Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Laying down your foundations

The well-being of society in any culture depends primarily on the family, how it functions, and on what foundations it’s built and maintained. The scriptures of the Old and the New Testaments used to be the source book of Christian marriage and family life, but even for the majority of Christians, this is no longer true. In the Orthodox faith, we may have a better grasp of these truths, we still know them and are expected to follow them, because the Church has yet to follow the world in playing games with marriage and the rules. Who knows how long this will last, though, because even in the Orthodox Church, the world takes its toll of broken marriages and families, while the Church looks on, sometimes, uncomprehending, unable to help. This is a tragedy that casts its dark shadow even on the inner walls of the Church.

Here are a few thoughts on marriage from an Orthodox perspective, written to a young couple getting ready to take the plunge. Entering into any relationship always requires leaps of faith, all the more with marriage since it’s a relationship “for keeps.”

First, what’s going on in your latest “hard talk” is a necessary step in your growing relationship. It’s what I would call the “constitutional” stage. You need to sort out right at the beginning what the “constitution” of your marriage is, “in order to form a more perfect union…” Of course, for you both, the constitution is the Word of God, Jesus is your Mediator, the Bible your written document to refer to.

The order of marriage, that is, how it works, is pretty clear in the Bible—too clear for most modern people.
“Christ is the head of every man, man is the head of woman, and God is the head of Christ,” (1 Corinthians 11:3) and everything that this verse implies, being amplified and explained and examples of it given in the rest of the Bible.

In Christ there are ‘priesthoods,’ conveyed by means of ta mystiría, “the mysteries.”

The first one is basic, which you receive when you receive Christ (give your permission to Him to be Lord of your life), are baptized and chrismated. That chrismation (anointing) is the symbolic act whereby you are joined (the meaning of sym-bolos, “together-thrown”) to Christ and become one of the royal priesthood, the holy nation. Everyone in Christ is called to be that, as bishop Anthony used to teach, and their ministry and witness is to do 90% of what “ordained clergy” can do.

Another priesthood is marriage, which you receive when you declare that you are one flesh with your betrothed. Here, both the man and the woman give each other permission to each other’s all, which is the only kind of permission that can produce a Godly family. The woman and man covenant with each other to follow what the Bible says marriage is, respecting its order. Their ministry and witness is to produce a family in Christ.

Another priesthood is the ordained ministry. A man must be married, ideally, so that his marriage witness can be the foundation of his now expanded witness and responsibilities. Notice that though the man is the head of the woman, the man cannot be ordained to this priesthood without his wife’s explicit permission. Once she gives it, she acknowledges that both of them have become bondservants of Christ, and the ministry and witness of both of them, individually and as a married couple, now have added dimensions.

The reason I gave this example of the step by step process is to illustrate how, in Orthodoxy at least, the relationship of husband to wife follows the scriptures but within constitutional limits. There is a divine and merciful order in all that our God has prescribed for us. If we follow it, then there is no danger and nothing to fear in entering the marriage covenant, for either party. If we begin to deviate and try to adapt it to fit our preference, things start to go wrong.

The fear that the woman will be considered an “inferior” by her husband is a false fear driven by worldly thinking. There is no “superior” and “inferior” in Christ, but there is order. In the Bible, the matriarchs are all examples of womanliness, and when we read of their submission to their husbands, do we ever get a feeling of inferiority? Ruth, in fact, was so devoted to her husband that when he died she transferred her obedience to his mother Naomi, “I will go where you go, your people will be my people.” Do we ever get the feeling that Ruth was “inferior” in fact or feeling when we read this story? Quite the contrary, she is seen by us as heroic.

In His divine order for our relationships with each other, God gives us not opportunities for bondage but for freedom. He transforms us from rootless plants to “deep-rooted trees by streams of water” (Psalm 1, Mizmor Aleph). He starts with our basic raw natures which are full of fear and doubt and weakness, and He transforms us into heroes.
That is why the Orthodox marriage service culminates in the procession around the marriage altar singing the song of the 40 martyrs of Sebaste, the presbyter leading the couple by the hand—bridegroom in front, bride following—while with his other hand he holds aloft as a beacon or torch, the golden-clad Word of God, the Gospels.

Your marriage is an inviolable tabernacle, a sort of Holy of Holies that no one, not even your future children, can penetrate. This is a given, and knowing this should dispel any man’s or woman’s fear of “what might happen.” The man creates with his brothers the outer world, he protects, he acquires, he extends the borders, he takes captives (for Christ). The woman creates with her sisters the inner world, the hearth, the home, the nurture of children, the sanctuary and paradise of her husband. This is what comes out of our following of Christ in the priesthood of marriage.

In the Orthodox marriage service this is seen in numerous places, and the basic concept of the crowning symbolizes the martyría (Greek, “witness”) of marriage. As with Christ, this martyría has two aspects, the cross, and paradise. Christ’s death on the cross opened for us who believe the gates of paradise. In marriage, our deaths to ourselves open for us and also for our children the gates of paradise, making the Christian family and home an ikon of paradise. That’s why a man and woman are crowned as king and queen, as Adam and Eve, and their future family and home, blessed as Paradise.

Work these things through with each other, get your “constitution” in order “for a more perfect union.” God is with you.

“Bridegroom! Be exalted like Abraham, blessed like Isaac and multiplied like Jacob, walking in peace and righteously doing God’s commandments. And you, O bride! Be exalted like Sarah, gladdened like Rebecca and multiplied like Rachel, being happy with your husband and keeping the precepts of the Law!”

— Final blessing from the Order of Crowning
in the
Orthodox Wedding Service

Monday, September 28, 2009

‘Who touched me?’

The following ramble on slavery, freedom and love is something that I grabbed off FaceBook, not a place where I normally go for edification. These words were posted by my oldest son Jacob Gorny, and they touched down in me like lightning to earth at a number of places. How little we know of each other's sufferings, thoughts and loves. I found these thoughts worthy, and I hope you do too.

"Being a house slave is better than being a field slave, but you are never part of the family."

It's related to another quote I read someplace about someone who went to do missionary work... "I wanted to be a missionary in the Congo because I wanted to help the poor. Then I realized I wanted to help the poor because I wanted to feel rich. Then I realized that when I got home I thought I was rich but was actually poor. Then I wanted to be with the poor because that was my real home."

Hmm... there was definitely a time when I thought it was because I wasn't Greek. But that's not it, because there are Greek house slaves too. Then I thought it was because I wasn't rich… but there are rich house slaves. It was also possible that it was because I was not part of the family... but I have seen a lot of family members get treated like house slaves... No, I think it is simply because I'm not cool enough.

I do think my statement applies to converts primarily, but I think it also can affect Greeks who are trying to be who they want to be, and not be driven by trends and what other people want. And yet, at this point in time perhaps, it is worth looking at Malcolm X's understanding of the house slave.

"You have to go back to what the young brother here referred to as the house Negro and the field Negro back during slavery. There were two kinds of slaves, the house Negro and the field Negro. The house Negroes—they lived in the house with master, they dressed pretty good, they ate good because they ate his food—what he left. They lived in the attic or the basement, but still they lived near the master; and they loved the master more than the master loved himself. They would give their life to save the master's house, quicker than the master would. If the master said, "We got a good house here," the house Negro would say, "Yeah, we got a good house here." Whenever the master said "we," he said "we." That's how you can tell a house Negro.

"If the master's house caught on fire, the house Negro would fight harder to put the blaze out than the master would. If the master got sick, the house Negro would say, "What's the matter, boss, we sick?" We sick! He identified himself with his master, more than his master identified with himself. And if you came to the house Negro and said, "Let's run away, let's escape, let's separate," the house Negro would look at you and say, "Man, you crazy. What you mean, separate? Where is there a better house than this? Where can I wear better clothes than this? Where can I eat better food than this?" That was that house Negro."

Perhaps this is even why the unspeakable tension caused by people who believe that American Orthodoxy should be autocephalous... who knows. For me, there is an underlying sense that no matter how hard I strive to maintain the Orthodox faith, I am a commodity—owned not by Jesus Christ and the mandates of the gospel, but by the hoops I am asked to jump through and the hazing I am expected to put up with, in order to be a 'member.'

I think part of the Southern Gospel struggle comes from this idea that people are not supposed to own other people, and that we are suppose to live freely under the eyes of God, and to live out a life of service to fellow humans as Jesus Christ did... that through deliverance through Christ they could throw off the shackles of race, social status, and especially of the work of building capital for someone else's dreams.

Well, the situation with house slaves could be pointed at as being a sign that 'slavery works'… Ask the slaves, and they are happy. Ask the masters, and they are happy.

The Church is nothing more than a modern name for the tree of life. Such a structure will always succeed… grows a branch, for example, and branches will fail if they become more concerned with the sturdiness of the branch at the expense of the fruit. A diseased branch consumes the energy to make the fruit… it becomes sterile. The trunk says, 'What's going on here? I'm sending water and nutrients through the system and yet there is no fruit.' It is a misallocation of resources.

I allow it because I hope it will cultivate something good… sometimes a seed, sometimes a plant. But sometimes it is a waste… life goes where it does not belong, because I'm foolish, and I can't see where the true need is.

However, the tree of life is inescapable… I am born into it, because of it, and will live in spite of myself because of it. It's a mysterious grace we have inherited. Slavery has always been about milking that life—that grace—from others.

There are people who believe love is only possible through enslavement. God operates against this and eventually it will fail… through death or isolation. It is entirely inevitable… we aren't designed for it. We were made to be free.
Freely have you received, freely give.

I admit it, I allow people to seduce the energy God gives me away from where it should go… to petty projects, or to dead-end relationships, or to feed their compulsions and addictions. I don't know if knowingly entering into these situations with delusional hope is sinful. But I feel stupid every time it happens… even though it helps me recognize who is trying to use me, and who is not.

"Who touched me?" …I wish it was that easy for everyone to know when they have loved someone or something as God hoped they would.
— Jacob Gorny


ἅγιοι ἔσεσθε, ὅτι ἐγὼ ἅγιος

Be holy, for I am holy.
1 Peter 1:16

It seems that no matter where I go, or whom I come in contact with, the fact that I esteem and hold the Word of God above my head and everything else automatically positions me in a state of enmity. This has always come as a shock to me; I consider the scriptures greater than all, and so I always thought that because of this, people would trust me and honor me. Instead, they either want to challenge me on all points or end up simply despising me because of the Testimony that I simply will not waver from.

They refuse to understand. I am peace, yet they consider me to be war. They refuse to understand. I want His decrees, His commands, His precepts, His statues, yet they think I am self-righteous, narrow-minded, rash, unkind.

My witnessing is considered survivalism and evasion; must I constantly have to defend the Testimony? It is not mine—I did not create it. It was no emanating spark springing from my faculties. The Testimony was handed down in the Word; I simply accepted it as it is—without adding or subtracting. And because of this, I am wrong.

The language of the Cross may be illogical to those who are not on the way to salvation, but those of us who are on the way see it as God’s power to save. As scripture says: I shall destroy the wisdom of the wise and bring to nothing all the learning of the learned. Where are the philosophers now? Where are the scribes? Where are any of our thinkers today? Do you see now how God has shown up the foolishness of human wisdom? If it was God’s wisdom that human wisdom should not know God, it was because God wanted to save those who have faith through the foolishness of the message that we preach. And so, while the Jews demand miracles and the Greeks look for wisdom, here are we preaching a crucified Christ; to the Jews an obstacle that they cannot get over, to the pagans madness, but to those who have been called, whether they are Jews or Greeks, a Christ who is the power and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Take yourselves, for instance, brothers, at the time when you were called: how many of you were wise in the ordinary sense of the word? How many were influential people, or came from noble families? No, it was to shame the wise that God chose what is foolish by human reckoning; those whom the world thinks are common and contemptible are the ones that God has chosen—those who are nothing at all to show up those who are everything. The human race has nothing to boast about to God, but you God has made members of Christ Jesus and by God’s doing He has become our wisdom, and our virtue, and our holiness, and our freedom. As scripture says: if anyone wants to boast, let him boast about the Lord.
1 Corinthians 1:18-25 Jerusalem Bible

And I am wrong with you, if that's what it is, but the wisdom of God is foolishness to the world, as are the accusations, the scourging, the cross, the nails, the sponge and vinegar, the gash in His side, the taking the body down, the laying it in the rich man's unused tomb, and the resurrection on the third day. So is the 40 day sojourn, the ascent to the right hand of Divine majesty, the never-leaving arrival of the Unearthly Spirit, and finally, so is the second and glorious Coming. I stand on this bedrock with you, so we can share Golgotha with our Master, and also share Paradise with the thief.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Now Your Word is a lamp

Psalms for the 26th Day
119: 105-176 — 97-176 (Hebrew)

נ (Nún)

Now Your Word is a lamp to my feet,
a light on my path.
I have sworn to observe, I shall maintain
Your righteous rulings.
Yahweh, though my suffering is acute,
revive me as Your Word has guaranteed.
Yahweh, accept the homage that I offer,
teach me Your rulings.
I would lay down my life at any moment,
I have never yet forgotten Your Law.
The wicked have tried to trap me,
but I have never yet veered from Your precepts.
Your decrees are my eternal heritage,
they are the joy of my heart.
I devote myself to obeying Your statutes—
compensation enough for ever!

The Hebrew discipline of daily psalm reading starts the reading for the 26th day at verse 97, at the letter Mém…


Meditating all day on Your Law
how I have come to love it!
By Your commandment, ever mine,
how much wiser You have made me than my enemies!
How much subtler than my teachers,
through my meditating on Your decrees!
How much more perceptive than the elders,
as a result of my respecting Your precepts!
I refrain my feet from every evil path,
the better to observe Your Word.
I do not turn aside from Your rulings,
since You Yourself teach me these.
Your promise, how sweet to my palate!
Sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Your precepts endow me with perception;
I hate all deceptive paths.

Meeting again the verses of the psalm for the 26th day is always, for me, like running into a faithful and comforting friend at the end of a long and arduous day of struggle. He holds me closely to him for a moment, then looks me in the eyes and says, "Don't worry! That day is over. The new one is here, when we can serve the God of heaven together and joyfully keep His commandments! You are Home!"

It is fitting that the psalm for the 26th day should fall on the sabbath this month, because for me, yes, it has been a very difficult week, right up to the last moment, but by the mercy of Christ our God, I am home again, in His Word, where I want to live, and where He lights up my path.

The psalm of this day is so precious! Listen to this, just one more stanza, starting with verse 129, at the letter Pé…


Your decrees are so wonderful
my soul cannot but respect them.
As Your Word unfolds, it gives light,
and the simple understand.
I open my mouth, panting
eagerly for Your commandments.
Turn to me, please, pity me,
as You should those who love Your name.
Direct my steps as You have promised,
let evil win no power over me.
Rescue me from human oppression;
I will observe Your precepts.
Treat Your servant kindly,
teach me Your statutes.
My eyes stream with tears,
because others disregard Your Law.

As anyone who prays the psalms will have noticed, much of their content forms the basis of Orthodox liturgical chant. The familiar doxology at the conclusion of the orthros (dawn) service includes a whole series of psalm verses after the original text of the ancient hymn Δόξα σοι τω δείξαντι το φως (Glory to Thee who hast shown us the Light), and among them is the thrice-chanted verse from Psalm 119, "Blessed are You, O Lord, teach me Your statutes" (Psalm 119:12), in Greek, Ευλογητός ει Κύριε, δίδαξον με τα δικαιώματα σου (Evloghitós ei Kýrie, dhídhaxon me ta dhikaiómata su), and in Hebrew (omitting the Hebrew script), Barúkh attá Adonáy, lammedéyni hukéykha. This hymn is so deeply engraved in my consciousness that I often wake up in the morning singing it.

It was a beautiful sunrise this morning, deep golden light making the autumn treetops radiant, and now the day is once again renewed. Glory to You who have shown us the Light!

By the way, the full text of the doxology in transliterated Greek with an English translation is hymn #38 in my booklet Singing the Work of the People, which can be downloaded by clicking HERE.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Glory of "Holy Russia"

Images and text copied from the Voices from Russia blog.

Metropolitan Hilarion Kapral of New York of the ROCOR has taken the Kursk Root Icon to Russia. Look at the size of the crowd for the procession! There are THOUSANDS present! There are more people here than there are in most American Orthodox archdioceses… reflect on that and understand why all those who bloviate concerning “American Orthodoxy” are all wet. This humbles one… these people had many options… watch TV, listen to the radio, visit friends, go to work, read, go to the shopping mall, or potter at the dacha… instead, they are HERE. Make no more sarcastic and condescending comments about the Church in Russia until you can muster a crowd of THIS size. WOW!!!

Patriarch Kirill Gundyaev (1946- ) of Moscow and all the Russias, the de facto spiritual head of the Orthodox Church, at the procession. Russia is the centre of Orthodox civilisation, being the largest, strongest, and most influential Orthodox state. Therefore, it is no surprise that Vladyki Kirill is the leading hierarch of the Church throughout the world. Numbers do speak… There are more people here present than there are on the entire legitimate canonical territory of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Istanbul… ponder that… it tells us something, no?

I quoted the text above completely without editing, so that my Orthodox brethren and other Christians can see where the Russian Orthodox Church is headed.

There was another news article reporting on the return of the famous Kursk ikon to Russia. It was this article that prompted my response as a comment on Fr Milovan's blog:

Holy Russia, hmm, well, as a historian and an Orthodox Christian, I know much of what that implies. For one, a big, very big country, the biggest in fact as far as size goes, and one that had an Orthodox emperor, just like the old Byzantine state, a fatherly, semi-divine protector of the poor and innocent, and defender and promoter of the Church. For another, a land of immense plains and forests filled with a crowd of hard-working, industrious peasants of simple but immovable faith, worshipping the Lord with thousands of self-crossings and prostrations, the lighting of thousands of candles daily, crowds, crowds of the pious and God-fearing Christians…

So, the ikon of the Mother of God, the miraculous, the not-made-by-hands, returns to its homeland finally, like an exiled queen after the defeat of her enemies, and is greeted by crowds, crowds of the pious God-fearing Christians…

Where were these Christians when the ikon was still overseas in safety? Were they in hiding just as she was, waiting for the opportune and safe moment to come out? Where were these crowds when Holy Russia was being trampled under the feet of Godless criminals? Would there have been enough bullies and bandits to keep a crowd this big in check? Would there have been enough bullets to slay them all and put Holy Russia forever under the earth, just a memory in the pages of history?

As long as the crowds that greeted Jesus with hosannas on His entry into Jerusalem dissipate or, even worse, become the crowd that cried out, “Crucify him!” there will be no “kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” and possibly no “Holy Russia” in reality.

Let’s not be blinded by our “devotion” to the Mother of God and the saints, and following Metropolitan Hilarion’s “call on all believers to come to the Church and adore the icon” imagine that this has anything other than ceremonial significance. Yes, it is a historic moment. It does signify what they say it signifies, a kind of “peace” in the Russian Church at large, at home and abroad.

It does certainly give the Orthodox believers of whatever level of commitment and faith a feeling of solidarity. All these things can lead to real faith, if real faith is desired. They can also lead to a whole menagerie of other things, some of them not so praiseworthy or Christian. The “imperial church” has not always been a friend to believers, neither has the “imperial state.”

As glorious as the ikon of Saint George slaying the dragon appears, when you venerate the ikon, which do you kiss, the saint, or the dragon?

This comment elicited a mild rebuke from a Russian Orthodox woman, which can be read at Fr Milovan's original post, to which I also responded, trying to affirm that it was not my intention to be condescending in my comment above. As people who know me will also know where I am coming from, my comment probably needs no further explanations from me. The warning implicit in what I wrote is only this: Crowds can mean many things, and neither numbers nor a show of strength matters. What matters is faith. Let's see what this crowd, or any other, does for Christ. I hope, as always, for the best.

Da, moya shestra Vara, slava Yisusu Kristu, slava Bogu!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


As I drive to and from work every day, part of my route takes me up Portland’s N.E. 82nd Avenue, a main road infamous for its connexions with prostitution, adult video parlors and strip joints.

Yesterday morning, a 40-ish looking prostitute with long curly auburn hair, wearing skin-tight blue jeans, and taking a drag on a cigarette was walking along the road with a man. I just happened to notice her and in that fleeting moment, she stared at me dead on with an intense look of mixed contempt and anger, and then was gone.

This morning, a man in a shabby linen suit, looking about 50 years old, with a shock of red gold hair and a very thick but trimmed beard to match, was standing on that same sidewalk right at the road’s edge shaking his fist at on-coming traffic and shouting angry words. He wasn’t standing at a corner or at a bus stop. He made no move to jay-walk the busy avenue. He was just expressing himself.

Last night, a friend of mine who happens to be a fellow Orthodox, was sitting in my living room and I was upstairs in my bed room. I thought I heard the sound of the front door being opened and shut, and I heard him talking to someone, then silence. I waited a minute or two, and then came downstairs and asked him if there was someone at the door. His response was, “No.”

“Well, who were you talking to then?” I asked. “I was talking to the man who has been tormenting me for the last ten years,” he answered in an annoyed tone of voice, then mumbled as if to himself, “whose been tormenting me for the past forty years…” and then trailed off. “What are you talking about?” I responded. “Spirits! There’s spirits outside! Roman, the world is full of spirits!” he retorted in an angry, panicky tone of voice. I left him there, and went back upstairs to my evening “quiet time.”

It seems that the world we inhabit is full of insanity or, as my friend put it, spirits. Even though he is a Christian, his mental illness continues and deepens. The Church does nothing for him, because everything it is willing to do has to be done with his full consent, and he doesn’t give it. It makes me wonder if an insane person actually has free will.

a comment to one of my earlier posts, I wrote “Turning to Christ means sanity; turning away from Him means insanity.” The world I see on one leg of my drive to work every day is an insane world, but that world can get very, very close sometimes. It intrudes upon even my Church, even my own family, even on me. It does come down to this, do we turn to Christ or away from Him?

It’s not hard to see how those who live in the world without Christ can be insane, but how can an Orthodox or any Christian be insane? Well, we still have choices and we make them. Some insanity, maybe most of it, is caused by disorders deeper than the level of will, but there are those forms of insanity which we welcome by our persistent rebellion, our refusal to accept help.

We can see it in small doses affecting ourselves, but the same rebellion repeated and unrestrained seems to lead us to a point where we no longer have the will to resist it. Insanity, then, becomes our “normal” state, from which we emerge as necessary to survive in our interactions with others, and into which we retreat when we find ourselves alone.

How can my friend be insane and a Christian at the same time? In his case, it seems to me, it is a disorder of the will, a bent towards the rebellious, a turning away from the real Christ combined with a turning towards an idolatrous image of Christ. He spends his time “praying” and reading the bible in Greek (he doesn’t understand Greek, he just knows how to pronounce it) when he hasn’t found anything else to do. He doesn’t work because everyone “out there” is out to prevent him from working and leading a normal life.

It’s the mercy of Christ, coming to him because of his confession of His name, that is keeping my friend from total insanity, but it’s like hanging on to life by a shoestring.

It makes me wonder just how much of what we do and what we are is only because of God’s grace, and how it is that some find themselves turning to Him, and others away.

As I remember from the Night Litany in the Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book (Anglican), “For the insane, [Lord,] keep them in Thy power.”

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Fr Milovan wrote in a comment [italics added] at his recent blog post “A Great Victory for normal Serbia” these notorious words, paraphrasing the teaching handed over to us by Archimandrite Justin Popović and Metropolitan Amphilochios of Montenegro:

That which is new to this world, the venerable Fr. Justin Popović says at one place, and with which the New Testament remains eternally new in heaven and earth, is that we are now called to condemn sin but love the sinner, saving him from sin.

He also states, and I paraphrase, As a being created in the image of God, man is incomparably greater than any one of his sins… It is not permitted that we make Christians cease sinning because of some obligation, but rather through persuasion, words and meekness are we to carry out the salvation of people.

The metropolitan’s words [Metropolitan Amphilohije of Montenegro and the Coastlands] are the position of the Church. No one has, nor are they in any way forced, to listen to or pay heed to any one single thing that comes from the mouth of church leaders. If they are interested in the salvation of their souls, on the other hand, this rule certainly does not apply.

It is by telling and preaching to people the Truth about our salvation that we bring them to the church. Unlike the world of business that uses advertising to make things seem like something else in order to draw them in, ours is not to advertise the Church, but preach the Gospel of Christ.
—Fr Milovan Katanić, Presbyter

Monday, September 21, 2009


God cannot enter the world for the world has been rendered God-proof.

Out of all the commendable thoughts expressed in Fr Stephen's recent post, Icons and Words, something about the sentence quoted above grabbed me strongly, and I confess that the thoughts that began to arise out of it have little to do with the topic in his original post, other than that, for me, they are, like words of the scriptures, ikonic to an amazing degree. I often say, "Pictures are supposed to be worth a thousand words, but for me the bible is the word that is worth a thousand pictures." That's what happened inside my head when I read, "God cannot enter the world for the world has been rendered God-proof."

In context, what I think Fr Stephen was expressing is that the drift of modern Western culture has tended towards the elimination of God from every aspect of our lives, and that it has very well succeeded, or at least in popular culture. In an odd way, though, I think he was also saying that even amongst some Christians the same thing has happened. What he writes about is from the viewpoint of an Orthodox Christian looking out of his window on the world, and as a matter of fact, it also looks like that to me too.

The fact is, the world has not yet succeeded in making itself God-proof, and we who follow Jesus are the living, walking reminder of that failure. It may never be able to render itself God-proof as long as we are on the planet. This opens up many other questions to discussion which I won't go into here, but as I read that line in his post and its conditional truth thrust itself deep into my mind, I saw a lot of things that I can't express in words, except one:

Just at that moment when the rulers of this world system are at the point of being able to certify the world God-proof, that is when He won't be able to hold Himself back.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Self-fulfilling poverty and the abuse of images

The scene is common enough, at least in the United States, at least out West. Driving home from church services, I passed not once, but twice, “poor people” sitting or standing at a highway off-ramp or at a traffic-lighted major intersection, holding up a brown cardboard sign, asking for money.
I was surprised that I only encountered two. On a typical day of running errands or even going to and coming home from work, I will encounter at least a half-dozen and up to eight or ten.

These people range a broad spectrum of human types: men and women, young, middle aged and old, black and white (although where I live, Oregon, almost exclusively white), poorly dressed to stylish and well-dressed, dirty to clean and well-groomed in appearance.

The signs advertise a wide range of pleas: “Homeless, will work for food” is the most pathetic, if true. “Disabled veteran, anything will help. God bless” is another one that almost elicits a response, and sometimes does. I used to pass by, looking the other way, but now, I generally pay more than average attention to each beggar, especially when I can stop close. I look them over, then look at them in the face to see if they will look back—some do, most don’t, or only quickly, and when they see the intensity of my gaze, look away. If I have enough time, I try to read every word on their signs.

There have been one or two in the past three months I would’ve helped, but it was at the wrong time. For me, help is not a handout, but going back and talking to them man to man, and find out what it is they need, and if I could, I would help them. But I only help real people, not mere images. Once or twice, after getting done with my errand, I actually drove back to where I saw them to do exactly that, but both times they were already gone. It made me think, “Was even that one only a mirage of need?” but that doesn’t stop me from keeping a lookout.

“The poor you will have with you always, but you will not always have Me,” says the Lord. I ask Him like a Pharisee, “But who is the poor?” and His answer is still the same, even though my question is slightly different, “A man was once on his way down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of brigands…” This is why I don’t want to just pass by, throw a dollar bill into a man’s hat, accept his “God bless you!” and move on. My conscience is not for sale, and even a beggar hasn’t poverty enough to buy it, if it was.

They work on guilt. Living in self-fulfilling poverty, they want to have things on their terms, they want to be supported in their lifestyle, without following the rules that civil society has made to help them stand on their own two feet. Painting themselves into a corner, they have made a habit of blaming everyone but themselves for their “poverty,” while still coveting the prosperity they imagine others have and are cheating them of. They know the bible enough to know that God demands compassion from us for those in need. They take that image and run with it, but as blackmailers.

A poor man is a man who wants to work but is unable to for a real reason, just as a cripple is a man who wants to stand on his own feet and walk but cannot because of a real handicap. Compassion and help to either are the catalysts to their recovery, unless their condition is caused by an uncooperative spirit. Though Judæo-Christian ethics have been officially abandoned after tutoring a civilization to ethical maturity, even what is left after faith and obedience are removed is still enough to help those who wish to be helped, at all costs to themselves, rather than on their own terms.

We speak of self-fulfilling prophecy when describing people who set themselves up to fail. For the topic under discussion, I've changed the wording to self-fulfilling poverty. That’s the kind of poverty that is so proud of itself, that it would rather humiliate the beggar himself and shame the people being begged, than submit to reason, get real help, and be done with.

As for images, we live in an age when every image and name has been bent, profaned, and abused beyond all limit and sense of decency. Images that were meant to invoke compassion are now used to extort it.

Yes, Lord, You are right when You say, “The poor you will have with you always, but you will not always have Me.” Show us Yourself in the real poor, and save us from the deadness of heart that would walk away from their need. As for these others, Lord, Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

How long?

This morning, Saturday, was one of those mornings when I could—believe it or not—actually “sleep in.” For me, what this usually means is I take, or rather give myself, sélah, pause, to consider the things of God. Making myself comfortable in a warm quilt and cuddling with my Jerusalem Bible, my NIV, my Greek New Testament, or my Tehillim (the Hebrew book of Psalms), I pray and thank the Lord, talking to Him as our Father in heaven. Then, declaring the Word of God as both my prayer and receiving it as His word personally addressed to me, His unworthy servant, I let myself go as long as I can, resting in His presence, learning from and feeding on Him. He is the Bread of Life. Now, that’s what I would call, real “breakfast in bed”!

Forgive me, brethren!—I do not intend to be disrespectful or unmindful of the apostolic injunction to “stand in prayer,” but there are many kinds of meetings with our Lord, some we stand for, in others we prostrate, in still others we forget all formality and simply cry out, “Help!” In all of these, God knows. He knows all about us, we can hide nothing. Yet, oddly enough for the divine Being, though we do not know all about Him, He does let us know Him in the only way we can, and from His lovers and friends He also hides nothing. “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15 NIV)

This morning I felt strongly drawn to pray the psalms for the 19th day according to the Hebrew usage, and from the Tehillim, in Hebrew. Of course, I also read those parts in English which I still don’t quite grasp in the original language. It amazes me how the Word of God seems to teach me and open my understanding of the Hebrew sometimes without having to resort to the facing page translation. God is good. Tov Hashém.

The psalms appointed for the 19th Day were Psalms 90 to 96 (again, Hebrew usage, which is slightly offset from Christian usage). I rejoiced when I saw which psalms they were—the psalm Moses wrote (Psalm 90) describing our brief stay on earth and all the troubles we encounter. Then, following it, a psalm that almost seems like our God’s immediate and comforting response (Psalm 91) to Moses’ plea, “Whoever sits in the refuge of the Most High—he shall dwell in the shadow of the Almighty…”

In the Tehillim, rabbinical tradition also ascribes Psalm 91 to Moses. All these psalms belong to the shabbat, the seventh-day, today. As I recited them and prayed them, pausing and rereading the choicest verses, the blessing of the sabbath rest came over me. Again and again, I thanked the Lord for His many kindnesses and mercies to me, a sinner—especially for granting me this morning of shalóm, of peace, something that is denied to many others.

When I came to Psalm 94, something changed in my mood. I read words like, “How long shall the wicked—O Hashem—how long shall the wicked exult?” (Psalm 94:3), and as I prayed I had that sense of abandonment and frustration that God’s hereditary people Israel must have felt all through their history. It’s hard not to be drawn into sympathy with them; the same things happen to us. “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” (John 15:19 NIV)

Just as Psalm 91 came “to the rescue” of man’s complaint in Psalm 90, so it seems to me, Psalm 95 comes to bring God’s immediate and living word to the reversal of man’s plight, and the ultimate answer to his complaint in Psalm 94. “Come!—let us prostrate ourselves and bow, let us kneel before God, our Maker. For He is our God, and we can be the flock He pastures, and the sheep in His charge—even today, if we but heed His call!” (Psalm 95:6-7)

“How long?” we cry out to God from inside our various self-made miseries, as if He were not already aware of them all and dealing with us according to our capacities.

“How long?” is the answer we would hear from Him, if and when we only sought to hear His voice, as the psalmist says, “even today, if we but heed His call!”

The psalm painting and the painting of the grieving woman are by Christa Rosier, Huizen, Netherlands. View her other paintings at her website, Psalm Paintings.

Friday, September 18, 2009

All ikon

Father Stephen writes in his post Is the World Literal or Iconic?

Much that passes for Christian theology or “thought” belongs to this world-view today. Thus those who concern themselves with “prophetic” events are constantly working to make a connection between the words of Scripture and the “literal” events of today’s news. The coming of Christ is seen by them as an event that will fit within the headlines of the paper – and even fantasize about the difficulties presented to mainstream media when the event of a “literal rapture” occurs, and a significant portion of the population goes missing.

Casting their nets into the waves of speculation, they bring up no fish, only their own reflection, and nodding in approval to one another, they head back to shore, where they will count the fish that they have not caught, only imagined. Fantasy upon fantasy, when the Lord Himself is not just near us, but among us, notwithstanding His second and glorious coming, the judgment, and the last day. Even as reality is not just planned but all plan, so is the world not just bits of ikon here and there but all ikon. Everything points to and glorifies the One in whom we were hidden before the foundation of the world, and in whose embrace we now live through love, now and unto the ages of ages. Glory to Thee, O God! Glory to Thee!


ἀπὸ δὲ τῶν ἡμερῶν Ἰωάννου τοῦ βαπτιστοῦ ἕως ἄρτι ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν βιάζεται, καὶ βιασταὶ ἁρπάζουσιν αὐτήν

And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.
Matthew 12:13 KJV

Let us look to ourselves and be sober, brothers. Who will give us back this present time if we waste it? If we actually had to seek these days we would not have found them. Abba Arsenios was always saying to himself, "Arsenios, what have you come for?" We are in such a negligent and ruinous condition that we don't know why we have come; we don't know even what we want and, therefore, we make no progress, but we are always distressed. This comes about because we have no set purpose in our hearts and, actually, if we were to resolve to fight a little, in a short time we should not find life distressing or laborious. For if from the beginning a man does violence to himself and struggles with himself a little, in a short time he makes progress and afterwards he goes on peacefully, when God, seeing that he does violence to himself, brings him help. We must, then, do ourselves violence. Let us lay down a good foundation, let us meanwhile desire what is good.
— Abba Dorotheos of Gaza

At the beginning of the struggle... the holy commandments of God must be fulfilled with a certain forcefulness of will; then the Lord, seeing our intention and labor, will grant us readiness of will and gladness in obeying His purposes. For 'it is the Lord who makes ready the will' (Proverbs 8:35 LXX), so that we always do what is right, joyfully. Then shall we truly feel that 'it is God who energizes in you both the willing and the doing of His purpose' (Philippians 2:13).
— Abba Diadochos of Photiki

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Love is like the feet

Love is the hallmark of the true Church—nothing else!—and where love is, God is, Christ is, the Holy Spirit is. Christ does not tell us in the gospels, "Make sure each other is believing in exactly the right doctrine," but rather "Love one another as I have loved you."

I am not saying that doctrine is unimportant, but that it is secondary.

Love is like the feet, very humble, but they're the parts of the body that enable you to follow Jesus, they lead you to Him.

Doctrine is like the head, full of itself, often lost in the clouds of speculation, often misguiding the feet, often putting up "mental roadblocks" where the feet know better, where the feet would go if not restrained.

No one has ever walked by using his head as the organ of locomotion. If you don't have feet, then you must use a wheelchair, but you still don't hop along on your head.

The church I belong to is the one where we are all of one mind because we are all of one loving heart.

The mind of Christ is the only mind that is not flawed, the only mind that does not fantasize, lie or lead astray, or prevent the blessed feet from walking after Him.

The church I belong to is really that one, and you and me, brother, and our Lord, Master and Savior is here with us, among us, and within us, "He pitched His tent among us and became man," so that we might pitch our tent in the heavenlies, and there abide forever in the wedding feast of the Lamb.

What does Christ see when He looks upon the Church?

Nothing and no one that He hasn't placed there.
Whatever and whoever is of the world is as invisible to us, as we are to it and to them.

Monday, September 14, 2009

September 14 — Holy Cross

What our Saviour saw from the Cross - Tissot

There is much more to this feast day than a mere commemoration of the physical relic of the Cross, glorious though it may be. We can never forget, amidst the trappings of religion that often encumber and conceal it, that the Cross was endured for us, and it is also meant for us, those of us who follow Jesus. What does the world look like to us? Are we standing with our feet on the ground, looking up and adoring the crucified Lord? Or is our flesh nailed down to the Cross for love of Him, with whom we look upon a world that, lost in its own sin and suffering, gazes upon us, uncomprehending?

Here follow some gleanings on the Holy Cross from earlier posts on Cost of Discipleship. A blessèd feast day, and fast day, to all who keep this day holy.
In Paradise of old, the tree stripped me bare, for by the eating thereof, the enemy brought in death. But now, the most holy tree of the Cross that doth clothe all men with the garment of life hath been set up on earth, and all of the world is filled with most boundless joy. Seeing it exalted, ye people, now, let us the faithful all cry out with one accord to God in faith: Thy house is full of glory, O Lord.
Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross
Sessional Hymn of the Canon

Discipleship means the Cross

The knowledge of the Cross is concealed in the sufferings of the Cross. — Gregory the Great

The Cross is the door to mysteries. Through this door the intellect makes entrance in to the knowledge of heavenly mysteries. The knowledge of the Cross is concealed in the sufferings of the Cross. And the more our participation in its sufferings, the greater the perception we gain through the Cross. For, as the Apostle says, "As the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ." — Isaac of Syria

God does not create a cross for man. No matter how heavy a cross a man may carry in life, it is still just wood, from which man himself made, and it always grows from the soil of his heart. — Ambrose of Optina

The way of God from the beginning of time and from the creation of the human race has been the way of the cross and death. How did you get your idea that everything is just the opposite? You must realize that you are outside the way of God, that you are far from Him, that you do not wish to walk in the steps of the Saints, but want to make some special way for yourself and travel by it without sufferings. The way of God is a daily cross. No one has climbed to heaven by living a life of pleasure. — Ignatios Brianchaninov

Christians often assume that to "take up our cross" means simply to carry a burden. When we run into a life trouble, we will say things like "oh, this is just my cross to bear". We basically shrug it off, totally missing the significance of the cross.

Ever consider that the cross is not meant to be a burden? It is meant to cause death.

The cross is meant to kill us! It is an instrument of death! Oh that wonderful cross!

Christianity can be many things to many people, but unless it is first and foremost the cross, it can devolve into ritual, culture, or magic. Not that everyone will have the same cross to bear and to die on, not that what it looks like or feels like will be the same for all, not that those who follow Christ to Calvary will all understand what is happening to them the same way, but nonetheless the cross awaits us all, at least all of us who seek to follow Jesus.

Why, then, do you fear to take up the Cross, which is the road to the Kingdom? In the Cross is salvation; in the Cross is life; in the Cross is protection against our enemies; in the Cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness; in the Cross is strength of mind; in the Cross is joy of spirit; in the Cross is excellence of virtue; in the Cross is perfection of holiness. There is no salvation of soul, nor hope of eternal life, save in the Cross. Take up the Cross, therefore, and follow Jesus. Christ has gone before you, bearing His Cross; He died for you on the Cross, that you also may bear your cross, and desire to die on the cross with Him. For if you die with Him, you will also live with Him. And if you share His sufferings, you will also share His glory. See how in the Cross all things consist, and in dying on it all things depend. There is no other way to life and to true inner peace, than the way of the Cross, and of daily self-denial. Go where you will, seek what you will; you will find no higher way above nor safer way below than the road of the Holy Cross.
— Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Book 2, Chapter 12

do not fail me
when it comes my hour
to bleed.
As to a strong-masted vessel,
let me be bound to you
to share your power.
Hug me close
as the wind we together wrestle.

let them nail me
as my ransomed soul
a steed
of spirit mounts
and my hungers hang.
Let me inherit
what the jailer stole
and hidden,
as I thirst,
what prophets sang.

— Romanós

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Who are the many, who the few?

πολλοί γαρ εισιν κλητοί ολίγοι δε εκλεκτοί

For many are called, but few are chosen.
Matthew 22:14

No need to say which English version this short verse comes from in the above quote, as it can hardly be translated any other way. This is the concluding verse of Christ's parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22:1-14).

Fr Milovan has an excellent post on the significance of this parable, which I recommend to you heartily—you won't be disappointed—for he touches on many more points than I have usually heard in sermons taken from this passage. I especially appreciate his explanation about the original Greek versus modern English connotations given to the word πολλοὶ, pollí, "many," at the conclusion of the parable,

The word “many”, both in Greek and English, refers to a large group of people. In English, ‘many’ is restrictive while in Greek it is inclusive. This means when we say ‘many of the people came’ in English this would imply that most of them did not. If the same is said in Greek that ‘many of the people came’ it would imply that most of them did. Those that did not come are referred to as “the few”, or the English equivalent which would be “some of them.” In the end, this makes up everyone, for everyone is invited.

Another point he makes is the significance of the wedding garment. He writes,

It’s customary nowadays for the bride to look her best at the wedding, for her to be the center of attention, but in ancient times this wasn’t the case. On the contrary, everyone would wear the same kind of garment. It was this imagery that Christ used to tell the Jews about God’s kingdom.

The image at the top of my post is borrowed from Fr Milovan's. It is a good representation of that ancient Middle Eastern wedding feast where everyone was expected to come in a wedding garment. It's even hard to tell who the bride and groom are, although I think they're probably the couple closest to us viewing the picture.

The Father invites the many to the wedding feast of His Son; we don't invite ourselves. But when we have received the invitation, by whomever is sent to us, we have to make a decision, and we have to act: We must say, "Yes, I am coming," and we must get dressed for the occasion. What does this getting dressed, putting on "the wedding garment" mean?

Again, Fr Milovan doesn't mince words, but follows up with the rightly divided Word. He writes,

The wedding garment is a symbol of true repentance and righteousness which is the only way of salvation. In other words, it is not only listening to God’s word but keeping it which ensures our salvation. Or, as St. Paul says in Romans, “for not the hearers of the law of God are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified” (Romans 2:13).

This, of course, does not mean that we are justified by works of the law, but that being made righteous by faith in Jesus Christ, what issues from us who are now covered by His righteousness is an ever-flowing stream from the life-giving Font within us, which He promises to give everyone who believes in Him,

Anyone who drinks the water that I shall give will never be thirsty again: The water that I shall give will turn into a spring inside him, welling up to eternal life.
John 4:14 Jerusalem Bible

To encourage you to read Fr Milovan's post, Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, I will entice you just a little by quoting the first paragraph, which also touched me deeply,

“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his Saints.”
(Psalm 116:15)
With these prophetic words the Psalmist David proclaims the truth that God is most visible in His Saints. It is true that the fingerprint of God is visible in all of His creation but it’s in the holy person that we can truly see God. All the other characteristics of God, such as love, mercy, compassion – they are all seen in men. But none like holiness, that one characteristic that only belongs to God. It’s with this seal that the Lamb of God will recognize us, as we read in the Book of Revelation.

Who are the many, and who the few?
Well, thanks be to God that the 'many' are all of us, because our God is good and desires the salvation of all. It is up to us, to take the grace that accompanies His invitation, and say "Yes, Lord!" and then to put on the wedding garment He also gives us, freely—it is Jesus!

όσοι γαρ εις Χριστόν εβαπτίσθητε, Χριστόν ενεδύσασθε

For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ
have put on Christ.

Galatians 3:27 KJV

Lover of Mankind - ο φιλάνθρωπος

We address the Lord in the first of the resurrectional apolytikia as μόνε Φιλάνθρωπε, móne Philánthrope, "only Lover of Mankind." That has always struck me as the most important thing we can ever know about God, or even about man. Only He really and fully loves us, not we ourselves, especially not we ourselves. Though we try, our love for others is usually well mixed with love for ourselves—a love which is not really for ourselves, though, but for our ulterior motives, which are almost always bad for us. The only way we can ever truly love, or even begin to, is by following Him who revealed the love of the Father to us, that is, Jesus. If we follow behind Him closely, and do what we see Him doing, we will begin to love.

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
John 15:12-13 NIV

I was reading about Mother Gavrilía Papayanni last night and this morning noticed that at some time previously I had put a sticky bookmark on one of the pages. It happened to be at a passage that describes how she did her "missionary" work in India and other countries that were not already Christian. I found that it very much describes how I try to witness for Christ here in America, where Christianity is ignored and ridiculed if not banned. Our witness does not primarily consist in what we say, but in what we do. If people are to run from their sins, they have to see that "greater love" which is described by Christ in the holy gospels. I want to quote a little of the passage I marked on pages 47-48 of The Ascetic of Love, the book about Mother Gavrilía.

God had sent her to India. At the time, she herself did not know why. What is important, though, is that all who came to know her, whether Indians or Westerners, saw and recognized in her a completely different way of life. They saw and discovered the ascetic character, the humility and the deep spirituality that Orthodoxy has preserved through the centuries. Those of the East saw another West. Those of the West saw their own East, the existence of which they did not even suspect. Had any other missionaries identified themselves, to such an extent, with those they served? Who had ever eaten, drunk, slept or travelled the way these people ate, drank, slept or travelled? Who else had done that? In those days, too, almost all the missionaries lived, wherever they went, under exceptional conditions—good hotels, special food and water, comfortable travelling arrangements—so as to care better for "their" Locals. Who were these people they were calling "theirs"? By never assuming this (sometimes imperceptible and latent in missionary work) attitude of superiority towards those one is ministering to, she always tended and helped without hurting… Yes… This is why her passage left a deep mark. "Indeed, I have become everything in turn to men of every sort." (1 Corinthians 9:22) Actually, she never preached Orthodoxy, but rather, catechized with the heart, without words, with the unique example of her own life.

… Our Lord said: "But he whosoever shall do and teach them…" (Matthew 5:19)…This is how she was "teaching" others. Through her own practice—being herself a living example… This is how, wherever she went, with the grace of God, she opened a window on Orthodoxy and—for us all—a window on the rest of the world, thus making a wide breach in the wall of our acquired fears.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Things new and old

And Jesus said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things new and old."
Matthew 13:52 New American Standard Bible

I knew the verse I wanted, but I also knew what I wanted to express by way of a preface, yet in comparing the English translations, I was amazed at how different the emphasis and even the meaning was between the versions. Though my two favorites are Jerusalem Bible and NIV, I thought the NASB translation hit the mark best (for my purpose only).

Many of my earlier blog posts, as well as the sidebar, contained links to items on a server that I have to abandon, so I spent the morning relocating items and relinking them. One group, PDF files of mostly Símandron publications—that's the "brand" name of my self-published tracts and booklets—used to be accessible in the sidebar, but I want to feature them in this post with thumbnails of the covers and brief descriptions. These are tracts and booklets (up to 40 pages long) that can be opened and read on line, or downloaded to your PC and printed.

Orthodox Tracts

40 Martyrs of Sebaste — The story of these martyrs and their meaning in the context of the married life, with a defense of Christian soldiers.

Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven — Saint Innocent of Alaska's handbook of the Orthodox life, written originally in the Aleutian language, the best short explanation of what Orthodoxy is and how to be an Orthodox follower of Jesus.

The Lorica — The famous prayer of Saint Patrick, Orthodox enlightener of Ireland.

Pelagía — The life story of Saint Pelagía the Harlot, written by her contemporaries.

Daily Prayer — A simple pamphlet of basic Orthodox prayers for morning and evening, with emphasis on praying the Psalms.

Singing the Work of the People — The Greek Orthodox Sunday Liturgy in transliteration, so those who cannot read written Greek can still sing and understand the songs of the service. Published with the blessing of Fr Elías Stephanopoulos (memory eternal).

The Apostolic Rule — Passages pulled from all the epistles of the New Testament and organized by book, that reveal how simple and direct are the instructions that the apostles have left us about how to live the Christian life.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Sponge, funnel, strainer and sifter

There are four types among those who sit in the presence of the sages: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer, and the sifter.

"The sponge," who soaks up everything. "The funnel," who takes in at this end and lets out at the other. "The strainer," who lets out the wine and retains the lees. "The sifter," who removes the coarse meal and collects the fine flour.

Pirkei Avot, chapter 5, mishna 18

This saying from the Rabbinical Jewish Talmud describes four types of learners. Needless to say, there is a hierarchy of values going on here. Which of the types of learners do we want to be?

Do we want to be a sponge, soaking up everything? This might at first seem to be the best, but let’s continue.

What about the funnel? No, it’s easy to see that this type of learner is the one described by the phrase “in one ear, out the other,” which probably even comes from this passage.

How about the strainer? It seems to me that this type of learner is one who thinks “too hard,” who strains his mind in inner deliberations, only to let out the wine and keep the lees, that is, the mind loses what is valuable and wastes itself on inanities.

So far, it seems like the sponge may be the best type of learner. But wait, there’s one more…

What about the sifter? This type removes the coarse meal and collects the fine flour. What can this possibly mean? What is the coarse meal, and what the fine flour? It seems to me that this might be the best type of learner, one who not only absorbs knowledge but does something with it, knowing how to separate what is useful from what is not.

It was reading a post on Fr Stephen’s blog that made me think of this wise saying, but what he wrote about is not directly related to the idea behind this mishna. It was this passage that caught my attention:

“Orthodoxy exists as a place for the embracing of teaching and the living out of its reality: it is not a place for the sifting of opinion.”

If this statement were to be placed within the context of this mishna of the Pirkei Avot, it might seem that Fr Stephen is saying it’s best to be the sponge, and not so good to be the sifter, but I don’t think this is what his post was getting at. Rather, as I understand him, and as I understand Orthodoxy, he’s just saying that it is a place to learn what is right and do it and not a place to endlessly wrangle about words.

Even in Orthodoxy, even in Christianity at large, just as in Judaism, we need to be “cunning as serpents and innocent as doves,” as our Rabbi Y’shua ha-Moshíach hayá omér (used to say), or “sifters removing the coarse and collecting the fine flour,” as the Jewish rabbis have taught and recorded in this mishna.

Or even, as Elder Ephrém has so audaciously written, “God doesn’t want us to be ignoramuses.”