Monday, December 17, 2007

The Monastic Tonsuring of Sister Vicki

Dear Parish Faithful,

It was a deeply-felt joy to be present and to participate in the tonsuring of Sister Vicki as a rassophore nun on the Feast Day of St. Herman of Alaska (December 13). This took place in the chapel of at the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, PA, the home of Sister Vicki's new monastic community. Sister Vicki spent over twenty years as a teacher, and then made the life-changing decision to test her possible monastic vocation in 2002. She then returned home briefly to distribute her earthly goods before returning permanently to the monastery in the Fall of 2003. And now she is committed to being an Orthodox nun! It is always a great blessing for any given parish community when a priest or monastic emerges from its enclosure to pursue one of these worthy vocations within the life of the Church. We are now assured that Sister Vicki and perhaps the entire sisterhood is holding up our community before God in prayer on a daily basis. We also have a place of pilgrimage brought much more readily to our attention with one of our former parishoners and close friends in residence there. And we now have a living example of someone who has freely chosen to follow Christ with a love and intensity that is so lacking in our contemporary world. I am not quite sure how to put it, but for me it is deeply satisfying, as a parish priest, that a monastic has come forth from our parish community, and that however modest my contribution, I was a small part of that process. Having said that, I will also admit to missing Sister Vicki's presence among us! Her commitment, encouragment, obedience and love for Christ were always in clear evidence through her helpfulness here when she was a parishoner for a little over ten years.

There were three of us present for her tonsuring, for Dan Georgescu - our driver - and Shirley Leara were part of our parish delegation to the monastery. It is about a five - six hour trip to the monastery. When we first arrived, the air was crisp and the sky clear, as Shirley pointed out the lovely spectacle of a vast and starry sky made a bit brighter in the darker rural setting of the monastery. We went straight to the church for we arrived as the Vigil for St. Herman was being served. Splendid as the evening was, it was wonderful to enter the warmly inviting atmosphere of the monastery chapel. With its many beautiful ceiling frescoes, seasonal vestments and colors, softly-burning candles, and the reverent singing and chanting of the nuns, all expressing the presence of God, the church as the ark of salvation and true home of the believer was vividly apparent to us. The well-known theologian and author, Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko, was the celebrant, as he retired to a home near the monastery and now serves in the chapel on a regular basis. We were in time for the anointing and distribution of blessed bread during the chanting of the Canon prescribed for Matins. Following the service, we were able to chat briefly with Sister Vicki and the other mothers and sisters of the community.

The Feast of St. Herman beginning the next morning was most splendid. We began with the chanting of a superb akathist hymn in honor of St. Herman's "great deeds" in North America, followed by the third and sixth hours and then the tonsuring of Sister Vicki. This relatively short rite included the chanting of appropriate psalms by Sister Vicki; a prayer for her new status as a rassophore nun; the "tonsuring," or cutting, of some of her hair, symbolic of offering her whole life up to God in repentance and service; and her clothing in some more of the monastic clothing as this has developed over the centuries. In addition to her black monastic rassa, Sister Vicki now wears a new headpiece with veil, a pleated mantia (when she reads the Scriptures in the Liturgy), and an elaborately tied scarf that covers her head and shoulders peculiar to Romanian Orthodox monasticism. Sister Vicki was "clothed" by Mother Christophora, the abbess of the monastery. The service was perfomed by Fr. Alexander Culter, the igumen of St. John the Evangelist Monastery in Hiram, OH, and now Sister Vicki's spiritual father. Only a hieromonk, or monk-priest, may serve at the tonsuring of another monastic. When Fr. Alexander read aloud a final admonition to her about obedience in all things to her abbess, and the need for humility and self-sacrifice, I leaned over to Fr. Tom and whispered: "That's rough." He responded: "Yes, but that's the Gospel!" The Divine Liturgy then followed, with three of us concelebrating.

Asked to speak a few words in honor of Sister Vicki's tonsuring, I began by sending the heartfelt greetings and best wishes from the parish as a whole. I told everyone present that it probably would not come as a surprise if I further mentioned that Sister Vicki was like my "right arm" while a parishoner at Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit - totally committed, quietly zealous, obedient, encouraging and helpful. And that, as much as I rejoice in her new-found vocation, it was initally disorienting, as "losing" her was something like having my right arm severed! But we continue to remain very close and I am sure that that will continue for the years to come. I was struck by the peacefulness and serenity that was clearly present in Sister Vicki. This was most obvious, of course, in her face, which had a certain inner glow about it. This has always been true to some extent in Sister Vicki, but it has evidently been enhanced and even magnified in her new monastic life. I shared this with Fr. Tom, who responded by saying that Sister Vicki has been a most welcome addition to the community;that she is always quietly on the move and doing her work; and that she is somehow just "there" at all times. Sister Vicki has found God and her earthly vocation - a dual gift that sadly eludes many, many people.

A warm meal was shared by everyone in the trapeza following the Liturgy. Truly a feast, for we had shrimp in honor of St. Herman! Shirley presented Sister Vicki with some practical gifts for daily life, and I presented Mother Christophora with a check in honor of Sister Vicki's tonsuring from the parish. After a visit to the enticing monastery gift shop we left for home, having spent an extensively short, but intensively filled, amount of time at the Monastery of the Holy Transfiguration. Dan made the trip home thoroughly enjoyable by sharing with us from his impressive CD collection of Orthodox hymnography from a variety of traditions.

When, in the providential will of God, Sister Vicki is tonsured further into the monastic life with the taking of the distinctively monastic vows, in a more elaborate and fuller service, I am hoping that we will be able to make the trip with yet a larger body of the parish faithful. For now, let us always remember Sister Vicki in our prayers as she surely remembers us.

Fr. Steven

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Image of Giving in St Nicholas

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

There are fourteen days of charity, prayer and fasting left before Christmas ... Redeem the time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. Nicholas was about the proper understanding of "giving." Perhaps the most enduring quality of his image is that of giving to children in need. Our children learn that those who already "have" more are those who will yet "get" more. And that is because they are taught this by their parents who yield to their childish demands. So we persist in widening the gap of imbalance between the "haves and "have-nots" without too many pangs of (Christian) conscience. St. Nicholas wanted to restore a sense of balance, and so he looked first to those who were in need, so that they could also taste some childlike happiness from receiving an unexpected gift. In a simple manner, this imitates the giving of God Who gave us Christ at a time when everyone - rich and poor alike - were impoverished through sin and death. I sometimes fantasize that an ideal celebration of Christmas would find a relatively affluent family making sure that they spent more on those in need than on themselves. If Christianity is indeed the "imitation of the divine nature" as St. Gregory of Nyssa once said, then that need not necessarily be such an unrealistic idea. I do not believe that I have ever done that, so I convict myself through the very thought. Yet, I am convinced that our children would respond with an eager spirit of cooperation if properly prepared for some approximation of that ideal. Why should it be otherwise if, according to the Apostle Paul, Christ said that it is more blessed to give than to receive?

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

Fr. Steven

Friday, December 7, 2007

An Orthodox Understanding of The Immaculate Conception

Dear Parish Faithful,

On December 9 - this coming Sunday in 2007 - we commemorate The Conception by the Righteous Anna of the Most Holy Theotokos. Joachim and Anna, the parents of Miriam of Nazareth, were aged and despondent due to their childlessness. After intense prayer, the Lord responded to their entreaties and revealed to them separately that Anna will conceive and give birth to a girl that would be destined to serve God in a marvelous and unique manner. (This is why Joachim and Anna brought their child to the Temple when she was only three years old). The Virgin Mary was conceived as all human persons are conceived, thus revealing the potential sanctity of marriage and conjugal relationships based on love and purity of heart.

For the Roman Catholic Church, this commemoration became not only a major feast, but was dogmatized as the Immaculate Conception in 1854 by Pope Pius IX (hence the many Roman Catholic churches named "The Immaculate Conception"). In his "apostolic constitution," Ineffabilis Deus, the pope declared: "The doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary was preserved from all stain of original sin in the first instant of her Conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, in consideration of the merits of Jesus Christ, savior of the human race, has been revealed by God and must, therefore, firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful."

This dogma presupposes a particular understanding of "original sin," one that permeated all of Western theology, but which never entered the theology of the Christian East, except for the recent centuries, when Orthodoxy was subject to strong Roman Catholic or "Western" influence. The Orthodox Church has never accepted this very late dogma, because it severs the Virgin Mary from the rest of humanity, making her the "great exception," rather than the "great example" as Fr. Alexander Schmemann once said. For the sake of clarity and simplicity, I would like to simply record two paragraphs written by contemporary Orthodox theologians explaining why there is no need for such a dogma, and how it distorts our understanding of the Theotokos and human sexuality; and beyond that to our understanding of "original sin."

From a footnote in The Synaxarion (Lives of Saints) under December 9, we read the following (I believe from the book's contemporary editor, Hieromonk Macarius, of Simonas Petra monastery on Mt. Athos):

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception proclaimed by the Roman Catholics in 1854 is rejected by the Orthodox Church, but without in any way detracting from the dignity of the Mother of God. In fact, according the Fathers, the inheritance from Adam consists not in a personal responsibility of all men for original sin, but simply in the inheritance of the consequences of that sin: death, corruption and the passions ... Hence the Orthodox have no difficulty in recognizing that the Mother of God was heir, like us, of the consequences of Adam's sin - Christ alone was exempt -but at the same time pure and without personal sin, for she freely kept herself from all attraction for the world and for the passions, and she voluntarily co-operated in God's purpose by obeying His will with docility: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word," she replied to the Angel Gabriel (LK. 1:38). (The Synaxarion, Vol. II, p. 361)

From a somewhat different perspective, including our understanding of human sexuality and sexual intercourse, Fr. Thomas Hopko writes the following:

The Orthodox Church affirms original sin. Orthodox theology teaches that all human beings, including the Virgin Mary who is a "mere human" like the rest of us - unlike her Son Jesus who is a "real human" but not a "mere human" because He is the Incarnate Son and Word of God - are born into a fallen, death-bound, demon-riddled world whose "form is passing away" (I COR. 7:31). We are all born mortal and tending toward sin. But we are not born guilty of any personal sin, certainly not one allegedly committed "in Adam." Nor are we born stained because of the manner in which we are conceived by the sexual union of our parents. If sexual union in marriage is in any sense sinful, or the cause in itself of any sinfulness or stain, even in the conditions of the "fallen world," then as even the rigorous Saint John Chrysostom has taught, God is the sinner because He made us this way, male and female, from the very beginning. (The Winter Pascha, pp. 42-43)

This is an excellent example of how various "dogmas" are interconnected with others, or at least with the basic presuppositions of a particular Church's teaching. As Orthodox, we believe that there are major misleading elements embedded in the Roman Catholic and Protestant understanding of "original sin," including the teaching "that the transmission of the stain of original sin is by way of the manner of human reproduction through sexual intercourse." (The Winter Pascha, p. 42, note 3) Thus, a faulty notion of one key teaching can "logically" lead to the development of a faulty dogma. The Virgin Mary and Theotokos was conceived like we all are, and she died as we all die, and she was saved through Her Son's Death and Resurrection as we all are. Once more, from Fr. Thomas Hopko:

Mary is conceived by her parents as we are all conceived. But in her case it is a pure act of faith and love, in obedience to God's will, as an answer to prayer. In this sense her conception is truly "immaculate." And its fruit is the woman who remains forever the most pure Virgin and Mother of God. (The Winter Pascha, p. 43)

To become "more honorable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim," the Theotokos did have not to be specially "preserved" or "exempt" from being like us in her human origins. It was a matter of hearing the Word of God and keeping it in her heart, to be pondered and practiced with the intensity that comes through great faith and trust in God's mercy, providential care, presence. and love.

Fr. Steven

Nothing Extraordinary... Just Divinely Good

Dear Parish Faithful,

There are 20 days of charity, prayer and fasting left before Christmas ... "Redeem the time."

Q. How do you know that a parish is Orthodox?
A. When you lose count of how many of the male members are named Nicholas.

Therefore, our parish remains steadfastly Orthodox, with Nicholas remaining a very popular name - represented by young and old and various ethnic backgrounds. I count nine with the name of Nicholas, though we will lose Nick and Amanda Vatamaniuc as they make their move to Virginia permanent after this weekend. We wish them the best. That leaves us with eight other Nicholases to celebrate their name day on this December 6. (If allowances are made for different spellings, male and female forms, and even the parish clergy, Steven/Stephen/Stefanie also totals eight). For today, though, we want to wish our parish Nicholases a blessed name day - many years!

In his book, The Winter Pascha, Fr. Thomas Hopko has a chapter dedicated to St. Nicholas. The following two paragraphs are taken from that chapter:

Sad as it is to see Saint Nicholas transformed into the red-suited Santa Claus of the secular winter "holidays," it is easy to understand why the holy bishop has become so closely connected with the festival of Christ's birth. The stories about the saint, fabricated and embroidered in Christian imagination over the ages, in various times and places, all tell of the simple faith and love of the man known only for his goodness and love.

The extraordinary thing about the image of Saint Nicholas in the Church is that he is not known for anything extraordinary. He was not a theologian and never wrote a word, yet he is famous in the memory of believers as a zealot for orthodoxy, allegedly accosting the heretic Arius at the first ecumenical council for denying the divinity of God's Son. He was not an ascetic and did no outstanding feats of fasting and vigils, yet he is praised for his possession of the "fruit of the Holy Spirit ... love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (GAL. 5:22-23). He was not a mystic in our present meaning of the term but he lived daily with the Lord and was godly in all of his words and deeds. He was not a prophet in the technical sense, yet he proclaimed the Word of God, exposed the sins of the wicked, defended the rights of the oppressed and afflicted, and battled against every form of injustice with supernatural compassion and mercy. In a word, he was a good pastor, father, and bishop to his flock, known especially for his love and care for the poor. Most simply put, he was a divinely good person. (The Winter Pascha, pp. 38-39)

The Church's hymnography captures the image of this holy bishop thus:

O holy father,
The fruit of your good deeds has enlightened and
delighted the hearts of the faithful.
Who cannot wonder at your measureless patience
and humility?
At your graciousness to the poor?
At your compassion for the afflicted?
O Bishop Nicholas,
You have divinely taught all things well,
And now wearing your unfading crown, you intercede
for our souls.
Vespers of the Feast of Saint Nicholas

Fr. Steven

Friday, November 30, 2007

Blessed Dissatisfaction, continued...

Dear Parish Faithful,

As a follow-up to yesterday's Theological Thoughts about "blessed dissatisfaction," I wanted to share this wonderful and eloquent entry from Fr. Alexander Elchaninoff's Diary of a Russian Priest:

What is this continual sense of dissatisfaction, of anxiety, which we normally feel within us, save the stifled voice of conscience speaking to us inwardly in the subconscious level, and often contradicting our own will and declaring the untruth that our life is? As long as we live in conflict with the law of light which has been granted us, this voice will not be silent, for it is the voice of God Himself in our soul. On the other hand, that rare feeling of keen satisfaction, of plenitude and joy, is the happiness caused by the union of the divine principle in our soul with the universal harmony and the divine essence of the world.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Can't Get No Satisfaction... Thank God!

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"My soul thirsts for God, for the living God." Psalm 42:2
"Can't get no satisfaction" - The Rolling Stones

With its driving guitar riff and raspy-voiced lyrics giving a kind of pop-articulation to the disaffection of the lonely and alienated urbanite who, try as he might, just cannot succeed at "satisfying" the material and romantic/sexual goals droned into his mind on the radio and TV; this song - regardless of its actual intentions - managed to say something enduring about the "human condition." (Personally, I am inclined to believe that the members of the Rolling Stones never did derive a great amount of "satisfaction" from their enormous fame and fortune - money and media exposure may, after all, just not be the solution). Be that as it may, a rather odd connection came to me between this song and a verse from "The Akathist of Thanksgiving" that we chanted in our ecclesial observance of Thanksgiving Day just last week. In Ikos Six of the akathist, one of the verses in the refrain reads as follows:

Glory to You, Who have inspired in us dissatisfaction with earthly things.

Both the Stones song and the Orthodox hymn speak of "no satisfaction" or "dissatisfaction." However by "earthly things," Fr. Gregory Petrov, the author of this remarkable hymn, does not mean the natural world in which God has placed us. The refrain of Ikos Three makes that abundantly clear:

Glory to You, Who brought out of the earth's darkness diversity of color, taste and fragrance,
Glory to You, for the warmth and caress of all nature,
Glory to You, for surrounding us with thousands of Your creatures,
Glory to You, for the depth of Your wisdom reflected in the whole world ...

To the purified eyes of faith, the world around us can be a "festival of life" ... foreshadowing eternal life" (Ikos Two). The "earthly" can lead us to the "heavenly."

"Earthly things" in the context of the Akathist Hymn and the Orthodox worldview expressed in the Hymn, would certainly refer to the very things the Rolling Stones song laments about being absent - material and sexual satisfaction seen as ends in themselves. But whereas the song expresses both frustration and resentment as part of the psychic pain caused by such deprivation, the Akathist Hymn glorifies God for such a blessing! In the light of the insight of the Akathist Hymn, we can thus speak of a "blessed dissatisfaction." The Apostle Paul spoke of a closely-related "godly grief." (Perhaps the Rolling Stones and the Orthodox Church part company at this point).

This just may prove to be quite a challenge to our way of approaching something like dissatisfaction. Our usual instinct is to flee from dissatisfaction "as from the plague." Such a conditiion implies unhappiness, a sense of a lack of success, of "losing" in the harsh game of life as time continues to run out on us; and the deprivation and frustration mentioned above. Why should we tolerate the condition of dissatisfaction when limitless means of achieving "satisfaction" are at our disposal? To escape from a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction, don't people resort to alcohol, drugs and sex as desperate forms of relief? Or unrestrained and massive consumer spending? And we should not eliminate "religion" as one of those means of escape. If those means fail, then there is always therapy and medication as more aggressive means to relieve us of this unendurable feeling. Sadly, many learn "the hard way," that every ill-conceived attempt to eliminate dissatisfaction through "earthly things" only leads to a further and deeper level of this unsatiable affliction. Sadder still, there are many who would "forfeit their soul/life" just to avoid the bitter taste of dissatisfaction!

If the living God exists as we believe that He does, then how could we not feel dissatisfaction at His absence from our lives? What could possibly fill the enormous space in the depth of our hearts that yearns for God "as a hart longs for flowing streams." (Ps. 42:1) It is as if when people "hear" the voice of God calling them - in their hearts, their conscience, through another person, a personal tragedy - they reach over and turn up the volume so as to drown out that call. If we were made for God, then each person has an "instinct for the transcendent" (I recall this term from Fr. Alexander Schmemann), that can only be suppressed at an incalculable cost to our very humanity. In His infinite mercy, the Lord "blesses" us with a feeling of dissatisfaction so that we do not foolishly lose our souls in the infinitesimal pseudo-satisfactions that come our way. Therefore, we thank God for the gift of "blessed dissatisfaction!"

When we realize that we "can't get no satisfaction," then we have approached the threshold of making a meaningful decision about the direction of our lives. The way "down" can lead to that kind of benign despair that characterizes the lives of many today. The way "up" to the One Who is "enthroned above the heavens" and Source of true satisfaction. The Rolling Stones uncovered the truth of an enduring condition that we all must face and must "deal with." I am not so sure about the solution they would ultimately offer ... but in their initial intuition they proved to be very "Orthodox!"

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Reflections on a Service of Prayer

Dear Parish Faithful,

What a powerful Service of Prayer for the Sick we had on Monday evening on behalf of Elias Wendland, culminating in his anointing with the fragrant myrrh from a weeping icon of the Theotokos! The church was filled with nearly a hundred souls, the vast majority from among our parish faithful, all fervently praying with one mouth and heart for little Elias, whose innocent suffering has profoundly moved us all. As the Apostle Paul wrote: "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." (GAL. 6:2); and "If one member suffers, all suffer together." (I COR. 12:26) I was also very glad to see that some of our children were able to come. Being made aware of sadness and sorrow can be a spiritually healthy and character-building experience for their young hearts, as it exposes them to some of the harsher realities of life. Of adults and children, then, who there did not experience the full meaning of the intercessory prayers that we offered up to God:

O Physician of souls and bodies, with compunction and broken in heart we fall down before Thee, and with groaning we cry unto Thee ...

As Thou didst accept the tears of Hezekiah ... do Thou also accept our petitions which we bear unto Thee with compunction, O All-good King ...

We did what God gave us the means to do - assemble, pray and anoint. Now we place everything in His hands, as our Lord did when hanging upon the Cross. Why it takes a tragedy to bring us to church and there incline us toward concentrated, undistracted and intense prayer will always remain something of a mystery that we can only further beg God to forgive us for. Be that as it may, it was a wonderful manifestation of support for the entire Wendland family, beginning with Steve and Emma, whose anguish as a father and mother is heartbreaking, but whose strength of faith and character is so encouraging. God has providentially placed them in our parish - and thus in our care - during this time of personal and familial tragedy. Absorbing our love and concern will strenghten them further in the days to come.

Fr. Joseph Gibson from the parish of St. John the Forerunner in Indianapolis was also serving with me on Monday evening. He knows both Steve and Emma from many years back. Over the course of the last two Sundays, his parish raised the remarkable sum of $5,000 for the Wendlands. Since our parish is larger and since this is the Wendlands' home parish, I am fully confident that we will not only match but surpass that total. All we have to do is stay focused on our goal of a $50 - $100 donation from everyone in the parish and we will reach that goal. The key is as full of parish participation as possible. It would be wonderful if we can complete our collection before Christmas. I am in dialogue with Fr. Joseph, and we will more-or-less combine our raised funds and work together with the Wendlands to find the most appropriate and effective way to use this money.

In Christ,

Fr. Steven

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Worst Form of Persecution.

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

In matters of piety, freedom from oppression is the worst form of persecution. It is worse than any other persecution. No one understands or senses this danger because safety gives birth to carelessness. It weakens the soul and lulls to sleep, and the devil destroys sleeping men. St. John Chrysostom

With the commemoration of St. John Chrysostom this last Tuesday, November 13, I spent some time looking over his fascinating, tumultuous, and ultimately tragic life, together with some of his teaching as it has come down to us. Once ordained to the priesthood, St. John was passionately committed to his vocation as a pastor and a preacher of the Gospel. Yet, he was deeply distressed at what he interpreted as laxity and indifference among his large flock in Constantinople, once he became archbishop there in 398. In fact, he once famously said: "From among so many thousands, it is impossible to find more than one hundred who are truly saving their souls, and I am not even sure that there are that many." In fact, the large number of "Christians" that he encountered in the city, led him to further lament: "This is all the more fuel for the fire."

I would argue that our living conditions as Christians today far more resemble - at least in certain key aspects - the times of St. John in the 4th c. than perhaps that of Christians as recent as the 19th c. St. John was then contending with what we now call religious pluralism and the vast intellectual and religious choices that people had before them. Besides this, however, he had pressing pastoral problems that remain universal given the consistency of (fallen) human nature. His ministry was practiced within a large and cosmopolitan urban center that revealed great social inequality, and all the enticements and temptations that gather around affluence. Wealth, entertainment, expensive dressing and lavish dining were among the more obvious signs of the dulling effects of affluence. St. John even sarcastically spoke of the golden and silver chamber pots found among the wealthy in their bedrooms - while the poor were among them unattended on a daily basis! Concentration on these empty and trivial attractions is what led him to openly question the salvation of his flock.

It is precisely this affluence that "gives birth to carelessness" referred to in the text above. Further, "it weakens the soul and lulls to sleep," and "the devil destroys sleeping men." In a society of affluence and material comfort, "the worst form of persecution" is precisely "freedom from oppression!" With great insight, St. John declares that "it is worse than any other persecution." We may choose to debate that and to disagree with him, but his point remains a telling one. St. John, though, is on to something in the realization that the comforts we so cherish work upon us stealthily, steadily and slowly, so that it is no longer God, but the comfort of affluence that receives the focus of our attention. Hence, it is a form of "persecution" because it takes us away from God. Affluence breeds a desire for more of the same and our "souls" are preoccupied with just about anything and everything else - except perhaps our salvation! (Christmas has itself become a dreary exercise for many to flaunt their affluence in the number, novelty and expense of the gifts purchased). Thus, our affluence may remain today as our contemporary form of persecution, though we would hardly assess it to be so. Otherwise, why pursue it with such passion, commitment and dedication?

The author Peter Whybrow wrote a book entitled: American Mania: When More is Not Enough. That title says it all. Compare that with the aphorism of the English essayist Charles Lamb (+1831): "Enough is as good as a feast." Who among us is satisfied with enough? These are two very different "ideals" to live by, so "meditating" upon the choice before us may be worth the time and effort. Would that mean great changes in our lives? Cutting back? Simplifying? Sharing more with others? A change in worldview will mean a change in lifestyle, and that can be a painful process.

Returning to another of the deep themes raised above, St. John wondered aloud if there are "more than one hundred who are truly saving their souls." Only the merciful God knows, of course; and St. John tirelessly preached about the limitless mercy of God. But the question remains both painful and poignant. To what extent are we actually concerned with the salvation of our souls? Our liturgical prayer is very much concerned with the salvation of our souls ("Soul" does not so much mean a distinct substance, as it does our very lives in their totality). Of course, that could lead to a morbid and fearful preoccupation and that would only be another form of egoism. But assuming that the phrase "the salvation of our souls" refers to a spiritually healthy desire for communion with God through Christ and the Holy Spirit; or "the knowledge of Thy truth, and in the world to come, life everlasting" as we pray in every Divine Liturgy. To what extent do we pursue this with passion, commitment and dedication? If taken seriously, can it be anything other than the top "priority" of our lives? How does it "rank" with our pursuit of affluence? St. John referred to this as a process; he spoke of "saving our souls," not "saved souls." This takes time and effort as we synergistically cooperate with God in the process of working out our salvation in "fear and trembling." This is a worthy goal that dignifies and lends meaning to our existence.

As our Lord Jesus Christ said: "For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?" (MK. 8:36)

Fr. Steven

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Only Forty Days Left...

Dear Parish Faithful,

Beginning today, there are two different ways of approaching December 25, expressed in "slogan form:"

"Only forty days of shopping left before Christmas!"

"Only forty days of charity, prayer and fasting left before Nativity!"

Which sounds more appealing, and which will become our focus for the next forty days? Will we be able to further expand our church life for the next forty days; or will it be further marginalized by other preoccupations? Obviously, we will be combining both worlds to some extent. Yet hopefully, as pilgrims on a journey, we will remain on the long road leading to the mystical Bethlehem within the heart, where Christ will be born, making each and every one of us a "God-bearer" in resemblance of the Theotokos; rather than stray off the road and tumble into the "ditch" of consumerism, or aimlessly roam toward the "dead end" of superficial hedonism. The Church provides the compass that will guide us by the interior star shining brightly in our uplifted minds toward the hallowed cave and the Infant Who is the Word of God incarnate. Without this moral and spiritual compass, we are in danger of heeding the seductive and soothing voice of the latest incarnation of Herod, whose real objective is to destroy the presence of Christ in our hearts and in the world, so that darkness will prevail. In short, life is about choices, and these choices provide orientation in our lives. If we choose the "Orient from on high" then all will be well.

Below is attached a flyer that provides us with a list of the types of goods we will be collecting for our Nativity Food Drive, provided by our chairperson, Francis Fowler-Collins.

Fr. Steven

Nativity Season Food Drive
Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit Orthodox Church
... is sponsoring a Parish Food Drive for the needy,
November 18 - December 16.
You may make donations by leaving items in the two bins on the stage; they will be plainly marked.
Or email, write, or call us to make a donation by mail.

We would appreciate donations in the following categories:

  • Nonperishable foods&endash;such as canned goods, pasta, rice, etc.
  • Products for babies&endash;such as disposable diapers, baby food, etc.
  • Paper products&endash;such as tissues, toilet paper, paper towels, etc.
  • Products for personal hygiene&endash;such as soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, etc.
  • Cleaning products&endash;such as dish detergent, laundry detergent, etc.

    Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me. (Matt. 25:40)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Nativity Fast vs. 'Getmas'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Thursday, November 15 - tomorrow! - is the beginning of the forty-day Nativity or Advent Fast that prepares us both liturgically and personally for the Feast of our Lord's Nativity in the Flesh on December 25. This is a sacred season because it leads us toward the awesome event of the Incarnation, expressed so powerfully in the Gospel according to St. John:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth. (JN. 1:14)

It is also the time of year that more than ever reflects what I call the "battle of the calendars:" our ecclesiastical calender with its ongoing liturgical cycle and rhythm of fasting and feasting; and the secular calendar that is basically oblivious of the Christian revelation (though "Christmas" may show up on it). But even if Christmas appears on both calendars, the path to that event is very different according to the two calendars! The secular calendar has every day theoretically open to "partying" all the way until the long-awaited Christmas gift opening/exchange and the final dinner party to follow. Eat, drink and be merry, it is the holiday season! Yet, the ecclesiastical calendar directs us to fast up to the Feast with the year's longest fast-free period (Dec. 25 - Jan. 4) to follow. History is with the Church, for in centuries past, Christian society would spend the "twelve days of Christmas" in a festal mood after the day of December 25 itself. The contrast is rather stark, so the choices present to us reflect two very different approaches to how we will celebrate Christmas. As your parish priest I, of course, urge all of you to be practicing Orthodox Christians to as maximal a level as possible. Be patient, as all of humanity had to patiently await the advent of salvation in the Person's of God's Messiah and only-begotten Son. When the Lord comes we will celebrate; but the time of expectation we will spend in vigilant prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

Fasting implies restraint, and restraint is not only about the types of food and drink that we consume. Last year I recall one of my priest friends telling me of a clever yet convicting way of describing the consumer twist that we now inflict upon the Feast of Christ's birth. For our society as a whole, Christmas has become "Getmas." Getmas is all about "getting" as much as possible, with no real restraint applied to the getting process. How many children evaluate a "good Christmas" based upon what they "get?" (Not all adults are exempt from such an evaluation I would imagine). Not to get everything on the list could prove to spoil the event. Warming all of this up with a bit of Jesus in the manger is hardly a well-thought out response to the travesty of Getmas. Of course, there is giving as well as getting. But even that can be one more face of the consumer -driven event of the secular calendar. In our Orthodox tradition, fasting is part of an over-all discipline that seeks to free us from the constraints and demands of the world and its passions. Yet, what if we succeed in not eating meat for forty days, but still shop till we drop? What if we fast from food but make the mall more of a "home away from home" than the church? What if we practice a bit of charity for Christmas, yet spend way beyond our designated budget and get in further debt over Getmas? That sounds like placing the form over the substance of true religious piety.

Over the years I admit to having become something of an ecclesiastical Scrooge; but the hypocrisy of abandoning Christ while maintaining the spirit of maximal spending and consuming has taken its toll on my over-all appreciation of the world's embrace of Christmas - an embrace which has inexorably and unapologetically led to "Getmas."

Fr. Steven