Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Smile from Eternity

Dear Parish Faithful,

I had to send along these remarkable photographs and the explanatory texts below. This is an incredible example of what we mean by "falling asleep in the Lord." Have you ever seen anyone in a coffin with such a smile on his face?! No wonder the article is entitled "A Smile From Eternity." All of the eyewitnesses must have been overwhelmed with the certainty that they were burying a saint. The Holy Mountain - Mt. Athos - has a great reputation for sanctity even to this day.

Fr Steven

Webservant's Note: Rather than reproduce the full articles and photos in our blog, here are the direct links to the Vatopedi articles for you to follow this amazing story:

A Smile from Eternity
This warm, brief article describes the funeral of Blessed Elder Joseph and the effect his radiant smile had on all those present. (Note: the website seems to be in Greek, but the article has been translated into English - just scroll down.)

Why is the Smile of Elder Joseph of Vatopedi from Eternity?
As the photos and text in this article show, Elder Joseph did not repose smiling, but rather, his smile appeared some forty-five minutes after his death!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Pascha in the Summer

Dear Parish Faithful,

"Pascha in the Summer" is how we can describe the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God. The Feast itself is on August 15, but we are now fast approaching the Dormition Fast (August 1-14) that leads us to the "paschal joy" of the translation of the Mother of God to the Kingdom of Heaven. A great Feast is always prepared for by a designated season of fasting. This is our communal and personal response to the "dog days" of summer and the lack of spiritual vigilance that this time of year tempts us with. A wonderful opportunity that we do not want to squander of "getting back on track" in and through the grace-filled life of the Church. And in addition to Dormition, we celebrate the "Feast of Divine Beauty" - the Transfiguration of the Lord - as a festal interlude during the Fast on August 6.

The two weeks of August 1-14, will be quite filled with church services and other events that will hopefully bring this season alive for the entire parish. Here is the schedule that will unfold once we begin the Fast a week from this Saturday:

SAT. 1st Beginning of Dormition Fast
Great Vespers & Confessions at 6:00 p.m.

SUN. 2nd Divine Liturgy at 9:30 a.m.

MON. 3rd Adult Reading Group at 7:30 p.m. Parts V & VI of Crime and Punishment

WED. 5th Vesperal Liturgy & Blessing of Fruit for Transfiguration at 6:00 p.m.

SAT. 8th Great Vespers & Litiya at 6:00 p.m.

SUN. 9th St. Herman of Alaska - Divine Liturgy at 9:30 a.m.
High School Film Festival at 5:00 p.m. (Markvan home)

MON. 10th Adult Reading Group at 7:30 p.m. Epilogue and Film of Crime and Punishment (Leara home)

WED. 12th Service of Intercessory Prayer at 7:00 p.m.
Question & Answer Session to follow

FRI. 14th Vesperal Liturgy for Dormition at 6:00 p.m.

This should allow everyone some time to plan ahead. The main thing is to respect the Mother of God by respecting the Fast that is observed in Her honor. What is first in our lives: the Church or the surrounding culture? Here is a good starting point for evaluating that question.

Reading List for the Dormition Fast:

  • Mary, the Mother of God, Sermons by St. Gregory Palamas
  • Celebration of Faith vol. III: The Virgin Mary by Fr. Alexander Schemmann
  • The Orthodox Veneration of Mary, the Birthgiver of God, by St. John Maximovich
  • Mary - The Untrodden Portal of God by George Gabriel
  • On the Dormition of Mary - Various Patristic Homilies on the Feast, ed. by Daley
  • On the Mother of God by Jacob of Serug
  • Wider Than Heaven - Eighth Century Homilies on the Mother of God, ed. and translated by Mary Cunningham

These books are all readily available from various Orthodox bookstores. We have links to all these titles, plus numerous online articles, in a new section on our parish website, Resources for the Dormition Fast, that you may also want to look at.

In Christ,

Fr Steven

Monday, July 20, 2009

Protect and Preserve Us from this Generation Forever

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

It seemed as if half the parish was gone yesterday. Certainly the prayer list for those travelling was quite extensive. Travelling always offers the possibility of visiting other Orthodox parishes, so that we continue to celebrate Christ's resurrection on the Lord's Day.

This week we are in Tone Five as we continue in the cycle of Eight Tones based on the Octoechos, or Book of Eight Tones, from which we derive the various texts for each particular tone. One such series of texts is that of the prokeimenon used at the Sunday Liturgy prescribed for each tone of the week. Here is how the word prokeimenon is defined and described in the Festal Menaion, translated by Mother Mary and (then) Archimandrite Kallistos Ware:

PROKEIMENON (Gk. prokeimenon, 'what is set forth,' i.e. what is appointed to be read). Verses from the Psalter, sung immediately before readings from the Holy Scripture. A prokeimenon occurs:

(i) at Vespers, after the hymn, O Joyful Light;
(ii) at Matins on Sundays and feasts, before the Gospel;
(iii) at the Liturgy, before the Epistle. (Festal Menaion, p. 557)

What we chant and sing today as the prokeimenon is the remnant of a much more elaborate use of a psalm with a refrain verse sung by the body of the faithful. As preliminary to the reading of the Scriptures, the prokeimenon can "come and go" without drawing a great deal of attention. As such, it is "filler," or a formalized "warm up" in preparation for the scriptural text. Yet, the prokeimenon is itself Scripture as it is drawn from the psalms. Actually, repeated usage helps us memorize these particular verses - together with the melody that belongs to its prescribed tone.

The Lord's Day prokeimenon for Tone Five heard yesterday at the Liturgy is taken from Psalm 12:

Thou, O Lord, shall protect us and preserve us from this generation forever.
vs. Save me, O Lord, for there is no longer any that is godly.

The psalmist must have felt lonely and isolated in withstanding the godlessness of his own "generation," meaning the times during which he lived. Yet, he was confident that God would "protect and preserve" him and his fellow Israelites - a small minority? - who remained loyal and committed to God and His Law. Make of it what you will, but Jesus spoke harshly of His own generation, calling it "evil and adulterous" (MATT. 16:4); and "faithless and perverse" (MATT. 17:17). He refused to give to such a generation a "sign" except the somewhat enigmatic "sign of Jonah." (MATT. 16:4). In many ways we can feel overwhelmed by the perversities of our own generation - political, social, cultural, sexual - and even believe that they exceed what has come before us in both quantity and quality. Instead of being hidden behind closed doors within those societies we now like to call "hypocritical" for that very reason, much of it is even mass-produced for consumer consumption. For the right price, it is all there to be had! We may be convinced that the words of Christ fit our generation even better than his own. Whatever the case may be, for ultimately "there is nothing new under the sun" (ECCL. 1:9), we realize that there is enough sinfulness in every generation that makes calling it "perverse" and "evil" fully justified. In fact, we may feel, as did the psalmist, there is "no longer any that is godly." To say otherwise would be to reveal a frightening lack of discernment. This is the exacting toll of sin in the world.

We are reassured by this scriptural text expressed through the prokeimenon that we need not be unduly frightened, overwhelmed, or filled with an imbalanced pessimism when we, like a frail David, are face to face with the Goliath of human perversity. (I am not convinced that the opposite reaction of a superficially cheery optimism that refuses to see any signs of anything evil, adulterous, faithless or perverse is much more helpful. At least such a response does not coincide with the teaching of Christ. And it could reveal a self-absorption that is indifferent to the surrounding environment as long as it does not immediately threaten us). Such responses would further reveal the strength of each perverse generation over us. The Lord "shall protect us and preserve us" we are promised. Yet, not from the presence and temptations of each perverse generation, but from succumbing to that very presence and those very temptations if we resist them and cling to the Lord with faith, hope and love. Faith is strengthened through testing, and resistance to prevailing temptations is part of that "test." But that means that we need to look to God for protection and preservation. Our relationship with God cannot be a lazy one. The following words of Mother Raphaela are very convicting when applied to our daily lives:

This is where I think many, many Orthodox Christians are functionally atheists or at best new-agers. Do we treat God with a rudeness that allows us to wake up, hear the radio music, smell the coffee and check our e-mails before, if we are in a pious mood, we nod in His direction? Far too often we act as if God is not there, or is not there as a Person, the One Who is everywhere and fills all things. When we can go whole days not speaking to Him, to someone we know is in the same house with us, we should know that our relationship is in trouble.

If our relationship with God is "in trouble" then the perversities of our generation can close in around us - and not look so bad after all. When God is a daily afterthought outside of Sunday morning, then an incremental slide into an "evil and adulterous generation" will hold its own fuzzy attractions. We are not called, as Christians, to be "closed-minded," or "intolerant." But we are called to be able to distinguish between good and evil, the true and the false. And to see through the illusions and delusions of what is clearly sinful - or was considered to be until just recently, within our own generation.

I will love You, O Lord, my
The Lord is my foundation, my
refuge, my deliverer;
My God is my helper, on Him I will
My champion, the horn of my
salvation, and my protector. (PS. 17:1-3)

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

In Gratitude for Archbishop Job

Dear Parish Faithful,

As I was beginning to prepare a second chalice for Holy Communion at yesterday's Divine Liturgy, Archbishop Job told me that he was not feeling well, and therefore would not be able to distribute Communion. I believe it was a combination of a lingering cold and a feeling of being over-heated. Not quite sure how he was feeling at the end of the Liturgy, I cut short some of my prepared comments about his crucial role in our recent Church scandal, thinking the sooner he was off his feet, the better. Believing that this may have been his last pastoral visit to our parish before his retirement, I further believed that he deserved some open acknowledgment of his admirable stance. I wanted to articulate the collective gratitude of many of you who were also deeply impressed by his fidelity to the truth. Therefore, I would like to "fill out" what was only adumbrated yesterday as to how I understand that crucial role looking back at this recent sorrowful episode in the history of our Orthodox Church in America.

Our "time of troubles" can be dated to a three-year period between November 2005 - November 2008. The three letters of Archdeacon Eric Wheeler landed as a veritable bombshell of disclosure, as an endless series of allegations poured forth from this "insider source" from financial to moral corruption at the highest levels of the Church's administration. An array of Initial reactions covered dismay, denial and discouragement. However, strong expressions of frustration and anger quickly appeared as the investigation of the allegations was undermined by the same dreary institutional cover-up schemes that prevail in the "secular world." It was at this point, in a letter to Metropolitan Herman dated November 28, 2005, that Archbishop Job posed the question that cut to the heart of the matter: "Are the allegations true, or are they false?" That was the one simple question that needed to be addressed and answered. But first, that crucial question needed to be asked. And Archbishop Job was the one who asked it. For the next three years or so, that was the one question that inspired a host of concerned Orthodox clergy and laity to "fight the good fight" over issues of openness, honesty and truthfulness on behalf of the integrity of the Church. In fact, I believe we could say that the whole three-year "battle" was fought over answering that question. went online in January 2006, now encouraged and "protected" by His Eminence, Archbishop Job within the Diocese of the Midwest. But without the support of at least one of the Church's hierarchs, the quest for truth may have been impossible to pursue with any sustained force over a long period of time.

Sadly, His Eminence received no support on the Synod of Bishops. He had a sympathizer or two, but no "voice" accompanied that interior sympathy. The Holy Synod was protectively closing ranks, and Archbishop Job found himself on the outside of that inner sanctuary. He was breaking a long-standing code of "sticking together" with his brother bishops in a time of crisis, hoping to last out the storm through hierarchical privilege, appeals to authoritative fiat (which included "gag orders" to the priests of some of the dioceses), and obfuscation of the real issues. His darkest moment came when two of the bishops - Tikhon of the West (now retired) and Nicolai of Alaska (now deposed in disgrace) - moved to have Archbishop Job removed from the Synod of Bishops. No one spoke in his defense. Yet, he managed to "hold on" by not succumbing to what amounted to a bullying pressure to "resign." And he quietly continued to thrust forward his now famous question: "Are any of the allegations true, or are they false?"

Whatever his failings and flaws may be, His Eminence rose above them and fulfilled his episcopal ministry as "overseer" of his diocese, and responsible member of the Holy Synod of Bishops, by acting with openness and honesty. And based upon the teachings of St. James, we believe that one powerful deed can cover a "multitude of sins." On the whole - though there were some notable exceptions - his diocesan clergy rallied behind him with great respect and support. I cannot detect any questionable motives behind his words and actions. There was clearly no attempt at self-aggrandizement on his part. He was genuinely relieved when he was not elected the new metropolitan. He spoke often of acting "bound by conscience." There were probably some missteps along the way, but His Eminence remained true to the course set upon with his initial question. When the time comes - April 2011 - he can retire with integrity as a "good and faithful servant." Though in the "bigger scheme of things" this was a minor drama within the history of the Church and the contemporary North American religious landscape, being faithful over "little things" has far-reaching repercussions. Perhaps most importantly, it reminds us that one can take a stance that goes against the grain, but which can prove to be effective if pursued with faithfulness and perseverance. And that many Christian people are still interested in the truth(!), and not simply pragmatic non-solutions. While some of the key figures in this "ecclesial drama" have been either deposed or disgraced - or continue to disgrace themselves - His Eminence, Archbishop Job has risen in stature. In due time, good triumphs over evil.

As we now know, the allegations were true as revealed by the long-anticipated report of the Special Investigation Committee, released shortly before the All-American Council held in Pittsburgh in November 2008. With the election of Metropolitan Jonah a new era was hopefully inaugurated in the life of the OCA. However, a new set of problems continue to plague the OCA and is making "moving forward" very difficult. We are beset by staggering legal fees as the OCA is being sued by the Kondratick family for millions and millions of dollars. These fees are essentially consuming our funds at a rate that we cannot sustain. All departments have been frozen as our assessment money is being spent in an attempt at fending off these crippling suits. The word "bankruptcy" is now becoming more that a worried whisper. But that reality continues to stare at the OCA minus an effective strategy for the future.

How does one sue the Church and yet remain a faithful son or daughter of the Church? St. Paul admonished Christians not to take each other to court, but to even suffer wrong if necessary. I would like to share an edifying story that will provide a contrast to the contemporary spectacle of a member of the Church suing his own church in such a destructive manner. I grew up in the Macedono-Bulgarian Diocese. Our diocese suffered through one of the many dreary "splits" that marked the life of many ethnic Orthodox jurisdictions here in North America in the 20th c. It was essentially a "political" issue. We had a very humble priest who found himself being vilified and slandered from various quarters. Absurdly, even his wife's morality and fidelity were being attacked! He bore this with a Christ-like capacity to suffer through this with patience. It would have been incomprehensible for him to have sued the Church or to act in a retaliatory manner. Instead of burning anger and a desire for revenge, he never spoke ill of his abusers and essentially forgave them all in the end when he was completely vindicated. And remember, my former parish priest was not found guilty before a spiritual court and deposed from the priesthood. He was innocent. What could be a stronger motive, then to publicly fight to prove one's innocence? He will be remembered in a certain way, and the person trying to destroy the OCA in a vindictive spirit will be remembered in a different way - or perhaps ... forgotten.

By the way, His Eminence shared with me his wish to visit all of his parishes "one last time," if possible, before he retires. I hope that this proves to be the case.

Fr. Steven

Thursday, July 9, 2009

A Prayer for the Parish

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"But we beg you, brethren, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we exhort you, brethren, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." (I THESS. 5:12-18)

A couple of months or so ago, I wrote of a new and very full Orthodox Prayer Book that was recently published by the Saint Arseny of Konevets Press. The full title is: Prayer Book - In Accordance With the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It has some wonderful "set prayers" that I have never seen or read before. We are not told where these particular prayers come from - are they old, more recent, or perhaps even newly composed? Be that as it may, there is a prayer at the end of the Morning Rule of Prayer under the title of "Prayer for City and Parish." I would like to give everyone the opportunity of having this prayer for possible inclusion into your own personal Rule of Prayer. The text is as follows:


O Heavenly Father, we humbly beseech You to send Your Holy Spirit
to touch the hearts of the people of _____.
We ask You to encourage them to seek the living truth,
Your Son, the LORD Jesus Christ, and his holy church.
We pray that their hearts may be turned away from the temptations of this world
and from the words of heretical teachers.
We also pray for ourselves, that our hearts would not be hardened to the gospel,
but that we would be living lights and representatives of our Savior.
We pray for _____ Church, that it may be a true haven of rest,
encouragement and hope for all who call it home.
And we pray that all who call upon the name of the LORD Jesus Christ
in _____ may be one, even as You and Your Son and the Holy Spirit are one.

The parish is the local Body of Christ, fully "catholic" in that the whole Christ is fully present in all of His divine-human reality. Catholicity means "according to the whole." Of course, each parish is an integral part of a wider diocese, but that does not mean that the grace of God is somehow "divided" among the various parishes. There is nothing lacking, for the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments) are celebrated in their wholeness in each parish, and "the grace divine" which "heals everything that is infirm" is ever-present there. This is the deifying grace of the Holy Spirit, "objectively" imparted in each of the Holy Mysteries of the Church, and to each participating member of the Church within the context of the local parish. This is the basis of what is called our "eucharistic ecclesiology," for the Eucharist above all constitutes the parish as the local Body of Christ. And the fulness of Christ - Head and Body - is made present in the Eucharist.

We believe that that is the truth concerning our local parishes; but "objective" as that truth is - to again use that term - it is still a truth that we must struggle to embody within those very parishes. In other words, every conceivable temptation constantly threatens to reduce that vision to something less than what it actually is. That temptation can be hard and crude - wilfull sinfulness on the part of clergy or laity that distorts and corrupts the very fabric of a parish's life so that it is reduced to a feeble caricature of what it is meant to be. For those who choose to remain in such an environment, that caricature can take on the illusion of normalcy, and thus everyone is blinded to the distorting effects of sin. The parish then resembles hell more than paradise. A seemingly more innocuous form of temptation is to reduce the parish to a convenient place where "nice people" voluntarily associate with each other; but yet are oblivious to the challenges of the Gospel, the need for constant spiritual vigilance/warfare, and the commitment to uphold each other in the "bond of love" when life proves to be overwhelming in its demands. Everyone minds his/her own business, but to "bear one another's burdens" or to "go an extra mile" with one's neighbor in the parish would appear as an unreasonable expectation. The parish then resembles a club more than a spiritual family united in Christ.

Perhaps actual parish life falls somewhere in between the two poles outlined above. Certainly, there is no "perfect parish." Whatever the case may be, even a good, healthy parish must remain vigilant "against the wiles of the devil." This takes time, a great deal of patience, genuine perseverance, and a desire to "love one another." This is the "new commandment" given to us by Christ. To "come to church" on Sunday, to participate in the Eucharist, and to "make a pledge" to the parish cannot be understood in an indivualistic manner - as if one is attending to his/her own "spiritual needs." It is rather to commit to being a member of a parish community - the local Body of Christ - and thus to embody the manifold virtues implied in the new commandment of Christ. How else can we understand the text cited above from St. Paul's First Epistle to the Thessalonians? The "effort" belongs to us, and the "results" belong to God.

Fr. Steven