Sunday, July 31, 2016

Interpretations of love

There are so many interpretations of love among people.
One interpretation says…

We must love people, that is, want what is best for them,
have a good will toward them,
but we don't necessarily have to want to be with them,
or put up with them.

This is where many a marriage ends up, and many a congregation.
This is the love that can be commanded
and, once we've hedged the commandment with escape clauses,
we're free to follow this "commandment."

Though there are many kinds of love among us,
the Word of God is the only teacher of what love is.
How we apply it depends on how much we want to see.

For me, just to look, really look, at another human being,
or even at a fellow creature,
without thinking, without measuring, analyzing,
just looking,
for me love comes to the surface quickly.
I want to know the person I am looking at,
and spontaneously I want to love them.

Freedom intervenes to set the limits.
Does the other person want to be loved, or is it an intrusion?
Do I want to activate the love which naturally rises in me,
or will I let it die,
look the other way,
because I realise there will be a price to pay?

I hold myself "ready to love" others,
because Jesus may come to me in the guise of my brother.
I do not fret over whether I should or must love my neighbor
in an active way.
I just love the one who is put before me this moment.
If love requires action beyond that point,
I try to do whatever love demands.

The aftertaste of love is prayer, specifically intercession.

Mother Gavrilia says, "Love does not get tired."
I know what she means…

Once, when I was loving the brother whom God placed before us,
it didn't matter to me that I had to stay with him the whole day,
eating little, taking no rest, just making sure he was fed,
that he would stay awake (we were all up many hours that day!),
that he had somewhere to go while waiting for his bus connexion.
I just wasn't tired.
I could've stayed up all night with him, because I was loving him.

Love just doesn't get tired.

Have you ever noticed how
John 3:16
(the often quoted scripture)
and 1 John 3:16
really go together,
and how the 3:16 in John's first letter is really a completion
and commentary of the 3:16 in John's gospel?

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Rubrics of salvation

Believers, no less than Pharisees, have been known to shut the doors of the Kingdom of Heaven in men’s faces, while not going in themselves.

They do this by citing the sayings of Jesus or the apostles which are expressed to define boundaries, but they apply them as unjust judges, themselves not keeping the Law.

Quick to exclude others on the slightest pretext—whether moral or doctrinal it does not matter—applying to others what they do not apply to themselves.

If the apostle writes, ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’ (Romans 10:13), they agree provisionally, which means not at all, and then cite other verses to qualify it.

If the Lord says, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die’ (John 10:25), again, they rush to qualify Christ’s words, to fit their rubrics:

‘No one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit’ (John 3:5), they quote, as if to pull out a trump card, changing Christ’s invitation into a stipulation.

But consider, salvation is nothing less or more than returning to our Father, we who have strayed. It is no more nor less than turning around, repenting, and accepting God’s mercy and pardon.

Over and beyond our return to Him, God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—imposes no other conditions, erects no other barriers between Himself and us.

Our sin covers us when we depart from Him, so we cannot see the road back. But His mercy also covers us when we accept it, and it hides our sins from us, and from Him.

Rubrics may be written well when they assist our return to God, but they are ‘lies from the pit of hell’ when they nullify our attempts to return by imposing restrictions.

‘For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life’ (John 3:16).

These are the rubrics of salvation, which even one for whom all is lost, even life itself, can take hold of, by confessing, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’

For Jesus answers, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:42-43).

In His arms

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

The fast of Christ’s holy Mother’s repose draws near, reminding us that we must prepare, we must repent of the sin which clings so closely, that we may, like her, be received in His arms and carried as a newborn infant to Paradise. For all that Christ did for her He has promised to do for His disciples and lovers, whom He declares to be His very own relations, saying, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice” (Luke 8:21). Let’s not only hear His words, but do what He commands and so stay near Him, following behind Him closely. Christ goes on before, clearing the path ahead endlessly, preparing a place for His disciples. Have mercy on me, Lord, and let me be counted among them, even as the least.

Some words, brethren, to start us on the path of illumination which has only one destination, the holy death which is life immortal. First, a word on prayer…

Bishop Theophan the Recluse used to say that praying only with words written by another is like trying to talk in a foreign language using only textbook dialogues. Like many other Church fathers, he said that we must look for our own words in order to pray. I suppose that this is truly possible for us (if we dismiss artificially “invented” prayers of our own) only in moments of desperate need, real anguish, either for ourselves or for others. In such moments we do not “recite” prayers, we simply cry out to God, “Lord, please come to him and comfort him!” The audacity of prayer is born only in the audacity of love. Saint Makarios said, “Love gives birth to prayer.” Therein lies the mystery and the meaning of prayer.

We can recite endless litanies, we can endlessly finger our prayer ropes, but unless we have love, unless we have learned to grieve for others, we have not even begun to pray. We can thus go through all our life without having begun to pray. That’s why Abba Antony said, “Let’s learn to love sorrow in order to find God!” He did not say, “Let’s look for sorrow,” but “Let’s love it,” because sorrow is a cup offered us by Christ, and drinking it, we begin to partake of prayer.

Unless we are truly sympathetic to human suffering, we are merely carrying out a “prayer rule,” not really praying. To carry out a prayer rule is good and necessary, but only when we realise it is a means, not an end in itself. We must realise that it is only a spur to encourage our efforts.

Imagine a man peacefully fishing from the shore. Everything is fine, everything is according to fishing rules, the brightly colored float bobs on the surface. The man does not realise that there is no baited hook attached to the line. The float is just a pretence, and actually there is no fishing taking place. To many people their prayer rule is such a baitless float. Only the hook of suffering can catch real love.

And now, just a few more words, this time on fasting…

Fasting means trying to overcome that which is “too human” in us. It means trying to overcome the limitations of our nature and to introduce it to limitlessness, to make it breathe eternity.

Fasting must be understood, in the first place, as abstention from non-love, not from butter. Then it will become a time of light, a “joyous time of Lent.”

Non-love, animosity, is the most terrible form of indulgence, a gluttony and intoxication with the self. It is the very first, the original offense against the Holy Spirit of God. “I appeal to you by the love of the Holy Spirit,” writes Saint Paul (Romans 15:30).

Love is the opposite of pride and hatred. In our evening prayers, we ask forgiveness for those sins which are a breach of love.
…if I have reproached anyone, or become angered by something; or slandered anyone in my anger; or have lied or slept unnecessarily; or a beggar has come to me and I have despised him; or have saddened my brother and quarreled with him; or have judged someone or have allowed myself to be haughty, proud or angry …or have laughed at my brother’s sin…
It seems to me that I have been found out. It’s all written down in the prayer book, all the things I’ve done! And before I was halfway through the prayer, my internal advocate was already reasoning my defense, making excuses for me. Why is that advocate so silent in me when it comes to defending others and overlooking their sins, not just my own?

Lest this post devolve into an academic exercise, I want to bring it to a close by returning to the theme of the time we are about to enter.

Someone is coming for us. Someone who loves us more than our parents, our spouses, our kids, our friends. Someone is coming for us and in His arms we will be gently carried into the land of all joy, into Paradise. Actually, in His arms we find Paradise, because it is all in Him. The New Adam is Paradise, and just as His earthly Mother was made all-holy by being His chosen dwelling-place, so each of us is transfigured to the degree we let Him live in us while we live in this world. And as her repose prefigures the rapture of all who “will be taken up in the clouds,” we can look forward with confidence to our own repose, because like her “we shall stay with the Lord forever”
(1 Thessalonians 4:17).

With such thoughts as these you should comfort one another.
1 Thessalonians 4:18 Jerusalem Bible

Ωστε παρακαλειτε αλλήλους εν τοις λόγοις τούτοις.

New and old

In our Christian life we have to strike a balance between following the tradition and creating it. Those who only follow tradition stifle the Spirit in them, pruning the buds and never harvesting the fruit. Those who only create tradition, uproot the tree altogether. But to follow tradition as well as create it is to be the ‘tree that is planted by water streams, yielding its fruit in season, its leaves never fading’ (Psalm 1:3). This is what Christ expects of us, what indeed happens to us as we follow Him. We are transformed into the steward ‘who brings out from his storeroom things both new and old’ (Matthew 13:32).

A Christian brother wrote, ‘Many years ago I was at a symposium on “Youth and the Church,” and a sociology professor had been asked to speak. He said that the church could play an important role in helping youth to adjust to the demands and values and mores of society. I asked him what if society’s values were wrong, and the youth were revolting against them. He got very emphatic, and said “Youth must adjust!” I almost expected him to throw up his right arm in a Nazi salute.’

I hope the professor's emphatic response was just a careless enthusiasm for his own ideas (such it often is), and that he did not intend to circumscribe so closely the idealism of youth. This is, unfortunately, how some in the Church feel, that youth (indeed anyone) must ‘adjust to the demands and values and mores of society.’ By this, of course, they mean the status quo of churchly life. These same people are adamant that one must consult one’s ‘spiritual father’ in everything, before making a single move in one’s life. For them, an act, even a thought, done without
‘authorization’ is at best foolish and at worst brazen pride. The independent spirit, to them, is pure sin. But I don’t think so.

Christ does not turn us into robots. He did not come to destroy tradition, but He frees us from its stranglehold. He calls us to follow Him, but that call always includes our free will and implies the right use of it—something that requires independence. If His call and our following does anything, it transforms us into creatures capable of, and desirous of, living for ever with Him. It charges us with an independence of spirit that even angels do not share.

Only the independent spirit can undo its will and enter into the life of the Holy Triad, where three wills are one will from eternity, without confusion, without disorder, but in total freedom. Often what shows as a submissive will is a mercenary subservience, brazen pride concealed under an outward humility in order to reign in splendor.

The Holy Tradition is the life of the Holy Triad as lived by the Church throughout the ages, and every cell in the Body of Christ is both nourished by it and nourishes it, every father is a son, every son a father, and like its outward sign, an Orthodox temple, the walls once white and empty fill up with ikons, generation after generation. To follow tradition as well as create it is to be the ‘tree that is planted by water streams, yielding its fruit in season, its leaves never fading’ (Psalm 1:3), and we can ‘know the tree by its fruit’ (Matthew 7:16).

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

If Heaven doesn't do it first

A year and a week ago today appeared a transcript of an address delivered by the junior United States Senator from Oklahoma, James Lankford, regarding Planned Parenthood and abortion. The subject is very brittle in almost everyone’s mind. Either they are ‘for abortion’, or for ‘a woman’s right to choose’, or something like that, or they are against it, being labeled ‘pro-Life’ or other equivalent terms.

I haven’t seen anything from the ‘pro-Life’ group that calls those on the other side of the fence ‘murderers’ or other emotionally charged names, but I’m sure such epithets have been vaulted over the net. As for those who support abortion on demand (within current legal limitations, of course), well, what can I say? After commenting on the Senator’s address in a public forum, it wasn’t long before I read myself being called a whole series of expletives starting with the mild one ‘red neck’ and culminating in the names of body parts not normally exposed to the public, strengthened by generous use of the ‘f’ word.

Naturally, I rejoiced in being thus vilified, and so I gave the comment that trashed me a ‘+1’ as a way of showing my detractor how much I appreciated his abuse. Unfortunately, the moderator deleted both his comment and my +1, leaving me quite crestfallen. Why can’t people just let me suffer the insults and outrages I deserve?

Seriously, I do not broadcast or readily admit to my position on moral and political questions, unless asked directly and unpolemically. I don’t see any reason to involve myself in arguments, since people are rarely converted to their opponent’s views by this method. I don’t correct others either, or at least try not to, but ‘nobody’s perfect,’ and when I apply this saying to myself, I couldn’t be more certain of its truth. I also don’t join the bandwagon or the crusade to ‘rid America’ of social evils.

I know my opinions don’t matter, and since I’m unwilling to lay my life on the line in a battle that I don’t believe can be won that way, and since I’m a stay-at-home, ‘armchair’ philosopher, I don’t feel qualified to waste time on mere banter, even though I am originally from Chicago.

Also, I am not a woman and can’t have babies (though I helped ‘make’ four sons), so I don’t criticize or judge women whether they keep them or lose them, but I do think morality has absolutes, even though I cannot apply them to anyone but myself. Hence my comment on the issue which drew down upon me the wrath of John Doe (not his real name) defending his Daisy’s right to flush out her uterus because baby-making is so inconvenient. Here’s what I wrote.

The greatest ‘legal’ calamity to befall this nation (USA) is not the recent ‘marriage equality’ ruling, but the continued holocaust of the unborn, whose civil rights as human beings (not to mention their lives) are sacrificed to ‘woman’s reproductive rights.’ There is no such thing as ‘woman’s reproductive rights’, only a woman’s choice to submit to sexual intercourse or not. Once she gives herself in this way, if another life begins inside her, she has temporarily forfeited her rights to her own body, just as she did when she engaged in the sex act, only for nine months instead of for fifteen minutes.

Reason itself, let alone morality (the human conscience burns when it submits to child-murder) condemns infanticide, whether in the womb or outside of it. Our society could stop it in a week by simply shutting down in massive civil disobedience. If even a quarter of our people simply stayed home and refused to go to their jobs or school or whatever until an executive order either has eighty million people of all ages arrested and jailed, or delivers our objective—banning all abortions not directly related to the life of either mother or child—the national crime could be stopped in a week to ten days.

No amount of talking is going to purge us of this sin. No amount of violent action will save us either. Only courage to nail ourselves to a communal cross has a chance to do this. Such a massive act of civil disobedience could have stopped many massive evils in history. We could still do it. When will we take our place in history? Because if we don’t, nature itself will scour us off the earth, if Heaven doesn’t do it first.

End of comment.

I believe morality exists. I believe it is diamond hard and bright. I believe that we can bury it only to become poorer. I believe in a God whose nature is to love, and that we, made in Their image, are able to experience and participate in love at our level and scale. I believe that God is not ‘out there to get us,’ or any other such obnoxious nonsense, and that Their will is so deeply and absolutely against death, that They came among us and joined Their Divine Nature to our human nature in such a way that we no longer have an excuse to behave like irrational animals. Morality is our nature as much as it is God’s, and we know that life wins, that life ‘will find a way.’ Even an infant being aborted fights to live according to its capacity. Everyone knows the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not murder,’ even when we disobey it.

I think that there are far fewer things that are sinful than our religious instructors would have us believe. I think that they are often protecting us, because we act like children. But some of us don’t stay children. We grow up, and we can follow Father and approach Him face to face. We still love Mother, but she’s done making our case for us, wheedling favors and permissions from Father on our behalf. Now it’s our turn to follow Father and do what we’ve seen Him doing all our lives, all around us—that is, if we’ve watched.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights may offend some people, religious or irreligious. They may think it goes too far. I say it doesn’t go far enough, and that Christ among us will push it further than we can or maybe want to. The same people who call Christ ‘the Revolutionary’ are to be found sitting with the unrighteous in the judgment seat reserved for Them alone who are both Worthy (Axios) and Holy (Agios).

There really are human rights that are inalienable because God’s sovereignty is inalienable, who said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image.’

The first right is that which was bestowed by the Creator, and that is life. That right is what has been denied to some millions of human beings recently in our country, and to billions in human history, by law, by lawlessness, never by right, for there is no such right.

Yes, civil disobedience, what I suggested in my short comment, works when applied correctly. Gandhi was right. Yes, because Jesus was right. ‘Offer the evil man no resistance.’ It sent the British packing. They quit India. One cannot say ‘what would have happened’ if it had been applied to Hitler. It hardly seems the way to overcome the Islamic Caliphate, but who knows? Or the caliphate of misanthropic, false feminism—May we find the way! Or as I humbly warned, ‘nature itself will scour us off the earth, if Heaven doesn’t do it first.’

Tossing golden crowns

A Christian must not be fanatic; he must have love for and be sensitive towards all people. Those who inconsiderately toss out comments, even if they are true, can cause harm.

I once met a theologian who was extremely pious, but who had the habit of speaking to the (secular) people around him in a very blunt manner; his method penetrated so deeply that it shook them very severely. He told me once: “During a gathering, I said such and such a thing to a lady.” But the way that he said it, crushed her. “Look”, I said to him, “you may be tossing golden crowns studded with diamonds to other people, but the way that you throw them can smash heads, not only the sensitive ones, but the sound ones also.”

Let’s not stone our fellow-man in a so-called “Christian manner.” The person who – in the presence of others – checks someone for having sinned (or speaks in an impassioned manner about a certain person), is not moved by the Spirit of God; he is moved by another spirit.

The way of the Church is LOVE; it differs from the way of the legalists. The Church sees everything with tolerance and seeks to help each person, whatever he may have done, however sinful he may be.

I have observed a peculiar kind of logic in certain pious people. Their piety is a good thing, and their predisposition for good is also a good thing; however, a certain spiritual discernment and amplitude is required so that their piety is not accompanied by narrow-mindedness or strong-headedness. Someone who is truly in a spiritual state must possess and exemplify spiritual discernment; otherwise he will forever remain attached to the “letter of the Law”, and the letter of the Law can be quite deadly.

A truly humble person never behaves like a teacher; he will listen, and, whenever his opinion is requested, he responds humbly. In other words, he replies like a student. He who believes that he is capable of correcting others is filled with egotism.

A person that begins to do something with a good intention and eventually reaches an extreme point, lacks true discernment. His actions exemplify a latent type of egotism that is hidden beneath this behavior; he is unaware of it, because he does not know himself that well, which is why he goes to extremes.


Many of the ideas touched upon in my post ‘God’ are developed in greater detail here. This was originally written and published on March 4, 2014.

Factual and actual

Scientists study the factual patterns observable in the natural universe, and the results are called ‘science.’ Theologians study the actual patterns observable in the human universe, and the results are called ‘theology.’ Until relatively recently, one could be both a scientist and a theologian without being forced to be one or the other. The experience of reality was not yet an either/or proposition. One knew instinctively that One was behind all the observable phenomena in all universes. Science was the growing body of knowledge about what God makes (the facts). Theology was the growing body of knowledge about what God does (the acts). The patterns discovered and rationally organized in both disciplines were found to be so consistent and reliable, that if one were a scientist or a theologian of some experience, one could instantly tell when a hoax or fable were being foisted on you. Even though science and religion have now officially parted ways, the real scientists know when pseudo-science is happening (homeopathic ‘medicine’ for example), and the real theologians know when pseudo-theology is happening (Mormon ‘revelation’ for example). In the case of the agnostic scientist, ‘Nature just doesn’t work that way.’ In the case of the theologian, ‘God just doesn’t act that way.’

Observable patterns

There are many patterns observable in the human universe. All of them stem from human nature itself. Theology, then, is as much the study of man as it is the study of God. You might also say, theology as a discipline is the study of God in man, and of man in God. Whereas the scientist uses a lot of apparatus and all the materials and forces of the natural universe to discover the patterns and understand them, the theologian’s tool kit is much simpler: the apparatus is a human life—his own—and the raw ‘materials’ to be analyzed are the events of his life, and what is observable in the life, that is, the history, of the human race. Both the scientist and the theologian start small, and work toward the large, first microcosm, then macrocosm. Even the way both carry out their respective labors is an observable pattern, and very much alike.

‘Change’ and ‘squeeze’

Now, having laid out in brief the frames of reference that I use in defining science and theology, I want to apply them to just one of the patterns inherent in both science and theology. I don’t know exactly what to call this pattern, and the choice of terms is really quite arbitrary and depends on the angle from which one is observing the pattern. The word that comes to mind most often is ‘squeeze.’ This pattern is a subset of a larger pattern that can be called ‘change.’ It seems to be one of the ways in which change occurs. I may uncover a few other patterns along the way.

Origins, of a human, and of a universe

Let’s start with the human being, the individual. Where do we come from? Well, we all know we start out not as a single entity but as two, originating from separate and different beings. We don’t exist just prior to our origin on the physical level. There is an egg, and there is a sperm cell, a physical pattern replicating a metaphysical one, there is matter, and there is spirit. We don’t exist until the two ‘seed halves’ are united, at which point we come into being as a singularity, without personality, consciousness, or sensation. Yet, we are at that instant ‘human.’ A process begins and a new universe unfolds, just as real and potentially infinite as the natural universe, the cosmos, which resulted from a singularity that was jump-started in ‘the Big Bang.’ This change from two living cells into a singularity which is now a human being may be a first example of the pattern I call ‘squeeze’ or it may not. I can’t tell because I can’t see that small.

Expansion from a singularity

Staying with that singularity, a human being in the first stage of metamorphosis, the fertilized egg, soon to be renamed an embryo, we find patterns of change—we can specify them as ‘development’—cascading faster than we can see, as the embryo becomes a fetus full of organs and systems of increasing complexity and interdependence. Turning our view for a moment to the cosmos, the scientist starts telling us all the wonders of the early universe, how stars and galaxies and planets were formed, and how the size of the creation grows exponentially. Back to the patterns of human gestation, the ‘being knitted together in the limbo of the womb’ as the psalmist sings it, we are not to the pattern I call ‘squeeze’ yet. No, we’re in a pattern of rest, of growth, of comfort really. A baby is being formed and is gradually becoming more than a living cell city. It already has functioning organs, a heart, a brain, eyes, and those tiny fingers and toes. It has sensations. It can feel but doesn’t know itself. Sensation—that is mostly what it ‘knows’ itself to be. Yes, by this time it is already a ‘he’ or a ‘she’ physically, but it won’t recognize that till much later, not until it has undergone many ‘squeezes,’ and it hasn’t even undergone the first one yet.

The initial squeeze

After about nine months, a physically fully formed human is now ready to be ‘decanted,’ and the comfortable, safe, anonymous existence of the egg-sperm, embryo, fetus, baby has to come to an end. There is no choice at this point. Once existence of any kind has begun, there is no turning back without shedding existence itself. The forward movement into the flow of time must continue. Through a physical construct known as ‘the birth canal’ the baby must now be ‘squeezed.’ If it had a vocabulary of words its thoughts could be verbal, but just because it still doesn’t know what language is doesn’t mean it has not got a personality or thoughts and feelings. No, it has all three. Where and when did these come from? Well, there’s still too many patterns to analyze for even the scientists to know the answers to most of these questions, and to the theologian, those patterns simply provide the basis for further, more meaningful patterns.

Pre-verbal script

Putting words to the thought-feelings of the baby who has just noticed that his warm, watery berth has just vanished, ‘Yikes! What’s happening? Ow! Stop pushing me! Stop squeezing me! Why is everything feeling so tight? Help! I can’t move my flippers! Where am I going? I can’t take this pressure much longer! I can’t sleep! Why can’t I move anymore? Ow! Something rough just grabbed me! It hurts! Ow! Oh my gosh! This must be the end! I can’t take it anymore! Oh, oh, oh! Oh… oh, wah, waaah! Where am I? But it feels so wide! Hey, what’s that weird sensation coming through? Hey, what am I doing? In and out, in and out! Ouch! Something cut me! Oh, why was I ever born? What did I just say? What is the meaning of all this?’

‘Squeeze’ as a gateway not to death but to life

The squeeze was terrifying and harsh to the little creature. He had been comfortable and satisfied to stay that way forever. Then, ‘something moved,’ and he found himself being carried along in the flow into a crevasse that just kept getting narrower, and he knew he couldn’t take it much longer, though he didn’t know what the alternative would be. We know, of course: he might’ve died, as many infants do in child birth. But his chances were pretty good in most cases. After enduring the unendurable ‘squeeze’ which he’d rather die (if he knew what death was) than have to go through, he was ‘out,’ and very quickly and unself-consciously began making adjustments to his new environment. All this, without thinking, without reasoning. Again, not that he has no thoughts—he has plenty—but language hasn’t revealed itself to him. He is only just becoming aware of a new reality—himself. Without choosing it, he has been born and is becoming a personality. All this involuntarily and, for some time to come, irrationally. The ‘squeeze’ has come and gone. He has passed from one world to another, and though his body is a continuous experience, his soul is now at the threshold of spiritual life.

‘Squeeze’ as a basic pattern of life

The pattern I’ve chosen to call ‘squeeze’ is one that occurs over and over again as we humans (as well as other life forms) live and grow. In both individual experience and social, we feel the squeeze, making us uncomfortable and ‘forcing us out’ from wherever we found ourselves ‘finally happy and comfortable.’ From a Christian’s point of view, sometimes it may seem that God is on the lookout to make sure none of us ever has a rest or time to just get comfy and have a little fun. We work so hard to please Him and then before we can look back with justifiable pride, He squeezes us out, gets us all disoriented again. How often have we asked ourselves in desperation, ‘Why me?’

Squeezed is the way to go

Squeezed out of kindergarten (no more nap time!). Squeezed out of sixth grade (how I hated middle school at first!). Squeezed out of the circle of my childhood friends (why did we have to move?). Squeezed out of High School (that, I must say, actually felt good!). Squeezed out of college (who needs a degree anyway?). Squeezed out of my first real job (I wasn’t meant to build steel office chairs!). Squeezed out of my first and only commune (I was tired of vegetarianism anyway!). Squeezed out of my life as a dairy farmer’s only hired man (free milk is all I missed). Squeezed out of living in Canada’s subarctic (yes, Auntie Em, there’s no place like home!). Squeezed out of being a cabinetmaker (upstairs to be a designer, or there’s the door!). Squeezed out of being a general manager (no explanation, we just don’t want you!). Yes, the squeezes just keep coming in my life, but as I get closer to the present, I’d rather not recount them. I’m still smarting a bit from the last few. They seem to have gotten worse, but after being dumped, I must admit, I do feel a lot better!

The pattern written everywhere

Not only this pattern of ‘squeeze’ which I’ve taken such pains to explore with you, but all of the patterns we find giving structure, form and meaning to our individual and social lives, and to the natural world, are so pervasive and so reliable, that we take them for granted, and often, because we fail to recognize them, we suffer unnecessarily. Hence the twin pursuits of science and theology, both of which are open to the seeking mind. All these words I used to explain these realities to myself in your hearing pale in significance and are shamed into obscurity by the light that still shines in the Great Book and the Little Book, in the Universe God made, and in the Book of His mighty deeds. The same eternal and divine Logos, the Son of the Father in Holy Triad with the Spirit, has imprinted Himself on everything and everyone whether great or small, seen or unseen, animate or inanimate, for every mind to perceive.

Though ye believe not me, believe the works: that ye may know, and believe, that the Father is in me, and I in him.
John 10:38


God. God is. This is an irrefutable truth, one that does not need to be proven verbally or critically. It is the self-evident in which all other truth, self-evident or deduced, is grounded. That I am sitting here writing these words, that you are there reading them, that something in my mind is speaking to something in yours, that we breathe, and move, and have our being, these are the unspoken, the unneedful of being spoken, evidences of the self-evident, the witnesses, yes, even the eye witnesses, of the Being. That’s why we see written on one halo, and one halo only, the letters Ο, Ω, Ν—omicron, omega, ni—‘ho Ōn’—‘the Being.’ But this is not going to be a Greek lesson.

God. God is. Something in us, in all of us, instinctively knows this, knows this long before we ever mount the steps leading to human speech. This is not belief, this is knowledge. It begins in us at least while we are being born, while we are passing through a physical impasse called the birth canal. All our senses, as yet unexposed to air and light, only felt the nearness of annihilation, as they were pushed and pressed in the contortion that ends fetal life. Then suddenly—they were out!—and not only out, but received, accepted, coddled by human hands, without knowing that they were hands, but knowing for certain that whatever they were, they are. For that newborn, there is God. God is.

Still, long before speech invests the tiny brain, though it is heard all around and gradually distinguished from other sounds in the new, undark and unquiet universe, the senses grapple and touch, not the world, but God. For them, not quite yet an individual, still a body full of sensations, not yet an ‘I’ or ‘me,’ the ‘other’ is truly there, is only there, is all there is, that ‘other’ which later, when we emerge as people, we call ‘God,’ or at least ‘the Other.’ The universe is still, not a place, but a unified experience of one by another, its existence unquestioned, dependence on it self-evident, the source and fountainhead of all we call ‘belief in God’ when we later learn how to convert reality to words.

God. God is. Like the universe itself, here before we come into being, here after our personal being ends, yet somehow not dropping us at the end, because holding us at the beginning. Certainty of the one urges certainty of the other. This is why the human race, by and large and if left to itself, believes in God, and not in God as a mere force or entity or power, but as a person. Moderns who say they believe in God, but not in a personal God, say this for many reasons, none of which are grounded in reality. Perhaps some want to escape the reality of moral choice, that there is a real right and a real wrong, which even a baby knows by what we call instinct. Others find other reasons.

‘God is at least a Person’ is a saying I learned in my Christian training, but I didn’t really have to be taught that from the outside. My teacher was preaching to the choir. Of course God is a person! If you trip and fall, a chair nearby is never going to catch you on its own, but if you’re walking beside another, that person will try hard to catch you, or at least to break your fall. In college, we did a psychological experiment to entrench trust. We would stand up, and then taking no precautions, let ourselves fall straight back to the floor. Behind us, a fellow student was standing to catch us, so we did not hit the floor or hurt ourselves. That was my first encounter with the meaning of faith.

Because faith is trust. Faith is not intellectual assent to an idea. That can be or become very impersonal and, in that way, verge on fantasy, thinking we believe in God, when we only believe in our ideas about God. But God is, and there is only one possible response to God, call it what you will—faith, trust, even knowledge: none of them quite hits the mark. It is in this gray, seemingly rational but actually irrational arena of thought, that atheism arises in some people. No one can be an atheist in the state of nature, that is, as a raw human, as that newborn babe that knows God in a growing sequence of manifestations: hands holding, then breasts feeding, then parents providing and protecting.

I don’t fault most atheists, because if I thought God were what they think He is, I’d be an atheist too. Remember, one of the charges brought against the early Christians by the Roman authorities, was the charge of atheism. From the Roman point of view, they controlled who or what God was or is supposed to be. From the Christian point of view, God was, is, and will be forever uncontrollable, He is the wild in wilderness, untamable except by love, to which He gladly gives Himself to His lovers, uncatchable by any other net, not a thing to be used, but a person to be loved, and He, being a person, being The Person, makes those who love Him into persons too, into real people, into what He is.

God. God is. Can we see yet how He can be One and yet be many? How One yet at least Three? Can we see yet how He can be unchanging, yet how we can see Him change? How we cannot grasp Him, yet He shows Himself to us gradually, from our moment of birth (perhaps even earlier) to our last moment? How what He is quickly becomes who He is, or at least as quickly as we ourselves grow from fetus, to babe, to toddler, to child, to youth, to man or woman, to father or mother, to that one lying near life’s end in peace, safety and love, knowing, as King David does when he sings in psalm 59, ‘The God who loves me is coming’? How what He is, is finally what we become?

God. God is. He is not very far from us, from you or me. He has never been far. Scriptures tell us such things, and if we are devout we believe them. Then, there is that story which is no mere myth, about the Man who says that He and the Father are One, that before Abraham was He is, the Man who asks us, ‘Which is easier, to say to this cripple, Your sins are forgiven, or, Pick up your mat and walk?’ the Man who says, ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life,’ and then asks us, you and me, ‘Do you believe this?’ Yes, anyone could have said such things, could have squeezed belief out of us, but that He does not do. No, He descends to each of us, and beckons, ‘Trust me,’ and then raises us.

God. God is. I am saying this just one more time. It really didn’t need to be said, not to me, not to most of us. This has always been a given. It is truth beyond name and number. He is beyond name and number, yet He calls Himself ‘I am,’ He names Himself ‘Yahweh’ in Hebrew, ‘The Being’ in Greek, and He says that He is One, yet He says ‘Let Us make man in Our image,’ and then tells that man, tells us, ‘I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God’ (Epiphanios of Cyprus). Yes, He in truth has become as we are, has become one of us, has appeared as us, and is now with us till the end of time.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Only one conversion

People get ‘converted’ to many things over the course of their lives. ‘Converted’ means, of course, ‘changed,’ but ironically many conversions do not actually change the people who make them. In many cases, a convert is actually a revert. They were involved in projecting an identity that was never really theirs, maybe foisted on them in childhood or because of their social class, and they finally have the courage or the realization to abandon it, and be who they always knew they were, but couldn’t tell.

Many types of conversions don’t get the name, but they’re conversions of a sort anyway. They are deliberate choices to change from one state to another. No, I don’t mean ‘state’ as in changing states, moving from Oregon to Washington, for example—though it can be argued that moving across the river from Portland to Vancouver USA amounts to a case of real conversion. No, I mean changing from the state of being, say, a Republican to being a Democrat—possibly, but not always, just a label change.

In America, political affiliations can be very absolute, part of one’s family history, and so a political party conversion can be devastating to some of those who experience it. Much more devastating can be religious conversions, changing from, say, a Baptist to an Episcopalian, something that probably almost never happens, except through marriage, and it has to be a very lukewarm Baptist to sink so low—or was it the Episcopalian who was lukewarm or lack-a-daisical enough to be willing to lose their dignity?

Meaning no offense to either religious affiliation, I simply observe that most Baptists abhor the broadness of the Episcopalian, and the Episcopalian shrinks from contamination by associating with ‘bible-believing’ (which means, fundamentalist) Baptists. For one of each to fall in love and marry, and then sort out the religious affiliations successfully and without injury, must be regarded as a true miracle. It is truly a case of ‘Love wins,’ the slogan of the successful spreading of marriage to gays and lesbians.

But the religious conversions, that is what always bothers me. When it’s for marriage, for love, I don’t have a problem. We all know what’s going on. As an Orthodox Christian, I expect anyone who marries into my family to become (at least nominally) Orthodox. This is a function of maintaining a family in smooth running order. We don’t care what you really believe. Just come to church with us on occasion. Do your best. What you can’t, or won’t, do, don’t worry. God is merciful. He’ll do the rest.

But when people convert to Orthodoxy, I am always suspicious. What was so wrong with where they came from that made them choose ‘the better part’? Are they simply following Mary of Bethany’s example, sitting at the feet of Christ to listen to, and absorb, the Savior’s every word? Hardly. They think they have found the better way, and being ambitious to have the best, to be able to piously pity those not so enlightened as oneself to choose the secure haven of Orthodoxy, that is what is important.

No, not to all who convert, but perhaps, at least to the unthinking few. May Christ reduce their numbers! Because it is not Orthodoxy to which one converts, though people may talk that way. Conversion to Orthodoxy, if that’s all it is, is worthless, no better than converting from one political party to another, or even converting from being a carnivore to being a vegetarian. It’s only an ‘upgrade’ to one’s lifestyle. It’s part of the self-help and personal improvement movement. Have the best to be the best.

I’m actually not excused from this very same malady. I too want to have the best, and to be the best. What I admit to myself and to God every time I encounter Him is that ‘all my righteousness is filthy rags.’ That puts a sudden, if impertinent, end to all my fantasies of being better than you. I console myself by telling people, as I told a visitor to my parish today at coffee hour, that I did not ‘convert’ to Orthodoxy twenty-seven years ago because it was better than Episcopalianism, just because I was ‘sent’ here.

That is the truth, as far as I can see it. I was a High Church Episcopalian holding to a stricter orthodoxy than many canonical Orthodox, and so when the door opened for me and my family to ‘immigrate’ to the Greek Church, that’s what we did. Only in the course of the years that followed did we learn and accept the subtle differences between Western (that is, Episcopal, Catholic, and Lutheran) beliefs and practices, and those of the East. By then, I knew for sure what I know now: You don’t convert to Orthodoxy.

No, there is only one move in the human experience that can rightly be called ‘conversion.’ It is the migration from death to life. The Puritan author John Bunyan had it right when he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress. We move from the City of Destruction (the old, lost humanity) to the Celestial City (the new humanity, formed in the image of Jesus Christ). What it looks like or feels like to us when we undergo this change we may think is conversion from one religion (or religionlessness) to another, but it’s more.

There is only one true conversion offered to the human race in bulk or in fine, as a society or as an individual. That is conversion to Christ, the king-maker and savior of humankind. He has very little to do with ‘religion,’ and conversion to Him, though it may occur within religious structures, is not confined to them. Some pagans are reported in the book of the Acts of the Apostles to have received the Holy Spirit even without being baptized (that is, incorporated into the Church). Yes, they were then baptized.

But their conversion was to Christ, not to any church or religion, even though the Church already existed and was forced by the turn of events to hurriedly unite them to itself by the formal mysteries. There is something absolutely wild, that is, uncultivated and unexpected, in this. It is the wildness of God Himself who, though He tells us repeatedly that He is not a respecter of persons, we override by our traditions, making Him the accomplice to everything we do, good or bad, all in the name of serving Him.

I think I’ve made the point I wanted to make and which I’ve written about before in many different ways. There is only one real conversion, and that is to Christ. All of our other changes either lead up to this, or away from it. He made His apostles ‘fishers of men’ for no other purpose than to bring men to Him. Yes, they together constitute the Church, but no one can be brought to the Church without first being brought to Christ, regardless of what it looks like, or what sacramental acts have been performed.

I repeated myself to a new friend and brother today, meeting him after the Divine Liturgy. I told him, ‘I don’t witness for the Church. I witness for Christ, and He witnesses for the Church.’ I’m sure my new acquaintance was just as puzzled by this saying as I sometimes am, even though I came up with it. What does it mean to ‘witness for Christ’? And how is it that Christ witnesses for the Church? All I know is, I go where I am sent, speak to whomever He sends me, and what happens after that is all in His hands.

The Lord and Bridegroom of the Church knows how to entice His lovers, not with base self-gratifications, but by the beautiful gentleness and mercy of the Cross.

First He says, ‘Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls, for My yoke is easy and My burden is light’ (Matthew 11:28-30), and then, ‘If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me’ (Matthew 16:24). Conversion, yes, real, true conversion, is the only state in which we can hear, and rejoice to hear, these things.

There is only one conversion, and it is to Jesus Christ.

Open Door

We are still the early Christians, at least,
we can be if we want to.

This doesn’t mean trying to set up yet another church denomination to ‘purify’ the Church of all the accumulations of tradition and what not that seems to obscure the Good News. Actually, it isn’t the traditions per se that obscure the Good News. Administered rightly, the traditions do what they were designed to do: amplify the Good News and integrate it into our personal lives.

What obscures the Good News is something so close to us that we can’t often see it. It’s our tendency to want the appearance rather than the reality of anything. The mind awake knows better, knows this tendency and refutes it, saying as C. S. Lewis writes, ‘I want God, not my idea of God.’ This is what the Christian mind awake realizes about God and, this being its starting point, begins to untie the knot of its self-deception.

Acknowledging the holy scriptures formally does nothing to promote our life in Christ. We must with the fear of God, with faith and love draw near to them. We must humbly bow our stiff necks and tender our tough hearts into the faithful care of the Word of God. Studying them in this way, we are drawn to the same life that the holy apostles and early church brothers lived. Why? Because we realize we want it.

When I read the first letter of holy apostle Paul to his spiritual son Timothy the other day, I didn’t read a daily portion. I couldn’t read any less than the whole book, cover to cover, short as it is. It drew me into itself, not in the imagination, but in the spirit of the life it contains. Reading it this way, I was placed right then and there, living the same church life that they live, with them. Why? Because it’s still happening.

As I said at first, we are the early Christians, and that’s that, but only if we want to be. Once you discover that through living in the holy scriptures, once you have had a taste of that life, that real Church life, you realize there really isn’t any other kind, everything else seems fake, seems contrived. Fellowship with the saints becomes more than a review of history, and you realize what it means to have an indelible baptism.

Christ is not religion to me, nor are He and His holy apostles and saints too exalted to be my friends, nor is the Holy Spirit an excuse for me to rest in comfortable exile from my heavenly home.

Instead, the Book is the door that was left open in my path, and I walked through it to find that all it says is true, that there is a heavenly country, that paradise still exists, that the Church has never changed, never been divided, and that it’s my Home now, and to the ages of ages.

Behold, I have set before thee an open door,
and no man can shut it.
Revelation 3:8

Ιδου, δεδωκα ενωπιον σου θυραν ανεωγμενην,
και ουδεις δυναται κλεισαι αυτην.

Sunday, July 24, 2016


‘I was born a Christian, and I will die a Christian.’ That has been the defiant confession of many a new martyr under the Turkish yoke over the centuries—men and women who were Christians, usually Orthodox, who somehow were coerced into accepting the Islamic religion, and who later openly renounced it, and with these words went to their deaths.

I can say the same words, and mean what I say, but not with the same effect. I was ‘born a Christian,’ that is, I was born into a Christian family, a family that had been Christian for possibly a thousand years, maybe longer. As a baby, my mother took me to the little church in the basement of a Catholic convent in Chicago, and had me ‘christened.’

That christening didn’t guarantee my salvation, didn’t make me a Christian in reality but in potential, placing me in an environment in which I would be raised in the knowledge and, hopefully, the love of God. Mine wasn’t a perfect upbringing—far from it—but it provided an indelible basis to my life, my thoughts, my feelings, that made faith possible.

Yes, I know about believer’s baptism, and I don’t have a problem with it, but I am with those who believe in the baptism not only of individuals, but of families, yes, even tribes, even whole nations. ‘Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don't remember if I baptized anyone else,’ writes the holy apostle Paul, whose call was preaching, not baptising.

The Christian family. One father, one mother, many children, living together according to the Word of God, following the commandments, teaching the faith to one another by love, protecting, nourishing, injuring but forgiving, remaining one, staying together, even if the walls are blown down by the tempest, the foundations shattered by the tremors, of life.

‘Even if we lose everything, we’ll still have each other, wandering as gypsies if we have too,’ we used to say. The family is more than the house it lives in. So also, I read last night in an old copy of the Anglican Digest that I saved from my first years as a Christian, ‘The Church is what’s left after the building burns down.’ How true! because the Church is the greater family.

What else is the Christian faith for, if not for this? ‘The only purpose of this instruction is that there should be love, coming out of a pure heart, and clear conscience, and a sincere faith’ (1 Timothy 1:5). To make a home in this exile world for the nomads of the Most-High God, a home that is not tied to time or place, but moves with the family as it follows the marching orders, ‘When the cloud moves, we move.’

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Helen and Albert

I touched upon the story of Helen and Albert Hayduk's influence on our lives when I gave a memorial eulogy at the reception following my wife's funeral. For any who were present and heard my eulogy, here is that part of the story in more detail. These friends of ours in Christ are still alive of course, and united with us in our faith in Christ, and in Holy Orthodoxy. Though they do not want to be honored, nevertheless it is never possible to honor the saints of God too much. Why? It is because we honor Christ who lives in them, and who makes them what they are. Always, always, to God be the glory!

Helen was my wife's best friend, and they shared a common Ukrainian background, their ancestors even coming from the same region (Bukovina), and having put down roots in the same parts of rural Alberta (Bellis / Smoky Lake). Helen's brother Ihor (the Ukrainian pronunciation of Igor) was and is an Orthodox presbyter, as well as a musician and writer.

The wedding photo shows Albert and Helen being crowned during their marriage blessing, the priests being Fr Lavrenty (left) and Fr Ihor (right), the church being All Saints, Bellis, Alberta (photo above).

In another photo, we see the window in the front door of the house in which Anastasia and I lived with Albert and Helen in the Edmonton "flats" (the river bottom neighborhood, along the North Saskatchewan banks). Numerous windows in their little house were decorated with window paint to emulate stained glass. The designs were like this example, of heavenly beings and things.

The other three photos were taken later, after our first son Jacob was born, and we returned to visit Albert and Helen and their son Damian. You can tell from their wedding photo who is who in the other photos, except for the picture of the two boys.

Our son Jacob is on the left, sitting with Damian, his godbrother on the right. (I am Damian's godfather.)

In another post I think I'll write about my life as a dairy farmer's only farm hand, and post some interesting photos—like me milking a cow into a wine bottle, so I can feed colostrum to a newborn calf!

You'll have to wait for that story!

We had just come to live in town after quitting my job as the hired man on a dairy farm near Wetaskiwin, Alberta, my wife five months pregnant, and without money to even rent a small apartment. Albert and Helen took us in, and let us stay with them that winter until we could get a place of our own, literally days before our first son was born.

This couple was people like us, in our early 20's. They shared Christ with us, reading to us parts of the Bible, and leaving tracts and spiritual books lying around the house. It was the Chick tracts that really got to me. I've never forgotten them, gruesome and graphic as they are.

It wasn't the Chick tracts, though. It wasn't believing in what they conveyed literally and graphically.

What won me to Christ was the patient, consistent witnessing of one poor, young couple to another that they took in and helped get on their feet over the course of four months of dark, icy Alberta winter. They witnessed in words, in deeds, and in love. There was almost nothing argumentative about their witness, except that they insisted and wouldn't budge on issues that I questioned at that time. They simply let me have it my way, but they didn't have an "I'm OK you're OK" attitude. They very definitely and unashamedly defended all the truths of the Christian faith as they came up.

I didn't actually accept Christ for another two years, but those four months I spent with this couple formed in me the very same attitudes they had. That's the way I've witnessed for Christ since I joined the Greek Orthodox Church. It is Christ, not the church I belong to, that I witness for, and just the same, I know that having your name in the Lamb's book of life is really all that matters.

Oh, and one more thing matters. Getting your friends and neighbors to have their names written there too.

The sign of the Cross

To confess the Orthodox faith means to be crucified, to become all things to all men so that all may be able to partake in the one life. For if you have truly tasted this life even once, you are never going to forget it. You do not simply remember it; you are flooded with it, and it becomes a spring of water welling up. You become ‘mad,’ in the words of Abba Isaac, so that the rest of your brothers may become partakers in the quality of Christ; so that the children of our forefather Adam may become partakers in the New Adam, in the Paradise of delight and the food which is broken but not divided.

Being sacrificed here means being lost to life and flooded with eternity. The other person is myself. In the words of Evergetinos, ‘The other person is my God.’

The Orthodox, the saint, loves all people and things even before he knows them. He knows them through love. When you draw near to the saint, you see that he cares for you; he knows you and embraces you before he sees you. You see that he loved you before you realized it; that he is your innermost self, your own depths, at once familiar and unknown, and not something alien. In him you come to know love. He puts love before himself. His own self emerges from love and is nourished by being offered to It; ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8).
At this stage of sacrificial love, the saint becomes by grace the icon of the Son of God who first loved us, and who sheds His blood mysteriously, from before the ages, like the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world in Revelation 13:8.

Anyone who does not love is not free. Love casts out fear. It burns everything up. A merciful heart is…

‘a heart which burns for all creation, for men and birds and animals and demons, and for every creature. As he calls them to mind and contemplates them, his eyes fill with tears. From the great and powerful feeling of compassion that grips the heart and from long endurance his heart diminishes, and cannot bear to hear or see any injury or any tiny sorrow in creation. This is why he constantly offers prayer with tears for dumb beasts, and for the enemies of truth, and for those who hurt him, that they may be protected and shown mercy; likewise he prays for the race of creeping things, through the great compassion which fills his heart immeasurably, in the likeness of God’ (Abba Isaac, Logos 81).

Stretched upon the wood of the Cross man is at peace, when he is crucified as an offering of love to others. There is no state or place in which human nature is at peace more deeply, more truly and theanthropically, than in crucifixion and on the Cross of love. There is no greater comfort than this pain. Then he is not upholding just one part. He is not interested in anything partial, and cannot live in the hell of halves and hatred. He cannot watch another suffer. He embraces everything. All things are his. He is crucified for them all. He is someone universal and serene.

An Orthodox icon of the Lord’s Crucifixion does not show us the pain of someone suffering from his nail wounds, but manifests the tranquility of the One, the ‘King of Glory’ who is at peace in the calm of love. He is nailed to the Cross, offered voluntarily for the life and salvation of the world. And this act cannot be called death, but is life and increase without end.

When the Orthodox creates theology, works, or is crucified, he is lost in order to leave room free for the entry of Him who saves everyone. This occupation by the Lord, this coming and the expectation of universal salvation, the price of which is the death of man’s own soul, constitutes man’s personal salvation; it bestows upon him his true dimensions and the calm of Paradise which he earnestly awaits, and takes him up into a state of trinitarian self-awareness.

‘One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor’ (Luke 18:22). This is the ‘one thing’ that all of us always lack. This is what all of us always need to do in order to live: to sell what we have and give it away, to lose it. What comes from this ceaseless sale is an offering for us to give to the ‘poor.’ This is how treasure is laid up in heaven; and that treasure is something we must not and cannot sell or give to anyone, because it belongs in its entirety to everyone. It is the symbol and the fact of the unity, the unification of all, and at the same time the extension of each to the dimensions of all.

The Orthodox is someone universal: what is Orthodox concerns, summarizes, and saves the whole. It leaves nothing outside. Its extent is the infinity of death and its structure the freedom of the Spirit. What is not Orthodox is partial, inadequate and unsteady, provocative and misleading for everyone.

The Church bears the sign of the Cross and of tranquility on its brow (Revelation 7:3); it bears the mark of the Trinity as the mainstay of its life and existence.

Archimandrite Vasileios, Hymn of Entry, pp. 94-96

“Remember who your teachers were…”

2 Timothy 3:14

How it is

I have never heard anything but the truth about baptism or any of the other ‘mysteries’ of the Christian faith from an Orthodox priest. Maybe that’s why, in spite of any of its flaws, I cannot get away from the Orthodox Church. Just when you think they’re going to pull some magical nonsense about the Church or the sacraments (I use this word here, though I really prefer to call them ‘mysteries’) out of their hat, behold! What they pull out is what you’ve felt deep inside you was right all along, yet never, or almost never, heard come out of a clergyman’s mouth.

I may as well tell you up front, if you hadn’t noticed this before. Orthodoxy does not accept the doctrine of original sin in the sense of us being guilty of Adam and Eve’s sins, even if we aren’t guilty of anything of our own. This doctrine comes from a mistranslation into Latin of Psalm 51. The Western Church reads, ‘and in sin my mother conceived me.’ The Eastern Church, following the Greek, reads, ‘and in sins my mother conceived me.’ This has been taken to mean that, though the divine image in man was broken, and continues to be broken, by Adam and Eve, and by their descendants imitating their disobedience, man is not utterly and totally depraved, by nature, only by will. A very subtle difference? Yes, but it matters.

‘But the Bible clearly says that anyone who isn’t baptized can’t be saved.’ Well, yes and no. In ordinary circumstances, when baptism means repentance, conversion, and the subsequent ceremonial acts that confirm it for the individual and the community, yes. But even in the gospels we have the example of the good thief who was saved without baptism, without righteousness, without belief in any particular doctrines, saved by only one thing, ‘whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.’ He had personal trust (the word in Greek we usually translate as ‘faith’) in Jesus as who He said He was. If anyone could tell us whether or not we would be saved, it would be Christ, and if there were stipulations, He would have spelled them out clearly. Was He too busy to do that on the Cross? Wasn’t there enough time for Him to go over the points He talked to Nicodemus about? No, it’s not that at all. Salvation comes through Jesus Christ alone, and it is appropriated by our personal faith in Him, and if nothing else is possible, that faith alone, without works, without knowledge, without self-sacrifice, without membership in a religious body, that faith alone is enough.

When Christ goes to raise Lazarus from his four-day burial, He meets the sister of the dead man, and He tells her the astounding fact that He Himself is the Resurrection and the Life, and He asks her whether she believes that or not. She doesn’t answer with a straight yes or no, but rather declares her faith in an almost dogmatic utterance, ‘I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the One who was to come into this world.’ In this encounter, Christ states first of all, that anyone who believes in Him, even though he dies, will live, and then repeats Himself in slightly more detail, ‘whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.’

What is this ‘never die’ business He’s talking about? Can it be something other than being saved? What was that paradise He promised the good thief when He said, ‘this day you will be with Me in paradise’? Is this different than being saved? Though He says things like, ‘unless a man is born again, of water and the Spirit,’ is He revealing a new legislation, a new Torah, for His would-be followers?

Christ is Himself eternal life, He is Himself paradise, there is no other ‘place’ to go to be considered ‘saved.’ What I am writing here is not my personal philosophy, but what has been handed over to me by the Church fathers among whom I was brought up, in the environment of the Orthodox Church, which I was already beginning to enter long before I walked through the doors of an Orthodox temple or was chrismated.

Why baptise infants? If they die unbaptised, there is no punishment for them, there is no isolation in a place called limbo, which has now been emptied by proclamation of the pope, and there is no hell for them either, because they have not rejected Christ, the Light of the world, through whose name alone under heaven mankind can be saved. So in this the Orthodox would agree with many Protestants, maybe even with some Baptists, though I wonder if sometimes the agreement is flakey, based on the similarity of conclusions reached by quite different logic.

The Orthodox know that a real God does not make impossible demands and is not looking for a reason to condemn us: hence, babies, children, imbeciles, the insane, even the suicides are in no danger of divine wrath. Some of the others may come to this conclusion because they think God is really just a big softy, and His scary pronouncements are only there to trick us into being good. No, God means what He says, the terrible as well as the awesome things He tells us, but in no case is He a heavenly policeman, judge, torturer and executioner all rolled into one.

His revelation is given only to tell us, ‘this is how it is’ and ‘you can’t come Home until you come Home.’

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The end of myth

From the creation of the world to the birthing of a child, from the work of fire transforming wood into ash to the alternation of day and night, from considering all appearances and all disappearances, the mind of man from unwritten times till now has evolved explanations of how and often why everything happens in the world around him.

Modern man puts on an air of superiority and treats with patronizing indulgence, and often overt contempt, the cosmologies and the pseudo-sciences of ancient and primitive men. The world tree, the cosmic egg, mythic images for the unenlightened to help them feel less afraid in a universe which, when they confront it without them, is too terrifying.

So the mind of man thinks, and his thought fits everything he sees, hears, tastes, smells and touches into a complex, ever-increasing pattern of perceived relationships that gives meaning to the universe. The more primitive the tools of analysis at his disposal, the more primitive (we think) his body of explanations, and we call them ‘myths’.

But as I see it, having better analytical devices, having what we call a scientific basis for interpreting and understanding the world around us does not deliver our thought from one intrinsic and inevitable characteristic: Everything we analyse, and our very conclusions and body of knowledge, we are still cutting down to fit into a very limited frame, our mind.

Our thought, with all our sophistications, even now still has the nature of myth, no less than what we consider the childish fancies of the ancients and the primitives. We all still deal in myths, man’s explanation—from miniscule observations—of the meaning, purpose and nature of the universe. We simply replace the older anthropomorphics with new, ‘new lamps for old.’

So then, human thought itself is a myth, that is, in the sense that it is a generator of explanations of what is inexplicable. Religion, then, becomes no less rational than science, and science is no more than a religion. Experimental evidence is still siphoned through a conduit too narrow for it, and so experiments, whether scientific or magical, lead to the same conclusion: the universe as a subset of man’s mind.

But along comes a Man, from all appearances at first, an ordinary man, not prominent, not wealthy, not intellectually trained, from a primitive people, living in an ancient and tradition encrusted culture, one of those less attractive to most moderns and even to most of His contemporaries, the road-building Romans and the philosophical Greeks.

He is trained in the family profession, woodworking, and in the national religion, synagogue Judaism. He has very little to make anyone think Him special, except an incident in His adolescence, when He was found engrossed with some members of the educated elite in prodigious discussions (and then whisked quietly away by his embarrassed parents).

Surprising them all, and us as well, this boy in the fullness of His manhood becomes an itinerant preacher (though not of His ancestral religion) and even a miracle-worker. Oddly enough, though He seems quite capable of it, He does not waste a thought to giving answers to most of the questions that His contemporaries, and us, have about the universe.

He passes them over in silence. He does not contribute to the growing body of myth that we now hold up as our claim to be rational beings. Instead, when He teaches at all, it is on practical matters, and even His miracle-working, from supplying a shortage of wine at a wedding party, to healing the sick and (gulp!) raising the dead, is all very practical. Myth has no place in Him.

If this man lived, taught, worked wonders, and passed into history, we might have thought Him a great teacher, perhaps, or at least someone worth studying, analyzing, writing books about, and adding to our ever-increasing matrix of myths, but not only did He not contribute to the myth, He shattered it. He is an embarrassment now, as He was then, to the myth-makers.

He gives us plenty to think about, but that is not His intention. He did not come to increase our thought but to coax us over the imaginary lines that our thought produces in us. He comes now not to refine our thought, which is no more than myth, but to call forth our faith, which paradoxically carries us over imaginary lines and delivers us from myth.

If we could show the location of His tomb, or better yet, find His bones, then the universe would still be safe inside the reliquary of our science and religion. We could still say with confidence that we know the universe to be rational, and this is how it works, from greatest to smallest detail. Yes, and there are the bones of the great Teacher. We have an explanation even of Him.

But no, He has not left us that option, He has not spared our thought or our myths, He has not deposited His soul in She’ol or His bones in a grave, He has not experienced corruption, but instead He has emptied Hades of its inhabitants, dissolved the imbecility of dark, partial human reason in the bright lightning flash of His divinity.
He has made the end of myth.

The only Savior

I think the story of ancient genocide by the Hebrews is possibly true, as other ancient peoples did similar things.

If it is true, I also do not believe that God, the real and living God, ordered them, and desired them, to commit such acts.

The Bible is divinely inspired, but it is not a Qur'an, a book divinely written in detail and 100% accurate and perfect. (Neither is the Qur'an, though some claim it is.)

The Bible is a group of writings produced by religious, God-believing people over a long period of time, that our Holy Church 'canonised' for our use.

The God portrayed in its pages is sometimes the real, living God 'breaking through' our ancestral people's literature, and sometimes (in the Old Testament) the stories are 100% historical. Other times they are myths. But even myths can convey God's truth.

Except for the 4 Holy Gospels themselves, the Bible is still man's attempt to cooperate with God's Holy Spirit in writing about the interactions of God and men. It's progressive and it evolves, the God in its pages becomes more like the real, living God and less like the 'best guesses' that people come up with, as time goes on.

Notice that it is only the book of the Gospels that we venerate in Church by kissing it. The Holy Gospels reveal to us the real, living God, not the one we have arrived at gradually by our own efforts.

Jesus says, 'If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father.'

Whatever in the rest of the Bible we can see Jesus saying and doing, is probably true. As for the rest, it is useful and true only because the Church says it is, in conformity with what Christ in the Church of today or any age wills for us.

The God of the Old Testament is God trying to break through our stubbornness, rebellion and self-defenses.

The God of the Gospels does break through, and here before us, among us, and even within us, He stands.

Jesus Christ, the only God-man, the only Savior.

Lord, have mercy

What do you do with people who break the commandments, but break them in such a beautiful way? Involuntarily and spontaneously this thought arose in my mind when I viewed this image of a man’s forearm tattooed with a depiction of the crucified Christ in realistic perspective.

The quality of the image, if it were applied to canvass, would be remarkable enough, but applied to human skin, and taking into itself one part of the human anatomy, the wrist and hand, elevates its degree of realism to the unimaginable yet imageable that is now and forever a part of one man’s physical body. It is in this body that he shall face the Original on the Day of Judgment.

Now my question and the reality provoking it are elided, and I find myself wondering, if the whole spectrum of scriptural laws from prohibitions to positive commands are really ‘there,’ and for what purpose.

No bother asking the Orthodox Jew, for the laws are for him given through his lawgiver Moses by the God of whom he cries, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.’

No bother asking the fundamentalist, ‘Bible believing’ Christian, for he knows the Book as absolutely, infallibly the exact word falling from God’s lips, as the Muslim knows the Qur’an.

But the ones who have heard and comprehended the words of Jesus, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,’ thus overturning the money-changers’ tables of our moral sense and showing them bankrupt of the real wealth of Divine mercy, these we may ask.

For even the Ten Words scribed in stone by God’s very finger hang still from the Cross of His Son, as He hangs ‘there’ for us, thus overturning everything the world affirms good or evil, and are silenced in the Presence from which there is no excuse or escape.

‘You are not to gash your bodies when someone dies, and you are not to tattoo yourselves. I am Yahweh’ (Leviticus 19:28 JB), says the irrefutable Word, and we winnow it to separate the wheat from the chaff, each according to his need, even I according to mine.

But the Love upon which the whole creation stands, which supplies our every need, which bestows life and soul in the wombs, and life to those in the tombs, says even His law was made for man, not as a curse but as a blessing, and that ‘the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath’ (Matthew 12:8).

So I look on, uncomprehending as any beast of the field, not knowing my left hand from my right as any Ninevite, knowing only by Whose hand the world was created, and by Whose hand it is restored, and that Love covers all offenses, even mine. As for the rest, ‘Lord, have mercy.’