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