Thursday, May 29, 2014

Orthodoxy

Orthodoxy is the Church of Christ on earth. The Church of Christ is not an institution; it is a new life with Christ and in Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit. Christ, the Son of God, came to earth, was made man, uniting His divine life with that of humanity. This divine-human life He gave to His brethren, who believe on His name. Although He died and rose again and ascended into heaven, He was not separated from His humanity, but remains in it. The light of the resurrection of Christ lights the Church, and the joy of resurrection, of the triumph over death, fills it. The risen Lord lives with us and our life in the Church is a mysterious life in Christ.
Sergius Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church

When Orthodox Christians read the above passage in Bulgakov's classic The Orthodox Church, most of us assume with an unconscious smugness that we have it, the ‘Church of Christ on earth,’ that we are it, the true Church, and this belief is reinforced at every liturgy when we sing ‘We have seen the true Light…’

But in the very next sentence Bulgakov states an alarming proposition—‘The Church of Christ is not an institution; it is a new life with Christ and in Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit.’ The man has let the cat out of the bag. I mean, the Church is not something that is ‘set on automatic,’ or can rest on beds of laurel.

Well, yes, we know that, but still, we're the true Church, we have the true faith, otherwise what's the point of being an Orthodox Christian? Once again we are confronted by the obvious but well-hidden fact that the point of being an Orthodox Christian is to be united to Christ, to partake of the Divine Nature.

More than confessing Christ before the world in verbal testimony or churchly announcement, as Orthodox Christians we are here to give our lives, as Christ did and does, for the life of the world. We are here both to taste and to share His literal, not just symbolic, presence in our midst, living in and among us, as us.

For yes, brethren, we are the Body of Christ, and Jesus our Saviour and good Lord, is our Head, our only Mediator and Advocate, who ‘was not separated from His humanity, but remains in it.’ The resurrection started with His literal rising from the dead, and as we are born into it, born again, we are saved.

Saved from what? This is no mere self-betterment regimen. The world offers plenty of these, and if it doesn't destroy our planet first, it will undoubtedly save the world. Save it for what? The world knows no heavenly kingdom, no kings. It strives to create a perfect social order, in which all are its slaves.

There is no kingship in the works of the flesh, but in the faith of the saints, all become kings and queens, ‘they will reign forever and ever’ (Revelation 22:5). This is why the Orthodox Church is. This is the point of being an Orthodox Christian. Not to pressure wash the world, but to be what Christ says we are,  ‘the Light of the world’ (Matthew 5:14).

Let's look at the same passage of Bulgakov again, this time, as Christians who do not belong to the Orthodox Church, maybe as a Roman Catholic, but especially as a bible-believing Christian, or maybe as one who believes in Christ, in whatever manner, and tries to follow Him, without belonging to a church.

He states, ‘Orthodoxy is the Church of Christ on earth.’ Instead of starting with Orthodoxy, let's start with the Church of Christ. If we are believers and followers of Jesus, if we believe the Bible to be God's message to humanity, or at least to us, we must know of the Church and consider ourselves members of it.

If we are members of the Church, we must be asking ourselves, ‘How does that make me Orthodox? I don't want to accept any kind of label, or submit myself to some earthly authority.’ But brethren, read on. Don't you agree with what Bulgakov states in the rest of the passage? Aren't these your beliefs too?

He states the Orthodox Church is not an institution, but rather life in Christ. This is where I now have to leave you to your own internal deliberations, just as the Orthodox left me to mine as I was coming to them as an Episcopalian a quarter century ago. I found out not that I belonged to the Orthodox Church, but that it belongs to me.

Orthodoxy, that is, the Orthodox Church in its visible and invisible aspects, is the property of all the believers in Jesus Christ, it is their, or rather our, true home on earth, where all are welcome and, therefore, all should be made welcome. In it live the saints of all ages, not in agreement only, but in merciful love.

This is the only reason why we should feel joy, once we have arrived at Holy Church—for that, and not its more formal designation ‘the Orthodox Church,’ is what we call her once we are inside her fold—this is the only reason we should feel joy when we chant

We have seen the true Light,
we have received the heavenly Spirit,
we have found the true Faith,
worshiping the undivided Trinity,
for He has saved us.

The inevitable step

The ascension of the Christ.
Yes, this is the inevitable step in the progression of mankind
into the new reality of the sons of God.

The first new Man has appeared.
He walked the earth in full humanity
cloaking His full Divinity for a mere thirty-three years.

Then, delivering Himself up, to both sorrow and certainty,
He let Himself be taken for a common criminal,
though not at all common,
for kings and prefects do not bother themselves
with the crimes of common men,
nor do noble ladies dream dreams about them.

What no one has ever seen before occurred.
No one could visualize it then or even now.
It is surely incomprehensible,
because we have no eyes for it, not yet.

Still, what men fear most happened in time,
and happens now and ever,
every day till the end of time,
inevitable death has been rolled away from a tomb
then, now, and forever void of the dead.

No, it is not death that men fear most, but life,
unending, beginningless life,
that which they were made for,
but which they cannot bring themselves to accept.

What is worse than being sentenced to death?
To be sentenced for life,
to be condemned to live forever,
beginningless, endless, without respite,
before the face of Him who creates,
loves and preserves all beings.

This is the eternal fire that enlightens those who love Him
and burns those who hate Him.

Hate Him?
How can they hate the only-lover of mankind?

God is mercy to those who run to Him,
and judgment to those who run away.

Yes, the inevitable step.
Pierced feet fly upwards.
We follow them with our eyes, ignoring angels who tell us,
He returns in exactly the same manner that He departs.

Yes, the inevitable step.
He has taken it.
Now it is our turn, as it has always been.
Die in order to live.
Rise in order to receive what cannot be taken away.
Ascend in order to be present everywhere, to fill the earth.

‘Greater works than these are to be done by you,’ He says,
‘because I am going to the Father.’
He has taken the inevitable step, calling us to follow.

‘Why do you stand there gazing into the sky?’
Do not follow His feet only with your eyes.
Run after Him.
He comes again, in clouds, as we follow Him.
‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…’

He has taken the inevitable step.
There is no going back, for Him or for us.
Yes, the inevitable step.
x

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Visible and invisible

It has been and continues to be a real struggle for me, this concept—‘the Church.’

For most of my life, ‘the Church’ meant first, the local congregation that I am a member of, in this case, a Greek Orthodox parish, and second, the worldwide community of Christians that confess the historic faith of (at least) the first ecumenical synod of Nicæa (AD 325), whether or not they know the ‘symbol’ of that synod (called by non-Orthodox, the ‘Nicene Creed’).

As a Greek Orthodox, I express my understanding of ‘the Church’ in the second sense by identifying myself as exactly that—Greek Orthodox—but that does not stop me from associating and even praying with non-Orthodox Christians. Though this has helped me to be ‘numbered with the transgressors’ by some of my co-religionists, I hope those that tolerate my lack of discretion are doing it for the right reason—because they too love the Truth—and not out of mere niceness.

Now, the Church, visible and invisible: how it ‘appears’ to me.

The Church visible, this is the institutional Church in all of its forms. I only know this Church visible as it is in America, but I'm guessing it’s the same in most places. The Church visible has form, has rules, has systems, has an inside and an outside, has an architectural presence, has a distinctive culture, has professionals and laymen.

The Church visible operates very much like a business, far more than one would expect from simply reading the gospels and epistles. Its hierarchy operates pretty much like that of any secular institution, and its employees, the clergy, find themselves pigeonholed both by themselves and by the laity as a professional caste whose success or failure rides on management skills and devising programs to keep their people busy.

In the churches that are run by laymen, such as my own, those selected to parish councils and similar structures are generally the wealthy and those with business savvy and connexions. And why not? They’re needed if the Church is to have a successful building program and stewardship campaign. The Church visible gives glory to God by investing its money with great acumen. After all, it doesn't want to be classified with the steward in the parable of the Talents, who hid the one talent in the ground to turn it over to the Master without interest, and got cast into the outer darkness.

In the last building program at my Church, for example, the emphasis was giving glory to God by expanding our facilities. Just like a big business. It’s a good thing God’s our boss! And we sure showed Him we were worthy! People were encouraged during that campaign to reveal what they gave and challenge others to outgive them! We were talked to by wealthy patrons during breaks in the liturgy and encouraged by them ‘to give till it feels good.’ Our loquacious presbyter at that time even confessed publicly that he hadn’t paid his pledge as much as he’d thought, but that he made up for it by prepaying the rest of his pledge through year’s end ahead of time. His advice to us was to do the same and, what’s more, to tell at least one other person that you had paid up your pledge ahead of time, and encourage them to do the same! That was the core message of his Sunday homily. This was the ‘Church visible’ where I live. How about you?

What I have come to see and participate in at least a little in the intervening years is the ‘Church invisible.’ The visible Church at regular intervals pays its respects to this invisible Church by calling them ‘unsung heroes, uncanonised, unknown saints,’ and the like. Sometimes they even drag out a story or a legend about one of these cross-bearers and extols them. But to what effect? Hearing a priest rattle off in perfect koiné Greek at the end of liturgy a half dozen or more names of saints being commemorated, lickedy-split, wow! I'm always so impressed! How can he do that?

The Church invisible. How do you know when you’re approaching the borderlands of the invisible Church? You begin to take on the state of invisibility yourself.

The best thing to do when you sense this happening is… to run even faster after Jesus! Don’t look back! Strain ahead for what is still to come. Accept the loss of everything and look on all the advantages you have in the world and even in the visible Church as so much rubbish. Why? Because all these things are really disadvantages, as holy apostle Paul declares in his letter to the Church at Philippi (Philippians 3:2-16). Decide now and every day to follow the call of Jesus Christ, decide once and for all that ‘all I want is to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and to share His sufferings by reproducing the pattern of His death’ (Philippians 3:10 JB).

How do you enter the ranks of the invisible Church? By paying your tithe with more than money, by not looking to be thanked, by announcing the Word of God without charge, fear or praise, by emptying yourself to assume the conditions of a slave, by putting yourself in places where faith is not only possible but inevitable, by serving those whom the world considers unworthy, because by doing so you turn tables on the world—the Word of God calls people like this, those ‘of whom the world was not worthy’ (Hebrews 11:38). The author of Hebrews continues giving good instructions for those who are willing to enter the ranks of the Church invisible…

‘With so many witnesses in a great cloud on every side of us, we too, then, should throw off everything that hinders us, especially the sin that clings so easily, and keep running steadily in the race we have started. Let us not lose sight of Jesus, who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection’ (Hebrews 12:1-2).

‘Three times Jesus encourages His disciples by saying, “Fear not.” (Matthew 10:26-39) Although their sufferings are now secret [invisible], they will not always be so: some day they will be manifest before God and man. However secret these sufferings are at present, they have their Lord's promise that they will be eventually brought to the light of day. … Those who are still afraid of men have no fear of God, and those who have fear of God have ceased to be afraid of men. All preachers of the gospel will do well to recollect this saying daily. … We are in God's hands. Therefore, “Fear not.” ’
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, “The Decision”

One final thought. Yes, in the Orthodox Church, the visible Church is plastered with icons, that is, images of the saints, to remind us of what the author of Hebrews wrote, ‘With so many witnesses in a great cloud on every side of us…’ When we worship there, we are visibly present and the icons are visibly present, to incite us to look beyond them to the invisible presence of the saints. I almost wrote, ‘What if we took seriously…’ but instead, I want to say, Just take God at His Word and ‘throw off everything that hinders’ you, ‘especially the sin that clings so easily…’

What sin is that? The sin of being satisfied with the externals, with what can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted and touched in the Church visible. Stand up, stand up for Jesus! Then, follow Him, no looking back! The visible Church with its visible icons fades out as the Church invisible with its living icons invisible to the world reveals itself—and you among them, a living icon.

Yes, go with Jesus.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Alive


Lord, I have nothing that I have not received, and I am nothing but what You have made me.
Glory to You, O God, glory to You!





The Word of God is something alive and active…
Hebrews 4:12 Jerusalem Bible

Alive
that means it's actual, being spoken at this very moment, continuously and tirelessly repeated, born again in God's heart every day to be transmitted to living men, and it's always fresh, new for each and every man, personal, meant to illuminate him individually.

This Word is ‘the true Light that enlightens everyone who comes into the world’ (John 1:9). There's not a soul on earth that God doesn't speak to.

Do we believe wholeheartedly in His living Word, in that everpresent voice which keeps uttering for each of us the words that can heal?
‘Say but the Word…’
(Luke 7:7, Matthew 8:8).

Our faith in God's Word is measured by our faith in His love. We don't really believe He speaks to us because we don't really believe He loves us.

What's a saint?
It's someone who believes that God loves him.
‘We've come to know and believe in God's love for us’ (1 John 4:16).
Anyone who believes God loves him knows that God speaks to him.

God hasn't ceased being revelation any more than He's ceased being love. He enjoys expressing Himself. Since He is love, He must give Himself, share His secrets, communicate with us, and reveal Himself to anyone who wants to listen. His sole delight is to confide in us and give Himself to us.

God's revelation began with Adam in the Garden of Eden. There, too, began the Passion. Don't we say when someone trusts us, that he's put himself in our hands? He would come into the Garden in the cool of the evening and talk to Adam as to a friend. He was starting to manifest Himself and share His thoughts, trying to make us understand Who He is and delivering Himself up to us. And from the outset, He was shunned and rejected. ‘His own didn't receive Him’
(John 1:11). From the beginning, from the first day, Adam interrupted the dialogue, scorned God's confidences and shattered the alliance they gave proof of. From the very start it was man who walked away, man who turned a deaf ear to God's words.
The Passion began in Paradise.

But God has never wearied of talking to us. He keeps reopening the conversation, hoping we'll listen. He keeps offering His friendship, however often we spurn Him.

In the desert, He used to visit Moses in his tent and speak to Him ‘face to face, as a man speaks to his friend’ (Exodus 33:11). ‘At various times in the past and in various different ways, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; but in our own time, the last days, He has spoken to us through His Son…’ (Hebrews 1:1 JB).

His communications had grown so urgent, He'd given and entrusted His Word to us so completely, and He'd reached out toward man so far that the Word, His utterance, became flesh. The Incarnation was God's crowning prophecy, His supreme attempt to reveal Himself. He had created flesh, and He so ardently wanted it to accept and understand Him, that He became flesh Himself.

He took the Word, which He'd never been able to transmit to us without our garbling or forgetting it, voiced it fully, and made it man.

God doesn't repent His gifts. He placed His Word in our hands and has never taken it back.

Once and for all, He came down to the level of each of us. He became flesh so we could eat Him in His mystery, love Him in our neighbor, and hear and follow Him in the Gospels.

The Gospels are God's message directed to every one of us. We must believe that God inspired the evangelists in such a way that their words were really dictated by Him. Are we truly aware of that when we open our Bible? Yet that's what the charism of scriptural inspiration means. If God is the author, how can He fail to move us directly every time we take up His Book and expose ourselves to His influence?

‘…the Advocate, the Holy Spirit,Whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you’ (John 14:26 JB). This promise, made shortly before Jesus' death, indicates that the words He spoke once will have to be studied constantly, and that He said all of them while He was in the world precisely so that the Spirit might expound them till the end of the world.

The letters kills. Only the Spirit gives life, because He is alive. When we read a passage in God's Book, we must think of it not as a text to be perused, or an idea to be dissected, but as God Himself coming into our tent to speak to us face to face as a man speaks to his friend.

What must we do to read the Gospels with faith?
To read the Gospels with faith is to believe that everything in them is actually happening now, that they're a book of revelation, a book of discovery, that, far more than history, they are prophecy. They tell us who we are and what we're doing. God continues to live with us. He's always the same, and so are we. What the Gospels relate is still going on today. They show us our life, how God loves us.

— Fr Louis Evely, That Man Is You, pp. 25-42 passim

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

Originally posted January 3, 2010

Living words

The word of Jesus is not something He spoke once so that it could be written down and then turned into stone tablets with which we could judge the world. No, the word of Jesus is such a word that it takes what is stone and turns it into something alive. When we go forth to meet men in the world with the word of Jesus, we don’t go forth in judgment, but we meet them, all of them, in the company of Jesus, who walks with us, and who walks among men to save them. It is not the day of judgment yet. It is still the day of mercy.

When Jesus sent them out two by two, He instructed them to go to every town and preach the word, and if they receive it, peace be with them, but if they reject it, then the disciples leave that town and wipe its dust from their soles, and depart. What men reject when they reject the word is not a doctrine but a person, as the Lord says, ‘whoever rejects you rejects Me, and whoever rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me.’ It is all about personal encounter, of Life with death, seeking to bring the dead to life, not about standards of right and wrong.

The world is well aware that it is living in sin, that is to say, that it is dying in its sins. It already knows the bad news, which is so well-known that it needs no one to announce it. People are imprisoned in their own wickedness and they know it. Sometimes, even when the Gatekeeper comes with the keys and opens the door for them to escape, they dare not depart from the safety of the cage, despite its stench and filth, because they are afraid of the unknown. Why do their eyes hurt? Because they have never used them before. Light hurts at first.

The people who dwell in darkness have seen a great light, on them who live in the land of shadows a light has shown. Though we have responded to the call and come out from among them, they are part of us and we are part of them, a living Body with dead limbs, that someday will be amputated if they cannot be reinvigorated with the life of the Body. But ours is not the scalple or the ax, but rather the ointment and the bandage gauze, ours is the medicine that quickens souls and brings life to the dying. The Physician is among us, not the Judge.

Come, brethren, and speak the living word to your neighbors, not what can be written with paper and ink, but the word in person, as the beloved apostles write, not words of condemnation, but words of encouragement, not to quench the smoking flax, but to blow on it till it becomes a fire, that same fire of which the Lord Jesus says, ‘I have come to bring fire to the earth. How I wish it were ablaze already!’ He is not dead, brethren, and neither are we, but alive. His ascension has revealed who He is and where He lives, not for thirty-three years and in one body, but for ever, and among us.

The word of Jesus is not living words turned to stone, but words that turn stone statues into real men. Just as He spoke it at the beginning to create all things, He speaks it in us, with us, and through us, to keep renewing the world, even unto its last day. As He told His holy apostles, ‘I am with you until the close of the age.’ Between His first and His second coming, there is nobody here but us, living words.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Sunday of the Samaritan Woman

The Sunday of the Samaritan Woman has come round again. Thank God for the faithful nagging of our hard, cold hearts that the Holy Church inflicts on us! She doesn't drown us with detail in the stories she tells year after year, all true, nor does she tell us too little that we forget them. Her lessons are short, but sweet, coming as they are from real life encounters with the Lord, making us if we stay and listen, like Photiní the woman of Samaria, His eyewitnesses. Eyewitnesses of what? What else! His resurrection!


the story of the woman of Samaria, as she tells it

‘How can you sleep with a mere man when the Desire of the ages chooses to lodge under your roof?’ This thought, this question, raised me from my bed of sickness, from my sin, and set me on my own feet for the first time in my life. I had always let myself be carried, always wanted to be carried, not where I would have gone, but where my lover of the moment desired to take me. I had no other purpose but to fold into a man, any man, and do his bidding. That’s what women are for after all, isn’t it? We only exist to help our man. Without this mission we have no existence, no right to exist, we are not even alive.

Yes, I had had my share of them, men, even more than my share. My own father found me too choice a morsel to let me go to another before he had his way with me. Why then was he so severe, so merciless, with Avram when he, my first lover, got me with child? It happened within the same moon, besides, so whose was my first-born son, really? Who was the father of my Yosef? Who can know these things but God? And so my father forced the boy to make me his under the canopy of marriage, and denied his womenfolk the chore of checking the sheets for the blood they would not have found.

‘Go, call your husband,’ the strange Jew had commanded me, forcing my mind to swiftly search my heart for an answer, for I had no husband. Avram had not truly loved me, though caught in the net of his beauty, I surrendered my freedom gladly. I should have known better, but I was only a girl. Were other men like my father? I wanted to know, could a man be gentle? I had not much time to find out, for like his namesake, my first husband Avram soon left his father’s house, and me his wife with child, and went to work for his brother in a distant village. To divorce me he did not dare, but I never saw him again.

Perhaps the Jews are right, we Samaritans are all offspring of adultery. Perhaps their rabbis speak the truth when they call us ‘unredeemable’ and ‘unclean,’ a people that cannot change, a race that is born craving what is unlawful, a brood doomed to die in its sins. But what about them, those Jews? The stranger’s words, ‘we worship what we know, for salvation comes from the Jews,’ was he just another self-righteous rabbi? But why did he speak to me, then, a Samaritan, and even worse, a woman? ‘Who is this man?’ I kept asking myself, every moment hope mixing with fear, as a new desire was aroused in me.

Hoping to hide behind the truth spoken as a lie, I answered him, ‘I have no husband,’ but this stranger—I could already sense that here was the man who had always known me, who knows me better than I know myself—this man who asked me for a drink, replied, ‘Yes, that’s right. You have no husband. You’ve had five…’ And for a moment it felt as though my heart stopped, my ears burned for his boldness, my eyes opened as if for the first time. ‘I see, you are a prophet,’ I blurted out without thinking. There was nothing else I needed to tell him about me. Now, I only thirsted to hear him tell me who he was.

He already knew about the others, those men whom need or desire had compelled me to take to my bed. There was nothing, though, of blame in his voice as he told me, ‘and the one you’re living with now is not your husband.’ How could he have known? Something in me was caught, no, released from a net, like a bird set free. Hope spoke again in my heart, ‘He tore the net, and we escaped,’ and I heard myself tell him, ask him—I had never given it a thought before, but now it seemed important—‘our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews say that only in Jerusalem can true worship be offered.’

Why did this come to mind? I was a woman, to whom holy and divine matters are of no importance. That is what men do. They alone are worthy to approach the One, they alone can worship, while we must humbly wait for them behind the wall. We approach the unmade Maker only by being hidden like Eve was hidden in Adam’s side. But this strange Jew, as if he knew the longings of my wounded heart, spoke what no man had ever spoken before, that worship is not what is offered on mountain tops and in temples, and only by men, ‘God is spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth.’

I could not hold back any longer. I put down my water jug—I was holding it tightly against my body without noticing, and it suddenly felt very heavy, like a child within me—and I said, ‘We know that Messiah will someday come and teach us the truth about everything.’ The stranger smiled, looked at me with a love that I had never seen in the eyes of any man, and gently said, ‘I who am speaking to you, I am He.’ I stood there while a shiver ran over me, and then—how long had it been? It seemed like forever—I heard the sound of men’s voices. Some travelers came up and encircled me and that man.

They looked shocked, but they didn’t say anything, at least not while I was there. Suddenly, I remembered myself, ‘I am just a woman.’ I pulled my veil back over my head—I had unmindfully slipped it off while talking to the stranger—and looking down now, I left my water jug and passed through the circle of men. How I wanted to say something to him, to thank him, to look at him looking at me one more time. How I wanted to be carried by him, to go where he would take me, for here was the first real man I had ever seen. I was too excited now to stay or to go, but I knew I wasn’t welcome in this crowd.

Yes, I ran back to the village. ‘Hey, everyone! Come here, quickly! I’ve just met a man at the well who has told me everything I’ve ever done! I think he must be a prophet, maybe even the Messiah. Come and see!’ I ran to my house, fetched my boys Yosef and Ezri, and told the man who was living with me, ‘He knows all about us!’ Pinchas snarled, ‘Woman, what are you babbling about? Where’s the water?’ I dared to ignore him, and ran out with my boys to join the other villagers who were already taking the road downhill. I didn’t look back, though I heard him growling behind me, but more and more faintly.

I reached the well after everyone else. When I got there, the stranger was sitting where I left him. I could see that he was some kind of rabbi by the way his disciples regarded him, yes, those men who came up and through whose midst I escaped. No, not some kind of rabbi. As I stood there, far off with my two sons, listening, I knew it was He, the Holy One of Israel, the Messiah, who was speaking. The villagers were engaging Him with their questions and their quests, and they encircled Him closer and closer until they were at His feet, and the closest sat there in the dust, drinking in His words.

The disciples of the Master—for that is what they called him, though I knew more—made as though to depart, and He arose finally to go with them, but my villagers crowded closer and couldn’t keep their hands off Him. I watched from a distance in silence. They were imploring Him to spend the night. They wanted Him to stay with us. ‘We’re only Samaritans,’ I complained to myself, ‘He won’t stay with us, He can’t stay with us. Look at His disciples’ faces. They’re just being patient, but they want Him to go… now!’ As I watched, He looked closely at us, in silence gazing on us, this brood of sinners, then nodded, ‘Yes!’

Cheers and ululation accompanied the procession as we walked back uphill to our village. I followed the crowd at a distance. A kind of shyness had overcome me. Everyone had forgotten all about me, and I was happy with that. My boys tugged at me, though, wanting to go home. I was worried what I might find there when we returned. Would my man beat me, as he sometimes did over trifles? I began to be afraid. The people up ahead had surrounded the Teacher, so I could barely see Him. Suddenly I heard someone call my name, ‘Shulamit! Shulamit! Where’s Shulamit?’ I came out from behind a myrtle tree.

‘Yes, here I am!’ I called back, ‘what is it?’ One of the men—actually it was the headman of our village—broke with the crowd and walked toward me. He had never come to me, let alone speak to me, before. I was a shameful thing in his eyes, not only a weak woman, but a sinful one, and everyone knows, a man should even speak to his own wife no more than is necessary. ‘The Master wants to spend the night at your house. He said that he knows you, and that he wants to stay with one of his own. Aren’t you a Samaritan like us? He’s a Jew, isn’t he?’ A thousand excuses, the man I live with, but I couldn’t tell them.

Torn between fear and joy, my heart lit the path ahead to where it ended at my door, and the Master followed. ‘Who am I to receive Him—some of the villagers were already calling Him the savior of the world—under my roof? I who have slept with… I who am sleeping with… oh, no, where will He sleep?’ The fire of my anxiety was found and quenched by His meek suggestion, ‘Let me sleep here tonight, with your boys. It will do.’ Where was my man? I looked around for Pinchas. ‘Maybe he’s gone out,’ I said to myself with a sigh of relief, ‘but what will I do when he returns?’ A shadow filled the open doorway.

‘You forgot the jug at the well! Didn’t you think our guest would want something to drink? And why haven’t you given him the best berth? We can sleep there in the hay with the boys. There’s plenty of room. Let him sleep in our bed.’ I couldn’t decide what was happening. ‘What had come over him. Had he talked to any of the neighbors? How did he even know? Why wasn’t he angry? He’s never treated me, or a guest, like this before,’ my mind wouldn’t quiet itself. Then, the Master said, ‘No, Pinchas, you and Shulamit keep your bed, but I thank you for your offer.’ In the growing darkness, we all lay down.

That night we didn’t draw the curtain across our corner of the room. Pinchas and I slept side by side as brother and sister. Something had changed in me, and he sensed it. I too could feel a change in him. What had caused it? ‘We know that Messiah will someday come and teach us the truth about everything.’ Those words I said to the stranger at the well would not cease, but flowed through me like a stream of living water. In the coolness of the night, I felt loved, I felt carried in the arms of a real man for the first time, I knew that where He would carry me would be where I never dreamed, yet where I always wanted to go.

No, the man I was living with was not my husband. In the morning of that day he understood it too. He knew for sure that I did not belong to him, nor he to me, but that both of us belonged to Another, to Someone who neither of us ever knew but always wanted. In the night, I had turned to him lying beside me, wanting warmth, wanting touch as my body had ached for years, wanting to be held in a man’s arms, but it was not to be. I had been married to five men, yet knew not love with any, until the One appeared who makes everyone His bride, and forever. Shulamit was enlightened. She was wed at last.

True to ourselves

On whatever step of our spiritual development we are, the first thing which is required of us is that we should be true to ourselves: not to try to be anyone except the person we are; not to try to mimic any behavior, to force ourselves into any mould in heart, in mind, in will which could be a lie before God, to ourselves, a deception for others. The first rule is to be true to ourselves; and to be true with all the integrity, all the passion, all the joy of which we are capable.

Time and time and again I am asked by people: ‘What is the Will of God for me now, in the nearest future?’ And I always refuse to speak in God’s own Name, because I believe that all I, or any priest, can do is to stand before God in awe, and say, ‘Lord, Thou art the Truth, Thou art Life, Thou art also the Way: teach this person, be to this person the Way, enlighten this person with the truth, and bring him to such plenitude of life as no one can either convey or give.’

And yet there are things which can be done. Each of us is a free man of God, as St. Paul said clearly. He says there was a time when we all were slaves of Satan, slaves of our passions, of our fears, slaves of all the things that press on all sides and do not allow us to be true people. In Christ freedom is granted; not license, but the freedom to be ourselves, the freedom to grow into the fullness of the stature which God has dreamt for us, to grow into fullness that will make us truly living members of the Body of Christ, partakers of the Divine Nature.

On whatever step of our spiritual development we are, the first thing which is required of us is that we should be true to ourselves: not to try to be anyone except the person we are; not to try to mimic any behavior, to force ourselves into any mould in heart, in mind, in will which could be a lie before God, to ourselves, a deception for others. The first rule is to be true to ourselves; and to be true with all the integrity, all the passion, all the joy of which we are capable. And what does this mean?

Apart from what I said a moment ago, it means that we must find who we are not only socially, but at another level. To do this, we can read the Gospel which is an image of what a true human being is. The Gospel is not a book of commandments, of orders, as it were, given by God, ‘Do this, and you will be right in My sight’ — no: it is a picture of what a real human being thinks, feels, does and is.

Let us look into the Gospel as one looks into a mirror, and we will discover that in so many ways we are a distorted image, but that in a few ways perhaps, we are a true human being already, at least potentially. Let us mark those passages of which we can say, like Luke and Cleophas on the way to Emmaus: Does not my heart burn within me when I hear, when I read these words? How beautiful they are! How true! That is life! And if you find one passage or another to which you respond in this way, rejoice.

At that point God has reached you at the deepest level of your being, revealed to you who you truly are; but at the same time He has revealed to you Who He truly is. He has shown to you that you and He are in harmony; that if you only become what you already, potentially, truly are, you will become an image of God; a true, undistorted image; at least in one or two things.

Then there is another move: if we want to be truly ourselves, we must remember that God does not expect us to be what we are not, but what we are. That we can stand before God, and say to Him, ‘Lord! I have read this and that in the Gospel; I understand it with my mind; I believe in my heart that it must be true; but it does not set my mind aglow, my heart on fire; it does not stir my will, it does not transform me yet. Accept me as I am! I will change, but for the moment I cannot respond to such a commandment, to such an example.’

There is a passage so beautiful, to me, in the writings of St. Mark the Ascetic in which he says, ‘If God stood before you, and said, Do this, and do that — and your heart could not answer ‘Amen’ — then don’t do it; because God does not need your action: He needs your consent, and harmony between Him and you.’

Let us therefore try when we ask ourselves – ‘Where do I already stand?’ – in an attempt to find out what the Will of God is for us, not in the absolute, but now. What can I already now be and do, and do it wholeheartedly with God? — because in the end, the aim of our spiritual life, of our life and our faith in Christ does not consist in being drilled into doing one thing rather than the other; it is to establish between God and us a relationship of true friendship, of a joy of mutual freedom, and within this freedom, within this friendship, in response to God’s love, to God’s respect for us, to the faith He has in us, to the hope He has vested in us, and say ‘This person has understood that he is not a slave, that he is My friend’ — and He is our friend. What a joy! And it is a gift of God, which we can give Him as we received it from Him! Amen.


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

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

If God sends them


Pope Francis of Rome—may God preserve him—was not saying anything new when he recently encouraged the rich in this world’s goods to help alleviate the poverty of the poor. Indeed, he was only repeating the teachings of the holy fathers, especially those ancient ones which are the inheritance of both Rome and the Patriarchates. But upon hearing the news, my first words were, ‘Telling the rich they should share their wealth with the poor is like telling a hungry wolf not to eat the sheep.’ I said this not cynically, I hope, but realizing suddenly how obeying this simple command, even when it is being attempted, is made nearly impossible because it is as overlaid with regulations and complicated as modern income tax law. Immediately a picture entered my mind.

There I am in the supermarket. I overhear a rather ragged, unkempt youngish forty-ish neo-hippie telling someone on his cell phone that he can’t get the groceries because… I didn’t hear exactly what the reason was, but he said ‘I think I have another idea,’ and then hangs up and disappears down the next aisle. I am sick with the flu and so I came to get a watermelon to eat to prevent dehydration (yes, it works!). After finding a few more items for the week’s lunches, I take my cargo to the checkout—only $21.22 for all that stuff? Wow!

My mind keeps going back to the man with the problem. Is he a poor man? I don’t know exactly, but he’s poorer than me. Is there any other excuse for me to not offer to help him? Is he a druggy? An alcoholic? I already know he’s an unwashed hippie. Does he have piercings or is he tattooed? I didn’t look that closely. Is he a homeless man? Maybe, but there are lots of poor people who sleep under a roof. All this flashes through my mind as I walk past the other checkouts on the way out. I ask myself, ‘Would I help him if he was the guy ahead of me in the line?’ I want to think I would, unless of course he was buying cigarettes or alcohol. There we go again, excuses to not help him!

As I pass the last checkout stands which are self-checkouts, there is the man himself putting his few items in a bag, and I think to myself, ‘Okay, something must have happened. He said he had an idea.’ At this point, I didn’t think from a brain insulated by my chief justice’s wig, and I am just happy that he seems to be able to get his stuff paid for. I chalk the incident up—yes, it was more than a mental picture; it was a real life happening—to a case of the Lord putting me on the spot, and then letting me off the hook. But I still wonder, would I offer to pay for his groceries if he was the guy ahead of me?

His Holiness is, I am sure, well aware of all this, that helping the poor needn’t begin with the rich—and I mean (pardon the expression, no offense meant) ‘the filthy rich’—but is the common responsibility of everyone. What Pope Francis is doing is just emphasizing to those at the top of the world’s pleasures that they have an opportunity that mustn’t be missed. Neither Christ, nor the pope, asks the rich if they believe in Him, or what their church affiliation is. Both just say, ‘Give!’ This is the teaching of Christ. This is the teaching of His holy apostles. This is the teaching of the holy fathers. This is the teaching that has established the world… Uh-oh! Maybe I’ve taken it a bit too far. But even Mother Teresa of Calcutta used to say that by helping the poor she was helping Christ in His distressing disguise. And Christ Himself, ‘whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do unto Me.’ Are we convinced yet?

As for myself, I know I am ninety per cent talk and ten per cent action, no better than most of us. Luckily I am simple-minded enough to feel obligated to help others in trouble when and if I can. I don’t go looking for them, but if God sends them…

He that seeks



Lord, have mercy!

Show us, heavenly, holy, divine Being who has adopted us and called us His sons, letting us call You ‘Father’, that we do not own our ‘Orthodoxy,’ but that it is a gift bestowed by You from on high, through the agency of none other than Your all-holy and life-creating Spirit.

Teach us that ‘Orthodoxy’ which existed with You before the world was, which is living with You in the unearthly Triad who has made Himself, and us, both earthly and divine, taking our humanity in pledge and bestowing on us who know no other god Your divinity and eternity.

Tear from us our illusions, O bright Morning Star, that we can include or exclude our brothers inside or out of the court of Your merciful Father, the Most-High King, by anything that we have made, and deliver us from the ‘Orthodoxy’ which only judges and condemns.

For there is no Church without You, O heavenly, holy, divine Triad, who dwells amidst the praises of the old and new Israels, veiled in the first, revealed in the last, no Bride without Bridegroom except the Unwedded who first mothered the Word, and now mothers us all.

Reveal to the brethren Your loving-kindness and Your mercy, in opening their hearts to all who seek You, and in welcoming all who come as scions of the holy, royal house and lineage of the Son of Man who, being God was not ashamed to associate with all, cleansing us all by His touch.

For You, O God without equal, without partner, Oneness beyond name or number who, in encompassing all, has made us equals and partnered with us in a marriage that defies heaven and earth, at which even bodiless powers are shocked, some in awe, some in envy.

Save us, O holy, happy, healthy, deathless, divine Being, by the name under heaven without which none can be saved, yet are saving all who seek You in the light and even in the dark, for by faith or doubt, Your lovers shall indeed reach You, through many tribulations.

Kingdom of the Father, true ‘Orthodoxy,’ the citizenship in which has been opened to all who come seeking divine favor by renouncing themselves, taking up Your Cross, O Son of God, and following You, yes, Lord of All, bestow on us, and on all, who seek You, for ‘he that seeks, shall find.’

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).
Hymn of Entry, pp. 97-99

“Remember who your teachers were…”

2 Timothy 3:14

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

In the guise of a woman

Can you believe that Christ the Saviour portrayed Himself in the guise of a woman in two of His parables? One is that of the woman who took three measures of flour and made dough. But first let us speak of the other one where the Lord tells us about the woman who had ten drachmas and lost one. These are the most mysterious of all the Saviour's parables. As the parable of the lost drachma is short, we quote it in full.

Or what woman, having ten drachmas, if she lose one, does not light a candle and sweep the house and look diligently till she finds it? And after she has found it, she calls in her friends and neighbors and says, Rejoice with me, for I have found the drachma that I lost.
Luke 15:8-9

At first glance this parable seems so simple, or even naive, that it does not impress the reader of the Gospel. In fact, however, the mystery of the universe is revealed in this simple parable.

If we take it literally, it evokes bewilderment. The woman lost only one drachma. Even ten drachmas do not represent a great sum; in fact, a woman who has only ten drachmas must be very poor indeed. Let us assume, first of all, that the finding of the lost drachma meant a great gain for her. Yet it still presents a paradox, for how is it that if she is such a poor woman she lights lamps, sweeps the house and calls in all her friends and neighbors to share her joy. And all because of one drachma! Such a waste of time—lighting a candle and setting the house in order first of all! Furthermore, if she invites her neighbors she is obliged, according to Eastern custom, to offer them something to eat and drink, no small expense for a poor woman. To fail to do so would be to ignore an unalterable custom.

Another important point to note is that she did not invite only one woman to whom she might have offered sweets, which would not have involved great expense. But she invited many friends and neighbors, and even if she entertained them modestly the expense would far exceed the value of the drachma she had found. Why then should she seek the drachma so diligently and rejoice at finding it, only to lose it again in another way? If we try to understand this parable in its literal sense, it does not fit into the frame of everyday life, but leaves the impression of something exaggerated and incomprehensible. So let us try to discover its mystical or hidden meaning. Who is the woman? And why is it a woman and not a man, when a man is more likely to lose money in the ordinary routine of life? Whose house is it that she sweeps and fills with light? Who are her friends and neighbors? If we look for the spiritual instead of the literal meaning of the parable we shall find the answers to those questions. The Lord said, Seek and ye shall find.

The woman represents Jesus Christ Himself, the Son of God. The ten drachmas are His. It is He Who has lost one of them and sets out to look for it. The drachmas are not coins of gold or silver. According to Orthodox theologians, the number ten represents fullness. The nine unlost drachmas are the nine orders of angels. The number of angels is beyond the grasp of mortals, for it exceeds our power of calculation. The lost drachma represents mankind in its entirety. Therefore Christ the Saviour came down from heaven to earth, to His house, and lit a candle, the light of the knowledge of Himself. He cleaned out the house—that is, He purified the world of diabolic impurity—and found the lost drachma, erring and lost humanity. Then He called his friends and neighbors (after His glorious Resurrection and Ascension), that is to say, all the countless hosts of the cherubim and seraphim, angels and archangels, and revealed to them His great joy. Rejoice with Me. I have found the lost drachma! That means: I have found men to fill the void in the Kingdom of Heaven, caused by the fall of the proud angels who apostasized from God. At the end of time the number of these found and saved souls will have grown to billions, or, in the language of Scripture, will be as countless as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore.

Our Lord described Himself as a woman because women are more careful than men in looking after property, in keeping the house in order and in receiving guests. If this short parable, which consists of only two sentences, is explained in this way, whose heart will not tremble? for it contains the whole tragedy of the world, visible and invisible. It explains why the Son of God came to earth. It sheds a bright ray of light on the history of mankind and the tragedy of each individual's existence. It confronts us with an urgent decision, because our life is swiftly passing—a decision as to whether we want to be the lost drachma found by Christ or not. Christ is looking for us. Are we going to hide from him, or let ourselves be found by Him before death hides us from Him, from the world and from life?

It is a vital question and it lies within our will to accept or reject Him. After death it will cease to be an open question, and then no one will expect an answer from us.

And again Jesus said, To what shall I compare the Kingdom of God? It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour till the whole was leavened.
Luke 13:20-21

This is another of Christ's mysterious parables that many find hard to understand. The actual theme taken from everyday life is simple and clear. From the earliest times housewives have been bakers; they take flour, put it in bowls, prepare leaven, knead the dough and bake it. It has been the daily task of the housewife in East and West for thousands of years. But it occurred to no one to take this simple work as a figure or symbol of the Kingdom of God. Only the Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom nothing was too simple or unimportant, took this familiar chore and used it to explain something stupendous and extraordinary. He could picture to Himself His own mother at work.

I will put the following questions to the reader of the Gospel. Why did Christ take woman as His example, instead of man, when men have been bakers throughout the centuries? And why the leaven, when unleavened bread was also commonly used? And why did the woman take three measures, and not one or two or four? Finally, what connection or similarity is there between the reign of God and the kitchen work of a housewife?

If these questions cannot be answered, how can we understand the parable? Yet to answer them without a spiritual key would only lead to further difficulties. All the parables deal with the superficial, but their real meaning lies deep down. They appeal to the eye and seem obvious enough, but they concern the spirit and the spiritual.

This parable has a twofold spiritual interpretation. The first has to do with the three principal races of mankind, the second with the three main faculties or powers of the human soul. In brief, what is outstanding and unusual in this parable is the historical and personal process of man's salvation.

After the Great Flood, there stemmed from the sons of Noah—Shem, Ham and Japheth—three races of mankind, the Semites, Hamites and Japhethites. These are the three measures of flour into which Christ puts His heavenly leaven—the Holy Spirit. That means He came as Messiah and Saviour to all the races and nations of mankind without exception.

Just as with leaven a woman can transform natural flour into bread, so Christ, through the Holy Spirit, transforms natural men into the children of God, into immortal inhabitants of the Heavenly Kingdom. That is why, according to Orthodox teaching, holy men are called earthly angels or heavenly men, because, being ‘leavened’ by the Holy Spirit, they are no longer common flour or unleavened biscuits that lie on the earth, but they are leavened bread that has risen.

According to the Bible, unleavened bread was the bread of slaves while leavened bread was for free men, God's children. So for that reason the Orthodox Church uses leavened bread at Holy Communion. The process of leavening began on that first Trinity Sunday or Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended from heaven onto the apostles. From that day forth this process has continued down to the present day, and it will continue till the end of time when all will be leavened. This, then, is the historical interpretation of the enigmatic parable about the woman baker.

The second interpretation is psychological and personal, and concerns the three main faculties or powers of the human soul: intellect, heart and will, or, in other words, the power to think, the power to feel and the power to act. These are the three unseen measures of the soul of the inner man. These three powers either remain totally unleavened, like the bread of slaves, or they are leavened with the leaven of malice and hypocrisy. Therefore, Christ told His disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees which is hypocrisy, because that is the worldly and human leaven, which weakens all the powers of the soul and leaves it crippled and sick.

But Christ the Saviour brought to earth a new leaven to raise the powers of the soul. Those who receive this new heavenly leaven through Baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity are called the sons and daughters of God, the heirs of the eternal Kingdom. They will not die, for even when they leave the body, they will be alive and will live for ever. This heavenly leaven fills them with the light of reason, the warmth of divine love and the glory of good works. All three powers of the soul grow together in harmony, and ascend to heaven, to perfection. As the Lord said, Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Woman has been taken as paragon and not man, and Christ has compared Himself to a woman baker, because woman as wife and mother prepares bread for the family in a loving manner, whereas the man baker bakes bread to sell for gain. Everything that Christ has done for mankind was done out of pure love, and therefore He compares Himself to a woman baker. This is the second interpretation, but both interpretations of this parable are correct. The historical and the psychological meaning derived from this simple parable is like a branching oak that grows out of an acorn, for it is truly majestic in its historical breadth and profound in its psychological depth.

Nikolaj Velimirović, Bishop of Ohrid and Žiča

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

Injustice

For some reason that perennial gripe, my sense of injustice, has me in its grip today. Usually I just witness it, or experience it, with apathy, knowing that in most cases I’m powerless to avert it, and discipleship to Christ forbids avenging it, so I try not to let my indignation rise as far as my throat.

Alas! today I backslid a bit and vented to a co-worker about an injustice I had to suffer, committed against me out of pure negligence, in other words, by accident. That kind seems hardest to shrug off. Malice I can deal with, but irresponsibility irks me. ‘Blessed are the merciful…’ restrained me.

Today, as almost always, the words of Jesus blocked me from confronting the perpetrator head on. No, really, I think it’s more likely that I let it go out of my own wretched arrogance, ‘He’s too stupid to do his job, and nothing I say or do would probably help him. Next time, I’ll do his job myself.’ Lord, have mercy!

Sometimes I wonder why most people, me included, have such a strong sensitivity to perceived injustice. We all know, it seems, what’s right and what’s wrong. This awareness of a moral standard, some say, is just herd instinct, a learned behavior. Others say, it’s innate, and proves the existence of a divine Being.

I don’t think we need to prove God’s existence by the presence of morality or any other intangible inside us, no matter how universal. I think He’s amply proved He’s there by the mere fact of the universe, and if that weren’t to go unnoticed, by a race of creatures, humanity, that watches it all, and wonders.

Even I am just a hair’s breadth this side of atheism, not because I’m not convinced by nature, or by the intangibles and invisibles that resolve everything there is, but because human nature astounds me, and makes it hard to believe in a God who creates and invests such a race, and leaves us to destroy ourselves.

Back to injustice, before my mental blink, my thought was in the thick of it. A hard day led me to remember a hard life, and that led me to thinking about a hard world. Injustice seems to be the rule here but—thank God—it’s not the ruler: He is. I’m still troubled, though. I want justice, but can’t have it.

There’s that persistent nag. I feel that injustice—not just against me, but all of it—should be redressed, even avenged. I call bible verses to mind, ‘I will bring them back from the bottom of the sea, for your feet to wade in blood’ (Psalm 68). Instead of being horrified by the punishment, I find myself gloating.

Meanwhile, I carefully sidestep injustices I’ve committed against others, afraid to face the fact that, if justice were to be done, I too could, might, no, would be among those against whom the prophetic sentence is pronounced, ‘for the tongues of your dogs to lap up their share of the enemy.’ God help us!

No, help me! But the injustice, Lord—forgive me! I keep going back to that!why do You allow it? Those others torture us, abuse us, buy and sell us, and You do nothing! Will You ever avenge us, tenfold, hundredfold? Will injustice ever be swallowed up in justice, in Your judgment of our oppressors?

Or will You treat them mercifully? Our wounded souls are tantalized by hopes of revenge, of getting even. Still, we cringe, not knowing if mercy might be shown them who, to us at least, never showed mercy, not knowing if our sufferings will merit just judgment, not knowing if we will be shown mercy.

O good and man-loving God! Whether we believe and confess You or not, it is how we have treated You in your distressing disguise, and not how others have treated us, that will even all things between us and those who oppress us, yes, even our enemies, mercy the measuring rod by which You judge all men.

‘What? Is God not just?’ ‘No, He is not. 
What would become of us if He were?’

Help us, O Lord, to forget every injustice done to us, but not to blind ourselves to injustice in the world. Grant us grace to be ‘instruments of Your peace,’ so that, shedding all malice and desire to avenge, we become agents of Your mercy. ‘How blessed are the peacemakers. God shall call them His sons.’

Originally written and posted, September 10, 2013.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Am I not in paradise now?

From Fr Stephen's blog, Glory to God for All Things

In Dostoevsky’s great last work, The Brothers Karamazov, the story is told of Markel, brother of the Elder Zossima. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, he is dying. In those last days he came to a renewed faith in God and a truly profound understanding of forgiveness. In a conversation with his mother she wonders how he can possibly be so joyful in so serious a stage of his illness. His response is illustrative of the heart of the Orthodox Christian life.

‘Mama,’ he replied to her, ‘do not weep, life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we don’t want to realize it, and if we did care to realize it, paradise would be established in all the world tomorrow.’ And we all wondered at his words, so strangely and so resolutely did he say this; we felt tender emotion and we wept….‘Dear mother, droplet of my blood,’ he said (at that time he had begun to use endearments of this kind, unexpected ones), ‘beloved droplet of my blood, joyful one, you must learn that of a truth each of us is guilty before all for everyone and everything. I do not know how to explain this to you, but I feel that it is so, to the point of torment. And how could we have lived all this time being angry with one another and knowing nothing of this?’ [He spoke even of being guilty before the birds and all creation]‘Yes,’ he said, ‘all around me there has been such divine glory: birds, trees, meadows, sky, and I alone have lived in disgrace, I alone have dishonored it all, completely ignoring its beauty and glory.’ ‘You take too many sins upon yourself,’ dear mother would say, weeping. ‘But dear mother, joy of my life. I am crying from joy, and not from grief; why, I myself want to be guilty before them, only I cannot explain it to you, for I do not know how to love them. Let me be culpable before all, and then all will forgive me, and that will be paradise. Am I not in paradise now?’

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Friday, May 9, 2014

Nothing else

Anything that can ever be said, written or thought about Jesus Christ by anyone except those who personally knew Him and walked with Him when He was alive as an earthman is going to be contradictable.

Let anyone contradict Thomas, ‘No, you didn't really see Him. You just imagined it,’ and likely as not (if I were him, anyway) Thomas would've let him have it. (Nicholas of Myra is said to have let Arius have it—he punched him—at Nicaea, for which he was expelled from the council—temporarily.)

But anyone can challenge me and my faith in and knowledge of Jesus Christ, and I can do nothing of the sort, only quietly insist that I know what I know, and that’s that.

Even I cannot base my beliefs about Jesus on any of His teachings or miracles, not even on His exact words quoted in the gospels, all of which could be forgeries and in fact are claimed to be by His enemies almost from day one.

In my case, what I base everything on is my intellectual and moral surrender to the fact of His literal resurrection and everything that follows from that, such as His ascension (where else could the body have gone?), and the unearthly behavior of the first generation of His disciples, by which they were able to convince the world of something the world would rather not know. Even reading Paul and the other apostles, though, does not convince me. Only Christ Himself convinces me, and only by His resurrection.

Yes, and all that follows from it, the ascension, and then pentecost, and then Christian history, all of which are either done or still happening, and then, only one more thing, His return to end the world as we know it.

That resurrection also rolls back to legitimatize all that flows out of it in reverse order, such as His birth of a virgin, and His conception through the Holy Spirit. Once these things are settled, the stage has been set, intellectually and morally, in me to accept everything else that is written about Him in the New Testament and prophesied of Him in the Old. But never, never could I have started out from there. Only the resurrection of Christ could convince me, because if it happened, it is the source of all meaning in the human, or any, universe.

What else makes my belief and knowledge of Christ (this knowledge is first, knowing Him, and second, knowing about Him, inseparable but distinct) invincible for me, that is, incontrovertible, is the proof that is to be had by putting the resurrection into practice.

Having accepted the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, totally on faith since I didn’t experience the fact of the resurrection, only the act, a new frame of reference is created inside me intellectually and morally, through whose prism I experience the world around me, and inside me, all that happens there, all I do there. This, however, is really no different than it is for any other believer in any other religion or god. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, even animists, all live within world views—frames of reference—that filter reality to fit their paths. So I cannot claim for my doing this any added authority. It works for me, so what?

So, in the end, all mental acrobatics and pugilism aside, the unprovable for me can be nothing other than the improbable for those who do not accept the resurrection of Christ, and even for those who say they do accept it, myself included, unless it is put into practice. Even for the believer it is no real proof, only, as their critics allege, a kind of crutch for the weak.

Yes, weak we are too, just as they say of us, when we do not practice the resurrection, living in it, putting it before us, behind us, beside us, above us and below us, walking with Christ, as Christ’s earthmen, surrounded by that same nimbus by which He in His resurrection is surrounded in the holy ikons.

He has gone, and is still going ahead of us, now no longer just the earthman people thought He was when He was with us in that body of death. He now goes ahead of us, behind us, to our right and left, above and below us, the God-Man that we know Him to be.

And it seems to me, you cannot know Him unless you walk with Him.

And you cannot walk with Him unless you believe, even know, that He is here, with us.

Apart from that, nothing else matters.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The poverty of God

The poverty of God. The poverty of God? What can this possibly mean? God is the richest, the wealthiest, the most abundant and powerful of all beings, creating all, owning all, sustaining all. He is the ground of being itself, ‘in Him we live and move and have our being.’ Yet I cannot escape this mystery, the poverty of God. We know from scripture and tradition that in Christ, God ‘came down from heaven,’ that He impoverished Himself to make us rich, He that is all righteousness ‘bent the heavens and came down’ to make us sinners righteous, to take away our shame, to remove our sin from us ‘as far as east is from the west.’ Yet, this is not the poverty of God that I meet in this moment of time I call ‘my life.’ This is still infinite wealth coming to the relief of finite poverty. Yes, infinity taking finity into itself, life taking death.

No, the poverty of God, who makes everything out of nothing, who does so much with so little, He wastes nothing, lets no opportunity slip by. ‘If you have seen me,’ says Jesus, ‘you have seen the Father.’ And we do see Him, whose life was passed in this world as unknown, inglorious, matter-of-fact, without fanfare, as the lives of the rest of us. He didn’t fraternize with the rich and famous and successful, not even with the ‘wise in their own eyes.’ The only time He came to the notice of the rich and powerful was when He was hauled in front of them to be condemned. Yet it isn’t as though He were a beggar. No, a beggar does nothing but beg, for whatever reason, unemployment, physical or mental handicap. No, He never begged His bread: He gave bread. In fact, He became bread. From five loaves He feeds the world.

Yes, He is very economical. He does so much with little. And where does He get it, that little with which He does so much? ‘How many loaves do you have? Go and see,’ He says, and when we do as He asks, that which we cannot supply, He supplies. Yet He doesn’t have any more than we have. All He has is His word, as He tells us, ‘Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.’ That is the poverty of God, the same who says, ‘Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.’ He keeps very close count of us, down to our very hairs, hoarding all and losing none, just as the poor man watches what little he has, to get the most for it. That is God’s economy too.

The imprint of the poverty of God is on all things, and especially on all flesh, our flesh, where we can see it. Science, the study of what He makes, can trace out the economy with which everything is made. We see the evolution of the natural world, the immensity of space and time, just short of infinity, and our own smallness, making us feel insignificant, yet we notice the same ‘waste not want not’ design everywhere we look. As soon as we think we have discovered what something is or does or is used for, we find yet another. Studying ourselves, our physical nature, this is especially true. How many functions each of our organs and attributes has! It’s as though whoever made us had to fit so many capabilities into so few structures. His architecture in us, in all things, is poverty not surplus, yet it results in wealth.

‘The devil is in the details’ we hear said, as we plough our mental fields to turn over the soil of ideas, as we do what we’re best at, following our Maker. Our sin, though, is to deviate from His poverty, as we waste our lives trying to move from glory to glory while we litter the world with the signs of our success. Always trying to be rich, we impoverish ourselves. Always seeking ease, we discover drudgery. Always pursuing excitement, we catch up with boredom. Our fields become infertile because we overuse them, seed falling on depleted soil. No, the devil is not in the details for Him as it is for us. Why? Because He never tries to be what He is not and thus does not make what cannot be. ‘The whole world was shining with brilliant light and, unhindered, went on with its work.’ Reality does not operate at a surplus.

Neither does God. As I look back over my life, I see how this ‘divine economy’ operates. He may be a poor God, but He is not a stingy one. He has never afflicted me with any insufficiency. He gives neither too little nor too much. He is never too late but also never too early. Where I would have preferred to have a safety net or a cushion against calamity, He has relegated me to relying on His mercy, which again is sufficient. He uses my weaknesses not only to benefit me, but even to benefit others. By giving me the freedom to choose, He makes best use even of my mistakes to save me, and others. Teaching me gently but persistently, He never abandons me even when I run away from Him. He is too poor to buy back my attention and my obedience, so He waits, ready to receive me, when my poverty twins His.

The poverty of God. Yes, this is a strange kind of poverty and a very strange God. He lives among the poor of the earth, demonstrating His teaching, ‘How happy are the poor in spirit; theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Happy the gentle: they shall have the earth for their heritage.’ His poverty is not a state of having or not having, whether power or possessions, but of being. It is a nakedness that does not need to be covered by fig leaves. He may cover our nakedness with His own skin, but again, because He is so poor, that is all He has. He does this, so that we can learn how to be just as poor as He is. ‘You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ This poverty of God, far from what we fear as poverty, is the fertile womb of worlds. All true wealth arises from it. All true wealth flows into it.

Yes, the poverty of God.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The unchanging change

What the [Church] Fathers require and give is the change which comes from the Spirit. If we want to approach them outside this reality, they will remain for us incomprehensible as writers, and scorned as persons.

Communication of the patristic word, the word of the Holy Fathers, is not a matter of applying their sayings to this or that topic with the help of a concordance. [The Kingdom of God is not a Talmud, nor is it a mechanical collection of scriptural or patristic quotations outside our being and our lives. ibid., p. 34.] It is a process whereby nourishment is taken up by living organisms, assimilated by them and turned into blood, life and strength. And, subsequently, it means passing on the joy and proclaiming the miracle through the very fact of being brought to life, an experience we apprehend in a way that defies doubt or discussion.

Thus the living patristic word is not conveyed mechanically, nor preserved archaeologically, nor approached through excursions into history. It is conveyed whole, full of life, as it passes from generation to generation through living organisms, altering them, creating “fathers” who make it their personal word, a new possession, a miracle, a wealth which increases as it is given away.

This is the unchanging change wrought by the power that changes corruption into incorruption. It is the motionless perpetual motion of the Word of God, and its ever-living immutability. Every day the Word seems different and new, and is the same. This is the mystery of life which has entered deep into our dead nature and raises it up from within, breaking the bars of Hell.

How beautiful it is for a man to become theology. Then whatever he does, and above all what he does spontaneously, since only what is spontaneous is true, bears witness and speaks of the fact that the Son and Word of God was incarnate, that He was made man through the Holy Spirit and the ever-virgin Mary. It speaks silently about the ineffable mysteries which have been revealed in the last times.


Hymn of Entry, pp. 35-36 passim

“Remember who your teachers were…”

2 Timothy 3:14