Thursday, January 28, 2010

On Sickness, Anointing, and the Healing of Soul and Body

Dear Parish Faithful,

Presvytera and I returned late last night from Louisville, where we particpated in the Anointing Service on behalf of Fr. Alexander Atty. Fr. Alexander is the head priest at St. Michael the Archangel Antiochian Orthodox Church. Roberta and Scott were also there, so Roberta was anointed as were many others who were ill. As I informed everyone yesterday, Fr. Alexander is suffering from stage four colon cancer, so he is fully aware of the battle ahead of him. His surgery is scheduled for next Tuesday, February 2, the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord. There were two presiding hierarchs at the service and fourteen priests, all of which served.

Bishop Mark of Toledo (Antiochian Archdiocese) said something at the end that we should all reflect upon: If we did not get sick and die not many people would believe in God. This is not true simply because people would believe out of fear and desperation. Rather, human beings are so self-reliant, egotistically independent, and blindly self-absorbed, that if we had no reason to rely on God then we would totally ignore God. Bishop Mark further said that it is when we are ill that we realize how dependent we are upon God. We are always dependent, but it is only illness that gets that point across very strikingly. "Pain is the megaphone of God" according to C.S. Lewis. That is why the Fathers teach that God was acting mercifully and providentially when He "gave" His creatures over unto the anxieties and fear that accompany the reality of death; so that in full consciousness of our mortality and finitude we could realize our dependency upon God and turn to Him in humility. Fr. Alexander did humbly acknowledge this in his own comments made to a parish that has known him as its priest for over thirty years now. To the inevitable question - usually asked with more than a touch of self-pity - "Why me?" Fr. asked another question of more-than-equal validity: "Why not me?" (When you ask the question, "Why me?" you are in effect saying that it should be someone else - and who should that be?!).

The Sacrament of Anointing is administered for the "healing of soul and body." We pray to God for a complete healing and we believe that that is possible. We do not offer up vain prayer for its psychological and emotional impact alone. But if our bodily afflictions are not healed - and here I am speaking about adults and not the sufferings of innocent children - our "soul" may be, beginning with the sins of arrogance, pride, self-importance and the rest of the dreary soul-destroying afflictions from which we need to be purified, so that we can eventually draw close to God: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."

It is important that those who are ill are surrounded by support, care and concern, but especially by love. The ill and the afflicted should never be alone in their suffering. That love begins in the Church where the love of God in Christ Jesus is most fully manifested and presented to us through every aspect of the Church's existence, beginning with the Mysteries/Sacraments of the Church. Then the members of the Body of Christ, the men and women who are the Church need to manifest that love as well as possible to those sufferiing from affliction. That is how we "bear one another's burdens" according to Apostle Paul. This is the co-suffering love that is the deepest expression of Christianity and the Christian believer. This type of love is most fully understood, developed and encountered in the Church where each believer draws upon the love of Christ which is the life-flowing blood of the ecclesial organism that we call "Church." Fr. Alexander was blessed to be able acknowledge such love and support.

Please add Fr. Alexander Atty to your prayer list as he enters into this long, hard battle.

Fr. Steven

Webservant's Note: Updates on Fr. Alexander's condition will be posted on

Monday, January 25, 2010

'Rejoice For Me' ~ Attaining the Kingdom of God through Illness

Dear Parish Faithful,

Here is a particularly powerful and deeply moving meditation by an Orthodox priest who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. Ralph first shared this with me, and I asked him to ask Fr. if he would be willing to share it. Ralph's response prefaces the actual meditation. As you will read his reflection below, it may bring to mind the recently heard Gospel parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, and the movement from pride to humility, which Fr. understands to come from God so as to bring him closer to our Crucified Lord. In one way or another, or "sooner or later," the Lord will teach us humility. It is a blessing, if we can receive this as a "gift" — hard as that might be — as Fr. does so movingly below. This is a great witness that will remind us that what the "world" understands as a meaningless and debilitating condition can actually be a means of attaining the Kingdom of God.

Fr. Steven


Dear Father Steven,

Fr. gave his blessing, and I have taken the liberty of making some simple edits to remove names and references to preserve his privacy and anonymity. Here is what I came up with:


Rejoice for Me

This is a copy of a message I sent to good friends here who were inquiring about the status of my Alzheimer's Disease and were wondering if it is even even appropriate to ask. After I wrote it I though I would share it with you and a few others, and you may share it with anyone you think might also be interested. Here is the message, below:

It's quite all right for you to ask. I am very open about my illness, and do not hide anything or keep any secrets. And I have very little false pride about my limitations any more—I've already been through "that phase" and have been able to embrace my disease in the shadow of the Cross. More than that, I have begun the slow process of climbing up onto the Cross with our Lord, and sharing now in His Passion. This is incredibly sanctifying; I don't know how else to describe it. So although I don't talk much about my illness, it's not out of secrecy or pride or sensitivity, but only because I am keeping the Lord on the cross as close to my heart as I can. And He will get me through. It has frankly become as much a spiritual experience as a mental one.

So, I want to take this opportunity to share with you, since we haven't really talked about it much. I have discussed it on several occasions with D. and J., and they are wonderfully and appropriately sympathetic and helpful. They are more than relatives; they are good friends. I will talk more about it with my other siblings when we have a family reunion this summer. My children are completely on the same page with me already, but for them it is too painful to talk about much.

This illness is the oddest feeling of being somehow detached and experiencing a slow metamorphosis from being one person into another; not dramatic, but disconnected, and yet still able to pray, read, do email, recognize others (although my short term memory and my malapropisms have gotten worse over the last week). But at the same time it's oddly not depressing. (I went through the depressing stage last year.) In fact, I woke up this morning with Finn (my cat) having crawled up and curled into my left arm, and at the same time I had the most intense longing for heaven, which made me very happy.

The neurologist told me some time ago that there is a small percentage of AD victims who in some way consciously "know," all the way through, what is happening to them, and he thinks I am one of them. I don't know if that's a blessing or not, but I do think it's a blessing that I can share with others the various stages of this illness as long as possible. That sharing is helpful to me, and perhaps for others if they see that there is a spiritual way to "do" something that is otherwise so awful.

As you know, Alzheimer's is a long and slow process, for which reason it's called "the long goodbye." But I read Patty Davis' fine book about her father, President Reagan, "The Long Goodbye," and she said that he remained cheerful, happy and polite as a three year old, right to the end. And I also know about the Alzheimer's of some great and holy Elders of our time, who were able to serve Liturgy and say the Jesus Prayer right to the end, even when they no longer recognized anyone else. So Alzheimer's doesn't have to be grueling and ugly, the way it is so often portrayed. I think that the perceived "terribleness" of this disease is at least in part a reflection of our incredibly morally and spiritually bankrupt culture.

With drugs and medical help, and a very good caregiver, I have had three years of relatively slow deterioration, and I think that "slowness" will continue yet for some years. Right now is a different phase, though. I am very blessed to be in monastic life and here with the Fathers and Brothers just down the road, who stay in contact and are very affectionately supportive. I feel safe and well cared for. There are many in my condition who cannot say that. M. is a good friend, caretaker, intellectual and spiritual companion, but you and T. will have to help her to harden her heart as time goes on and my symptoms become worse. I have already spoken to her about this, too. She is very tender-hearted and quietly suffers over my illness, although she's no drama-queen about it, as you can well believe. That's not her style. She only quietly says, "I don't like it," and that, coming from her, actually says a great deal.

From a purely spiritual standpoint I want to share with you the insight I believe God gave me from the time of my diagnosis. My greatest and overriding sin--indeed, even vice--has always been pride. Pride of mind, of "knowing better" and judging others inappropriately, sometimes thinking of them as being less than I am. This is a most grievous sin, and one that many people don't even recognize in themselves, but it is the one sin that will, above all, consign us to hell if we don't overcome it! It was the sin of Satan, the sin of Adam and Eve.

I understand fully how I got this way. I have throughout my life been inordinately proud of my mind, my intellect, my ability to think clearly about difficult and complicated things, to speak and write well, understand, process, and explain difficult things, etc. Growing up, I wasn't good at sports, I wasn't attractive to the ladies, I couldn't dance, I was an intellectual bookworm and loner, I had no other skill than my brain, and I used it and developed it as far as I possibly could, although actually I wasn't particularly academically brilliant, as all of that just seemed like some kind of superficial "game" to me. But that was my path in life. And although I have put these gifts to the service of Christ and the Church, as best I could, the pride has still been there.

Now the Lord has offered me a chance to mortify and humble down that pride, by accepting without complaint the slow crumbling of my mind. And I do accept this, with my whole heart, even if with the occasional tear, as a gift from Him for my salvation. So it sometimes "feels" as though this dying of various parts of my mind is also a dying of self, a dying of ego, a dying to pride. And isn't that the purpose of spiritual life, after all, anyway? The Lord looked down and saw that I wasn't going to do it any other way, and so, because He loves me very much (unworthy as I am) and wants me to be with Him forever, He offered me this incredible opportunity to die to self. I see this as a great, if sometimes painful, blessing!

Well, these are my few thoughts about it. Never hesitate to ask me how I'm doing. I will tell you honestly. But never feel sorry for me, or pity, as I do not for myself, but rather rejoice for me that I am on a sure path to the Kingdom of Heaven. I believe this with all my heart.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Annual March For Life: 'Today I Commit Myself'

an insightful response to this meditation on our Orthodox Q&A Blog.

** REMEMBER you can now post your own comments using the COMMENTS link at the bottom of each meditation!


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The March for Life in Washington D.C. will take place later today in the afternoon. As always, there will be a large and very visible Orthodox presence at the March, distinguished by many banners and icons being held aloft. Todd Franta just emailed me and informed me that there will be twenty-five seminarians from St. Tikhon's at the March, together with another forty-seven seminarians from St. Vladimir's. If you would like to read the "Sanctity of Life" encyclical from His Beautitude, Metropolitan Jonah, it can be found at Following a hierarchical Liturgy at the St. Nicholas Cathedral, Metropolitan Jonah will also be one of the pre-March speakers that will address the gathered supporters for the sanctity of life. You can read of this also at

Last night, I dropped Presvytera Deborah off at Xavier University where she boarded a charter bus together with about fifty XU students who will participate in the March today. The group would travel through the night, and in fact I just spoke with presvytera as they were approaching the city. She was the only non-student of the group!. Although that sounds mildly horrific, I must say that I was impressed by this body of students who were committed to a "pro-life" position and willing to spend their weekend in Washington D.C. for the sake of that principled position. These are, of course, primarily Roman Catholic students, and the Roman Catholic Church maintains a very strong and well-articulated pro-life stance to this day. I came prepared to the drop-off. Wearing my cassock and carrying my holy water sprinkler and the Cross, we asked the team leader if I would be able to bless the bus. She graciously assented, and gathered the student travellers together after they had prayed in Xavier's chapel. So, following the Orthodox Prayer for Traveling "by land," I blessed the bus for the upcoming journey. What the students may have thought when I brought out my Byzantine-style holy water sprinkler and began blessing the bus in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, while holding a Cross in my other hand, is hard to determine - but they seemed respectful.

Every March participant was given a sheet with various types of prayers that turned to God in response to legalized abortion in our country. I found one particular prayer impressive for its directness, its exhortation for engagement, and for how it brings abortion into the greater context of Faith in Christ. I would like to share that prayer here with you:

Lord God, I thank you today for the gift of my life,
And for the lives of all my brothers and sisters.
I know there is nothing that destroys more life than
Yet I rejoice that you have conquered death
by the Resurrection of Your Son.
I am ready to do my part in ending abortion.
Today I commit myself
Never to be silent,
Never to be passive,
Never to be forgetful of the unborn.
I commit myself to be active in the pro-life movement,
And never to stop defending life
Until all my brothers and sister are protected,
And our nation once again becomes
A nation with liberty and justice
Not just for some, but for all,
Through Christ our Lord. Amen!

On Sunday, during the Divine Liturgy, we will incorporate specific petitions and a closing prayer that also turns us to God for the grace and perseverance to remain firm Christian supports of the "sanctity of life" in the face of the oppressive "fact" of legalized abortion on demand as upheld by the Supreme Court. The "Pro-Life" movement holds the high moral ground in this debate. How can it be otherwise when such a position defends the sanctity of life from conception to the grave - and beyond? What moral ground can pro-abortion advocacy possibly claim? However, I am more fully convinced than ever that harsh judgement toward pro-abortion factions and a shrill condemnation of the other side is not effective. We cannot expect to transform the minds and hearts of others if we shout "murder!" at every opportunity. Our merciful and philanthropic God forgives all sin - including the sin of abortion. Such a Prayer for Forgiveness following an abortion exists in the Church. (Consenting fathers also need to be forgiven). Yet sin must be repented of. And persuasiveness supported by firmness of intention and a deep respect and love for the gift of life will be infinitely more effective than angry condemnation. That is obviously very slow and frustrating work, but we turn to God for the strength, humility, patience and perseverance to continue on that path.

We hope to hear from presvytera this Sunday in the post-Liturgy discussion, but that may depend on what time they actually arrive back in Cincinnati and how she may be feeling.

Fr. Steven

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Fr. Thomas Hopko to lead Great Lent Retreat 2010 on Feb 27

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

The inimitable Fr. Thomas Hopko (I was going to say "the one and only," but that somehow doesn't quite fit) will be leading a one-day retreat in our parish on Saturday, February 27. Fr. Hopko remains a very dynamic speaker and an excellent theologian who has a great gift for conveying the deepest elements of the Orthodox Faith in a very exciting and accessible manner. Please put this date on your calendar and make a point of committing your time during Great Lent to deepening your understanding and experience of the mystery of Christ.


8:30am - Divine Liturgy
10:15am - Lenten Brunch
11:00am - Session I; Q&A to follow
12:45pm - Lunch
2:00pm - Session II; Q&A to follow
3:45pm - Vespers

Requested registration donation: $20
Couples/families: only $30
College students welcomed at no charge as guests of the parish.
Please RSVP by email to
Maps and Directions here.

Haiti's Angry God?

Fr. John Breck has completed his reworking of his below reply to Fr. Steven, and posted this on his "Life In Christ" series on the OCA website. Highly recommended.


Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

I would like to share a recent correspondence of mine with Fr. John Breck. I had emailed him a New York Times Op-Ed entitled "Haiti's Angry God," after we had spoken on the phone about the "theological implications" of the devastating earthquake there. That editorial may have been heartfelt, but I found it rather unsatisfying for a variety of reasons. Fr. John sent me the following response upon reading the editorial. If you would like to read this in its proper sequence, you may then want to click on the link above, or scroll down to the editorial below, and then read Fr. John's response. As usual from Fr. John, it is a profound meditation that is thoroughly Christocentric. He initially wrote this as an initial reaction to this article, and said that he will rework it as a new meditation for his "Life in Christ" series on the OCA website. So this will end up being something of a draft of an even more carefully written piece. But I thought to share this with everyone, as it has an immediacy about it as the earthquake continues to draw our attention.

If you are tired or puzzled of hearing from the likes of Pat Robertson and the "wrath of God" coming down on all of these sinful people - which I believe goes a long way in discrediting Christianity - then Fr. John's approach which reveals a deep sympathy for human suffering, and a deep faith in Christ, is a good place to begin.

- Fr. Steven

Webmaster's note: The closing paragraph from the Opinion piece reads as follows:
Why, then, turn to a God who seems to be absent at best and vindictive at worst? Haitians don’t have other options. The country has a long legacy of repression and exploitation; international peacekeepers come and go; the earth no longer provides food; jobs almost don’t exist. Perhaps a God who hides is better than nothing.


Dear Fr Steven,

The idea that this event in Haiti is "divine retribution" is a relic of very bad Roman Catholic, then right-wing Protestant, theology. I cannot believe that God inflicts punishment of any kind for "sin," other than, as a German prof. of mine once put it, "to let us shtoo in our own choos!"

The world needs desperately to hear an Orthodox response to this kind of thing. If I understand at all what that is, it means basically this. We can never know the reason for innocent suffering; that's what makes it "suffering" and not merely pain. It's the unfathomable nature of such things, the problem of theodicy, that poses the problem for us. We usually begin with the idea that "God is all powerful," therefore if He wanted to, He could have prevented this tragedy. He did not prevent it; therefore He is either (1) not all-powerful, or (2) not essentially good.

This is the wrong way to approach the issue. We have to begin with the Cross. That momentous and glorious/tragic event does not explain innocent suffering. But it does tell us what is essential: that "If I make my bed in Sheol, Thou are there" (Ps 38/39). All we can say about tragedies such as this one in Haiti, or the tsunami of a couple of years ago, or the death of a little child on the highway, is that Christ is there with us. He descends again and again into the depths of our hell, to reach out His hands and to grasp ours. He shares our pain and suffering with us to the bitter end. Sometimes we live, sometimes we die, even in agony. Yet the Risen Christ shares that agony with us ("Christ is in agony until the end of the world," Pascal said). He goes through it with everyone who bears it, in order, finally, to raise us up (in the image of our Paschal icon) and to give us a full share in His victory over death and in His eternal glory.

This, I think, is all we can say about the matter. But this is all that needs to be said. If we begin with the Cross, and not with some abstract notion of divine omnipotence, then we can see that God and we are still engaged in a massive cosmic struggle. The Cross and Resurrection ended the sovereignty of Satan over the world and over our individual destinies. But the struggle continues, sin continues, natural disasters continue, and will continue until Christ comes again in glory. But once more, there is profound significance in the fact that at the Empty Tomb the angel speaks of Christ not as "the Risen One," but as "the Crucified One" (Matt & Mk). Christ remains "the Crucified One" in the life and experience of every one of us, even of those who cry out to Him from under the rubble.

This is the only thing that makes sense to me, Father Steven. Sadly, the (Western) world has adopted a different perspective, one that wholly distorts the biblical understanding of redemption. If God is the vindictive overlord who punishes sinners (why particularly in Haiti?) with such tragedies, then I'm not interested. If He is the Suffering Servant, who journeys with us and for us, to bear our sin and its consequence of mortality, then He is indeed what Scripture declares Him to be: the self-emptying God of love, who gives Himself wholly, for the life of the world.

Thanks for sending this. It's always good to talk with you. Warm greetings to your family and our love in Christ to all of you.
- Fr John

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Jan 14, 2010 10:14 AM
To: jrbreck
Subject: Haiti's Angry God

Fr. John, Please let me know if you get this article. If you have a quick comment or two, that would also be great. As always, thanks for time on the phone. Fr. Steven
OPINION | January 14, 2010
Op-Ed Contributor: Haiti's Angry God
On the earthquake-rubbled streets of Port-au-Prince, survivors weep, pray and ask for redemption...

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

'I Believe in One Baptism, for the Remission of Sins'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. (Nicene Creed)

The Feast of Theophany is more ancient that that of Christ's Nativity on December 25. In fact, it was precisely on 6 January that the Church first celebrated Christ's birth (and the adoration of the Magi) together with His baptism in the Jordan. These events - of the greatest significance not only in the life of Christ but in the economy" of our salvation - were united in one celebration known as Theophany, which means "manifestation of God." (The Feast is also referred to as Epiphany, which simply means "manifestation"). In His Nativity and in His Baptism, Christ is "manifested," or "revealed," to the world as the Light of the world in order to dispel the darkness of ignorance and spiritual blindness which are the direct result of sin. This Feast of Theophany is also referred to as the "Feast of Lights." It was in the 4th c. that we began to celebrate our Lord's Nativity (and the adoration of the Magi) as a separate and unique event on 25 December, while 6 January remained as the Feast of Theophany on which Christ's Baptism was commemorated. Why did the Feast of 6 January retain the title of Theophany/Epiphany instead of 25 December, when the manifestation of the eternal Light was first revealed in His Nativity in the flesh? St. John Chrysostom writes: " ... because it was not when He was born that He became manifest to all, but when He was baptized; for up this day He was unknown to the majority."

But not only was the Lord Jesus revealed to the world as He began His public ministry with His Baptism in the Jordan at the hands of St. John the Baptist. The Holy Trinity was manifested, for the "voice of the Father" bore witness to His beloved Son, and the Spirit, "in the form of a dove," descended and rested upon the Son. The trinitarian nature of God was manifested when Christ came to the Jordan to be baptized.

Yet, if baptism is for the "remission of sins," then why is Christ baptized, for He is without sin (I PET. 2:22; HEB. 4:15)? The liturgical texts repeatedly ask and answer this question for us in the following manner: "Though as God He needs no cleansing, yet for the sake of fallen man He is cleansed in the Jordan;" "As a man He is cleansed that I may be made clean." Christ is representative of all humanity. He is baptized for our sake. It is we who are cleansed and regenerated when He descends into the waters of the Jordan.

For with Christ, and in Christ, our human nature - the human nature He assumed in all of its fullness in the Incarnation - descends into the cleansing and purifying waters of the Jordan (anticipating sacramental Baptism), so that the very same human nature may ascend out of the waters renewed, restored and recreated. As the New and Last Adam He "sums up" all of us in Himself - for this reason He became man. The Spirit descends and rests upon Christ, so that our humanity may be anointed in Him. St. Athanasios the Great writes: " ... when He is anointed ... we it is who in Him are anointed ... when He is baptized, we it is who in Him are baptized." Every baptism is an "extension," a participation, in the one, unique Baptism of Christ; just as every Eucharist is an "extension," a participation in the one, unique Mystical Supper. Actually, all of creation participates and is sanctified by the manifestation of God's Son in the flesh: "At Thine appearing in the body, the earth was sanctified, the waters blessed, the heavens enlightened."

We die to sin in Baptism and are raised to new life - for this reason the baptismal font is both tomb and womb as St. Cyril of Jerusalem tells us. Our pre- and post-baptismal lives must manifest some real change, according to St. Gregory of Nyssa. In fact, I would like to append a few paragraphs from some of St. Gregory's writings about Baptism in order to allow him to describe the meaning of that need for change. St Gregory wrote at a time (4th c.) when he could presuppose adult baptism as the norm, but we can apply his teaching to our own consciousness of being Christians as we grow up in the Faith following "infant baptism."

When discussing baptism and spiritual birth, we have to consider what happens to our life following baptism. This is a point which many of those who approach the grace of baptism neglect; they delude themselves by being born in appearance only and not in reality. For through birth from above, our life is supposed to undergo a change. But if we continue in our present sinful state then there is really no change in us. Indeed, I do not see how a man who continues to be the same can be considered to have become different when there is no noticeable change in him.

Now the physically born child certainly shares his parents' nature. If you have been born of God and have become His child, then let your way of life testify to the presence of God within you. Make it clear who your Father is! For the very attributes by which we recognize God are the very marks by which a child of His must reveal His relationship with God. "God is goodness and there is no unrighteousness in Him." "The Lord is gracious to all ... He loves His enemies." "He is merciful and forgives transgressions." These and many other characteristics revealed by the Scripture are what make a Godly life.

If you are like this and you embody the Spirit of God, then you have genuinely become a child of God, but if you persist in displaying evil, then it is useless to prattle to yourself and to others about your birth from above. You are still merely a son of man, not a son of that Most High God! You love lies and vanity, and you are still immersed in the corruptible things of this world. Don't you know in what way a man becomes a child of God? Why in no other way than by becoming holy!

Fr. Steven