Saturday, March 28, 2015

Written on the palms

Mary of Egypt, yes, tomorrow is her ‘Sunday,’ and her feast-day is just around the corner, on April 1st. I always thought it was appropriate that her feast was the same as our ‘feast of fools’ or April Fools Day, though her life story puts almost every other fool on the planet to shame. She gave up a life of self-indulgence and entered what to most of us would be a life of hell on earth. No clothes, no house, no food, no friends, no entertainment, not even church!

As a Sunday School teacher, it was always a challenge for me, how to explain her story to my group of sixth grade students, most of whom were from faithfully correct and affluent families. One or two of the boys were working class and probably had different experiences than the others of what ‘real life’ is like. But most of my students were both young and inexperienced, well, so I thought. It was still the early 90’s and all the girls, anyway, were still virgins.

Since the Church has made the story of Mary of Egypt as visible as possible, giving her not one but two commemorations, and one of them a Sunday during Lent, she has become an important if misunderstood symbol of personal self-denial, an historical example of one woman living out the precious words of Christ, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’ (Matthew 16:24).

And could anyone’s life be more extreme? The excitement of the story, both when it first appeared centuries ago in her very generation, and now, seems to stem from the theme of ‘filthy prostitute becomes holy saint,’ it centers on the subject of sex, first its abject misuse, then its complete disuse. There is simply no in-between. Mary’s conscience could not find a way to cleanse herself of her past except by becoming an altogether new creature.

And what a creature! After hearing the story year after year, my memory sees nothing much but the bright white naked female ascetic lying dead face down in the sand, waiting for burial. Of course, I know the whole story more or less by heart. I always wondered, when she entered the life of a prostitute, how it wasn’t noticed that she was probably forced into it, or even sold into it, by poverty. Or how it went without remark that she was a Christian, even if in name only.

Or does sexual immorality in a Christian make one a non-Christian? I don’t know, but if it does, then a large part of the high profile ‘Christian’ world is probably not what they say they are. I also asked myself, who were these men taking ship to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem who would offer a berth to an obvious harlot, so that she could see the Holy City too? The story implies they didn’t just give her clean passage, but made use of her along the way, yet they, not she, were able to enter the church.

There, she was stopped from entering by an invisible force, while her generous clients went in. That always baffled me. Perhaps they didn’t belong to Christ and the Theotokos, so they could go in and venerate the Holy Cross, as religious tourists, but not as Christians, surely? But Mary, because of her unblameless life, was stopped and denied entry, until she should be made blameless. How is it that she, a prostitute of Egypt, must be purified before kissing the Cross, when her clients went right in?

For me this story is not about sexual sin being cleansed by lifelong self-denial, but about how God works, how He selects those who are His, befriends and leads them, even before they are worthy, sometimes even before they recognize who it is that has chosen them. Nobody knows what happened to those pilgrim men who had their way with Mary on the ship. They probably venerated the relics and attended the services and returned home to their wives and families, unchanged.

But we do know what happened to Mary. At least we know a very little part of what happened to her, all that she was able to tell us. The most important and edifying part is her testimony of what is possible with God. What she tells us seems miraculous to us. Before leaving for the desert beyond the Jordan she bought a couple of loaves of bread. That’s what sustained her, along with wild plants, for fifty years. This reminds us of Christ’s words that ‘man does not live by bread alone…’

She wandered, yes, for ‘all who wander are not lost’ as the saying goes, in the wilderness in places where there was nobody to see her, and naked, for the clothing she left with had worn out and fallen off her frame. This reminds us of the apostle’s words that ‘all who have been baptized have been clothed in Christ…’ and also reflects upon Mary’s reality: Like Adam and Eve before the fall, Paradise had been opened to her, to whom clothing was wholly unnecessary.

Yes, her story is another glimpse into the reality of the earthly Paradise, which we know, or at least believe, has not disappeared from the earth, but which is invisible to us because of our transgressions and our willfulness to sin. Mary is the real Psyche whose palace and kingdom we cannot see, just as the mythical Psyche’s sisters could not see her sky palace on the holy mountain.

But her life has also, like Paradise, not disappeared from the earth. She is still with us, yes, still here with us. What to us would be unendurable ascetic suffering is to her walking in the Light of the Lord. Though her body now rests in an unmarked grave, her soul was not abandoned to Hades, but with the saints continues to sojourn in the heavenly Paradise of which our earthly one, even while invisible to most of us, is the dim reflection despite its glory. How can we join her?

For now, she is no longer a prostitute nor, in the regeneration of Christ, has she ever been, for He that makes all things new has already trampled death by death, and she who once had a beginning and now is without end, partakes also of the Divine Nature, and has neither beginning nor end. So it is with us, who following Christ, allowing Him to do in us what He did in her, and forever, will find ourselves hidden in the cleft of the Rock, and our names written on the palms of the Lord of Life.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

But what do you believe?

Years ago, for my fifty-sixth birthday, I received a beautiful, leather-bound NIV study bible. After reading it here and there, checking the commentaries and notes, and finding them reasonably reliable, I settled down to a serious study of the book of Exodus, called Shemot, ‘Names’, in Hebrew. This book has always represented for me the beginning of my life in Christ. After youthful years of wandering, I was brought back to the living God by reading this passage in the Jerusalem Bible,

Then Moses said to God, “I am to go, then, to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ But if they ask me what his name is, what am I to tell them?” And God said to Moses, “I Am who I Am. This,” he added, “is what you must say to the sons of Israel: ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” And God also said to Moses, “You are to say to the sons of Israel: ‘Yahweh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name for all time; by this name I shall be invoked for all generations to come.”
Exodus 3:13-15 JB

So, spiritually then, I had to first become a Jew before I could fully return to Jesus, the Jewish Messiah. Meeting Him first in YHWH, Yod-hey-vav-hey, pronounced Yahweh, Him who Is, the living God of my fathers, it wasn’t lost on me that ‘the God of’ was repeated three times, nor that earlier, in Genesis, called Bereshit, ‘In the beginning’, in Hebrew, God as Elohim, the plural of El, ‘God’, spoke to Someone, ‘Let us make man in Our own image’ (Genesis 1:26). ‘I was born a Christian, and I was going to die a Christian,’ I guessed. This was already decided, because ‘God is faithful’ (2 Timothy 2:13).

Back to the topic, so I’d been studying Exodus, and when I came to the Ten Plagues which YHWH inflicted on Egypt to induce Pharaoh to ‘let His people go,’ and read the study notes, I was surprised to find this kind of commentary,
7:17 the water of the Nile… will be changed into blood. There is some reason to believe that the first nine plagues may have been a series of unprecedented intensifications of events that were part of the Egyptian experience, events that in their more usual form did not have anything like the catastrophic effects of the disasters God brought on Egypt… If that was the case, the first plague may have resulted from an unparalleled quantity of red sediment being washed down from Ethiopia during the annual flooding of the Nile in late summer…
Following this train of thought, similar explanations of ‘what may have been the case’ were presented in the notes as each of the Ten Plagues was recounted. I expected that a good commentary on scripture, especially when it’s published in the Bible, would leave alone this kind of speculation. If I were a new Christian, reading this kind of thing might prepare me to regard the Word of God as something to pick apart in the same way, instead of letting the Word pick me apart.

In my case, by means of studying the Word and letting it interpret itself to me and mold my thinking for forty years of living within the Church enclosure, I am able to ‘pass over’ these glosses and accept them for what they’re worth. Still, they demonstrate ‘what’s out there,’ a culture of speculation and human thinking that is suffocating the Church. ‘Miracles just don’t really happen.’

This Lord’s Day is Evangelismós, the annual commemoration of the ‘Good News,’ the announcement to a virgin in Israel that YHWH the Holy One—blessed be He!—had selected her to be the mother of the Messiah.

For Orthodox Christians, understanding this historical event helps put Mary the Theotókos in right perspective—she is the first Christian, the first to hear the Good News and to receive it, ‘Let what you have said be done to me’ (Luke 1:38 JB). Her cooperation ‘got the ball rolling.’

In the same way, according to Archimandrite Vasileios, by our cooperation with the Good News we also become theotókoi, ‘God-bearers,’ incarnators of the Word. Anything beyond this becomes speculation. But one thing is for sure—it really happened! It was miracle, pure and simple.

Thankfully, the comments in that new study bible were ‘orthodox,’ they did not introduce any speculation, but it still leaves me wondering, ‘Why is an Old Testament miracle open to naturalistic explanation, and not this?’

Now, why talk about the Ten Plagues and the Annunciation in almost the same breath? Are they related somehow?

Well, yes, they are. They are both instances of God’s direct intervention in human history, where He bypasses the zigzag of interlocking events and renews His creation through a rent in the curtain of existence ‘with the lightning flash of His divinity,’ tí astrapí tís theótitos (Resurrectional Apolytikion, 2nd Tone). They are both ‘miracle,’ and they are both liberating. The world system, the kósmos, has a hard time dealing with these. It neither wants nor needs them. It will do anything to explain them away.

But what do you believe?

At this time of the year we have a curious concurrence of the main holy days of two ancient faiths, Judaism and Christianity. For Jews, Pesach, ‘Passover, the feast of freedom, the commemoration of their liberation’ from slavery and Egypt, ‘the historical event that defines them as God’s people.’ For Christians, Pascha, ‘Passover, the feast of freedom, the commemoration of their liberation’ from sin and death, ‘the historical event that defines them as God’s people.’

Wait a minute! What’s wrong with these statements? Why do they seem so similar? Is there some mistake, or are we really talking about the same thing? Didn’t you mean to say ‘Easter’ when you said ‘Pascha, Passover?’

No, not really. There’s only one living God, the Holy One of Israel—blessed be He!—and ‘He is the One who will justify the circumcised because of their faith and justify the uncircumcised through their faith’ (Romans 3:30 JB). The Church was never intended to deviate from Judaism, but human weakness kicked in, from both sides!. At this point, I should probably just direct you back to the Word of God, to holy apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, particularly chapters 9, 10 and 11.

Why have I written down these thoughts of mine at all?

Because, beloved brethren of Israel the old and of Israel the new, ‘the time is very close’ (Revelation 1:3). The time is very close for your coming back together again, where ‘there will be one flock and one Shepherd’ (John 10:16). Messiah is coming. ‘The One who guarantees these revelations repeats His promise: I shall indeed be with you soon’ (Revelation 22:20 JB).

But what do you believe?

That old, beautiful road

Yes, it’s still that old road, that old, beautiful road.

A dear friend, about a generation younger, an Orthodox man, a husband, a father, a provider who risks being a workaholic, a theologian of considerable depth, a survivor of the death of a son, a servant of God, faithful in everything and to everyone except perhaps to himself, grieves for joylessness, suffers the aridity of an unfounded guilt that he is not following his Lord but only going through the motions.

The bloom of spiritual youth, when joy came readily and spontaneously, like the rain-downed blossoms on my now bare magnolia tree, only a memory to be trodden underfoot, taunting now with temptation to failed faith, is like a mirage sighted only by looking back, and a mirage at that, for the world of the past, as Christ Himself promises, is gone, and only the present moment, dry as a potsherd, is real.

Yes, promises, for Christ does not grant us what we think we need at the wrong time, but waits more patiently than the universe for the son of God in us to be revealed, as He walks with us, yes, with each and every one of us, prying open the ears of our hearts with His parables, as He resurrected accompanies us down that old road, that old, beautiful road first planted with His teachings and paved with His tears.

Yes, beautiful, and very, very old, that road which leads from the disobediently disappled tree, past the preventing angels, passing through ambushes of envious and vengeful devils whose lies stretched taut and almost invisible would trip us, which proves itself the path of no turning back and impels us forward into whose galloping arms, nailed as branches, we realize only as we gasp our last, is what He promised.

Yes, it’s still that old road, that old, beautiful road. Days and nights, joys and sorrows, exaltation and near despair, casting their lights and shadows across that road, they do not help or hinder, do not speed or slow our progress as we walk in tandem with our invisible Lord, made visible in our pressing on, in our tearful, even anguished endurance, as we saddled with silence pursue His words promising us life.

‘Will you also abandon me?’ it seems we ask Him, though it is He who asks, and coming to ourselves after a night of sleepless struggle, we rejoin Him on that old road, that old, beautiful road, and relieve ourselves of all doubt as we tell Him, ‘To whom would I go, since You alone have the words of eternal life,’ and that is enough, it has to be enough, for that is all truth, all beauty, and saves all the world.

Yes, beloved brother, it’s still that old, beautiful road.

Just say ‘Yes’

The only thing I know that I have permanently—and I do not speak out of conceit or imagination—is what I have day and night, wherever I may be… It is first, faith; second, faith; third, faith. That's it!
There's nothing else I can say to you. It animates and guides my life.

Since I have faith, if someone were to come and tell me, "Will you go with me to Lebanon?" I would answer,
"Yes!"
"How can you say 'yes' just like that?" they may ask.

"Yes, I say 'yes' because I believe that if it is not for my own good, God will arrange things so that the very same persons who invited me will say 'no'. For instance, there may be some delays with formalities which will prevent our departure, and so on. I have seen that occur in my life, regularly, these last fifty years—not just for one or two years, as I am now ninety-one years old! I wish you all to reach that age!"

I read in the Gospel again and again something extraordinary.

Jesus comes and says to the Apostles, "Leave your fishing nets now, and follow Me!" If they had answered, "Who are you? Why should we lose the day's work? Why should we lose our profit? Where will you take us? What will you do with us?" If they had answered so, what would they be? They would have remained in darkness. They said 'yes' to a Stranger Who came and told them "Come, leave everything, and come!" Why? Because they had faith in God and were expecting the One, Him Who would tell them "Come!" And this is how it began. Whereas if they had said, 'No', what would have happened?

Going after

The cost of discipleship. Yes, well, if we’re talking about discipleship to the God-man Jesus Christ, there is a cost. How can there not be? But it’s not what most people think, and when many are faced with the cost, they go into denial.
Deny Jesus Christ?
Well, no, they wouldn’t do that. That might be dangerous.
It could damage their reputation.
Instead, they find or fabricate other costs, costs that they’re willing to pay, costs that’ll provide a good return on their investment. ‘For, after all,’ they reason, ‘isn’t it being a good steward to invest your deposit from the Lord with the bankers, so you can return it to Him with interest when He returns, just as He teaches in the gospels?’ Naturally, the bankers needn’t be real bankers—that would seem too materialistic—but, what harm if they were?

So, we follow Jesus. That’s what discipleship is all about, right? In the original Greek He says, Δεῦτε ὀπίσω μου (dhéfte OPÍSO mou), ‘Come AFTER me.’ The disciple’s response is immediate—or never. Jesus doesn’t wait once He calls, or at least, not for long. At least, it’s not really a matter of time (Greek: chrónos) but of acceptable time (Greek: kairós). What’s more, if we don’t keep our eyes on Him at all times, we will miss a lot, we can even miss Him. Like unto Moses on the mountain, the living God reveals Himself to us, pronounces His merciful Name, and lets us see only His back as He passes by, having hidden us in the cleft of the rock to protect us from His glory.

Protect us from His glory? Yes, just like the Ark of the Covenant is thickly wrapped in colorful swaddling clothes to protect the people from its glory when the Ethiopian Coptic priests carry it out of its resting place to show it on a festal day. We must be protected, yes, from the living God.

Why? Because we are created, He uncreated, and anything He indwells or overshadows takes on the aspect of His glory. Even a reflection is full of power. Even we shall also be, if we are faithful to follow Him, not only with our eyes and minds, but with our hands, our feet, yes, even with our hearts.

‘You’re going to be learning Hebrew and Greek for the rest of your life,’ I tell a precious young brother as he embarks on yet another unforeseen journey in his ‘going after’ Jesus. Yes, surely it is enough to do as Christ bids us in the gospels, ‘If you make My word your home, you will indeed be My disciples’ (John 8:31). But what that looks like in the life of each disciple is a unique vision, vouchsafed by the One who gives each one a white stone with a Divine Name written on it, that only he who receives it can read.

It is the stone that the world rejects and tries to induce us to reject too, fearful of what we shall become if we can read that Name, fearful that Heaven, which is already firmly but invisibly established in its midst, shall one day become visible, and that we its citizens, all of us first-borns, shall be its judges. The followers, yes, the disciples of the God-man Jesus Christ, shall judge the world, but not yet.

Why not yet? Because we have not yet paid the cost of discipleship, in full. We have not yet washed our robes white in the Blood of the Lamb, which is, in fact, our own blood, because we have followed the Lamb wherever He goes, even to the Cross.

‘The cost of discipleship? The cost of discipleship?’ many ask. ‘Doesn’t the Lord say, my yoke is easy and my burden light? Hasn’t He paid the price for our sin once and for all on Calvary? Hasn’t our confession of Him before men guaranteed His confession of us before His Father and the angels?’ Well, yes, and no.

Look at the saints. Chisel away carefully the legends of their lives and get at their flesh and blood. See them in their glory—His glory, which He was given once and for all when He reigns (not reigned only) as ‘King of Glory’ from the Tree. They, the saints, believed, they confessed, and becoming like their Master evangelical criminals, by doing what they saw Him doing, speaking what they heard Him say, they learned what is the cost of discipleship, and they paid the price, their blood mingled with His from before the world ever was.

‘You did not choose me, but I chose you…’
John 15:16

Fully His

Since I am a fool, I want everyone to know. Stay away from me…

Most people, thank God, are way too smart, too educated and sophisticated to be wasting their time reading my humble blog.
To those who do, I apologise profusely. Why?

Because I say that, on a day to day basis, even using a translation, an ordinary believer can read the scriptures with confidence that he or she can understand most of it, in its plain meaning. For those who are sourcing doctrines (quite a different application), I say that we need to study the original texts of the scriptures to be sure we have the correct understanding of them. Someone counters, that there are many different versions of the original text, though the differences are trivial, so what do you do with passages that appear in some but not all versions? And what about people acting on texts they don't really understand? How exasperating!

Yes, which original text? And yes, the differences are trivial. And yes, there's that text about handling snakes, and yes, idiots try to force their way into God's hands by imitating such things and justifying themselves and their carnal and base beliefs, using it. And yes, something about that snake handling passage seems somehow inconsistent with the rest of God's Book, just as the other New Testament pseudepigrapha also seem somehow alien to the Spirit of the Bible. And yes, even if you leave it in, it’s still forcing yourself into God's hands to try to imitate that and seek your deliverance in it.

We are not idiots, however; we have minds and spirits trained by the Word of God, if we only let Him train us.

The Bible says, ‘You have not lost the anointing He gave you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. The anointing He gave you teaches you everything.’

Who writes this? The human author was John, the author of the gospel and the epistles, and the one to whom the Revelation was granted. And yes, I don't care what bible scholars tell me, I believe it is the same person, but, yes, it doesn't really matter, as long as we really believe what it says.

Because not man, not woman, not bible scholars, not pontiffs, not saints, not bishops and presiding elders, not the king, not the emperor, not my mother or father, not you, and not me have anything to add, elaborate, amplify, enlighten, make comprehensible or comprehensive, or more useful, or more relevant, than what God the Author, the Revealer, the Sanctifier, the Enlightener, the Teacher, the Father, the Savior tells us into our obedient and welcoming ears, directly and fully and without doubt, and salvifically.

No, we are not idiots. I do not pick up snakes to prove I am a Christian. I do not speak in strange tongues to prove that the Holy Spirit is in me, upon me, and with me. I don't need to prove my faithfulness to God's Word by going out and blasting sinners, holding them up to ridicule, hating them or judging them and excluding them from the promises of God.

But though everything be taken away from me, I will not, cannot deny the Word of God, and with the saints I will stand my ground, I will defend them even when I don't agree with them one hundred per cent, and I will stand on the Word of God, because there is no other foundation, there is nothing solid in the whole created universe to stand on, except that precious, holy, divine Word, who is the Son of God, one of the Holy Triad, glorified in the heavens and on earth, and fed to us spiritual infants, verse by verse, spoonful by spoonful, day after day, until we are fully grown and mature, fully reflecting His glory, fully alive in Him with that life that has existed from before the beginning of all things, fully His.

Romero

Last Sunday, I viewed the film Romero with my Roman Catholic godson Jason at St Philip Neri church. It was very moving, bringing me close to tears which I fought back successfully. Strangely, it was in the scene where thugs machine-gunned the crucifix above the altar and the tabernacle housing the reserved Blessed Sacrament in the locked-out church, that I was most moved to tears. The other scene was, naturally, where the archbishop Óscar Romero was gunned down as he raised the Chalice and Host after the consecration. This latter scene is not entirely historical.

Romero spent the day of 24 March 1980 in a recollection organized by Opus Dei, a monthly gathering of priest friends led by Msgr Fernando Sáenz Lacalle. On that day they reflected on the priesthood. That evening, Romero was fatally shot while celebrating Mass at a small chapel located in a hospital called La Divina Providencia, only one day after preaching a sermon in which he had called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God's higher order and to stop carrying out the government’s repression and violations of basic human rights. The following day, after he finished his sermon [at the hospital chapel], Romero proceeded to the middle of the altar and at that moment was shot. His assassin was never identified.

Romero was buried in the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Salvador. The funeral mass on 30 March 1980 was attended by more than 250,000 mourners from all over the world. At the funeral, Cardinal Corripio Ahumada, speaking as the personal delegate of Pope John Paul II, eulogized Romero as a ‘beloved, peacemaking man of God,’ and stated that ‘his blood will give fruit to brotherhood, love and peace.’

During the ceremony, smoke bombs exploded on the streets near the cathedral and subsequently there were rifle shots that came from surrounding buildings, including the National Palace. Many people were killed by gunfire and in the stampede of people running away from the explosions and gunfire; official sources talk of 31 overall casualties, while journalists indicated between 30 and 50 died. Some witnesses claimed it was government security forces that threw bombs into the crowd, and army sharpshooters, dressed as civilians, that fired into the chaos from the balcony or roof of the National Palace. However, there are contradictory accounts as to the course of the events and ‘probably, one will never know the truth about the interrupted funeral.’

As the gunfire continued, Romero's body was buried in a crypt beneath the sanctuary. Even after the burial, people continued to line up to pay homage to their martyred prelate.

After viewing the film there was a ‘question and answer’ time. I asked if anyone knew what conditions in El Salvador were like today. Had anything good resulted from the martyrdom of this holy prelate (and many of his priests)? There were several people in the audience who had been to Central America, and the general consensus was, that things were still very bad there. I asked if the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador was still defending the people and working to end the regime of injustice and oppression. To that question I didn’t get a clear answer from anyone. I was a bit stunned by both the film, and the innocuous reaction to it by us who viewed it. We tend to ‘return to normal’ after witnessing any tragic event, especially when ‘it was only a movie.’

If the story of archbishop Romero is at least as true as the film, I am astounded that the Roman Catholic Church must still find ‘two authentic miracles’ before it can canonize him, ‘make him a saint.’ In this, the weakness of Christian Orthodoxy in having no pope and only primitive machinery for canonization or, as we call it, ‘glorification,’ is a strength. Saints are often ‘canonized’ by popular demand in the Orthodox Church long before their official glorification.

Feast Day of St Oscar, March 24
In the case of the hieromartyrs Óscar Romero and the priests of El Salvador (a meaningful double entendre of El Salvador, ‘the Savior’), one would think that their incarnation of the gospel was miracle enough to declare them ‘saints,’ or as Christ Himself puts it, ‘I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you’ (Revelation 3:9).

In the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ Jesus, may the saints bless us by their love, which they offered to us while they were alive and in our midst, and now that they have been freed from these bodies of death to intercede for us who remain, until they come again with Him in glory ‘to judge the quick and the dead,’ amen!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Victory to our princes

We are creatures of the weather, as to our temperament, our thoughts and emotions, as much as the ‘flowers of the field’ are. The warmth and light of the sun softened by a gentle breeze, and we open, we feel happy, at peace, ready for work or play, secure in the present moment. Awakened in a cold, gray morning, rain driven by a chill wind battering against our window, and we close, we would rather go back to bed, forget work and the world if we can, or our thoughts drift on the morose depths of suffering, our own or those of our neighbors.

Today is that second kind of day. The first days of spring are taunted by another week of winter, and I am taunted by the murderous world around me—not on my doorstep, but far away—by the knowledge that I have been spared the suffering and death that is happening at this very moment somewhere to people who do not deserve it, who like me want to just ‘live and let live’ but cannot. All my thoughts, musings, all my Lenten struggle, everything about me is silenced as mere insolence in the face of what is happening to those others, the real passion-bearers.

The beginning of Lent coincided with an intensification of the war in the Middle East. My first thoughts, ‘How can we celebrate a joyous, holy Pascha, sing all those songs of Christ’s victory over death, when this war is going on?’ continue to plague me. Everything we do in the Church revolves around us, it seems, as if we were people deaf and blind, unaware, in our divine worship, of the catastrophic world swirling around us outside the walls of the temple.

It could be different. In our divine worship, our hearts could be offering to God prayer with tears of sorrow and sympathy for those of our own body—the Body of Christ, yes, but even more, the body of humanity—who are daily in danger even unto death. In our holy fast, our stomachs could be aching not for the foods we have determined to deny entry, but with the pain of our pressing concern for the safety of those others, parts of us though far away, our kin.

‘Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour’ (John 12:27), the prayer of Christ as He goes to His voluntary and sacrificial death, as man not knowing, only trusting in, His vindication, and as God, already flushed with His irreversible victory. Here I am, ‘a worm and not a man’ (Psalm 22:6), as I contemplate all I cannot think, say, or do to justify my existence in the face of approaching finality.

‘For Thine is the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, unto the ages of ages. Amen.’ Everything done by You, O Lord, everything. ‘Into Your hands, I commend my spirit’ (Psalm 31:5) for there is nothing else I can do. ‘Save, O Lord, Your people, and bless Your inheritance’ for we have been brought very low. Come to us, Lord! Show us the light of Your countenance, and save us! Give victory to our princes…

Brothers of the Revelator

It is precisely where the Church exists in an openly hostile environment that it truly lives. Yet in every environment there are still individual followers of Jesus, or sometimes small pockets of them, both in church and out of church, whom the world hates and despoils, knowing Whose they are.

And these one or two, two or three, are usually associated with an extended group who do not know their struggles (yet) but who stay near them and support them in various ways. Some of these, as they wake up, get pulled into the arena with the others already there, where the witness of Christ is undefeatable, right up to their physical deaths.

These are they who with John the Revelator can be called συγκοινωνοι εν τη θλιψει (synkinoní en ti thlípsei > Greek, ‘companions in suffering’)… ‘because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.’ (Revelation 1:9 NIV)

Do you see the churches full of these? How would you know them if you met them there? Are you one of them yourself?

Exiled to the isle of Patmos, that’s John the Revelator and those who, like him, are ‘brothers and fellow partakers (συγκοινωνοι) in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus.’

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Evening meander

miłość, miły, miłosierdzie, miłosierny, miłościwy
love (n.), pleasant (adj.), mercy (n.), merciful (adj.), gracious (adj.)

My family is one hundred per cent Polish by nationality. My father’s father, Kazimierz Górny, immigrated to America from his birth place on a royal estate in the Grand Duchy of Poznań, a province of the Kingdom of Prussia, sojourning a while in Hanover, and then departing from the Free City of Hamburg, via ocean liner to New York City, in 1902. My father’s mother, Zofia Pokrzywa, immigrated in the same era from a country estate of a landed gentry family in the Kingdom of Galicia, a crown land of the Austrian Empire. We don’t know (yet, but I’m working on it) the exact year of her immigration, or her point of departure, only an apocryphal legend that she and her sister were spirited away by their uncle, after their parents were killed and their estate plundered by angry peasants.

Two things stand out to me about these parents of my father. They were merciful and gracious. Yes, they were other things too. They were both educated, speaking English fluently before they ever arrived in the New World. Casimir (the easier-to-pronounce German version of his name) was an entrepreneur and a man of many talents. Trained in ‘Kolonialwaren’ (import of consumables, retail and wholesale), he had a keen business sense, transferable to other fields. One of his first jobs in America was real estate development in the Florida panhandle. His unwillingness to pay his black employees less than his white caused him to be blacklisted by other bosses, who forced him out. He went north to Chicago and started a building and loan association. Zofia, my grandmother, did volunteer work helping other newly arrived immigrants who couldn’t speak English make the adjustment to living in America. Merciful and gracious, my paternal grandparents were quiet about their philanthropy, but they were the model for their children and grandchildren.

Though I spoke Polish as a young child, I only read it now. Growing up in America where one is free to choose absolutely everything about oneself, even religious and ethnic affiliations, I found myself on an eastward course, migrating to Orthodox Christianity and Hellenism as a young adult, and raising my own family within that environment. Now, with everyone ‘grown up,’ even me, I find that returning to my roots gives a finished touch to my life. I appreciate my ancestors, and their virtues and example, much more. I had to make ‘the journey out and in’ to arrive on my own at the same place that they perhaps arrived on their own. Due to an unusually wide generational gap between us (my grandfather Casimir was seventy-two when I was born) I didn’t have the benefit of watching and learning from him and my grandmother. Nevertheless, there was something that was passed down through my parents’ generation to mine, and I hope it continues to pass down, however it happens, whether it’s part of a temperament rooted in genetics, upbringing, or faith.

The Polish words I wrote at the beginning of this essay are a meditation of mine, something that came to me as I did my chores today, thinking of my ancestors. My mother’s family name was Milewski. It is spelled with a different ‘L’ than the words above, but I like to think it is still somehow related to these words in meaning, and that’s how my meditation started. I was thinking of my other grandfather, Paweł Milewski. He had perhaps more humble beginnings than Casimir and, coming from the Russian dominated heart of Poland, had a more gentle, resigned spirit, quiet, sensitive, yet artistic and innovative. He was a craftsman in wood as Casimir was, and they often visited together in his home workshop in the basement. Down there he also had a little sleeping cot, where he would retreat when the hustle and bustle of daily life got too much for him. Both physically and spiritually, I resemble him most, even though I never had a chance to know him either. When I think of him, all those Polish words come to mind, the ‘M’ words, all meaning love in manifestation.

One more memory. My other grandmother, Maria Kozińska, who made her house part museum, part menagerie, a collector of the latest inventions, the rarest tropical birds and exotic dogs, proud of her (possibly imagined) upper class Warsaw background, yet humble enough to labor obsessively in her garden and raise her own chickens and geese so she could prepare the family meals according to her own illustrious tastes.

One night, my older sister and I stayed overnight at her house. Grandfather was asleep in his tiny bedroom (or perhaps in his workshop below). Busia (our affection name for our grandmother) tucked us both in a small bed hidden behind the wall of the kitchen, in the back porch actually, though it was enclosed and had a glazed window. Everyone had been in bed asleep for some hours. In the pitch black darkness, I felt myself suddenly nudged and awakened by my sister. Busia was there, leading us by the hand back through the kitchen and into her tiny bedroom. The room was so small, there was nothing in it but her bed. She tucked us in carefully, kissed us good night, and disappeared. The night was so cold, she was afraid for us, and traded places. We didn’t see her sleeping in the back porch, because she was up long before us preparing breakfast, but we knew that’s where she had slept. Matter-of-factly and firmly, but still mercifully, she too delivered the message of love to us.

Love, mercy, gentleness, affirmation demonstrated by a kiss lightly laid on a sleepy head, by a quiet prayer reverently recited, unafraid to love unconditionally, providentially, even passionately, but pleasantly, how little energy this takes, how easily it flows out of our hearts and souls when we let it, how naturally it saves us and welcomes us into the Kingdom of Heaven, yes, how effortless is the way of Him who says, ‘Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls’ (Matthew 11:29).

Periodic

Aha! As I lift the window blinds light pours into my rooms and, entering my study, I notice a wide swatch of blue morning sky through the large western window—the weatherman was wrong! He said rain, rain, rain, today was to be a continuation of yesterday, the first day of solar spring, which met us with clouds, mist, drizzle and rain. I feel relieved. I delayed mowing my lawns and had given up hope of doing that chore today, but once again, I’ve been delivered. By noon, my garden will look tidy again, God willing.

Periodic, my chores, my thoughts, my learning, and my life. Time adds the illusion of length to all that we do. We’re not living in eternity yet, and until we do, we have to keep periodically up on everything. If we don’t, bits and pieces of what we are slip into oblivion, or at least take a back seat, or maybe fall asleep in us. ‘If we snooze, we lose.’ I am a polyglot, but I can only speak four or five languages ‘on the spot’ right now. Others I have studied are no longer in my active mind. I must refresh them as needed.

I woke up remembering the psalms, but I haven’t read them yet, the psalms of the twenty-first day of the month, psalms 105 and 106, both of them based on the history of Israel at their exodus from Egypt, and their forty-year wandering in the wilderness. If I were more faithful in reading the daily psalms, I might have them completely memorized. As it is, at least I have many verses lodged in my active and inactive memory, at my verbal finger-tips when I write, and ready to activate in my everyday life.

I had better not pass them up today, as I often do, not just to keep them alive in me, but for me to keep alive in them, period. Yes, God the faithful wages war on death every moment by giving us time in which to keep His commandments, to keep on living. ‘Keep alive in yourselves what you were taught in the beginning,’ nags our beloved evangelist (1 John 2:24 JB), and if we periodically read the gospels and the epistles, this is sure to happen—we will stay alive. I remember that, as I notice my schefflera is drooping.

‘Water me!’ she says, and I promise her I will—if I remember. Meanwhile, there’s these thoughts to finish, those psalms to pray, that shower to take, a pot of coffee to brew, and yes, the lawn to mow, and then, well, more of the same. That’s the smaller picture. Back to the bigger. Still more periodic. My other thought as I awoke was how the Church is no less wonderfully periodic than everything else is, and how it would fall asleep, or even cease being itself, if it didn’t keep remembering, rehearsing, reliving its life.

As a child, I was taught that skipping church was a sin. Back then, it seems, everything was a sin that happened to be what my elders didn’t want me to do. That rather cheapened the idea of sin in me and many others till we now find it hard to know what is sinful. The Church wants us to keep coming to services not because it wants an audience for its performances, but because what it does is for our periodic, personal maintenance. Her liturgy waters and feeds us, because we won’t do it ourselves.

We don’t have to look far past our own noses to see that it’s true. If I don’t periodically water my plant, it withers. I don’t think it will die, because life is very strong. I’d have to want to kill it, for it to really die. We humans are made the same way. The Lord and Giver of life has made the life in us very strong too. Periodic maintenance, ‘keep My commandments that you may live’ (Proverbs 7:2), is necessary. ‘Now, brother body, you’ve reminded yourself,’ says my conscience, ‘time to start your day.’ Yes, periodic.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Refuge

Everyone who is a follower of Jesus has something they take refuge in, or where they run in times of danger, or where they know they will feel safe during times of peace when they think of adverse possibilities. Though we are not to worry about the future, all of us still do.

Though we have put our faith in Jesus, and though He is our only refuge, yet, on the practical level taking refuge can take different forms. I know of many ‘refuges’ that people around me take, and I hear many persons called ‘refuges’ in the writings of the Church and in the prayers.

Though they seem to be making two incompatible statements, ‘My only refuge is the Lord,’ and then follow it up with (as I have noticed in some services) ‘My only refuge is [fill in the blank]’—I can relate that to my own ‘double confession,’ and it doesn’t bother me.

I don’t understand them, they may not understand me, but I understand myself.

I say with the psalmist, ‘my refuge is only with the Lord’ a hundred different ways. On a practical level, that refuge is expressed and entered into by ‘My refuge is always saying Yes to God.’ That seems to be not only the most reasonable thing to do, but certainly the safest.

That is Romanós at his simplest.
That’s where I run whenever I fall back into being a frightened child in need of the Father.

Easy as 1-2-3!

If I am tempted to be afraid of some event in the future, I become quiet and talk to the Lord and to my heart, ‘Let it be done to me according to Your Word. Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for You are with me. There is no loss with Jesus. Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. Take what He gives and praise Him still, through good or ill. Just as I am without one plea. Your heavenly Father knows what you need before you ask Him. Don’t live by man proposes, God disposes, but by God disposes, man reposes. Just say Yes to the Eternal on earth, though it can mean No even to earthly life. Undo your will for Heaven, and Heaven will undo His will for you.’

What better refuge can be found? I take refuge in Yes, so that I can enter into the only true refuge, Christ who ‘was alive and became dead and who now lives forever,’ walking directly in front of me, shielding me from more dangers and harms than I could ever imagine. ‘Every hair of your head has been counted. You are worth more than hundreds of sparrows.’

I cry out for myself, for my family and my beloved friends, ‘Lord, save us!’ and my ‘let it be done unto me as You have decreed’ has cleared my path, kept my heart awake even when I sleep, and let Him pour me out as a drink offering when He wishes.

‘All that I long for is known to You, my sighing is no secret from You.’ And He who alone loves mankind even before we existed and who died for us, He carries me in His will so that I have nothing to fear in letting my will be His. I run for refuge in answering Yes to Him who always answers us with Yes even before we knew to ask.

Yes, I found the hidden Refuge.
And He is faithful.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

I confess

I confess the ancient faith of the Church, that is, the faith of the living God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the law-giving God of Moses, the royal God of kings who alone makes kings of men, the all-lauded God of David, the all-wise God of Solomon, the truth-telling God of Elijah, Isaiah, and all the holy prophets, the fatherly God of Jesus of Nazareth; and I confess the last named as the living Son of the living God, who was born in time of a human mother of no earthly father, though begotten beyond time of the heavenly Father of no human mother; and I confess the ancient Church, that is, the community of all faithful people, faithful in following the holy apostles who follow faithfully the Christ of God. This tri-luminous path I walk through a very dark world, bearing within me and overshadowing me the Light of lights, that divine and life-creating Spirit, that unearthly Fire unknown to Prometheus that enlightens those who love, but consumes those who hate, the uncreated God who dwells in His created image mankind.

And I witness to that very dark world, both speaking and silent, of the God without name or number whose Oneness is not diminished by His being Three, nor His Majesty dishonored by His being named, for Father, Son, and Spirit, unearthly Triad, was, is, and shall be revealed in human flesh, first by the First-born from the dead, the New Adam, and then till the end of the age by everyone who follows Him who opened Paradise once to the good thief, and forever to all who consent to be hung at His side. And as by my life I confess Him before men, though I speak or am silent, the dark world that thinks it is bright is revealed to itself dark in their eyes to those who, destined to be saved, are drawn by the Father to the Son; and that beloved Son in whom the Father is well pleased receives these souls from the darkness and presents them again to His Father enthroned in unapproachable Light, confessing their names before Him and the angels; thereby witnessing to the unbelieving world where the true Church lives.

O my soul, let us purchase this time for God with the gold of our spirits, the silver of our minds, and the bronze of our deeds, not wallowing in laziness and sinful distraction, but persevering with all our might in prayer, fasting and sincere brotherly love, to cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life, that our confession be proven true on the battlefield of our body, and that we become capable of receiving the rich mercy that God has saved up for those who love Him. For He tells us every moment of every day, ‘To him who has more will be given, but from him who has not, even what he thinks he has shall be taken away.’ Yes, let us purchase this time and store up for ourselves treasures that thieves cannot break in and steal, for again as He tells us, ‘Where your treasure is, there will your hearts be also.’ Confess Him, O my soul, as they confessed Him to whom He shall say, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…’

Mystírion

Male and female He created them.
Genesis 1:27 Jerusalem Bible

The mystery of gender. Yes, the mystery, because it is in mystírion that we encounter the living God. What makes a mystery, I should rather ask, what or who makes a sacred mystery? For ‘mystery’ is the Greek equivalent of the more common term ‘sacrament,’ which comes from Latin.

The Church tells us what the mysteries, or the sacraments, are, but that is just a starting point, one entrance into the Eternal. The mystery of gender is the root of the mystery of marriage, ‘why a man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to his wife, and they become one body’ (Genesis 2:24).

In the Orthodox marriage service there are no vows. Why not? Because what the Church does in the person of the priest, who is himself in the person of Christ, is bless the union of a man and a woman whose shared being has already and secretly been attained in another mystery, that of love.

In the sacred mysteries we encounter God Himself, the Divine and Holy Triad, Father, Son, and Spirit. How can this be? There is no explanation of how, only that it is true, and proven true by participation. Outside of that, it is impossible to know what a sacred mystery is, only to believe it as a doctrine.

In the mystery of gender we encounter the living God who, though one in essence, does not remain alone, because His essence is love, which by its very nature and eternally exists as Lover and Beloved, and in time and space manifests as the universe, all that is, seen and unseen, and as man and woman.

In the mystery of marriage we encounter on a smaller scale and up close to us, in fact as us, the living God who has become one of His creatures in Christ Jesus, and we experience His love for us, His eros, and partaking of it, our eros, our love for our spouse, is revealed as holy, and is perfected and fulfilled.

Within this shared experience, the joining, the becoming ‘one body’ is no mere metaphor, but the reality, and all the good that comes from it is only a foretaste of théosis, the union of the soul with God, while whatever disrupts this joining on earth is called ‘adultery,’ no matter what form it may assume.

There is a divine order in the mystery of gender which is fulfilled in the mystery of marriage, which is based on the male and female natures in complement, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helpmate’ (Genesis 2:18). Not chronologically, but existentially, the male precedes.

At this point, every modern, even Christian, objects firmly, having been taught the equality of the sexes. But it is not because the Bible story makes the male precede the female that it is true, but rather that the visible creation, evolving over eons in the palms of God’s hands, unfolds in exactly this way.

In other words, those who think it is progressive to reject the Biblical accounts, mythic though they be, actually rebel not against words crafted to enforce male dominance, but against the truth of all natures inanimate, animate and human, which evolution itself proves despite our philosophical wishful thinking.

There is no male dominance and no female subservience, only a consubstantial and mutual serving of one another, each according to their natures. The male nature is to provide and protect and to build the outer world. The female nature is to nurture and inspire and to build the inner world.

Orthodox tradition in presenting newly-weds with the ikons of the Christ and the Theotokos can be interpreted: The man receives the ikon of the Christ holding the Book. The woman receives the ikon of the Theotokos holding the Child. Man begets children in woman, and woman begets wisdom in man.

Where is the equality in this? Where it matters most, where it cannot be seen except by its participants. In the fulfillment of the sacred mystery of gender, all glory and honor and blessing is bestowed upon the male and the female, and the ceremonial of crowning both is both sign and pledge, if they remain faithful.

Again, ‘idealism’ is the complaint against this mystery by those who wish to refashion mankind in their image, taking the place boldfacedly of the living God. Yet, they cannot fight against evolution which most claim to believe in, which the Creator unleashed and by which the nature of all things unfolds.

Again, we are not being dragged along behind a train of man-made laws and customs designed to benefit one gender over another. Most males and most females exhibit male and female natures, but not all. We cannot use the Bible to inhibit or imprison people. It tells us what is, not what must be.

There are some men who have female natures, and some women who have male natures. This too is part of the evolutionary process by which the Creator unfolds all natures in time and space, and we have seen examples of it all through history, some glorified, some punished, whether wrongly or rightly.

‘There are eunuchs born that way from their mother’s womb, there are eunuchs made so by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves that way for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let anyone accept this who can’ (Matthew 19:12).

He who spoke these words knows everything about us, and He alone is the Word of God. His mercy to us and all humans is generous, and He waits patiently for us to catch up with His mercy. And though He runs on ahead, always, He wants us to catch up with Him, to catch Him, so He can embrace us and say,

‘Well done, good and faithful servant!’ (Matthew 25:21).

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The strong name

‘I arise today in vast might,
in vocation of the Trinity,
belief in a Threeness,
confession of Oneness,
towards the Creator…’

Thus begins ‘the Breastplate,’ or Lorica, of Saint Patrick, a mighty prayer invoking Divine Might and clearing the road ahead of all possible obstacles and dangers, making mighty ‘against every fierce, merciless force’ him who recites it. It is also called ‘the Deer Cry’ because the occasion of its composition was the journey of Patrick and his monks to convert one of the Irish kings to Christianity. The king did not want to convert and sent armed men to ambush the missionaries. Somehow, Patrick and his monks got through the ambush chanting his prayer. When the king later asked what happened, his men replied, ‘We did not see them. We saw only a few head of deer go past.’

As a new Christian, a ‘born again’—though what I call my ‘born again experience’ looks in retrospect like nothing other than the moment I became aware of the fact that I was born again ‘of water and the Spirit’ without my knowledge or consent when I was baptised as an infant—as a new disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ, confronted by ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil,’ I recited this prayer of the apostle of Ireland frequently, complementing it with many signs of the cross, bows and prostrations. Yes, I had a whole ritual worked out, almost a dance movement, to pray with my body those mighty petitions my lips uttered. I fully intended my performance to be efficacious.

Yes, performance maybe more than prayer. Such are the faults of beginners, and that is what I was, a very, very green Christian. I hadn’t spilt my blood yet, not really, and I was going to make sure I never did. I hadn’t yet noticed that a follower of Jesus does what he sees his Master doing. Green, not red, was the color I wanted my life in Christ to be. This was the deal: I follow Christ, and He protects me. He keeps me safe. I can trust in His promises. That’s why He says, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’ Christ spilt His blood to save me, so I don’t have to spill mine. I even went so far with this color thing, that I had a picture of Jesus in a green robe!

Becoming ‘born again,’ joining the Church, I felt good. I felt I had really accomplished something. Looking back I now call it, ‘pretending you’re a sinner, so you can pretend you’re saved.’ I didn’t really know what it meant to be a disciple. I thought to myself, I had finally outgrown the ‘children’s version’ of Christianity, and I was now a Christian man. I now knew ‘the rules’ and henceforth I would follow them. Then, God would bless me, just like it says in the Psalms. What a happy life! But, back to the Lorica, that most powerful prayer that I offered to ward off the evil that surrounded me and my little family on all sides. As my life became less and less precarious, I offered it less. What a mistake!

It even seemed to me, finally, a quaint relic, almost a magical incantation. I now realize that, of course, it can become that, and it probably was that for me in my youthful folly. For I did not have real faith then, only folly disguised as faith. Real faith is not mercenary, but I wasn’t listening closely enough to the Word of God preached to me in church, or when I read it at home. Misguided teachers of a materialistic gospel—which is no gospel at all, but just another way to make money—hid the truth from me, just as they still do for many new believers, whether they are young or old. Captured like a bird in the fowler’s net, the Lord had mercy on His unworthy servant. He tore the net, and I escaped…

The strong name of the Trinity. Yes, it is strong. It is very strong, for the Lord is in His name, and His name is in Him. But this name, and this Trinity, though they are mighty, though they protect—yes, like Abram, we know the Triad as three yet call them ‘my Lord’—this might is not what we call might, nor is this protection always what we expect. It cannot be, because He treats each of us in a unique way—as there is only One God, so there is only one of each human being, all different, all unrepeatable, and so are His ways with us. The prayer always ‘works,’ and we always need what it asks for, but we almost never know what it is we need.

Like the Irish kings of old, deep within the walls of our self-protection we hide, unwanting light, pretending to good but rejecting the only One who is good. We send our sentries to ambush them whom God sends to convert our hearts, yet because He loves us more than we hate Him, they pass through our ambush and pierce our defenses. To chant this Lorica, we switch sides against our selves, against the ‘old man’ in us, and join the ‘new man’ whom Christ has formed in His Divine Image. This prayer has now, for me, truly become ‘the Deer Cry’ because it is no longer something I can perform, but the bleating of my heart for a protection not only promised but delivered.

‘Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ under me,
Christ over me,
Christ to right of me,
Christ to left of me,
Christ in lying down,
Christ in sitting,
Christ in rising up.
Christ in the heart of every person who may think of me,
Christ in the mouth of every person who may speak to me,
Christ in every eye which may look on me,
Christ in every ear which may hear me.’

Now I know, it is one thing to simply recite this prayer, and another to walk in it. Just as the holy gospels are all contained in the name of Jesus, and that name is the same as the name of the Trinity, so is this Lorica of Saint Patrick, not a spell of white magic, seeking that our will be done instead of the will of our heavenly Father, but an expression of the Divine name for us to walk in. That walking will, and of necessity, must be following Jesus wherever He leads. Yes, for if we are disciples, we shall walk like Patrick and his monks: ‘They have kept themselves as pure as virgins, following the Lamb wherever he goes.’ That is might. That is protection against all harm. That is life.

Monday, March 16, 2015

For God is with us

There is an ancient hymn, chanted in the Orthodox Christian Church in the service of Great Compline, whose inspiration and refrain are based on a text of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 8, verses 9 and 10:

Raise the war cry, you nations, and be shattered!
Listen, all you distant lands.
Prepare for battle, and be shattered!
Prepare for battle, and be shattered!
Devise your strategy, but it will be thwarted;
propose your plan, but it will not stand,
for God is with us.

The hymn opens like this,

God is with us, understand, O ye nations, 
and submit yourselves.
    For God is with us.
Hearken ye unto the ends of the earth.
For if ye again strengthen yourselves, 
ye shall again be vanquished.
    For God is with us.
And whatsoever counsel ye shall take, 
the Lord shall bring it to nought.
    For God is with us…

Gradually the hymn evolves into a testimony of personal spiritual transformation, and of the eventual redemption of the whole earth, yet at its end, it repeats what was chanted at first, ‘God is with us, understand, O ye nations, and submit yourselves. For God is with us.’

This is a Christian hymn from a period even earlier than the founding of Islam by Muhammad, and we can be sure that he was familiar with its lyrics, as there was already an Orthodox Christian community in Arabia.

Although the Jews and Christians both used warlike texts from the Old Testament in their prayers and hymns, at least in the Orthodox East they had already shed most of their literal meaning, at least to those inside the Church.

For Muhammad and his followers, however, they retained all their literal meaning and entered the newly revealed and developing Islamic ethos, resulting in a permanent reversion to violence. This is what we are experiencing in the world today.

It has become more and more evident with the passage of time that the restoration of the Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria is different from its near relatives and predecessors in waging jihad, holy war.

Whereas previous orders of mujahideen were tied to local grievances and perceived anti-Islamic westernization, the revived caliphate has as its basis total fidelity to shari‘ah and world conquest.

Moreover, even when it perpetrates what to the rest of the world is the most horrendous catalog of crimes against humanity, the caliphate can justify every act by reference to Islamic law.

This law, called shari‘ah, is based on the literal and strict interpretation and application of what is found written in the Qur’an and in the vast corpus of Hadith, traditions of Muhammad’s life and sayings.

Islam as a faith community includes as many interpretations and practical traditions as any religion, evolved after the last ‘rightly guided’ Caliph, Ali, was assassinated in AD 661, and the sects arose.

What makes the restored caliphate such a tremendous menace to the modern world, and such a compelling movement to many Muslims, is its uncompromising fidelity to primitive Islam.

Religions evolve, despite what many of them maintain. Even my own faith community has evolved. Orthodox Christianity today may be unchanging in theory, but in practice it changes gradually.

This change in revealed religions is to be expected if the deity worshiped is indeed the living God. It’s not that God changes to keep up with us, but that we as a race change to keep up with God.

To take up the cause of religion as it was practiced and promulgated in former times is infidelity to the living God. The caliphate imagines that it follows Allah but, if He is the living God, it uses Him instead.

This movement forces into the light the whole faith of Islam and its history, and places upon every Muslim the necessity of choosing to submit to its decrees or be classified as an infidel.

And so I ask my Muslim brothers, ‘Do you see the world divided into Daru’l-Islam, Daru’s-Sulh, and Daru’l-Harb, Abode of Peace, Abode of Truce, and Abode of War? And which of these are we?’

The revived caliphate exists solely to make war and to subjugate the entire world, forcing everyone into the ‘Abode of Peace’, the nation of Islam, and killing all who will not submit.

It looks upon the Christians who still remain in the ‘lands of Islam’ as the fault of earlier, illegitimate caliphs who did not remain true to their faith, but compromised for a price, the jizyah, the ‘poll tax’.

So now I ask you, my Muslim brothers, ‘Will you join the new world-conquering caliphate out of obligation to the faith of Islam? Or is there a God in heaven who will judge the earth, and us as well?’

For if the new caliphate is with God, then it, along with its vision of Islam, must be victorious, and I shall shed my blood with those already slain, the sooner the better, and there is no world but Daru’l-Islam.

But if the caliphate is, along with the rest of the history of blood beginning in the time of the four successors of Muhammad, a stain on the faith of Islam, it too shall fail. What, then, of Islam?

Can we not continue in brotherhood, nursing not grievances, but nurturing love of God and man, imitating our living God, ‘the Compassionate, the Merciful,’ as we, working for peace, await Him?

… for He comes, He comes to judge the earth, to judge the world with justice and the nations with His truth.
Psalm 96:13 Jerusalem Bible

Merciful

If a man readily and joyfully accepts a loss for the sake of God, he is inwardly pure. And if he does not look down upon any man because of his defects, in very truth he is free. If a man is not pleased with someone who honors him, nor displeased with someone who dishonors him, he is dead to the world and to this life. The watchfulness of discernment is superior to every discipline of men accomplished in any way to any degree.

Do not hate the sinner. For we are all laden with guilt. If for the sake of God you are moved to oppose him, weep over him. Why do you hate him? Hate his sins and pray for him, that you may imitate Christ Who was not wroth with sinners, but interceded for them. Do you not see how He wept over Jerusalem? We are mocked by the devil in many instances, so why should we hate the man who is mocked by him who mocks us also?

Why, O man, do you hate the sinner? Could it be because he is not so righteous as you? But where is your righteousness when you have no love? Why do you not shed tears over him? But you persecute him. In ignorance some are moved with anger, presuming themselves to be discerners of the works of sinners.

Be a herald of God's goodness, for God rules over you, unworthy though you are; for although your debt to Him is so great, yet He is not seen exacting payment from you, and from the small works you do, He bestows great rewards upon you.

Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright (cf. Psalm 24:8, 144:17), His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. ‘He is good,’ He says, ‘to the evil and to the impious’ (Luke 6:35).

How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? ‘Friend, I do thee no wrong: I will give unto this last even as unto thee. Is thine eye evil because I am good?’ (Matthew 20:12-15).

How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? (Luke 15:11 ff.).

None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it; and thus He bare witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God's justice, for whilst we are sinners Christ died for us! (cf. Romans 5:8). But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change.

Far be it that we should ever think such an iniquity that God could become unmerciful! For the property of Divinity does not change as do mortals. God does not acquire something which He does not have, nor lose what He has, nor supplement what He does have, as do created beings.

But what God has from the beginning, He will have and has until the [unending] end, as the blest Cyril wrote in his commentary on Genesis. ‘Fear God, he says, out of love for Him, and not for the austere name that He has been given. Love Him as you ought to love Him; not for what He will give you in the future, but for what we have received, and for this world alone which He has created for us.’

Who is the man that can repay Him? Where is His repayment to be found in our works? Who persuaded Him in the beginning to bring us into being Who intercedes for us before Him, when we shall possess no [faculty of] memory, as though we never existed? Who will awake this our body for that life? Again, whence descends the notion of knowledge into dust?

O the wondrous mercy of God! O the astonishment at the bounty of our God and Creator! O might for which all is possible! O the immeasurable goodness that brings our nature again, sinners though we be, to His regeneration and rest! Who is sufficient to glorify Him?

He raises up the transgressor and blasphemer, he renews dust unendowed with reason, making it rational and comprehending and the scattered and insensible dust and the scattered senses He makes a rational nature worthy of thought.

The sinner is unable to comprehend the grace of His resurrection. Where is gehenna, that can afflict us? Where is perdition, that terrifies us in many ways and quenches the joy of His love? And what is gehenna as compared with the grace of His resurrection, when He will raise us from Hades and cause our corruptible nature to be clad in incorruption, and raise up in glory him that has fallen into Hades?

Come, men of discernment, and be filled with wonder! Whose mind is sufficiently wise and marvelous to wonder worthily at the bounty of our Creator? His recompense of sinners is, that instead of a just recompense, He rewards them with resurrection, and instead of those bodies with which they trampled upon His law, He enrobes them with perfect glory and incorruption.

That grace whereby we are resurrected after we have sinned is greater than the grace which brought us into being when we were not. Glory be to Thine immeasurable grace, O Lord!

Behold, Lord, the waves of Thy grace close my mouth with silence, and there is not a thought left in me before the face of Thy thanksgiving. What mouths can confess Thy praise, O good King, Thou Who lovest our life? Glory be to Thee for the two worlds which Thou hast created for our growth and delight, leading us by all things which Thou didst fashion to the knowledge of Thy glory, from now and unto the ages. Amen.

Isaac the Syrian, Homily 60

“Remember who your teachers were…”
2 Timothy 3:14

Is it I ?

When one knows one is ‘on death row’ and is going to die, whether by sickness, or by execution, I think it’s customary for the condemned to make a final request. What comes to my mind is a man facing a firing squad asking for a last cigarette. Small consolation to the likes of me who have never smoked. What would I ask for, really, if I were standing against that wall, knowing that in a moment it would all be over? At that point, I’m not sure anything material I could have would be worth the asking. Maybe I’d ask for a last drink of cold water. What would you ask for?

Someone might respond—I might respond if I weren’t so darned self-conscious—that he’d like a moment to make one final prayer. After all, if you know you’re going to meet your Maker and have some moral sensibility and doctrinal belief, ‘make peace with your adversary while on the way to trial,’ you might want to confess your earthly sins while you still have breath. You know you can’t escape being dragged to court, but maybe, just maybe you can settle your accounts outside and avoid being harshly sentenced by the judge. I think we all know what I’m talking about.

Consider Christ, the man we know as Jesus of Nazareth. What was his last request? He knew—the friends he had just eaten supper with didn’t really—he was going to die, and that it was for real, not just in appearance. His last request was his prayer to the Father, the one called his ‘high-priestly prayer’ that his beloved friend John recorded from memory in his gospel. This prayer wasn’t quite finished in our hearing, though, for when Jesus had gone to the garden of Gethsemane, he continued it while his disciples, even while we, had fallen asleep. What we missed we’ll never know.

But we can overhear his prayer after his last supper with his friends. What did he pray for? Let’s have a hearing. ‘Father, the hour has come: glorify your Son, so that your Son may glorify you; and, through the power over all mankind that you have given Him, let him give eternal life to all those you have entrusted to him.’ This does not sound like the kind of request a man who knows he is about to go to his death would make, not unless of course he were very sure about two things: that He is the Son of God, and that his Father can do anything He requests.

I take back what I said about not hearing the last part of his prayer. I forgot that, though John doesn’t record his words, evangelist Luke does. I wonder how he knew. In the garden Christ prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me. Nevertheless, let your will be done, not mine.’ From this part of his last request, we have learned that Jesus of Nazareth was at least a real man, a human being, for sure. How could someone who starts out asking for what seems a complete impossibility close his request with what seems to be abject resignation?

Returning to John’s gospel, what else do we find? Does Jesus pray for himself in his last request to the Father? Not exactly. ‘I pray for them; I am not praying for the world but for those you have given me, because they belong to you.’ He continues praying for those whom God has given Him. ‘Holy Father, keep those you have given me true to your name, so that they may be one like us.’ He doesn’t seem to be concerned at all about the fact he is shortly to die. In fact, in his prayer he affirms, ‘I am not in the world any longer, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.’

As it is, it appears that Christ’s last request was nothing for himself at all, but for us, and he was asking the only One he was absolutely confident would be able to grant his request. He asks for one thing, though, again and again, each time in slightly different terms. ‘I pray not only for these, but for those also who through their words will believe in me. May they all be one. Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me, and I am in you, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me. I have given them the glory you gave to me, that they may be one as we are one.’

Nothing for himself, except that he be glorified, whatever that means. (We know what it means now, but we didn’t then. Only he knew he was going to reign from the Tree.) Everything he asked for in his last request was for us. Everything. At least, I think it was for us. We’re the ones he refers to when he says, ‘but for those also.’ But I am hesitant for this reason. If he prayed for us, and if his Father in heaven was sure to grant his request, what are we doing? As bystanders to his death by torture, as hearers of the good news of his resurrection, as witnesses of his ascension to his Father, what is our last request?

‘Lord, is it I, is it I?’