Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
I have chosen a new book for my Eastern Orthodox Church class at XU this semester: The Mystery of Faith, by the Russian bishop, Hilarion Alfeyev. (See also this online catechism based on this book. - Webmaster) The book is subtitled, An Introduction to the Teaching and Spirituality of the Orthodox Church. This book is a superb synthesis of Orthodox theology, spirituality and practice, and I would highly recommend it. In fact, with its translation, it may be one of the best such introductory books now available in English. It is filled with wonderful excerpts from the Church Fathers that supplement and support the text of the book. I am awaiting to hear the reaction of my students which will come at the end of the semester in May.
After an introduction in which Bishop Hilarion beautifully explains the Orthodox approach to dogma, the first chapter is entitled "The Search for Faith." And the initial subsection of this opening chapter is entitled, simply, "The Call." So, essentially, here is how Bishop Hilarion begins his exploration of the Orthodox Faith:
Faith is a path on which an encounter takes place between us and God. It is God who takes the first step: he fully and unconditionally believes in us and gives us a sign, an awareness of his presence. We hear the mysterious call of God, and our first step towards an encounter with him is a response to this call. God may call us openly or in secret, overtly or covertly. But it is difficult for us to believe in him if we do not first heed this call.
Faith is both a mystery and a miracle. Why does one person respond to the call while another does not? Why is one open to receive the word of God, while another remains deaf? Why, having encountered God, does one immediately abandon everything and follow him, while the other turn away and takes a different road? (p. 1)
After exploring this a bit further, Bishop Hilarion addresses what may be a peculiarly "modern" obstacle to faith, or at least one that seems more pervasive in our current pace of life:
It has never been easy to hear the message of faith. In our day we are usually so engrossed in the problems of earthly existence that we simply have no time to listen to this message and to reflect on God. For some, religion has been reduced to celebrating Christmas and Easter and to observing a few traditions for fear of being 'torn away from our roots.' Others do not go to church at all because they are 'too busy.' 'He is engrossed in his work;' 'work is everything to her;' 'he is a busy man.' These are some of the best compliments that one can receive from friends and colleagues. 'Busy people' are a breed peculiar to modern times. Nothing exists for them other than a preoccupation which swallows them up completely, leaving no place for that silence where the voice of God may be heard. (p. 2)
That is just as true for those of us who claim to have heard the "call" and to have responded to it with faith. The "whirlwind of life" threatens to render that call inaudible. Some faithful members of the Church consider it a "victory" to get out the door on Sunday morning with regularity, let alone participate in some of the other services and activities that mark parish life. Yet even at home, is there time to pray and read the Scriptures; to attend to the needs of neighbors or others who depend upon our assistance?
Bishop Hilarion, however, remains postive about this mysterious call from God and explains that it may come to us in a variety of ways:
And yet, however paradoxical it may seem, in spite of today's noise and confusion, it is still possible to hear the mysterious call of God in our hearts. This call may not always be understood as the voice of God. It may strike us as a feeling of dissatisfaction or of inner unease, or as the beginning of a search. For many, it is only after the passing of years that they realize their life was incomplete and inadequate because it was without God. 'You have made us for yourself,' says St. Augustine, 'and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.' Without God there can never be fullness of being. It is therefore crucially important for us to be able to hear and to respond to the voice of God at the very moment when God is speaking, and not years later. If someone identifies and responds to the call of God, this may change and transfigure his or her life whole life. (p. 2)
" ... and not years later." We are always "postponing" our relationship with God for when we are less busy. The "call" from God needs to be cultivated - now, in the present. The dissatisfaction that we feel now, or the unease troubling us today is that same "call" coming to us from God in another form. In a previous meditation I had referred to this as "blessed dissatisfaction." People fool themselves by thinking that one more exotic vacation, shopping spree or superficial social event will pacify that dissatisfaction and unease. Such things may momentarily pacify the great pressure that we are under with our stressed out lives, but they also feed our appetite for more so that an endless cycle, resembling something of an unending merry-go-round of activities, perpetuates the postponement just referred to above. "Behold now is the acceptable time; behold now is the day of salvation." (II COR. 6:2)
Bishop Hilarion has given us something to think about ...
How happy are we Christians! What God is ours?
How much to be pitied are those who do not know God ...
O, unhappy, erring peoples! They cannot know what true joy is ...
But our joy is Christ. By His sufferings He has inscribed us in the Book of Life, and in the Kingdom of heaven we shall be with God for ever, and we shall see His glory, and delight in Him. Our joy is the Holy Spirit, so pleasant and delectable. He bears witness to the soul of her salvation.