Friday, August 8, 2014

The Terrific Cost of Choice

Reflections on Charles Manson and Saint Herman of Alaska

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

It was forty-five years ago today - August 8, 1969 - that some of the most horrific and heinous crimes in American history were committed in California.  These were the so-called "Manson murders" in which seven people were brutally killed in the seemingly safe haven of their homes by the drug-induced followers of the cult leader Charles Manson, a self-styled "modern-day messiah."  (Actually, two of the killings occurred two days after the initial five on August 8). Unfortunately, the name of Charles Manson remains well-known to this day within the ranks of the infamous and defamed characters of American crime history - especially among those who were alive and old enough to grasp the gruesome nature of those murders forty-five years ago.  I belong to that group as I was sixteen years old at the time, and I remember fairly-well the shock that these murders evoked in the entire nation.  The murders, the arrests, the bizarre antics at the trial of the "Manson family" and the unfolding of the details of this sordid case became something of a fixation for the entire nation up to the time of the sentencing of the killers.  The inevitable book to follow, Helter Skelter, was a huge best-seller for years and I believe still remains in print.  These murders brought to a sober and even stunning end the fantasy-like idealization that had accompanied the "hippie movement" of the 60's.

"My Life After Manson."

This was an event of the past tucked away in the far recesses of my memory, I can assure everyone. I am not writing this with any continuing fascination with the case. However, I happened to come across a short ten-minute video-documentary while reading the New York Times on the internet the other day entitled "My Life After Manson."  This was an interview with one of Manson's cult followers, Patricia Krenwinkel.  Incarcerated for forty-five years now, she is the longest-serving woman within the California penal system.  She was initially on death-row, but that sentence was commuted. The interview is of a woman who must now be about sixty-five years old, alone in the frame against a stark black background. By appearance and dress (she is not wearing a prison uniform) she could be anyone's grandmother.  I found this to be an arresting piece based upon what Patricia Krenwinkel had to say of her past and the tremendous effort she has made through the years to come to terms with that past in order to be the woman she is today.

Recognizing herself as a "different person" today, she openly called herself a "coward" for participating in a "situation" that she could only describe as "disastrous, horrendous and abominable."  She briefly described an unhappy childhood and adolescence during which she "never fitted in" with her surrounding world, and following an older and equally unhappy step-sister, she "dropped out" by eighteen and began a life of self-destruction fueled by alcohol and drugs.  Inevitably, she encountered the Manson circle and "initially accepted everything that that man told me." She was obsessed with "wanting to please," "feel safe," and have someone "care for me," for she had "never felt that" previously in her life. In the process she now realizes that she "gave up the person I could have been," and that she was "throwing away the rest of my life."  Perhaps the most telling and even poignant remark she made was that she only "wanted to be loved," but that she had a "skewed definition of love," and that eventually it "only ended up wrong."  (I often think to myself just how many hardened criminals are now in prison because they never experienced anything even resembling love in their lives.  That is not a sentimental dismissal of their crimes, for which they deserve punishment, but simply a recognition of how a "loveless life" is so much more prone to choose the "road to perdition"). Thus, she found herself "broken beyond repair" on death-row by the time she was twenty-three years old, and during which she spent twenty-three hours in the day in a small cell.

She basically describes an experience of deep repentance — in rather raw terms — of facing up to a past filled with unimaginable sin and evil.

How could this possibly happen?  It seems that Patricia Krenwinkel has been spending the better part of her forty-five years in prison in a quest for self-knowledge and self-understanding. She claims that she reached a point where she had to "make the decision of my life," recognizing that "everything that I had ever believed was wrong," in the process "pulling apart the enmeshed garbage" that she sank her life into.  And this, she further adds, was the "most difficult thing" imaginable. Her comments from this point on were quite intriguing because she basically describes an experience of deep repentance, though that word or any mention of God or the "spiritual" never enters into her chosen vocabulary.  What she described was therefore a kind of secular repentance, fueled by what seemed to be a deep remorse.  In this quest for self-knowledge, she spoke in terms that could best be described as a "confession" that she was "responsible for the damage, wreckage and horror" that destroyed so many lives forty-five years ago.  She claims to take on that sense of responsibility every day of her life.  Yet this has given her the freedom to recreate her life, and to embrace, in her words, "my beliefs" and "my choices."  What must she think of Charles Manson today? In other words, Patricia Krenwinkle now admits that she has learned about choice "at a most horrific cost."  All in all, this short documentary was a moving piece in which a human person openly speaks - in rather raw terms - of facing up to a past filled with unimaginable sin and evil. Living with that self-knowledge must now be an unimaginable burden. Only God knows how this all works itself out.

With St. Herman we encounter an "angel in the flesh" and with Charles Manson we encounter a "demon in the flesh."  The one embodies the "mystery of holiness" and the other the "mystery of evil."  The saint was deified and the sinner was dehumanized...

Tomorrow — August 9 — we commemorate St. Herman of Alaska.  On the one hand, there is St. Herman; and on the other hand there is Charles Manson.  What an abyss lies between the two!  What a stark contrast between light and darkness!  Or between the beauty of the image enhanced by choosing the good and the deformed ugliness of choosing evil. With St. Herman we encounter an "angel in the flesh" and with Charles Manson we encounter a "demon in the flesh."  The one embodies the "mystery of holiness" and the other the "mystery of evil."  The saint was deifed and the sinner was dehumanized.  This brings to mind the memorable words of one of Dostoevsky's most memorable characters, Dmitri Karamazov.  In grappling with the "mystery of beauty" that can deflect one from the "ideal of the Madonna" to the "ideal of Sodom," Dmitri articulates his perplexity with the following words:

No, man is broad, even too broad, I would narrow him down.  Devil knows even what to make of him, that's the thing!  What's shame for the mind is beauty all over for the heart.  Can there be beauty in Sodom?  Believe me, for the vast majority of people, that's just where beauty lies - did you know that secret?  The terrible thing is that beauty is not only fearful but mysterious. Here the devil is struggling with God, and the battlefield is the human heart.  (The Brothers Karamazov, Bk. 3, Ch. 3)

This is not the usual material that I choose for these "Fragments for Friday," but this particular story was a reminder of how the heart can wander into very dark territory.  We need our own vigilance so that the "ideal of the Madonna" always prevails over the "ideal of Sodom."  May God protect us!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Obedience, and the Feast of Divine Beauty

Dear Fathers,  Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

    Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, a Feast of light and glory celebrated every year on August 6.  The account of the Transfiguration can be found in three of the Gospels - MATT. 17:1-9; MK. 9:2-8; LK. 9:28-36.  There is also a powerful eyewitness account of  the event written by the Apostle Peter in II PET.1:10-19.  All of these scriptural accounts deserve a careful and prayerful reading. The transfigured Lord reveals the splendor of a human being fully alive, for Christ reveals to us the perfect image of humanity transfigured by the glory of God.  That is why "his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light" (MATT. 17:2).  The hymnography of the Feast makes this point over and over:

In His own person he showed them the nature of man, arrayed in the original beauty of the image ...
Thou has made the nature that had grown dark in Adam to shine again as lightning transforming it into the glory and splendor of thy divinity.
(Vespers Aposticha of the Feast)  

Christ reveals both our origin and our destiny on Mt. Tabor.  As the "radiance of the Father" (HEB. 1:3)  He is the perfect and natural Ikon/Image of the invisible God (COL. 1:15).  As human beings created according to the image and likeness of God, we are actually "images of the Image." What Christ is by nature, is what we are meant to be by grace - "partakers of the divine nature"  (II PET. 1:4)  This is promised and pledged to us in the Age to Come when "the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father," (MATT. 13:43) but revealed now in Christ Who is the incarnate Son of God.  A revelation, no doubt, of extraordinary beauty!   Thus, the Transfiguration is a Feast of divine beauty.  Can anything more splendid  possibly be envisioned?

     In other words, whatever Christ does or says, is what a perfect human being united to God would do or say.  He not only reveals God to us, but also humanity.  Look at Christ and you are looking at what it means to be truly and genuinely human.  He is what Adam was meant to be, but failed to be because of sin.  As Christ is without sin, He is the "last (and perfect) Adam."  He is also the "man of heaven"  because He reveals to us what heaven is like, where we will bear his image (I COR. 15: 47-49).   All of this was revealed to the disciples on Mt. Tabor when, with even more than the dazzling and startling power of an unexpected flash of lightning, Christ was "transfigured before them."  In that glorious splendor, the disciples Peter, James and John received a glimpse of the End of Time before it has actually come.  That is a good deal to take in at once, so it is no wonder that the disciples "fell on their faces and were filled with awe" (MATT. 17:2,6)!   It is simultaneously no wonder that Peter made a suggestion to the Lord - "I will make three booths" - in the hope of prolonging this experience.  Through them, and our celebration of the Feast, we receive that same glimpse.  The King reveals to us His Kingdom, so that we may be attracted to it and then live for it.  In that sense we are future-oriented as Christians.

    But if Christ is the perfect human being, then He is such because of His obedience to His heavenly Father.  He is always "obedient unto death, even death on a cross"  (PHIL. 2:8).  This is why the Lord came down from the mountain. Neither He nor the disciples were able to linger there.  He had yet to accomplish His "exodus" at Jerusalem. ( LK. 9:31)  This is clearly an allusion to the Cross and Resurrection.  In fact, Christ was "made perfect" because "he learned obedience through what he suffered"  (HEB. 5:8-9).  Christ was never not obedient to His Father!   He always said to His heavenly Father: "not my will, but thine, be done"  (LK. 22:42).  His authority and glory are firmly grounded in that obedience.  The result and consequence of this obedience is expressed by the Apostle Paul by his use of the word "therefore" in the following passage:

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  (PHIL. 2:9-11)

     St. Paul, however, is not finished with drawing out further consequences for us with another "therefore:"

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.   (PHIL. 2:12-13)

    It seems rather clear, "therefore," that we must be obedient to God - like Christ was at all times and in all things - if we are to share in His glory at the End of Time.

Friday, August 1, 2014

A Matter of Choice: The Holy Maccabean Martyrs

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"We are ready to die rather than break the laws of our fathers."  (II MACC. 7:2)

On August 1, we commemorate "The Holy Seven Maccabee Children, Solomone their mother, and Eleazar their Teacher."  They were all put to death in the year 168 B.C.  They were thus protomartyrs before the time of Christ and the later martyrs of the Christian era.  They died because they refused to reject the precepts of the Law when ordered to do so by the Syrian tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes IV.  After conquering the Holy Land, Antiochus wanted to subvert the uniqueness of the Jews and force them to assimilate to the standards and practices of the prevailing Hellenistic culture.  By attacking the precepts of the Law, Antiochus was aiming to destroy the very heart of Judaism.  The Jews would then become like the "other nations," and perhaps their smoldering resentment against their conquerors would be extinguished.  This, of course, did not happen, because the Maccabean revolt, led by Judas Maccabaeus, not only resisted but expelled the Hellenized Syrian invaders and restored the Kingdom of Israel to its former glory days one last time (142 - 63 B.C.) before the Romans under Pompey reduced the Kingdom of Israel to a conquered province.

To return to the story of the Maccabees, we find them, under the guidance of their teacher Eleazar, resisting the decree that they eat pork, which was prohibited by the Law.  Understanding that this was a threat against their entire traditional way of life, Eleazor refused and was subsequently tortured until he died.  He was simply asked to "pretend" to eat the meat, so as to encourage others to do so.  In reply, his dying words as recorded in II MACC. 6:24-28, eloquently attest to his fidelity to the Law of God:

Send me quickly to my grave.  If I went through with this pretense at my time of life, many of  young might believe that at the age of ninety Eleazar had turned apostate.  If I practiced deceit for the sake of a brief moment of life, I should lead them astray and bring stain and pollution on my old age. I might for the present avoid man's punishment, but, alive or dead, I shall never escape from the hands of the Almighty. So if I now die bravely, I shall show that I have deserved my long life and leave the young a fine example to teach them how to die a good death, gladly and nobly, for our revered and holy laws.

Following the death of Eleazar, the seven Maccebee brothers were arrested together with their mother, Salomone.  They were also tortured for refusing to eat pork, and one of them said:  "We are ready to die rather than break the laws of our fathers"  (II MACC. 7:2).  Enraged by such pious resistance, the tyrant ordered that all seven brothers be tortured by various inhuman means.  All of this was witnessed by their mother who watched all seven of her sons perish in a single day.  Acting "against nature," she encouraged her children "in her native tongue" to bravely withstand the assaults on their tender flesh:

You appeared in my womb, I know not how; it was not I who gave you life and breath and set in order your bodily frames.  It is the Creator of the universe who moulds man at his birth and plans the origin of all things. Therefore he, in his mercy, will give you back life and breath again, since now you put his laws above all thought of self.  (II MACC. 7:22-23)

We find in her last sentence, a clear allusion to belief in the resurrection from the dead.

Especially poignant is the death of her last and youngest son.  He was promised riches and a high position if he only agreed to "abandon his ancestral customs."  The mother was urged to "persuade her son," which she did in the following manner:

My son, take pity on me.  I carried you nine months in the womb, suckled you three years, reared you and brought you up to the present age.  I beg you, child, look at the sky and the earth; see all that is in them and realize that God made them out of nothing, and that man comes into being in the same way. Do not be afraid of this butcher; accept death and prove yourself worthy of your brothers, so that by God's mercy I may receive you back again along with them.  (II MACC. 7:27-29)

In v. 28, we may hear the clearest declaration of the belief that God creates "ex nihilo" (from nothing) in the entire Old Testament.

The youngest of the brothers then died after both witnessing to the meaning of their martyrdom and warning the tyrant of his own inevitable fate:

My brothers have now fallen in loyalty to God's covenant, after brief pain leading to eternal life; but you will pay the just penalty of your insolence by the verdict of God.  I, like my brothers, surrender my body and my life for the laws of our fathers. ... (II MACC. 7:36-37)

We then simply read that "after her sons, the mother died."  (II MACC. 7:39)

It is difficult to say to what extent we can actually relate to all of this today.  We may deeply respect the devotion to the Law that is exhibited in this moving story of multiple matyrdoms - and perhaps be especially moved by the beautiful words of the mother that express our own belief in the creative power of God, His providential care for us and the ultimate gift of resurrection and eternal life with God - but this is far-removed from our contemporary Christian sensibilities.  In fact, such devotion today could very well strike us as overly-zealous, if not fanatical.  The prospects of such martyrdoms are not exactly on our radar screens.  Be that as it may, I believe that we have something more than passingly important that we can learn from this ancient story.

We begin the Dormition Fast today. We are encouraged by the Church - our "Mother" we could say - to embrace the fast with the certainty that we are being guided into a practice that is designed to strengthen our spiritual well-being.  This is part of an Orthodox way of life that has been witnessed to for centuries by the faithful of the Church.  We could also say that such practices belong to the "laws of our fathers."  By embracing such practices we continue in the traditions that have been handed down to us.  To ignore such practices is to break with that Tradition.  That can lead to an erosion of our self-identity as Orthodox Christians, especially considering our "minority status" in the landscape of American religion.  The spirit of the tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes is alive and well in the constant temptation we face to assimilate to the surrounding culture.  But that "culture" is often reduced to finding the meaning of life in "eating, drinking and making merry."  There are no official decrees that demand that we abandon our Faith.  But there is a never-ending drone that 'pollutes" the atmosphere with the seductions of a Godless way of life, precisely because of of how pleasingly it is presented.  In other words, a dear price is paid for the comforts of conformity.

We are hardly being asked to be martyrs; but to manifest some restraint and discipline in order to strengthen our inner lives as we fast bodily to some extent.  If we convince ourselves that this is inconvenient, uncomfortable, or undesirable, then we place ourselves outside of the very Tradition we claim to follow and respect.  Older members of the community can bear in mind the words of Eleazar and realize that we are setting an example for our younger members.  We are responsible for preparing the next generation.  Mothers - and fathers! - can exhort their children in a way that is encouraging and not just demanding.  This has nothing to do with mere "legalism," but with a way of life that has been practiced for centuries by Orthodox Christians, and which is just as meaningful today as in the past. And, as with the Seven Maccabee Children, it is ultimately a matter of choice.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Stick With The Program

Dear Parish Faithful,

Tomorrow, August 1, we begin the two-week Dormition Fast that will culminate with the Vesperal Liturgy for the Feast on Thursday evening, August 14.  As these are fixed dates on an annual basis, this should not come as a surprise to anyone. A fast in the middle of the summer - if only for two weeks - is always a challenge, for often our life in the Church is not a real priority as we readily turn elsewhere for "personal fulfillment."

Be that as it may, my pastoral advice would be to "stick with the program."  It is good for both the soul and body.  If approached in a good spirit, the fast can refresh our spirits and remind us of the real priorities of an Orthodox Christian.  And those would be the living God and the "things of God" as mediated to us through the Church. As the Scripture teaches:

Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.  Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.  (HEB. 12:12-14)

This particular fast is in honor of the Virgin Mary and Theotokos.  We commemorate and even celebrate her "falling asleep" in the Lord as we learn through her what is meant by a "good death."  Seeing that death is our inevitable fate, that may be a good lesson at any given time in our lives. If we take seriously the universal Motherhood of the Theotokos, these two weeks help us focus on the unique role of the Virgin Mary as the ultimate Intercessor for the salvation of our souls and bodies.  There is an endless amount of good literature about the Theotokos that is readily available.  Doing some reading in that literature during the fast can also be a timely activity.

Over the years, this Vesperal Liturgy has been well-attended as the meaning of this Feast has probably grown for us as a parish family.  So make a point of marking that date - August 14 - and "reserving" it for the Vesperal Liturgy.  And before we reach the Feast of the Dormition we come to the Transfiguration on August 6.  This Feast will also be celebrated with a Vesperal Liturgy on Tuesday evening, August 5, at 6:00 p.m., at which we will also bless our fruit baskets. These Feasts will allow us the opportunity as a parish to recover a bit from a summer of poor non-Sunday attendance.

However, think through these things, for this is a matter of choice and not compulsion.  You are free to embrace or ignore the Dormition Fast.

For my part, I will again offer my pastoral counsel:  "Stick with the program" - it will not let you down.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Love of Money

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"The love of money is the root of all evils." (I TIM. 6:10)

"Money (That's What I Want)" - The Beatles and various other artists

In all of his epistles, the Apostle Paul proves to be an admirable pastor.  His epistles are filled with theological insights, moral/ethical teaching, exhortations, and even chastisements that are meant to be practical and applicable to the life-situations within the local churches that he was instrumental in establishing throughout the Graeco-Roman world of the first Christian century.  Thus, we could say that the Apostle was a pastoral theologian. His theological insights were meant to impact the lives of these earliest of Christians, so that Christ would be alive in each and every one of them. He was guiding his newly-formed Christian communities in the new way of life that was now being shaped by the Gospel. Each and every one of his epistles is filled with remarkable pastoral direction and guidance.

Be that as it may, there are three epistles that are now specifically called "the Pastoral Epistles" - I & II TIM. & TITUS.  These epistles are addressed to specific individuals - Sts. Timothy and Titus - who were appointed by St. Paul to guide, establish and organize the Christian presence in both Ephesus and Crete into vibrant and Christ-centered communities, or "parishes" as we would call them today.  In other words, Sts. Timothy and Titus are to be worthy pastors who can lead others in fulfilling the precepts of the Gospel. There were two main concerns of the Apostle Paul in the pastoral training of both Sts.Timothy and Titus: the teaching of sound doctrine and the organization of a responsible leadership in the churches under their supervision to ensure their continuity with the Gospel as St. Paul received it and handed it down.

Yet, there are many other issues covered in these epistles by St. Paul in his desire to prepare his co-laborers in the area of pastoral guidance. In one of many well-known passages in these pastoral epistles the Apostle Paul addresses the thorny question of money and its proper use and potential abuse.  The issue of money has at least two sides to it, so the Apostle's pastoral comments and insights are both positive and negative.  In fact, I believe that it is his initial negative assessment of money that is the most well-known aspect of his over-all treatment of the subject. That passage reads as follows:

There is great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content.  But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs.  (I TIM. 6:6-10)

We should point out that the famous phrase "for the love of money is the root of all evils" is not a specifically Christian insight.  This was a commonplace teaching within the moral/ethical norms of Greek philosophy.  Be that as it may, we should further notice that St. Paul is placing his negative assessment of money within the context of the potential godliness that comes with contentment. If only we could learn to be content with what we have!  Clothing and food should suffice!  In a complicated and capitalist society driven by the need for money just to survive - let alone the persistent drive to accumulate as much money as possible as the key to "happiness" - that will certainly sound na├»ve and unrealistic. We have a seemingly endless number of bills to pay; and unexpected expenses are all but inevitable.  And, we have "appearances" to maintain.  For many it is a real struggle just to keep up - and many do not. However, if we make the necessary adjustments, we can easily understand what the Apostle Paul means by "contentment." It is an interior attitude that a person aiming toward "godliness" can assume in any and all cultural and social environments. Contentment is the sign of the person who can say: "enough is a feast."  But it is discontent that is fueled by an inordinate love of money.  And discontent will manifest itself in a tangled web of bad consequences that result from the craving for money that will pierce the heart "with many pangs."  St. John Chrysostom, in his commentary on this passage, expands on the horrific consequences of the love of money to a universal dimension:

What evils are caused by wealth!  What fraudulent practices, what robberies!  What miseries, enmities, contentions, battles!  Does it not stretch forth its hand even to the dead, even to fathers and brothers?  Do not they who are possessed by this passion violate the laws of nature and the commandments of God?  Is it not this that renders our courts of justice necessary?  Take away therefore the love of money, and you put an end to war, to battle, to enmity, to strife and contention.  (Commentary on I TIM. 17)

Hardly a rhetorical exaggeration!  (On a more personal level, how many families do you know of that were torn apart because of enmity over money matters?) We can, of course, politely wave off the Apostle's warning by assuring ourselves and others that we do not love money. We may explain that denial by arguing that since we live and move and have our being in a society in which money is so essential, we have to live and act accordingly.  But we are free of the love of money, we may again assure ourselves and others. This is fine if we can honestly say that we experience the contentment that St. Paul refers to.  Or, a bit more bluntly, this would be fine if we are certain that our hearts are more inclined toward the Gospel than to our personal portfolios.

Perhaps less well-known in I TIM. is the Apostle Paul's further pastoral comments on the positive use of money that should characterize members of the Christian community - especially those who are blessed with some measure of prosperity or wealth:

As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy.  They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed.  (I TIM. 6:17-19)

It is no little accomplishment for the rich to be humble rather than proud or "haughty."  For according to St. Augustine:

Praise to the rich if they remain humble.  Praise the rich for being poor.  The one who writes to Timothy wants them to be like that, when he says, "Order the rich of this world not to be haughty in mind."  I know what I am saying:  give them these orders.  The riches they have are whispering persuasively to them to be proud; the riches they have make it very hard for them to be humble.  (Sermons, 14.2)

With this teaching, it is made clear that wealth in and of itself is not a sinful or evil thing.  Such a position would distort both the teaching of Christ and that of the apostles.  It seems as if there were wealthy members of the church in Ephesus. St. Paul was providing them with a Christian philosophy about money and its beneficial use. The wealthy need to remain humble and are not to scorn or look down on those who have less or perhaps next to nothing. In fact, they are responsible for their care and well-being as brothers and sisters within the Christian family. Liberality and generosity are expected of the Christian blessed with any semblance of wealth.  Care for the poor and destitute is essential for the true follower of Christ.  However, there is no room in the Apostle's exhortation for "conspicuous consumption."  A contemporary Christian cannot take refuge in any particular political or social philosophy in order to avoid being "rich in good deeds."  It does not matter if a Christian is a Democrat or a Republican or a Libertarian.  Or, for that matter, a capitalist or a socialist.  To cling to one's wealth is not to "take hold of the life which is life indeed."  In fact, it could lead to spiritual death.

If we read the New Testament in its entirety with care, I believe that will see that it takes a basically neutral stance toward the "thorny issue of money."  Wealth is neither praised or condemned.  It is one's attitude and use of money that is either praised or condemned.  However, the New Testament with its utterly realistic and unbiased understanding of human nature is thoroughly sensitive to temptation and the abuse of a commodity such as money.  The teaching of Christ is filled with stinging rebukes toward those who succumb to such temptations that lead to abuse. And it was Judas who "sold out" Christ for thirty pieces of silver. Generosity, combined with compassion toward those is need is blessed; while the passion of avarice combined with indifference toward those in need is blameworthy.  If this over-all Christian philosophy of money was more readily practiced today, we would not be experiencing the tilt toward a society torn between the "haves" and "have-nots."  The moral and spiritual well-being of any society is determined by how that society cares for its dispossessed fellow citizens. Especially if it still wants to be called a Christian society. The insight that "the love of money is the root of all evils" may be at its most acute today - though sinful tendencies seem to hold a steady grip on the human heart throughout the centuries.  Christians, therefore, need to be as vigilant as possible when faced with such temptations. And our use of money is a good place to begin in our quest to be vigilant.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Getting to Know Our (Church) Fathers in the Faith

Dear Parish Faithful,

Last Sunday, we commemorated "The Fathers of the First Six Ecumenical Councils."  If that already sounds a bit esoteric, it  may mean that you will need to do some research into the Church's history and theological teaching.  Just who are these "Fathers;" or perhaps we can ask more generally, just who are the Fathers of the Church? 

Since we are probably aware of some of the basic biographical facts of our country's Founding Fathers - say, Washington, Jefferson and Adams (and I am sure that everyone can supply their first names) - I would submit that we need to know those Church Fathers that so profoundly teach us about God and the entire mystery of our salvation.  (I will avoid mentioning our familiarity for the moment with the lives of movie stars and athletes). If the Church Fathers are admittedly not "household names" in America, as are the Founding Fathers; then I would further submit that they need to be household names in homes inhabited by Orthodox Christians (with perhaps their icons adorning our walls)!  If we know the basics about Washington, Jefferson and Adams; then we should also know the basics about the Three Hierarchs, for example - Sts. John Chrysostom, Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian.  Just who are they?  When did they live?  What are their major contributions to the life of the Church? While the founding fathers were deists - believers in a rather remote "Deity" - the Church Fathers taught us about the Holy Trinity, Whom we worship every time we step into the Church for a service, beginning with the Liturgy.

In the homily last Sunday, I attempted to place the commemoration of the Fathers in the context of the pastoral admonitions found in I TIM. concerning the teaching of sound doctrine.  As an example, the Apostle Paul encouraged Timothy in the following manner: "If you put these instructions before the brethren, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of faith and of the good doctrine which you have followed" (I TIM. 4:6). 

The fact is that false teaching has plagued the Church from the beginning, and the Apostle Paul realized how pernicious, confusing and discouraging this can be for the internal life of the believing community.  This is why St. Paul further taught:  "Guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge, for by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith"  (I TIM. 6:20-21).

This work of "guarding the deposit" (of the Faith) against false teaching became one of the great legacies of the Church Fathers in subsequent centuries.  The Fathers poured all of their intellectual and spiritual powers into "rightly defining the word of Truth" when confronted with false teaching.  Our Nicene Creed was formulated in response to the Arian heresy that refused to recognize the full divinity of the Son of God. In a more peaceful manner, they would offer brilliant and illuminating commentaries on the Holy Scriptures. And we study their interpretation of the Scriptures to this day. Therefore, it is through the centuries that the Church has developed what we call today a "Patristic legacy."

With this term in  mind, I closed the homily last Sunday by posing a hypothetical scenario. Imagine a friend, neighbor or acquaintance asking you the following questions:  "Knowing you as an Orthodox Christian, and reading a bit about your Church, I came across the claim that the Orthodox Church is very committed to what is called the "patristic legacy."  Could you explain the meaning of that term to me?  I came to the conclusion that is has something to do with the so-called Church Fathers.  Just who are these Church Fathers?  Could you possibly tell me something about the more prominent ones?"  Here is your great opportunity to shine! To witness to the riches of Orthodoxy! Would you be able to enlighten your interlocutor?  (Please remember what I said last Sunday:  you are not allowed to refer this person to me by giving him/her my phone number or email address). Or, would you limp away knowing that this was a missed opportunity?  (For the moment let's not explore the plausibility of such a conversation).  We should never underestimate the potential impact of being capable of something meaningful about our Faith when asked to do so.
The reason why I specifically chose the term "patristic legacy" for my homily last Sunday is because I had just started a new and fascinating book by a great patristic scholar, Augustine Casiday (who is an Orthodox Christian), entitled, Remembering the Days of Old - Orthodox Thinking on the Patristic Heritage (SVS Press).   So far, so good! This book  promises to be an excellent study from start to finish.  At the very outset of the book, Augustine Casiday begins with some basic definitions of his over-riding theme:

This book is an essay about the patristic heritage and its importance for contemporary Orthodox theology. ,,, Before we can consider the patristic heritage in a sustained way, we need to define both "patristic" and "heritage." ... "Patristic" indicates that any given thing comes from or belongs to the "fathers" of the Church.  (The English word patristic comes indirectly from the Latin word pater which, like the Greek pater, means "father.")   "Heritage" refers to that which is passed from one generation to the next, often within a family.  From these two definitions, two important questions arise. The first is, what do we mean when we describe certain people as "fathers"?  And the second:  what is it that we are "inheriting" from them?

 (Remembering the Days of Old, p. 25)

The remainder of the body of his book is Augustine Casiday's own answers to those two fundamental questions.  However, the small excerpt above is at least a start.  So, if you haven't yet had that dialogue with a friend, neighbor or acquaintance, perhaps these brief definitions will help you offer an intelligent and accurate response once you get past the initial shock of being asked such a series of questions in the first place.  However, I will leave it to your initiative, interest level and commitment - however modest - to the Church's patristic legacy, (to begin?) that exciting and stimulating discovery of the lives and works of the more prominent of the Church Fathers.   Perhaps you may want to begin with the Three Hierarchs mentioned above.  Here is a good way to spend some summer leisure time!  Explore their lives.  When did they live?  Where are they from?  What were their roles in advancing our knowledge of the Faith?  This kind of use of your time and energy will reward you thirty, sixty and hundred-fold, I am certain.  St. John Chrysostom's life alone will blow you away!

To turn to Augustine Casiday one more time, here is what I believe is a very helpful perspective on what it means for us to "follow the Fathers" and to establish a relationship with them:

When we talk about people from the past as "fathers" (or sometimes, albeit rarely, as "mothers"), we are claiming a special kind of relationship to them.  We are claiming  them as parents and, at the same time, we are claiming to be their children.  We can even say that we are affiliating ourselves to them, in the strongest, etymological sense of the word:  we are making ourselves their children.  This use of family language is not casual.
Our dependence as children upon the Fathers of the Church is both a positive and persistent factor. It is not something that we outgrow as we mature.  Instead, it is, if you like, a structural component of relating to them as their children.  Even when an infant matures into childhood, adolescence, and then adulthood, the relationship remains.  It doesn't remain the same; it matures, but the fact that children relate to their parents is constant, even as the character of the relationship flourishes and ripens.  For this reason, we can talk about continuing to be sons and daughters of our Fathers, even into adulthood, growing into maturity without losing our relationship to them

 (Remembering the Days of Old, p. 26, 30)

Knowing about the Fathers (and Mothers!) of the Church should not be left to the "experts." It should not be an issue of intellectual curiosity.  I think that it is our responsibility to study their lives and teaching at some level of commitment.  Recall this exhortation:  "Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their faith" (HEB. 13:7).

Friday, July 4, 2014

Applying the 'Hard Sayings' of Jesus

Dear Parish Faithful,

Recently, I was reading and studying  what has come to be called "the Sermon on the Plain" found in LK. 6.  In this passage, we come to the very heart of Christ's teaching, to the words that penetrate both the mind and heart, and which have drawn countless people to Christ from the time they were first uttered and throughout the centuries up to our own day.  (Yet, are these words that we as Orthodox Christians neglect?)  I am referring to the "hard sayings" of our Lord that both elevate and perplex us; that simultaneously attract and frighten us; that reveal to us a "better way" of living, but which remain as a postponed ideal:

But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your cloak do not withhold your coat as well.  Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners do the same.  And if you lend to to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you?   Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.  But love your enemies, and do good and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons the most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish.  Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

Judge not and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.  For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.   (LK. 6:27-37)

I always feel challenged to make some sense out of this teaching that seems to be humanly impossible to put into practice. I thought I would share a few points that I tried to formulate in short accessible summaries:

Christ is not offering a blueprint for some form of utopia or "social engineering."  He is addressing the human heart of each and every person, challenging each person to a new way of life worthy of the Kingdom of God.  It is about making a choice to "risk" following His path.

We fail to put this teaching of Christ into practice for fear of the consequences to our well-being and security.  We fear our enemies and what they can do to us.  We have thus developed defensive strategies to protect ourselves from our enemies, usually based upon our experience of human sin and common sense.

To "love" our enemies is not to develop strong emotional attachments to them.  "Love" in this context is an action verb about how we react to and treat others.  By refusing to retaliate and do harm to others, we help to break the vicious circle of endless retribution and hatred.

To have our cheek slapped is to be insulted, abused, of offended by our "enemy."  We also have a way of manufacturing "enemies" with our mind.

There is nothing particularly "Christian" about loving those who love us.  That is exactly how all human beings live, including atheists!  It is part of our biological heritage.  Christian living is transcending the biology, so to speak.

There is not one word that Jesus taught that He did not put into practice.  Christ harmed no one and loved  His enemies by dying for them and forgiving them on the Cross.  What Christ taught is humanly possible, and this is the great witness of the saints, who put aside their fears and anxieties by putting the teaching of Christ into practice after Him.

Therefore, this teaching of the Lord is the imitation of God Himself, Who is merciful even to great sinners.

It is never going to be easy to be a disciple of Christ!