Thursday, September 24, 2009

Total Cost of Abortion

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

I am browsing through the newest edition of Salvo, a journal with a very contemporary look and feel, though as an offshoot of Touchstone, it is something of a young adult's version of that journal's traditional Christianity. The articles are geared toward offering Christian responses to contemporary social and moral issues The new issue contains an article by Terrell Clemmons, entitled "Roe v. Women - Pro "Choice" Clearly Harms Those It Claims to Help." The over-all intent of the article is to make the point that after thirty-six years of living under Roe v. Wade, studies are now revealing the traumatic after-effects of abortion on women. As an example, a certain Dr. Priscilla Coleman, research psychologist at Bowling State University, conducted a study of women and their post-abortion lives. In the Journal of Psychiatric Research in 2008, she drew this conclusion:

Abortion was found to be related to an increased risk for a variety of mental health problems (panic attacks, panic disorder, agoraphobia, PTSD, bipolar disorder, major depression with and without hierarchy), substance abuse disorders after statistical controls were instituted for a wide range of personal, situational, and demographic variables.

Clemmons writes further on in the article:

In contrast to grief following natural miscarriages or other death of a child, interviews and surveys show that feelings of distress and regret over abortion tend to increase, rather than decrease, over time. So common are these symptoms in post-abortion women that the syndrome has been given a name: Post Abortion Syndrome, or PAS.

Turning one more time to Dr. Coleman, Clemmons quotes her as concluding:

The scientific evidence is now strong and compelling. Abortion poses more risks to women than giving birth.

A very revealing - and poignant - part of the article is subtitled "Choice, Coercion & Desperation." Here Clemmons touches on an issue that is not given that much attention - the pressures put upon a woman to have an abortion, even though she is not so inclined. She turns to a David C. Reardon, Ph.D, who began research in this field as early as 1983. He is now considered "an internationally known expert of the subject." In a work entitled Making Abortion Rare: A Healing Strategy for a Divided Nation, Reardon writes that: "It is common knowledge that abortion often suits lovers and parents more than pregnant women themselves." And further: "It takes no leap of imagination to understand how these other persons often pressure, badger, and blackmail a woman into accepting an unwanted 'safe and legal' abortion because it will be 'best for everyone'." Clemmons even cites a "prominent abortion proponent," ethicist Daniel Callahan, who concedes: "That men have long coerced women into unwanted abortion when it suits their purposes is well-known but rarely mentioned."

Most Orthodox Christians are familiar with the prolific writer and speaker, Frederica Mathewes-Green. Clemmons includes some of her observations - based on her talks throughout the country with various women - about the reluctance of many women to abort their children:

The core reason I heard was, "I had the abortion because someone I loved told me to." Again and again, I learned that women had abortions because they felt abandoned, they felt isolated and afraid. As one woman said, "I felt like everyone would support me if I had the abortion, but if I had the baby I'd be alone.... I felt like I didn't have a choice. If only one person had stood by me, even a stranger, I would have had that baby."

No one wants an abortion as she wants an ice-cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal, caught in a trap, wants to gnaw off its own leg.

At this point in a woman's life, as Clemmons points out "the abortion industry leaps to her side." She continues with the following description of one of our nation's most prominent "helpers:"

Planned Parenthood, the abortion industry leader, promotes itself as a provider of "vital reproductive health care, sex education, and information to millions of women, men, and young people worldwide." It's true that Planned Parenthood provides "services" other than abortion. A shrewd marketer, it conducts sex-ed classes and dispenses birth-control information and products. When the sex-ed succeeds and the birth control fails, Planned Parenthood is already in the picture, offering, like a
fairly godmother, to make it all go away.

A former (abortion) counselor, Debra Henry wrote this of her experience in that field:

We were told to find the woman's weakness and work on it. The women were never given any alternatives. They were told how much trouble it was to have a baby.

Money has a good deal to do with it. Fore those who like statistics, we read the following:

According to a June 23, 2008 Wall Street Journal article, Planned Parenthood, which performs about 20 percent of the abortions in the United States, reported a record $1 billion in annual revenue in a recent financial report.

A kind of summation of the article's intent, to show that women suffer from having abortions, is emphatically expressed by Ellie Dillion, of Missouri Right to Life:

Abortion is not a true "choice" for a woman; it is an act of despair. The psychological impact of abortion is so profound because women are acting against their maternal instincts and consciences. They react with guilt, anger, depression, substance abuse and suicide. The only people who are empowered are men. They can have sex without any responsibility to their partner or their unborn children.

And then Terrell Clemmons concludes her article with these thoughts:

To pit the right of prospective mothers against the rights of their unborn children is to begin the discussion with a false presumption - namely, that the interests of the two parties are at odds with one another. They are not. To harm the child is to harm the mother, and vice versa.

The summary above is taken from Salvo Issue 10 autumn 2009.

Fr. Steven

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Tale of Two Trees

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Today is the last day of Summer, and that means that Fall/Autumn begins tomorrow, September 22, at 5:18 p.m. EDT. At least for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. Today is also the last day - the Leavetaking - of the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross. This Feast is celebrated with a full octave, or eight days of liturgical commemoration and celebration. This is simply one indication of the central place of the Cross in the life of the Church. It is virtually impossible to be a Christian without an ongoing consciousness of the Cross and a sense of awe before it:

The Cross is raised on high, and urges all the creation to sing the praises of the undefiled Passion of Him who was lifted high upon it. For there it was that He killed our slayer, and brought the dead to life again: and in His exceeding goodness and compassion, He made us beautiful and counted us worthy to be citizens of heaven. Therefore with rejoicing let us exalt His Name and magnify His surpassing condescension. (Great Vespers of the Feast)

The Feast of the Elevation of the Cross can also be called "A Tale of Two Trees." The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, planted in the midst of Paradise, became a source of condemnation; while the Tree of the Cross, planted on Golgotha, became a source of "eternal justice." In disobedience to God, the man and woman of GEN. 3, ate of the fruit of the tree that they were commanded to avoid, thus introducing the spiritual death of sin into the world. In contrast to this and in total obedience to the will of the Father, Christ ascended the Tree of the Cross in order to put sin to death, restore our broken will, and recreate our fallen human nature. In a lengthy hymn that is theologically rich and rhetorically impressive, we can meditate upon this "Tale of the Two Trees" that beautifully connects Paradise - "whatever that means," according to the enigmatic phrase St. Gregory the Theologian - and Golgotha:

Come, all ye peoples, and let us venerate the blessed Wood, through which the eternal justice has been brought to pass. For he who by a tree deceived our forefather Adam, is by the Cross himself deceived; and he who be tyranny gained possession of the creature endowed by God with royal dignity, is overthrown in headlong fall. By the blood of God the poison of the serpent is washed away; and the curse of a just condemnation is loosed by the unjust punishment inflicted on the Just. For it was fitting that wood should be healed by wood, and that through the Passion of One who knew not passion should be remitted all the sufferings of him who was condemned because of wood. But glory to Thee, O Christ our King, for Thy dread dispensation towards us, whereby Thou has saved us all, for Thou art good and lovest mankind. (Great Vespers of the Feast)

This hymn is an excellent example of what Met. John Zizioulas has called our "liturgical dogmatics," understanding the "rule of prayer" as a source and/or expression of our "rule of faith." We pray what we proclaim to be our Faith, and not just frame that Faith in abstract or intellectual formulas. Even further, we actually bow down in worship before the Cross that we believe to be "Tree of true life" (Great Vespers of the Feast). In most icons of the Crucifixion, right beneath the foot of the Cross, buried on Golgotha, there is visible the skull of Adam, being "washed" by the blood of Christ that pours from His wounds. This is not presented as history but as a "visible theology" that again makes the profound connection between the first and last Adam. The "blood of God" cleanses and recreates our fallen human nature.

There is also a strong hint at cosmological restoration, or of nature mysteriously participating in the redemption gained through the Cross, as expressed in certain other hymns of the Feast:

Let all the trees of the wood rejoice, for their nature is made holy by Christ, who planted them in the beginning and who was outstretched upon the Tree. At its Exaltation on this day, we worship Him and thee do we magnify. (Matins, First Canon, Canticle Nine)

We need to treat our forests with respect as each tree partakes of a mystical sanctification based upon its sharing of nature with the Tree/wood of the Cross!

Besides the typological, Christological and cosmological insights of the Feast, we never lose sight of the Cross in our lives, or of the Cross in relation to our own personal crosses. For this reason, the Gospel on the Sunday After the Feast of the Elevation is taken from MK. 8:34-9:1. This is the passage in which Jesus reminds anyone who desires to follow him to practice self-denial: "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." (MK. 8:34) Every Christian is painfully aware of the difficulty of practicing self-denial. It is a veritable cross in and of itself. Conscious restraint and limitation seems like nothing more than painful constraint and self-imprisonment. Perhaps because we are inclined toward some form or another of "self-indulgence." In fact, we could be only one temptation away from "losing it" at any given time. We gain no assistance from the surrounding culture, since we are encouraged to pursue some aspect of self-indulgence with far greater passion than self-denial. Putting that another way, we could say that the only practice our culture denies is that of self-denial. In this light our entire life as Christians can be understood as a ceaseless struggle between the impulses of self-indulgence and the sobriety of self-denial. Food, drink, sex, money, status, etc. We can possibly "have it all," but Christ warns us that we can lose our soul/life in the process. But as clear as all of this is, we still continue to struggle. We have spent a great deal of time and energy -and money - building up our appetites. Would we even practice any self-denial without the fasting seasons appointed by the Church?! Let us thank God for those seasons, and the examples of the many great saints of the Church - men and women - who practiced blessed self-denial and gained their life through it.

As we approach the Fall season, we will again be treated to the flaming colors that give us a taste of the beauty of the created world. These natural "burning bushes" fill us with delight. And the trees that will provide that experience are images of the Tree of the Cross.

At the exaltation of the Wood that is sprinkled with the blood of the incarnate Word of God, sing praises, ye powers of heaven, feasting the restoration of mortal men. Ye people, venerate the Cross of Christ, whereby resurrection has been granted to the world unto all ages. (Matins, First Canon, Canticle Eight)

Fr. Steven

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Mystery of Gender in the Creation Narratives

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

I am reading a fascinating book entitled Beginnings - Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives, by Dr. Peter Bouteneff, professor of dogmatic theology as St. Vladimir's Seminary. It is an in-depth study, rather scholarly in its approach, of how the early Church, from the time of the New Testament through the time of the great Cappadocian Fathers of the 4th c., understood and interpreted GEN. 1-3. Some of the Fathers will concentrate on the Six-Day Creation Narrative; while others will focus more of their attention of the narrative concerning Adam and Eve in Paradise.

The issue of the equality of men and women has always been a complicated and sensitive one throughout the centuries. The definitions of "masculinity" and "femininity" and the relationships between men and women often obscured the biblical text's original understanding of gender and sexuality - overwhelming so at the expense of women. And the invocation of "feminine weakness" has often led to a moral "double standard" that allowed for a certain hypocrisy to prevail, even within Christian societies and cultures. In his study of St. Gregory of Nazianzus - called the Theologian - Dr. Bouteneff reveals a famous Church Father who saw through these socially-driven pretensions. Dr. Bouteneff introduces a well-known passage from St. Gregory with these words: "In Gregory we have one of the few early fathers to devote serious reflection to questions of gender, informed by Genesis 1-3. ... Gregory ... intends to show the men in his audience that they are no better than women and that Christ saves both:"

How then do you demand chastity, when you do not observe it yourself? How do you demand that which you do not give? If you inquire into the worse: the woman sinned, and so did Adam. the serpent deceived them both; and one was not found to be the stronger and the other the weaker. But now consider the better: Christ saves both by his Passion. Was he made flesh for the man? So he was also for the woman. Did he die for the man? The woman also is saved by his death. He is called the seed of David; and so perhaps you think the man is honored; but he is born of a Virgin, and this is on the woman's side. The two, he says, shall be one Flesh; so let the one flesh have equal honor. (Oration 37)

Dr. Bouteneff then soberly comments: "He (i.e. Gregory) brings us a long way from the Eve-centered misogyny of Sirach and some patristic texts." (p. 143)

Under the theme entitled "Adam and Us," Dr. Bouteneff summarizes St. Gregory's approach in this manner:

When Gregory speaks of the paradise episode, the main character is as often 'me' or 'us' as it is 'Adam': the serpent constantly seduces us (Or. 14.26) and 'I came to know my own nakedness and clothed myself in a garment of skin, and fell from the garden' (Or. 19.14). This is found in one of St. Gregory's most famous passages:
"We were created that we might be made happy. We were made happy when we were created. We were entrusted with Paradise that we might enjoy life.... We were deceived because we were the objects of envy. We were cast out because we transgressed.... We needed an incarnate God, a God put to death, that we might live. We were put to death together with him, that we might be cleansed; we rose with him because we were put to death with him; we were glorified with him, because we rose with him" (Or. 45.28).

Dr. Bouteneff concludes this section with the following summary:

Gregory universalizes and existentializes the paradise narrative as he also did gender and genealogy, partly because of the rhetorical and oratorical character of his theology. Not only does it talk about the enormous practicality of Adam, Eve, and paradise; it bypasses any idea that we can blame the person of Adam for our sin or that we inherit his guilt. (p. 145)

The above is simply a "mere taste" of the many riches found in this well-written and well-researched book by Dr. Peter Bouteneff concerning the foundational narratives of the Bible. As we grapple with these texts today in a highly-charged and controversial atmosphere, it is essential that we, as Orthodox Christians, understand the approach and interpretive methods of the Church Fathers as we attempt to build on their work.

Fr. Steven

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Wonderful Exhortation

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

If we look at our church calendars, we will notice that we read from St. Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians all through the month of August, and that we completed that cycle of readings this last Sunday with the concluding portion of this lengthy Epistle (16:13-24), labeled in the Orthodox Study Bible as "Final Exhortations and Greetings." Here is the text that was read in church at the Divine Liturgy:

Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong. Let all that you do be done with love. I urge you, brethren - you know the household of Stephanas, that it is the first-fruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the ministry of the saints - that you also submit to such, and to everyone who works and labors with us. I am glad about the coming of Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus, for what was lacking on your part they supplied. For they refreshed my spirit and yours. Therefore acknowledge such men.
The churches of Asia greet you. Aquila and Priscilla greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house. All the brethren greet you.
Greet one another with a holy kiss.
The salutation with my own hand - Paul's.
If anyone does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed. O Lord, come!
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen.

The Apostle Paul combines in this closing portion of the Epistle both general and "timeless" exhortations, together with his immediate and pressing concerns about various persons and situations of the early Church that he knew and was in contact with. As a letter, there is always an immediacy to his epistles that deal with pastoral issues that need attention and resolution. Therefore, in his many Epistles, we are given a glimpse into the life of some of the earliest of Christian communities, Corinth being one of them. His treatment of these persons and the situations - and predicaments - of life in these early communities remain for us today models of pastoral care. However, I would like to briefly comment on some of the more "timeless" teachings found here that are directly applicable to all Christians at any given point in the history of the Church, including our lives today. This passage begins with a wonderful exhortation that summarizes the Gospel and the life of a Christian. If we break it down somewhat more, we find the following "virtues" enumerated:

  • watch - an exhortation to interior vigilance amongst the pressures and temptations of life (cf. MK. 13:35);
  • stand fast in the faith - implying knowledge and practice of one's faith so that it is not easily lost;
  • be brave, be strong - the image of a courageous soldier not afraid to do battle against imposing enemies;
  • do everything in love - a beautiful expression of a Christ-like approach to all situations in life.

Thus, we find vigilance, strong faith, courage and, ultimately, love as the way of Christian life in the world. To embody these virtues in our daily lives would be to truly live by the precepts and vision of the Gospel. In a closing exhortation that we can miss or overlook, the Apostle Paul outlines an entire lifetime of spiritual struggle and the ultimate goal of those struggles - to do everything in love! This is one reason why, before a scriptural reading begins, we hear the liturgical directive: "Let us attend!" We begin by opening up our ears to the text, but so that our minds and hearts may be further opened to the meaning and practice of what we hear.

Yet, immediately following this passage, but within the final exhortations and greetings that close the Epistle, we hear a frightening and harsh admonition from the Apostle Paul. After stating another beautiful expression of Christians greeting one another with a "holy kiss" - remnants of which still survive to this day - the Apostle delivers the horrifying words: "If anyone does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed" (16:22). The word "accursed' is actually the Greek "anathema." To be "anathematized" is to be cut off from the Body of Christ - truly a "curse" for the believer. Considering the over-all encouraging "tone" of these last verses, the question arises as to what prompted this "hard saying" and even the question as to whom it was directed toward. In his commentary on I Corinthians, Fr. Lawrence Farley offers a convincing analysis:

It is an extraordinarily strong sentiment and seems to burst from the heart of the apostle - much like a similar imprecation in Galatians 1:8-9. And, like that imprecation, it is not directed at the unbelieving world around them. It is not aimed at the pagans or Jews who have never known the Lord. Rather, it is aimed at apostate Christians - at those who once were His friends and followers and who now "walk with Him no longer" (see John 6:66). That is, it is directed at spiritual traitors, at those who, like Judas, once "ate of His eucharistic bread," pledging their lives to Him, and who now "have lifted up their heel against Him" (Psalm 41:9).

Believing in the Lord Jesus Christ is the commitment to "love" Him with all of our "heart, soul, mind and strength." Yet, it is virtually impossible to "objectively" assess just how much we love someone - including Christ. We do know, that biblically, "love" is never reduced to an emotion or feeling. It includes emotional content, but it is much more a way of acting toward someone. In support of this, we have the words of Christ as found in the Gospel of St. John:

He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father; and I will love him and manifest Myself to him. (14:21)

As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love. (15:9-10)

Keeping the commandments of Christ is the sign of loving Christ as the Lord Himself taught. Basically, the "commandments" refers to His teaching as it has been delivered to us in the Gospels. Not keeping the commandments of Christ will then reveal to us the extent of our "love" of Him. The one we love is also present in our minds and hearts - and not just on one day of the week for a short period of time. We carry the "beloved" in our minds and hearts at all times. Applied to Christ that would mean our heartfelt prayer directed to Him and our conscious worship of Him, together with the keeping of His commandments. Jesus warns us that "because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. But he who endures to the end will be saved" (MATT. 24:12-13) How horrible indeed if our love of Christ were to grow cold - we would then pronounce an "anathema" over ourselves! It would be a betrayal of staggering proportions. Something like giving Christ the "kiss of betrayal" that we pray to be spared from in our pre-Communion prayers. And we would be cut off from the Body of Christ even if we continued to go through the motions.

The Apostle Paul, however, as a true pastor, ends the Epistle to the Corinthians with a powerful note of encouragement and hope - difficult as this "parish" has been for him:

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. (16:23)

Again, from Fr. Lawrence Farley, we read this by way of commentary:

For he gives his love to all in Corinth, without exception - even to those who grieved him, who have slighted him, who have denigrated him in favor of Apollos or others. There is no malice or resentment in his heart, but only a constant love and a desire to make them wise unto salvation. Thus he concluded his epistle on this note of love. He has written much about the way of true wisdom and has answered their questions according to the wisdom given to him as a chosen apostle. At the end, we see that this wisdom is nothing other than love - love for God and love for man.

I am certain that the Apostle Paul had the capacity to love all of the Corinthians because he loved Christ as the One who extended to him the gift of salvation by dying upon the Cross. And the Apostle extended this love to us on Sunday when our appointed reader proclaimed his words to all of us within the Liturgy. By "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ" we can continue to love Him as our Lord and each other in His name. Only then will the world know that we are His true disciples.

Fr. Steven

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Nativity of the Theotokos: Signs of Life

Dear Parish Faithful,

It may very well be true that the Holy Days of the Church can no longer successfully "compete" with our secular holidays for the attention and/or presence of the faithful, especially when they coincide according to date. Instead of trying to explain this rather troubling phenomenon, I will simply say, philosophically: what is - is. Be that as it may, many of our parish faithful made a truly valiant effort to dispel such a notion by their presence for the current Feast Day of the Nativity of the Theotokos, as the eve, at least, coincided with Labor Day. There was a substantial group present yesterday evening for Great Vespers, and since this morning's group at the Liturgy was basically different, it meant that a good, representative body of the faithful was present for this light-bearing Feast of the birth of the young child, Miriam of Nazareth, chosen to be the God-bearer "in the fulness of time." Such "signs of life" are always hopeful and encouraging. My old seminary professor would always say that a sign of a spiritually-healthy parish was the strength of its reverence and love for the Ever-Virgin Mary and Theotokos, the "New Eve," and the Mother of all the followers of Christ.

St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) delivered a homily to the faithful of Thessalonika on this Feast Day that included this uplifting exhortation:

But you, O sacred audience, who listen to my words, my human flock and field in Christ, offer your exercise of the virtues and your progress in them as a birthday gift to the Mother of God: both men and women, elderly people along with younger ones, rich and poor, leaders and subjects, those of absolutely every race, age, rank, profession and branch of learning. Let none of you have a soul which is barren and without fruit. Let nobody be unloving or unreceptive to the spiritual seed. May each of you eagerly accept this celestial seed, the word of salvation (cf. LK. 8:11), and by your own efforts bring it to perfection as a heavenly work and fruit pleasing to God. Let no one make a beginning of a good work which brings no fruit to perfection (cf. Lk. 8:14), nor declare his faith in Christ only with his tongue. "Not every one, it says, "that says unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the Kingdom of heaven, but rather he who does the will of my Father which is in heaven" (MATT. 7:21), and, "No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the Kingdom of God." (Lk. 9:62)

The Leavetaking of the Feast is on Saturday. On Sunday, we will begin preparing for the next major Feast Day of the Elevation of the Cross. Sunday evening we will serve Great Vespers with the procession of the Cross at 6:00 p.m. The Liturgy will be on Monday morning, September 14, at 9:30 a.m.

Fr. Steven

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Whither the 'Thirst for Transcendence'?

Dear Parish Faithful,

I just wanted to share a few observations that have formulated in my mind since I began teaching again for the Fall semester at Xavier University. I have been teaching there for as long as I have been in Cincinnati, which is now twenty years. In the past I taught a few different courses, but now I am limited to one class per semester, and the department wants to offer the undergraduate course "The Eastern Orthodox Church," I believe, as part of their commitment to "diversity." Fortunately, I do not get tired teaching the same course over and over again. I maintain a bit of "variety" by periodically changing the books on the required reading list. This semester, the four required reading books are:

Formation and Struggles - the Birth of the Church AD 33-200 - Veselin Kesich
The Orthodox Church - Timothy Ware
Mother Maria Skobtsova - edited by Jim Forest
The Mystery of Faith - Bishop Ilarion Alfeyev

However, my observations are based upon the changed and changing nature of my students from year to year. Simply stated, my students are clearly less "religious" than from the time I began teaching at XU in 1989, and this loss of religiosity seems to have accelerated in recent years. I know this not only by observation, perception and/or classroom experience through interaction with the students, but also because they tell me so, if even ever so briefly. On the first day of class, the students have to answer four questions:

What is the Eastern Orthdox Church?
Why did you take this class?
What other theology courses have you had?
What Church or religion to you belong to?

I will concentrate on the last question: What Church or religion do you belong to? Over the years, the vast majority of students let me know that they are Roman Catholic. I will have a few Protestant students; an even a stray Orthodox student now and then! (This list, by the way, includes Sophia and Paul Kostoff, Matthew Krueger, and Ed Chalupa - Anne Taylor's brother). I have had some non-Christians students also, mainly students of an Oriental background. I encourage the students to write as much as they want in describing their religious background, and some will add a comment or two. What I have noticed over the years is the steady decline in what I would call "practicing Christians" - or even students conscious of being Christians. Typical answers, that again have multiplied over the years, would include:

"Roman Catholic, but no longer practicing" - or "tired of it," "had enough at a Catholic high school," etc.
"Raised Lutheran, but now am nothing."
"I may have been baptized when I was younger, but unsure."
"Not raised in a religious household."
"Still searching."
"I am an atheist." (Never heard this only ten years ago).

This semester I have a large class of thirty students, and perhaps a generous reading of at best a half-dozen responses implied some kind of commitment or church-going. Such commitment is usually the case with the few Afro-American students that take my class. Otherwise, there seems to be a pervasive apathy or indifference to the whole question. Whether or not this is "natural" or expected of college students very conscious and protective of their newly-established independence, the point I am making is the evident change in responses over the years. What is painfully evident as the years go by is an ever-increasing biblical and theological illiteracy displayed by my students. I have to carefully teach them that there are four Gospels written by Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John! It is always hard to tell if they simply do not know the basics, or if they are timid about displaying their knowledge before their peers. That just may not be cool! In fairness to my students, however, I must point out that many do quite well in my course, eventually writing solid papers about St. Gregory Palamas and hesychasm! It is an intelligent study body at Xavier, and I like and respect my students very much. So, as I am introducing my students to the Orthodox Church, I am offering them a basic course in Christian teaching. I am catechizing under the respectable veneer of "objectively" imparting information! I find that challenge immensely enjoyable.

Be that as it may, these shared observations were prompted by a short paper one of my students just turned in based upon her "experience" at an Orthodox liturgy, as she was with us just this last Sunday. This young woman made it clear at the beginning of her paper that "I have never been to church before except for a wedding or a few funerals." In fact, at one point in her paper she reveals: "I do not know whether or not I was baptized ..." She further writes of even feeling uncomfortable attending a university with a "religious aspect." After those opening comments, she continues more specifically about visiting our church:

When I went to the liturgy at the Orthodox Church this morning, I did not feel comfortable there, though I did not feel uncomfortable. As a person of no faith I guess I felt uncomfortable because I felt it was wrong for me to be there.

The rest of her paper is an uninspiring and rather confused account of sitting and standing through an incomprehensible "religious ceremony." She was not very happy with the homily! She did not like the fact that St. John the Baptist "judged" Herod for his "private" life apart from his "political" accomplishments. Fair enough. I have noticed another clear trend over the years, and that is a lowering of interest in - or attraction to - something that is unknown and unfamiliar. While students in the past with no knowledge of Orthodoxy would write of the "holiness," "sacredness" and simple "beauty" of the Liturgy. Even though hardly anyone returned - alas! - I will still read of a kind of "wow, that was different and quite interesting" response.. I hardly encounter such comments any longer. More and more I read of a dull incomprehension and a barely disguised boredom with the Liturgy. And all that standing! On the positive side, students continue to speak of feeling welcome and of appreciatiing the small, family-community atmosphere of our parish. But a sense of worship, of transcendence - that has pretty much disappeared.

Her concluding paragraph summed up her "experience" in a matter-of-fact manner:

Overall, I would say that I am not likely to attend again, not because of the Orthodox faith but the entire faith of Christianity or any religion for that matter. Growing up with no faith, I have no reason to feel that it is a part of me, though for some people, I understand it is a very large part, and to each his own.

Perhaps in our Orthodox parishes we do not notice these (young) people of "no faith" and do not let them know that they are perfectly welcome to "come and see" what and who we are as Orthodox Christians. Such visitors feel that they do not belong, and we may unconsciously enforce that perception. However that may be debated, I believe there is something more fundamental here: the growing practical agnosticism/atheism of our society and contemporary Christianity's inability to break through that barrier outside of the "theology-lite," "religion as psychology" approach of relevance smartly "marketed" for mass consumption. Where, today, is that "thirst for transcendence" that Fr. Schmemann claimed marked human nature? These are the deeper questions we are going to have to deal with as secularism and post-modernism continue to erode a basic knowledge and respect for Christian truth and "values" in the years to come.

I have about thirty more students to come through the doors for the Liturgy before the semester draws to a close in December. Please continue to keep an eye out for them and help them to feel as welcome as possible, knowing that they will be here because they have to be!

Fr. Steven

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Glory to God for the New Year!

Dear Parish Faithful,

Today is the beginning of the Church New Year. May it be blessed. In the Akathist of Thanksgiving that we chanted yesterday evening, the following verses were offered to God in thanksgiving for the many gifts that we receive in life:

Glory to You, Who have transfigured our life with the good things that we do.

Glory to You, Who clearly abide where there is kindness and generosity of heart.

Glory to You, Who send failures and sorrows to us so that we might be sensitive to the sufferings of others.

Glory to You, Who have raised love higher than anything on earth or in heaven.

Glory to You, O God, unto ages of ages!