather in a battle array to convince me that my situation is hopeless. Despair becomes my spiritual food. It takes the strength of God’s arm to scatter these enemies, so that I can see that mercy is always greater than my sin.

“He filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he sent away empty.” Our Mother shows us that if we lack Christ, we possess nothing. Her Son will speak of this when he says “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst…” If I am rich, then I have no need of what Christ has to give. Yet, if I know my hunger, God will fill me with good things. The Jewish race fed on the Law and the teachings of the Prophets, and that was a rich banquet. This feeding should have made them hungry instead of satisfied. When Christ came, they had no need of him and rejected him, and so they went away empty. Our Mother wants us to know our hunger. Mother’s are always worried about what her children are eating.

“He helped his servant Israel.” God made promises to our Mother, but would God follow through and bring them to pass? Our Mother trusted God and submitted her life to his will. In the same way, God had made promises to our fathers and to Abraham. Now, in her, the promises were finding fulfillment. The Blessed Theophylact wrote: “Now He did help His servant Israel in the physical sense; for many of them, myriads, believed, and the promise of God to Abraham was fulfilled [Gen. 2218]…And in a spiritual sense, all who see God are Israel, for thus being interpreted does the name declare. The Lord helped those who see God, leading them up to their heavenly inheritance.” Our Mother trusted God and Christ was conceived in her, and the promise was fulfilled. She invites her children to trust God so that Christ can be conceived in us as well. If we trust God (faith), we become partakers in his divine nature (II Peter 1).

I hear my Mother’s voice. My heart leaps for joy when her words enter my ears. Happy and blessed are those who believe. Jesus said, “Have you not read the verse that says ‘you are gods?” If we hear and understand the voice of our Mother, then are the hoi Makarioi- the Blessed.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Mad Herod

January 10, 2009

Amid all of the sugary sweetness of the Christmas season, the Orthodox Faith hits you in the face with a pie of sadness. Where do we place the terror and madness of the slaughter of male babies of Bethlehem in our Christmas shopping, decorations, and parties? Though this story is read as a part of the Nativity story, there is still a basic disconnect in many minds with this morbid detail.Christmas is about love, peace on earth, shepherds, wise men, and goodwill towards men and women. These themes overshadow any tragedy. Add good old Santa Claus to the mix and the story disappears altogether.

The problem may rest in the fact that the beginning of the story is separated from its end.Nativity is separated from the crucifixion. The Orthodox Church never loses sight of this fact. Our theology says that the reason why Christ is born is to trample down death by his own death. The Incarnation, Nativity, occurs to destroy the power of death. So, it isn’t any surprise to us that at the very beginning, death tries its best to snuff out its most powerful enemy, the Son of God. Death raises up King Herod, and in his madness and lust for power, he sends out his soldiers to kill the Innocents. It isn’t 4 or 5 babies that he has killed, but 14,000. Such is the power and madness of death.

Yet, death cannot reach the Infant Jesus. Life says a defiant “no” to death. Joseph, though an old man, is warned in a dream and flees with his family to Egypt. You can’t help but notice the parallels and symbolism between this story and the Old Testament. Pharaoh threatened to kill the innocents of Israel, but instead the children of Egypt die. Israel leaves Egypt and makes it to the Promised Land. Now Herod the King threatens the children of Bethlehem, and the new Israel flees to Egypt. To the Jews, the two places that embodied evil were Babylon and Egypt. Now the Christ child had been embraced by Babylon in the Magi, and he goes to Egypt to sanctify it. God is wondrous in his ways.

The first martyrs for Christ were the infant boys of Bethlehem and the surrounding areas. Yet, in another amazing parallel, the child who flees to Egypt to escape Herod will one day stand before another Herod, and by his martyrdom, he will bring life to the world and to all those who follow him, especially to all the holy innocents of history. Over the last 2,000 years, there have been many innocents of many age levels who have died unjustly. He gives life to all of them, beginning with the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem. Even to this very day, he takes the holy innocent children to himself.

There is another parallel – Mad Herod sends out his soldiers and tries to kill me. Death seeks to claim me. Mad Herod tries to kill the innocents in me. He can be Satan or sometimes the world, but most often Mad Herod is just me. St. Paul called the Mad Herod in me “the flesh”, or my “carnal mind”, or “the old man.” Once, when the Christ Child was first born in me, I thought I heard the Angles sing when I entered the waters of Baptism. Purity and life was given to me as a free gift. Then Mad Herod rose up to slay me. He sought to kill my mind with entertainments and my soul with carnal pleasures, passions and sins. He sought  to kill my prayer life with a spirit of boredom. Seeking excitement and diversion,  my bible became a doorstop and my prayer book a glass coaster. Mad Herod even sought to make my Church and its liturgies seem more like a chore, so I placed it on my list as one among my other “interests.”

Why do I give Mad Herod the authority? The answer is simple: no one will rule in my heart but me. It feels good sitting on the throne of my heart and I am loath to give it up. I have heard that this Child will become King, and I know that a King demands everything.  Look, I can give a little reverence or worship, I can give a little of my wealth, but I will not give everything. No, the Child must reside on the periphery of my life, or the Child must die!

The good news is (but its bad news for Mad Herod) that the Child will not die, not matter what I do. He was born in me with a promise and with tidings of great joy that he would be my savior.Try as I might, He will not die.  He may flee for a while, even to Egypt where I cannot find him, but he will return and when he does, he will be stronger.  He will keep his promise to me which he made to me at my baptism. He will be King of Kings and He is a jealous king who will have no rivals. I remember an old T-shirt that had this written on the front: “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow..”  Then on the back it read, “Count on it.” Word!

I should remember that Herod died a horrible death, eaten by worms. Someday, this fleshly body and my fleshly mind will also be food for worms. I would imagine that the first horror that King Herod faced as he left this world was the faces of the 14000 Holy Innocents. Not only would he realize the horror of his sin, he would also see that they were with the Child that he could not kill. Foolish Death. Where is your sting?

The Child will be King, not me. It’s inevitable. Death cannot kill life. So, if I had any sense, I would seek to kill the Mad Herod and let the innocents in me live. Or I can be worm food. Christ is born! Glorify Him! It’s a no-brainer, really!

Snuggling the Cactus

December 15, 2008

In his book,Hesychia and Theology, Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, makes the following statement:“According to the patristic meaning of the word, everyone is a psychopath, that is to say, his soul is sick….the definition of ‘psychopathy’ (which comes from the Greek words for ‘soul’ and ‘suffering’) is that this disorder of the soul occurs in anyone whose noetic faculty is not functioning correctly; that is to say, when his nous is full of thoughts, not just bad thoughts but also good ones.”

I just knew it. My nous is filled with good thoughts, but it is also filled sharp, pointed and hurtful thoughts that usually result in hurtful actions.  Its like I’m snuggling a cactus.

I have memories, hurtful ones that play over and over again in my brain and stick me like the spine of a cactus. They say “if you haven’t forgotten then you haven’t forgiven.” Lord knows I’ve mustered all my energy to “forgive and forget”, but the memories come uninvited and I let them have play time in my brain even though they always hurt and never heal. For heaven’s sake, what good does it do? Why don’t I just turn away from these memories? Why am I snuggling the cactus?

I have hurtful and destructive attitudes that prove again and again to produce nothing good. These attitudes are like cactus spines that not only pierce my heart, but pierce the hearts of the people I love and want to serve. Lord knows, I’ve tried to change my attitude to one of gratitude, but the ugly attitudes come uninvited. Even though I know better, I give my bad attitudes play time until they have not only brought grief to me, but to those around me. For heaven’s sake, what good does it do? At least I could keep my bad attitude to myself. Why am I snuggling the cactus?

I practice a poor life of piety that feed little to my soul, but only leaves it gasping for something substantial. A meager prayer life, little study, little reading, little service, little charity, poor church attendance, poverty in fasting, and constant distraction are but a few examples of the poverty of my piety. It’s like a cactus spine to my spirit. For heaven’s sake, what good does it do? Why don’t I get up off of my lazy behind and feed my poor soul? Why am I snuggling the cactus?

I know why I snuggle the cactus. It may sound strange but these things give me a sense of identity. These things, though painful, have given me a context and a point of reference. After all, who would I be without my history of pain and abuse? Who would I be if I had a different attitude or a stronger life of piety? You see, I am a psychopath. My nous is filled with the prickly spines of thoughts both good and bad. I snuggle the cactus because it’s what I’ve always known.

St. Paul said that I can be transformed by the renewing of my mind (nous). I would find that my past will no longer tell me who I am. My abusers will not tell me who I am. My wife, my children, my boss, my work, even the members of my church will not tell me who I am. Only Christ will tell me who I am and his analysis is a sure one.

“Have the mind of Christ,” St. Paul said. Yes, it’s time to let go of the cactus, pull out the spines, and hug the Lord instead.

Thanks to my dear sister and friend, Veronica, for the original gem of this idea.

Hesychia and Theology, The context for Man’s healing in the Orthodox Church, Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Hierotheos. Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, publisher, first edition, 2007

Somebody’s Touching Me!

December 1, 2008

A woman who had suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years made her way through the massive crowd and managed to touch the hem of the Lord’s garment and was healed. According to Mosaic Law she could have been stoned because contact with blood made one unclean. Unclean people were not to be out among crowds.Yet this woman braves the crowd and reaches out to touch his garment.

Everyone tried to touch Jesus that day, and most did physically, but there was something different about this woman’s touch. There was faith in it. She was prepared for the encounter. She was focused on her goal. Her mind was simple and clear: touch his garment and I will be healed.

How do we know that her touch was different from the others? Jesus said that when she touched him, he felt virtue go from him. He told her that her faith had made her whole.How did she get such a faith? It’s a faith that I want as well. Was she a great student of the Old Testament? Was she a great monastic, dedicated to a life of prayer? All Luke says about her is that she had suffered from an issue of blood and had spent all of her money on doctors. It seems that there wasn’t anything especially remarkable about this woman. How then did she come by such faith?

The Fathers give a remarkable answer. They said that her suffering had perfected her faith. Suffering? This doesn’t seem reasonable to us because we moderns do all that we can to avoid suffering. We are full card carrying members of the club of Epicurus. To us, all suffering is meaningless and dehumanizing (and truthfully, some levels of suffering cannot be explained away with pious platitudes).Yet, by her life, we discover a secret: suffering can bring forth a purified and simple faith, a faith that had a single-minded purpose – touch the hem of His garment.

Many scriptures point to the need for single-minded faith. “Whatever you ask in my Name, not doubting” will be done, Jesus said. This woman had these three things, clarity of focus, courageous faith and utter self-denial. She doubted nothing and focused on her goal to touch Him, and touch him she did! This may explain the emptiness of my own spiritual lives and practice. I am too scattered, too distracted and too burdened with the cares and pleasures of life. I ask for a lot of things from the Lord, but I also doubt many things. I want to touch Jesus and in fact I touch Him every week in the Eucharist. But do I really touch him? So far, I continue to hemorrhage, mostly from my heart.

Rather than seeing her as a fragile and sick woman reaching out to touch the Lord, we should see the image of the spiritual athlete who by the training of her suffering came to the Lord with faith. Frankly, I would rather not be sick to learn these things. It is possible to gain faith by a life of discipleship, by following the Lord and taking up our cross. To be alive is to suffer in some way or another. To take up a cross is to embrace a way that does not avoid suffering, but transforms suffering to purifying fire that produces a simple faith and an undistracted focus-to touch Him!

Do we know this woman’s name? Yes, the Church called her Veronica! Later, she will touch Him again as she wipes His face as he journey’s to Golgotha!

Take Care How You Hear!

November 25, 2008


My mom used to tell me that I wasn’t a good listener and she wasn’t the only one to say it. Women often complain that men never really listen to them, and while this may be true, I don’t think its just limited to men. In my years of ministry, I’ve had a number of couples in my office with marital problems. At the root of most of them was a failure of communication. Folks argue over many things, but they never really hear each other. If you don’t hear, then there has been no real communication.  When a spouse or opponent speaks, we are often thinking about how we can respond to prove them wrong or defend ourselves.  At least, we are so distracted we don’t really hear what is being said. There are now companies and educational organizations that teach the techniques of communication. Marital counselors spend a lot of team teaching listening skills. Obviously, though we talk a lot, good communication doesn’t come naturally.

Jesus warned about ears being filled with wax. I’ve come to think that the wax in our spiritual ears is the noise of life that occupy most of our time; or it is that internal voice that strives for self-justification. This noise fills our ears even when we pray, read the Bible, or attend Church. There is an important reason why this is critical.  We plead with God that our faith is small and we wonder how we can get more faith. The Bible makes it very simple: “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” The way we get faith is through our ears, and if our ears are dull, our faith is small. How we hear makes all the difference.

We hear something that convinces us that Orthodoxy is truth. We say, “YES, this is the truth,” but we don’t act upon what we have heard. The next we hear the same thing we say, “Yes, this is the truth,” but again, we do nothing about it. Finally, we hear the same truth but now our response is, “Yawn! So what?” On the  other hand, if we act upon what we hear, then St. James says that we will be blessed in everything that we do. Imagine that – blessed in everything we do. We must be doers and well as hearers.

It’s hard to hear when you are emotional. Have you ever tried to speak to someone who is very angry, or very sad, or even very happy? They hardly hear what you say and you do not hear them. We are such a rollercoaster of emotions, it’s a wonder we hear anything at all. We need emotional sobriety. We need Jesus to command us as he did the storm and the waves –“Peace, be still.”

Finally, we don’t often hear because our brains aren’t fully engaged. Women are right that men only listen with 10% of their brain while the rest of the brain is somewhere else. Do we do the same in Church? Do we listen with divided attention? I often wonder if people hear the sermon that I preach, or if their minds are elsewhere. There’s a simple way to find out. About an hour later, just ask someone, “Well, what was the sermon about?” The answers are usually quite amusing if not somewhat sad. I remember that St. John Chrysostom noticed that his congregation was not listening. So, he stopped and said that he wanted to read a letter from a parishioner that would outline the failings and sins of some of the members. Suddenly, all eyes were on St. John with rapt attention. The Saint said to them that it was sad that they could not focus on the Word of God, but were ready to hear the latest gossip.

I know that not everything that I say in a sermon is straight from God. Some priests are skilled at sermons, and some are not. When it is a poor sermon, is it just a waste of time?  Jeremiah, the Prophet, said that God’s Word is like chaff to wheat. They would beat the wheat on the threshing floor and then it would be thrown into the air so that the chaff would blow away, and the heavier wheat will fall back to the floor. Maybe my sermons and blogs are 95% chaff and only 5% wheat. If so, the 5% of wheat is worth keeping. If something you hear in the reading or the sermon impresses you as the truth, then God has just spoken to you. Realize that this is being impressed upon you as the truth because it is something that you are meant not only to hear, but to do as well.

If we have really heard a word from God, we have done well yet hearing is only one side of the coin.  We need to become active listeners, doers of the Word. St. James says, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who sees his face in a mirror, but when he turns away, he forgets what he looks like.” St. James uses a very human experience to illustrate this fact. You can spend a lot of time bathing and grooming until all is “perfection.” You check the bathroom mirror several times to be sure.  Then, even though there has been no windstorm raging through the house as you walk down the hall, you check yourself again when you pass the hall mirror. Its almost like you have forgotten what you look like.  In the same way, we can hear something, but if we do not put it into practice, it will soon be forgotten.

I have some “radical” suggestions for good listening. First, read the relevant scriptures for each Sunday, and if you have time, read an orthodox commentary on the passage. Study the Saints who are to be commemorated and come with an awareness of the theme of the service. Let Father know that you come to Church prepared to listen. He will knock himself out to write the best sermons possible. To come prepared – my, that is radical.

Jesus said, “Take care how you hear. For whoever has, to him more will be given; and whoever does not have, even what he seems to have will be taken from him.” It is a blessing to stand in the Holy Orthodox Church and hear the word of God. However, just standing in the service, but with your ears closed, will not accomplish much. Some said that standing in an Orthodox Church doesn’t make you anymore Orthodox  than standing in a garage makes you a automobile. If we are not doers of the Word, then even our Orthodoxy can be taken from us. Is this hard to believe?  I have seen some come to the Faith with great enthusiasm and piety, but they later leave the Faith.  Sadly, like the seed sown on bad ground, the Word did not take root.

Be ye doers of the Word and not hearers only. Take care how you hear!

I am a drunk!

October 15, 2008

Hello, my name is John, and I am a drunk.

I want to be sober. I long for sobriety. This is how my therapist described it:silence of the heart, guarding of the mind, attention to oneself. Yes, all the things I am not.

I am drunk on feelings. They wash in and out of my heart and I revel in them. Sometimes, its joy and desire and passion and sometimes its depression, hate, and anger. Once I take the first sip, I cannot stop but want more and more and more. Even sadness and depression becomes quite intoxicating. And so, I stagger and roar from the bottom of my heart. There is no silence there.

Guard the mind? No, I am drunk on images and my mind is wide open. The media is my drink of choice. Once I take a mental sip, I want more and more. There are so many bars to drink in the images. The television is full of them and the internet is my best bottle. Movies and magazines all help to keep me drunk! My mind is so filled with images that I can hardly pray without them popping up and darkening my mind. The thing is, I’ve been an image drunk since I was a child. Mom put the bottle to our lips when we were children by sitting us in front of the television. (It was a great baby-sitter).My father kept pornography around the house, so sensuous images are a constant. Strangely, I often walk past the images of the Holy Ones that I have in my house and I barely notice them.

I pay no attention to myself because I’m too busy observing the faults and shortcomings of others. Spending all my time judging, I sit in on the bar stool of the scornful. My sins come and go with ease because in my judgmental and drunken haze, I rarely notice them. Therefore, I have no real idea who I am or what motivates me, but like strong liquor, my pride makes me swagger with the claim that I am a fine man and nothing like those other drunks. After all, unlike the others, I can quit anytime I like.

Sobriety! One day at a time – one step at a time – trust in the “Higher Power” – be accountable – ask for forgiveness from those you have offended – make no excuses for yourself – do the therapy – attend the Meetings – take the Medicine -read the Books – meet with your counselor – its all important.

Or…be a drunk!

Style over substance

October 11, 2008


It was 1960 and I was 8 years old. I can’t say that I was a precocious child, but for some reason I noticed that my mother was keenly interested in the presidential election. She was watching the debate which was an unusual activity for her. I asked if she was voting for Kennedy or Nixon and she replied that she was voting for JFK. When I asked why, she answered “because He’s so handsome!” Even at 8 years old, I found the answer surprising. I don’t mean to imply that JFK was devoid of substance, but my mother knew little about his political policies. His style appealed greatly to her sense of patriotism.

I grew older, I began to measure elections by the style-substance dynamic. I would observe how much depended on the appearance of maturity or youth, conservatism or liberalism, elitism or populism, experience or lack of experience, and so on. Some elections were worse than others, but no election was free from it. Certainly, candidates represented the platforms of their party, and they could have some personal convictions, but I wondered if style mattered more than substance to the electorate. How is the present election doing on this issue? I’ll let you make your own evaluation. Yet, I wonder if I will vote for a candidate because of his character and political platform, or because “I like the cut of his jib.”

To be honest, I realized that the dynamic of style over substance sums up a lot of my life. I look very pious all dressed up in my priestly ensemble. With my white robe, gold vestments, long hair, white beard and skufia, I certainly look the part of a spiritual elder. Is there any substance to support this image, or is it just style? Once again, the Bible is painfully precise:

This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, high minded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.” 2 Timothy 3

“Having the form of godliness, but denying the power”– yes, that pretty much describes the situation. I don’t know if we are in the last days, but it is true that style is so much easier to attain than substance. It’s easier to build a cathedral than it is to build the Church. It’s much easier to pray all the prescribed prayers, but it’s harder to pray short ones with heart and attention. It’s easier to refrain from hamburgers during the fast and read the ingredients on every box to make sure that I am pure than to enter into the spirit of the fast and draw close to God. It’s easier to wear the robes of a priest than to wear the robes of righteousness. It so much easier to write and preach sermons (and even blogs) than to live what is preached. It’s even easier to stand through a 3 hour vigil, than to sit down for truth and humility and love.

The tragedy of all of this is that there is no religion that has more substance than Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is the fullness of life, truth, and faith. Why then do I settle for style when there is so much substance? The truth is that I love God, but I love myself moreand I love pleasure more than I love God Therefore, I settle for the form and style of godliness, but I don’t have the power.

Though I am a shallow person, salvation is a journey, or a process, so God isn’t finished with me. St. Paul put it this way: “perfect holiness in the fear of God.” I want to do that, but often I’m not very motivated. What can move me from the form of godliness to its power; or how can I perfect what I have and engage in a sustained struggle for holiness?

St. Paul says that what motivates us is a promise. What kind of promise? “Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” As we perfect holiness, we begin again to experience Paradise. “I will dwell in them and walk among them.” To walk with God is the perfection of Eden, the joy of relationship and there is nothing greater in the universe. Is that enough to motivate us or will it be style over substance?

Ridge Runner

September 26, 2008

I’ve never been to the Rocky Mountains, but I got to fly over them this summer. I must say that even at 30,000 feet in the air, they were very impressive. They are so different from our Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. By comparison, the Blue Ridge Mountains are gently rolling foothills. They say that the Blue Ridge is much older than the Rockies and that time has worn them down from their former glory.

One of things that you can do on the Blue Ridge is what we call “running the ridges.” It can be strenuous at times even in the Blue Ridge, but I would think that it would be nearly impossible in the rugged Rocky Mountains. Oh, there you can rock climb or hang from a cliff face, but you can’t ridge run. (Well, I imagine the Rockies have a few level places. Do the Rockies have foothills?)

Though it can be demanding, ridge running is a great experience. You can go along the tops of the mountains and find yourself in a beautiful forest (the Blue Ridge has trees to the top of the mountain), or it opens up into a beautiful view of the Shenandoah Valley. Sometimes, if you have the skill, you can ridge run quietly and chance upon a deer or two, or maybe even a bear.

You know, there are various degrees of sainthood in the Orthodox Church.There are
passion-bearers, hierarchs, monastics, martyrs, confessors, and saints. I thank God that in my spiritual pilgrimage, I have attained to the title of “ridge runner.”

One of the things that attracted me to Orthodoxy was the book The Philokalia. I read that our emotions are disordered by our sinful state and our spiritual enemies stir up our emotions as a weapon against us. These emotions are gifts from God, but in their disordered state, they become like a great cloud of dust that blocks our vision of God. Since we cannot see the light of God, we begin to experience acedia. (pronounced (ah-CEE-dee-ah) This emotion is akin to depression, but is even deeper and more profound than most depressions. All of the Fathers agree that acedia is a very difficult state of emotional and spiritual dryness. I like the description found in the classical protestant story, Pilgrim’s Progress. The author calls such a state “The Slough of Despondency.”

There was a time in my life, not so long ago it seems, that my emotions were more like the Rocky Mountains. There were great heights and deep sloughs, yet there were very few level places. Sometimes, the view from the top was dazzling, but soon after, I would be in the shadow of the valley. It was a rugged place to exist. I don’t know which was more tiring – the climb up or the tumbling down.

As a priest, this emotional battle has not only been a personal issue, but has been the main topic of most of the confessions that I’ve heard. Usually, the penitent will say that they “feel” a certain way about some issue or sin. They might say that the feel depressed, or anxious, or sad, or lonely. They will speak of how they feel little love for God and their prayers have become dry and fruitless. Then, come another day and life is good, the sun is shining, and they are on top of the world. The Bible is correct when it says “as a man thinks, so is he.” The problem is that our emotions make us think one way today, and another way tomorrow. Frankly, I learned to put little trust in my feelings.

You might think that these people are bi-polar, but most aren’t. I’ve dealt with some seriously bi-polar people and I must say that I didn’t deal with them very effectively. But I have come to realize that the Fathers of The Philokalia are correct. Our spiritual warfare is most often waged against our feelings and emotions. Should we try to make any spiritual progress, some event will occur that will bring our emotions to the boil. It can be something as simple as a minor irritation (like a stoplight that won’t seem to turn green), or it can be words from a friend or loved one that cut us to the core. It can also be feelings of boredom and distraction that make us leave our hearts at the door, and turns prayer and liturgy into meaningless ritual.Quite often, our feelings are fed by hurts and tragedies from the past.

It is good to know where we are headed in this warfare. The goal is apathy. Apathy? Yes, but not as we usually think of it. Spiritual apathy does not mean that we are emotionally dead and with no will to action. Proper spiritual apathy means that our emotions are healed, that they have found their proper place and function. Having been healed, our emotions help us to serve God and to live the Orthodox faith. This is why we can say that in the crucifixion of Christ, He suffered a “passionless passion.” That is why we might say that the Lord had “righteous anger” when he cleared the temple of the money changers. He was in no rage or anger as we sinners know the emotion. Being “fully human and fully divine,” his emotions were in there proper place and function.

Having marinated in Orthodox services for almost 14 years, by God’s grace, emotionally and spiritually, I’ve stopped climbing in the Rocky Mountains. I’m now a ridge runner and though I sometimes go down, I soon come up again. Its still a little tiring, but not like the old days. Most of the time, I run along the ridge and enjoy the view. Have I attained apathy yet? No, I’m still running the ridges. Yet, as I run, I think of what St. Paul wrote in Ephesians 2: “Even when we were dead in sins, he hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved); And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: that in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.”

Mountain climbers and ridge runners – have hope. He has set us in heavenly places far above the ups and downs of life. Didn’t the Prophet say that “every valley shall be filled and every mountain made low?” In the mean time, I’m ridge running. I have my two faithful hound dogs with me –Goodness and Mercy.” They have followed me all the days of my life and they still follow me along the ridges.