Friday, November 27, 2009

The Lines of 'Black Friday'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Today is "Black Friday." It sounds ominous, but I believe that this is the designation for the day after Thanksgiving which sets holiday shopping into serious motion, boosts - if not "saves" - the economy, turns malls into meccas, and transforms consumerism into a ritual with quasi-religious undertones of strict observance. No condescension meant, just an observation. I understand that some stores had lines outside forming as early as last night. This takes an almost ascetical dedication. The word "sale" can have an appeal that transcends the boundaries of its promises. To show up at dawn means to take a humble spot in the back of the pack. Fear of missing out on a longed-for item can create deep concern if not genuine anxiety. Your neighbor may just be your competitor. Is anyone smiling? It would be interesting to try and measure the level of satisfaction or"fulfillment" that a successful shopping expedition brings to the soul.

The one further observation I would make is this: If Christians would line up outside of their churches in large numbers eagerly anticipating the opening of the doors so that they can pour into the temple for prayer and thanksgiving to God, then they would actually be able to transform the world in which we live for the better. To put that in a slightly different manner: when Christian zeal matches or surpasses consumer zeal, then will the Gospel really impact our lives and the lives of those around us. But, alas, that is not the case. The promises and comforts of consumerism are taking their toll on everyone - including Christians. Frighteningly, people no longer abandon God for some philosophical or scientific reasons, but simply because they are satisfied with the level of existence that can be achieved within the quotidian world of items and objects.

I am going to pass on Black Friday, and wait a bit more before I do my Christmas shopping.

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Gathering Together in Thanks and Praise

Dear Parish Faithful,

I paused this morning to read an Op-Ed piece by the title of "A Moveable Fast," by Elyssa East. Such a title in a well-known urban newspaper characterized by its secularism was a bit intriguing. The concluding paragraph of this article can be read in an "Orthodox manner" without a great deal of manipulation:

In the nearly 400 years since the first Thanksgiving, the holiday has come to mirror our transformation into a nation of gross overconsumption, but the New England colonists never intended for Thanksgiving to be a day of gluttony. They dished up restraint along with gratitude as a shared main course. What mattered most was not the feast itself, but the gathering together in thanks and praise for life's most humble gifts. Perhaps this holiday season we could benefit from restoring a proper Thanksgiving balance between forbearance and indulgence.

In other words, the uneasy alliance that has formed over the years between Thanksgiving and indulgence does not properly capture the meaning of this national holiday. For Thanksgiving to be properly "observed" a "gathering together in thanks and praise" is the most appropriate response. This is a good short definition of what we do in the Divine Liturgy. The Eucharist is about our thanksgiving to God not only for what we may have, but for who we actually are as the People of God in the process of growing in the likeness of God through our life in Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. We celebrate that service of thanksgiving - Eucharist - every year on Thanksgiving Day so that we may realize our vocation as "eucharistic beings," and not as mere "consumers." For those who like theological jargon, our anthropology is maximalist, not minimalist. So before we engage in the indulgence of a festal table in our homes, we first make the effort to receive the eucharistic food from the altar table in a spirit of praise and thanksgiving. And we do so joyfully and eagerly.

Elyssa East's Op-Ed article is a fascinating historical sketch of the mind and practices of the early Puritans in 17th c. New England. Fasting and feasting were part of their way of life. Admittedly, I would acknowledge that the "Orthodox ethos" and the "Puritan ethos" are as far apart as one could imagine. There is the saying that a Puritan is a person who is afraid that someone, somewhere, and for some reason is actually enjoying himself! The Calvinist conception of an angry God that needs to be appeased before He acts swiftly through punishment does not resonate for Orthodox Christians. And we thank our merciful God for that. Perhaps the harsh environment and struggle for survivals of these early Puritans further influenced some of their bleak theological conclusions. However, some of our practices may coincide. East relates that the Puritans' fear of "excessive rains from the bottles of heaven," in addition to "epidemics, crop infestations, the Indian wars and other hardships," led them to call for community-wide days of fasting or a "day of public humiliation and prayer." She further writes:

According to the 19th-century historian William DeLove, the New England colonies celebrated as many as nine such "special public days" a year from 1620-1700. And as the Puritans were masters of self-denial, days of abstention outnumbered thanksgivings two to one. Fasting, Cotton Mather wrote, "kept the wheel of prayer in continual motion".

Our fasting is not based on a fearful notion of appeasing God, but is rather a freely-chosen ascetical effort of self-discipline so as to actualize the words of the Lord when He fasted in the desert: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." (MATT. 4:4) The rhythm of fasting and feasting is directed by our liturgical calendar, as we are now fasting in preparation for the Feast of the Nativity. We are, however, granted a hierarchical "dispensation" on Thanksgiving Day to "break the fast" in order to celebrate this national holiday as Americans. Actually, the Orthodox can hold their own with any other religiously-based culture when it comes to feasting. We have a great deal to feast about when we reflect upon the "divine economy!" Yet even feasting is not about "gross overconsumption" and mere indulgence.

A couple more of Elyssa East's paragraphs help us understand the historical, cultural and religious background of our Thanksgiving Day celebration:

It was in the late 1660's that the New England colonies began holding an "Annual Provincial Thanksgiving." The holiday we celebrate today is a remnant of this harvest feast, which was theologically counterbalanced by an annual spring fast around the time of planting to ask God's good favor for the year. Yet fasting and praying also immediately preceded the harvest Thanksgiving. In 1690, in Massachusetts the feast itself was postponed, though not the fasting, out of extraordinary concern that the meal would inspire too much "carnal confidence.

As life in the New World wilderness got easier, the New England colonies gradually began holding only their annual spring fast and fall harvest feast. Even after Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863, Massachusetts continued to celebrate its spring day of abstention for 31 more years.

As "right believing" Christians we need to insure that our Thanksgiving Day Liturgy is a true parish event and not merely an incidental service meant for a pious few. We know to Whom we offer our thanksgiving and why. As the "royal priesthood" of believers it is our responsibility to hold up the world in prayer before God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If this national holiday is now characterized by "gross overconsumption," as East contends, that does not mean that we need to follow such a pattern when we have the opportunity to thank and praise God before we share our domestic meals together. Perhaps a properly understood "fear of God" can be spiritually healthy when we contemplate our choices.

The Divine Liturgy will begin at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday morning.

Fr. Steven

Monday, November 23, 2009

Whoever Receives One Such Child . . .

Dear Parish Faithful,

The forty-day Nativity Fast began last Sunday, November 15. This is the Season of preparation for the Lord's Nativity on December 25 through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

My purpose here is to propose a parish-wide or parish family project that would allow us to fulfill the Lord's command to practice charity/almsgiving. When I returned from Guatemala, I immediately wrote a meditation in which I shared the hard and troubling truth that a little girl that we met in June had been sexually violated previous to her entrance into the Hogar. (I have appended the relevant paragraph from that meditation below in case you have not read it or would like to re-read it). The Hogar has a program that allows for sponsorship of individual children. This is of tremendous benefit to the Hogar because it provides essential financial support for its strained budget. And it allows for others to participate in the Christian ministry to these "abandoned, abused, and orphaned children." The Hogar encourages parish sponsorship of a given child, since individual sponsorship can prove to be financially challenging; and because it is a communal project that brings a parish together through a common purpose. The cost of sponsoring a child for an entire year is as follows:

$10 per day
$300 per month
$3,600 per year

Having "done the math," I believe that a one-year sponsorship of this little girl is quite realistic and "do-able" for our parish. Otherwise, I would not support this collection. We have 85 households listed in our new parish directory. If 72 of those households make the relatively modest donation of $50, then the entire sum of $3,600 would be covered! That means that each household would support this little girl for five days out of the year. That is $50 for the entire year. Our goal would then be to send in our financial support at the beginning of the New Year. Of course, I encourage anyone to donate more than the $50 if you are so moved. That would greatly assist us in getting that much closer to our goal.

"Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me" (MATT. 18:5).

We will use the St. Nicholas Day Charity Dinner on December 6, as a "kick-off" for this parish-wide project, since our teens have agreed to donate the proceeds of that dinner to support our drive. That will prove to be an excellent beginning, considering the popularity of that dinner and the parish-wide participation that we always experience. Perhaps most importantly, if you reflect upon the ministry of St. Nicholas and his love, defense and support for children in need, the timing is perfect. We will then be acting in honor and reverence of this great and beloved saint. I included the following short paragraph in my earlier meditation that I am hoping will move you to respond affirmatively to this charity proposal:

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.

We have a parish history of responding with great generosity to such community-based charity collections. When participation is parish-wide, the over-all collection "adds up" real quickly. I am hoping and praying that you will find some room in your hearts for this little girl that we have providentially met through our parish ministry to the Hogar.

Please consider a $50 donation for this long-suffering child as a Christmas gift in the name of the newborn Christ child.

In Christ,

Fr. Steven

Excerpt from previous meditation:

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 was speaking to Madre Ivonne about her, and discovered the shocking fact that she had been raped 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, hug her, and spend some time with her. To be perfectly honest, it also boils your blood. 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.

A full and revised form of this reflection is now available at, and may also be found on our Orthodox Meditations Blog here.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Finding 'Snatches of Silence'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Surprisingly enough, a recent issue of Newsweek had an article printed under the rubric of psychology entitled "The Devil Loves Cell Phones," written by Julia Baird. That is a rather unexpected and somewhat jarring title considering the secular orientation of such a mass media journal as Newsweek. The article is one-page a commentary based upon a review of a new book by Sara Maitland. The newly-published book is called A Book of Silence. Baird begins by reminding us: "In the Middle Ages, Christian scholars believed that Satan did not want human beings to be alone with God, or with each other, fully alert and listening." She then quotes Maitland who makes the provocative statement that the mobile or cell phone is a "major breakthrough for the powers of hell." We are further informed that Maitland "spent more than a decade pursuing silence like a hunter its prey." As part of this pursuit, Maitland spend 40 days - a perfect choice of time period! - "in an isolated house on a windy moor" in Scotland. Maitland writes in her book: "I am convinced that as a whole society we are losing something precious in our increasingly silence-avoiding culture, and that somehow, whatever silence might be, it needs holding, nourishing and unpacking." She claims that her physical sensations were heightened - her porridge tasted better and she "heard different notes in the wind, was more sensitive to temperature, and emotional." Beyond that, she "experienced great happiness, felt connected with the cosmos; was exhilarated by the risk and peril in what she was doing; and discovered a fierce joy, or bliss."

The author of the article, Julia Baird, then comments on the over-all impact of the book: "It is a strikingly refreshing book to read, in the midst of the clamor and din, ever-mounting distraction, yelling TV pundits, solipsistic tweeting, and flash-card sentiment of our Internet age. It made me realize what a profound longing many of us have for silence, how hard it is to find, and how easily we forget how much we need it." A contention from Maitland sounds like something I would read in an article about Orthodox hesychasm from Arch. Kallistos Ware: "Maitland rails against the idea of silence as void, absence, and lack - insisting it is positive and nurturing, and something more profound that must be actively sought." Silence, for the saint, allows us to hear "the still, small voice of God," as did the Prophet Elijah on Mt. Horeb. This is the key to genuine prayer.

Julia Baird rails a bit more against our noisy culture: "We often talk about distraction, and the banality of a culture that seems to smother deep thought or time-sucking contemplation - we tweet sneezes, we blink and record it for our friends, we sprint to be the first to speak. The anonymity of the Internet has been replaced by hyper-identity; the idea of shutting up and staring at a rock, piles of sand, or blinking stars for hours, if not weeks, seems profoundly countercultural."

I would add that a forty-day fasting period before the Feast of our Lord's Nativity sounds real countercultural! The volume will increase over the next 40 days, not diminish. And not a whole lot of that noise will be in praise of the mystery of the Incarnation. Perhaps we can find some snatches of silence amidst the cacophany of sounds that will swirl around us. We may begin by limiting our cell phones to necessary calls, and not allow it to be a toy in our fidgety hands combined with a need to be distracted. The cell phone is fast becoming an adult "security blanket." Baird includes in her article this passage from C. S. Lewis' fascinating work, The Screwtape Letters, in which we "hear" of Hell's furious noise: "the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless and virile ... We will make the whole universe a noise ... We have already made great strides in this direction regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end."

It may prove to be difficult, but maybe we can find a way not to add to that ungodly din.

Fr. Steven

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Perfect Day

Dear Parish Faithful,

Although the day has passed, and is therefore now in the irretrievable past, I would like to explain why I believe that it was the "perfect time" to have come to Saturday evening's Great Vespers a couple of days ago. It struck me as the "perfect time" because it came at the end of what can only be described as a (near) "perfect day." Saturday was a truly beautiful day or, as some would say, a gorgeous day. Well into the Fall at this point in time, it was not only warm, but the drenching sunshine, the pellucid clarity of the blue sky, and the remaining colors of gold, yellow, orange and red still clinging to the trees combined to make each of us instinctively - or perhaps consciously - grateful for the simple joy of being alive. "Glory to You for the Feast Day of life!" we hear in the Akathist Hymn "Glory to God for All Things." What a day to wake up to and have your spirit lifted up in the process! As Fr. Alexander Schmemann used to say, it was the kind of day on which life made a great deal of sense. And such a day offered many opportunities for a variety of activities: working around the house (many of those leaves are now on the ground and need to be raked up); children playing in the yard; a trip to the park; a long walk, etc. The list can easily go on.

It is my humble opinion that the "perfect" culmination to such a day would have been to come to Great Vespers and truly thank God through the prayers and hymns of the service for the gift of such a day. (It is possible that someone may have said or thought that it was too nice of a day to "interrupt" by going to church. But, as the saying goes, better to not even go there ...) During the day, we may have paused for a moment and thanked God for its beauty, but the entire structure of Great Vespers is such that we offer our thanksgiving to God from within the Church as "ecclesial beings." It is not the impersonal forces of "Mother Nature" that we worship, but our heavenly Father, "the Maker of heaven and earth and of all things both visible and invisible." Again, that worship is most perfectly expressed from within the Church in our liturgical prayer. The very atmosphere of the church and our prayerful attention greatly magnifies our awareness of this truth. As mentioned above, from within the Church, our instinctive awareness of "goodness, truth and beauty," becomes a conscious awareness culminating in worship and thanksgiving. The service at the end of the day helps us to remember this.

Every Vespers service begins with Psalm 104, which is a form of "poetic theology," a hymn to the divinely-ordained variety, order and purpose of all of creation: "O Lord, how manifold are Thy works, in wisdom has Thou made them all!" Therefore, on the one hand, as the day wanes, and the sun begins to set, Great Vespers comes at the day's end so that we thank God for the enjoyment and experiences of that day - good or bad. On the other hand, according to the Scriptures "there was evening and morning, one day" (GEN. 1:5), so the evening service of Vespers begins the next day liturgically. As the sun sets, we sing an ancient hymn to Christ, the "Gladsome Light" that illuminates the darkness of the world with a light that cannot be "overcome." (cf. Jn. 1:5) In our liturgical theology we proclaim the "sanctification of time," indicating by this term the divine source of time and its (re)direction toward the Kingdom of Heaven made possible through the Death and Resurrection of Christ. Then, like the Elder Symeon, we can "depart in peace" - today and at the end of our earthly lives - for our eyes, too, have seen the salvation that God has "prepared before the face of all people."

I repeat: that struck me as the perfect way to end such a wonderful day as last Saturday was. We had eight hours or more to enjoy it. Plenty of time for a great deal of activity. Then, we offer back an hour of our time to the God who makes all things possible. This is not an "interruption," but a "culmination." For the sake of emphasis, I used the term "perfect time" somewhat rhetorically when I began this meditation on being present at last Saturday's Great Vespers service. It is always the "perfect time" when we include our presence in church as we make our plans and plot out our days as they come to us as gifts from God. Many such days have passed, and hopefully there are many more yet to come.

Fr. Steven

Monday, November 2, 2009

Image of a True Disciple: The Gadarene Demoniac

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

One of the most challenging narratives in the Gospels has to be the healing of the Gadarene demoniac (Mk. 5:1-20; MATT. 8:28-34; LK. 8:26-39). This dramatic event which reveals the power of Christ over the demons will appear to the 21st c. mind as either archaic or even primitive. We may listen with respect and sing "Glory to Thee, O Lord, glory to Thee!" upon the completion of the reading, but "wrapping our minds" around such a narrative may leave us baffled if not shaking our heads. The spectacle of a man possessed by many demons, homeless and naked, living among the tombs, chained so as to contain his self-destructive behavior is, to state the obvious, not exactly a sight that we encounter with any regularity. (Although we should acknowledge that behind the walls of certain institutions, we could witness to this day some horrible scenes of irrational and frightening behavior from profoundly troubled and suffering human beings). Add to this a herd of swine blindly rushing over a steep bank and into a lake to be drowned, and we must further recognize the strangeness of this event. This is all-together not a part of our world!

Yet, there is no reason to doubt the veracity of the narrated event, which does appear in three of the Gospels, though with different emphases and details - in fact there are two demoniacs in St. Matthew's telling of the story! It is always instructive to compare the written account of a particular event or body of teaching when found in more than one Gospel. This will cure us of the illusion of a wooden literalism as we will discover how the four evangelists will present their gathered material from the ministry of Jesus in somewhat different forms. As to the Gadarene demoniac, here was an event within the ministry of Christ that must have left a very strong impression upon the early Church as it was shaping its oral traditions into written traditions that would eventually come together in the canonical Gospels. This event was a powerful confirmation of the Lord's encounter and conflict with, and victory over, the "evil one." The final and ultimate consequence of that victory will be revealed in the Cross and Resurrection.

Whatever our immediate reaction to this passage - proclaimed yesterday during the Liturgy from the Gospel According to St. Luke (8:26-39) - I believe that we can recognize behind the dramatic details the disintegration of a human personality under the influence of the evil one, and the reintegration of the same man's personhood when healed by Christ. Here was a man that was losing his identity to a process that was undermining the integrity of his humanity and leading to physical harm and psychic fragmentation. I am not in the process of offering a psychological analysis of the Gadarene demoniac because, 1) I am ill-equipped to do so; and 2) I do not believe that we can "reduce" his horrible condition to psychological analysis. We are dealing with the mysterious presence of personified evil and the horrific effects of that demonic presence which we accept as an essential element of the authentic Gospel Tradition. The final detail that indicates this possessed man's loss of personhood is revealed in the dialogue between himself and Jesus:

Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Legion"; for many demons had entered him. (8:30)

To be named in the Bible is to receive a definite and irreducible identity as a person. It is to be "someone" created in the "image and likeness of God." It is the role of the evil one to be a force of disintegration. The "legion" inhabiting the man reveals the loss of his uniqueness, and the fragmentation of his personality. Such a distorted personality can no longer have a "home," which is indicative of our relational capacity as human beings, as it is indicative of stability and a "groundedness" in everyday reality. The poor man is driven into the desert, biblically the abode of demons. Once again, we may stress the dramatic quality of this presentation of a person driven to such a state, but would we argue against this very presentation as false when we think of the level of distortion that accompanies any form of an "alliance" with evil -whether "voluntary or involuntary?" Does anyone remain whole and well-balanced under the influence of evil? Or do we rather not experience or witness a drift toward the "abyss"?

Then we hear a splendid description of the man when he is healed by Christ! For we hear the following once the demons left him and entered into the herd of swine and self-destructed (the ultimate end of all personal manifestations of evil?):

Then the people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. (8:35)

"Sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind." This is clearly one of the most beautiful descriptions of a Christian who remains as a true disciple of the Master. This is the baptized person who is clothed in a "garment of salvation" and who is reoriented toward Christ, the "Sun of Righteousness." The image here is of total reintegration, of the establishment of a relationship with Christ that restores integrity and wholeness to human life. Also an image of peacefulness and contentment. Our goal is life is to "get our mind right" which describes repentance or that "change of mind" that heals all internal divisions of the mind and heart as it restores our relationship with others. Jesus commands the man "to return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you" (8:39). We, too, have been freed from the evil one "and all his angels and all his pride" in baptism. In our own way, perhaps we too can also proclaim just how much Jesus has done for us (cf. 8:39).

Fr. Steven