Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The life of the Holy Triad

Human society has been evolving over the centuries from very integrated, homogeneous populations with little or no individual liberties under authoritarian rulers, to very diverse populations with almost unlimited individual freedoms under representative, limited rulers.

The first model of society, a patriarchal monarchy, was an enlarged version of the patriarchal nuclear family. Father rules, mother supports and advises, children obey and are mentored by both. Father’s religion, his political beliefs, his ethics are passed on to mother and children, all questions barred. Hence, the early states of human culture.

Hebrew society, homogeneous, and kept so by pruning, as needed. Greco-Roman society, far less homogeneous, but still held uniform by use of force, even brutal force. Christian society, again more homogeneous like its Hebrew ancestor, and kept so by authoritarian structures modeled on the nuclear family, as before.

Christian society, having within itself something new that was also nascent in Hebrew and Greco-Roman society, the concept of individual as opposed to group identity, evolved and continues to evolve into a society which grows more diverse and individualistic, undermining the bases of all prior human societies.

It has been assumed since the beginning of the age of revolutions (probably the Puritan revolution in England, perhaps earlier) that there is such a thing as human rights, and by that it is assumed, individual rights. With each succeeding revolution, 1688 in England, 1776 in America, 1789, 1830 and 1848 in France, this concept of the individual as paramount, even over every earthly power or authority, has grown in strength and momentum.

Most of these ideas of individual liberty find their origin in the bible, specifically the New Testament. Why, then, the rise of Christian societies that were still every bit as authoritarian and ignorant or contemptuous of human rights as their predecessors? There is a tension in the gospel which is in fact inherited from the Hebrew prophets between the individual and society, both seeming to make demands on us, ethically. It’s this tension, or ambiguity, that lies at the root of what is currently happening in modern society.

Traditional society is based on the family. Modern society is based on the individual. Where does Christian society fit into this, and is there even such a thing?

It goes even further back than this. Traditional societies are organic in the same way that the bodies of complex life forms are organic. The individual cells in a human body have different functions, but none of them has the right to go its own way. None can leave the body, except by death. Dead cells are excreted and replaced by new. Again, the cells in a complex life form have no free will. They are what they are by coming into being as part of an organism.

Modern societies are, from this viewpoint, inorganic. They are something like clusters of single celled organisms that can stay together, creating an illusion of society, but which can go their own way, or even operate against an enveloping cluster in which they find themselves engulfed.

The seemingly unstoppable momentum of modern world society, evolving from traditional, organic societies with little individualism, to a single inorganic one in which individualism is the priority, is actually an illusion. What is happening is, non-individuals are being converted into individuals momentarily, so that they can be reincorporated into a new authoritarian anti-individualism even more brutal than the worst of those seen earlier in history.

The world wants to be a society of individuals with total liberty, and that makes true society impossible, because individual wills seek their own good, not the good of society. The only way, then, to have any semblance or illusion of society at all is to impose authority once again, and there is no way to do this other than by violence to the individual in one form or another.

Nascent within Christian society, even from its beginnings, is the society described by the prophets of Israel, and realized by the first disciples of Jesus Christ. For lack of a better term, I will call this “true society.” Later on, I will give it its proper name.

True society looks like traditional society because it is organic, based on nature, but that is only the beginning. True society has perfect individual liberty, because every individual will is attuned to and voluntarily in agreement with one Mind. Individual wills seek the good of society because they want to, not because they must. Why would they want to? Because love binds them together, not force. Where is there such a society, if it exists?

The life of the Holy Triad is exactly that kind of society. That life was hidden from mankind until the coming of one of the divine Persons in that Triad, namely Jesus Christ, to earth. In His life and commandments we see the possibility of true society, of living the life of heaven on earth, which is the life inherent in the Holy Triad.

This is the society that we were made for, at once patriarchal, familial, ordered, yet providing the greatest degree of personal, individual liberty. Christ came to free us from our passions, and He has accomplished that work in those who follow Him.

This is no “giving us freedom to take it away again.” That is the game of religion. No, the very life of the Holy Triad is open to us, we too can be One just as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are One. That is the essence of Jesus’ high-priestly prayer for us.

The world will continue moving in the direction of greater and greater “freedom” towards a destination of totalitarian chaos, as organic and living society devolves into inorganic and dead society. It has already realized that it cannot have it both ways, and so the machine has begun to take over the functions of the living man.

We who are in Christ, brethren, are moving in the opposite direction, as death is being put to death in us, and we are being raised to life like the son of the widow of Nain.

That procession was heading for the graveyard. Jesus and His disciples were going the other way, and He took death captive, releasing a dead man to life. Let us love one another, and insist on nothing less than living the life of the Holy Triad, the only true society unto the ages of ages.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What matters

The following is the best piece of writing about "what matters" that I probably have ever read. I wish I were the author, but since I'm not, at least it makes me very happy that I know the author a little bit. It is Fr Stephen who writes the blog Glory to God for All Things. He reprinted these words, which he wrote when he first starting blogging, in his post To Live Without Distraction.
Αξιοι οι λογισμοι σου, πατερ αγιε, και αξιος ει συ.
Axios, Fr Stephen, axios!

God matters and what matters to God matters. I know that sounds very redundant, but I’m not sure how else I want to say it. There are many things that do not matter – because they do not matter to God. Knowing the difference between the two – what matters to God and what does not requires that we know God.

And this is theology – to know God. If I have a commitment in theology, it is to insist that we never forget that it is to know God. Many of the arguments (unending) and debates (interminable) are not about what we know, but about what we think.

Thinking is not bad, nor is it wrong, but thinking is not the same thing as theology. It is, of course, possible to think about theology, but this is not to be confused with theology itself.

Knowing God is not in itself an intellectual activity for God is not an idea, nor a thought. God may be known because He is person. Indeed, He is only made known to us as person (we do not know His essence). We cannot know God objectively – that is He is not the object of our knowledge. He is known as we know a person. This is always a free gift, given to us in love. Thus knowledge of God is always a revelation, always a matter of grace, never a matter of achievement or attainment.

It matters that we know God because knowledge of God is life itself. “This is eternal life,” Jesus said, “to know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.”

The Orthodox way of life is only about knowing God. Everything we do, whether it is prayer, communion, confession, forgiveness, fasting – all of it is about knowing God. If it is about something else, then it is delusion and a distraction from our life’s only purpose.

Knowing God is not a distraction from knowing other persons, nor is knowing other persons a distraction from knowing God. But, like God, knowing other persons is not the same thing as thinking about them, much less is it objectifying them.

Knowing others is so far from being a distraction from knowing God, that it is actually essential to knowing God. We cannot say we love God, whom we have not seen, and hate our brother whom we do see, St. John tells us. We only know God to the extent that we love our enemies (1 John 4:7-8).

And this matters.

This blog does not matter – except that I may share something that makes it possible for someone to know God or someone may share something that allows themselves to be known. This matters.

Monday, October 26, 2009

My heart is ready, O God

The following is from the blog of a friend of mine, David R., who just got in touch with me today after many years. You can read his entire post by clicking HERE. I want to share this wonderful word of faith with you, and also invite visitors to my blog to visit his, Finding The Way To The Heart.

On the Heart Ready for God
Homily for October 26-St Demetrios the Myrrh-Gusher, Prologue of Ohrid vol 2, p.450 by St Nikolai Velimirovich

My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready.
Psalm 57:7

Brethren, blessed is he who is able to speak like this to his Lord! Blessed is he whose heart is completely ready to follow the will of God. The readiness of the heart of man lies in this: to joyfully follow the will of God and not be confused by one's own thoughts and desires.

At first, the repentant King David had followed his own sinful thoughts and desires, and was like a boat on a stormy sea. However, when he realized that the storm was going to drown him, he turned to God with great repentance and tears, and turned the boat of his life entirely over to God.

"My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready," he cried out with great peace of soul, for he knew that he had given his boat into the hands of the Most-skilled Helmsman. The storm still raged and the winds and waves still assaulted him, but he was not afraid, convinced that nothing could smash his boat, and that his boat would sail safely to a calm harbor.

A ready heart means a heart cleansed of pride and humbled before the majestic power and wisdom of God. A ready heart means a heart emptied of all worldly desires and illusions, and filled with nothing but aspirations toward God and love for God. A ready heart means a heart that is healed of all restlessness, cares and fears, and is quieted and encouraged by the presence of God's grace.

"I will sing and give praise in my glory," continues the Psalmist. This shows that his heart is truly ready—he is not proud of his royal glory but ascribes it to God. He humbled himself before God as nothing, and now his sole pleasure is to magnify and glorify God. His personal glory only gives him a reason for glorifying His All-glorious God.

O my brethren, let us endeavor that our hearts be ready before God: ready to hear the word of God, ready to follow the will of God, ready to glorify the Living God.

O Lord God, our immortal Creator, help us to ready our hearts, that they may be vessels of Thy life-giving grace. To Thee be glory and praise forever. Amen.

Human history without prophecy

And it came to pass the day after, that he went into a city called Nain; and many of his disciples went with him, and much people. Now when he came nigh to the gate of the city, behold, there was a dead man carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and much people of the city was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, Weep not. And he came and touched the bier: and they that bare him stood still. And he said, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise. And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. And he delivered him to his mother. And there came a fear on all: and they glorified God, saying, That a great prophet is risen up among us; and, That God hath visited his people.
Luke 7:11-16 KJV

"…human history without prophecy is nothing but a funeral procession. And the task of prophecy is to stop that procession in the very same way Jesus stopped the procession in this morning’s gospel reading. And, of course, the most singular act of prophecy in the history of the world and man is that day when Christ rose from the dead."

The passage quoted above is from Fr Milovan's post Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, and if you want to read more, just click on the link. The passage quoted spoke mightily to me, but so does the whole essay.

Human history without prophecy is nothing but a funeral procession.
Amen, Fr Milovan, amen!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Life shall go for life

And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
Deuteronomy 19:21

Things take time. The saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Another saying I learned from my mentor when I was catechized into the Church, “A fast change in Orthodoxy is one that takes about four hundred years.” I noticed, when studying Rabbinical Judaism, that converts are not readily received. A man approaches the rabbi and says, “I want to become one of you,” and the rabbi rebuffs him, scorns him even, and tells him to go away. The man is undaunted; he comes back, gives it another try. The rabbi receives him a bit more kindly, but explains to him that becoming a Jew won’t be good for him: Jews are plagued by so many persecutions; he surely won’t be able to take it. Again, he is rebuffed, and sent away. The man is confused, but determined. He returns, insisting to the rabbi that he is serious and begins to show reasons why he wants to be one of the chosen people. The rabbi listens a little longer, challenges him again, but lets him stay, just this once. Gradually, the persistence of the convert and the reluctance of the rabbi results in either final acceptance or final rejection. The process takes time.

The Orthodox Church in America, not the jurisdiction but the fact, also by and large throws obstacles in the way of converts racing to the finish line, to slow them down a bit, while at the same time offering hospitality, the “love of strangers” to those who come hesitantly, meekly, to observe the ways of Orthodoxy. It is not as some have unjustly criticized, a convert-hungry, mechanical contraption that sucks in converts like a whale feeding on plankton. A true convert coming to Orthodoxy is often like Jonah, fleeing from God only to be swallowed and caught in the belly of a whale—and that’s no plankton! Unlike Jonah, however, the convert is not spewn out to languish in self-pity under a withering vine, upset because “outsiders” are repenting and being saved. Rather he or she is spewn out of the Orthodox incubator, the process of formal and informal catechesis, to be sent to others, as they are now “in Christ,” as His witnesses.
We are all familiar with the high profile evangelistic crusades wherein a preacher comes and exhorts the audience to turn from their sins and accept Christ, and then people start streaming up to do just that, and to be prayed over, and ostensibly start their new life in Christ. Whatever is really happening in these crusades, God knows. But the world looks on, uncomprehending, because what it often sees is what Christ described as “seed falling among thorns,” and it is not convinced. The world wants it all right now, and expects that if Christ is the God that His followers claim He is, that’s how it should work. The truth is quite different. Conversion to Christ and life in Him may be instigated by a lightning strike, but that isn’t how it is maintained, grows, and bears fruit. Salvation is a process.
It takes time.

The law of Torah cited above from the book of Deuteronomy is a familiar one. We’ve all heard it at least in its shortened form, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” We all know this has something to do with crime and punishment, or with justice, but certainly not with mercy. It seems very unmerciful, in fact. If we know our bibles, we remember that Christ used this scripture to build upon it His teaching that we should “turn the other cheek” if we are struck on one. We think that is the end of it. Nothing more needs to be said. It’s just an ideal we are supposed to strive for, but rarely succeed. We’re all too ready to smite the offender, give “eye for eye and tooth for tooth,” and Christ will just have to put up with us, so we bring the issue to happy closure by asking for His forgiveness.
“Lord, have mercy.”

Why do I cite this bible verse? Well, it means something entirely different to me. To me, it is linked to what holy apostle John writes, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” (1 John 3:16). To me, this is what life for life means, indeed, even what the other incidentals mean, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Since Christ gave life for life, saving us, we too sharing in His forbearance, mercy and love, can also give life for life. Ours.
What does this mean?

Things take time. The world teaches us that “time is money,” and most of us, unconsciously at least, have believed this saying. We think we own our time, that we own ourselves, but scripture says, “You are not your own, you were bought at a price.” This buying of souls for eternal life goes on even today, because Christ is in our midst, He is among us. In us, He walks through the world seeking His lost sheep. When He finds them, He cares for them. He doesn’t just pick them up, hurry over to the sheep pen, and drop them in. No, He doesn’t treat us like that, but He remains with us, at our side, to guide and restore us, to save us.

Following Jesus, this is what we also do, no matter how long it takes.

Love, respect and awe

When I set foot in an Orthodox church for the first time probably as a young man of about 22 or 23 years, it was a small, rustic country church in the Ukrainian village of Bellis (“White Woods”) Alberta, and I was overcome at first by the utter simplicity of the house of God itself. Then, the service began, and from behind an ikonostasis made of white-painted garden trellis a deep voice chanted in a Slavic tongue that reminded me of my native Polish, and a sweet fragrance and clouds of smoke emanated from there as well. As the service continued, my earthly eyes saw many things that were strange, though beautiful. At one point the priest emerged with two covered golden vessels and walked carefully through the small crowd of farmers and their families kneeling with heads deeply bowed or down on the floor. As he passed through them, he seemed to hover the cups over each of their heads, and he looked at them with love, respect and awe, as if to say by his actions, "these are the people for whom Christ died." Throughout the rest of the service, that was what struck me the most—love, respect and awe—not just for God, but for one another. This was before I had even come to that point where I was ready to follow Jesus. To me up till now Christianity had been nothing more than a religious exercise with little meaning. I remember thinking to myself, "If Christ is real, and if Christianity is true, this has to be it."

At the age of 24 years, I "accepted" Christ, or rather, accepted His will for me, and promised to follow Him. At the age of 37 years, I "returned" to the Orthodox Church. Returned? What is that supposed to mean? Well, that's what Fr Elías said to the congregation by way of introducing us on the morning we were chrismated. He said we had struggled hard to get back here. I never forgot his words. What was I doing between the ages of 24 and 37 years? Well, let's just say that I was a catechumen for 13 years. Actually, right from the beginning I believed myself to be an Orthodox Christian, identifying with that radiant cluster of Christians I had seen worshipping the living Christ in the village of Bellis, and I hadn't yet grasped that Orthodox Christians belong in the Orthodox Church. I thought the Episcopal church was as close to Orthodoxy as I could get. After all, there were even Greeks going there (at my first parish, Good Samaritan, in Corvallis, Oregon). So the Lord was patient with me. He didn't mind waiting 13 years for me to gradually come to my senses.

But back to the topic. What I experienced when encountering Orthodoxy for the first time was not a "one time" event. The same thing hit me when I entered the Greek church of Aghía Triás (now my family church) for the first time, an incredible sense of mercy, experienced as—love, respect and awe—not just for God, but for one another. This initial impression became the foundation of what Orthodoxy essentially means to me. After being joined to the Church, and growing up in it, as it were, I came to realize what everyone does who becomes an Orthodox Christian—it cannot be learned from books: only in living the life can it be truly comprehended in all its mystery. Theology is a practical science. A trinitarian God may be incomprehensible to the mind, but He can be experienced and understood by the heart of one who lives in the Body of Christ. It is because Christ is in our midst that the Holy Triad also is. Praying for the Church, Jesus says,

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. With me in them and you in me, may they be so completely one that the world will realise that it was you who sent me and that I have loved them as much as you loved me.
John 17:21-23 Jerusalem Bible

Sometimes brethren who are not Orthodox are surprised, even put off, by the kind of love and respect that we show not only to God and the saints of old by venerating (bowing towards and kissing) their ikons and the book of the Holy Scriptures, but also by the fact that we bow down in front of, embrace and kiss one another. Sometimes, even our language seems "a bit too much" for them, as we address the saints that have gone before, as well as the ones that are living now in words and gestures that seem "over the top." Why are you doing that? Don't you know that only One is worthy of worship, only One is Lord? Well, yes, we do. We are not doing to them and to each other what can be offered to God alone, no, we're really not. But what we are doing, loving one another in Christ, and loving Christ in one another, accounting all that Christ has redeemed by His precious Blood to be worthy, everyone and everything worthy, is the preparation for, and the proof of, our divine worship.

The relationship that the brethren share in the Body of Christ with one another is in fact and must be the primary qualification of the Church. This is what we learn from overhearing the high-priestly prayer of Christ recorded in the 17th chapter of the gospel according to John. How we are to treat one another with love, respect and awe is found throughout all the apostolic writings of the New Testament, but particularly in the first letter of the evangelist John. Yet, even in the Old Testament we are taught how to love one another.

We read of Jonathan entering into a covenant with David (1 Samuel 18:1-8). This is a prophetic image of what relationship should be like in the body of Christ. "Jonathan's soul was knit to the soul of David." The word for 'knit' (נקשרה, niksheráh > "was knit") is the same root word (קשר) used in Nehemiah 4:6, which describes the wall of Jerusalem being built (ותקשר, vatikashér > "was joined") so there were no gaps in it. Jonathan's heart was knit with David's without a gap—no space between their hearts for the enemy to come through. Jonathan loved David as himself. This is our calling in the body of Christ too, "that they may be one as we are one," such that there is no gap between us of misunderstanding, jealousy, or suspicion through which satan can slip to divide us.

Jonathan made a covenant with David and, as a symbol, removed his royal robe and placed it on David. This act symbolized Jonathan's desire to die to himself as the next king of Israel and to make David king. The holy apostle Paul writes, "Love each other as much as brothers should, and have a profound respect for each other" (Romans 12:10 JB). We are to die to ourselves and sincerely long that our brothers will be regarded as greater and higher than ourselves—we even take our "robe," if necessary, to cover a brother's nakedness, wherever it is seen. Thus can we make our brothers glorious in the eyes of others. This is the kind of relationship we should have with one another in the body of Christ.

If we can have this kind of relationship, by all means we must.
Love, respect and awe—because Christ is in our midst.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Knowledge of God

The following are some excerpts from the post entitled The Knowledge of God by Fr Stephen, published at his blog Glory to God for All Things. This is an Orthodox priest "who knows his stuff" and whom I rely on for a balanced and truly Orthodox witness on the internet. I am not alone in this, as his statistics prove. He is nonetheless a humble servant of the Most-High, and from time to time I can't resist drawing your attention to what he writes. To read the whole post, just click on the title in the first line above. These are the passages that spoke loudest to me…

I have known brilliant men and women, with degrees from very prestigious institutions, indeed with degrees in various forms of religious disciplines, whose knowledge of God was less than my average catechumen, but whose very “knowledge” reduced the possibility of discovering their ignorance and coming to a knowledge of the truth. Again, knowledge that is not accompanied by ascesis is dangerous – no matter whether the knowledge is of an academic character or of a mystical character. We cannot know God and at the same time not be like Him to some degree. Such conformity to His image is itself a result of such knowledge. It is for this reason that the Scriptures tell us that “by their fruit you shall know them.” If someone claims knowledge of God, but his life is not in conformity with the commandments of Christ, then we know that what we are hearing is largely delusional in character.

…we should pray, fast, repent of our sins, seek to forgive our enemies and do good to all around us. These are clear commandments of Scripture. With such efforts, as God gives us grace and changes our heart, we begin to know. The writings of the Fathers are generally the writings of saints. We will not understand them without ourselves seeking to become saints. All of this, of course, is slow and difficult – but we are talking about reality and our salvation not simply the acquisition of information.

… Neither should we avoid religious “experience,” though this has gotten something of a bad name on account of numerous abuses within the Christian world of today. But like knowledge acquired by study, knowledge of God gained by experience should be accompanied with ascesis as well. Much of modern Pentecostal and Charismatic teaching has offered false information on religious experience to an audience of Americans who wants everything. Too often we want the interior life of Mother Teresa and all of the shoes of Imelda Marcos. It just doesn’t work like that.

The story is told in the Lives of the Desert Fathers that one of the Fathers was in prayer when the devil sought to trick him. A demon appeared in the cell of the monk (who was in prayer) and said, “I am the angel Gabriel sent from God.” Without looking up the monk replied, “You must be in the wrong cell. I am not worthy for an angel to visit me.” The demon disappeared, defeated by the humility of the monk.

This is a description of the proper state of our heart. We desire to know God, but we want to know Him deeply enough, that we refuse to settle for anything less. Much of modern religious experience, as witnessed by its fruit, has little to do with the true God.

Study. Pray. Fast. Give alms. Forgive your enemies. Repent of your sins. Cry out to God for mercy. He is a “good God and loves mankind.” He will not leave us in the dark nor ignore the cry of our hearts. “This is eternal life,” Christ says, “To know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.” Thus we pursue knowledge – true knowledge in the way and in the manner given to us as though our life depended on it. It does.

Unquenchable Desire

Friends, He lit my desire for you, unquenchable
Fear having been cast, chains make hearts bold
Abounding in love with all knowledge and wisdom
So fruits of righteousness might be offered up
In sincerity and without offense until the 8th day

In our Lord Christ such a prison is free indeed
Filthy guards as brushed ushers in service
Beaten bodies remember ancient scourge
Starving stomachs recall 40 days of fast
And the darkened cell, midnight’s Gethsemane

— David Dickens, Nothing Hypothetical
Picture Credit: Paul in Chains, by Richard Serrin

Monday, October 12, 2009

Isn't Orthodoxy joyous…

…and yet solemn, all at the same time? Everything is so full of Light, full of the Word in spirit and in truth, full of beauty.

When I blog I try to find good images to add to the blog—ikons, paintings, photographs of people, places, nature—to mitigate the boring monotony of some of the things I write about. Sometimes I just scroll through and look at the pictures, and remember. They are all ikons, really, not just the ones that are written to be ikons. And to me, ikons are pure beauty, because they all point to the One Who made all things and who lovingly pours His life out for us at every moment, sustaining the world faithfully by His word of command.

How good our heavenly Father is, for even when we have to suffer, if we faithfully seek Him, He fills our open hands, hearts, lips and minds with good things. He pours abundantly, He showers us with His blessings, yet sometimes in self-pity or self-loathing, we turn away. How many times more we turn away from Him, than we feel He turns away from us. In reality, He never turns away, but sometimes He lets go our hands, to let us remember how much we need Him, sometimes even to see how strong we’re becoming.

He wants us to grow up to be just like His Only-begotten Son, our “heavenly elder brother” as the Chinese Taiping emperor Hong Xiuquan used to call Him. It’s not impious to think thus, as long as one is grounded in the truth handed down by the holy prophets and apostles, and does not wander off on flights of fantasy caused by ignorance of the Bible.

What is sweeter to the soul or more precious to the heart of man than God’s Word? Every day He accompanies us, speaking His truth and life into us moment by moment. In His written ikon, the Bible, and especially in the book of the Psalms, are to be found all things necessary for life in this world, and in the world to come, and the word of Life…

God, You are my God, I am seeking You,
my soul is thirsting for You,
my flesh is longing for You,
a land parched, weary and waterless;
I long to gaze on You in the Sanctuary,
and to see Your power and glory.

Your love is better than life itself,
my lips will recite Your praise;
all my life I will bless You,
in Your name lift up my hands;
my soul will feast most richly,
on my lips a song of joy and, in my mouth, praise.

On my bed I think of You,
I meditate on You all night long,
for You have always helped me.
I sing for joy in the shadow of Your wings;
my soul clings close to You,
Your right hand supports me…

Psalm 63: 1-8 Jerusalem Bible

Psalms for the 12th Day

62 63 64 65 66 67

On Those who Think that They are Made Righteous by Works: 226 Texts

Mark the Ascetic is the author of the work named in the title of this post. In visiting the blog of a brother in Sweden, I discovered a post of his in which he quoted just a few of the 226 texts on this subject. They are all to be found in the Philokalia of course, but I haven't read these in awhile and had forgotten how good they are. I am just copying the texts that brother Thomas posted. You can visit his blog (mostly in Swedish) by clicking its name, Omorphia, Greek for "beauty."

Here are the texts
(numbers 8, 9 and 10 were omitted at the source) …

  1. In the texts which follow, the beliefs of those in error will be refuted by those whose faith is well founded and who know the truth.

  2. Wishing to show that to fulfil every commandment is a duty, whereas sonship is a gift given to men through His own Blood, the Lord said: "When you have done all that is commanded you, say: 'We are useless servants: we have only done what was our duty'." (Luke 17:10). Thus the kingdom of heaven is not a reward for works, but a gift of grace prepared by the Master for his faithful servants.

  3. A slave does not demand his freedom as a reward; but he gives satisfaction as one who is in debt, and he receives freedom as a gift.

  4. ‘Christ died on account of our sins in accordance with the Scriptures’ (1 Cor. 15:3); and to those who serve Him well He gives freedom. ‘Well done, good and faithful servant,’ He says, ‘you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many: enter into the joy of your Lord’ (Matt. 25: 21).

  5. He who relies on theoretical knowledge alone is not yet a faithful servant: a faithful servant is one who expresses his faith in Christ through obedience to His commandments.

  6. He who honours the Lord does what the Lord bids. When he sins or is disobedient, he patiently accepts what comes as something he deserves.

  7. If you love true knowledge, devote yourself to the ascetic life; for mere theoretical knowledge puffs a man up (cf. 1 Cor. 8:1)

  8. Those who, because of the rigour of their own ascetic practice, despise the less zealous, think that they are made righteous by physical works. But we are even more foolish if we rely on theoretical knowledge and disparage the ignorant.

  9. Even though knowledge is true, it is still not firmly established if unaccompanied by works. For everything is established by being put into practice.

  10. Often our knowledge becomes darkened because we fail to put things into practice. For when we have totally neglected to practise something, our memory of it will gradually disappear. [For the preceding two instructions cf. James 1:22-24]

  11. For this reason Scripture urges us to acquire the knowledge of God, so that through our works we may serve Him rightly.

  12. When we fulfil the commandments in our outward actions, we receive from the Lord what is appropriate; but any real benefit we gain depends on our inward intention.

  13. If we want to do something but cannot, then before God, who knows our hearts, it is as if we have done it. This is true whether the intended action is good or bad.

  14. The intellect does many good and bad things without the body, whereas the body can do neither good nor evil without the intellect. This is because the law of freedom applies to what happens before we act.

  15. Some without fulfilling the commandments think that they possess true faith. Others fulfill the commandments and then expect the Kingdom as a reward due to them. Both are mistaken.

  16. A master is under no obligation to reward his slaves; on the other hand, those who do not serve him well are not given their freedom.

  17. If ‘Christ died on our account in accordance with the Scriptures’ (Rom. 5:8; 1 Cor. I5: 3), and we do not ‘live for ourselves’, but ‘for Him who died and rose’ on our account (2 Cor. 5:15), it is clear that we are debtors to Christ to serve Him till our death. How then can we regard sonship as something which is our due?

  18. Christ is Master by virtue of His own essence and Master by virtue of His incarnate life. For He creates man from nothing, and through His own Blood redeems him when dead in sin; and to those who believe in Him He has given His grace.

  19. When Scripture says ‘He will reward every man according to his works’ (Matt. 16:27), do not imagine that works in themselves merit either hell or the kingdom. On the contrary, Christ rewards each man according to whether his works are done with faith or without faith in Himself; and He is not a dealer bound by contract, but God our Creator and Redeemer.

  20. We who have received baptism offer good works, not by way of repayment, but to preserve the purity given to us.

  21. Every good work which we perform through our own natural powers causes us to refrain from the corresponding sin; but without grace it cannot contribute to our sanctification.

Orthodox fatherhood

Fr Stephen posted this excerpt from the book Saint Silouan the Athonite by Elder Sophrony in his blog Glory to God for All Things. I have read the book from which the excerpt is taken (back then it was called The Monk of Mount Athos and I got it from the Episcopal Book Club!), and I have especially treasured the passage that I am about to present. This is the kind of Orthodox father I have wanted to be and tried to be. I failed, of course, but this still is my ideal, even though I am no longer raising my sons. Now, my main task seems to be praying for them, that they will overcome any faults in themselves which they have inherited from me. I wanted to be an Orthodox father, and I still try to be. This was my ideal from the beginning, when I first read this passage at the age of 27 or 28. Speaking of the youth of Saint Silouan of Mount Athos, the passage begins…

Young, strong, handsome, and by this time prosperous, too, Simeon [later to become the monk Silouan] revelled in life. He was popular in the village, being good-natured, peaceable and jolly, and the village girls looked on him as a man they would like to marry. He himself was attracted to one of them and, before the question of marriage had been put, what so often happens befell late one summer evening.

Next morning, as they were working together, his father said to him quietly,
‘Where were you last night, son? My heart was troubled for you?’

The mild words sank into Simeon’s soul, and in later life when he recalled his father the Staretz [elder] would say,
‘I have never reached my father’s stature. He was absolutely illiterate – he even used to make mistakes in the Lord’s Prayer which he had learned by listening in church; but he was a man who was gentle and wise.’

They were a large family – father, mother, five sons and two daughters – all living in affection together. The elder boys worked with their father. One Friday they were out harvesting and it was Simeon’s turn to cook the midday meal. Forgetting that it was Friday, he prepared a dish of pork for their lunch, and they all ate of it. Six months later, on a feast-day in winter, Simeon’s father turned to him with a gentle smile and said,
‘Son, do you remember how you gave us pork to eat that day in the fields? It was a Friday. I ate it but, you know, it tasted like carrion.’

‘Whyever didn’t you tell me at the time?’

‘I didn’t want to upset you, son.’

Recalling such incidents from his life at home, the Staretz would add, ‘That is the sort of staretz I would like to have. He never got angry, was always even-tempered and humble. Just think – he waited six months for the right moment to correct me without upsetting me!’

Timing… timing, love and gentleness, these are what I have tried to live my life by. What of firmness? Well, it is one thing to be firm with others, another to be firm with oneself. I have tried to be the latter, and to exercise firmness with my sons only with great discretion.

Love covers all offenses.
Proverbs 10:12b

And one more thought, a reminiscence, my Dad…

I was 17 years old, had just gotten my driver's license, and had not yet really learned how to handle a car in all situations. I was working the 2nd shift at the country post office where my Dad was the superintendant. It was after midnight, and a drizzly sort of night, and I was going home. Filled with the sense of power I had, driving my Dad's new station wagon, I took a curve at too high a speed, rolled the car into a ditch, breaking the windshield and all the windows, lost my glasses and bumped my head really bad, but the car bounced back onto its wheels and was driveable. I drove the 18 miles to my house, my Mom was up waiting for me, but Dad was already in bed, snoring. She opened the door and asked, "Norm, are you alright?" and then looked at the car, roof smashed down and all the edges lined with grass poking out of sod fragments. She hurried me in, and then went and woke up my Dad. I went with her.

"What happened, Norm?" he asked. I made up a story of how there must've been oil on the road when I took that curve and rolled his new car into the ditch. He slowly got up and got dressed, "Where did it happen?" he asked, then, "Let's go and see if we can find the windshield and get the license sticker off of it, so it can't be traced." We went down and found the sticker and tore it off the shattered windshield, and drove home. We both went back to bed. I feared for my life in the morning.

What did Dad do? Nothing. He just started driving his jalopy to work, tried to salvage parts off the new car (he worked on cars), and rescheduled me to work in the Dead Letter department during his working hours, since we now had only one car in the family. He never blamed me or punished me or even mentioned what happened again. He took the loss, and acted as if he never had that new car.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Morning Offering

This morning, as I was visiting the blog of my Indonesian brother Yudhie, I happened to notice for the umpteenth time a link in his sidebar to a blog called The Morning Offering. I had never stopped to look at it, but today something made me take a look.

Lo and behold! It was the blog of an old acquaintance (I wish I could say old friend) of mine, Abbot Tryphon of Vashon Island monastery! More than a dozen years ago I met Fr Tryphon, had lunch with him at a downtown Portland restaurant along with my godmother Stephanie and some others from Aghía Triás church who were getting together to try to help Fr Tryphon market his monastery's main product, Monastery Blends coffee.

Orthodox monasteries have always operated by the work of their hands, supplemented of course, by donations from the faithful, some more successfully than others, but rarely do you find Orthodox monastics simply living off donations. They're just too manly (or womanly) to do that. They are the "wild men" of the wilderness (forests in the northern climes, deserts in the southern). And the "wild women" too.

That day many years ago, I was blessed to spend a sunny afternoon of several hours sitting in the rec room of my godmother's house in Gresham, Oregon, getting to know Fr Tryphon personally. It was just he and I, and what a wonderful chat we had, getting to know one another. His Norwegian Lutheran background strangely aligned with my Polish Protestant upbringing, both of us being of that northern type of personality that C. S. Lewis writes about—he was one of us too.
I also met Fr Paul on that visit. In those days, I think it was only Fr Tryphon and Fr Paul. He's the dark haired older monk in one of the pictures I'm posting, shown with the monastery's Norwegian forest cat. Whether or not this is a special breed, I don't know. Maybe the Scandinavian Orthodoxy of the place just affects everyone, even the cat, and yes, the moni is in the forest, naturally. It's part of the northern Thebaïd (a designation for the monasteries of the North in Russia and elsewhere).

I visited Fr Tryphon's blog and really enjoyed it. It's not a typical blog wherein the author's thoughts and ideas or news takes the fore. No, instead it's a consistent, daily clean sheet of the scriptures for the day, a fresh photograph, a nourishing chunk of Orthodox wisdom with which to start one's day. It is so good, that I have also added it to the sidebar of my blog under "Orthodoxy". I've called the link "Abbot Tryphon of Vashon Island" so that it will rise to the top of the list alphabetically and be easy and at hand, when wanted.

I hope my readers will visit Fr Tryphon's blog and, if they live nearby, that they will visit the monastery as well—I plan to, at the earliest possibility. I've been talking about doing just that for years, and here I sit. This latest encounter with my old acquaintance has ignited another spark of interest, and I can thank Yudhie for unintentionally lighting this fire under me.

I have added a bunch of images taken from Fr Tryphon's blog to this post, also to give my readers a quick view of what an Orthodox monastery in the Pacific Northwest looks like. The monastery itself also has its own webpage, the banner of which is at the end of this post, which you can also visit by clicking HERE.

Good morning, Fr Tryphon, Fr Paul, and the brethren! We will be seeing you soon!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

An old poem

Today is sorting day, and I came upon an old book of poems I had written when I was in my mid-30's. I have actually blogged some of these poems before, but I'm not sure I've ever blogged this one. I stopped my sorting to read the little book until I reached this, which I needed to hear again right now, and which I share with you…

The word is mighty

The word is mighty,
of this I have no doubt,
though it is but the sound
of the immortal spring that flows with life only,
not with life and death,
to which, when thirsting,
I repair and drink.

The mind has ears
for what it cannot think
as it would join its syllables to breath.
I quiet sit
astride its wanderings
in restoration
never reasoned out.

Some the word as weapon,
some as spade apply,
or verbal idol lavished with applause,
or bait the trap
between themselves and fate.

Some weaken what is strong,
some fortify the feeble
or manipulate the laws,
and I,
I listen,
slake my thirst, and wait.

— Romanós


Here is a word of truth that came to me in my email this morning, and it's a word that is never heard today, and we need to hear it, especially those young men who have answered the call of Jesus to minister to His people. It's one thing to be called by Christ, another thing to answer the call, yet another to know what the call entails—preparation—patience, willingness to let oneself be formed and prepared to fulfill the call, waiting on the Lord as He fashions us into "the tool in HaShem's hand" that He wants us to be. So you have been to seminary and graduated? Does He call you to be a priest, or a prophet, to a life of safety or a life of ultimate risk? This is not for us to choose, but for Christ, who says, "You did not choose Me, I chose you…" (John 15:16)

A Splendid Example of a Young Man Who Responded to God’s Call
at the Age of 30
by Pastor Zac Poonen

Ezekiel was the son of a priest who was training to be a priest (Ezekiel 1:3). But when he was 30 years old, God suddenly called him to be a prophet (Ezekiel 1:1). We may plan for a certain ministry, but God may call us to something totally different. And then we must be willing, like Ezekiel, to drop everything and to accept whatever God calls us to.

The life of a priest is actually much safer than that of a prophet.
Priests were not usually killed but the prophets invariably were. A prophet also has a very tough time, because not only does he suffer at the hands of the people, but God’s hand also is heavy on him most of the time. Ezekiel would not have undergone all that, if he had been a priest.

There are certain ministries in God’s kingdom that involve more suffering than others. The Lord told Peter, “When you are old, someone will take you where you won’t like to go” – indicating how Peter would suffer for the faith. But Peter immediately, pointing to John, asked the Lord, “What about him? Will he also suffer like me?” But the Lord replied, “That is none of your business. You just follow Me.” (John 21:18-23).

If God calls you to a ministry which involves suffering, don’t look at anybody else. Don’t worry about whether they have an easy time or not. That is none of your business.

Ezekiel responded immediately. Thank God he responded. If he had not responded we might never have heard of him. If Hudson Taylor had not responded when God called him to go to China, if C. T. Studd had not responded when God called him to go to Africa, if Jim Elliot had not responded when God called him to go to South America, we might never have heard of these men. But they responded as soon as God called them.

The thirtieth year seems to be a very significant time in people’s lives – both in the Old and New Testaments. Joseph was 30 when he became ruler in Egypt. David was 30 when he became king. Jesus was 30 when He began His earthly ministry. Most of the apostles were around 30 when they began their ministry. And Ezekiel too was 30 when he began his ministry.

Even today, it is probably around that age that God wants to begin to lead his children into the specific ministry that He has for them. But prior to that date, God has to spend many years in preparing us for that specific ministry. If you surrender to God totally and allow Him to prepare you during your teens and twenties, then you can be ready by the time you are 30 (or 35), for that specific ministry that God has planned for you.

But a lot of young people are impatient and unwilling to wait. I am not saying that you cannot go out and serve God before you are 30 years old. You can start serving God even when you are 16. But in your early years, God has to keep you under authority in order to guide you and protect you. But many young people chafe under such submission to authority and, as a result, are never broken and prepared for the ministry that God has planned for them.

Even Jesus needed that training to submit to Joseph and Mary for 30 years before He entered into His ministry. How much more we? Ezekiel must have submitted to Jeremiah, in his younger days. He must have listened to Jeremiah’s prophecies and studied them as a youth.

God Who saw the faithfulness of this young man, decided that Ezekiel would be a prophet and not a priest.

One day, God opened the heavens over Ezekiel and gave him visions of Himself and a message for His people. “The hand of the Lord came upon him” - that expression occurs seven times in Ezekiel. It meant that Ezekiel could not do what he wanted to do. It was like God saying to him, “Now, you have to go where I want you to go.”

We can all live like this all our lives, if we want to, with the heavens open over us all the time. That will be easy, if you allow the hand of the Lord to be upon you, if you keep your conscience clean, if you humble yourself and fear the Lord!

At times, we are told that when the hand of the Lord was upon him, Ezekiel went “in the rage of his spirit” (Ezekiel 3:14). He did not feel like going, but he went because he had submitted his life totally to God.

A true servant of God does not live by his feelings.
It’s not a question of whether he feels like going, when God calls him to go. Those who serve themselves live by their feelings. But those who serve God go whether they feel like going or not.

They move because the hand of the Lord is upon them.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Fasting unto righteousness

λεγει αυτοις ο ιησους εμον βρωμα εστιν ινα ποιω το θελημα του πεμψαντος με και τελειωσω αυτου το εργον

"My food," said Jesus, "is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.”
John 4:34 NIV

Brethren, let's do what we see Jesus doing.

Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the house of Jacob their sins.

For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.

They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.

'Why have we fasted,' they say,
'and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?'

Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.

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

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

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

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

Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.

The LORD will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.

Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations…

Isaiah 58:1-12 NIV

Thursday, October 8, 2009

How simple it is

This morning as I was praying, I found it very easy to offer thanks for every blessing the Lord has given me, but I found it difficult somehow to pray for needs, and to intercede. Whenever I started to ask, for the healing of a friend's wife, for the safety of my Christian friends in a muslim country, for the happy outcome of another friend's hopes for marriage, for the cure and help of a mentally ill friend, my mind kept coming back to Jesus' words, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him,” and then to the prayer He teaches us,

Our Father in heaven, may Your name be held holy, Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven those who are in debt to us, and do not put us to the test, but save us from the evil one.

The perfect prayer, and not just a ceremonial recitation!
As I surrendered to praying these words, they penetrated the burdens on my heart, and calmed my soul from worrying, knowing that our Father knows what we need before we ask. My prayer continues onward even after my prayer time has given way to what I am doing now, as I am reminded of the needs of others and my own needs throughout the day.

My friend Presbytera Candace sent me these words
of Elder Ierónymos of Ǽgina,

Without God, we cannot do anything. Excessive sorrow, and despair, are of the tempter. Always say, “May Thy will be done.” Have joy and sorrow as guests, but not despair. No matter how much sorrow the evil one brings, say, “I have my Christ. He was crucified for me and loves me.”

Can anything be easier or more simple than this? Forgive me, brethren, but this is Orthodoxy to me: the following of Jesus Christ, trusting in Him who walks ahead enduring all my pains and sorrows for me before I come to them, presenting the prayer which is my life to His Father and interceding on my behalf. Nothing more, or less, than this: “I have my Christ. He was crucified for me and loves me.”

Pelagía the Righteous

That is what the synaxárion calls her. During her life of sin, however, she was called by her adoring followers, Margarita, “the pearled one,” and she was the most sought after actress in Antioch, the city where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians, “little Christs.”

From the Greek Archdiocese website,

This Saint was a prominent actress of the city of Antioch, and a pagan, who lived a life of unrestrained prodigality and led many to perdition. Instructed and baptized by a certain bishop named Nonnus, she departed for the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem, where she lived as a recluse, feigning to be a eunuch called Pelagius. She lived in such holiness and repentance that within three or four years she was deemed worthy to repose in an odour of sanctity, in the middle of the fifth century. Her tomb on the Mount of Olives has been a place of pilgrimage ever since.

Apolytikion in the Plagal of the Fourth Tone
In thee the image was preserved with exactness, O Mother; for taking up thy cross, thou didst follow Christ, and by thy deeds thou didst teach us to overlook the flesh, for it passeth away, but to attend to the soul since it is immortal. Wherefore, O righteous Pelagia, thy spirit rejoiceth with the Angels.

Kontakion in the Second Tone
With fasting didst thou consume thy body utterly; with vigilant prayer didst thou entreat thy Fashioner that complete forgiveness of thy former deeds be granted thee, which, O Mother, thou didst receive. The path of repentance hast thou shown to us.

I found the account of her life for the first time when I was a lad of about 22 years, written in the book The Desert Fathers by Helen Waddell. The chapter on her was entitled, The Life of St. Pelagia the Harlot, and it was paired with the story of another ‘desert mother,’ The Life of St. Mary the Harlot. The latter was not the same as the Mary of Egypt that we are all familiar with from her commemoration on the last Sunday of Lent, but rather a consecrated virgin who was under the care of her old uncle who was a monk. She was tempted by a young, fallen monk, who raped her, after which she ran away from her uncle's hermitage in shame and became a prostitute. The uncle, Abba Abraham, tried to find her, and he succeeded. He went to the brothel dressed as a Roman soldier and asked for her by name. Thus disguised, he got into her room, and revealing himself as her uncle and spiritual father, he reasoned with her, bringing her to her right mind. Trusting in the grace of Christ to forgive all our sins, Mary returned with her uncle, and resumed a life of holiness.

Both of these harlot stories are great reading, and demonstrate the reality of Christ in everyday life, He who is among us, looking for His lost sheep. Abba Abraham went with Him, and found and rescued his neice Mary.

Today the Church commemorates another Pelagía the Virgin-martyr, as well as another converted harlot, Thaïs of Egypt, thus throwing down all our imaginary barriers between virginity and harlotry with ironic strangeness.

The story of Pelagía the Harlot can be downloaded as a Símandron publication PDF by clicking HERE. See also the song, Pelagía.

Friday, October 2, 2009

A new الشهادة ash-Shaháda…

The religion of al-Islám is well-known to be an iconoclastic religion: They hate images. Why? In their scripture, al-Qur'án, the prohibition of images is not explicit. Only the story of Abraham from the Hebrew Torah is retold in Arabic. Yet they absolutely forbid images, ikons, at least in the kingdom of Sa’udi Arabia. That's why it surprised me to see today the image of the Sa’udi flag appear as the latest new visitor to my Ikonostasis blog. Visitors from the Sa’udi kingdom (ranked 44 out of 111 countries) have visited Cost of Discipleship before, and still do, so it's probably not an accidental encounter, but I was surprised to see a visitor from that country on my ikon blog. I wonder if it's one of my regular visitors to this blog?

Taking the current Sa’udi flag, I redesigned it slightly, removing the scimitar and the calligraphic image of the الشهادة ash-shaháda, the Muslim confession of faith, and replacing it with the text of Daniel 2:20. The result, shown below, would make a nice replacement flag for a country that desperately needs Christ. May all the secret Christians of Sa’udi Arabia persevere through this dark time, for it is soon at an end, for them, for us all, “for the Time is close” (Revelation 1:3).