Sunday, August 31, 2008

Following the Forerunner

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"But this kind never comes out except by prayer and fasting." (MATT. 17:21)

Today, August 29, is the commemoration of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. This day is designated as a "strict fast day" in honor of the austere ascetic of the desert who "wore a garment of camel's hair, and a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey." (MATT. 3:4) Being a Friday, it is already a day of fasting, but this commemoration should make us more mindful and vigilant to be obedient to the directive of the Church. St. John lost his life in a brutal manner because he upheld the Law regardless of the ultimate cost. He publicly reproached Herod Antipas for marrying Herodias, the wife of his half-brother, Philip. For St. John told Antipas: "It is not lawful for you to have her." (MATT. 14:4) When Salome enticed the enervated Herod by dancing for him at his "birthday party," the reward she drew out of him was the head of St. John on a platter. This was in connivance with her mother Herodias, who bore a spiteful grudge against St. John. What a wonderful mother and daughter "team!" The entire narrative is found in MATT. 14:1-12 and MK. 6:17-29. The contrast between righteousness and unrighteousness, or purity and decadence is quite striking. To fast with and in the spirit of St. John the Baptist is at least a gesture in the direction of desiring righteousness and purity in our own lives.

In broader terms, we can refer back to last Sunday's Gospel reading when Jesus told his disciples that the "demon" afflicting the young boy could only be driven out by "prayer and fasting." (MATT. 17:14-21) I am certain that Christ meant the practices of prayer and fasting fully integrated into our lives - together with almsgiving (MATT. 6:1-18). If prayer and fasting are somehow added on to our "normal life" as religious additives then these practices become perfunctory and irregular. Then we are reduced to a kind of religious minimalism. Christ meant that prayer and fasting must actually define us, or perhaps describe us in our most passionate activities pursued with seriousness of purpose and practice. Then, the inner "demons" of temptation that we face on a daily basis can be "driven out" by the grace of God working in us through faith, and strengthened by "prayer and fasting."

Let the Church New Year truly be a time of renewal and recommitment to our lives "in Christ." We can each be an "Olympian" as we strive for an imperishable crown with the same intensity and devotion as the Olympians we just watched and admired so much labored for gold, silver and bronze medals. Prayer and fasting are difficult practices to "master" over time, but certainly worthy of the effort of those who proclaim themselves as Christians and hence as belonging to Christ.

Fr. Steven

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Beyond Death and Judgment - The Dormition of the Theotokos

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

We enjoyed a truly wonderful celebration of the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos yesterday evening. Attendance was very strong, there was a full choir, and the Vesperal Liturgy both lively and prayerful. As always, it was good to see some of our parish children and young adults present and worshiping. This "summer pascha" has steadily become an integral event of our parish life. And this is "meet and right." American Christianity has been shaped by the Protestant ethos, and that basically means that there is no real place for the veneration of the Mother of God. This was primarily based upon a reaction against the perceived excesses of the medieval West's Marian piety by the early Protestant reformers. In a short time, this reaction became a thorough rejection - at times quite vehement - in many Protestant circles. So the Virgin Mary pretty much disappeared from Protestant worship and piety. Perhaps the classic example within Church history of "throwing out the baby with the bath water." Orthodox Christians cannot succumb to any such truncated form of the Church's living Tradition.(However, there have been clear signs recently of a "recovery" of the role of the Virgin Mary in some Evangelical circles). One of my beloved professors from seminary always used to say that a sign of a spiritually strong parish is that parish's devotion to the Mother of God. For she is the personal image of the Church - warm, embracing, nurturing, protecting.

Since the Dormition has no biblical source, this feast slowly developed over the course of the first five centuries of the Church's history on the basis of a wide variety of sources - primarily narratives, rhetorical homilies and theological poetry/hymnography (Much of this material now exists in English translation). There is no one authoritative text or document. However, though details may differ, a tradition emerged that tells of how the apostles were miraculously brought back to Jerusalem in order to surround the bedside of the Virgin Mary as she lay dying. Upon commending her holy soul to her Son and Savior, she peacefully "fell asleep" in death (the meaning of the word dormition) in the presence of the apostles who stood weeping and grief-stricken by her bedside. With great solemnity they buried her pure body which had itself been the "tabernacle" of the King. The traditional place of her burial is a tomb close to Gethsemane. When the tomb was opened on the third day so that the Apostle Thomas, who arrived late, could venerate the body of the Theotokos, it was found to be empty. The "Mother of Life" was thus "translated to life!"

Archbishop Kallistos Ware summarizes the Church's understanding of this tradition in the following manner:

Without insisting of the literal truth of every element in this account, Orthodox tradition is clear and unwavering in regard to the central point: the Holy Virgin underwent, as did her Son, a physical death, but her body - like His - was afterwards raised from the dead and she was taken up into heaven, in her body as well as in her soul. She has passed beyond death and judgement, and lives wholly in the Age to Come. The Resurrection of the Body, which all Christians await, has in her case been anticipated and is already an accomplished fact. That does not mean, however, that she is dissociated from the rest of humanity and placed in a wholly different category: for we all hope to share one day in that same glory of the Resurrection of the Body which she enjoys even now. (The Festal Menaion, p. 64)

Fr. Thomas Hopko further elaborates on the meaning of this beautiful Feast and how it "relates" to every generation of Christians:

Thus, the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos is the celebration of the fact that all men are "highly exalted" in the blessedness of the victorious Christ, and that this high exaltation has already been accomplished in Mary the Theotokos. The feast of the Dormition is the sign, the guarantee, and the celebration that Mary's fate is the destiny of all those of "low estate" whose souls magnify the Lord, whose spirits rejoice in God the Savior, whose lives are totally dedicated to hearing and keeping the Word of God which is given to men in Mary's child, the Savior and Redeemer of the world.

The Leavetaking of the Feast is on August 23. That means that we continue to sing and chant the troparion and kontakion of the Feast in our liturgical services until then, in addition to the other hymnography of the Feast. I would strongly urge everyone to incorporate these hymns into your daily rule of prayer, including their use when you bless your meals as a family, replacing the Lord's Prayer up until the Leavetaking. If you can't sing these hymns, you can certainly recite them! This is how we bring a remembrance of the Feasts into our homes. The troparia and kontakia of the major Feasts are included in many Orthodox Prayer Books, but if you do not have the texts available at home, I am including them here:

Troparion of the Dormition

In giving birth, you preserved your virginity!
In falling asleep you did not
forsake the world, O Theotokos!
You were translated to life, O Mother of Life,
and by your prayers you deliver our souls from death!

Kontakion of the Dormition

Neither the tomb, nor death, could hod the Theotokos,
who is constant in prayer and our firm hope in her intercessions.
For being the Mother of Life, she was translated to life
by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb!

The decorated tomb of the Theotokos, containing an icon of her sacred body in blessed repose, will be back in its usual place and open to our veneration whenever we enter the church. The great Feasts extend in time, giving us the opportunity of integrating them into our lives in a meaningful way.

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Process of Personal Transfiguration

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Today is the "Leavetaking" of the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord. This is not only a beautiful Feast, but a "feast of beauty." And as Dostoevsky once enigmatically said: "Beauty will save the world." The transfigured Christ is an image of humanity restored to the beauty of the original image as intended by God. We see this beauty in the shining face of Christ, which is the human face of God. Human beings are meant to reflect the glory/beauty of God - something terribly lost through sin and corruption. On Mt. Tabor, Christ also revealed a foretaste of the beauty of the Kingdom of God which is yet to come in its full splendor, when "the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father." (MATT. 11:43) But now we must descend from Mt. Tabor as did the disciples Peter, James and John. Then, through the manner of our lives, we are asked to witness to that vision of divine glory that we were allowed to glimpse, "as far as we could bear it," in the radiant face of Christ. The daily bearing of the Cross is the only "road" back to Mt. Tabor and the glory of transfiguration. The disciples learned this the hard way, and this is a truth that we must always bear in mind as we bear our daily cross(es).

For certain of the great saints of the Church throughout the centuries, this process of transfiguration began in this life in a very tangible and even overwhelming manner. These saints witness to our claim and belief that by the grace of God, a human person is capable of shining with the identical uncreated divine light that shone in the face of Christ on Mt. Tabor. This experience is not only reserved for the Kingdom of God, but can begin in this life. This comes after a prolonged period of preparation through prayer and fasting, but ultimately it is a gift from God reserved for certain of the saints to demonstrate the human capacity to participate directly in divine life. What our Lord is by nature, a human being created in the image and likeness of God may become by grace.

A fairly recent, and all-together spectacular instance of this was revealed in the life of St. Seraphim of Sarov (+1833), a Russian monk, ascetic and mystic whose life has become very popular and well-studied for the last few decades at least. His disciple, the landowner Nicholas Motovilov, has left an extraordinary account of the saint's transfiguration based upon a personal experience that God allowed him to have while together with St. Seraphim one winter day in the woods. These notes of his were discovered after his death in about 1903, and have since been widely-translated, read and studied as an unique eyewitness testimony of being in the presence of a transfigured human being. The context for this event was a discussion between the saint and his disciple over the meaning of the saint's famous statement: "The purpose of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God." Motovilov's awe is evident throughout as St. Seraphim does his best to explain to him what is happening based upon the Transfiguration of Christ. I am including the following excerpts for you to marvel at:

"The grace of the Holy Spirit is the light which lightens man. [...] And indeed, the Lord has often demonstrated before many witnesses how the grace of the Holy Spirit operates with regard to those people whom He has sanctified and illumined by His great visitation. Remember Moses after his conversation with God on Mount Sinai. He shone with such an extraordinary light that people could not look at him, and he had to cover his face. Remember the Transfiguration of the Lord on Mount Tabor. A great light surrounded Him and 'His garments became shining, exceedingly white like snow' and His apostles fell on their faces from fear. In the same way the grace of the Holy Spirit of God manifests itself in an ineffable light to all to whom God reveals its activity."

"But how," I asked Father Seraphim, "can I know that I am in the grace of the Holy Spirit? [...] I need to understand completely."

Father Seraphim then took me firmly by the shoulders and said, "We are both, you and I, in the Spirit of God this moment, my son. Why do you not look at me?"

"I cannot look, Father," I replied, "because great flashes of lightning are springing from your eyes. Your face shines with more light than the sun and my eyes ache from the pain."

"Don't be frightened, friend of God," Father Seraphim said. "You yourself have now become as bright as I am. You are now yourself in the fullness of the Spirit of God: otherwise you would not be able to see me like this. [...] Why don't you look at me, my son? Just look, don't be afraid! The Lord is with us!"

At these words, I looked at his face and was seized with an even greater sense of trembling awe.
Imagine in the center of the sun, in the most dazzling brilliance of his noontime rays, the face of a man talking to you. You see the movement of his lips, the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel that someone is holding his hands on your shoulders. Yet you do not see his hands or his body, but only a blinding light spreading around for several yards, illuminating with its brilliant sheen both the bank of snow covering the glade and the snowflakes that fall on me and the great Starets (elder) ...

[Seraphim continued:]

"Concerning this condition the Lord said: "There are some of them that stand here, who shall not taste death, till they see the kingdom of God come with power.' Behold, my son, you who love God, what ineffable joy the Lord God is now granting unto us! This is what is meant being in the fullness of the Holy Spirit, what is meant by St. Makarios of Egypt when he writes: "I myself was in the fullness of His Holy Spirit' ..." ( translation by Mary-Barbara Zeldin from St. Seraphim of Sarov, 93-102)

As everyone likes to say these days: "Awesome!" But truly awesome, as in awe-inspiring. For God is glorified in His saints. But perhaps we only need to be inspired enough to transform/transfigure our lives on the most modest of scales: to change for the better on a daily basis by putting aside sinful inclinations, petty behavior and feeding of the passions. And further, as Archbishop Kallistos Ware writes: "To renew our relationship with others through imaginative sympathy, through acts of compassion, and through cutting off of our own self-will." This would be a transfiguring experience, indeed, not only for ourselves, but for others around us. This comes back to the point of denying ourselves and taking up our cross daily (LK. 9:23). Then something of the glory, light, and beauty of God would enter the world - perhaps unspectacularly, but truly convincingly.

Fr. Steven

Monday, August 4, 2008

Alexander Solzhenitsyn - His Prophetic Role

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The great Russian writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn died yesterday at his home near Moscow. He was eighty-nine years old. One could make a very powerful argument that he was the most important writer of the 20th c. This, because he wrote with the intensity and daring of a prophet in opposition to the Soviet Union's totalitarian regime. Solzhenitsyn exposed, through his novels and his investigative and historical accounts, the Soviet Union's hidden slave labor camps, known by the acronym "the gulag." In fact, his most enduring work is entitled The Gulag Archipelago. This massive three-volume work, over 300,000 words in length, is an unrivaled denunciation of the Soviet Union's repression of any and all political dissent. It chronicles in great detail the lives of countless men and women who were subjected to long and undeserved sentences in the Gulag. His goal was to be the "living memory" of these innocent victims. When this work was first published in the West, the Soviet authorities reacted by branding him a "traitor" and having Solzhenitsyn expelled from the country in 1976. He eventually settled in Vermont where he continued on another massive work, which was an historical treatment of the Russian Revolution in the form of a trilogy of novels. His earlier novels, of high literary merit, include One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle and Cancer Ward. Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. His acceptance speech was a stirring description of the writer's deep commitment to truth. He is credited, together with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, as being one of a triumvirate who helped "bring down" the Soviet regime in the late 20th century. But he was the one who knew this from the inside, as a victim of this regime, and he paid the highest price.

He was an uneasy guest here in America, because he denounced the "vulgar materialism" of the West, and what he perceived to be the cowardice of the West in only weakly opposing the world's various communist regimes. He did this rather boldly in a famous Address to Harvard graduates in 1978. The Western press turned on him, and though he was grudgingly considered a courageous dissident, he was essentially ignored from that time onward. Rather misunderstood, he was labeled a "monarchist" and "political reactionary." President Ford, on the advice of Henry Kissinger refused to meet with him even though he was the Soviet Union's most virulent and effective critic. He returned to his beloved Russia following the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. His influence there slowly waned, as he seemed to be out of touch with a younger generation that sought to forget the past, and move on to a more materialistic style of life in post-communist Russia. His legacy may suffer because of that, but he is always mentioned together with Russia's great writers such as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekov and Pasternak, whose use of the written word was appreciated as a gift - and hence their role as writers to be a vocation to reveal the truth about life - more than as a means of entertainment. Solzhenitsyn was a believing Orthodox Christian, and while in Vermont, his spiritual director was Fr. Alexander Schmemann (+1983), the former dean of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary. Fr. Schmemann admired him greatly, but they clearly had their disagreements as recorded in Fr. Alexander's published journals.

Here is a striking example of a lone, single voice - "the voice of one crying in the wilderness" - standing up to a murderous regime with incredible courage and resolve. The pressure on him to either conform or be silent must have been nearly unendurable, as he and his family suffered through numerous death threats from the KGB. Only his notoriety in the West saved him from disappearing again (he had earlier served an eight year prison sentence for mildly criticizing Stalin in a letter) into a Soviet labor camp. Such a stance remains deeply encouraging, because ultimately, people still want to hear the truth, especially when it is boldly spoken by someone who is willing to suffer for that truth. The many criticisms that he may have to accept as an uncompromising, flawed human being seem to be insignificant in comparison to his role as a prophet-like writer who denounced the suppression of freedom and truth for the sake of all ideologies that sought to dehumanize human beings created "in the image and likeness of God." Memory Eternal!

Fr. Steven

Related Links:

Wikipedia Entry for Solzhenitsyn
Solzhenitsyn's 1978 Harvard Address