Monday, April 6, 2020

The Coming End of Great Lent, plus numerous updates

Dear Parish Faithful,

The Death and Burial of St Mary of Egypt
“What does war [or the coronavirus] do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100% of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased. It can put several deaths earlier, but I hardly suppose that that is what we fear… Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it… War makes death real to us, and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past.”  —  C.S. Lewis

The Coming End of Great Lent

Beginning today and through Friday inclusive, there are only five more days of Great Lent remaining. I feel assured in saying that this has to be the most unusual Great Lent we have experienced, even for those of us who have been around for awhile. I encourage everyone to persevere to the end, or simply to "stick with the program." It is good for both body and soul, and it keeps us connected to the church when we are feeling the effects of being disconnected. Next weekend, we celebrate the great events of the Raising of Lazarus and Palm Sunday - a festal interlude before Holy Week and Pascha. I do not know what the week has in store for us, but I hoping to be able to serve the Liturgy on Sunday for the Feast of Palms. I will keep everyone informed.

Yesterday's Service

We did a pretty full Reader Service yesterday - The Typika - as we are getting accustomed to our "trio" inside the church. What was deeply encouraging is that we had over 90 persons who joined us on facebook, and a large group on zoom. We are all hungering for worship and fellowship. Of that, there is no doubt. We are working to improve the technical aspects of live streaming and zoom. We hope to add more microphones by the end of the week and our next service on Friday evening.

Practice Session

Because I will be using a different computer for our zoom Holy Week class on Wednesday evening, I thought to run a quick "practice session" this evening at 7:00 p.m. We could take advantage of the connection to perhaps "chat" a bit; and I would be glad to answer any questions at the time.

Expanded Prayer List of Health Care Workers

Here is a list of all of the health care workers that are either from our parish, or who are known by others in the parish. (This list is also maintained on our Coronavirus Page on our parish website.):
  • Radu, Wagih, Adam,
  • Arthur, Michael, Susan (presvytera's sister),
  • Courtney, Joshua, Emily (my daughter's close friend),
  • Jessica, Amanda, Michaelanne,
  • Amy, Shannon, Hanh (Shannon's wife),
  • Joe (Pressey), Svetlana, Sarah, 
  • Katie, Lauren (my niece), 
  • Sarah (daughter-in-law of the Carters)
  • Jessica (my son's girlfriend),
  • Linca (Presvytera's sister-in-law),
  • Jeff (Kris Gansle's brother),
  • Kirsten (Kris Gansle's goddaughter & cousin).

I most probably have missed someone, and if so, I sincerely apologize. If you have a friend or relative that you would want to be included on our parish prayer list, please contact Anne Taylor: anne.taylor431 at gmail dot com or me. Our deepest appreciation to all of our health care workers during this time of crisis.

Dyeing Your Easter Eggs

From Terrie Sauer: 
Since we will not be celebrating Pascha together this year, I thought this information about how to dye red eggs using onion skins would be helpful to our parishioners.  This process could be counted as a 'science experiment' for our parish children who are now schooling at home.

A Special Prayer Request

Dear Mother Christophora, Mothers and Sisters,

This is a message from the National Sisterhood of Prevyteras:
We humbly ask for your prayers for Fr. Kosta and Presvytera Pauline Pavlakos, who at this time have been hospitalized with pneumonia and COVID-19. They currently serve St. Katherine's Parish in Falls Church, VA. Pauline is a past president of the NSP.

Please take a few minutes to remember them in prayer. May the healing hand of our Lord be upon them through the hands of their doctors and nurses.

O Lord Almighty, You heal all diseases by Your word alone. You chastise with pity and heal because of Your goodness. Grant aid to Your servants, Kosta the priest and Pauline the presvytera, and lift them up from this bed of pain and sickness. Through Your mercy and in Your will, give health and full recovery. We ask this in Your Name.

The family appreciates your love and prayers.
Your NSP Board

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Real 'Stairway to Heaven'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

A pop-culture awareness that has staying power over about a forty-five year period is an immediate recognition of the song titled "Stairway to Heaven."

Even those born well after the date of the song's initial appearance (1972) know that it was written by the now-legendary rock group Led Zeppelin.  I, for one, will openly "confess" to seeing and hearing this song performed live more than once!  I even recall reading an article that somehow managed to calculate that - up to a certain date, at least - it was the most-played song in rock radio history. Yet, I further recall hearing once that the members of Led Zeppelin were "sick and tired" of their famous song!

If not quite arresting, the title is at least attractive. Perhaps it awakens a vague longing deep within our soul: Is there a "stairway to heaven?"  Some sort of path to another reality that lifts us above the mundane and everyday cares of life?  Was there some formula hidden within the song's lyrics that pointed to that alluring path?

Admittedly, I always found the lyrics rather opaque and esoteric. (Certain members of Led Zeppelin were clearly taken by the esoteric and fantastic, obvious from some of their other songs).  Perhaps that simply added to the song's charm as devotees spent inordinate amounts of time and energy trying to decipher or unpack the tantalizing meaning of the song just beyond our grasp. A lot of pseudo-serious literature was actually generated - and passionately argued about - back then offering various interpretations of "Stairway to Heaven's" meaning. And the song did have a compelling energy behind it as its slow beginning moved toward a crescendo of a driving and now classic rock guitar solo. 

Yet, the famous "Stairway to Heaven" is so contextualized in a moment of long ago pop culture history, that "it makes me wonder" what the heady commotion was really all about. After forty-five years, it is now just another very recognizable "rock classic;" or, to say that in a slightly more deflating manner, just another "oldie."  For some, it may serve to awaken a certain nostalgia for the past. Or, for others, to a past that they would like to forget!

Certainly no one is drawn to analyzing  those opaque lyrics which really had nothing much behind them in the first place. Obscurity is often mistaken for depth. However, this is not the place to come down on Led Zeppelin and their famous song from the past.  Everyone, including the members of the group, have certainly "moved on."

These brief comments on the song "Stairway to Heaven" were prompted by the fact that on the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent we commemorate St. John Climacus, austere author of the famous treatise The Ladder of Divine Ascent. 

I refer to St. John's spiritual classic as the real "stairway to heaven," because after many centuries it is read to this day with great seriousness and pious devotion by Christians as precisely a sure guide to the Kingdom of Heaven. In fact, St. John offers a fine definition as to what it means to be a Christian: 

A Christian is an imitator of Christ in thought, word and deed, as far as this is humanly possible, and he believes rightly and blamelessly in the Holy Trinity. (STEP 1)
St. John was writing for monks, but to the married Christian he had this to say:

Do whatever good you may. Speak evil of no one. Rob no one. Tell no lie. Despise no one and carry no hate. Do not separate yourselves from the church assemblies. 
Show compassion to the needy. Do not be a cause of scandal to anyone. Stay away from the bed of another, and be satisfied with what your own spouse can provide you.
If you do all of this, you will not be far from the kingdom of heaven. (STEP 1)
More specifically, the abiding popularity of his famous treatise is all the more apparent for Orthodox Christians, for as Archbishop Kallistos Ware writes:

With the exception of the Bible and the service books, there is no work in Eastern Christendom that has been studied, copied and translated more often than The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus. 
Every Lent in Orthodox monasteries it is appointed to be read aloud in church or in the refectory, so that the monks will have listened to it as much as fifty or sixty tines in the course of their life.  
Outside the monasteries it has also been the favorite reading of countless lay people in Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia, and throughout the Orthodox world.  The popularity of The Ladder in the East equals that of The Imitation of Christ in the West, although the two books are altogether different in character.  
(Introduction to The Ladder of Divine Ascent, p. 1)

The great abbot of Mt. Sinai (+c. 650) writes with clarity and depth about the interior "withdrawal" from worldliness; the struggle with the passions; the acquisition of the virtues; and the final ascent of the soul into the realm where faith, hope and love are the final stages of that ascent that prepares the believer for the incomprehensible glory yet to be experienced when God will be "all in all:"    

Love, by its nature, is a resemblance of God, insofar as this is humanly possible. In its activity it is inebriation of the soul. Its distinctive character is to be a fountain of faith, an abyss of patience, a sea of humility ...    Love grants prophecy, miracles. It is an abyss of illumination, a fountain of fire, bubbling up to inflame the thirsty soul. It is the condition of angels, and the progress of eternity. (STEP 30)

St. John's work clearly betrays the monastic milieu from which it emerged, but since those very passions that plague us remain unchanging; and since the very virtues we struggle to acquire also remain unchanging; and since our goal is the Kingdom of Heaven, then his writings more importantly have a timeless and eternal quality to them. Such a text is never really "dated." It does not belong to a particular movement or fad. The Ladder is an enduring monument of spiritual depth that flows from the Gospel. Thus, its singular characteristic and popularity as an enduring classic.

Now, St. John himself was inspired by the vision of the Patriarch Jacob of a ladder stretching from earth to heaven "and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!" (GEN. 28) Christ refers to this same vision in JN. 1.  St. John will develop this image with greater detail and this is a very effective teaching tool, for again to refer to the words of Archbishop Kallistos: 

His ladder has thirty rungs or steps, one for each year in the hidden life of Christ before His baptism. John's ingenious use of the ladder-image soon became part of the spiritual imagination of the Christian East, and is frequently represented in panel icons, refrectory frescoes and illuminated manuscripts.  (Introduction, p. 11)

I cannot in the brief space of a meditation offer a detailed outline of The Ladder. I believe the best version available in English translation to be that which belongs to The Classics of Western Spirituality series:  John Climacus - The Ladder of Divine Ascent, translated by Colm Luibheld and Norman Russell, Introduction by Kallistos Ware, Paulist Press, 1982.  

I further believe that this would be an invaluable acquisition for one's library, and it could be read slowly and prayerfully over an extended period of time. Some of the book's content may appear foreign, but there will be so much that will resonate deeply and stay with the serious reader that what is foreign will seem unimportant.  

However, there is an extraordinary passage in Step One that so beautifully captures the meaning of the Gospel, and of God's love of his creation and creatures, that I would like to share at least this much.  This passage takes on an even greater meaning when we recall that St. John was fiercely ascetical and at times impatient with false teaching. But here he is truly expansive and he embraces all of humankind: 

God is the life of all free beings. He is the salvation of believers and unbelievers, of the just or the unjust ... of monks or those living in the world, of the educated or the illiterate, of the healthy or the sick, of the young or the very old.  He is like the outpouring of light, the glimpse of the sun, or the changes of the weather, which are the same for everyone without exception. "For God is no respecter of persons." (Rom. 2:11)

Although employing what is essentially identical images, I believe that we can say with real assurance that The Ladder of Divine Ascent is on much, much firmer ground and has greater staying power than whatever is quite the endpoint of "Stairway to Heaven."  In fact, I may be reproached for even making the comparison! Yet, the association of images, and further reflection on the surrounding "culture" that produced each work - and which is embodied within each work - came to mind as we move into the Fourth Week of Great Lent.  

In an age of post-modernism and shifting narratives that compete for our attention, there is nothing quite like the "rock" on which the Gospel is firmly planted and not to be moved; while other enticements built on the shifting sands of impermanence are swept away by time (MATT. 7:24-27). 

St. John built his house on the Gospel and thus continues to nourish us to this day with his wise counsel: 

Baptized in the thirtieth year of His earthly age, Christ attained the thirtieth step on the spiritual ladder, for God indeed is love, and to Him be praise, dominion, power.  In Him is the cause, past, present, and future, of all that is good forever and ever. Amen. (Concluding "Brief Summary and Exhortation")

Further Guidance on limiting our attention to the Coronavirus

Dear Parish Faithful,

Here is a helpful "follow through" based on what I wrote earlier this morning, yet said much more emphatically! Sounds like excellent spiritual advice. What the bishop says is reinforced by the World Health Organization.

Fr. Steven

Bishop Luke’s Directive to the Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary and the wider Jordanville community:

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ members of the Holy Trinity Monastery community!

Greetings in the Lord!

It has come to my attention that many are suffering from some form of stress induced psychosis as a result of the recent epidemic. This is characterized by continual worry, nervousness, anxiety, faintheartedness, panic etc. One of the causes for this spiritual malady is an obsession with news concerning the epidemic. This is confirmed by the world mental health organization, "The World Health Organization has a recommendation for mental health: only check the news once or twice a day."

I am issuing a directive to all members of our Holy Trinity community to limit themselves to no more than 15 minutes a day informing themselves about the epidemic.

The Lord commands,"Let not your heart be troubled..." We create our own spiritual problems by our obsession with these issues which do little positive towards our hope for salvation.

As true Orthodox Christians preparing for eternity, spend the extra time in heartfelt prayer, spiritual reading and other good works!

Love in Christ,

+ Bishop Luke

Abbot, Holy Trinity Monastery,
Bishop of Syracuse (ROCOR)

Monday, March 30, 2020

Monday Morning Reflections - Keeping Lent at Home

Dear Parish Faithful,

The Lord is mu light and my salvation;
   whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of  my life;
   of whom shall I be afraid?  (Ps. 27:1)

The Sun is Shining! - The days have been beautiful with the sun shining to lift up our spirits. I hope it continues. Perhaps a good time to catch up with work around the house. But I hope even more that everyone is well. We are perhaps now fully realizing what Jesus was getting at when He basically taught us to approach life "one day at a time." I again ask: Is anyone in need of any assistance? If so, please do not hesitate to let me know. Please continue to communicate with one another.

Fourth Sunday of Great Lent - On this Sunday, we commemorate one of the truly greatest of our spiritual writers, St. John of the Ladder. His book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent (hence the title given to him) remains possibly as the classic of Orthodox spirituality. Here is a link to a brief summary of St. John's life:

A St. John Chrysostom Type Question? - If St. John were to pose a question to us in today's chaotic times, I think he would ask something like this: Are you reading the Scriptures, Lives of Saints and Orthodox literature as much as you are reading up on the coronavirus or spending time on various forums of social media? With his rhetorical skills he would challenge - or perhaps even chastise us all - for any lack of caring for our "souls" at a time when we are so anxious about our bodies. He would most probably refer us to the words of Christ in Matt. 6:25-34. With our travel and gathering restrictions, we are unable to assemble in church, thus making it all the more imperative that we find a balance in our homes between our necessary daily preoccupations and the tools given to us by the Church to nurture our spiritual life at a time when so much in our lives has been disrupted. I again make the point that our domestic practice of observing Great Lent will offer structure and discipline to our lives when things are "out of sync."

I understand that now the "social distancing" mandate will be in effect at least through the month of April. It thus seems virtually certain that we will not be able to gather in church for Holy Week and Pascha. Painful just to write that! Who would have thought that just a few weeks ago? I will do my best to offer at least an edited version of the Holy Week services in the church with presvytera Deborah. By then, I will have figured out zoom or we will stream the services. I would also highly recommend purchasing all of the Holy Week and Pascha booklets that contain the full text of the services. These booklets, the same ones that we use in church for the services, are ideal for maintaining a semblance of Holy Week in our homes. Through the text of these services, we can follow Christ from Palm Sunday to Golgotha, and then to the empty tomb.I believe that some of you already have this set. Be that as it may, here is a link to St. Vladimir's Press - hoping, of course, that the press is still mailing out orders. The price is quite reasonable for about ten or so booklets. 

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Does the Lord continue to sleep?

Dear Parish Faithful,

Remember, O Lord, those who are absent for honorable reasons. Have mercy on them and on us according to the multitude of Thy mercies.

~ Liturgy of St. Basil the Great

Today is the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent and we commemorate the great ascetic and spiritual teacher, St. John Klimakos (of the Ladder). However, every Sunday is first and foremost the Lord's Day, or the Day of Resurrection, for the Lord Jesus Christ was raised from the dead "on the first day of the week." In the Kontakion appointed for Tone 8, which we just chanted in the Service of The Typika this morning, this truth reverberates loud and clear:

By rising from the tomb, Thou didst raise
the dead and resurrect Adam. Eve exults
in Thy Resurrection, and the world
celebrates Thy Rising from the dead, O
greatly Merciful One!

This is the Christian hope that is the ultimate basis of our Faith: that the "sting of death" has been removed by the Death and Resurrection of Christ. However, the path to the Resurrection must go through the Cross. There is no other way. In order to rise from the dead, Jesus had to willingly and obediently ascend the Cross "in the flesh." That was the "cup" from which he had to drink, as this was the fulfillment of the divine economy, known to God from all eternity. 

Therefore, as we pass through these Sundays of Great Lent, and as we get closer to Holy Week, the appointed Gospel readings from St. Mark (8:34-9:1; 9:17-31; 10:32-45) for the final three Sundays of Great Lent focus on the three passion prophecies of the Lord. Jesus was not taken unawares of His impending passion.  (However, we must never lose sight of the fact that each of these passion prophecies culminates with an equal prophecy of the Lord's rising after three days). As Jesus set His face boldly toward Jerusalem and His appointed destiny with the Cross as the Suffering Servant of the Lord, He prepared His disciples for what was preordained to happen in the Holy City (Mk. 10:32).

"O faithless generation . . ."

This morning, we heard the second of those passion prophecies, following  the  dramatic  healing of the boy tormented by a "mute spirit" that often drove him toward self-destructive behavior: "The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise." Again, Jesus is in control as He knows the will of His heavenly Father. But what is the response of His disciples to this prophecy: "But they did not understand the saying and they were afraid to ask him." 

In the dramatic episode of the healing of that young boy, Jesus was forced to rebuke His disciples by saying: "O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?" It is my humble opinion that these words apply to each and every generation of Christ's disciples down through the centuries. And that probably includes all of us. It is a real struggle to be faithful, or so it seems to the vast majority of us.

"The Lord continues to sleep . . ."

As St. Gregory the Theologian said in the fourth century, when a famine was raging in his native land: "the Lord apparently continues to sleep" (see Mk. 4:38). And now, with a raging coronavirus threatening one and all; and as we await and brace ourselves for it to strike our tristate area with its peak wave, it is a challenge to remain faithful as our fears and anxieties are perhaps intensified; and as we may join St. Gregory in thinking that the Lord continues to sleep. But as the Lord then "awoke" and stilled the storm, so we believe that that will occur yet again as "peace" and a "great calm" will again be enjoyed by us all (Mk. 4:39). But for the moment, the storm continues to threaten us.

The days ahead promise no immediate relief, but only further dangers. We need to be cautious and careful. Yet, from our Orthodox Christian perspective, we emphatically believe that "God is with us;" and that God is not "angry" with us if our faith was ever to waver, but rather that God "is compassionate and merciful, long-suffering and of great goodness." The God who raised Jesus from the dead, is the God whose love is without limit.

This is an unprecedented event for the entire world. We trust that our scientists, specialists, and health care personal are doing their utmost to limit the extent of the coronavirus pandemic. We continue to pray for them and to cooperate with their guidance as they attempt to lead us through this crisis with their expertise. We also continue to pray for and support each other. And, as Christians, we continue to place our faith in the God who redeemed and saved the whole world - for the "life of the world"- in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

Saturday, March 28, 2020

A Perfect Prayer for These Times

Dear Parish Faithful,

Synaxis of the Optina Elders

A Perfect Prayer for These Times - I believe that many of you have access to this extraordinary prayer and are hopefully offering it to God on a daily basis, but if not, please avail yourselves of the attachment. It is the "perfect" prayer for the day that is ahead of us as it focuses us on the will of God and a willingness to accept what the day brings to us with faith, hope and love. It is from the Optina Elders, spiritual guides of a very prominent monastery that flourished primarily in 19th c. Russia up to the Revolution.

Spending a Lot of Time Together ? - Some practical advice for married couples on how to navigate the rough waters of "domestic turmoil" - a.k.a. arguing - from a fine book on the Orthodox perspective of marriage by Bp. John Abdalah or the Antiochian Archdiocese and Nicholas Mamey.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Reflections on the Coronavirus (from various sources)

Dear Parish Faithful,

I have put together a rather miscellaneous group of texts from various sources, ranging from the patristic era to the current Patriarch of Constantinople, to some of our good contemporary writers. These texts all have in common (except perhaps from St. Basil the Great's) the theme of a response to the coronavirus. They can be sober and realistic, and they can be uplifting.

We are learning that we are all in this struggle together. Great Lent is a time of asceticism, and what we may not have joyfully embraced is being imposed on us by unforeseen circumstances beyond our immediate control. We are learning to simplify and to re-evaluate what is most dear and precious to us.

Perhaps there is a bit of irony in that we are now even more truly feeling what it is like to be a community united in Christ, more than when we had the freedom to choose to be in church - or not. We seem to always appreciate what we have the most precisely when we no longer have it. What committed Orthodox Christian does not miss the Liturgy?

Let us therefore continue to pray for one another, to communicate with one another, and to support each other as well as possible in our present circumstances: "Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ."


"Perhaps some of you have felt that these drastic measures undermine or harm our faith.
However, that which is at stake
is not our faith - it is the faithful.
It is not Christ - it is our Christians.
It is not the divine-man - but human beings.
Our faith is firmly established in the roots of our culture. Our faith is a living faith, and there is no exceptional circumstance that can limit or suppress it.....

Have courage! And may God be with us!"

- Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople


The Hasidic communities in New York City, who have resisted following social distancing rules, have become a hotspot of coronavirus. I guess they have courageously rejected the dominion of death. Now look. Because they didn’t want to change their lives, other people — health care workers — have to bear the burden of trying to save the lives of those who end up in the hospital because of it.
Rod Dreher

Prayer for a Pandemic

May we who are merely inconvenienced, remember those whose lives are at stake.May we who have no risk factors remember those most vulnerable.
May those who have the luxury of working from home remember those who must choose between preserving their health or making their rent.
May those who have the flexibility to care for our children when schools close remember those who have no options.
May we who have to cancel a trip remember those who have no safe place to go.
May we who are losing our margin money in the tumult of the economic market remember those who have no margin at all.
May those who settle for quarantine at home remember those who have no home.
As fear grips our country, let us choose love during this time when we cannot physically wrap our arms around each other, let us find ways to be the loving embrace to God and our neighbor.

- prayer by Cameron Wiggins Bellm


I don't know if I can get sick receiving the Eucharist. I don't think I'm supposed to have a self-assured answer to that. I still partake anyway, when given the opportunity and do so gratefully without undue fear. In part because I know that even bodily sickness can be for my healing, on a deeper level. I hear the words "for the healing of soul and body" as "for the re-orientation of soul and body toward Christ," not as "for the complete medical/biological treatment of all bodily and spiritual ailments as understood by 21st-century Western medicine." We hope to receive the Eucharist on our deathbed; if we truly believed it were for the healing of soul and body in the strictly medical or biological sense, why do we still die? Indeed, in this circumstance we'd consider a death after receiving the Eucharist to be a good death.

- Dr. Nicole Roccas


Separation, especially separation from loved ones, is always difficult. To paraphrase what others have said, “separation is a type of crucifixion.” Yet, as Christians who are physically separated from each other and consequently separated from the Lord’s table we can remind ourselves that the fibers of mutual care and love have not been severed. If anything, being apart from one another offers us the possibility to understand the other more clearly which in turn allows us to see the other as a precious gift never to be taken for granted. Separation from the Liturgy offers us the possibility to see that our coming together as the Church is an act of love for the one who loved us first and not an act of thoughtless habit or obligation.

- Fr. Robert Arida

When you sit down to eat, pray. When you eat bread, do so thanking Him for being so generous to you. If you drink wine, be mindful of Him who has given it to you for your pleasure and as a relief in sickness. When you dress, thank Him for His kindness in providing you with clothes. When you look at the sky and the beauty of the stars, throw yourself at God’s feet and adore Him who in His wisdom has arranged things in this way. Similarly, when the sun goes down and when it rises, when you are asleep or awake, give thanks to God, who created and arranged all things for your benefit, to have you know, love and praise their Creator.

- St. Basil the Great