Monday, December 9, 2019

The Image of Giving in St Nicholas

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

There are sixteen days of charity, prayer and fasting left before Christmas...  Redeem the time.
We recently commemorated St. Nicholas of Myra in Lycia, the Wonderworker (December 6). There is a certain unresolved tension that accompanies his person and memory: On the one hand, there are few "hard facts" about his life (to the point where many doubt his actual historical existence); and on the other hand, he is clearly one of the most beloved and universally venerated of saints within the Church. It is said that even many Muslims venerate St. Nicholas! A good example of an objective account of the few facts behind the saint's life can be found in a short introductory biographical note concerning St. Nicholas in the book, The Time of the Spirit:

Little is known for certain about the life of St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra in Lycia (Asia Minor). It is believed that he suffered imprisonment during the last major persecution of the Church under Diocletian in the early fourth century, and that he attended the first Ecumenical Council at Nicea in 325. Christian tradition has come to regard him, in the words of an Orthodox hymn, as "an example of faith and an icon of gentleness." (Time of the Spirit, p. 69)

For those interested in the historical background of St. Nicholas, the following note found in The Synaxarion, Vol. II, edited by Hieromonk Makarios of Simonas Petras, may prove to be of real interest:

Since the medieval period, St. Nicholas of Myra has been confused with St. Nicholas of Sion, who founded a monastery not far from Myra at the end of the 5th century. The Vita of the latter has come down to us but the incidents in it have been entirely ascribed to St. Nicholas of Myra, with the result that St. Nicholas of Sion has been forgotten n the hagiographical accounts.... (See The Life of Saint Nicholas of Sion, edited and translated by I. N. P. Sevcenko (Brookline, MA, 1984).

So, even if we are dealing with a "composite figure" when we venerate St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, we nevertheless are given a glimpse into the "mind of the Church" when it comes to an image of a true pastor. A powerful and enduring image of a genuine Christian shepherd has remained within the memory of the Church, regardless of the now unrecoverable "facts" behind the actual history of 4th - 5th c. Asia Minor. It is this "unerring" intuition of the People of God that the faithful respond to up to the present day that remains as a solid foundation upholding all of the wonderful stories that endear us to St. Nicholas. The Church today desperately needs bishops of the type embodied by St. Nicholas. A shepherd who is a "rule of faith and an image of humility" would mean a great deal more to the Christian flock, than legal-minded adherence to canon law. St. Nicholas both protected and interceded for his flock, according to the great Russian Orthodox iconographer, Leonid Uspensky. And he further writes:

This 'life for others' is his characteristic feature and is manifested by the great variety of forms of his solicitude for men: his care for their preservation, their protection from the elements, from human injustice, from heresies and so forth. This solicitude was accompanied by numerous miracles both during his life and after his death. Indefatigable intercessor, steadfast, uncompromising fighter for Orthodoxy, he was meek and gentle in character and humble in spirit. (The Time of the Spirit, p. 69)

Well-known as St. Nicholas has been, he is perhaps less well-known in today's world. In fact, he may be slowly slipping away from Christian consciousness. Santa Claus, that rather unfortunate caricature of the saintly bishop, clearly has something to do with this. But perhaps the very virtues embodied by this saint are slowly fading from our consciousness. A few weeks back, I wrote a meditation that passed on the name our social and secular world has "earned" for itself through its rampant commercialization of Christmas - and that is Getmas. The author who coined this new term - I forget his name - claims it came to him based on a conversation he had had with a good friend about the "spirit of Christmas." The friend of our author said that Christmas was about "getting things." When the author countered by saying, "I thought Christmas was about giving," the friend quickly retorted: "Sure, people are supposed to give me things!" Out of this sad exchange came the unfortunate, but accurate, Getmas.

St. Nicholas was about the proper understanding of "giving." Perhaps the most enduring quality of his image is that of giving to children in need. Our children learn that those who already "have" more are those who will yet "get" more. And that is because they are taught this by their parents who yield to their childish demands. So we persist in widening the gap of imbalance between the "haves and "have-nots" without too many pangs of (Christian) conscience. St. Nicholas wanted to restore a sense of balance, and so he looked first to those who were in need, so that they could also taste some childlike happiness from receiving an unexpected gift. In a simple manner, this imitates the giving of God Who gave us Christ at a time when everyone - rich and poor alike - were impoverished through sin and death.

I sometimes fantasize that an ideal celebration of Christmas would find a relatively affluent family making sure that they spent more on those in need than on themselves. If Christianity is indeed the "imitation of the divine nature" as St. Gregory of Nyssa once said, then that need not necessarily be such an unrealistic idea. I do not believe that I have ever actually done that, so I convict myself through the very thought. Yet, I am convinced that our children would respond with an eager spirit of cooperation if properly prepared for some approximation of that ideal. Why should it be otherwise if, according to the Apostle Paul, Christ said that it is more blessed to give than to receive?

Once again, just a thought based upon the image of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Becoming Rich Toward God

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

I regretted passing over the Lord's parable appointed to be read at the Divine Liturgy yesterday. Yet at the same time, I wanted to bring the discussion of our new Parish Bylaws into a liturgical context to make the point of how all things that we do in the Church are interconnected, and ultimately directly connected to the Gospel, on one level or another. Hence, the homily focusing on the purpose of parish bylaws and their significance for our communal life. Getting back to the Gospel reading, it was that of the Parable of the Rich Fool/Landowner.  This is a relatively short parable, so I will simply present it below as a reminder and a reference:

And he told them a parable, saying, "The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully, and he thought to himself, 'What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?'  And he said, 'I will do this:  I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.'  But God said to him, 'Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things your have prepared, whose will they be?'  So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God."  (LK. 12:16-21)

Whenever I hear this particular parable, I think of the words of Tevye the Dairyman in Shalom Aleichem's delightful Yiddish stories about that warm and attractive character.  (Also, of course, the main character in the musical "Fiddler on the Roof"). In his musing about God one day, Tevye said:  "The more man plans, the harder God laughs."  Profound theological thought from a poor dairyman!

It is hard to recall a more straightforward parable in terms of its over-all meaning and intent.  The Lord is here speaking of the inevitability and unavoidability of impending death.  Death is universal and ubiquitous.  And it remains the great equalizer between rich and poor. More specifically, though, the Lord is here dramatizing an unexpected death, one that catches a person totally unprepared and thus rendered a "fool" in the process.  The rich landowner's foolishness is revealed in the fact that he had forgotten about God in his pursuit of his "treasure."  His forgetfulness is his foolishness. There is no indication that the landowner was a particularly sinful person.  He may have even seemed pious and God-fearing on the surface.  But Christ often specifically warns  against surface appearances, or what we call "lip service" to God, while the heart is actually quite distant.  Then again, the word sin, from the Gk. amartia, actually means "missing the mark."  So, while a person may refrain from committing sinful acts, that same person can be completely "missing the mark" when it comes to a real relationship with God.  One can have social status and be totally lost at the same time.  The rich landowner reached a point where he began to evaluate everything in life based on the "self" and not on God.  His "portfolio building" resulted in an impoverished relationship with God.

Universal truths are often taken for granted or limited to banal platitudes of recognition.  This is probably the most true when we speak of our own impending deaths.  It is so true, that that very truth has lost any revelatory dimension.  There is also the unconscious denial and the rationalizations that we use to "cope" with the hard truth of death.  And we cannot spend our time living in fear of an unexpected death.  That would only paralyze our capacity for living.  Yet, how many human beings throughout the world will this very day experience what the rich landowner of the parable did!  A "cardiac episode," a fatal accident, victimization through a horrific crime.  This is the "stuff" of daily living.  And these things will happen to countless human beings this very day.  A Christian needs to have a realistic awareness of precisely such possibilities.  But beyond such a realistic awareness, hopefully a life rich toward God.

This parable is not about creating a sense of fear or trembling in the face of death.  Our Christian hope is meant to liberate us of just such anxiety and fear.  However, I believe that we can speak of a "warning" given to us by the Lord.  Or perhaps a call to vigilance and preparedness.  Of setting our "priorities" in order, as we may say today. We need not be so swept up in our activities and pursuits that we forget God in the process.  There is no real excuse for that. Such an outcome renders our "successes" null and void. When we inevitably die and leave behind everything that we have accumulated, we can either hear the words, "Fool!" as in the parable; or "Well done, good and faithful servant!"  According to Christ this will depend on whether or not we spent a lifetime trying to get "rich towards God."

Friday, November 15, 2019

Forty Shopping (and Fasting) Days Until Christmas

Dear Parish Faithful,

The meditation presented here is found in my book in a somewhat longer version, but with the certainty that in some areas of life "there is nothing new under the sun" (and that shopping sprees before Christmas will assuredly be with us until the sun burns out), I thought it remains timely enough, especially for those who may not familiar with it.

Forty Shopping (and Fasting) Days Until Christmas

Dear Parish Faithful,

On November 15, we will observe the first day of the 40-day Nativity/Advent Fast, meant to prepare us for the advent of the Son of God in the flesh, celebrated on December 25. (The Western observance is from the four Advent Sundays before Christmas). 
For some/many of us this might very well catch us unaware and unprepared. However, as the saying goes, “it is what it is,” and so the church calendar directs us to enter into this sacred season today. 

This indicates an intensification of the perennial “battle of the calendars” that every Orthodox Christian is engaged in consciously or unconsciously. The two calendars – the ecclesial and the secular – represent the Church and “the world” respectively. Often, there is an underlying tension between these two spheres. Because of that tension, I believe that we find ourselves in the rather peculiar situation of being ascetical and consumerist simultaneously. 

To fast, pray and be charitable is to lead a simplified life that is based around restraint, a certain discipline and a primary choice to live according to the principles of the Gospel in a highly secularized and increasingly hedonistic world. That is what it means to be ascetical. It further means to focus upon Christ amidst an ever-increasing amount of distractions and diversions. Even with the best of intentions and a firm resolve that is not easy! From our historical perspective of being alive in the twenty-first century, and leading the “good life” where everything is readily available, practicing any form of voluntary self-restraint is tantamount to bearing a cross. Perhaps fulfilling some modest goals based on the Gospel in today’s world, such as it is, amounts to a Christian witness, unspectacular as those goals may be. 

The Church directs us to fast before we feast... Can we develop some 'domestic strategies' that will give us the opportunity to put that into practice to at least some extent?

Yet, as our society counts down the remaining shopping days until Christmas; and as our spending is seen as almost a patriotic act of contributing to the build-up of our economy; and as we want to “fit in” – especially for the sake of our children – we also are prone (or just waiting) to unleashing the “consumer within” always alert to the joys of shopping, spending and accumulating. When you add in the unending “entertainment” that is designed to create a holiday season atmosphere, it can all get rather overwhelming.

Certainly, these are some of the joys of family life, and we feel a deep satisfaction when we surround our children with the warmth and security that the sharing of gifts brings to our domestic lives. Perhaps, though, we can be vigilant about knowing when “enough is enough;” or even better that “enough is a feast.” An awareness — combined with sharing — of those who have next to nothing is also a way of overcoming our own self-absorption and expanding our notion of the “neighbor.”

Therefore, to be both an ascetic and a consumer is indicative of the challenges facing us as Christians in a world that clearly favors and “caters” to our consumerist tendencies. To speak honestly, this is a difficult and uneasy balance to maintain. How can it possibly be otherwise, when to live ascetically is to restrain those very consumerist tendencies? 

I believe that what we are essentially trying to maintain is our identity as Orthodox Christians within the confines of a culture either indifferent or hostile to Christianity. If the Church remains an essential part of the build-up toward Christmas, then we can go a long way in maintaining that balance. Although I do not particularly like putting it this way, I would contend that if the church is a place of choice that at least “competes” with the mall, then that again may be one of the modest victories in the underlying battle for our ultimate loyalty that a consumerist Christmas season awakens us to. 

The Church directs us to fast before we feast. Does that make any sense? Do we understand the theological/spiritual principles that is behind such an approach? Can we develop some 'domestic strategies' that will give us the opportunity to put that into practice to at least some extent? Do we care enough?

The final question always returns us to the question that Jesus asked of his initial disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” If we confess together with St. Peter that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, then we know where we stand as the “battle of the calendars” intensifies for the next forty days.

The Church calendar indicates the nature of the Nativity Fast. If I can be of any pastoral assistance in helping you formulate that "domestic strategy" referred to above, then please do not hesitate to contact me.

Monday, November 11, 2019

On St John Chrysostom and St Olympia

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Throughout the Fall, I have been interspersing some homilies on the great Church Fathers into the Sunday Liturgy in a conscious campaign to "inspire" everyone to read at least one of their works before the end of the year. Thus, yesterday's homily was devoted to St. John Chrysostom (+407, commemorated on November 13) and his spiritual daughter/friend/confidant, St. Olympia (+408, commemorated on July 25). 

We know a great deal about one of the most beloved of all saints, St. John "the Golden Mouthed" (the meaning of Chrysostom), but many of the faithful are hardly aware of this extraordinary woman, St. Olympia. I would like to again share a passage from her anonymously written Life that I read in the church yesterday. It is a splendid passage of praise that enumerates the saint's tireless "active love" on behalf of others that serves as an outline of genuine Christian virtue:

She lived faultlessly (anendeos) in unmeasured tears day and night "submitting to every ordinance of man for the sake of the Lord" (I Pet. 2:13), full of every reverence, bowing before the saints, venerating the bishops, honoring the presbyters, respecting the priests, welcoming the ascetics, being anxious for the virgins, supplying the widows, raising the orphans, shielding the elderly, looking after the weak, having compassion on sinners, guiding the lost, having pity on all, attending with all her heart to the poor, catechizing many unbelieving women and making provision for all their material necessities of life.
Thus, she left a reputation for goodness throughout her whole life which is ever to be remembered. Having called from slavery to freedom her myriad household servants, she proclaimed them to be of equal honor (isotimon) as her own nobility.

The Life of Olympia, 15

In other words, a life very much worth living! St. Olympia was born around the year 362 into a very noble and wealthy pagan family, but with her eventual conversion to Christianity she was closely connected to many of the most distinguished bishops of her era, including St. Basil the Great and his younger brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa, In fact, St. Gregory dedicated his famous Commentary on The Song of Songs to her. 

In a letter to St. Olympia, in which St. Gregory accepted her prompting to write his commentary, he wrote the following:

I do not offer you anything that would benefit your conduct, for I am persuaded that your soul's eye is pure from every passionate, unclean thought, and that it looks without hindrance at God's grace by means of these divine words of the Song.

We also know that St. Olympia was ordained a deaconess by St. Nektarios, Archbishop of Constantinople. The deaconess had a prominent role in the fourth century Church, as summarized by the scholar Chyrsostomus Bauer:

For the service of women, ecclesiastical deaconesses were assigned. These were widows, or older single women, who were consecrated by the bishop, in a special ceremony involving the laying on of hands, and the donation of a stole or chalice for the liturgical service of the Church. It was their special duty to keep order among the women at divine service [i.e., at the Divine Liturgy]; they gave them the kiss of peace, and also had to admonish women who did not live as they should. They helped with the training of the women catechumens, anointed them at baptism, and also had the duty of bringing Holy Communion to sick women.

John Chrysostom and His Time, Vol. I, 155.

Order from SVS Press
St. Olympia remained fiercely loyal to St. John following his two exiles from the capital of Constantinople, once St. John ran foul of the Empress Eudoxia. As I mentioned and even read from yesterday, St. John composed seventeen letters to St. Olympia from various places of his exile. These are now collected and translated afresh in a fairly new publication Letters to St. Olympia (SVS Press, 2016). 

These letters are wonderful compositions of a saintly pastor continuing to minister to his spiritual daughter while he is suffering the physical and psychological hardships of exile. The letters are also filled with some profound scriptural commentary by St. John as he reflects upon divine providence. Overall, they offer an intimate portrait of a saint who bore his cross with courage and integrity, awaiting his heavenly reward from the divine Bridegroom of the Church. The Introduction to the Letters, by Dr. David Ford (also the translator of the Letters), offers an excellent summary of the relevant background that helps bring the letters to life for the reader. The passages above can be found in this Introduction with a great deal more.

Highly recommended!

Friday, November 8, 2019

An Orthodox Understanding of Acts of Mercy

Dear Parish Faithful,

On Sunday, the homily will focus on St. John Chrysostom (+407; commemorated on November 13), and his close friend, the Deaconess Olympia (+408). Therefore, this year I will not preach on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. I am thus sharing this wonderful reflection of Fr. Thomas Hopko of Christian charity, as that is at the heart of the great parable recorded by St. Luke (10:25-37).

Fr. Steven




Fr. Thomas Hopko

Christ commanded his disciples to give alms. To "give alms" means literally "to do" or "to make merciful deeds" or "acts of mercy." According to the Scriptures the Lord is compassionate and merciful, longsuffering, full of mercy, faithful and true. He is the one who does merciful deeds (see Psalm 103).

Acts of mercy are an "imitation of God" who ceaselessly executes mercy for all, without exception, condition or qualification. He is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.

To "do mercy" means to do good to others in concrete acts of charity. It does not mean, in the first instance, to forgive, or to "let off sinners." A merciful person is one who is kind, gracious, generous and giving; a helper and servant of the poor and needy. For example, St. John the Merciful of Alexandria was a bishop who helped the poor and needy; he was not a judge who let off criminals.

Mercy is a sign of love. God is Love. A deed of merciful love is the most Godlike act a human being can do. "Being perfect" in Matthew's Gospel corresponds to "being merciful" in Luke's Gospel. "Perfection" and "being merciful" are the same thing.

To love as Christ loves, with the love of God who is Love, is the chief commandment for human beings according to Christianity. It can only be accomplished by God's grace, by faith. It is not humanly possible. It is done by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. One can prove one's love for God only by love for one's neighbors, including one's worst enemies, without exception, qualification or condition. There is no other way.

To love God "with all one's strength" which is part of "the first and great commandment" means to love God with all one's money, resources, properties, possessions and powers.

Acts of mercy must be concrete, physical actions. They cannot be "in word and speech, but in deed and truth" (First letter of John and letter of James).

Jesus lists the acts of mercy on which human beings will be judged at the final judgment (Parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25). Acts of mercy are acts done to Christ himself who was hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, in prison and "sick" i.e. wounded for our transgressions on the Christ, taking up of our wounds, and dying our death.

Christian acts of mercy must be done silently, humbly, secretly, not for vanity or praise, not to be seen by men, "not letting the right hand know what the left hand is doing", etc.

Christian acts of mercy must be sacrificial. By this, we understand that we must not simply give to others what is left over. We have to be sharing our possessions with others in ways that limit ourselves in some way (The Widow's Mite).

Acts of mercy should be done without qualification or condition to everyone, no matter who, what or how they are (Parable of the Good Samaritan).

Christians, when possible, should do acts of mercy in an organized manner, through organizations and communities formed to do merciful deeds. Throughout its history the Christian people have had many forms of eleemosynary institutions and activities.

Being the poor Christians are not only to help the poor; they are themselves to be the poor, in and with Jesus Christ their Lord. Christians are to have no more than they actually need for themselves, their children and their dependents.

How much is enough? How much is necessary? What do we really need? How may we use our money and possessions for ourselves, our families, our children and our churches?

These are the hardest questions for Christians to answer.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Byzantine Symphonia in the Nuclear Age

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"He who dwells in peace collects spiritual gifts as it were with a scoop, and he sheds the light of knowledge on others."

- St. Seraphim of Sarov

The students in my Christian Mysticism class at XU recently took their mid-term exam. One young woman in the class chose as one of her "identifications" to describe the life and contributions to Orthodox spirituality of St. Seraphim of Sarov. Many of you know of this great Russian Orthodox saint (+1833) and his incredible life and profound experience of God through his life of interior prayer. 

This young woman is a fine student and her answer was coming along fine until she added: "He is the patron saint of nuclear weapons!" 

That sentence jumped out at me as not only terribly inaccurate, but as completely incongruous when applied to St. Seraphim. The saint was something of a "pacifist" on the personal level at least, regardless of any loyalty he may he felt for the tsar. In one well-known incident from his life, he was badly beaten and left for dead in the forest (something like the fate of the good Samaritan in the parable). He was eventually discovered and brought to the monastery for care and recovery. St. Seraphim did recover, but he remained quite stooped over for the remaining years of his life, as he is often depicted in his icons. But the point being made here is that the saint refused to bring any charges against his assailants once they were apprehended. In the spirit of Christian charity, he simply forgave them. St. Seraphim, therefore, chose not to "nuke" the robbers.

Getting back to my student, I wrote in the margins something like: "I have never heard of this before!" But I made sure to ask her about her source for this rather absurd claim, because I had an uneasy feeling about where it may have come from. And sure enough, she told me that when she had — of course — "googled" St. Seraphim in preparation for the exam, she read about his patronage of nuclear weapons on a Wikipedia article about him. A different site she shared with me, a site that claims to keep track of news coming from Eurasia, had the following statement: "The Russian Department of Defense's 12th Directorate, which is responsible for Russia's nuclear weapons, has been assigned a patron saint by the Russian Orthodox Church: St. Seraphim of Sarov." She was therefore simply passing on what she assumed was accurate information from these two sites. 

So now we have the utterly incoherent claim that this great "mystic," who was actually transfigured before one of his disciples, is extending his heavenly "blessing" to nuclear bombs or, as we now like to call them, "weapons of mass destruction!" This is unfair to the legacy of the saint, and an embarrassing misappropriation of that legacy for the Orthodox Church or for any Orthodox Christian who would have to explain or apologize for it. According to the Gospel, a saint simply cannot be the "patron" of nuclear weapons! That is not simply a non-Christian attitude; it is an anti-Christian attitude.

Yet I have to admit that I am not that surprised. It has been some years now, but I distinctly recall a photograph that was circulating on the internet of a Russian bishop sprinkling missiles on a fighter jet with holy water. That was shocking, to say the least. Within the post-communist Russian Orthodox Church there are definite signs of such an aberration. Key figures within the Church and a sizable portion of the faithful are nostalgically looking back to a "golden age" of the Church's existence when Church and State were closely bound together in a vision usually described as "holy Russia." 

After the horrors of the dreadful and deadly communist regime following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, such nostalgia is understandable. But that "golden age" never really existed in the harsh light of historical analysis. The scholar Dimitri Pospielovsky likened that era actually to a "golden cage." The pre-revolutionary Russian Orthodox Church lacked any real independence under the Russian monarchy, having its status diminished to a position of compromised passivity dating back to the time of the ecclesiastical reforms of Tsar Peter the Great (who much preferred being called the "emperor"). 

Nevertheless, after the "gates of hell" were unleashed against the Russian Orthodox Church by Lenin and Stalin, and the militantly atheistic regime of communist totalitarianism, the former Church-State relationship that existed under the Romanov dynasty could only seem like a long-lost era of freedom of religious expression and a status worthy of eventual recovery. However, in both eras under discussion — pre and post communist — the Church suffers from this relationship, as a privileged position vis-a-vis the State comes at a heavy price: that of offering moral support to the State even when that support compromises the integrity and prophetic voice of the Church.

Another way of explaining this is to employ the phrase used by the scholar Fr. Cyril Hovorun from the title of his book Political Orthodoxies - The Unorthodoxies of the Church Coerced. As Fr. Cyril writes: 

"Modern political Orthodoxies can also be presented as ideologies dressed in the robes of theology ... The difference between the two is that for theology the unseen is the uncreated God, while for ideology, the unseen is the world of ideas confined to the human mind." (p. 7) 

Only amidst such a confusion between theology and ideology could St. Seraphim of Sarov be designated the "patron of nuclear weapons."After a book full of dreary case studies wherein this confusion is chronicled within the contemporary Orthodox world, Fr. Cyril offers a clear choice on this issue: 

"Political Orthodoxies distract the Church from its original Orthodoxy - bringing people to God in the straight and unimpeded way. Deconstruction of false Orthodoxies is possible through the reconstruction of Orthodoxy as the apostles and the fathers of the Church taught and lived in it. An alternative to the politicization of the Church is the apostolic and patristic way of believing, behaving, and belonging." (p. 200-201) 

It is not that difficult to embrace his conclusion.

It is my modest opinion, shared, I am certain, by many others — including Orthodox believers in Russia and elsewhere — that this poorly-conceived retrieval of the old Byzantine symphonia within the context of both a post-communist and postmodern world will not serve the Russian Orthodox Church — or any of the autocephalous Orthodox Churches — well. This lesson could have been learned from pre-revolutionary Russia, for the temptation to restore an idealized "status" to the Church as the moral and spiritual bulwark of the State confuses theology, ideology, nationalism in a way that only obscures the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Monday, October 28, 2019

'Sitting at the feet of Jesus...'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

This last Sunday we heard St. Luke''s account of the healing of the Gadarene demoniacs (Matt. 8:28-9:1). This event, as narrated by St. Matthew, was the appointed reading back on the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost this year.

As is often the case, the details may differ (St. Luke tells us that this occurred in "the country of the Gerasenes") but the same over-all meaning is clearly found in both accounts. I first look at how a major 19th c. novelist grappled with this extraordinary text, before then turning to a wonderful detail peculiar to St. Luke's Gospel.

Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" And he said, "legion;" for many demons had entered him. And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss. Now a large herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside; and they begged him to let them enter into these. So he gave them leave. Then the demons came out of the man and entered into the swine and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and drowned.

When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled, and told it in the city and in the country. Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. And those who had seen it told them how he who had been possessed with demons had been healed. (LK. 8:30-36)

The text above - a partial account of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac - served as one of two epigraphs for Fyodor Dostoevsky's gripping novel that was entitled, simply, Demons. (The novel's title has also been translated, less accurately, as The Possessed).

For Dostoevsky, living and writing in 19th c. Russia, the "demons" were the newly-emerging revolutionaries who were not only determined to overthrow the Russian monarchy; but also committed to abolish belief in God and the Orthodox Christian culture that was shaped by that belief. Aspiring to such a radical rejection of the prevailing political, social, cultural, and religious order, these revolutionaries were named "nihilists," for they believed, essentially, that nothing was sacred or beyond their desire to destroy. Out of the ashes of this nihilistic disorder something resembling a utopian society was to emerge, now cleansed of any dead remnants from the past.

Dostoevsky was hoping that the nihilistic revolutionaries of his era would self-destruct as did the demons - called "legion" - of the Gospel account. In his compelling novel that is precisely what happens, but Dostoevsky was enough of a realist to realize that the outcome could be different, especially with the decay that was eroding the effectiveness of the very institutions he was hoping would withstand such an onslaught. And the reality was that this nihilistic orgy of violence would occur in the generation following his death in 1881.

Thus, Dostoevsky uncannily "prophesied" the later Russian Revolution that engaged in precisely such a sweepingly destructive movement against what was considered a God-established order. But the person who would repent of such nihilistic tendencies and return to faith in Christ was to enjoy the transformative experience of "sitting at the feet of Jesus clothed and in his right mind." This is basically what happens to a major character in the novel. Demons thus proved to be an unforgettable artistic actualization of the Gospel account of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac and what it means to turn to Christ.

It is only in St. Luke's account that we read that wonderful verse of the healed demoniac sitting at the feet of Jesus. Yet, the story of the Garasene demoniac also appears in the Gospels of Sts. Mark and Matthew. It is thus a story that must have made a strong impact on the early Church.

Details will differ - St. Matthew actually records the healing of two demoniacs instead of one - but the intense drama of this narrative cannot but stand out against the bleak background of the rugged landscape, the tombs where the demoniac(s) lived in isolation, and of course the cliff with the abyss below that swallowed up the herd of trampling and frenzied swine. It is an account that more-or-less assaults our modern sensibilities - especially a kind of rationalistic and moralistic Christianity. The realm and reality of the demonic and the "spiritual warfare" implied by recognizing such a realm and reality opens up our minds and hearts to both the irrational and supra-rational world of the Gospel in which Christ has come to "bind" the "strong man."

This is a fierce battle that demands a greater commitment to Christ and the Gospel than conventional Sunday morning church attendance.

It is just such a deeper commitment that will perhaps "reward" us with sitting at the feet of Jesus "clothed" in our right mind. (A weaker commitment may mean that we are content with standing in the back of the church at a safe distance and only occasionally listening - or listening only when we hear something that appeals to us, while shutting out the "hard sayings").

Sitting at the feet of Jesus implies listening to his words, allowing them to penetrate our hearts, and acting upon them to the extent that we are able. We claim that Christ is the "Lord and Master" of our lives. Such a claim means that there is really no other place that we want to "sit" and absorb and be nourished by what we are hearing.

To be in our "right mind" does not simply mean that we have not been diagnosed with a clinically-defined mental disorder. It implies a clarity of vision and a "worldview" grounded in the reality of God's existence and gracious presence. It also means freedom from moral, ethical and spiritual disorders.

Perhaps to sit at the feet of Jesus and to be clothed and in our right mind indicates a state of spiritual sanity.

With a surrounding world engulfed in modes of behavior that can only be considered "insane," the Church remains the "place" where we retain our sanity. That may take some time and some work. The "demons" must first be expelled. We must fear the abyss of destruction that swallows up the possessed swine of the Gospel account. Then we can join the ranks of the saints and sit at the feet of Jesus "clothed and in our right mind."