Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Only Wonder Grasps Anything

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

I was reading an article that was dealing with the issue of the possible convergence between theology and science. The specific theme of the article was an analysis of the current Pope's remarks on the compatibility of belief in God and evolution. Not addressing that specific issue here, I did want to share an interesting metaphor attributed to Albert Einstein on the wonder of the created universe that the article closed with:

The human mind is not capable of grasping the Universe. We are like a little child entering a huge library. The walls are covered to the ceilings with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written these books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they were written. But the child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books - a mysterious order which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects."

I can never quite get a hold on just where Einstein stood on the "God question." Perhaps he was deliberately elusive about this ultimate question. Yet, a metaphor as the one above, certainly has a theistic ring about it; but I have read elsewhere that he did not accept the notion of a "personal God." However, this passage seems to point toward a conscious "Designer." I certainly read the metaphor in that light, as the author of the article also read it; and for which reason he closed his remarks with it. Be that as it may, Einstein's passage reminds me of something St. Gregory of Nyssa said back in the 4th c. (and St. Gregory was clearly one of the greatest minds of the 4th c. - and beyond for that matter):

"Concepts create idols; only wonder grasps anything."

Some of the things said by the Church Fathers are better left to stand without further commentary - as I believe is true of these words of St. Gregory - but rather meditated, reflected and thought over for their deepest meaning. As denizens of the information age, the question for us may be the following: Is there anything that truly fills us with wonder? And what good is a mind packed with information but unable to experience a sense of wonder when reflecting upon the seemingly infinite order of created things, both animate and inanimate? I am convinced that the Church is the "place" that we can maintain our sense of wonder to a remarkable degree. How can it be otherwise when we believe that the very creative Word of God became incarnate as a "little Child," and that after suffering the Cross He was raised from the dead?

Fascinating as it is, the question of the "how" of the existence of the universe - and of our place in it - is insignificant when compared to the "why" of the existence of the universe. We believe and we affirm that everything that exists does so because God exists and the God who exists is the "maker of heaven and earth of all things both visible and invisible." © 2014 Microsoft Terms Privacy & cookies Developers English (United States)

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Forty Shopping (and Fasting) Days Until Christmas

Dear Parish Faithful,

Forty Shopping (and Fasting) Days Until Christmas

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.  

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 failing 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.

Friday, November 7, 2014

On "Spiritual Warfare"

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

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 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 "prophesized" 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 to return to faith in Christ was to enjoy the transformative experience of "sitting at the feet of Jesus clothed and in his right mind." Demons 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 room 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." 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Where do we start?

Dear Parish Faithful,

At the first session of this year's Fall Adult Education class, we discussed the first chapter of Fr. Andrew Louth's book Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology. This chapter had an interesting title: "Thinking and doing; being and praying: where do we start?" Fr. Andrew makes the claim that "these are fundamental human activities. It is the case, I would suggest, that we do not exactly learn to do these things - we engage in these simply by being human - what happens is that we learn what is involved in doing these things." (p. 3) He adds to this a bit more, by saying: 

 " ... we already know the world in some sense, simply by living in it, and what philosophy does is help us to reflect on what is involved in that knowledge of the world. So it is with theology: thinking and doing, being and praying, are activities we all engage in at some level or another." (p. 3) 

 In his excellent book, Fr. Andrew is trying to link theology directly with experience, or what he would call "engagement" with God. This, of course, involves worship and prayer. Here is passage in which he sums this up quite nicely: 

 "This sense of theology as rooted in experience, and yet the idea that this experience is beyond us, so that we are constantly pushed back to repent, to turn again to God: this seems to me absolutely central to the Orthodox experience of theology, of coming to know God." (p. 7) 

 Theology leads us to repentance, because "true" theology - a direction experience of God - is an overwhelming experience of the mystery which is God; a mystery before which we are aware of our sinfulness. 

At the close of this opening chapter, Fr. Andrew includes an extraordinary text that comes from Fr. Pavel Florensky, a brilliant Russian Orthodox theologian from the early 20th c. Fr. Florensky - a living refutation of all that Bolshevism and the Russian revolution stood for - ultimately perished in a Soviet prison camp around 1937. In this short excerpt from his monumental book, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters, Fr. Florensky captures the essence of what it means to live and move within the reality of the Church. There is real depth and beauty in this passage, I believe. A text perhaps to reflect on as we, in turn, live and move within the Church to this day: 

 the life of the Church is assimilated and known only through life - not in the abstract, not is a rational way. If one must nevertheless apply concepts to the life of the Church, the most appropriate concepts would be not juridical and archaeological ones but biological and aesthetic ones. What is ecclesiality? It is a new life, life in the Spirit. What is the criterion of the rightness of this life? Beauty. Yes, there is a special beauty of the spirit, and, ungraspable by logical formulas, it is at the same time the only true path to the definition of what is orthodox and what is not orthodox. 

The connoisseurs of this beauty are the spiritual elders, the startsy, the masters of the "art of arts," as the holy fathers call asceticism. The startsy were adept at assessing the quality of the spiritual life. The Orthodox taste, the Orthodox temper, is felt but it is not subject to arithmetical calculation. Orthodoxy is shown, not proved. That is why there is only one way to understand Orthodoxy: through direct orthodox experience ... to become Orthodox, it is necessary to immerse oneself all at once in the very elements of Orthodoxy, to begin living in an Orthodox way. There is no other way. (p. 14-15)

Monday, October 27, 2014

St John Chrysostom: 'On Wealth and Poverty'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Christians of East and West will agree that one of the premier preachers in the entire history of the Church is St. John Chrysostomos - the "Golden-mouthed."  His "presence," of course, is most alive in the Orthodox Church as we celebrate the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom on a weekly basis; find his icon adorning the apses and naves of many Orthodox churches; celebrate his various commemorations on the ecclesiastical calendar with some consistency (September 14, November 13, January 30); and read his homilies of a pronounced moral and ethical nature with great appreciation for his wonderful insights to this day.  Not all Orthodox Christians know St. John's life as well as they should - but all have heard of him and from him! 

Yet, if St. John were to be with us today, I rather doubt that he would be "popular" - at least not in the conventional sense of that word.  We would find his relentless preaching of the Gospel altogether too challenging, or even too demanding of us as Christians, both in our relationship with God and with each other.  In fact, we know that it was St. John's uncompromising  adherence to the precepts of the Gospel that led to his untimely and even tragic death in the year 407.

Before that great drama of ecclesiastical intrigue unfolded in the imperial city of Constantinople, St. John was a presbyter in the large cosmopolitan city of Antioch.  In the year 388 or 389, we know that he delivered a series of homilies on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (LK. 16:19-31).  These magnificent homilies, combining an endless stream of insights into the parable together with an unmatched rhetorical skill, clearly demonstrate why St. John is, indeed, the "Golden-mouthed," and why he is considered to this day one of the Church's greatest biblical exegetes.

These homilies exist in English translation, published as part of the "Popular Patristic Series" by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.  This collection of homilies is appropriately entitled On Wealth and Poverty.  I bring all of this up on this particular Monday morning, because it was during yesterday's celebration of the Liturgy (of St. John Chrysostom!) that the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man was read.  (Since there is some divergence in the lectionary among various Orthodox churches, those following the Greek/Byzantine tradition had a different reading assigned for yesterday).  Be that as it may, I would like to offer just a few excerpts from these homilies to perhaps further impress the Lord's parable upon our minds and hearts, so that what we heard yesterday is not forgotten today in the rush of our hectic lives.

The parable deals with "otherworldly" and "worldly" reality - for death, judgment, paradise (the "bosom of Abraham"), hades, etc. are an integral part of a parable that also tells us about wealth and poverty.  There is, then, an "eschatological extension" to wealth and poverty according to the Lord.  It is in death, St. John tells us, that our true "face" is revealed:

Just as in the theatre, when evening falls and the audience departs, and the kings and generals go outside to remove the costumes of their roles, they are revealed to everyone thereafter appearing to be exactly what they are, so also now when death arrives and the theatre is dissolved, everyone puts off the masks of wealth or poverty and departs to the other world. When all are judged by their deeds alone, some are revealed truly wealthy, others poor, some of high class, others of no account.  (Homily II)

In the parable, we hear of a stark "reversal of fortune," as Lazarus is escorted to the "bosom of Abraham" by the angels; and the rich man (does his lack of a name signify his loss of true personhood through indulgence and gratification?) is delivered to Hades.  This reversal is revealed to the rich man in sober, simple, yet utterly shattering words:

Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.  (LK. 16:25

Here is just one example from among many of St. John developing this particular theme:

... Therefore when you see anyone living I wickedness but suffering no misfortune in this life, do not call him lucky, but weep and mourn for him, because he will have to endure all the misfortunes in the next life, just like the rich man.  Again, when you see anyone cultivating virtue, but enduring a multitude of trials, call him lucky, envy him, because all his sins are being dissolved in this life, and a great reward for his endurance is being prepared in the next life, just as it happened for this man Lazarus.  (Homily III)

No one has surpassed St. John for drawing out the moral implications of what is revealed by the words of Christ as recorded in the Gospels.  He does not hesitate in following the Gospel in turning upside down the "values" of this world.  Hence, his words concerning true wealth and poverty:

Let us learn from this man not to call the rich lucky nor the poor unfortunate.  Rather, if we are to tell the truth, the rich man is not the one who has collected many possessions but the one who needs few possessions; and the poor man is not the one who has no possessions but the one who has many desires.  We ought to consider this the definition of poverty and wealth. So if you see someone greedy for many things, you should consider him the poorest of all, even if he has acquired every one's money.  If, on the other hand, you see someone with few needs, you should count him the richest of all, even if he has acquired nothing.  (Homily II)

I recall that St. John once said that two of the most dangerous words in our vocabulary are "mine" and "thine."  These words divide more than they unite.  They can relieve us of our responsibility toward the neighbor that God points in our direction.  In a passage that would have fairly radical social implications if applied consistently, St. John redefines "theft" based upon his reading of the Scriptures:

I shall bring you testimony from the divine Scriptures, saying that only theft of others' goods but also the failure to share one's goods with others is theft and swindle and defraudation ... (Here St. John cites passages such as MAL. 3:8-10 and SIR. 4:1, and then continues) ...  To deprive is to take what belongs to another; for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others.  By this we are taught then when we do not show mercy, we will be punished just like those who steal.  For our money is the Lord's, however we may have gathered it.  If we provide for those in need, we shall obtain great plenty.  This is why God has allowed you to have more:  not for you to waste on prostitutes, drink, fancy food, expensive clothes, and all the other kinds of indulgence, but for you to distribute to those in need ... If you are affluent, but spend more than you need, you will give account of the funds which were entrusted to you ... For you obtained more than others have, and you have received it, not to spend it for yourself, but to become a good steward for others as well.  (Homily II)

I am not trying to spoil your next shopping mall excursion - or for those like me, the next trip to the bookstore - but it is essential to be aware of the great gulf that separated conspicuous consumption from biblical stewardship!

Perhaps St. John Chrysostom's closing words from his Second homily will prove to be a fitting conclusion for us today:

... If it is possible for you, remember everything I have said.  If you cannot remember everything, instead of everything, I beg you, remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs.  If we have this attitude, we will certainly offer our money; and by nourishing Christ in poverty here and laying up great profit hereafter, we will be able to attain the good things which are to come, by the grace and kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, with Whom be glory, honor and might, to the Father, together with the Holy Spirit, now and every and unto ages of ages.  Amen.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Reflections on Autumn

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

     From my personal and, admittedly, "subjective" perspective, there is nothing quite like the Fall among the four seasons.  For me, this season's greatest attraction is found in the flaming red, orange, yellow and golden leaves that transform familiar trees into a series of neighborhood "burning bushes," each one seemingly brighter than the other.  When combined with a piercing blue sky on a sunlit day and a certain crispness in the air, I find myself more vividly aware of the surrounding world and thankful for God's creation.  On a somewhat more "philosophical note" - more apt to emerge, perhaps, on an overcast, windswept day - we may realize that this "colorful death" signals the fleeting nature of everything beautiful in this world, "for the form of this world is passing away."  (I COR. 7:31)  And yet this very beauty and the sense of yearning that accompanies it, is a sign of the beauty ineffable of the coming Kingdom of God.

     Growing up on a typical city block in Detroit, I distinctly recall a neighborhood "ritual" that marked this particular season:  the raking and burning of leaves that went on up and down the entire block once most of the leaves had spiraled and floated to the ground.  Everyone on the block raked the leaves down toward the street and into neatly-formed mounds of color that rested alongside the curb.  Then they were lit and the task of raking now became that of tending and overseeing the piles of burning leaves.  This usually occurred after dinner for most families but one could still see the shimmering waves of heat that protected one from the early evening chill and the ascending ashes rushing upward.  Please momentarily forgive my politically incorrect indifference to the environment, but I thoroughly enjoyed those small bonfires near the curb as the pungent smell of burning leaves filled the air.  This unmistakable smell would, as I recall, linger in the air for a couple of weeks or more as different neighbors got to the task at different times. ("Playing with matches" and the simple fascination with fire was, of course, an added attraction for a young and curious boy).

     The entire scene embodied the wholesomeness of a 50's first-grade reading primer, as "Mom" and "Dad," together with "Dick" and "Jane" (and perhaps "Spot," the frisky family dog) smilingly co-operated in this joint, familial enterprise.  The reading primer would reformulate this "celebration" of healthy work and a neatly-ordered environment into a staccato of minimally-complex sentences:  "See Dad rake;" "Dick and Jane are raking too;" "Here comes mom!"  ("Mom," of course, would invariably be wearing a pretty dress, and "Jane" a skirt, during this outdoor activity).  This all served to increase the budding student's vocabulary while reinforcing a picture of an idealized - if not idyllic - American way of life.  Since my parents were peasants from a Macedonian village, we never quite fit into that particular mode - especially when my mother would speak to me in Macedonian in front of my friends!   And yet I distinctly remember teaching my illiterate mother to read from those very "Dick and Jane" primers so that she could obtain her American citizenship papers, which she proudly accomplished in due time.   

     Before getting too nostalgic, however, I will remind you that all of this, for me at least, was taking place at the height of Cold War anxiety and another clear memory from my youth:  the air-raid drills in our schools that were meant to prepare us and protect us from a Soviet nuclear strike.  (Khrushchev's shoe-pounding exhibition at the United Nations, together with his ominous "We will bury you!" captured the whole mood of this period).  These carefully-executed air-raid drills were carried out with due solemnity and seriousness - lines straight and no talking allowed!  We would wind our way down into a fairly-elaborate - if not labyrinthine - series of basement levels that were seemingly constructed, and thus burdened, with the hopeless task of saving us from nuclear bombs!   We would then sit in neatly-formed rows monitored by our teachers, and apparently oblivious to the real dangers of the Cold War world, until the "all clear" signal was given allowing us to file back to our classrooms.  Thus did the specter of the mushroom cloud darken the sunny skies of "Dick" and "Jane's" age of innocence.

     I must acknowledge that my short nostalgic digression does not offer a great deal to meditate upon.  So as not to entirely frustrate that purpose - and because I began with some brief reflections on the created world - I would like to offer some of the wonderful praises of the beauty of the world around us from the remarkable Akathist Hymn "Glory to God for All Things."  This hymn, which has become quite popular in many Orthodox parishes, was composed by an Orthodox priest when he was slowly perishing in a Soviet prison camp in 1940.  In unscientific, yet theological-poetic imagery, he reminds us of what we are often blind to:  God's glorious creation.  Would he also have "missed" all of this if his life was as free as ours are to be preoccupied with daily concerns and cares that leave no time or room to look around in wonder?

O Lord, how lovely it is to be Your guest.  Breeze full of scents; mountains reaching to the skies; waters like boundless mirrors, reflecting the sun's golden rays and the scudding clouds.  All nature murmurs mysteriously, breathing the depth of tenderness.  Birds and beasts of the forest bear the imprint of Your love.  Blessed are you, mother earth, in your fleeting loveliness, which wakens our yearning for happiness that will last forever.  In the land where, amid beauty that grows not old, rings out the cry:  Alleluia!  (Kontakion 2)

You have brought me into life as if into an enchanted paradise.  We have seen the sky like a chalice of deepest blue, where in the azure heights the birds are singing.  We have listened to the soothing murmur of the forest and the melodious music of the streams.  We have tasted fruit of fine flavor and the sweet-scented honey.  We can live very well on Your earth.  It is a pleasure to be Your guest.  (Ikos 2)

I see Your heavens resplendent with stars.  How glorious You are, radiant with light!  Eternity watches me by the rays of the distant stars.  I am small, insignificant, but the Lord is at my side.  Your right arm guides me wherever I go.  (Ikos 5)
Fr. Steven

Friday, September 26, 2014

'So Real' - Moving Beyond Mere Belief

Dear Parish Faithful,

I recently came across this very intriguing text that I wanted to share with everyone:

"I knew you that you existed but did not believe it was so real."

To my mind, this anonymous text has a certain "modern" feel to it; as if somehow similar in meaning and intent to the title of C.S. Lewis's autobiographical work, in which he describes his slow conversion to Christianity with the title Surprised by Joy. It also brings to mind the 17th c. French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, who wrote in his Pensees  - in which he records his "conversion experience" - that he has encountered "not the God of the philosophers, but the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob."

Yet, the actual source of this text is described as follows:  "Graffiti on the side wall of a church near the catacombs of St. Callistus and St. Sebastian on the outskirts of Rome." That would place it somewhere in the 2nd or 3rd century of the Christian era.  Be that as it may, I would only add: quite a piece of graffiti!  One brief sentence that has more content than some long and laborious theology books.  Whoever scratched these words on that catacomb wall had an experience of the overwhelming and "awesome" presence of God, wherein God is no longer simply a concept or even an object of belief; but an actual living presence that almost takes one's breath away. 

I believe that this is the image of God that Jesus presented in His teachings - a God that was "so real" that He could be called "Our Father."  With an experience like that of our anonymous wall scribbler, we can then understand the teaching of Christ about leaving everything aside to continue that relationship, to which nothing can really compare. A God that is "so real" is not the kind "you have to wind up on Sunday" - to quote an old progress rock band's lyrics.

If we can actually ever "lay aside all earthly care" just at the Liturgy, then perhaps such an experience of God is not beyond our grasp.  I believe that our common hope as Christians is to move beyond a belief that God exists into a living relationship with the living God "who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth."  (I TIM. 2:4)

Image: Procession in the Catacombs of St Callistus, Rome. (Wikipedia)