Monday, January 31, 2011

Rescued by wedding guests

Whenever I return to a stint of reading the early fathers, that is, those before and just after the peace of the Church wrought by Constantine, I’m always struck by their modernity and the freshness that leaps out at me as I read. It makes me wonder just what “modern” means.

I’ve read somewhere that the beginning of “modern” times occurred in different centuries in different places. Some say in Europe they began in AD 1300 with Dante, others that Francis of Assisi is the first “modern” man in the West: it all depends on when the writer thinks the medieval age ended. In the Far East, modern times are said to have begun during the Northern Sung dynasty, around the year AD 1000, and the criteria are such things as the appearance of printing, paper money, and machinery.

In my view, what I mean as “modern” has to do with machinery definitely, but even more with the frank and unafraid willingness to question everything to get at the root of truth. This is something that I think we lost during the “Church Age” in the West, when other priorities were substituted for it. The religiosity of medieval Christianity did not even make room for real questions to be asked, hence, the stagnation that took centuries to overcome.

Back to my topic, the written testimonies of the early Christians.

Eusebius’ History of the Church was my leisure reading matter this morning. His text reads as fluently and frankly as if it were written just yesterday, and the events he recounts are both easy to picture and believe as accurate. What a far cry from the miracle stories of Christian piety, always avid to believe anything as long as it’s monstrous—like Nicholas of Myra reassembling and revivifying the bodies of some boys who were hacked to pieces and then hidden in some barrels of pickles, or was it wine?
Golly, the stuff of nightmares!

I read for a long while about the Church Father Origen of Alexandria who escaped being canonized as Saint Origen for some of his eccentricities of belief or at least of expression. One of his funnier speculations was that our resurrection bodies would be perfect spheres, but he also speculated on pre-existence of the soul and other ideas bordering on pagan philosophy. This speculation, in spite of his sufferings in the Decian persecution, earned him the indignity of being a suspect of heresy. Looking at him through the “modern” approach that one finds in Eusebius’ history, I’d say that Origen deserves better from his “carping critics” as Eusebius calls them. I guess Origen will just have to be classed with Martin Luther, who also falls under the axe of true piety, as he cries out, “Let the saints canonize themselves!”

Now, for the real topic, a story that I found both exciting and interesting, written in History of the Church, Book 6, Chapter 40, entitled What happened to Dionysius. The account itself was written in a letter by Dionysius, and it is quoted in the book.

I speak as in the presence of God, who knows whether I am lying. I did not act on my own judgement or without God when I made my escape; but even before that, when Decius announced his persecution, Sabinus then and there dispatched a frumentarius to hunt me out, and I stayed at home for four days waiting for him to arrive. But though he went round searching every spot—roads, rivers, fields—where he guessed I was hiding or walking, he was smitten with blindness and did not find the house; he never imagined that when an object of persecution I should stay at home! It was only after four days, when God commanded me to go elsewhere, and by a miracle made it possible, that I set out along with the boys and many of the brethren. That this was indeed a work of divine providence was proved by what followed, when perhaps we were of use to some.

Let me interject two observations:
Dionysius tells, almost casually as if it were nothing remarkable, that God commanded him to go elsewhere. These early Christians like us had, and knew they had, direct access to God, without having to resort to a chain of command as later develops in the Church, eventually making it unimaginable in the Dark Ages that anyone but a perfect saint could actually talk to God and get His personal attention, as does Dionysius. This, to me, is a sign of modernity. The other thing I want to notice is his use of the word miracle. As he continues to tell his story, the miraculous aspect reveals itself to be the acknowledgment that God was personally and intimately directing the flow of events. This too strikes me as modern, that is, frank and honest, not given to exaggeration or tale-spinning.
Now, to finish the story, Dionysius continues…

About sunset, my companions and I were caught by the soldiers and taken to Taposiris; but by the purpose of God it happened that Timothy was absent and was not caught. When he arrived later, he found the house empty except for a guard of servants, and learnt that we had been captured without hope of release…

And how was God’s wonderful mercy shown? You shall hear the truth. As Timothy fled distracted, he was met by one of the villagers on his way to attend a wedding-feast—which in those parts meant an all-night celebration—who asked why he was in such a hurry. He told the truth without hesitation, whereupon the other went in and informed the guests as they reclined at table. With one accord, as if at a signal, they all sprang to their feet, came as fast as their legs could carry them, and burst in where we were with such terrifying shouts that the soldiers guarding us instantly took to their heels. Then, they stood over us, as we lay on bare mattresses.

At first, God knows, I thought they were bandits who had come to plunder and steal, so I stayed on the bed. I had nothing on but a linen shirt; my other clothes that were lying near I held out to them. But they told me to get up and make a bolt for it. Then I realised what they had come for, and called out, begging and beseeching them to go away and let us be. If they wanted to do me a good turn, they had better forestall my captors and cut off my head themselves. While I shouted like this, they pulled me up by force, as my companions who shared all my adventures know. I let myself fall on my back to the floor, but they grasped me by hands and feet and dragged me out, followed by those who witnessed the whole scene, Gaius, Faustus, Peter, and Paul, who picked me up and carried me out of the village, set me on a donkey bareback, and led me away.

Now, in conclusion I ask you, brethren, isn’t this a great story? Doesn’t it ring true, and even entertain us in a way that doesn’t offend true piety, by the candid artlessness of the author? Here we have an example of what a Christian was like in the third century, before the beginning of the Church Age. There’s a lot here to be learned, and also to help us examine ourselves, to make sure that the faith that we have is the same as that of these early Christians. Reading books like these makes me think that what we have known as the “modern” age has not so much to do with an era of chrónos time, but rather with moments of kairós time scattered through human history.

And if this be true, what then of those who call the present “post-modern”? Must we, like Dionysius, have to be yanked out of our resignation by Christ’s wedding guests, set bareback on an ass, and set free?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

All things visible and invisible

Just a story…

The end of January, and spring is already here. He cannot get enough fresh air in his room or into his lungs, and he throws open both windows wide. Coolness hovers just outside, refusing to pour in—there is no breeze. He ponders the invitation to call a priest to visit his humble home and, praying profusely, splash its rooms and ikons with holy water, the water that was blessed three weeks earlier. Is it still fresh? Does the Spirit still indwell it? Or like the manna, does it go bad if you don’t use it daily?

Stavrakis sits and ponders. He went to church today, this Lord’s day. That makes two in a row. Each time the worship was so different. Last week, no choir, just a cantor chanting in husky, male syllables that intimidated not just the women but even most of the men from singing along. Today, a mixed choir reappeared like an orchestra on tour, bright with womanly voices and, if there were any males among them, they were cleverly disguised. Stavrakis sang both services as best as he could. He loved to sing.

As usual, a blind man is always something of a mystery, and even in church people tend to avoid him. Is it because they think he might accidentally bump into them as he stumbles around the temple? Or are they afraid of hurting him? Perhaps they’re thinking he has been hurt enough already, so it’s better to let him be, leave him alone to work it out with the Lord. After all, who is a better friend and comforter than God? Stavrakis, the blind widower of an insane wife, maybe God doesn’t love him. Who knows?

Without sleeping on it, he decides to call the priest and leaves a message, ‘Come sit with me, take a little tea, and bless my house, Father. I am always at home,’ on the answering machine. It isn’t as though he has been regular at this. He can’t even remember the last time he had his house blessed. Had he ever? He simply can’t remember. Maybe that’s why his house fell into ruin. Stavrakis was never one to be very keen on blessings. When he could still see, it seemed to him that God’s blessings around him every day were enough.

On a walk to the market, he hears a familiar voice. It’s the priest. ‘Thank you, Stavrakis, for your message.’ He feels for the father’s hand, bows slightly and kisses it, smiling but saying nothing. Then the two of them part ways with no more said, as if they were strangers. Did the priest smile? A blind man has the hardest time seeing a smile when you don’t speak. Stavrakis asks himself, ‘Does this mean he will he come and have tea with me? Will he bless my house?’ He doesn’t know if the two activities can be combined, and wonders.

Later, a shallow knock at the door. Stavrakis, lost in meditation as he lies on his bed reciting from memory and praying  the psalms, thinks he is dreaming. Did I hear a knock? He pauses, and breathes deeply, a little nervously. Did the father come after all? Is he at the door? Better hurry down to see, that is, as much as a blind man can, and while he descends the stairs he hears another knock, unmistakably clear this time. Tap-tap-tap! There it is again. Tap-tap-tap! Always threes, everything Orthodox has to come in threes.

‘Agios! Agios! Agios! Kyrios o Theos…’ Stavrakis mutters to himself as he covers the last few steps to the door handle. To do anything outside himself, he must extricate himself from his prayer. He swims in it as a fish swims in water, unaware that it even is water, unaware that it is swimming. ‘Father, is that you?’ he asks as the door swings open. He’s answered by meeting a faint fragrance of Bethlehem incense, the same as he burns at his own ikon stand against the east wall of his dining room.

‘It is you, Father! I didn’t know if you’d come!’ The priest greets him with clerical reserve tempered by some natural human warmth. ‘I don’t know what to do, Father, so I hope you do!’ he jokes with the young priest to break the ice and make both of them feel a little more comfortable. Slowly, after a few more words of welcome and greeting on both sides, the father begins the prayer. As he prays in each room, Stavrakis stays near, making the responses, smelling the incense, feeling occasionally the overspray of the aspergil as the priest casts holy water about the rooms.

Then, it is over. Stavrakis is afraid to ask, but he forces himself. ‘Father, would you care to take tea with me? I would consider it a great blessing to sit down with you. Maybe we could talk a bit.’ There is a long pause, and then a negative but apologetic response. Then, another longer pause. ‘What’s he waiting for?’ he asks himself. Then, he remembers. ‘Give the priest something for his trouble in coming out to see you.’ His alter ego responds, ‘But that’s what the tea was for!’

‘Perhaps God doesn’t accept tea as an offering,’ he jokingly muses. ‘Even goat’s hair, He will accept as an offering, so say the rabbis. But tea? That’s another matter.’ Stavrakis’ heart is still Jewish like his mother’s, even though she didn’t survive long enough to make a Jew out of him. His Greek father’s grief at her death, like a family curse, was passed on to him: His dead wife, though she didn’t die early, early died her love for him, making life with her impossible to the end.

‘Father, I am sorry, but I didn’t think ahead to have any money in the house to give you as an offering for coming here to bless. Please, look about you. Is there anything in my house that you or Holy Church could use? If there is, please take it. Anything you can see. Please forgive me.’ The young priest takes a few steps and Stavrakis hears the jingle of something metallic, then the sound of something being put down on the dining room table, above which is mounted an ancient Hebrew manuscript.

‘No, brother Myron. There is nothing that I can see that Holy Church or I need to take away from you as an offering. I have already received an offering that I cannot see from you, and so we give you an offering that you cannot see. Your offering is spiritual, ours only material. But please, accept it, let it be our offering to the God you worship in this house, who has blessed me very much.’

And having said those words, the young father departed, leaving his censer on the table for Stavrakis’ prayers.

Merciful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaac the Syrian, Homily 60

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

Come down from the cross

No matter where I have been, in solitude or in human society, light and consolation pour forth into my soul from the cross of Christ. Sin, which has possession of my entire being, does not cease to say to me, ‘Come down from the cross.’

Alas! I come down from it, thinking to find righteousness outside of the cross, and I fall into misery of soul: waves of agitation swallow me. Having come down from the cross, I am found to be without Christ.

How can I help my calamitous state? I pray to Christ to raise me up unto the cross again. As I pray, I myself try to be crucified, as one taught by experience: he who is not crucified is not Christ's.

Faith raises me up onto the cross; reason, falsely so called, full of faithlessness, brings me down from it. As I myself act, so do I advice my brothers to act!

What else shall I add? I will add, ‘Blessed is the man that endureth temptation’ (James 1:12). ‘In that He Himself (Jesus Christ) hath suffered being tempted, He is able to succor them that are tempted’ (Hebrews 2:18).

I desire that these words of Holy Scripture be realized in you. And you—be consoled! Do not be fainthearted because you have been conquered in warfare. This is unto spiritual skill or experience, and for humility. Peace be unto you!

I will say in addition ; the general path of ascetics is, through practicing patience among men, to heal the infirmity of the senses, to see God's Providence, and to enter into mental prayer.

Someone else, by God's Providence, enters therein by another way, but we should go by the common path. Read about this in Homily 55 of St. Isaac (the Syrian) to St. Symeon the Wonderworker.

Some find that solitude is the shortest means to spiritual success, while others say that love for one's neighbor leads to spiritual success.

My heart likes the latter more, because love for one's neighbor is the indispensable duty of each one, while not many are capable of stillness.

— From The Collected Letters of St Ignatius Brianchaninov (Russian), Moscow,1995. This translation was published in Issue Nos. 270-71 of The Orthodox Word pp. 91-92, St Herman Press, Jan-April 2010.

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

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Saints! saints everywhere! the Bride of Christ…


Many of our friends in the blogosphere know Yudhie Kristanto, our brother in Indonesia, and have visited his blog Heartbeat, which he has closed for now, wanting a fresh start. You can, of course, still return there and read his earlier posts (many of them are wonderful poems), but for the new year he's opened a new window on his life in Christ, humbly calling it Daily Jottings. Yudhie is an Orthodox Christian student finishing his last year at Universitas Pelita Harapan in Tangerang, Banten, near Jakarta. After his graduation in June, he will be a mathematics teacher in a Christian school yet to be assigned. Last year he spent a few months as a student teacher in Pontianak on the island of Kalimantan, where he practiced his future job and became a beloved teacher to his pupils.

In his second post at Daily Jottings he describes a visit to the home of one of his lecturers, Ms Enid of Australia. This is how he describes her…
She is very kind and merciful. There will be no regret after staying with her and listen to her wisdom and faith in the Lord! Indeed it's really great! She's just back from Adelaide to serve God here in Indonesia. She told us that her trip was very nice. Then she asked us if we have any needs to be prayed for, and thus she blessed us with her kindness and spiritual truth. One line which dropped into my heart went like this, "Pray. Keep praying and trust God! He knows us best. Trust Him! And when your struggle is over, say 'Thank you, Lord', whatever the result is".
During his visit with her, she presented him with a very special gift, a Russian bible. She is obviously a Christian; she knows that Yudhie is also a Christian, and one who is of the Orthodox faith, and she also knows that he is teaching himself Russian, as the Indonesian Church is under the supervision of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. Here they were, Yudhie and his fellow students, all of them Christians attending a Christian college in a Muslim-majority nation, all of them belonging to various denominations, yet there is no dispute, no distinction between any of them, only the sign that Christ Himself said would distinguish His disciples from the people of the world: their love for one another.

How is this love expressed? By simple fellowship. By unselfconscious sharing of what each has been granted by the Lord. Yes, they know about each other, where they come from, what churches they go to, but the words and acts of love that pass between them, without motive, innocent as doves, prove the words of Jesus, prove the Word of God to be true, ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another’ (John 13:34-35).

Their visit and fellowship together was a kairós moment, an ‘acceptable time,’ a ‘day that the Lord has made, and we will rejoice and be glad in it’ moment, a fragment taken out of chrónos time and placed in God's eternity. It was a manifestation of the Church, of the Body of Christ. It was a fleeting moment made everlasting by becoming an ikon of life in the Holy Triad.

Does all of this sound like I'm exaggerating a bit? that I am making too much of a short, informal visit? Does it seem that I am painting it in imaginary colors?

Well, it may seem that way, but this is the reality of life in Christ, who wastes no opportunity to come and be among us, in places no matter how small, at times no matter how short. He is the Almighty, and so size makes no difference to Him.

And yes, the saints! the saints are everywhere! Where the Lord is, there is the Bride of Christ…

Friday, January 28, 2011

All at the feet of Jesus

All power and authority given to man on earth by God is given to him when he prays.

‘How can this be? I pray all the time and I don’t have any power, I have no authority. What are you talking about? But I do see power and authority given to people who have status, who have money, who are educated, who know how to pull the strings. As for the rest of us, right, we pray, but we pray because there’s nothing else we can do.’

With a sigh of resignation the words of barely hidden contempt are mouthed. Men for whom Christ died and who say they believe in Him, men on whom ‘all authority in heaven and on earth,’ given to Christ by His Father has been bestowed, men who can read the words for themselves, ‘anything you ask for in My name,’ are reduced to practicing magic they don’t even believe in.

‘Glory to You, O Lord, glory to You!’ I hear muttered constantly under his breath, and ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!’ cried out in lonely and forsaken places, moaned even, mingled with sobs of sorrow for his sins. Of little account, the world passes the saint and thinks him mad, yet his prayer is genuine and not for show or for sale.

The religious are even baffled. ‘We do more than he does, keep the fasts, drink tea without sugar, never touch flesh or oil or cheese during the prohibited times, never miss a service, and we greet each other nicely. Why does everybody go running to him? He scares us. He doesn’t follow the rules. He’s proud and wants his own way. Why does God answer his prayers and not ours?’

He can battle the devil, he can even drive him out, because he knows him personally. He has locked himself in battle with him in an invisible ring many times. His weapons? The words of holy and divine scripture, outbursts of mighty psalms, supplications to God Himself and his shameless asking for what he doesn’t deserve, his confession of his own sins, his laying all at the feet of Jesus.

The power of the Word

[Originally posted on May 8, 2009.]
The following story is taken from the life of Abba Arsenios, the great desert father, which was borrowed from its
original source and posted by a Christian brother in Indonesia, whom I have recently met, on his wonderful blog Heart Beat.
The text I have copied from the source but edited to correct the English grammar. The image I am borrowing from Yudi's blog because I think it is very apt.

This is what Abba Arsenios says about God's Word…


A monk complained to St. Arsenius that while reading Holy Scripture he did not feel, neither the power of the words read, nor gentleness in his heart.

To that the great saint replied to him:

"My child, just read! I heard that the sorcerers of serpents, when they cast a spell upon the serpents, the sorcerers are uttering the words, which they themselves do not understand, but the serpents hearing the spoken words sense their power and become tamed. And so, with us, when we continually hold in our mouths the words of Holy Scripture, but even though we do not feel the power of the words, evil spirits tremble and flee, for they are unable to endure the words of the Holy Spirit."

My child, just read! The Holy Spirit Who, through inspired men, wrote these divine words, will hear, will understand, and will hasten to your assistance; and the demons will understand, will sense, and will flee from you. That is, He Whom you invoke for assistance will understand, and those whom you wish to drive away from yourself will understand. And both goals will be achieved.

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.

Full or empty

This morning I listened to a recording of traditional Ethiopian music, singing with flutes, strings and drum, as I drove to work. Usually, I do not listen to music when I’m driving to and from work. Instead I often sing and pray, pray and sing, and sometimes just silently think, about life, about God, about the world. This morning, though, I wanted to listen to someone else sing. I was feeling thankful because my car started this morning. I think the battery is going bad, but today, I had one more day.

I was also thankful because I received a greeting and blessing from someone who visits my blog. Few people comment or write me, but when they do, it encourages me. Even if only one person could benefit from anything I might post here, then all the effort is worth it. As it is, we just plant the seed in hope, and the Lord gives the increase.

The music was very joyful and exuberant, and the people were praising their Shepherd, the Lord Jesus. I don’t know their language, but knowing some Hebrew and Arabic, I can sometimes make out in general what they are singing. Their joy was so genuine, even though they were singing for a performance, I don’t believe in their minds and hearts they were performing. Singing praise to the Lord and worshiping Him in their hearts, that seems to be what they are doing all the time. Hearing them touched me very deeply, and for a few moments I was there with them, their hearts and mine bursting with genuine and ineffable joy, making music before the Lord who was, who is, and who is to come, the living God. How can their joy be so real? They sound as if they really are astonished and thankful and raised above themselves.

If my life were simple, if all that was before me was the day, with my simple work to do, my family to provide for, my livestock to herd or my crops and orchards to tend, if my mind had silent places in it, empty places, where I could meet the Lord and speak to Him face to face, where I could hear His voice, then maybe my life would also be so ready to tremble with living joy at the mention of His name, at the remembrance of His mighty deeds, His wonderful victories over death and the grave. When death is so real because it is so near, so is resurrection, so is the reality of eternal life, so are the words of Jesus, the words of His promise, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live’ (John 11:25).

But my life is not simple, my empty places few; with the rest of modern Western humanity, I am too full, full of things, full of sounds (I won’t call them music, noise rather), full of relationships (shallow though they be), and worst of all, full of myself. Can there be room for joy when my heart is so protected from danger, risk, even from death behind this phalanx of busyness? Does the modern man believe that if he keeps himself busy, death will not touch him? If he stays as full as possible, crowding his mind and heart with things to watch, listen to, relate to, speculate on, be entertained with, if he flees the barren silence and stark desertedness of being empty, can he escape his own death?

That’s why, I think, we marvel at the spontaneous, unconscious and legitimate joy we hear in the singing of ‘primitive’ people praising and thanking their Savior, why we are attracted to it and want to possess it but cannot quite enter into it ourselves. We enjoy it and seek to possess it, but we end up only with the sound effects without the corresponding feeling, we load it into our store of fullness, and as we do so, we don’t even realize that we are moving in the opposite direction of those joyful singers. They are with Jesus, walking along with Him as He passes through our world, even our world of today, like His invisible escorts. And we, we are with the funeral possession of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-17), passing Him going the other way. If only He would stop and raise our son!

But we insist on being full, not empty. There is no room for Him in our inn, not to be born there, not to tend the wounded there, even if the wounded is ourselves. Like the rich farmer who boasts to himself, ‘Take it easy, my soul, your barns are full, loaded with all that your heart desires,’ yet to whom the Spirit that wants to lodge inside of us has to speak from without, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you’ (Luke 12:20), and we still don’t realize the Truth: ‘How can the empty behind the full be so abundant?’

Are we full or empty? Have we decided whom to serve, the rich Lord whose followers are all made poor, or the poor Son of Man whose followers are all made rich? It is true as the saints have said, ‘This world is this kind of field: he who owns the biggest part owns the worst part.’ This is not about possessions per se, but on where we store them up, not about materialism but about preoccupation, not about formal faith but about Yes and No. This is about full and empty, which is it? Which is better, which worse? Which have you chosen? ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit…’ What can this possibly mean? Who is it, the rich man who welcomes you readily, or the poor man? And what is poverty?

Full or empty.
Will we be so full that we cannot fly?
Or will they find our tombs as empty as they found the Savior’s?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

One more time

I don’t want to entertain,
I want to communicate.
Meaning and relationship are
what is
most important to me.
I am a Greek Orthodox Christian,
but not Orthodoxy,
only Christ matters.

Church has its place,
but it cannot be substituted for
one’s personal response
to the call of Jesus Christ.


The above used to be my summary ‘statement’, written back in 2006 when I first started blogging. These words, combined with my choice of Cost of Discipleship and a quotation from this book by its author, Protestant hieromartyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer as the name of my blog has kept it off the Orthodox blog rolls of most other bloggers who confess this faith. A handful of other Orthodox have listed me as an Orthodox blogger, including two priests, one Antiochian and one Serbian. They must have seen through whatever it is that keeps me off limits to all the others. Truthfully, I do not promote Orthodox Christianity as a church or a religion. My intention is to confess Christ and to be His witness, sharing with others what He shares with me, and following Him with my whole being, not just with my words, by doing what I see Him doing, saying what I hear Him saying. It doesn’t seem honest, prudent or safe to do anything other than this.

But thinking about my ‘statement’ I can see that it could easily be misunderstood. It is vague enough that my enemies, if I have any, can say that I am a pseudo-Orthodox, or worse. After all, I seem to be saying that Orthodoxy isn’t important, that it doesn’t matter, that only Christ matters. And actually, starting in reverse order, that is what I confess—only Christ matters. But if that were true for me without qualification, why even mention Orthodoxy at all? Anyone who knows me personally, who goes to church with me, knows that I am a practicing Greek Orthodox, that I participate in regular worship and have at various times held responsible positions in this church.

What I mean when I say that Orthodoxy doesn’t matter, or that ‘Church has its place, but it cannot be substituted for one’s personal response to the call of Jesus Christ,’ is that in every context, our individual response to the living Christ is incomparable in importance to anything else we might think about or do. Everything about Holy Orthodoxy springs from the reality of that response to the living Christ, the resurrected Lord, everything! Yet, we can have an Orthodoxy that is the work of man, not the work of God that Holy Orthodoxy is.

The Orthodox Church is everything that it claims to be, nothing more and nothing less, but Orthodoxy itself is an inexhaustible reality that overfills and overflows the visible Church. Wherever Christ is truly welcomed, followed and confessed, there is the Church, there is Orthodoxy. I do not promote Orthodoxy as a church or religion, because it is neither. It is a living reality that is the work of God, not man-made, and it is not something I can lure people to. I simply witness for Christ, as I can do nothing else, and He does all the work, ‘We catch the fish, He cleans them and sorts them.’

So do I recant? Does Orthodoxy matter or not?
Of course it does, but it’s not something I can give you. It is the work of God, and to Him alone it belongs. It is a humble work, I know, to simply witness for Christ, but by our lives and actions, not by our words alone, are people drawn to the One we follow and, if they truly want Him, they will, like the two disciples, ask, ‘Rabbi, where do you live?’ and He will always answer, ‘Come, and see!’ (John 1:38-39).

We witness for Christ, we never argue.
We read the Word aloud and speak it to people without adding anything or taking anything away, and by so doing disarm our detractors. It is ‘not ourselves that we preach’ (2 Corinthians 4:5) and promote, only Christ, and who can argue with Him? They may try, but Christ Himself never argues, He simply is who He is. Sometimes His sheep even ‘recognize His voice’ (John 10:27) long before they know it is He, and when they finally do know who is calling them, to Him they run. He leads them ‘to graze close by the shepherds’ tents’ (Song of Songs 1:8).

I was reading some passages in the book Hymn of Entry, by Archimandrite Vasileios, and it made me stop and think the foregoing thoughts. I really just wanted to quote more of the wise words of this modern church father, rather than write anything of my own, but that’s not what happened. Sometimes the end of our motivation is different than what we supposed. But let me, brethren, quote at least a little bit of what I was reading, as these words will be more edifying than mine...

How frequently the Lord would stop people who wanted to start a “theological” conversation with Him. They ask, “Will those who are saved be few?” and the Lord replies, “Strive to enter by the narrow door” (Luke 13:23-24). Again, with the Samaritan woman who is surprised when the Lord asks her for water, and explains her surprise, “For the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans” (John 4:9), Jesus cuts short her comments on the relations between the religious communities with the command, “Go, call your husband” (John 4:16). In a moment He leads the conversation into the field of personal life, of true theology. In every case He is interested in the person, not in theological discussion as an isolated occupation remaining out of touch with life and with the very person who is speaking. “I seek not what is yours, but you” (2 Corinthians 12:14), says Paul; I seek the person and his salvation.

Therefore, while the Jews of Christ’s day were so eager for theological discussions, He let them go unanswered; “But He was silent.” For He did not come to discuss, He came to seek out and save the one that had gone astray
(Matthew 18:11). He came and took on our whole nature. He entered into us, into the shadow of death where we are, and drew us to the light. We passed into His life: we live in Him.

Archimandrite Vasileios, Hymn of Entry, pp. 32-33 passim

The passage quoted above is the commentary on and explanation of what I mean in my ‘statement’ when I say, ‘Meaning and relationship are what is most important to me.’ Even, and especially, in Orthodoxy is that personal response to the call of Jesus Christ the most important thing, that ‘which will not be taken from’ us
(Luke 10:42).

A fearful thing

It is
a fearful thing
to hate whom God
hath loved.

To look upon another—
his weaknesses,
his sins,
his faults,
his defects—
is to look upon one who is suffering.

He is suffering from negative passions,
from the same sinful human corruption
from which you yourself suffer…

Do not look upon him with judgmental eyes of comparison,
noting the sins you assume you’d never commit.

Rather, see him as a fellow sufferer,
a fellow human being who is in need of the very healing
of which you are in need.

Help him, love him, pray for him—
do unto him
as you would have him
do unto you.

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

Humility

Humility is so powerful that even the all-conquering God did not conquer without it. Humility was even able to bear the burden of a stiff-necked nation in the desert. Moses, the humblest of men, was given charge of the nation that was the most stubborn of all men. God, Who needed nothing to save His people, later found Himself in need of the humility of Moses just to abide the grumbling and complaining of His critics. Only humility could tolerate the perversity of a nation that dismissed signs in Egypt as well as wonders in the desert. Whenever pride caused divisions in the nation, the prayer of humility healed their divisions. Now, if the humility of a tongue-tied man endured six hundred thousand, how much more does His humility endure, Who granted speech to the tongue-tied! For the humility of Moses is a mere shadow of the humility of our Lord.

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

Loveless

Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to Him to call his attention to its buildings. ‘Do you see all these things?’ He asked. ‘I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down…
Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold…’

Matthew 24:1-2, 12 NIV

The love of most will grow cold.
This verse comes from Christ’s discourse on the end times, and there are many seemingly more startling predictions than this one in the passage—impersonators of Christ, wars and revolutions, famines and earthquakes, persecution, apostasy, and false prophets—and then this, the love of most will grow cold. It seems almost anti-climactic. Yet Christ included it. It must be an important sign, and a sign it is.

This is my experience practically every day.
This is our experience, though because its presence is so pervasive, we’ve all become used to it and don’t notice it. If we did, it might drive us to despair. What am I talking about? ‘The world’s not all that bad!’ Sorry, brothers, sorry, but it is. Even close to home.

At first I wanted to say of this love growing cold, that unwillingness to affirm the other person is its hidden root, but no, even that root doesn’t go deep enough. Jesus plainly calls its cause—wickedness—in Greek anomía, lawlessness. Ironic, that lawlessness causes lovelessness? I should have stopped here, but forgive me, brethren, for this worthless ramble.

We love because we feel we are loved. Loved by whom? Well, for starters, think of a child, one who knows that his parents love him, especially that his mother does. That makes it possible for him to love, and love he does. But what if his mother doesn’t love him, and he knows it? Right from the beginning, the inner emptiness caused by that lack of love can turn his love inwards, to self-love. ‘Well, if mommy doesn’t love me, I’m looking out for number one,’ or, as we read in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, ‘The dwarfs are for the dwarfs!’ A lot of loveless people start out this way, crushed children grow up into crushing adults.

In a general sort of way, the love of most grows cold because they don’t really believe that God loves them, personally. Why don’t they? Well, it’s probably because they don’t believe that God exists at all. Imagine this—living in a universe without God. If you don’t open your eyes in the morning and look at the universe, it may not even exist! When you die, for sure the universe is gone. But if there is a God, could that be why the universe continues, whether any one of us is alive to experience it, or whether we are dead? This God, like the character of Christ in the film Jesus of Nazareth, doesn’t even blink. If He did, what would become of us?

This is my experience practically every day.

People protect themselves from the imposition of others. They see that something they know and could say or do would lighten someone’s burden, help them in some way, but they withhold it. ‘Why should I lend a hand? I’m busy,’ or worse yet, ‘Serves him right, he’s old enough to know how to do that. Too bad, you dope!’

Parents turning away their children, eager to push them out of the nest. Children abandoning their parents, ignoring them until they want something. Employees making a co-worker’s job difficult because they can’t be bothered to share what they know. Drivers cutting people off, making other unsafe manoeuvres, honking their horns at anyone who gets in their way. Customer service people who respond only to your exact question, unwilling to help you ask the right question to solve your dilemma. Why? What would it cost them?

How can anyone have such hatred towards another creature? They see someone crushed, they crush him lower. They see someone in distress, they say, ‘It’s none of my business.’

And when do these people attend? When do they extend themselves for others? When there is profit to be had, plain and simple. Calling ourselves Christians, we try our best to live in love according to our ability, because we know that he who lives in love lives in God’ (1 John 4:16) and ‘whoever loves his brother lives in the light… but whoever hates his brother is in the darkness’ (1 John 2:10-11), and yet we somehow are able to provide ourselves with reasons why we should withhold our love from this or that person. ‘Why should I help him after all he’s done to me?’ or ‘Let her learn for herself what I had to go through!’

Christ help us!

Why doesn’t our own past suffering soften our hearts towards those suffering now? Do we think by handing over a five-dollar-bill we can satisfy the justice of God? Does making a party for our friends and being generous to those from whom we expect benefits or praise make up for our callous hearts?

We draw near to the time of Christ’s resurrection, or rather it draws us near, the Father draws us near to His Son, if we will let Him. We confess, ‘All is forgiven in the resurrection,’ echoing the teachings of the fathers. We shout at the end of the midnight service of Pascha, ‘Epikranthi! It was vexed!’ speaking of Hades’ state when it discovered it had tried to hold the uncontainable God, and ‘Anesti Christos! Christ is risen!’ speaking of the single event in the universe that has annihilated annihilation.

Are we willing, at last, to rekindle in us the only fire worth having, the only flame that never goes out? Come, receive the light from the unwaning Light!’ Though in this world of darkness that Light still shines, without being put out, yet also without being grasped, can we walk in that Light? Can we live in love? Or is our love going to grow colder? Upon those who walked in darkness, a Light has shone’ (Isaiah 9:2).

Φωτιζου, φωτιζου, η νεα Ιερουσαλημ, η γαρ δοξα Κυριου επι σε ανετειλε. Χορευε νυν και αγαλλου Σιων…

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Anti-Christian


A brother wrote,

I get offended when people expect me to say (just because I don't fit their idea of being 'Christian') that science, especially this issue of evolution, is damaging to faith in God.

I hold the view of the (at times) controversial Archbishop Lazar Puhalo: "If any scientific theory undermines your faith, you probably didn't have any faith in the first place".

Archbishop Lazar speaks the truth.

There is nothing inherently anti-Christian in science. On the other hand there is much that is anti-Christian within ‘Christianity.’

Live, my brother, always in the Truth, and fearlessly, because the truest of all facts and acts, is the fact and act of the Resurrection of Christ. This one event has given a new bravery to the soul of man, which remains undaunted no matter what evidence turns up, because hard as they search far and wide, they will never find His body lying in a tomb.

Heart


Abba Pambo said, ‘If you have a heart, you can be saved.’


To have a heart is to love your neighbor, to hold him and every creature with love, tenderly, inside of you, in your will, your prayer. It is the willingness to welcome not only Christ into you, but your brothers for whom He died, as well.

Welcome them into what? into where?

That is the heart. It wasn't there before, not until you began to welcome others with love. At that point, the only Lover of mankind entered into you and built a mansion where both He and the brethren could be brought in and welcomed.

If we have a heart, yes, then we are sure to be saved, for ‘with our brother lies our salvation.’

This is what life in the bridal chamber of the Lord, the Holy Orthodox Church, has taught me, and not by words, but by actions.

You too, brother, have a heart, I know you do, and having one is a risk, it can be broken, but not for long. And the breaking is necessary, so that it can grow larger and larger, becoming in the end a tree in paradise in which the birds of heaven, the souls of the redeemed, can build their nests.

‘Welcome them all as you welcome Me,’ says the Lord, ‘for verily, in them you have welcomed Me’ (cf. Matthew 25:40).

The Great Inversion

You know that among the pagans the rulers lord it over them, and their great men make their authority felt. This is not to happen among you. No; anyone who wants to be great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave, just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.
Matthew 20:25-28

It's curious how we have found so many ways to get around this saying of Jesus. One hierarch who otherwise declares himself the bridge-builder and the vicar of Christ on earth, humbly adds the epithet servant of the servants of God to the other titles by which he is known, and though protocol demands he be referred to as ‘his Holiness,’ we are advised that this form of address pertains not to him personally, but to what Christ has made him. That may be so; I don't know. But I ask myself, how does this differ from referring to the Queen as ‘her Majesty’?

Like all other human societies, the Church organizes itself in tiers according to rules of order. Is this not to be avoided? After all, even Christ had His inner ring of disciples, Peter, James and John, and even there we find an ambition for preeminence among its members which gave Him occasion to speak the words cited above, ‘anyone who wants to be great…’

Though Holy Church has institutions like the offices of bishop, presbyter and deacon, and has even added more classifications to these simple New Testament ones, the fact remains that within her we find strange inversions happening, even from the earliest times, that prove the saying of Jesus fulfilled and write a spiritual history of mankind that remains almost impossible of documentation.

In the ancient Church, we have figures like elders Barsanouphios and John in Gaza, simple men who from their desert cells guided countless lives both during their time and up to the present day. Bishops even feared them for their God-bestowed authority, and heeded their instructions, yet they considered themselves the worst of sinners.

In the film Ostrov, the simple, half-mad Fr Anatoly, after burning his abbot's best boots, nearly suffocating him in a smoke-filled boiler room, and then casting his precious down-filled comforter into the sea, sits side by side with him, both of them covered with soot and smoke, and talks to himself or them both, complaining that God has made him the leader of the monastery, and he simply can't understand why, since of all men he is the most sinful. You can tell that he's not just saying this out of humility; he really believes it. This is Fr Anatoly speaking, now, not the abbot. The abbot just sits there beside him silently and with a look of abject relief, thanking God for delivering him, at the hands of this madman, from his earthly crutches.

It is strange, too, how our perceptions of others can be so different, one person viewing another as a great saint, another criticizing him harshly. As C. S. Lewis writes, ‘What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.’ I have known bishops who, I think, were great saints and men of God, yet I still hear them being traduced even after they have been reposed, and called bad men. Conversely, I am sure there are others whom I blame and others praise. So much for our private judgments. Why judge at all? But as Jesus says, ‘Wisdom is vindicated by all her children’ (Luke 7:35).

Holy Church is both the most merciful refuge for the afflicted and at the same time the most dangerous place for souls who still seek the world. Her structures and order can both relieve the afflicted and afflict the pious. The lowlier you are in spirit, the less you are jolted by the cataracts in the flow of churchly life, whether you are positioned at the top, as a chief shepherd, or just one of the lesser sheep. The stronger is your hold on the control of life, your own or that of others, the greater is your danger, to yourself and to others. A ride over the cataracts might throw you out of the boat, your stiff stance working ironically against you.

Spiritual freedom—ultimately, this is what it all boils down to. As the apostle writes, ‘When Christ freed us, He meant us to remain free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery’ (Galatians 5:1). All worldly systems of social organization lead to slavery and preserve it among men. Only Christ Jesus, in His divine teaching and holy example, has set us free from this when He turned the world upside down, as His disciples continue to do, for which the world blames them.

These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also. They are all defying Caesar's decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.
Acts 17:6-7

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Only grace

It's a difficult thing when we have to confront religions over the issue of Jesus Christ. The issue of Jesus Christ?
Yes, the issue of Jesus Christ.

Why do we confront? Because our Lord confronted the teachers of religion in His earthly ministry. Notice, He never argued, He simply declared the Truth that He is. Note too, He didn’t establish a new religion. He was born into Judaism, accepted it for what it was, and then Himself replaced it. No more religion, only Jesus.

Though it is given to some in the Body of Christ to controversy and polemics, it is not my place, though I sometimes am driven to it.

If argument were the major means to bring people to Christ, the world would all be Christian by now, but it isn't. In former days, if a man was bested in an argument, he knew it, and gave in. Nowadays, we have been so trained to accept moral and religious relativism, that even when we've been proven wrong, we cling to outdated and outlandish notions. Why? Simply because they're ours, and there's no punishment for it.

We who have received only what Jesus Christ and His holy apostles handed over to us can never accept another gospel. When we hear holy apostle Paul warning us, ‘If anyone preaches a version of the good news different from the one we have already preached to you, whether it be ourselves or an angel from heaven, he is to be condemned’ (Galatians 1:8), we know that the enemy of mankind will plant such false religions in two ways: through false apostles inside the Church, and through angelic beings outside the Church.

We know that both Muhammad and Joseph Smith Jr received their revelations from angels (and there have been others, less successful and therefore less well-known), which to me fulfills the words of the holy apostle. But the corruption of evangelical doctrine also happens within the Church through the accretions of the Roman popes and others, even down to modern times, even while claiming to be evangelical. These are who the apostle was referring to, I believe, when he writes ‘whether it be ourselves.’

As an Orthodox Christian and disciple of Jesus, I willingly fellowship with all who believe in Him as Lord and Savior and God-man, even when they don't use the exact catch words that I use: I can see through the semantics and the cosmetics. But when I meet those who say they believe in Jesus but reserve for themselves, and exclude me from, some special qualification that puts them on a higher or better level than me, well, I get the whiff of bad angels' breath and the smell of stale altar cloths, if you know what I mean.

Anyone who confesses Christ belongs in the Church, but only if they leave their fairytales behind, and since they won't, they don't. They drew the imaginary line that they won't cross, and there's nothing we can do to change that.

Only grace can convert the heart of man.

Return to the Island - Возвращение на Остров

Tonight—and now it is very late, early morning, really—I returned to The Island, that island far in the Russian north, where live the monks and Fr Anatoly, Christ’s lamb, of whom the world is not worthy.

This film, though it is purely fiction as to fact, yet it is utterly true as to act: it depicts vividly and authentically what we know as Christian Orthodoxy, a way of life, an orientation of the heart, an irrevocable friendship with the Father, through the mercies of Christ, and in indefectible fellowship with the saints. This is no religion. This is the salvation of the whole man: it is health of spirit, soul and body in this world, and eternal life in the world to come—a life which begins here in the form of a grain of wheat which must be buried so that it can rise again and produce thirty-, sixty-, and a hundred-fold.

The glory of God is the gift of His mercy, our sanctification pure gift of His grace, and the Holy and Orthodox faith of the apostles, martyrs and witnesses of Christ the Word of God and only-begotten Son of the Most High, the Holy One of Israel, El Elohim Yahweh (Psalm 50:1, Hebrew)—this is the treasure hidden in the field of this world, for the sake of which a man will sell all he has, so he can purchase that field (Matthew 13:44). Happy the man who never follows the advice of the wicked, or loiters on the way that sinners take, or sits about with scoffers, but finds his pleasure in the Law of Yahweh, and murmurs His Law day and night (Psalm 1, Jerusalem Bible).

I can’t explain this to anyone. I can’t describe it. I can only walk in it, following Jesus who is the only Holy One, in company with all those who follow the Lamb wherever He goes, who are purchased from among men and offered as first-fruits to God (Revelation 14:4).

I don’t argue this, or try to convince. Only ideas can be handled this way, but this is not an idea, not something men think, something they make up, not even a work of art their hands have made. Not salvation, not eternal life, not unity within the Holy Triad through becoming adoptive sons of God, none of this is of works, only of grace, and only of our response to God’s mercy and good will towards us—that is, our faith.

Like Fr Anatoly praying for the healing of a crippled boy, all things are possible if we only believe (Mark 9:23), that is, if like him we trust God for salvation, really trust Him. The boy’s mother came with him to what she thought was a staretz, a holy man, so that she could say she tried everything, even had a saint pray for a miracle, and so if her boy wasn’t healed, she could blame it on God. She did her part, brought the boy, and Fr Anatoly did his part, he prayed. She then wanted to leave immediately, but he wouldn’t let her.

He asked her, ‘Do you think I am just playing a game with you?’ He insisted that they must stay overnight so the abbot of the monastery could give the boy the mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood, to seal and to complete the healing. Orthodoxy is reality, or it is religion, it is nothing. Reality demands obedience, for only the obedient believe.

Brethren, forgive this late night ramble, but I am overcome not by watching this film, which is only a kind of ikon, but by the reality behind it. That reality is the mystery of Christ among us.

We have only one life and only one chance to come fully into that mystery, and not for ourselves, not to be happy, not to feel justified or righteous, not to indulge in the intellectual luxury of thinking we have the correct faith or belong to the true Church, not to partake of mystical experiences, or emotional charges, not to be able to claim the promises, or to testify that we are saved, not to be prosperous in this world or to be able to boast of being an overcomer, no, not even so we can know we are going to heaven.

Everything we are and that we have is wholly in the hands of our loving Savior and God, Jesus Christ, and to follow Him in this world with complete abandonment to His will and His love, trusting, yes trusting absolutely, that only He knows us, knows all, provides for all, carries all, cares for all, denies none, deserts no one, but welcomes us into the presence of His Father, prepares us for the mansion He has built us, desires us as His beloved, invites us to dine with Him at the wedding feast, and all for a price that has already been paid, for we have been purchased from among men.

We have only one life, so let’s live it in the light of His face, for only there is mercy, and like Fr Anatoly give ourselves without defense into the hands that molded us, those hands that were pierced for us.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, the sinner.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Unity

How good, how delightful it is
for all to live together like brothers:
fine as oil on the head,

running down the beard,
running down Aaron's beard
to the collar of his robes;
copious as a Hermon dew
falling on the heights of Zion,
where Yahweh confers His blessing,
everlasting life.
Psalm 133 Jerusalem Bible

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
John 21:20-23 NIV

How people strive for unity, how much they desire it, but they stop as soon as they think they have reached it, and it is still terribly far from the unity that Christ prayed for us to have.

The unity that comes from above is the gift of the Spirit of God, not in some magical fashion that does not ask anything of us, but as a gift that can be received only by those who give themselves to it.

Unity is a gift that draws us in, all that we are and have. Unity is a gift that we receive only when we become the gift.

When we possess this unity, it possesses us. We no longer seek ourselves, but always the other. We are all of one mind and of one will, while remaining distinct persons, and we begin to understand the Holy Triad, not by thinking, but by living.

This unity, once experienced, even between only two persons, proves every word of the Gospels and of the whole of sacred scripture to be entirely true.