Friday, March 30, 2012

The Great Canon and St Mary of Egypt

Dear Parish Faithful,

Through a tree we once found death, but now we find life again through the Tree of the Cross. Let us then put to death the impulses of the passions; and with all the faithful let us pray to the Benefactor of all: that, shining with the radiance of divine actions and made beautiful by the virtues, we may attain the holy Resurrection and glorify the Savior of our souls. (Vespers of the Fifth Week of the Fast)

Another reminder that this evening (Thursday, March 29) we return to the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. We chanted the canon at the beginning of Great Lent in four parts. On the fifth Thursday of Lent the entire canon is prescribed to be chanted. Together with the Canon, the Life of St. Mary of Egypt is read aloud in its entirety in the church. Combining the two on the parish level, we will chant an edited version of the Canon (the fourth part) and read the Life of St. Mary of Egypt. We have been doing this for about four years now. Why do we return to the Canon so late into Great Lent? A very insightful answer is provided by Fr. Alexander Schmemann in his book Great Lent:

If at the beginning of Lent this Canon was like a door leading us into repentance, now at the end of Lent it sounds like a “summary” of repentance and its fulfillment. If at the beginning we merely listened to it, now hopefully its words have become our words, our lamentation, our hope and repentance, and also an evaluation of our Lenten effort: how much of all this has truly been made ours? How far have we come along the path of this repentance? For all that which concerns us is coming to its end. From now on we are following the disciples “as they were on the road going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking on ahead of them” (MK 10:32).
(Great Lent, p. 89)

The Life of St. Mary of Egypt is quite remarkable, deeply stirring, and a verbal icon of repentance that can bring an attentive listener to tears – which I have heard and witnessed many times. It is also beautifully written, with a direct style, constant biblical allusions, and a use of literary rhetoric that is quite eloquent and moving. However, according to Panayiotis Nellas, “her life does not have as its aim simply to move the faithful.” Nellas continues:

It plays in the service an organic part which is at once deeper and more real. The Orthodox faithful know very well that the feast day of a saint is not a simple honoring of a holy person or a recollection of her life for didactic reasons. Rather, it is a real participation in her life, her struggles, her victory and her glory. The reading of her life takes place in order to bring the saint amongst us in a true and real manner with her whole life and all her struggles.
(Deification in Christ, p.166)

Manifold reasons above for keeping this evening’s service in mind – and attending – spirit, soul and body.

The service will be begin at 7:00 p.m.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Synergy in the Mystery of the Annunciation

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Now that we have venerated the lifegiving Wood,
with gladness let us advance upon the path of the
Fast to the Passion of Christ.
(Monday of the Fifth Week, Canon, Canticle One)

Yesterday, we celebrated the brief festal interlude of the Annunciation (March 25) that always falls during the season of Great Lent. So, the liturgy cycle for the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent also included the major hymnography for the Feast. The church temporally put aside its lenten colors to be clothed with the festal blue that distinguishes the Feasts of the Theotokos. Yet, because it is Great Lent, there is no extended afterfeast, as today is designated the Leavetaking of Annunciation. You must be spiritually aware and vigilant so that the Feast does not pass by undetected! Otherwise, we deprive ourselves of this festal commemoration – and our own mindfulness – of the Incarnation of the Son of God. The troparion of the Feast makes it clear that the Annunciation reveals the eternal mystery of God:

Today is the beginning of our salvation, the revelation of the eternal
mystery! The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin as Gabriel
announces the coming of Grace. Together with him let us cry to the
Theotokos: Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with you.

The Son of God became incarnate – took on flesh and the fullness of human nature - at the mysterious “moment” of His conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary, who is the Theotokos because of her unique role in this revealed eternal mystery. As the Hymn to the Theotokos – “All of Creation Rejoices in You” - expresses it: He made your body into a throne, and your womb He made more spacious than the heavens. There is – and there can only be – a great sense of wonder and awe before the great mystery of the Son of God being conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary:

Gabriel marveled at the beauty of thy virginity and the splendor of thy
purity, and he said to Thee: O Theotokos: ‘How can I praise thee as I
should? By what name shall I invoke thee? I am troubled and amazed.
Therefore, as I was commanded, I cry out to thee: Hail, full of grace!

From the Akathist Hymn
(originally meant to praise the Annunciation to the

In the Orthodox understanding of divine – human relationships; and especially as this has a direct bearing on the process of salvation; there is a clear stress on the harmonious combination of divine grace/initiative and human freedom. We, as human beings, are not saved against our will and cooperation. Divine grace and human freedom are two unequal but equally essential components of our redemption. This has been stated with great clarity and insight in a patristic formulation that has become a “classical” expression of the Orthodox understanding of synergy, which is the term used to articulate the above-mentioned harmonious balance between divine grace and human freedom. The author of this passage is St. Nicholas Cabasilas, a 14th c. Byzantine theologian (and friend of St. Gregory Palamas):

The incarnation of the Word was not only the work of Father, Son and Spirit – the first consenting, the second descending, the third overshadowing – but it was also the work of the will and the faith of the Virgin. Without the three divine Persons this design could not have been set in motion; but likewise the plan could not have been carried into effect without the consent and faith of the all-pure Virgin. Only after teaching and persuading her does God make her his Mother and receive from her the flesh which she consciously wills to offer him. Just as he was conceived by his own free choice, so in the same way she became his Mother voluntarily and with her free consent.

St. Nicholas has brilliantly described, expanded upon, and drawn out the full implication of the words of the Virgin Mary as recorded in the Gospel according to St. Luke: “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (LK 1:38).

Through the eyes of faith, we are thus not blinded to a further hidden mystery: "All of creation rejoices in you, O Full of Grace, the assembly of angels and the race of men.”

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Cross as a Moral Compass

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Let us all wash our souls clean in the waters of the Fast, and, approaching the precious and honoured Cross of the Lord, let us venerate it with faith; let us draw from it divine enlightenment,
gathering the fruit of eternal salvation,
peace and great mercy.

(Vespers, Wednesday of the Fourth Week)

As we continue in the Fourth Week of Great Lent – the Week of the Cross - I believe that you will benefit from the interesting presentation of the Cross right below. Actually, Presvytera Deborah discovered this from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and initially shared it with me. The Cross as “Moral Compass” with its directionality points to the words of St. Paul who wrote of “the breadth and length and height and depth” of the love of Christ, understood by such Church Fathers as Sts. Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa to refer to the cosmic scope of the Cross.

Fr. Steven

The Cross as a “Moral Compass”

Because this Sunday is the Third Sunday of Great Lent and our focus will turn to the Cross, many classes will participate in the Procession of the Cross, make and decorate crosses to take home, and of course include lessons about the Cross of Christ and why this Sunday places the Cross as its central theme.

One way that I have often presented the Cross to people is to think of it as a compass. It’s a simple metaphor. The arms of the cross point toward the directions we should look as we make decisions for life.

First, a cross points upward, reminding us that we should look toward God for guidance about the decision and consider how the decision we will make might affect our relationship with God.

Second, a cross points side to side, reminding us that we should consider how our neighbors, the people around us may be affected by the decision we are about to make. We might also want to seek the guidance from family and close friends in our deliberation process.

Third, a cross points down, reminding us that the decision will have consequences for our own life, consequences that will affect us. By pointing down, we might also need to consider how the decision we are about to make might affect the world around us, from the environment to people we don’t even know. Admittedly, not every decision we make in life has global impact, but some can. Definitely adults responsible for large groups of people or organizations can have this level of impact, such as a political leader.

Finally, we associate the cross with the pain and suffering of the crucifixion. This can remind us that not all decisions are made easily and can be “painful.”

Many Orthodox Christians wear a cross around their necks. It is more than a decoration, but a reminder of our faith in Christ and our commitment to live as His disciple. That cross can also serve to guide us on a daily level.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Belief in Atheism

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

“The Fool Said in His Heart ‘There is no God’”

Just a reminder that there is a lecture at Xavier University this evening on the subject of Atheism (Kennedy Hall at 7:00 p.m.). I am hoping that this will be a theological analysis of that phenomenon, together with some of the social and moral/ethical consequences of that position; but I am not quite sure what to expect. There are three of us who are going as of now. Please let me know if you are interested.

Atheism (there is no God), like theism (God exists), is a “belief” because it cannot be proved in a definitive manner. Theists will also have to acknowledge that their claim that God exists – experiential as it may be - is a faith-based belief, because proving that God exists beyond any reasonable objection has only proven to be an elusive claim throughout the ages. Yet, an atheist, who is committed to a philosophical materialism (only the material exists), cannot possibly disprove the existence of God (who is Spirit and invisible). In fact, the non-material is simply, by definition, outside of the range of an atheist’s investigations. An atheist claims that what is called spiritual reality does not exist. But does that not resemble a blind man claiming that what he cannot see does not exist? Perhaps it is such blindness that convinces the psalmist that the atheist is a “fool.” If a theist makes a “leap of faith” to claim that God exists based upon either a series of reasonable arguments or a lived experience; so then an atheist makes the same “leap of faith” though arriving at a contrary position. The point is, however, that the atheist has faith that God does not exist. Thus, strange as it may initially sound, atheism is a belief system based upon a faith that cannot be definitively demonstrated.

Another bleak fact of atheism: The atheist will never have the satisfaction of knowing he/she was right! If the atheist is right, he/she will not be able to say: “I told you so!” An atheist faces immediate oblivion at death, so all consciousness and awareness will cease with “brain death.” There will be no way of directly experiencing the non-existence of God. To repeat yet again: Atheism remains an unverifiable belief/faith. The believer, on the other hand, will say when encountering God: “This is infinitely more incredible than I ever conceived it to be!” Human words are utterly inadequate to describe what God has prepared for those who love Him. So, the theist will be able to say: “Ah, I knew it all along!” That experience will be far more than satisfactory. There may be optimistic atheists out there, but we should never lose sight of the utter bleakness of the atheistic worldview. For the atheist we are essentially a talking and walking bag of chemicals fleetingly alive for what amounts to be a “blink of an eye” within a vast cosmic cemetery destined for oblivion.

Keep smiling and have a nice day!

Half-Way There

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Now that we have come, my Christ, to the middle of the time of abstinence, and have reached the veneration of Thy lifegiving Cross, falling down before it we call upon Thee: Mighty art Thou, who lovest mankind, and mighty are Thy works, for Thou hast made manifest Thy precious Cross. In fear we venerate it as we cry: Glory to Thy boundless compassion.
(Matins, Monday of the Fourth Week)

I would like to encourage everyone as we enter the second half of the sacred forty day period of Great Lent. May the Lord continue to bless your efforts as well as provide us all with patience and perseverance, as we now begin to focus on the Cross, on which the Lord of Glory was crucified for our sakes. It was Fr. Alexander Schmemann who insightfully wrote in his book Great Lent, that we concentrate on our ascetical efforts and on overcoming our desires and passions for the first half of Great Lent; but then shift our focus toward the Cross, which is the one reality that brings meaning and purpose to the Lenten journey in the first place. On Golgotha our redemption was worked out “in the midst of the earth,” and the empty tomb revealed the meaning of the victory of crucified love. This balance between the Cross and Resurrection is perfectly expressed in the hymn that accompanies our prostrations before the life-giving Cross of the Lord:

Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master,and Thy holy Resurrection, we glorify!

Monday, March 12, 2012

As We Enter the Third Week of the Fast

Dear Parish Faithful,

O holy and honored Trinity, as we now enter upon the third week of the Fast, keep us safe from harm and condemnation. Enable us rightly to pass through the time that remains, and to fulfill all Thy commandments; that so, offering up our hymns of praise, with a pure conscience we may attain the glorious Resurrection.
(Matins, Monday of the Third Week)

As the hymn above reminds us, we are now entering the third week of the Fast. The two weeks that we have gone through now belong to our irretrievable past. They may have been fruitful; or they may have been wasted. So we may be building on an already solid foundation; or we may just be getting started. Either way, from this point on we press on toward the goal of the “glorious Resurrection.” If we follow the commandments of Christ, and if we keep our conscience pure, the Resurrection will be far more than a “colorful” tradition that lasts about as long as Easter Sunday.

Great Lent is forty days long. This is based on our Lord’s forty days of fasting in the wilderness, an event understood both as a temptation and a testing. This forty days was a concentrated microcosm of Israel wandering in the desert – and “fasting” – for forty years. The point is the continuity of the effort, modest though our efforts may be in comparison to Israel or Christ. While in the wilderness, Israel was allowed no time off. There were no hotels or spas along the way! The wandering Israelites could not “take a break” and break their fast, and then, well-rested, resume their journey through the harsh Sinai desert. The same was true for Christ. There was no such relief. It was an arduous forty days that tested His human nature to the fullest extent. When it was over, Jesus truly hungered. Times are far different now, and as we belong to a class of people that generally lives in comfort – or perhaps succumbs to dreams of entitlement – our limitations probably appear a good deal sooner when we are called upon to practice restraint and discipline. In this regard, we are probably “weaker” than our spiritual ancestors. Yet, hopefully we do have some reserves of patience and perseverance to carry us through the season of abstinence.

At the same time, we know that Great Lent is not only about bodily abstinence. With a bit of the perseverance mentioned above, we just may be able to pull that one off. Great Lent is also about our relationships with others and how we both view and act within the world around us. This is nicely-addressed by St. Dorotheos of Gaza in the following passage, typical of our saintly guides in the deeper aspects of our spiritual lives:

… in fasting one must not only obey the rule against gluttony in regard to food, but refrain from every sin so that, while fasting, the tongue may also fast, refraining from slander, lies, evil talking, degrading one’s brother, anger and every sin committed by the tongue. One should also fast with the eyes, that is, not looking at vain things … not looking shamefully or fearlessly at anyone. The hands and feet should also be kept from every evil action. When one fasts through vanity or thinking that he is achieving something especially virtuous, he fasts foolishly and soon begins to criticize others and to consider himself something great. A person who fasts wisely … wins purity and comes to humility … and proves himself a skillful builder.

Helpful words as we begin the third week of Great Lent, a point when the novelty or initial enthusiasm behind our efforts begin to evaporate.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Acedia and us, and our Lenten Effort

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

My soul, my soul arise! Why are you sleeping? The end is approaching and you will be confounded. Awake then, and be watchful, that you may be spared by Christ God, Who is everywhere and fills all things. (Kontakion, Canon of St. Andrew of Crete)

The season of Great Lent is the time of the soul’s awakening from the sleep of sin, or from sheer indifference, apathy, or what the saints call acedia, a condition of spiritual torpor or unsatisfied restlessness. Is this a term from our spiritual vocabulary that you are familiar with? I have a book stored in my library that I am (finally) beginning to read this Great Lent, entitled Acedia & me – A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life. The author is Kathleen Norris, who has developed a strong reputation as an insightful writer on religious themes through such books as Dakota: A Spiritual Biography; and The Cloister Walk, to name just two of her more prominent titles. (She also has a book with the intriguing title of The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work”) which is a series of lectures based on discovering the sacred in what are considered mundane domestic chores). Her career began as a poet, and she is now usually described as an oblate of the Assumption Abbey in North Dakota. This series of books on religious themes, beginning with Dakota (1992), trace her growing Christian Faith and her contact with certain Roman Catholic monastic communities in North America, especially the Benedictine one mentioned above.

In Acedia & me (2008), she has chosen to write about the “passion” of acedia in its contemporary understanding and setting and its almost universal affliction of the “modern” person, usually as the condition that we now call depression. A very Orthodox theme, to be sure. This passion was discovered and written about by the Desert Fathers in the earliest years of the monastic movement, who analyzed this passion together with offering guidance on how to overcome it. This was the “noonday demon” mentioned in the Psalms that the desert ascetics had to do battle with before they could grow spiritually. By far the most famous description is found in the writings of Evagrius of Pontus (345-399), from his work The Praktikos:

The demon of acedia – also called the noonday demon – is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all. He presses his attack upon the monk about the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour [or lunchtime], to look this way and now that to see if perhaps [one of the brethren appears from his cell]. Then too he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labor. He leads him to reflect that charity has departed from among the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. Should there be someone at this period who happens to offend him in some way or other, this too the demon uses to contribute further to his hatred. This demon drives him along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life’s necessities, more readily find work and make a real success of himself. He goes on to suggest that, after all, it is not the place that is the basis of pleasing the Lord. God is to be adored everywhere. He joins to these reflections the memory of his dear ones and of his former way of life. He depicts life stretching out for a long period of time and brings before the mind’s eye the toil of the ascetic struggle and, as the saying has it, leaves no leaf unturned to induce the monk to forsake his cell and drop out of the fight. No other demon follows close upon the heels of this one (when he is defeated) but only a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy arise out of this struggle.

Here we find boredom, tedium, restlessness, impatience, a lack of care; all making prayer undesirable and impossible. In this condition, we are seemingly overwhelmed by the futility of our efforts. No wonder that this passage is often quoted today, for it remains quite a penetrating psychological and spiritual analysis of a malady that can easily be transposed from the world of the desert ascetics into the world as we know and live in today. This is basically the purpose of Kathleen Norris’ book. In fact, Norris writes the following about the passage from Evagrius: “As I read this I felt a weight lift from my soul, for I had just discovered an accurate description of something that had plagued me for years but that I had never been able to name” (p. 4). She begins by relating modern definitions of the word acedia which has remained in our vocabulary over the centuries, though not readily used:

The ancient word acedia, which in Greek simply means the absence or lack of care, has proved anything but simple when it comes to finding adequate expression in English. Modern writers tend to leave the term untranslated, or employ the later Latin accedie. A few examples may help the reader comprehend the broad range of meaning of the word, as it is currently understood.

accedia: heedlessness, torpor … [a] non-caring state -Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, 1989

: a + kedos care, anxiety, grief + ia, iea – more at HATE
1. the deadly sin of sloth
2. spiritual torpor and apathy
-Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, unabridged, 1976

acedia: a mental syndrome, the chief features of which are listlessness, carelessness, apathy, and melancholia -Online Medical Dictionary, 2000

Interestingly – and I would add, unfortunately - I could not find the word in the dictionary I have at hand, which is the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, tenth edition, 1997. (And my computer is underlining it every time I write the word). Perhaps the editors did not envision college students looking up acedia! Bustling and energetic college campuses may just offer enough superficial relief from acedia so as to leave it undetected until later in life. And a computer culture has a very restricted spiritual vocabulary.

Be that as it may, Kathleen Norris is determined to get to the roots of this condition in both its historical and modern expressions. As she puts it at the beginning of her exploration:

… I think it likely that much of the restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating despair that plagues us today is the ancient demon of acedia in modern dress. The boundaries between depression and acedia are notoriously fluid; at the risk of oversimplifying, I would suggest that while depression is an illness treatable by counseling and medication, acedia is a vice that is best countered by spiritual practice and the discipline of prayer. Christian teachings concerning acedia are a source of strength and encouragement to me … (p. 3)

If acedia in the original Greek (usually spelled akadeia) literally means “lack of care,” it may do well to understand the simple but deep term “care” that we readily use. Here again, is a probing paragraph from Norris:

The person afflicted with acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet you can’t rouse yourself to give a damn. That it hurts to care is borne out in etymology, for care derives from an Indo-European word meaning “to cry out,” as in a lament. Caring is not passive, but an assertion that no matter how strained and messy our relationships can be, it is worth something to be present, with others, doing our small part. Care is also required for the daily routine that acedia would have us Suppressor deny as meaningless repetition or too much bother. (p. 3-4)

In closing her opening chapter, entitled Somewhere (as far as I gotten so far!), Kathleen Norris offers a summary of what I would imagine are themes the book in its totality may explore:

Yet I have come to believe that acedia can strike anyone whose work requires self-motivation and solitude, anyone who remains married “for better for worse,” anyone determined to stay true to a commitment that is sorely tested in everyday life. (p. 6)

I wonder: Do we stay so busy so as to unconsciously flee from the noonday demon of acedia? Do we fill up our time and our lives with endless activity because we feel that dreadful acedia creeping up on us? Or is it the acedia that drives us forward so restlessly to always being doing something – anything - because we no longer have the ability to be still, to truly “rest” in God as the saints described a life of prayer and stillness/hesychia?

I am hoping to make some real inroads into this promising book as Great Lent unfolds. Perhaps I will share some more of the book also.

The lenten prayer of the Church, so deeply focused, as in the Canon of Repentance of St. Andrew of Crete, is one weapon that we have to do battle with the “demon” of acedia and other forms of spiritual torpor and apathy. There is one more opportunity this evening to be present for the fourth and final part of the Canon as it has been distributed through this first week of Great Lent. In the darkened and prayerful atmosphere in the church that signifies the Lenten season, we are able to concentrate and “be still” at least to some extent, as the moving words of repentance and compunction move over us and actually plant themselves in our hungry and thirsty souls that can only be filled by God.

The Canon of Repentance will begin at 7:00 p.m.