Wednesday, March 20, 2019

'Living in Reality, Free and Fearless...'


Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT: The Tenth Day

"We condemn others only because we shun knowing ourselves."  ~ St. Seraphim of Sarov

In his new book, How to Be a Sinner, the Orthodox theologian, Dr. Peter Bouteneff, reflects on this joyful paradox: If we acknowledge that we are sinners; and if we repent and confess our sins, this is all a movement of freedom and liberation. This is so because such acknowledgement, accompanied by repentance and confession, is the path to salvation, and that means the reception of God's mercy, grace and love. And there is nothing sentimental about any of this, because we were "bought with a price" (I COR. 6:20) when the Son of Man came "to give his life as a ransom for many." (MK. 10:45).

The alternative is not attractive:

"Many of us spend a lot of our time and energy avoiding genuine self-discovery. We take refuge in the world's abundant noise, distractions, and mediocrity because even a glimpse of our sins can be horribly unpleasant." (p.42) 

Dr. Bouteneff outlines five "benefits" that flow naturally from this self-knowledge. Below, I am offering a few of his insights under the heading of these five "benefits." Hopefully, they will further help us along the path toward God through self-knowledge of our sins, repentance and confession.


1. Perception of Reality

 

  • "We cannot see things as they are if we do not see ourselves as we are." (p. 43)
  • "To propose that I am sinless is essentially a guaranteed falsehood, a denial of reality, even in a relativistic and "post-factual" culture. (p. 44)
  • "To the extent that we are also true to reality, we have a clearer relationship with ourselves, others, and God." (p. 44)

2. Freedom

 

  • "The liberation of our conscience, through admitting our sins, is linked to a kind of surrender." (p. 46)
  • "The freest, least self-conscious people are usually those who know full well that they are broken, that they are sinners, and that they depend on a higher power for their very life." (. 47)
  • "Self-knowledge and surrender to God's immeasurable love and strength don't turn you into a church mouse. Quite the opposite; you become fully alive, sure-footed and truly free." (P. 47)

3. Assurance

 

  • "Once we perceive and acknowledge our faults and surrender them to God, we have the deepened assurance of being loved and forgiven." (p. 47-48)
  • "Living with and living into another's total love - especially God's - is painfully humbling. Strangely, we may prefer the feeling of being hated to the exposed... feeling of being totally loved." (p.48)
  • "Whether people treat me like gold or dirt, I will always recall that I am known and loved, and that my life is taken up into the living God." (p. 48-49)

4. Non-Judgment

 

  • "We are supposed to be entirely occupied with our own sin, to the extent that we rightly condemn ourselves." (p.50)
  • "But condemning others as unworthy of God's salvation is wrong."
  • "There is thus an inextricable connection between knowing one's one faults and the refusal or even inability to judge another person." (p. 51)

5. Compassion

 

  • "Our deepening realization of our own sin coupled with our increasing experience of God's mercy will fill us with compassion for others." (p. 52)
  • "We will not pretend to know or fully understand the intricacies of the internal and external factors of their heart." (P. 52)
  • "We will fervently wish for them nothing but God's grace, blessing, and love. We will pray that they come to a conscious knowledge of that love," (p. 52)


Dr. Bouteneff closes this section with an encouraging yet sober note:

"Living in reality, free and fearless, judging no one, with true compassion towards all, even as you work toward the correction of your life - these are the repercussions of a healthy knowledge of yourself, realistically acknowledging your sins and your total dependency on our loving God. These are gifts which may give you an inkling of why it might be worth embarking on the journey to seeing yourself as a sinner." (p. 52-53)


Dr. Bouteneff's approach, as these few insights will hopefully make clear, is very holistic, a genuine characteristic of good Orthodox theology. As we are in Great Lent, the season in which we confess our own sins in and through the Sacrament of Confession, I hope that some of the insights above will deepen that experience - and deepen our sense of the grace and love of God.


For those who would like to order and read this book, here is the link to SVS Press:
https://www.svspress.com/how-to-be-a-sinner/


Friday, March 15, 2019

St Basil's Liturgy: Deserving our Deepest Attention and Overwhelming Awe


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


 
During the five Sundays of Great Lent we turn to the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great for our Eucharistic celebration on the Lord's Day.  This Liturgy is used another five times during the year, two more of which are during Holy Week - Thursday and Saturday.  (The other three times are the Feasts of Nativity and Theophany, and then on St. Basil's day of commemoration, January 1).   
 
This Liturgy is known for its long(er) prayers, some of which may challenge our capacity to stand still in concentration and prayerful attention.  But what prayers!  They strike me personally as being unrivaled in our entire Tradition for their beauty of expression and the depth of their theological/spiritual content.  Even though we are hearing them in translation, that beauty and depth remain intact and shine through quite well.

Now St. Basil did not sit down and "compose" the entire Liturgy "from scratch," to use that expression.  The basic structure of the Liturgy was already an essential element of the Church's living liturgical Tradition.  However, there is every reason to believe that he is responsible for the magnificent Anaphora prayers.  These prayers reflect St. Basil's intense preoccupation with the Church's Trinitarian faith - that we worship the One God as the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; the Son and the Holy Spirit being consubstantial with the Father as to their divine nature, and thus co-enthroned and co-glorified  with the Father from all eternity. (St. Basil wrote a separate magnificent treatise On the Holy Spirit, demonstrating the divinity of the Holy Spirit through his knowledge of the Scriptures and the Church's liturgical Tradition). 

That belief in the Holy Trinity, though present "in the beginning" of the Church's proclamation of the Gospel, was under attack during the turbulent fourth century, with the Arian heresy and its various offshoots stirring up seemingly interminable debate and dissension. 
 
St. Basil was one of the premier exponents of the Church's faith that the one God is the Holy Trinity; and he helped establish the classical terminology of the Church in expressing that Faith:  God is one in "essence" (Gk. ousia), yet three distinct "Persons" (Gk. hypostaseis).  That terminology remains intact to this day.  The opening Anaphora Prayer, "O Existing One, Master, Lord  God, Father almighty and adorable!..." is steeped in praise and glorification of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; and thus deserves our deepest attention and sense of overwhelming awe as we stand in the presence of the Holy Trinity and as we join the angelic powers in "singing, shouting, and proclaiming: Holy!  Holy!  Holy!  Lord of Sabaoth!..." 

In profound relationship to the prayers of the Liturgy revealing the Church's belief in the Holy Trinity, we find St. Basil's unrivaled expression of the divine "economy" (Gk. oikonomia) throughout. This refers to God's providential dispensation/design toward His creation - culminating in the salvation of the world - in and through the Incarnation, Death, Resurrection and Glorification of our Lord Jesus Christ.  
 
If I were asked to present to an interested inquirer the most compelling and succinct expression  of the divine economy as taught and proclaimed by the Orthodox Church, I would definitely refer this person to the long Anaphora Prayer of St. Basil's Liturgy beginning where the Thrice-holy left off:

"With these blessed powers, O Master who lovest mankind ..."  
 
After praising God "for the magnificence of Thy holiness,"  we begin to prayerfully recall - and thus make present - the full extent of His providential dispensation toward the world:

"When Thou didst create man by taking dust from the earth, and didst honor him with Thine own image, O God ..."  
 
This long remembrance takes us through what we refer to as the "Fall," through the promises of the prophets — "foretelling to us the salvation which was to come ..."  — all the way through to the Lord's Incarnation, Death, Resurrection, Ascension and even Second Coming:

"Ascending into heaven, He sat down at the right hand of Thy majesty on high, and He will come to render to every man according to his works ..." 
 
Further recalling, and thus actualizing "the night in which He gave Himself up for the life of the world," this entire process will culminate with the Epiklesis, or Invocation of the Holy Spirit "to bless, to hallow and to show" that the bread and wine of our offering will "become" the Body and Blood of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.  We will then receive the Holy Gifts "for the remission of sins and unto life everlasting."

Today, the Orthodox faithful are blessed in that the prayers of St. Basil's Liturgy are read aloud so that the entire gathered assembly of believers may actually "hear" the prayers that reveal the Lord God's Trinitarian nature and the divine economy together with the consecration of the Holy Gifts.  In the past that may have not been so, and even today it is not so in all Orthodox churches.  So we thank God for our own liturgical revival which has so enlivened our contemporary worship experience with full parish participation in the Church at prayer and praise.

However, and admittedly, there is one prayer that is usually read while the choir is singing (at least that is what we do here in our parish); and that is a final prayer near the very end of the Liturgy that the priest will say while facing the Table of Preparation and the remaining Holy Communion that will eventually be consumed by the priest, and while the choir is singing "Blessed be the name of the Lord, henceforth and forevermore" three times:

The mystery of Thy dispensation, O Christ our God, has been accomplished and perfected as far as it was  in our power; for we have had the memorial of Thy death; we have seen the type of Thy Resurrection; we have been filled with Thine unending life; we have enjoyed Thine inexhaustible food; which in the world to come be well-pleased to vouchsafe to us all, through the grace of Thine eternal Father, and Thine holy and good and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.  Amen.
 
This summation of the meaning, purpose and experience of the Liturgy is an "awesome" claim that perhaps may strike us in its awesomeness  even more effectively if we break the prayer down into its component parts:

  • We have had the memorial of the Lord's death;
  • We have seen the type of the Lord's Resurrection;
  • We have been filled with the Lord's unending life;
  • We have enjoyed the Lord's inexhaustible food;
  • We ask to continue in this partaking in the world to come;
  • All this through the grace of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit!

That is quite a Sunday morning experience which we so blandly describe as "going to church!"  Clearly the remainder of the day is all downhill - no matter what we do!  
 
When we begin the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great we know that we have a long road ahead of us.  That will require some patience, concentration, and a willingness to "stay with it" through to its dismissal.  If we are able to do that, then the "rewards" are inestimable.  It will also test our deepest desires about what is "the one thing needful" in our lives and what is the treasure of our hearts.  Yet, the Sundays of Great Lent are a unique opportunity to further our movement towards the Lord as we move through Great Lent and our lives toward the gladsome light of the Kingdom of God.
 
 
 

Monday, March 11, 2019

'The bright sadness of these Lenten services...'


Dear Parish Faithful,

"The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel." (MK. 1:15)

As I continue my relentless campaign to encourage you to be present for at least one of the evenings this week when we chant the Canon of Repentance of St. Andrew of Crete (Monday - Thursday of this First Week of Great Lent), I would like to share some of Dr. Peter Bouteneff's comments on this service from his book How to Be a Sinner. 

In one of the chapters, entitled "The Sweetness of Compunction," he speaks specifically about the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. And Dr. Bouteneff begins by asking an interesting question: "Why is it that the most penitential services of the Church are so often seen as the most beautiful, even joyful?" He then goes on to say: "People seek them out." After these comments, he quotes the opening troparion/hymn of the Canon:

How shall I being to mourn the deeds of my 
   wretched life?
Come, my wretched soul, 
and confess your sins in the flesh to the 
   Creator of all.
From this moment forsake your former
   foolishness,
and offer to God tears of repentance.

Dr. Bouteneff continues: 

"Who wants to come to such a maudlin service? Apparently a lot of people do. The Canon services are among the most heavily populated of the year in the many parishes I have attended. Artists, bankers, academics, doctors, construction workers, teachers, and office administrators come. My teenage children would insist on attending: "My favorite!" (actual quote). All of these people, prostrating themselves willingly, devoid of pathos, as the prayers are chanted - it's a sight to behold." (p. 124-125)

At the same time he acknowledges the challenges these heavily penitential texts will pose: "First time visitors can be shocked at the depth and severity of their penitence. But for those who understand their context, they feel heavenly." (p. 125) He then goes on by quoting some of the comments he has received from friends through social media:

"The bright sadness of these services reveals something about joy, about love, that doesn't skim over faults but encompasses and heals them."

"It's the 'no matter what' quality of forgiveness and love. You don' really see the divine love until you look at how poorly you've done, and then see that you are still beloved and accepted."

"These services are beautiful because we drop our shields and open up our hearts, and we realize that we are not alone: others have made mistakes, felt sorrow and pain, and all need to heal."

"Somehow the distance from woundedness to joy is shorter than the distance from happiness to joy."

Concerning this enigmatic comment, Dr. Bouteneff writes: "This observation still has me reflecting with wonder." (p. 126)

Summarizing his overall assessment of the Canon, he concludes this section as follows:

   "The Canon services are special, deliberately so. In then we see how the Church's liturgical cycle are a masterpiece of pastoral management. We don't delve so deeply into our compunction throughout the whole church year; if we did, we couldn't bear it. We have to maintain a balance. During the seasons of fasting, we focus on our responsibility for sin. But we must never lose sight of our goodness, created by God, restored in his Son, by his Holy Spirit. The Church's liturgy is designed to show us how to fast and how to feast, how to lament and how to rejoice. In opens our hearts to an increasing acceptance of these realities. Because until we allow them, they can barely touch us." (p. 127)

This is time well spent. And if our Christian stewardship embraces "time management," then "offering" that precious commodity of time back to God by our presence and concentration in church for these services, can only be meaningful and deeply fruitful - at least potentially. Is it a bit inconvenient? Then so be it.

I just spoke with another friend of mine, a priest up in Minnesota, and he told me how the children of his parish love this service and how many of them are present with their parents. And we do have some of our own parish children and young adults present. God willing that will expand this year. For those who have been to the Canon before, I am sure that you are looking forward to the service this year. For those who have never been, here is the opportunity to expand your experience of the depth and beauty of the Church's unique lenten services. 

We approach the Canon here in the parish with appropriate reverence, but somewhat modestly. What is "prescribed" is that we make a full prostration after each of the troparia of the Canon. That is a bit much. (Though we do make full prostrations near the end of the service with the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim). What I practice, and what I suggest that everyone follow, is making the sign of the Cross accompanied by a deep bow at the waist, touching the ground with the fingers of the right hand after each troparion of the Canon. Our bodily gestures are meant to manifest the movement of our souls - inner compunction, repentance together with adoration and praise are thus outwardly manifested. This is a holistic approach to who and what we are as human persons.

All in all, a wonderful opportunity to repent of our sins as Jesus exhorts us to.


Friday, March 8, 2019

Great Lent and Fasting in the Age of The Screen



Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"Enlighten me through prayers and fasting." (Forgiveness Vespers)



I would like to formulate some thoughts in writing that I have periodically raised, perhaps in homilies or post-Liturgy discussions. Perhaps I can aim for a bit more precision and over-all coverage in the process.

Within the context of the beginning of Great Lent and our ascetical effort during this season, commonly called fasting, I raised the issue of not only fasting from certain foods and drink - the most basic aspect of asceticism because of our sheer dependence on food and drink - but also of "fasting" from the amount of time we spend daily before a variety of screens - television, computer, movie, smartphones, etc.

This raises the issue of "Orthodoxy and technology," a fascinating issue and one that should generate a good deal of theological/spiritual reflection when we think for a moment of our overwhelming dependency in the contemporary world on technology. We may be able to live without technology, but we would hardly be able to function without it. However, my goal is much more modest, as I will explain momentarily.

Without entering into a philosophical/theological discussion about technology, we can at least state that Orthodoxy is in no way anti-technological. Although some Orthodox bishops, priests, and monastics may awaken visions of the Amish, there is no real similarity in worldview when it comes to technology. You may just contact any one of those Orthodox persons through their computers and smartphones - but not the Amish! Or you would be impressed by the websites and over-all computer sophistication of both Orthodox seminaries and monasteries.
 



The Church has never moved to suppress technology or, for that matter, any progress in all of the sciences. This is a crucial aspect of our human capacity to think and create, setting us apart from the rest of the animal world. Yet, one more issue unavoidably related to this is that of the abuse of technology, when it is severed from any clear moral and ethical restraint. Our thinkers and theologians are struggling to keep up with the exponential and seemingly daily moral/ethical challenges that arise out of the obsessive desire to keep pushing forward the frontier of technological progress.

Avoiding these "heavier" issues in this reflection, I would just like to address the more modest issue of our fasting during Great Lent. Or, of expanding our understanding of fasting to now include the time spent before our various screens as already mentioned above. It is, after all, Great Lent. Some modest - should that be substantive? - changes in lifestyle, or the environments that we create in our homes is an important factor in the over-all lenten effort.

With the ubiquitous screen, the questions arise: Outside of our professional obligations and responsibilities, just how attracted, attached, obsessed or, as extreme as this may sound, "addicted" are we to them? How much of that precious commodity of time do we spend in front of screens that could at best be described as distraction, amusement, entertainment, "killing time," etc.? Can we break through the cycles of surfing, shopping, game-playing, facebooking, texting, twittering and blogging that devour huge amounts of our time? And can we show some restraint for the sake of relationships and more serious pursuits which I hope would attract us during Great Lent especially?

To formulate the challenge before us, I would like to turn to an essay written by Jacob Weisner, and printed in the New York Review of Books (actually about three years ago now). Under the title, "We Are Endlessly Hooked," he informs us that:

Americans spend an average of five and a half hours a day with digital media, more that half of that time on mobile devices, according to the research firm eMarketer. ... Three quarters of eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds say that they reach for their phones immediately upon waking up in the morning. Once out of bed, we check our phones 221 times a day - an average of every 4.3 minutes - according to a UK study. This number may be too low, since people tend to underestimate their own mobile use. In a 2015 Gallup survey, 61 percent of people said that they checked their phones less frequently than others they knew.

Informative and to the point! And something to think about in a season of restraint and re-prioritizing. Another author, Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist and sociologist who teaches at MIT, in her book Reclaiming Conversation, claims that this dependence on such devices severely undermines human relationships - from family members to romantic attachments. The lack of human connection caused by excessive device connection is leaving us disconnected as human beings. In fact, she speaks of "disconnect anxiety." For her, the young person locked into the virtual world of social media is now claiming: "I share, therefore I am." We are losing the capacity for reading, playing, creating and conversing.

The unavoidable questions arise: Are our families and friendships suffering deficiencies in those time-honored activities that are based on mental agility, socializing skills and the deepening or loving relationships? Is it dinner and then off to the screen? Have we mastered the "art of distraction?" If so, can we possibly be surprised if we find it difficult to pray effectively - that is with some concentration and focus?

There is a possible alternative approach: Superfluous time spent before the screen, can now be redirected and spent renewing those activities that are either intellectually stimulating (a good book or creative project); or conducive to personal interaction (game playing); or, on a deeper level, "face-to-face" communion (conversing)? Many years ago, in a paper she wrote on this subject, our own parishioner, Emily Farison, had this to say:

Because people do not communicate in person, words and meanings can get misconstrued all too easily. One cannot observe facial expressions or hear tones of voice through the internet, both of which allow the listener to garner a well-rounded impression of what the speaker intends to express ... Nothing compares to quality time given to a person, where one really listens and focuses on getting to know his friends. Human beings are so complex that one cannot get to know anyone very deeply in a diminutive span of time.

Can you imagine a facebook entry that states: "In observing Great Lent, this site will be inactive until April 27, the day I celebrate the Resurrection of Christ?!" You might just face massive "unfriending" for that one!

What about the screen of the smartphone? This is a wonderful tool for communication, that has even been "life-saving" as we all know of some such stories. You may have to be a modern-day Luddite to argue against the positive use of the smartphone. We acknowledge the important call, the encouraging call, the "where-in-the-world is my child?" call, even the "emergency" call. But these are not what need to occupy us at the moment.

Here also other questions arise: Beyond all of that, has the smartphone become an extension of our very being? Does it seem to be permanently glued to our ears and/or attached to our hands? Are we lost without it? Do we call and chat in order to ... call and chat? Are we "apping" our minds into a kind of stupor? (What happened to the spiritual gift of silence?) After all, just a few years ago, we did live without such phones.

There are styles, colors, sizes, and an endless array of features that turn the smartphone into either a status symbol, a toy, or even as one of those portable idols we read about in the Bible - primarily for adults, of course. (Though, at what age now are children equipped with their own phones?). Texting and twittering are producing a certain type of "illiteracy" that is making a wince-creating wreck of the English language, as in: "luv u." Grammar, spelling, and compound sentences are treated as intrusive. The menus are astonishing for their complexity. The internet is now on your phone! And it is also a ready-made camera: We now live in the age of the "selfie."




Is it possible or even meaningful to show any restraint when living in an age of the screen? If not, then we may be facing the following downward trajectory that can quickly spiral out of control: Attractions become attachments; attachments become obsessions; and obsessions become addictions. Or, as the holy Fathers teach, we become the playthings of our "passions." We are no longer in control, but under control of our impulses, or of the technology mentioned above.

As asceticism is not puritanism, so restraint is not repression. All of our ascetically lenten efforts are ultimately directed to our freedom and liberation - to some degree at least - from the myriad dependencies that occupy our bodies and souls. To fast from meat but then to sit in front of the computer for hours surfing, shopping, game-playing, facebooking and blogging somehow points to a disconnect with the over-all goal of Great Lent as a "school of repentance," or "journey toward Pascha."

Professionally and vocationally, we may be living in the age of the screen. I know that I am. I enjoy and try and make something positive of a "cyberspace ministry," in fact. But I also waste a lot of time in front of that same screen. The irony of writing this meditation on the computer and then launching it out into cyberspace so you will have one more thing to read, is not lost on me.

But the challenge remains to retain a degree of freedom from the technological web that can bind us so tightly. Redirecting a lot of our energy - and time! - to prayer, almsgiving and fasting; the reading of the Scriptures and the lenten liturgical services of the Church; "quality time" with family members and friends, can create in us the joy of liberation from those very bonds. The prominent French Orthodox thinker Jean-Claude Larchet has recently said: "Disconnect to Reconnect!" Sounds like good Lenten advice in the age of the ubiquitous screen.

Fr. Steven


Monday, March 4, 2019

Science and Faith, and 'Pointers' in the vast Cosmos


Dear Parish Faithful,


"The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork" (Psalm 19)


Yesterday evening I attended a lecture entitled "Our Amazing Universe." It was delivered by Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, who studied physics at MIT and earned a Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard University. In addition she has continued her research as Hubble Fellow at The John Hopkins University. Very impressive credentials! To use a misused term, I am a "layman" when it comes to astronomy, though this is clearly a fascinating and essential scientific discipline. I would like to simply offer a short summary of a wonderful presentation that captivated a large audience of at least five hundred participants or more.

In the first part of the lecture, we were treated to a computer-generated slide show (on two large mounted wall screens) of some incredible images of the universe, including galaxies, clusters of stars, nebulae, super novae, and the more familiar planets of our own solar system. Dr. Wiseman informed us of the continuing research into the vast dimensions of the universe made possible by the technology of ever-more powerful and sophisticated telescopes. What I was ignorant of is the fact the Hubble telescope circles the earth every ninety minutes! Some of these telescopes are placed above the earth's atmosphere, thus allowing for incredibly clear and wide-ranging views of the cosmos. We saw some wonderful images of star clusters that were so thick that the black space in between was not that visible. And the stars were of different colors: red, blue, green and yellow. Our own vision of the sky is very limited because the enormous amount of light from our urban and suburban settings simply reduces our visibility to the moon and a few other stars. We are missing a lot! One of her points was to impress upon us the sheer unfathomable scope of the universe, which holds billions of galaxies comprised of billions of stars, one of which is our own sun, though it itself appeared as a tiny dot on one of the shots of our own Milky Way galaxy. We may know this already, but in the context of her lecture, combined with the amazing images we saw, the effect of those statistics is rather staggering. Or, we should say "awesome."

Dr. Wiseman is a believing Christian - my guess would be something like an Evangelical - so the second part of her lecture was made up of a series of what she called "philosophical and theological" questions and observations. Her first question was: Does the universe seem to make any sense or have any deeper meaning? She was very even-handed in sharing the views of prominent fellow astronomers/scientists. Some argue that it really does not have any deeper meaning beyond its sheer size. Others find it all very meaningful. (One scientist asked: Does the fact that we even ask the question point to the inherent and unavoidable quest for meaning?) 

This raised the further issue of the relationship between science and religion. As a scientist herself, she presented an eloquent defense of how the two - both of which are concerned with discovering "truth," though each discipline a "truth" of a different sort - need to be and can be reconciled. She presented a "two book approach" to this issue of science and religion: the book of nature/science and the book of the Bible are revealing one and the same reality, though different language and thought-forms are used in the process. This sounded very close to something that St. Maximus the Confessor (+662) once wrote. Though he put it something like this: God is revealed in creation, in the Law, and then in the Person of Christ.

Just as my own aside, I believe strongly that we, as Orthodox Christians, cannot ignore this dialogue, and that we need to articulate our own understanding of this relationship, with a clear-headed sobriety about the amazing scope of scientific discovery over the course of the last few centuries. We cannot ignore the discovery that we live on a planet within a universe that is over thirteen billion years old. This allows us the freedom of some exciting and deeply meaningful theological thought. In other words, we cannot abandon the realm of science - and the universe itself - to a one-sided secular mode of thought.

Returning to Dr. Wiseman, once she impressed upon us the vastness of the universe. And how it reveals the power, majesty and awesomeness of God. (Our own Prayer of the Great Blessing of Water formulates this in a rather poetic and archaic form, but the point is well-made). She informed us that the overwhelming majority of the scientific community now unhesitatingly accepts the "Big Bang theory" of the origin of the universe. Atheists, however, are somewhat reluctant in their acceptance, because it points to the idea of a "Creator." Yet, she asked the unavoidable question of our own perceived insignificance within this vast realm. How short is our life in comparison to that of a star! This allowed her to remind us that "ancient man" was perplexed by those same questions, including the author of Psalm 8, whom she thought was a shepherd gazing up into the night sky (with a clearer vision than our own!):

"When I look at the heavens, the work
of thy fingers,
the moon and the stars which thou hast established;
what is man that thou are mindful of him?
and the son of man that thou dost
care for him?"


Bu the psalmist then includes this incredible thought:

"Yet though hast made him little less
than God,
and dost crown him with glory and
honor.
Thou hast given him dominion over
the works of thy hands..."


Dr. Wiseman interpreted this "dominion" as the capability of scientific thought. For regardless of how insignificant we may seem, it is only the human person who can consciously reflect and contemplate the vastness of the cosmos.

And she finally made the connection between the universe and Christ. Quoting the unrivaled Prologue to St. John's Gospel, she reminded us that this vast universe is the creative work of a Person - the divine Word of God through whom the Father brought all things into existence. And then that this divine Person became incarnate - "The Word became flesh." Everything is thus connected to and given meaning in Christ. That, at least, is the "faith perspective" of her lecture. Dr. Wiseman does not believe that science can be used to "prove" the existence of God; but there are "pointers" within the cosmos, revealed in the Scriptures, that can indicate that direction. Archbishop Kallistos Ware makes the same point in The Orthodox Way.

This was a very well-thought out presentation by Dr. Jennifer Wiseman. With clarity and conviction; and yet with her vast array of scientific knowledge clearly present within her soft-spoken and humble demeanor, she led the audience to a deep reflection on the nature of scientific discovery and how that can lead us to Christ.

An evening well spent!


In Anticipation of Great Lent 2019


Dear Parish Faithful,

Great Lent 2019


Great Lent for 2019 is "right around the corner," so I am trying to keep ahead of our schedule by providing some hopefully useful pastoral directives and suggestions as we prepare for the season.


THE RULES OF FASTING — Please read through this attachment on Lenten Fasting to better understand the nature of the fast that we are directed to observe during Great Lent. Yet, in addition to the fasting discipline, I also include some pastoral considerations on how we can approach the fast in a constructive and spiritually-healthy manner either as individuals or within our families. The "spirit" of the fast is meant to transcend the "letter" of the fast. We have a If you are new to this and would like some further pastoral directives, please contact me.


LITURGICAL SERVICES — There are services that are unique to Great Lent, meaning that this is the only time in the entire year that we use these particular liturgical services. There are also changes within our established services - usually in the form of specific lenten hymnography and appointed scriptural readings - but I will focus on the full services that characterize lenten worship:


+ The Canon of Repentance by St. Andrew of Crete — This Canon is divided into four parts and served during the first four evenings of Great Lent, and that would be Monday through Thursday, March 11-14 this year. I not only encourage you, but urge everyone to make a real attempt to be present at least on one of these evenings. Beginning Great Lent through this intense and highly personal plea of repentance can "set the tone" for the entire forty days. Each evening, the service will begin at 7:00 p.m. and last a little over an hour. I would also encourage parents to bring their children to this service if and when possible. This is equivalent to planting seeds that will remain with them all through their lives. The atmosphere in the church is quiet, prayerful and focused.


+ The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts — This unique lenten service is celebrated on Wednesday evenings during Great Lent beginning at 6:00 p.m. The one exception is in the first week, when it is reserved for Friday evening so as to allow for all four parts of the Canon mentioned above. With the exception of the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25), the eucharistic consecration is not allowed during the weekdays of Great Lent (the absence of the Bridegroom), but we receive the Eucharist from the gifts "presanctified" - or consecrated - at the previous Sunday Liturgy reserved on the altar table for that purpose. We then receive the eucharistic gifts at this service as the children of Israel ate of the manna in the wilderness to sustain and strengthen them through the wilderness. After the service we break the fast with a pot-luck lenten meal that also allows for some fellowship.


+ The Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos — This service is celebrated on Friday evenings during Great Lent. As with the Canon of Repentance, it is broken up into four parts and then sung and chanted in its entirety on the Fifth Friday of Great Lent. It is the masterpiece of Byzantine hymnography dedicated to praising the Theotokos in an endless variety of titles and images. Though never that well-attended, you may want to consider "something different/new" by way of expanding your lenten experience.


CONFESSION OF SINS — Confession is a major part of our "lenten effort," and for many this is the only time of year that some will participate in sacramental confession. That is not a good practice, but at least a recognition of the importance of Great Lent and one's need to confess. Perhaps my greatest pastoral challenge during Great Lent is to "work in" all of these confessions in forty days. Without doing the math, that must be at least one hundred and fifty or more when including age-appropriate children together with adults. That is why I reserve the hours between 9:00 a.m - Noon every Saturday during Great Lent, to be in the church to hear confessions. This is a good time to schedule an appointment for Confession, especially for families with children/young adults. Otherwise, there is before or after Great Vespers on Saturday, or any other time during the week if you let me know ahead of time. For those of you who come to church but do not participate in the Sacraments of Confession and Communion, here is a "golden opportunity" to renew your life in the Church.


ORTHODOX LITERATURE — Everyone who is literate should read a good piece of Orthodox literature during Great Lent together with reading the Holy Scriptures. And during Great Lent I would stress Orthodox literature. We are responsible to know our Faith as well as possible. As we pray, give alms, and fast, expanding our knowledge of our shared Orthodox Faith is a "good thing." The choices of good books are virtually limitless these days. If you would like some suggestions about a good book, please feel free to ask me. We now have our parish bookstore reopened, and our parish library has an excellent choice of books. An excellent choice that I spent a few minutes promoting last Sunday during the post-Liturgy discussion is Peter Bouteneff's How to be a Sinner. This would make good lenten reading as Dr. Bouteneff explores what it means to self-identify as a "sinner." As he wrote in The Introduction: "The thesis of this short book is that there are realistic, useful, and healthy ways to understand ourselves within the dynamic of sin - just as there are also destructive and unhelpful ways. The goal is to help us find and walk a well-directed path through critical self-reflection, in freedom, joy and divine grace, and mercy." The book basically unpacks that thesis in a very accessible and helpful manner. Highly recommended!


A very rich Season indeed!


Monday, February 25, 2019

The Other Son and Comfortable Christianity


Dear Parish Faithful,

We have entered the Week of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Thus, a time to reflect on repentance as we prepare to enter the annual "School of Repentance," and that, of course, is Great Lent beginning March 11 this year. Another mediation of mine has been featured on the OCA website this week. It concentrates on the prodigal son and his return to his father's house. If anyone would be interested, here is the link:




Yet, as I shared yesterday in the post-Liturgy discussion, I am beginning to believe that perhaps the main character in the parable is the "other son" of the father, who can also be identified as the "unforgiving brother." This in no way diminishes the prodigal son's dramatic "change of mind" and his return to the loving embrace of his father; but it simply further enhances the depth of this seemingly inexhaustibly rich parable. (And, of course, a book-length discourse could be written about the father of the parable). I came across this very insightful paragraph from a contemporary biblical scholar, Brendan Byrne, on precisely that theme that I would like to further share with everyone:

In the original setting the parable serves ... to ward off the criticism the scribes and Pharisees mount against Jesus' celebration of God's acceptance. Doubtless, the early Church found in it, too, an analysis of Israel's problems with accepting the gospel of the crucified Messiah and the inclusion of Gentiles in the People of God. The applications are endless. 
One perhaps that we should not omit considering is that of finding in ourselves and our communities the rather different patterns of sinfulness shown by the two brothers: the overt sinning of the younger, the resentment and resistance of the older - and to ask which of the two patterns of the parable suggests to be the more difficult for God to deal with. 
But sinfulness is not in the end the main point. Fundamentally, like all the parables, the three stories in this chapter ask: "Do you really know God?" Or rather, "Are you comfortable with the God who acts with the foolishness of love displayed by the characters in these parables?"
From The Hospitality of God by Brendan Byrne (p. 132)
Perhaps the unforgiving brother poses the greatest challenge to us, in that it is this figure in the parable that we most resemble! The parables will never cease to challenge any form of "comfortable Christianity" that we embrace.