Saturday, August 31, 2013

Psalm for the last day of 7521

Edward Poynter, Miriam, Dalziel's Bible Gallery, Tate Collections, 1864
Song of victory

It was then that Moses and the sons of Israel sang this song in honor of Yahweh.

Yahweh I sing: He has covered Himself in glory,
horse and rider He has thrown into the sea.

Yah is my strength, my song,
He is my salvation.
This is my God, I praise Him;
the God of my father, I extol Him.

Yahweh is a warrior;
Yahweh is His name.

The chariots and the army of Pharaoh
He has hurled into the sea;
the pick of his horsemen lie drowned in the Sea of Reeds.
The depths have closed over them;
they have sunk to the bottom like a stone.

Your right hand, Yahweh, shows majestic in power,
Your right hand, Yahweh, shatters the enemy.
So great Your splendor, You crush Your foes;
You unleash Your fury, and it devours them like stubble.
A blast from Your nostrils and the waters piled high;
the waves stood upright like a dike;
in the heart of the sea the deeps came together.

‘I will give chase and overtake,’ the enemy said.
‘I shall share out the spoil, my soul will feast on it;
I shall draw my sword, my hand will destroy them.’
One breath of Yours You blew, and the sea closed over them;
they sank like lead in the terrible waters.

Who among the gods is Your like, Yahweh?
Who is Your like, majestic in holiness,
terrible in deeds of prowess, worker of wonders?
You stretched Your right hand out, the earth swallowed them!
By Your grace You led the people You redeemed,
by Your strength You guided them to Your holy house.

Hearing of this, the peoples tremble;
pangs seize on the inhabitants of Philistia.
Edom's chieftains are now dismayed,
the princes of Mo’ab fall to trembling,
Canaan's inhabitants are all unmanned,
on them fall terror and dread;
through the power of Your arm they are still as stone
as Your people pass, Yahweh,
as the people pass whom You purchased.

You will bring them and plant them
on the mountain that is Your own,
the place You have made Your dwelling, Yahweh,
the sanctuary, Yahweh, prepared by Your own hands.

Yahweh will be King for ever and ever.

Sing of Yahweh: He has covered Himself in glory,
horse and rider He has thrown into the sea.

Exodus 15:1-18, 21 Jerusalem Bible (1966)

Friday, August 30, 2013

Greater things

Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.
John 14:12

Oh, help! The greater things? What are they?
Could they be every good invention of mankind from the time of Christ till today, whether discovered or invented (the original meaning of the word invented was ‘found’ or ‘discovered’) by Christians or not? He is, after all, the Light that enlightens every man that comes into the world, and, as the Psalms say, ‘by Your Light we see light’.
Well, maybe, maybe not.

Jesus Christ didn’t personally invent brain surgery, heart transplants, a cure for cancer (are we there yet?), or such devices as automobiles, airplanes, and outer space probes. Nor did He come up with electronic devices, computers, or the internet. All of these seem to be ‘greater things’ that He doesn’t seem to have had time to do while He lived His thirty-three years as a man on earth.
But who did come up with these things?

And those are the better ones. What of the worse? Sex change operations, the electric chair, and nuclear warheads? Well, have you noticed these are things that have their usefulness but are nothing great in themselves? For better or for worse, they are just earthly development of already existing resources. The human brain, though, is still the creation of the Almighty God.

What greater things I think the Lord is speaking of are simply those things which His disciples will perform in their lives with faith in Him, the same things He did in those thirty-three years, only more of them because we have a longer span of space and time in which to do them.

‘Greater’ can be a relative term. What things can we do that are greater than those done by the Son of God?

Well, He healed and saved a few thousand whom He touched, we could, if we dared, heal and save millions. But no need to get all hot around the collar, nothing to worry about. He only expects us to do ‘greater things’ with those whom He places in our paths. Remember, ‘greater’ can be a relative term. Even to smile at a stranger can be a greater work than inventing a new kind of running shoe. That stranger could have been thinking of suicide. Instead, the smile encouraged him to call a friend, who then helped him back out of the hole he was in.

Yes, greater things.


Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a ribband of blue: and it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go a whoring.
Numbers 15:38-39 AKJV

Thou shalt make thee fringes upon the four quarters of thy vesture, wherewith thou coverest thyself.
Deuteronomy 22:12 AKJV

And besought him that they might only touch the hem of his garment: and as many as touched were made perfectly whole.
Matthew 14:36 AKJV

But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments.
Matthew 23:5 AKJV

Very late in my life a much younger friend, someone who was going through the ‘discovery years’ of early adulthood, pointed out to me that, like himself, I am not a ‘mainstream’ Christian. After much reflection, it seems to me that he might’ve told me that I am not a mainstream person. There is something in me that makes me not want to find myself lost in a big crowd, hemmed in by hundreds of miles of flat farmland, or living in a house plopped down the middle of a densely packed city block.

I have always stayed on the sidelines at a party, left the Midwest prairies behind and moved to the edges of my country, the West Coast, and I’ve almost always lived in a house on a corner lot. Something about me makes me feel more secure if I am positioned as in a lookout tower. I like to see who or what is coming or going. It’s not so much about control or safety, though. I think it’s just that I want to be in the best possible position to see and hear, and then, to act in the most unhindered way.

Looking back, I see that this is a trait or characteristic inherited from my ancestors, as far back as I know them. It looks like being a loner, and maybe it is, but it’s coupled with an insatiable desire to be with other people. What an enigma! All of this is the raw material of my human nature which God is using to tame me and train me to become a being like Himself, one who wants to, and can, live forever. Though His plan of salvation is customized to each soul He creates, it works the same for everyone.

It used to bother me, in fact for most of my life it bothered me, that I was the last person to get picked when a team was being assembled in phys ed at school, or that I rarely got past a first friendly hello at coffee hour at my local church before being gracefully ditched. When you’re young, you just chalk it up to being unpopular. When you’ve seen the pattern, you know that it must be more than that. People are interested in themselves, for the most part, and in those whom they can impress and ultimately use.

We live in a society which tells us that being marginalized is a bad thing, and so it tries to encourage us, by reasoning or by bullying, to join the crowd and find happiness and fulfillment there. This social conditioning affects us whether we want it to or not, and so we must be vigilant in remembering the truth, first the truth that is in the gospel, and second, the truth that is in us. If you find yourself one of those who lives ‘at the edge,’ then don’t fight it. God could have made you different if He wanted.

Our task in this life, another way to say it is ‘working out our salvation,’ in synergy, cooperation, with God, is to harmonize our individual truth, who we are, with the Truth, who He is. This we cannot do alone, but only with His help, since He alone knows what He has in mind for us. If you are a Christian and you find yourself always on the fringe of the undivided robe of Christ, which is the Church, then this is the place into which you have been woven in the heavenly garment. You are there for a reason.

Like the fringes—actually what we would today call ‘tassles’—on the prayer shawl of the people of Israel, we are there for a sign and a remembrancer, ‘a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go a whoring.’ Those in the Church who, like us, are ‘seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness’ amidst the great crowd of worshippers, are looking for us.

That’s why we are there, even though we may be an enigma to them as well as to ourselves. Like the fringes, the tassles woven into the prayer shawl at its four corners, we represent the four limbs of ‘the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world,’ whose fleece covers the sons of Adam while they are living in this world outside the garden. And without our knowledge—though not without Christ’s—many of those who are ill, touching us as the people touched the fringe of His garment, are healed.

But there lurks a danger in the fringes. Not being in the mainstream, in the world or in the Church, is (as many in the Church warn us) fraught with dangers. Without going into these dangers, many of which are imaginary, there is only one danger that gives birth to all the others and deals death to the soul. It is, of course, pride, expressed as a feeling of superiority, of being one of the elect, one of ‘the seven thousand men who have not bent the knee to baal.’ As Christ says, ‘all their works they do for to be seen of men.’

This is really the only danger that confronts any of us—not the world, the flesh, or the devil can do much worse with our souls than this—that everything we have, do, are or appear to be is ‘for to be seen of men.’ Whether we are lost in the broad fabric of society because we fit in so well, or whether we are hanging on, there at the fringes, it is the same. Now that we have that out of the way, brothers, let’s just be willing to be who we are, as the Lord made us, and leave the outcome to Him, to whom alone be all glory, now, and in the world to come.

This fiery pillar

Anyone who departs from the laws of life is, involuntarily and inevitably, self-destructive and responsible for his own disintegration.

‘For there are many still in need of cleansing from the life they have led, people who have the garment of their life unwashed and filthy, who dare to attempt the upward path on the basis of their own irrational perception. As a result, they are destroyed by their very own reasonings. For heretical opinions are nothing but stones which kill the very person who has devised the evil doctrines’ (Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses 2:161).

Above the whole of creation, the ‘transcendent cause’ holds everything in its power. The whole rhythm of life is directed towards the end and perfection. In our work all of us serve the ‘one’ aim in one way or another. In the struggle one is either transfigured by partaking in and submitting to the strange Power, or one destroys oneself by opposing it voluntarily or involuntarily. Either way, the work calmly proceeds. Such is the superior power of the Eternal.

Heresies are self-destructive; in the created universe they cannot put down roots to nourish them eternally. The one area of indestructible power is occupied by that which truly exists. It acts and moves with all the mystical splendor proper to its nature, to its boundless and sure omnipotence. Thus the ‘ill-founded impudence of heresies’ becomes apparent, and at the same time the unfailing operation of the truth is underlined.

The universality of the Truth is something we can only feel and approach when we have reached the point where all comments and disputes have ceased, and everything is tested in the mystery of silence: ‘Words are an instrument of the present age; silence is a mystery of the age to come’ (Abba Isaac, Letter 3).

Truth conceals within it the whole. It contains the beginning and the end: it has self-awareness and the capacity for adapting itself, defending itself and respecting all things.

It is necessary that Orthodoxy should exist. The Orthodox must spread their roots into the bottomless depths of their faith. In this way they fulfill swiftly and quietly every obligation they have to love God and their brothers, those near and those far away. ‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another’ (Romans 13:8).

The faithful do not have a mission to persecute heresies, irrespective of the way they themselves live, for this only creates a climate congenial to the tares of heresy. ‘Because of you My name is blasphemed among the gentiles’ (cf. Isaiah 52:5), the Lord would say in such a case. One is not truly Orthodox simply by virtue of persecuting heresies, anymore than one is in Paradise if one simply curses hell.

Orthodox life is of great importance. It is ‘what is perfected before God,’ in the words of St. Ignatius. It is fulness and divine self-sufficiency: it is a confession, the persecution of falsehood, and the salvation of man. ‘For the clear knowledge of that which is, serves as a purification of notions about that which has no real existence.’ (Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses 2:22). Orthodoxy does not have the fire of the holy inquisition. It lights an incorporeal flame which cools the holy but burns the impious. This fiery pillar of uncreated grace and life gives the path of the faithful shade by day and light by night.

Magic disappeared in the Middle Ages not as a result of the obstinate insistence of the Inquisition, but because of the progress of natural science. Our obstinate insistence, even when cloaked with a good disposition, cannot prevail. ‘It reigns, but does not last forever.’ The course of history is in itself a cleansing process. Led mysteriously by the Holy Spirit, history brings us to Orthodoxy. Before Abraham was, there was ‘Orthodoxy.’ Every age is an age which opens up new paths, which offers new potentials for Orthodoxy, for knowledge of the Truth, because it brings new crises. It puts to the test all systems grounded on the face of the earth which ‘passes away’ (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:31).

— Archimandrite Vasileios,
Hymn of Entry, pp. 97-99.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Storm at dawn

This morning there was a storm at dawn. Dark skies flashed and danced with shafts of white fire to the rhythm of rolling thunder. As always, my windows were flung open, so night, whatever else it brings me, can dispel the dreariness of indoor life as it gradually grows into day. Rain pounded the hard ground below my windows, softening it, blurring the cracks and blending the earth by scattered rivulets. The air was clean, fresh and warm, and soon would be filled with the sounds of waking and work. I arose, gave thanks, and then fearfully entered the world step by step, where He would send me.

Moment by moment we inch closer to another great war. No, probably not world war three. We have been expecting it for decades and have failed to notice that we are, in fact, engaged in the midst of it already and, yes, it will possibly culminate with the end of the world—as we know it.

Countries are waving sabres threateningly at one of their number because it may have crossed the (imaginary) line of what the world agrees is acceptable mass homicide. Regionally, what is called ‘the Middle East,’ formerly known as ‘the Near East’ and, even earlier, ‘the Levant,’ is at it again.

Even with the state of Israel supplying sufficient reason for its neighbors to go to war against her, they would rather play it safe, go to war against themselves and kill each other, so hopefully to fly below the West’s moral radar. But, it’s not working. As ‘Arab spring’ led to ‘summer’, now it’s ‘Arab fall.’

Soon it will be all over. It will be ‘Arab winter.’ Or has it always been ‘Arab winter’? Always winter, and never Christmas. We have failed again to notice. First, world war three. Then, Arab winter, a cold, dark age that has plagued them for fourteen centuries. All because of a tall angel in a cave.

Face it, my brothers. We are passing through a very dark age, an age prophesied apostolically as ‘when the love of men grows cold.’ For those of us who have the light of Christ and walk in it, the world we inhabit is not dark. But there are some who say they have the light and have only a switch.

They turn the light on when they want to, and when they don’t want the light, they turn it off. They scoff at the idea that the present age is dark. For them it is full of opportunities. Yes, more opportunities than ever before. They feel confident, in control, and that is their only morality.

They call darkness ‘light,’ and light they call ‘darkness,’ but usually they do not pause to make the distinction at all. They simply follow each other, vying to win praise and renown. Who among them is the most moral, humanitarian, progressive? Meanwhile, another day dawns, and thousands die.

Who will be the winner in this latest battle of the great war? Certainly not the people trapped in the besieged lands. They have been plundered and enslaved for centuries and this is, for them, a fact of life. They know they will not benefit from their would-be rescuers for long. They know who they are.

Only those who suffer thus know who is the winner, even when they cannot speak His name. He is the same to all, all who cry out to Him, knowing Him or unknowing. He alone is the rescuer, and they who call upon Him know it. Even as they take leave of this life, He meets them and delivers them from death.

For You alone are Holy, You alone are Lord, You alone, O Jesus Christ, are the Most-High, to the glory of God the Father.

O Lord, save your people, and bless your inheritance!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Not by us

Not by us, Yahweh, not by us, by You alone is glory deserved.

Yes, not by us, not by me,
but what is it we do deserve?
What is it?

This morning, though the sun be bright,
is one of those days when everything I do
and am seems dark to me.

On my own, I affirm, I can do nothing.
Without Him, I confess, I am nothing.
It seems believable,
everything my enemies say about me,
if I have any friends,
and I understand in the depths of my bones
that there is no truth in me. 

Because the truth hurts.
The truth stings.
Even if it is not
the whole truth and nothing but the truth,
even if it is only a part.

Well does the devil know this,
as he spends his nights showing to each
the sins and faults of others,
their shortcomings,
their imperfections,
their willful selfishness,
while concealing one’s own.

So he laughs us to scorn,
using our lust for glory as his trump card,
breaking us at the very moment
we think we have achieved victory
over others.

On the way to work,
I pass in full, unashamed view the glory of mankind
on a street that claims its fame
from the prostitutes that ply their trade there.
In the morning
one sometimes sees an unfortunate,
having been scooted out of the bed of a one night stand
onto the street
without having had time to tidy herself up,
but not this morning.

I pass a group of four or five handsome youth,
seniors probably,
walking their way together to the high school up ahead.
They are all so happy,
friendliness for each other streaming from glad hearts,
oblivious of what lies ahead.

Innocent in his glory,
the nearest catches my eye,
a tall, slender youth,
his mocha face trimmed in scanty, light brown whiskers,
modly bespectacled—qué guapo!
—my soul rejoices to see him
and speaks a blessing on him and his friends,
that their day be bright.

Not by us, Yahweh, not by us, by You alone is glory deserved.

Aching inwardly,
I feel I could write out my complaint in my own blood,
if I had a pen,
but I am humbled when I remember that
One has written in His own blood
not His complaint against us,
but the whole history of the universe from beginning to end,
and what is my cry against when faced with His,
‘My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?’

I can only continue in seeming despair,
‘How far from saving me the words I groan!’

He has covered all, even me,
with His own vanquished despair and death,
and left me the fruits of a peace
I did nothing to earn.

Along with others, I torment myself
thinking that He has abandoned His friendship for us,
because we sin,
even because we fail,
even when we only think the thoughts
and not do the things that convict us.

But He is nothing like what we think.

Far from punishing,
He stands ready to catch us.

By Your love and Your faithfulness, by Your love and Your faithfulness.
Not by us, Yahweh, not by us, by You alone is glory deserved.

— Romanós

Monday, August 26, 2013


Every believer is called to live theologically, and the whole body of the Church is creating theology in its life and its struggle.

Thus the ex cathedra of Orthodoxy, the way in which it expresses itself infallibly, is from the Cross.

The responsibility that is spread over the whole body of people is a cross. Apophatic theology is an ascent to Golgotha. The spiritual life of each believer which provides the overall balance is a cross. On the Cross, the Lord ‘stretched out His hands and united what had previously been sundered.’

From all this we see why every term has a different meaning in the mouth of a saint, a different weight and force; it is because he is born and lives in another world.

What commands his enthusiasm and concern is something altogether non-essential and unimportant to the present age, which comes and sees it, and passes by on the other side.

That which is the life, the joy and the certainty of the Orthodox, does not exist for the world: ‘The world will see Me no more, but you will see Me’ (John 14:19).

We are bound together by the common faith which, in accordance with tradition, each of us has found and finds personally through the exercise of his own responsibility—so each of us shall give account of himself to God’ (Romans 14:12)—and through the communion of the Holy Spirit.

The Church leaves the believer free to feel Christ dwelling within him;
free to live in fear on the sea of this present age;
free to be crushed by his responsibility;
free to cry out to the Lord, ‘Master, we perish,’ and to see Him in the night of the present age, walking on the waters for him personally and for the whole Church;
and free to hear the Lord say to him, ‘It is I.’

Archimandrite Vasileios, Hymn of Entry, pp. 50-52 passim

This is the Orthodoxy that we adhere to. This is the Orthodoxy that is the foundation of the world, as we proclaim on Orthodoxy Sunday.

This is the unchanging Orthodoxy of Jesus Christ, the holy apostles, the fathers, the martyrs and all the saints, of former ages, in this present time, and in the age to come.

This is not an Orthodoxy one can convert to. This is an Orthodoxy one finds enfolding him when he comes to Jesus.

Glory to You, our God, and our hope,
glory to You who have shown us the Light!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Speaking of silence

The summer after I graduated from the eighth grade, my family moved away forever from my childhood home in Chicago, to a small and modest house in a village surrounded by farmland and forests. The change was too much for me; I was a very high-strung and nervous boy, and almost immediately, I began to stutter. I could barely get out even one sentence without stuttering. I didn’t stutter much before that, as I remember, but in my new high school, and in the social insecurity of knowing no one and having to make new friends, I began to stutter.

My best friend—he literally adopted me into his family—was a Puerto Rican boy, Freddy Iglesia. He was physically bigger than me, and of muscular build, in contrast to me, a skinny, unathletic runt. He spoke English with a little bit of an accent, and I spoke Spanish to him, the language I had studied at school for the last two years. When I spoke Spanish, I didn’t stutter, and so I enjoyed hanging around with him at school and at his house, where Tia was always cooking something for the large family. I spoke Spanish and felt at home there.

After our freshman year in high school, gradually we came to see each other less and less. Why? Because he became popular, with sports, with the girls, and I was shy, stayed out of the limelight, tried to cover up my stuttering as best as I could, without success. When it was my turn to read aloud, I almost always stuttered. It terrified me to be in literature classes. I couldn’t even say the word ‘literature’ without stuttering. To this day, the ghost of my speech defect still haunts me and occasionally shows up.

An odd fact about my stuttering was this: I didn’t stutter if I was speaking my lines from memory in a dramatic presentation. I had to recite some of the well-known dialog from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. I memorized it and can probably still recite it if I try, ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…’ I also didn’t stutter if I was made to stand in front of the class to read a poem out of a book. Once, our assignment was to pick a poem, read it aloud in front of the class, and then comment on it. I chose the poem ‘Silence’ by Edgar Lee Masters.

I have known the silence of the stars and of the sea,
And the silence of the city when it pauses,
And the silence of a man and a maid,
And the silence for which music alone finds the word,
And the silence of the woods before the winds of spring begin,
And the silence of the sick
When their eyes roam about the room.
And I ask: For the depths
Of what use is language?
A beast of the field moans a few times
When death takes its young.
And we are voiceless in the presence of realities—
We cannot speak.

A curious boy asks an old soldier
Sitting in front of the grocery store,
"How did you lose your leg?"
And the old soldier is struck with silence,
Or his mind flies away
Because he cannot concentrate it on Gettysburg.
It comes back jocosely
And he says, "A bear bit it off."
And the boy wonders, while the old soldier
Dumbly, feebly lives over
The flashes of guns, the thunder of cannon,
The shrieks of the slain,
And himself lying on the ground,
And the hospital surgeons, the knives,
And the long days in bed.
But if he could describe it all
He would be an artist.
But if he were an artist there would be deeper wounds
Which he could not describe.

There is the silence of a great hatred,
And the silence of a great love,
And the silence of a deep peace of mind,
And the silence of an embittered friendship,
There is the silence of a spiritual crisis,
Through which your soul, exquisitely tortured,
Comes with visions not to be uttered
Into a realm of higher life.
And the silence of the gods
who understand each other without speech,
There is the silence of defeat.
There is the silence of those unjustly punished;
And the silence of the dying whose hand
Suddenly grips yours.
There is the silence between father and son,
When the father cannot explain his life,
Even though he be misunderstood for it.

There is the silence that comes between husband and wife.
There is the silence of those who have failed;
And the vast silence that covers
Broken nations and vanquished leaders.
There is the silence of Lincoln,
Thinking of the poverty of his youth.
And the silence of Napoleon
After Waterloo.
And the silence of Jeanne d'Arc
Saying amid the flames, "Blessèd Jesus"—

Revealing in two words all sorrow, all hope.
And there is the silence of age,
Too full of wisdom for the tongue to utter it
In words intelligible to those who have not lived
The great range of life.

And there is the silence of the dead.
If we who are in life cannot speak
Of profound experiences,
Why do you marvel that the dead
Do not tell you of death?
Their silence shall be interpreted
As we approach them.

I can still hear my boyish voice reading this poem to my classmates. I have never forgotten it, and it has had a lifelong influence on me. I never stuttered even once when I was reading it then, and I don’t remember stuttering when I was commenting on it. I think this poem came as a sort of turning point in my life. I could see that there might be a different kind of life than the one I was living. The line ‘…and the silence of Jeanne d’Arc saying amid the flames, “Blessèd Jesus”…’ grabbed my attention somehow. I was a Catholic, but who was Jesus?

There is really only one question, it seems, that ever needs to be asked, and it was at that time, probably in my twelfth grade English class, that I think I first asked it. Conversion to Christ doesn’t always begin with a consciousness of sin. We don’t often really understand what sin is. Other things, what we perceive as our defects, come to the fore to torment us, as I was tormented by my stuttering as a high school student. It isolated me from others, marginalized me. I wanted to belong, but I was rejected. ‘Silence’ became a door to acceptance.

After high school I followed my friends to a small town college where I tried to major in the natural sciences and mathematics, but my heart was always tugging at me to read history, to learn new languages, to read and write, literature—the word I couldn’t even say without stuttering. I changed majors, not to literature—I couldn’t handle reading all those books!—but to history, where there seemed to be more freedom. I wanted to save literature for my ‘fun time’ and history could be what I did for a living.

Thinking a lot about silence lately, I’m not surprised these memories came back to me. Something a friend said to me some weeks ago, ‘Silence is the language of the age to come,’ has kept circulating in my blood. Loving languages as I do, I’ve often thought, ‘If only I could live a thousand years, I could learn all the languages I want to know.’ But there really is only one language, and that is of the Spirit of God, who has flattened our towers so that in humility and repentance we can find the stairway to the heavens.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

שִׁירוּ לַיהוָה שִׁיר חָדָשׁ

Psalms for the 20th Day (Hebrew)
97 98 99 100 101 102 103

מִזְמוֹר, שִׁירוּ לַיהוָה שִׁיר חָדָשׁ-- כִּי-נִפְלָאוֹת עָשָׂה
הוֹשִׁיעָה-לּוֹ יְמִינוֹ, וּזְרוֹעַ קָדְשׁוֹ
הוֹדִיעַ יְהוָה, יְשׁוּעָתוֹ; לְעֵינֵי הַגּוֹיִם, גִּלָּה צִדְקָתוֹ
זָכַר חַסְדּוֹ, וֶאֱמוּנָתוֹ-- לְבֵית יִשְׂרָאֵל
רָאוּ כָל-אַפְסֵי-אָרֶץ-- אֵת, יְשׁוּעַת אֱלֹהֵינוּ
הָרִיעוּ לַיהוָה, כָּל-הָאָרֶץ; פִּצְחוּ וְרַנְּנוּ וְזַמֵּרוּ
זַמְּרוּ לַיהוָה בְּכִנּוֹר; בְּכִנּוֹר, וְקוֹל זִמְרָה
בַּחֲצֹצְרוֹת, וְקוֹל שׁוֹפָר-- הָרִיעוּ, לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ יְהוָה
יִרְעַם הַיָּם, וּמְלֹאוֹ; תֵּבֵל, וְיֹשְׁבֵי בָהּ
נְהָרוֹת יִמְחֲאוּ-כָף; יַחַד, הָרִים יְרַנֵּנוּ
לִפְנֵי יְהוָה-- כִּי בָא, לִשְׁפֹּט הָאָרֶץ
יִשְׁפֹּט-תֵּבֵל בְּצֶדֶק; וְעַמִּים, בְּמֵישָׁרִים

I really cannot help myself; I love the Hebrew psalms, more and more as I read them more and more. They express so much in so few words. They are truly a literary and spiritual masterpiece. As for their sounds, the cadence of words, the rhyme of thoughts, to read them aloud refreshes body and soul, and rejoices the spirit that God has put into man. They are truly the heart of the holy and divine scripture. Nothing can be added to them, nothing taken away. One approaches them in poverty, and departs from them rich. One arrives dead in sin, and takes leave alive. The blind man receives his sight. The cripple recovers the use of his limbs. Going away one is never empty-handed or hard-hearted. Though we sometimes approach offeringless, we come away laden with blessing.

Psalm 98 – Mizmór Tzádde Chet

Shíru l’Adonáy shir chadásh, ki nifla’ót ‘asáh;
hoshí‘ah lo y’minó uz’róa‘ qod’shó.
Hodía‘ ’Adonáy y’shu‘ató,
l’eynéy hagoyím gilláh tzid’qató.
Zakhár chas’dó ve’emunató l’veyt Yisra’él,
ra’ú khol ’afséy ’áretz ét y’shu‘át ’Elohéynu.
Harí‘u l’Adonáy kol ha’áretz,
pitz’chú v’ran’nú v’zamméru.
Zamm’rú l’Adonáy b’khinnór,
b’khinnór v’qol zim’ráh.
bachatzítz’rot v’qol shofár,
harí‘u lifnéy hammélekh ’Adonáy.
Yir‘ám hayyám um’lo’ú,
tevél v’yosh’véy vahh.
N’harót yimcha’ú khaf,
yáchad harím y’rannénu.
Lifnéy ’Adonáy ki va lish’pót ha’áretz;
yish’pót tevél b’tzédeq, v‘ammím b’meysharím.

Sing Yahweh a new song
for He has performed marvels,
His own right hand, His holy arm,
gives Him the power to save.
Yahweh has displayed His power,
has revealed His righteousness to the nations,
mindful of His love and faithfulness
to the house of Israel.
The most distant parts of the earth have seen
the saving power of our God.
Acclaim Yahweh, all the earth,
burst into shouts of joy!
Sing to Yahweh, sing to the music of harps,
and to the sound of many instruments;
to the sound of trumpet and horn
acclaim Yahweh the King!
Let the sea thunder and all that it holds,
and the world, with all who live in it;
let all the rivers clap their hands
and the mountains shout for joy,
at the presence of Yahweh, for He comes
to judge the earth,
to judge the world with righteousness
and the nations with strict justice.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

You are My witnesses

You are my witnesses
Call the world to the court and have them speak

Because they trust in me
They will understand truth and abide in love

Sufferings are coming
But those dragged into the streets
and in false houses
and before thrones
and into prisons
and trampled by feet
and spit on by evil men
Will yet not lose a hair on their heads

Out of beautiful mouths
They will speak words that strike down kings

If you were their witnesses
They would love you as their own

But do not stumble!
For nothing of this world
nor any measure of it
nor past despair
nor future fears
nor the exalted
nor the fallen ones
nor our enemy the grave
Will take you from me.

                       — David Dickens

Pray for Egypt

Faces of faith and courage. Brethren, pray for Egypt!

The plethora of ‘elders’ …

As a layman of the Greek Orthodox Church, I have been a συγκοινωνος εν τη θλιψει και βασιλεια και υπομονη εν ιησου (Revelation 1:9), synkinonós en ti thlípsi kai vasileía kai ipomoní en Yisoú, ‘a fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverence which are in Jesus,’ as I have silently watched my local parish taken over by outsiders with an insider's arrogance, but I have not written a word against them. This is for my superiors in Christ to do, and here is one who has, at the time protobresbyter Dionysios Tatsis, now bishop Gregory Tatsis, who has written the following on ‘the plethora of elders and the piety of the naïve.’ Brethren, take heart! This temptation too will pass away. Let each of us, in the Lord, decide what is our best response to it. We know who we have believed in, and who is the Winner in this and every struggle.

The Plethora of ‘Elders’ and the ‘Piety’ of the Naive
By Protopresbyter Fr. Dionysios Tatsis

Our Church has been filled with ‘elders,’ who guide the faithful and lead them to salvation, as they claim.

Usually they are hieromonks, as well as secular archimandrites, who have read a lot about the real Elders and they regurgitate their words or they narrate their lives, creating illusions on the unsuspecting and they acquire for themselves a reputation for being a virtuous and divinely-illumined elder, even though they have none of the attributes of the holy Elders.

The result is that many brethren are being trapped in a dangerous cult of personality, and instead of opening their minds to progress on the spiritual path of a life according to Christ, they remain fixated on some typical things, external and meaningless, and they alleviate their conscience as if they are supposedly progressing, since they obey whatever their ‘elder’ says. Unfortunately, there are many examples and we should not shut our eyes where we are required to have them wide open.

It is difficult for these self-proclaimed ‘elders’ to recognize their delusion and be humbled. Their ambition is to have spiritual children, disciplined, spineless and to work together with them for whatever project of theirs, whether it is for a monastery or a parish. People who usually follow them are not able to reveal their hypocrisy. They have limited information, they do not think a lot, and they are dragged along by their infallible ‘elder’ by doing obedience to them while simultaneously maintaining all worldly and sinful habits. Often they invoke their ‘elder’ when they converse with their brethren in their attempt to convince them that whatever may be their decisions on small or great issues of their personal life, and not only, are correct and no one can challenge them or judge them negatively, since they have the blessing of their ‘elder.’ Obviously this is a sickened piety, which must be combated against by spiritual fathers.

At some point we must realize that naivety is one thing and humility and piety is another. We are in danger for sometimes empowering evil and naive people and considering that the spiritual life is that which is suggested by our zeal for knowledge. Alas! Certainly, all fit within the Church. But we must not give the leading role to the weak and deluded.

The true Elders are few and hidden. They do not make noise and they flee from being a spectacle. They help people spiritually, in a simple manner, without tying them up and enforcing them. They try to instill a proper concern, to inquire by themselves more about the word of God and taste the sweetness of the spiritual life, renouncing the worldly mind and unnecessary cares which lead to indolence. These Elders should be an example for all clergy. It is not an easy matter. It implies cleanliness of life, simplicity, humility and purity in our intentions.
Source: Orthodoxos Typos, 9 August 2013. 
Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Repose of the Mother of God

The Orthodox church celebrates the assumption of the Virgin Mary today. For those who are not familiar, there is an important theological implication here. The problem for the apostles was that Christ certainly died, rose from the dead and 'ascended' to prepare the kingdom of heaven - but Christ was the son of God! How would we know if this was not a special concession God made? As the traditional story goes, when the Theotokos was about to pass, the apostles were mystically drawn to her at Gethsemane - with the exception of Thomas. Poor Doubting Thomas was the last to be brought - and while he was on the way he saw the soul of Mary ascend into heaven. On landing at her bedside, he regretted having not been able to see her before she reposed, but the apostles had already sealed her tomb. Thomas begged them to open the tomb so that he could venerate her - but when they opened her tomb, the body was gone. This served as evidence to the apostolic community that the resurrection was not just for the sake of Christ's victory over his own death, but was a victory that extended to all humanity. It is - according to tradition - a second expression of the glory of Pascha.

— Jacob Aaron Gorny

The end of the fast

The end of the fast! Now we lay aside all earthly cares—What are we to eat? What are we to drink? What are we to wear?—as with the Birthgiver of God we receive the King of all, who comes to carry her, all that she was, is and shall be, into, not only Paradise—that which we once called the Bosom of Abraham but now know to be the arms of the man-loving God, Christ Himself—but into the place which He went ahead of us to prepare, Heaven itself, the land of ‘as it must be,’ the abode of the eternal and life-creating Trinity. How can she not be carried there, ahead of us?

For she follows her Son in everything, as she goes to fulfill all that was spoken of her in the Law and the Prophets, and on the lips of Simeon, the last of the seventy-two translators of the Greek Old Testament, ‘And a sword shall pierce your heart, also.’ In her Son, the human nature He received from her in time mingled with the Divine Nature that was His from eternity, not fusing the two natures, but distinguishing them in a marriage between earth and Heaven never before seen, unimaginable not only to us, but even to the bodiless powers, who still stand in rapt wonder. Now she, through whom this was effected, is taken up.

How can this be? There is more here than human words can tell or understand, but if you would begin to know, it started at the wedding feast in Cana. The unwedded Bride and her divine Son who, through His mystic marriage bed, the holy and life-giving Cross, became the Bridegroom of the universe, by their presence at that feast, opened the door for the first time in history between this world and the age to come, which is the Feast for which all this earthly life is but the preparation. That of Cana was the image and foretaste of that of the age to come, and shows us the way we are to enter.

In this world, we like the servers at Cana have discovered that we have no more wine, that what we had planned for was not enough. Nothing we can do to supply ourselves is of any avail, but the Mother of the Holy One, who sits hidden and unknown to us in our midst, sees our plight, and she makes her request to Him who alone can do all, for He is Pantokrator. Her words to Him, but for the gospel, we could not overhear, but her words to us are clear and leave no room for refusal, ‘Do whatever He tells you.’ She already knows by experience what will happen, if we do. This is how it begins, for us.

The gospel seems to begin, and end, with the Birthgiver of God. From her first hearing of the good news by an angel, to her last hearing of it by the very same messenger, it is, was, and always will be the same good news, the same gospel, though it will look different, feel different, be experienced differently, by people, even by the same person, at various times and places. How little she knew what was to come of her first saying ‘Yes,’ and yet her whole life on earth was contained in that single word, spoken to a bodiless power. The same is true of her last ‘amen’ on earth. And the same is true of us.

For her, it cannot have been easy, but for us it can be, because we have seen and heard what became of her trust in the living God. No, we were not there to witness any of the events of her life known to us in scripture and tradition. We have only our own lives to use as the testing ground for the truth of what we have been told. Will our lives follow the same course as did hers? Will we say ‘Yes’ to the messenger of God when he presents himself? Will we leave more than ‘home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields’ for the sake of the good news as she did, so that our tombs are also found empty?

Yes, the end of the fast! and real life can begin.

Monday, August 12, 2013

By faith and not by sight

What this strange, ‘tremblesome’ quality of my life means—I am beginning to understand. I am living forward, one day at a time, like a blind man who cannot see what's ahead, but can only feel his way, taking short, deliberate steps, groping into the next moment, listening to a barely audible voice that's calling me. By faith, not sight. And faith comes by hearing. And hearing by the Word of God.

This quality has been growing, and I, sensing it growing, am surprised that the initial fear has lessened somehow. But the meaning of ‘living one day at a time,’ that I once glibly repeated along with others, has truly become the nature of my life.

There's no wonder, then, nor merit, in the fact that every morning I am surprised, yet usually happy, to wake up, and find myself still alive. No wonder, then, that when I see the sun rising as I drive to work, I am happy and thankful beyond measure. One more day. I remembered my first elder, Philip the cabinetmaker, who taught me when I was in my young twenties, how to saw up boards and make furniture. I remembered how he would confess to me, on a bright sunny morning, how he wept as he drove to work. I couldn't understand it then, but I'm beginning to understand it now. I too have wept on the way to work. Sometimes for sadness, sometimes out of gratitude inexpressible any other way. God is good.

I think to myself, Has it always been like this, only I didn't notice?

When you're ‘young’ the thought of death (as the end) never crosses your mind. Life extends limitlessly before you. You can plan things far in advance and expect to do them when you get there. When you're ‘older’ the thought of death starts intruding on this scene of self-confidence, and you begin to understand what ‘pride of life’ means. Is this when some people have their mid-life crisis?

You'd probably expect that life will always go on in the same seamlessly perfect way, though, like it did when the world was new. 
Perfect in that it's in your control. But thank God, for at any chronological age, He is always there and willing to let us give our lives to Him, a little at first maybe, and then more later, and at some point, maybe all of it. As we approach that point of no return, the giving up of all, time begins to ‘stretch out.’ Limited time, chrónos, becomes limitless time, kairós, which also means acceptable time.

Every day means more, every hour, minute, second. Every particle of being, of life, takes on the quality of being in the center, of being important beyond measure. The beetle that crossed my path as I fumbled for the key to unlock my door, God's handiwork, down to the least barbed leggy. The coolness of the empty warehouse I walked through on the way to my office, God's gift, at the beginning of a day that promises to be very hot.

When it comes to lunch, there's no question of ‘saying grace’ wherever I am or with whom, He feeds me and I thank Him. Every mouthful of ten-cent-a-bag ramen tastes as luscious as my favorite food. It's all manna. And if I'm with a friend, it doesn't matter if I eat at all, because the warmth of a friendly smile feeds more than any food. All from God's hands.

To know with every fibre of my being, He is here, He provides, in His hands are life and (what we call) death, as in the old spiritual ‘He's got the whole world in His hands,’ did this knowledge come first? Or was it the willingness to follow Him blindly, and to accept each next moment as His free gift, that ushers in the leading edge of His parousía?

"Let us go where He is waiting and worship at His footstool."
Psalm 132:7 Jerusalem Bible

Inherent righteousness

Chafing at the fact that some people take payment for doing nearly nothing, while others work day and night for barely a pittance, I marvel at the mystery—not of pain or evil, but of patience. Some people ask, ‘If there is a God and if he is good, why is there so much pain and suffering in the world?’ But I ask, not if there is a God, but, ‘How can He be so patient with us? and how can we be so patient with Him?’

Preachers and prophets warn us and reveal our transgressions and sins against righteousness, but we don’t listen. We let their words tickle our ears and, if we apply them at all, we apply them to others, not to ourselves. We feel put out that anyone should have the nerve to tell us we’re not righteous, not good, not going the right way. We excuse ourselves a hundred times for each time we excuse the faults of others.

Though we don’t even know what righteousness is, we’re experts at tormenting others, and even ourselves. We call it ‘guilt tripping.’
(Usually former) Catholics often tell me that they’re very good at it. They tell me they learned how to do it at church. This could be true of anyone who had a fussy, scolding mother when they were growing up. Too bad ‘Holy Mother Church’ is often ‘wholly step-mother church’.

Yet, righteousness is inherent in reality. It’s nothing other than ‘how things work.’ It’s not a system of morality imposed from the outside, either by a god or by ourselves. When we go against our nature—because unlike irrational creatures, we can—we set into motion series of events that deviate from this inherent righteousness and lock us in, passengers comfortably seated on a train that soon or late plunges into an abyss. Why? Because there is no bridge, and we didn't know.

If there is a God, why did he make such a dangerous place and put us in it? So he could arrange a rescue and make himself look good? Is he just a boy playing with us, his toy soldiers? Why didn’t he make a level playing field with limitless possibilities, since he knew he’d be making creatures like us who’d want to try everything without restraint? If we can’t be righteous the way we are, neither can God!

There simply is no answer to this dilemma, so it seems. That’s just the nature of reality. The scientist can’t argue with physical constants when they won’t do what he wants them to, and he can’t negate them with impunity. Neither can the mathematician get around the multiplication table when it suits him: it’s absolute and inflexible. He’ll never come up with the correct product if he ignores it. Ours is a hard universe.

Whatever it is we are—call it human—this inherent righteousness is as necessary to us and as inseparable from us as our own bodies. It’s as indispensable as the time and space we inhabit. It’s an inalienable part of our nature. In alignment with it, that nature fulfills itself, is successful, and endures. In opposition to it, that nature is stifled, malfunctions, and freezes. This is exactly not the problem with God. It is the problem with us.

Where now are the accusers of a cruel and judgmental God? On the contrary, He does everything He can to help us recover our course when we get off track. When, not if. Inherent righteousness is not an issue of crime and punishment, but one of sickness and death. Sin is to turn against nature, to effect a lasting state of suicide of the soul. ‘I’ve come not for the righteous, but for sinners, not for the healthy, but for the sick.’

He builds a house, gives it to us, and tells us to maintain it. He gives us bodies, instructs us in the ways of cleanliness and health, and expects us to follow His instructions. For the world to exist at all, it must be what it is. Inherent righteousness is its nature. We can call it whatever we please—His law, His statutes, His decrees, if we are speaking theologically, natural law if we are speaking scientifically. It’s all one.

In the second year of Darius, in the eighth month, the word of Yahweh was addressed to the prophet Zechariah, son of Berechiah, son of Iddo, as follows, ‘Cry out to the remnant of this people and say to them, Yahweh Sabaoth says this: Return to Me, and I will return to you, says Yahweh Sabaoth.’
Zechariah 1:1-3 Jerusalem Bible

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Smoking flax

A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, until he sends forth judgment unto victory.
Matthew 12:20

Amazing how an absolutely wonderful day can be set on edge and made tense by merely dropping an inopportune word in an insensitive way. The words (for they are many) may be spoken or even written to be read and, when heard or read, can wreak havoc in people’s souls, troubling their consciences unnecessarily, and ‘quenching the smoking flax.’

There are souls that the Father loves that He is drawing to His Son as only He can do. The angels and ministers of grace that He employs to harvest them for the everlasting Kingdom are not mainly those who are called priests and missionaries by the institutional Church, and who sometimes work as hirelings, not for money, but to win the approval of men.

No, it is those whom the Father chooses, and who are willing to be used by Him as ‘instruments of peace,’ that He employs in harvesting lost souls. They are, in actual fact, the only ones who know how to bring in the harvest. They have been taught not by men but by the Spirit of God, who is love. And they lay down their lives for their brothers out of love.

Speaking of the Christ who was to come, the prophet declares, ‘He shall not quench the smoking flax.’ Those who follow Christ do so by following His every move, from head to heart, with hands and feet, they imitate Him, they do for others and to others what they see Jesus doing in the holy gospels. Like Him, they also do not quench the smoking flax.

Instead, like Him, they fan the flame of faith they find in weary souls whom the Father has begun to draw to the Son, remembering Christ’s words, ‘I come to bring fire to earth… how I wish it were ablaze already!’ Like Him, they breathe hope, encouragement and strength into those whom the Father sends. Like Him they say to the Father, ‘I have lost none of them you gave me.’

In Holy Orthodoxy, the one place on earth and in human history that the incarnate Son and Word of God has from the beginning been welcomed, worshiped, and willfully followed, the only religion that regards sin as sickness, and mercy as medicine, the only faith that knows that love works miracles even more than prayer, still we find those who, like satan, accuse and divide.

The world, my brothers, already knows well how to quench the smoking flax, how to intimidate and threaten the souls for whom Christ died, how to extinguish their faith, how to suffocate their hope. The world, my brothers, does worse than not believe in the God in heaven. It does not believe in the God on earth. But what is wrong with us that we join the world in doing the same?

For Jesus says, ‘whatever you do to the least of these, you do unto me.’ And so the Church, that is, the communion of salvation on earth, cannot side with the world in condemnation of anyone, for Christ died to save all men, as He Himself says, ‘and I, when I am lifted up, shall draw all men unto myself.’ When anyone in the Church forgets this, out of weakness or fear, he hurts rather than heals.

I have asked this question before, ‘When will the Orthodox Church decide once and for all whether her mission is to follow Christ in bringing salvation and life to all who live on earth, or whether it is to set up a legalistic police state?’ We already know the answer to this question, but not all of us do, whether we are highly placed or low. Only one of these alternatives can be theocracy in Christ.

And so we return to the daily struggle. We live our lives in Christ locally, and it is here in the arena that we must suffer and, dying in mortal combat, win the prize of immortality. We must say to those whom the Lord has sent us and to whom we have been sent, ‘Courage, dear hearts! The words you heard today that vexed your minds and hurt your spirits were spoken against you in vain.

‘For He that is already in you is stronger than He that is in the world. For God so loved the world, that He sent His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life. Do not fear those who can kill the body, for they can do no more. The lover of your souls has appeared. The angel of the Covenant is among us. He does not quench the smoking flax.

‘You have been bought and paid for by the blood of a Lamb without spot. Though men speak with the tongues of men and angels, that is, however eloquently, if they have no love, they are nothing more than a clanging cymbal. Remember who your Shepherd is. Remember His voice and His words. Follow Him, not anyone else. For you, dear souls, are His, and He is saving you.’

Mercy is

‘People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.’ This was quoted to me by a friend who told me the story I am about to relate, as a way of understanding what happened. When I first heard the story, it brought to mind, rather, this saying of Jesus,

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Matthew 7:1-2

Now, it isn’t as though we believe in Christ because of His teachings: He was in most cases only restating what was already known as far as the tradition is concerned, and He was ‘preaching to the choir’ when He taught the Jews of His day, just as He is preaching to us.

We already know what He says is right, we already agree with it, and if we read the teachings of other ‘great men’ we will in most cases see that their teachings are no different, at least on the moral front. As for doctrines, Jesus teaches very few. He is more concerned with actions.

What can He mean by ‘in the same way you judge others, you will be judged’? Well, I think we all know what He means. Religious and irreligious, everyone knows from experience this is true. As soon as you open your mouth to criticize another, not long after ‘it catches up with you.’

My friend in Hokkaido told me the following story. For their daughter’s birthday, he and his wife took her on a special trip that culminated at a ski resort. As one of her birthday gifts they also presented her with a wonderful new camera.

At the ski lift, their daughter somehow lost the new camera and this upset my friend’s wife, who took her to task for it. After all, it was an expensive camera: she should have been more careful. I’m sure that everyone involved felt quite badly about it. Loss is loss.

Later that day, as she was enjoying the onsen, the Japanese bath, my friend’s wife discovered that her wedding ring was missing—she had lost it in the bath. You can imagine how embarrassed she must have felt, and how sorry for scolding her daughter. Loss is loss.

What we find in our lives is that this seems to operate as a law, just as Jesus says, and as popular sayings tell it, all deriving from the same source: what actually happens. Modern westerners intent on sophistication would say, ‘it’s all karma.’

But it isn’t all ‘karma’ and the eyes of our minds play tricks on us and make us see patterns where there are none, especially whenever our status in our own eyes can be elevated. The laws of cause and effect are not the ‘end all’ of existence. Instead, mercy is.

What happened in the real story I just retold? By the end of that day, both the lost camera and the missing wedding ring had been turned in to the resort staff, and my friend’s wife and daughter recovered what they thought they had lost. Yes, mercy is.

Mercy is, all that is waiting for us when we show mercy. After all, Jesus is right when He says, ‘How blessed are the merciful, for they shall have mercy shown them’ (Matthew 5:7). And, oops, yes, even when we have not been very merciful, we are often shown mercy.

Looking over our shoulders at all the times we seem to have escaped by the skin of our teeth, let us remember and give praise to our good and loving God, who has such care for us that He shows us mercy even before we show it to others.

Glory to Your forbearance, O Lord, glory to You!

Friday, August 9, 2013


Axios! Worthy! An acclamation we hear ringing in the Greek Church when someone is publicly honored. It may be a newly baptised and illuminated Christian, who hears these words after being anointed with holy chrism, been tonsured and the first offering of the hair of the head made, having the cross of Christ fastened around the neck. I cannot remember hearing this acclamation at the baptism of an infant, but of an adult, yes, we hear ‘Axios!’ or ‘Axia!’ depending on the gender of the newly illumined.

We hear it again, ‘Axios!’ at the acceptance of the call of Christ, to whatever special service or ministry, from acolyte and reader, to sub-deacon, deacon, monastic, presbyter, and bishop. It is the people who always acclaim, expressing the approval of Christ Himself, who speaks His prophetic utterances among us and upon us through His people.

He is a strange God, this Christ, who calls a man ‘brother’ even before he has accepted His call; who acclaims a man ‘worthy’ even before he has proven himself in the arena.

As conquering heroes we are welcomed by this strange, man-loving God into the arena, where He has already defeated our every fear, every failure, even our very defeat. We enter the arena that He has prepared for us, if we have faith, confident that there no harm can come to us, no loss can afflict us, nor any shame swallow us up in its mockery.

This is no God who can be denied by even an atheist, if he is a thinking man, because He has not contented Himself to remain invisible and high in the remote or mythical heavens. This God has Himself come down into even the atheist's soul, granting life and reason, unasked and unthanked. He rewards even those who do not honor Him, if they obey His commands, which are written indelibly on the soul, making it human.

Axios! Worthy! The sheep following the path to His right without even knowing His name, because they treated His poverty with mercy.

Axios! Worthy! Those who hungered and thirsted for righteousness, though they themselves were weak and lost their battle.

Axios! Worthy! The sons of God who worked for peace, whether or not they knew who is the Prince of Peace, who called them ‘brother’ without their knowledge.

Axios! Worthy! You are called, brother, to a life that you never knew existed, that you never heard tell of, except perhaps in shrouded half-truths passed from one pious mummer to another, stingily grasped and reluctantly bestowed, of whom Christ says, ‘Even what little he has shall be taken away.’ No, but He gives you yourself, worthily into your own hands, with His blessing, to spend in purchasing the field of hidden treasures.

You have only to receive it, to accept His call, to hear the acclamation ‘Axios!’ humbly but gladly, for He has captured your soul and taken you with Him on high, to present you as holy tribute to His Father, the Holy God. He has ransomed your soul from hell before you ever were born, and has restored to you what was lost without your knowing.

Axios! Worthy! The acclamation of the Lamb on His Throne, which He shares with us, seating us next to Himself. Do not refuse to follow, when He calls, for after darkness comes light, unending day after this brief night. He says to you, Receive now the Kingdom that was prepared for you before the foundation of the world. Enter into the joy of your Lord.’

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Psalms for the 8th day

Yahweh, do not punish me in Your rage,
or reprove me in the heat of anger.
Your arrows have pierced deep,
Your hand has pressed down on me;
no soundness in my flesh now You are angry,
no health in my bones, because of my sin.

Psalm 38:1-3 Jerusalem Bible

Lord, all that I long for is known to You,
my sighing is no secret from You.

Psalm 38:9

I said, ‘I will watch how I behave,
and not let my tongue lead me into sin;
I will keep a muzzle on my mouth
as long as the wicked man is near me’.
I stayed dumb, silent, speechless,
though the sight of him thriving made torment increase.

Psalm 39:1-2

So tell me, Lord, what can I expect?
My hope is in You.
Free me from all my sins,
do not make me the butt of idiots.
I am dumb, I speak no more,
since You Yourself have been at work.

Psalm 39:7-9

Yahweh, hear my prayer,
listen to my cry for help,
do not stay deaf to my crying.
I am Your guest, and only for a time,
a nomad like all my ancestors.

Psalm 39:12

Happy the man who puts
his trust in Yahweh,
and does not side with rebels
who stray after false gods.

Psalm 40:4

How many wonders You have done for us,
Yahweh my God!
How many plans You have made for us;
You have no equal!
I want to proclaim them again and again,
but they are more than I can count.

Psalm 40:5

You who wanted no sacrifice or oblation
opened my ear,
You asked no holocaust or sacrifice for sin;
then I said, ‘Here I am! I am coming!’
In the scroll of the Book am I not commanded
to obey Your will?
My God, I have always loved Your Law
from the depths of my being.
I have always proclaimed the righteousness of Yahweh
in the Great Assembly;
nor do I mean to stop proclaiming,
as You know well.
I have never kept Your righteousness to myself,
but have spoken of Your faithfulness and saving help;
I have made no secret of Your love and faithfulness
in the Great Assembly.

Psalm 40:6-10

As a doe longs for running streams,
so longs my soul for You, my God.
My soul thirst for God, the God of life;
when shall I go to see the face of God?
I have no food but tears, day and night;
and all day long men say to me,
‘Where is your God?’
I remember,
and my soul melts within me:
I am on my way to the wonderful Tent,
to the house of God,
among cries of joy and praise
and an exultant throng.

Psalm 42:1-4

When my soul is downcast within me,
I think of you;
from the land of Jordan and Hermón,
of you, humble mountain!
Deep is calling to deep
as your cataracts roar;
all your waves, your breakers,
have rolled over me.
In the daytime may Yahweh
command His love to come,
and by night may His song be on my lips,
a prayer to the God of my life!

Psalm 42:6-8

Let love be genuine

Let love be genuine;
hate what is evil,
hold fast to what is good;
love one another with brotherly affection;
outdo one another in showing honor.
Never flag in zeal,
be aglow with the Spirit,
serve the Lord.
Rejoice in your hope,
be patient in tribulation,
be constant in prayer.
Contribute to the needs of the saints,
practice hospitality.

Romans 12:9-13 RSV

Always free choice

For all that people will do to manipulate and twist the biblical texts to fit their own ideas, the comfort is that the Bible is, was, and always will be, exactly what it is, mean what it says, and keep being a home for the homeless, a comfort for the comfortless, and food for the hungry. Why? Because it is the door behind which Jesus Christ Himself stands waiting for us to either open and welcome Him or open and crucify Him. Which will it be? He will not force us to open the door. He will not force us to welcome Him. And He does not defend Himself to us any more than He defended Himself to those who crucified Him the first time. It is always free choice. The Bible tells us more about ourselves than it tells us about God, but at least it tells us as much as we need to know about Him, so we can decide what we will do. It’s always a matter of choice. Our choice.

Only at Jesus

David ThorpeGood People, 2002,
Mixed media collage, 75 x 99 cm, Private collection,
Courtesy Maureen Paley, London.
The classic Catholic/Protestant debate—indeed what got the crack in Western Christendom started—was the issue of how does one become a new creature, that is, how is one saved, and what does that salvation mean in daily life?

Catholicism was for confessing our total depravity, throwing ourselves in complete abandon upon God's mercy, and through a complex system of sacraments, pilgrimages, confessions, penances, and the excess merits of saints applied to one's load of sin, to escape hellfire and damnation. On earth, meanwhile, since people are sinners, they can more or less live as they always have, sinful, rebellious, greedy, lustful—in a word, barbaric—because if they play the game right and follow all the rules, their complete abandonment to God's mercy will save them.

Protestantism was for confessing our total depravity, throwing ourselves in complete abandon upon God's mercy, and through the possession of the correct doctrine of grace and works, by being one of the elect, and by prospering through industry and thrift, to escape hellfire and damnation. On earth, meanwhile, since people are sinners, they can more or less live as they always have, sinful, rebellious, greedy, lustful—in a word, barbaric—because if they play the game right and follow all the rules, their complete abandonment to God's mercy will save them.

Wait a minute!
What's so different about these two views of salvation that would've caused a split?

Essentially the views are the same and differ only in minor details. This was noticed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer among others.
He called both systems, ‘cheap grace.’

Today, because church members and leaders are alike so unfamiliar with the bible except in knowing how to quote it to bolster their opinions and practices, we have situations like the encounter between Christ and Photiní, the woman of Samaria. All discussion is diverted to philosophical points, just as Photiní diverted attention from her sin when Jesus uncovered it, posing instead a question about temple worship, and diverting attention from the fact that she was wanton.

Listen! From the Lord's viewpoint, there's nothing immodest about looking closely at our sins, since He already knows everything about us, and because He is only looking at them closely, as a doctor examines a diseased organ closely because his aim is to heal it.

Bad interpersonal behaviors, minor perhaps, are still annoying and unproductive. Yet, what is their root cause?

We are challenged to try to behave better. To justify from the scriptures what we are doing to remedy this situation we bolster our approach by quoting in full James 3:3-12, the passage about the evils of the tongue, overlooking completely the evangelical reason for this phenomenon. Jesus Himself says, ‘The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him’ (Matthew 12:35 NIV).

What is going on here?
Are we trying to be nice guys, or have we abandoned everything to become new men and women?

Reality cannot be chunked into tiny splinters and worked on, one splinter at a time. The fact is, it is not we who are to work on it—the problem of too casual, snappish, disrespectful, swaggering attitudes among ourselves. If we try with this approach, we will fail, because at best we will be nice. That splinter of reality will have gotten so polished, it may blind you to the fact that the plank is still there, as horny and rough as ever.

Do you know any people who live in the Word of God, who have made it their home, in such a manner that they don't even have to carry the book around with them everywhere (though they often do), and who don't think in terms of improving their behavior or self-image, because their trust is so unshakably in the truth of the Word, in Jesus, that they are content to just follow Him in everything, not looking at themselves or others (hence, not judging), but only at Jesus, who is the author and finisher?

These people can be found in the Body of Christ, but not always in church, that is, they may be church members but their real life is lived in that hidden place, where the Father alone sees them, and their actions, speaking louder than words, are sometimes overlooked by others, because they do not preach themselves, but Christ.

When we are seeking Christ in everything, we begin to notice these people, and little by little we join their number until we too ‘do good and disappear.’

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Christian mysticism

You must live your whole life according to the Christ you have received—Jesus the Lord; you must be rooted in Him and built on Him and held firm by the faith you have been taught, and full of thanksgiving. Make sure no one traps you and deprives you of your freedom by some secondhand, empty, rational philosophy based on the principles of this world instead of on Christ.
Colossians 2:6-8 Jerusalem Bible

Do not be taken in by people who like grovelling to angels and worshipping them; people like that are always going on about some vision they have had, inflating themselves to a false importance with their worldly outlook.
Colossians 2:18 JB

Mysticism, what is it? People who are called mystical seem to be a kind of religious elite, whether Christian or non-Christian. They seem to be more in touch with God than the rest of us. Some of them actually claim to be. Some even claim that they are one with God. Can the term ‘mysticism’ even have a legitimate meaning anymore, especially for Christians, when all this confusion abounds?

Perhaps the answer is yes. To grasp the true meaning of Christian mysticism, one must study the earliest Church mystics carefully, for it is in the light of their experience that later deviations can be properly evaluated. There were some aberrations among even them, of course, but nothing to be compared with the false and impious mixtures found in Europe during the Middle Ages.

The mystics of the early Church included the Church Fathers, for in those days the theologians were among the most spiritual of Christians, and the phenomena of mystical life was evident in all social strata—clergy, monastics, and ordinary believers of all classes.

Visions were practically non-existent in the mystical life of the early Church. Distractions to prayer, whether voluntary or involuntary, were deplored and dismissed whenever possible. Visions and ecstasies were considered to be involuntary distractions to prayer. Those very experiences which later Christian ‘mystics’ sought after and prized so highly were considered by the earlier Christians as little more than nuisances to be suspiciously examined and barely tolerated.

Contemplation consisted not merely in negation and renunciation (as in later Roman Catholicism), but in a deifying union with God’s Spirit in an experience of spiritual illumination after all intellectual activity had ceased. This deification, or in Greek, théosis, had many definite and practical applications in everyday life. ‘If it were possible for me to find a leper,’ said Abba Agathon, ‘and to give him my body and to take his, I would gladly do it, for this is perfect love.’ Such was the true nature of théosis, or deification.

All of the mystics of the early Church believed that the supreme spiritual experience would be to see the Divine and Uncreated Light, which was identical to what the Jews call the Shekhináh—it is the light witnessed by the three disciples which surrounded Jesus on Mount Tabor at His Metamórphosis. Because “God is light” (1 John 1:5), the experience of His energies was said to take the form of light. This is not mere created light, but the Light of the Godhead Itself. Even though this Light is not a sensible or material light, it can be seen by a man whose senses as well as his soul have undergone a metamorphosis of their own.

The Platonic view of man as a soul imprisoned in a body was for a time incorporated into Christian thought, through the writings of Evagrios of Pontus, and Origen of Alexandria, but it was later rejected in favor of the Hebraic view of man as an animated body. The difference between considering man as an animated body (like Adam for whom God first created a body out of dust and then breathed life into him) or an imprisoned soul (as taught by the Greek philosophers who followed Plato) has a subtle but important influence on one's understanding of redemption, and even of prayer.

Abba Makarios of Egypt in his homilies reestablished the more biblical emphasis on the whole man. Whereas the Greek philosophical view made prayer an activity of the mind and the intellect, Hebrew tradition made prayer a function of the whole man—mind, emotions, will, and body. Whereas Evagrios and Origen used the word mind, Makarios used the word heart, which was not only more biblical but also more in keeping with a true understanding of the human being.

Bishop Basil of Καισάρεια/Kaisáreia wrote…

Silence is the beginning of the purification of the soul. A mind undistracted by external things and not dispersed through the senses among worldly things, returns to itself. As the Lord dwells not in temples built by human hands, neither does He dwell in any imaginings or mental structures, fantasies which present themselves to the attention and surround the corrupt soul like a wall, so that it is powerless to look at the Truth directly, but continues to cling to such things as mirrors and fortune-telling.

It seems to me that much of the so-called mysticism we find in the world and, alas, in the Church today may be of the type warned against by the apostle Paul, grovelling to angels and worshipping them,’ and by Basil the Great, ‘powerless to look at the Truth directly,’ and is a reversion to the superstitious attitudes of the Middle Ages, which for both Paul and Basil were far in the future, but for us a lingering and seductive past.

‘Mirrors and fortune-telling’ are Basil's words for what to us may take slightly different forms, cloaked under a pious disguise, but it is the same spiritual cheat nonetheless.

So, what is mysticism, then? Is it anything other than what happens to us when we give all for all, abandoning ourselves gladly to the Lord our God, our Savior, our Brother, our Lover and greatest Friend?

As the bride asks in the Song of Solomon, ‘Tell me then, You whom my heart loves: Where will You lead Your flock to graze, where will You rest it at noon? That I may no more wander like a vagabond beside the flocks of Your companions,’ so comes the answer, ‘If you do not know this, O loveliest of women, follow the tracks of the flock, and take your kids to graze close by the shepherds’ tents.’ (Song of Solomon 1:7-8 JB)

Originally posted as And what is mysticism? on July 6, 2009.