Thursday, December 8, 2016

Capable of Thanksgiving

Dear Parish Faithful,

"And we thank Thee for this Liturgy which Thou hast deigned to accept at our hands..."  — Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom

I have been able to read a good deal of Orthodox theology over the years - and the years are adding up - but to this day, I have never encountered a writer who has expressed with such eloquence and power the insight that we are created to be eucharistic beings, such as Fr. Alexander Schmemann has done.  
Throughout his long priestly ministry, and through his many wonderful books, this was a theme that he continually returned to: the human person as oriented toward God as a being who is eucharistic at the deepest level of existence.  We are our most human when we consciously and with profound gratitude offer thanksgiving (Gk. eucharistia) to the living God who has created us.
This was Fr. Alexander's compelling reading of the Genesis creation accounts and what it means for human beings to be made "according to the image and likeness of God."  Dying of cancer, Fr. Alexander served his last Divine Liturgy on Thanksgiving Day, 1983. He was able to deliver a short homily that is now known throughout the OCA as, simply, "The Thanksgiving Homily," in which he uttered a beautiful opening thought that memorably captured the "catholicity" of his vision and understanding of life: 

Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.

This particular sentence and the whole of this final homily served as a kind of summation of his deeply-conceived and felt intuition of life and the Christian Gospel. For Fr. Alexander, the human person is, of course, "homo sapiens" and "homo faber," but at the most basic level of existence the human person is "homo adorans" - a being instinctively inclined toward worship. We find an expression of this insight in Fr. Alexander's classic book For the Life of the World:

The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God - and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion. (p. 5)

This entire book - an absolute "must read" for contemporary Orthodox Christians - was a new, refreshing and transformative way of understanding and experiencing the Sacraments of the Church, freeing these Sacraments from a stultifying scholastic theology that threatened to reduce them to "religious actions" that would isolate them from the experience of life.  Since I am trying to focus on Fr. Alexander's eucharistic intuition of life, I would like to include a justifiably famous passage from this same book:

When man stands before the throne of God, when, he has fulfilled all that God has given him to fulfill, when all sins are forgiven, all joy restored, then there is nothing else for him to do but to give thanks. 
Eucharist (thanksgiving) is the state of perfect man.  Eucharist is the life of paradise.  Eucharist is the only full and real response of man to God's creation, redemption and gift of heaven. 
But this perfect man who stands before God is Christ. In Him alone all that God has given man was fulfilled and brought back to heaven.  He alone is the perfect Eucharistic Being. He is the Eucharist of the world. In and through this Eucharist the whole creation becomes what it always was to be and yet failed to be, (p. 23)

At the time when that was written (around 1960 in the original Russian, I believe - English translation 1963) to the present day, that passage is something like a "breath of fresh air" that brings to life in a very vivid manner what it means to participate in the Divine Liturgy/Eucharist.
How utterly bland, then, is our conventional term "attending church!"  The Eucharist is our recovery - again and again - of who we now are in Christ.  That "recovery" is a life-long process that makes each and every Liturgy a new and fresh experience, or at least so potentially.  We may grow old, but the Liturgy never grows old.  And it can never grow boring no matter how many liturgies one may "attend!"  As Fr. Alexander further wrote:

Eucharist was the end of the journey, the end of time. And now it is again the beginning, and things that were impossible are again revealed to us as possible. (p. 30)

These short reflections were prompted by the Gospel account of the healing of the ten lepers (LK. 17:11-19), read at the Thanksgiving Day Liturgy and just this last Sunday.  This passage is as much about thanksgiving as it is about the actual healing of the lepers. I therefore hope to write a few words about this passage later this week.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Finding 'Snatches of Silence'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Several years ago, Newsweek magazine carried an article written by Julia Baird under the rubric of psychology, titled “The Devil Loves Cell Phones”—a rather unexpected and somewhat jarring title considering the secular orientation of such a mass media journal as Newsweek.

The article - as timely today as when it first appeared - was a one-page commentary based upon a review of a new book by Sara Maitland, titled A Book of Silence.  Baird begins by reminding us that “in the Middle Ages, Christian scholars believed that Satan did not want human beings to be alone with God, or with each other, fully alert and listening.”  She then quotes Maitland, who makes the provocative statement that the mobile or cell phone is a “major breakthrough for the powers of hell.” 

We are further informed that Maitland “spent more than a decade pursuing silence like a hunter its prey.”  As part of this pursuit, Maitland spend 40 days—a perfect choice of time period!—“in an isolated house on a windy moor” in Scotland. 

Maitland writes,  “I am convinced that as a whole society we are losing something precious in our increasingly silence-avoiding culture, and that somehow, whatever silence might be, it needs holding, nourishing and unpacking.”  She claims that her physical sensations were heightened—her porridge tasted better and she “heard different notes in the wind, was more sensitive to temperature, and emotional.”  Beyond that, she “experienced great happiness, felt connected with the cosmos; was exhilarated by the risk and peril in what she was doing; and discovered a fierce joy, or bliss.”

Baird then comments on the over-all impact of the book.  “It is a strikingly refreshing book to read, in the midst of the clamor and din, ever-mounting distraction, yelling TV pundits, solipsistic tweeting, and flash-card sentiment of our Internet age,” she writes.  “It made me realize what a profound longing many of us have for silence, how hard it is to find, and how easily we forget how much we need it.” 

A contention from Maitland sounds like something I would read in an article about Orthodox Christian hesychasm from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware: “Maitland rails against the idea of silence as void, absence, and lack—insisting it is positive and nurturing, and something more profound that must be actively sought.” 

Silence, for the saint, allows us to hear “the still, small voice of God,” as did the Prophet Elijah on Mount Horeb.  This is the key to genuine prayer.  It is in the "silence" of prayer that we can truly encounter Christ. This is the goal of what we call the "Jesus Prayer."

Julia Baird rails a bit more against our noisy culture, observing how “we often talk about distraction, and the banality of a culture that seems to smother deep thought or time-sucking contemplation—we tweet sneezes, we blink and record it for our friends, we sprint to be the first to speak.  The anonymity of the Internet has been replaced by hyper-identity; the idea of shutting up and staring at a rock, piles of sand, or blinking stars for hours, if not weeks, seems profoundly counter-cultural.”

I would add that a 40-day fasting period before the Great Feast of our Lord’s Nativity sounds quite counter-cultural!  The volume will intensify in the days leading to Christmas.  And not a whole lot of that noise will be in praise of the mystery of the Incarnation. 

Perhaps we can find some snatches of silence amidst the cacophony of sounds that will swirl around us.  We may begin by limiting our smart phones to necessary usage, and not allow it to be a toy in our fidgety hands combined with a need to be distracted.  The smart phone is fast becoming a “security blanket.”  And Facebook certainly contributes to the "noise" pervading the world.

Baird includes in her article this passage from C. S. Lewis’ fascinating work, The Screwtape Letters, in which we “hear” of hell’s furious noise:

“the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless and virile….  We will make the whole universe a noise….  We have already made great strides in this direction regards the earth. The melodies and silences of heaven will be shouted down in the end.”

It may prove to be difficult, but maybe we can find a way not to add to that ungodly din.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Redeeming the Time

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

In Ephesians 5:15-16 we read, "Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil."  To "walk" -- in the context of this passage -- is a metaphor for how we conduct our lives.  We can live wisely or unwisely.  To "walk" unwisely means that we can easily resemble a "fool."

Avoiding such a false step, but on the contrary walking with wisdom, will depend on how much effort we put into "making the most of the time."  This can also be translated as "redeem the time."  To redeem the time is, first, not to waste time, especially on what is superfluous.

More positively, it could mean to spend our time in worthwhile pursuits, seeking to do the good in all of life's various circumstances.  We are children of God at all times, not only when we are in church or before the icons in our domestic prayer corner.  How we live and how we interact with others is basically how we express our Christian faith on a daily basis.

On a deeper level, to "redeem the time" could also mean to sanctify time, both remembering and honoring the fact that the full expanse of our lives — our lifetime — is a gift from God, for as humans our lives unfold within the time of this world as created by God.  Our time is limited because our lives are of finite duration.  An awareness of this can go a long way in how we appreciate -- and therefore redeem -- the time.

We are drawing closer to the celebration of the Lord's Incarnation.  We can redeem this time within the rhythm of ecclesial time, the time of the Church.  We need to pick up where we perhaps left off during this long and enjoyable Thanksgiving Day weekend.  We have just feasted along with our fellow Americans; now let us fast as Orthodox Christians. To squander a season of preparation before a feast by neglecting prayer, almsgiving and fasting is to act unwisely if we claim to be serious Orthodox Christians.  Any struggle against our lower instincts to eat, drink and be merry as the most meaningful pursuits in life is one sound way of redeeming the time.  One more obvious example of the "battle of the calendars."

The Apostle Paul writes that "the days are evil."  In a fallen world, every single day presents us with the possibility -- if not probability -- of encountering evil on a grand or limited scale.  To somehow believe the days we are living in are not all that evil is to be lost in a wishful thinking divorced from any rational perception of reality.  We live in a time wherein people have forgotten God, and through this forgetfulness lose sight of their basic humanity.  To de-sanctify the world (by claiming that the world is an autonomous reality and a result of blind forces) is to debase humanity, for only through faith in God can we have faith in the goodness of human nature.

We can be "in the world," but not "of the world," if we choose to "make the most of the time, because the days are evil."  One of the key words here is "choose."  Do we really have a hard choice to make?  Hardly!  In my humble opinion, within the grace-filled life of the Church, the choices before us are very easy to make!

Here is a simple prayer (but just try to put it into daily practice!) from the diary of Elder Anthony of Optina [1820] that teaches us how to redeem the time.

O God, be attentive unto helping me.  O Lord, make haste to help me.

Direct, O Lord God, everything that I do, read and write, everything that I say and try to understand to the glory of Your holy Name.  From You have I received a good beginning, and my every deed ends in You.

Grant, O God, that I might not anger You, my Creator, in word, deed or thought, but may all my deeds, counsels and thoughts be to the glory of Your most holy Name.  Amen.

From the diary of Elder Anthony of Optina, 1820

Monday, November 14, 2016

Overcoming Stress - The Orthodox Way

Dear Parish Faithful,

Are you feeling "stressed out" these days? Rather overwhelmed with various cares and anxieties?  Are things pulling apart, rather than holding together? If so, here are some wise words from a Romanian elder that, if put into practice, may bring some consolation to your mind and heart.  

All such counsel is merely an elaboration on the words of Christ concerning anxiety, found in MATT. 6:25-34, culminating in:  "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well."

Quotations from the newly reposed (+ Oct. 30) Archbishop Justinian Chira of Romania

When you are distressed, when you are upset, when in temptations, be untroubled. Go to your brother and talk to him:

“How are you, brother?”  Do not tell him you came because you are very troubled. Discuss trivialities. Sadness may scatter and you may receive strength from his strength.

Prayer has the grace to make the eternal fountain of joy sprinkle our soul. The soul from which springs no voice of prayer unto Heaven is like a deserted house, full of cobwebs, inhabited by the birds of darkness alone. A soul that does not know how to pray will never know what happiness is, even when owning all the riches of the earth. True prayer is Holy labor.

Stress is formed from exaggerated concern. From concern, and concern only. Every evil comes from this exaggerated concern.

We must preserve and cultivate our longing for God, our longing for the Mother of God, our longing for Saints. Let us seek to cancel the barriers that cool us off spiritually, that harden our hearts, those that make us forget God.

When Jesus is truly known and obeyed, then peace prevails in our soul, our family, our country and in the world.

I will stand by the gate of Heaven and wait for all of you to arrive!

Monday, October 31, 2016

An Introduction to 'Time and Despondency'

Dear Parish Faithful,
In yesterday's post-Liturgy discussion, we were treated to a short, but excellent presentation by our former parishioner, Dr. Nicole Roccas. Nicole spoke of her forthcoming book that will be titled Time and Despondency.  In fact, she actually read the first couple of pages of her Introduction for us yesterday.

It was all quite intriguing, and based on these few pages I am now eagerly anticipating the release of her book sometime next year.  A fruitful discussion ensued as Nicole was able to take on a few good questions in our short time frame.  In her book, she will be dealing with the phenomenon of despondency, and how that universal affliction relates to time.  Thus, though she will be dependent for her analysis of despondency as found in the penetrating insights of the desert dweller and writer, Evagrius of Pontus, she will make a new contribution to that analysis by relating it to the concept of time - the subject of her doctoral dissertation - and, of course, placing her analysis within a contemporary setting that will speak to us today.

This brought to mind a former meditation on that theme that I wrote a few years back (2012), based on a book review of the theme of despondency, which is one of many translations of the Gk. word akedia (Latin, accedie; rendered in English as acedia), almost a technical term that describes one of the many "passions" that can afflict us today as it did the early Christian ascetics. (This was a Lenten meditation, but this theme is not restricted to a particular liturgical season).

Reading through this meditation, I believe that Nicole and I are interpreting akedia it in a very similar way, so if you missed her discussion yesterday, perhaps some of the ideas she presented  can also be found here.  I believe that her use of the term despondency works better over-all than the word depression. It is my humble opinion that if anyone believes that he or she is not suffering from akedia/despondency on some level, then that person is further suffering from self-delusion.

Acedia and Us and Our Lenten Effort

Monday, October 24, 2016

To notice the Lazarus in our midst

Dear Parish Faithful,

My intention was to write a new meditation on the powerful parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man this morning, following yesterday morning's Liturgy in which we were directed "Let us attend!" before we heard the parable read in church. However, other pressing concerns and obligations did not allow for that plan to come to fruition. 

In case anyone may be interested, here are two meditations from the past that deal with the parable in a very direct manner.  The first is from the OCA webpage archives and the second from my Meditations blog on our parish website.  The meditations are actually similar in content - and both depend on and incorporate some of the writings of St. John Chrysostom - but in case you like choices...

As someone remarked to me yesterday:  Poor people make us feel uncomfortable, and some of our avoidance of those environments in which we may encounter the poor is perhaps our unconscious reaction to that discomfort. 

Is part of that discomfort our conscience speaking within us of the disparity between our own comforts in comparison with others who are without any?  Lazarus is that type of person who evokes that very reaction, as he must have been a "sorry sight" indeed with his sores and all.  Our challenge is to find humanity in the very persons who seem to have been stripped of it.  The image of God is often obscured - but never defaced.  This is why Christ challenges us to notice the Lazarus in our midst.

Alleviating the Plight of the Poor

Just Who is the Real Rich Man?

Monday, October 17, 2016

Vespers and the Fulfillment of Time

Dear Parish Faithful,

I understand that our Church School studied the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple in their respective classes yesterday.  To remind everyone, the Church School curriculum this year is "The Life of Christ."  They have already covered the Lord's Nativity, so the Meeting of the Lord (LK. 2) follows chronologically.  They are well ahead of the liturgical cycle! 

Some of the younger children colored an icon of the Meeting of the Lord. The Righteous Symeon, one of the key figures found and described by St. Luke the Evangelist in his Gospel is, of course, in that icon. One of the most beautiful hymns in the Scriptures was uttered by St. Symeon when he behold and then held the Christ Child in his arms. 

Often, this hymn is referred by the Latin of its opening words - Nunc Dimittis. We all know that hymn by heart as it is invariably sung or chanted at every single Vespers service - Daily, Great or Festal. But we can include it hear to help us focus on the power of its words:

Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace,
   according to Thy word;
for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation
   which Thou hast prepared before the face of Thy people.
a light to enlighten the Gentiles
   and the glory of Thy people Israel.
  (Lk. 2:29-32)

I bring this to our attention because I spoke of this hymn in the homily yesterday in the context of pointing out the theological structure of the Vespers service. 

This first of the services of our daily liturgical cycle has a profound theological structure to it that embraces and expresses the four essential components of an Orthodox Christian world view. And these are: 1) Creation; 2) Fall; 3) Redemption; and 4)  Kingdom. 

I would like to write about this in more detail in the future; but for the moment, I will simply point out that St. Symeon's Hymn points us toward the Kingdom which is to come, and which he speaks confidently about entering having - by the grace of the Holy Spirit - recognized the Messiah in the little Child cradled in his arms.  St. Symeon thus believes that he can now "depart" - that is, die - "in peace," with that inner certainty that he will now be held within the embrace of God. 

Thus, this hymn is eschatological in its orientation, pointing us toward the End, which is the beginning of life in God's eternal Kingdom. With his usual eloquence, Fr. Alexander Schmemann describes the experience of St. Symeon as follows:

Symeon ... stood for the whole world in its expectation and longing, and the words he used to express his thanksgiving have become our own.... He had beheld the One he had longed for. He had completed his purpose in life, and he was ready to die. 

But death to him was no catastrophe. It was only a natural expression of the fulfillment of his waiting.  He was not closing his eyes to the light he had at last seen; his death was only the beginning of more inward vision of that light. 
In the same way Vespers is the recognition that the evening of this world has come, which announces that Day that has no evening. In this world, every day faces night; the world itself is facing night. It cannot last forever.
Yet the Church is affirming that an evening is not only an end, but also a beginning, just as the evening is also the beginning of another day.  In Christ and through Christ it may become the beginning of a new life, of the day that has no evening...
We come into the presence of Christ to offer Him our time, we extend our arms to receive Him.  And He fills this time with Himself.  He heals it  and makes it - again and again - the time of salvation.  (For the Life of the World, p. 44-45)

A wonderful vision by which we end one day and begin another in the grace-filled life of the Church.