Monday, October 26, 2009

The Next 'Battle of the Calendars'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Next Saturday evening, October 31, at 6:00 p.m. I will intone the beginning of Great Vespers with the opening doxology: "Blessed is our God, always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen." During this service, we inaugurate the liturgical cycle of the Lord's Day - the Day of Resurrection. In Great Vespers we sing and chant many hymns through which we glorify the Risen Lord and praise His "holy resurrection" from the dead. This will culminate on Sunday morning when, at the Divine Liturgy, we will receive the Body and Blood of Christ "unto life everlasting." This is a cycle of anticipation, preparation and fulfillment. Regrettably, it is a liturgical cycle that most parishioners do not experience, but it continues to be observed on a weekly basis in our parish and many Orthodox parishes throughout North America. It remains a challenge to the planning and priorities of our families to this day. It is a service ignored by choice.

As we continue to celebrate the Lord's Day cycle beginning with Saturday evening's Great Vespers, I have the feeling that the intonation of the doxology just mentioned is going to be drowned out by the simultaneous intonation of "trick or treat!" at just about the same time in the early evening. For October 31 is the annual "celebration" of Halloween, which will fall on a Saturday this year. Then, in response to this squeaky-voiced warning, many participating home-dwellers will recoil with feigned horror or stare with exaggerated astonishment at their doors as an assortment of miniature-costumed characters will crowd their porches in expectation of some tasty treats. A host of Darth Vadars and fairy princesses will jostle for position in anticipation. Their bags or plastic jack-o-lanterns will then be duly filled. Parental voices from the sidewalk will arise out of the shadowy darkness to remind these disguised creatures to offer up a "thank you" in response. The "rubrics" for Halloween are about as established as the liturgical rubrics for Great Vespers and other services of the Church.

Consciously or unconsciously, Orthodox Christian parents will be making a choice for their children or, if children are no longer a factor, about their Saturday evening activities on Saturday, October 31. The vigil for the Lord's resurrection at Great Vespers or Halloween? Being fully realistic, I realize that this is not much of a choice! Next to Christmas itself, Halloween has to be the most anticipated day of the year for younger children. And, alas, for many adults also (but my sympathy does not extend that far). This is coupled with the fact that Great Vespers is already "foreign terrain" or off the "radar screen" for many/most as it is. Nothing seems more natural than Halloween on Saturday evening and the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning. In the event-to-event pacing of our lives, such a jarring juxtaposition goes unnoticed. Nevertheless, a choice remains, and it is my role to inform everyone of that choice. Great Vespers will not be canceled next Saturday evening because it is Halloween!

My comments concerning this next "battle of the calendars" in our lives are not prompted by my belief that Halloween is a threat to our Christian faith; and certainly not because I believe it to be "demonic" or something along that order. Whatever the origins of this celebration that religious anti-Halloween groups like to point to as "proof" of Halloween's insidious and evil intent, it is clear today that Halloween is far too domesticated, trivialized and commercialized to pose an immediate threat to anyone or anything. Parents simply want their children to "fit in" and collectively enjoy themselves with their peers. True, there are some cruel pranksters out there that parents have to be vigilant about, but essentially "All Hallows Even" has been reduced to "fun," and what can be more innocuous than that?! Still, I would imagine that Halloween's annual staying power is primarily driven by its commercialization. I have been informed that Halloween is second only to Christmas in terms of commercial viability. As long as "trick or treat" can be translated into big bucks, Halloween will be with us "unto ages of ages." Hence, the proliferation of Halloween paraphernalia. Costumes, halloween greeting cards, outdoor decorations, candy, etc. can turn Halloween into a veritable family budget item.

If Halloween were not so "big" I would not address its place in our culture. It is a "feast day" of huge significance on our secular calendars. The Feast Days of the Church - with the exception of Nativity and Pascha - cannot "compete" with Halloween for our attention, focus and commitment. I find this to be a genuine pastoral concern, now and for the future. However, pastoral commentaries, even if delivered with a certain sense of balance and "objectivity," will not likely transform those patterns in a more ecclesial direction. But I do believe that raising our level of awareness prompted by these "cultural issues" is necessary. We need, as Christians, to think and evaluate all things critically. This brings me to my point: we often fail to do that, or we "pick and choose" with a certain arbitrariness that suits our "comfort level." For, precisely as Christians, we often indulge in criticism of the prevailing culture. And we can get pretty judgmental or negative in our assessment of current trends. We can shake our heads or cluck our tongues at a great deal that is "out there." We can carry on eloquently about "cultural wars." And we will justifiably protect our children as well as that is possible. But we are very much a part of the prevailing culture to an extent that we may be unaware of, and partake of its "delights" perhaps more than we would like to admit. To what extent can the cultural patterns of Christians be distinguished from non-Christians; or better yet, non-believers? As long as that is the case, we need to be careful about our (hypocritical?) judgments of others and their practices. Perhaps this is a rather trivial example, but our "choice" for Halloween may just reinforce my reflections.

My purpose is not to talk anyone into or out of anything. My pastoral role is to raise issues as they come up. October 31 of this year brought some issues to mind.

Great Vespers at 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, October 31.

Fr. Steven

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Vignette from the Hogar: From Hell to Heaven

revised October 29, 2009

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Buenos dias! Como estan? Espero que todos estan bien con ustedes. Estoy muy bien, pero un poquito consado. Saludos para todos ustedes de Madres Ines, Maria y Ivonne.

I returned from Guatemala and the Hogar San Rafael Ayau Orphanage as scheduled late Monday evening. After a day of "catching up" at home (mainly correcting midterm exams from XU) I am back at the church. I am also back to using English which does come to me a bit more naturally! Be that as it may, I would like to share with you some serious reflections and observations following my short stay at the Hogar, especially concerning the children and their upbringing there by Madres Ines, Maria and Ivonne.

As usual, a visit to the Hogar is an experience that paradoxically fills me with a sense of sadness and inspiration. In just a short period of time, it is virtually impossible not to feel sad on behalf of these "abandoned, abused, and orphaned children" and the brokenness of their young lives. There are many encounters that will either melt or break your heart. Yet simultaneously, it is impossible not to be inspired and deeply moved in a positive sense as you briefly witness how these broken lives are being protected and even slowly put back together again. The process of healing is taking place below the surface and when clear signs of it become manifest this is truly exhilarating and a cause for joy. Here is a very poignant and dramatic case in point:

There is a lovely young girl of about ten that presvytera Deborah and I met in June and spent some time with on an outing to a plant and garden nursery. We made friends that day and enjoyed her company for the rest of the week there. On my recent visit I discovered the shocking fact that she had been horribly violated ("let the reader understand") while living in a tenement building. She was then eventually brought to the Hogar and taken in. This is the part that truly breaks your heart, especially when you see this child up close, call her by name, hold her hand, exchange hugs, and spend some time with her. To be perfectly honest, it also boils your blood. These are sins that are not easily forgiven. The tragic character of the fallen world is no more fully manifested then in the destruction of the purity and innocence of a child. The consequences are severe. The words of Christ make this clear: "It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they do come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones" (LK. 17:2). This also makes many of the children very susceptible to mood swings that will include a kind of depression. And yet this young girl has been baptized and now participates in the sacramental life of the Church on a daily basis. So, I am not ashamed to say that when she came to Communion on Sunday while I was serving, tears came to my eyes as I gave her the Body and Blood of Christ "unto life everlasting." This little child is truly on a journey from hell to heaven! She has been in the "dark pit" described by the psalmist, and has now returned to the light of day. This is the part that is inspiring. Or that uplifts your troubled heart.

We cannot romanticize this healing process. It is slow and difficult. Children of various ages arrive at the orphanage fearful of, or enraged at, adults. Their bodies and souls are scarred with the wounds of fearful transgressions. Madre Ivonne further shared with me that for many of the children, it is not until they are about fifteen or so when they realize that they are being cared for in a spirit of love. (By that age at the Hogar, we are speaking about teen-aged girls, for the boys have been transferred elsewhere to another very fine institution - Ak Tenamit - that further educates them and prepares them for life in society). They may not really "open up" until then and fully trust their caregivers. When the children or young adults begin to respond to love, with love, the entire Hogar rejoices.

When you support the Hogar it is a child like this that you are supporting! You are helping to feed, clothe, and educate her. And protect her from the outside world that has betrayed her. You are helping to maintain her in a Christ-filled environment. It is a noble and worthy cause. May it be blessed. Any may God grant Madres Ines, Maria and Ivonne many years in their monastic vocation and in their ministry to the "abandoned, abused and orphaned" children of the Hogar San Rafael Ayau Orphanage!

Dios ustedes bendigan!

Con mucho amor en Cristo,

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Orthodox Christian Meditations now have Comments

From the webservant:

We are now enabling the comments feature of our two blogs with the most potential for interaction: Orthodox Christian Meditations, and Orthodox Q&A Forum. This should enable greater 'give and take' on topics of interest, without the current cumbersome process of emailing comments to Fr. Steven and then his subsequent emailing of same back out to his lists. Here's how it will work:

- There is a link at the bottom of each post for 'Comments'. Click on that to open only the entry you are reading with space for comments immediately below the entry. Then follow the instructions to post your comments.

- Fr. Steven will receive an email notification when someone has posted a comment.

- At this stage, we are not monitoring comments before they are posted, so we are employing a blogger "honor system" worthy of our readership.

- Any comments considered inappropriate will be removed.

- Fr. Steven will from time to time post his own follow-up comments, which can enable some lively and fruitful online exploration of various topics.

- Readers may opt to become "followers" of our blogs. You can also subscribe for email or RSS messages notifying you of new meditations or comments.

- We have also added a search feature, so if you are looking for an item that caught your interest, it should be much easier to find it.

- The links to our website and other blogs, and the archives of previous Meditations remain unchanged.

We ask your patience while we are launching this new feature, and hope it becomes an blessed and enjoyable aspect of your online experience.

in Christ,
Ralph S.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fall Adult Education Class 2009

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

The book for our Fall Adult Education Class - Fellow Workers with God - Orthodox Thinking on Theosis, by Norman Russell - has arrived. (Just follow the link to order.) I believe this particular book is going to be excellent. The Foreword to the book was written by Dr. Peter Bouteneff. And he writes the following:

A feature that will make this book stand out, and make its readers especially grateful, is the author's ability to communicate the full depth and range of his knowledge of the subject in a way that is accessible and understandable. This should not be taken for granted, for as many authors (and their bemused readers) know, it is rare that a specialist cares enough to rethink his or her subject in non-specialist terms. Russell has taken the time to translate his scholarly approach into clear writing for a lay audience, casting aside the mantle of prestige to address people where they actually are.

I cannot imagine a more reliable or a more approachable cross-section of this vital aspect of ancient and contemporary Orthodox thought. It will no longer be possible to use "theosis" in a way that is facile, "over-spiritualized," or abstract. We have now lost any excuse to do so.

A great endorsement from Dr. Bouteneff. Personally, I can't wait to get started! Be that as it may, I would be willing to wait an extra week to begin if that means more of you can make it to the opening session. I say that because a "few" of those committed informed me that they probably could not make it to the first session on November 2. So, perhaps we could wait one more week and begin on Monday, November 9. Once again, let me know if that would work better for you.

Fr. Steven

As A Little Child

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

On Sunday, we will read from the Gospel According to St. Luke. We will also commemorate St. Luke as October 18 is his feast day. (If you go to and click on "Feasts & Saints," you will find there a short account of St. Luke's life). Therefore, in addition to the appointed Gospel reading (LK. 8:5-15), we will add a second appointed reading in honor of St. Luke (LK. 10:16-21). As a humble evangelist, St. Luke does not refer to himself in the entire Gospel, so the appointed reading must be one that was chosen because it points to him in such a way that his role and character precisely as a disciple of the Lord and evangelist is underlined. It is a passage meant to bring out a significant trait. We read and hear the following in this portion of the appointed text:

The seventy returned with joy, saying, "Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!" And he said to them, "I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven. In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. (Lk. 10:17-21)

Church Tradition numbers St. Luke among the Seventy Apostles, hence one of the purposes behind this passage that mentions the seventy and their appointed ministry that would continue following the Death and Resurrection of Christ. The greater purpose of the preaching and healing ministry that is extended to the Lord's disciples is the overthrowing of Satan's power and grip on men and women. Jesus has a direct vision of this victory, clearly echoed in the Book of Revelation (12:9).

Together with this, Jesus further rejoices in the Holy Spirit ( a characteristic of St. Luke to mention this) that "these things" - the preaching of the Gospel attended by such great signs - are revealed to, and understood by, "infants" (also translated as "babes"). This is occurring simultaneously with the inability of the "wise" to grasp these mysteries of the Kingdom of God! The revelation is meant for everyone, but the religious authorities, who are considered to be wise and prudent, have blinded themselves to be open to "these things," making them even hostile to Christ in the process. However, this teaching is not limited to the scribes and Pharisees of Christ's time. A certain blindness or arrogance can and does exist at all times when the Gospel seems "too simple" for the sophisticated minds of the (self-appointed?) intellectual elites of any given era. In this context, "infants" and "babes" refers to the "simple faith" of "simple people" who, in accepting the revelation that comes from God, are able to be true disciples of Christ. Clearly, the evangelist Luke was one such disciple. Thus, this is not simply about babies and young children! It is about the over-looked members of any given society - including our own - being granted a gift from our heavenly Father that only requires for its reception an openness of mind and heart. One's level of intellectual sophistication is not the determining factor in a positive and open response to the Gospel. As one scholar put it: "The message of Jesus is not grasped by wisdom and understanding; it is known only by revelation." (John L. McKenzie)

Elsewhere, Jesus spoke of receiving the Kingdom of God "as a little child" (MK. 10:15). To be "child-like" is certainly not to be "childish." We may speak of innocence and purity, but to be like a child in the context of Christ's teaching is also to be instinctively aware of one's dependence on another and to trust that source on which one is dependent. The true disciple, acting in a child-like manner trusts our heavenly Father Who is able to number the hairs on our head. To be childish, on the other hand, is to be immature and self-centered in such a way that in exasperation one adult may say of another "what a baby!" The most brilliant theologian is a "child of God," and as dependent upon God as the little child is upon his mother or father. It is that simplicity that one must not lose as we grow in wisdom and understanding all through life. This does not mean that we will believe anything; but that we will believe in the true things as they are revealed to us. Discernment is essential, but not a discernment blinded by scepticism and cynicism. To be "as a little child" is to retain the "laughter of the soul" that St. John Klimakos so commends. It is the way of entrance into the Kingdom of God.

Fr. Steven

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Icon and Total Human Nature

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Yesterday morning, I hosted two theology classes from Xavier University here at the church. Neither was the class that I am currently teaching. Rather, one of the professors at XU (Dr. Elizabeth Groppe) is including a discussion about Orthodox iconography in her class and she wanted her students to see some genuine Orthodox iconography "up close" and in a church setting. Her students were given what sounds like a very fascinating and timely assignment: to contrast and compare the media's use of the human body - MTV, advertising, etc. - with the body in Christian iconography. She also wants them to explore the meaning of genuine asceticism. That is a good topic for any Orthodox Christian to "meditate" upon very carefully. How would any of us respond to that assignment? What do we notice about the role and place of the body in an Orthodox icon? As important as the human body is in an Orthodox Christian understanding of life and salvation, there seems to remain a tendency to ignore the body when we talk about "spirituality" or the Christian life in general. As if the human body did not count, or was some form of "neutral matter." We accept a dualism that concentrates on the soul at the expense of the body. This is called "warmed-over Platonism," after the Greek philosopher Plato whose real concern was the "soul" and its capacity to contemplate the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. The body is merely the "tomb" of the soul. However, this is not biblical and hence, not Orthodox.

My goals in speaking to a group of college freshmen and sophmores were rather modest. I simply attempted to make some basic points about iconography and its general relationship to theology. This is not that difficult for the Orthodox, because our theology over-all is a wonderful integration of Scripture, Liturgy, hymnography, and iconography. In fact, our iconography has been famously called "theology in color." Art, and thus human culture, is capable of expressing divine reality, of allowing us a glimpse of that beauty that Dostoevsky said "would save the world." And the icon reveals something very essential about the body, including its place in that process of drawing closer to God that we call theosis, or deification. An essay with a rather provocative title, "An Art Centered on the Body" by the Greek Orthodox iconologist, Nikos Zias, makes this point very well. Zias begins with an general observation about Byzantine iconography, the prototype of all subsequent Orthodox iconography:

In Byzantine art the human form is dominant, whether as a full-scale representation or as a portrait. The universal acceptance of this subject-matter is evidence of the acceptance in principle of the body as capable of salvation, and not as a priori or definitively evil; an acceptance, moreover, which has its beginning in the Incarnation of the Word made flesh. (Synaxis, Vol. II, p. 29)

Speaking specifically about the icon of Christ, Zias makes these further observations:

The two-dimensional depiction without mass and weight, with the light emanating not from an external steady source, but almost as it were out of the body, the prominence of the head and the emphasizing of the eyes, the unrealistic use of color - all these elements contrive to represent not simply a human body, but the divine-human body of Christ. It is the body which walks weightlessly upon the sea, without however being a "spirit;" it is the palpable body of the Transfiguration, which radiates the divine Light; it is the resurrected body of the Lord who passes unhindered into the room "while the doors were shut" in order to grant peace to His disciples. (Ibid. p. 29)

The saints of the Church are those men and women who had experienced the transfiguration of their own humanity in this life, through the ascetical life nourished by unceasing prayer. Perhaps the most "spectacular" example is that of St. Seraphim of Sarov (+1833). This transfiguration also included their bodies, as the Transfiguration of the Lord clearly revealed. How can an iconographer depict this transfiguration within the limitations posed by line and color? Zias writes the following:

The artistic means by which this transfiguration is achieved are the same as those used to depict the body of Christ. The frontal representation, the light radiating from within, the simplification of the different parts, the schematic rendering of the folds of the garments give to the depiction of the body a particular quality. The body is not autonomous, as in ancient Greek art, nor is it ruptured and deconstructed, as is often the case in modern art (cubism, surrealism). It co-exists and is exercised together with the soul, and expressed the eschatological faith that the body is saved and filled with grace, as is proved even today by the relics of the saints. (Ibid., p. 30)

The "strangeness" of the icon, its supposedly "naive" figuration and color schemes are actually the revelation of a consciously-chosen aesthetics that creates a genuinely spirtual art that embraces the whole person, body and soul. To further emphasize the integral place of the body in iconography - or in a sound Orthodox Christian "worldview" - Nikos Zias includes the viewer's participation in the over-all act of gazing upon and venerating an icon:

Byzantine art is ... an anthropomorphic art, an art centered on the human body, and rendering spirituality, sanctity and deification visible through the body. After all, communication with this art is also achieved physically, through the veneration of the icon by the faithful. Moreover, if we take the point of view of most modern art, which regards the viewer's participation as necessary to complete the work of art, then the believer's physical participation in Byzantine art is more direct than in any period of art history. Byzantine painting uses the human body as its means of expression, envisioning it, however, beyond corruption and beyond the oppression of natural law and physical necessity, in the freedom of grace and the dynamic of transfiguration. (Ibid. p. 32-33)

As in that horrific tale of anti-transfiguration, Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," the human body can be rendered in a grotesque manner in the contemporary world - in art or advertisement. Some art will "test the limits" and distort the human body to an almost unrecognizable degree; or use the body to "make a statement" that is intended to scandalize or provoke. In the ubiquitous world of advertisement it is usually the monotonous use of the body as an instrument of enticement, sensuality, or pseudo-eroticism. Youth, beauty, glamor and sexual attraction are "deified." Even "senior citizens" are invited not to be "left behind," and to join in on the "fun" that is only a performance-enhancing drug away. Arrest the aging process that leads to the body's corruption, for that is all there is! We witness here, at best, a highly ambiguous emphasis on our bodily existence. Perhaps gazing at the icons in our homes and churches with some of the attention that we dedicate to the various screens in our lives, will help restore a balanced and holistic vision to the role of the body in a decidedly Christian worldview. Rather than an object to be exploited, the body can be further restored to a level of respect and care that avoids the pitfalls of idolatry.

Is there an organic relationship between the soul and body? Certainly, according to the witness of the Gospel and our theological Tradition that is grounded in the Incarnation, Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, leading to the deification of our total human nature - soul and body. If we take care of our soul - having faith and doing good works - can we simultaneously indulge the body and its instinctual desire for gratification, be it food, drink, sex, excessive comfort, etc.? At what point does ignoring the body in our "spiritual life" affect our soul? Or, we could turn this around and ask: why does our body take on such importance and become the focus of attention when it becomes a matter of health or beauty? How is it that "working out" is good, healthy, rigorous activity; but standing in church, making prostrations, and fasting are often enough undesirable labors? Why are we so disciplined about the former, but lax about the latter? Actually, whatever our approach to "spirituality" may be, we are quite concerned about our bodies, but we struggle to integrate our bodily existence into our over-all Christian life. If we have "eyes to see" the icon restores the proper vision of our body that awaits both resurrection and transfiguration in the Age to Come. The icon anticipates in artistic form the revelatory promise made by the Apostle Paul:

But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself. (PHIL. 3:20-21)

Fr. Steven