Monday, July 29, 2013

The Dormition Fast: A Call to Spiritual Vigilance

Dear Parish Faithful,

The arrival of the two-week Dormition Fast on Wednesday, August 1, is always the “perfect” antidote to that spiritual summer drought that we could be experiencing right about this time of the year (written about in the Monday Morning Meditation from last week).  

A fast implies vigilance – and not simply about what we eat or drink.  

To be spiritually vigilant is to rediscover our commitment to the Gospel command to love both God and neighbor with all our soul, mind, body, and strength. This fast, then, could revive our drooping spirits if that is what we may be suffering from at the moment.  If that is not a current concern, then the fast can simply sustain our relationship with God and neighbor as it leads us up the beautiful Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos.  

Either way, or any way, we should prepare ourselves for the spiritual effort – primarily based on prayer, fasting and almsgiving - that a fasting season implies, embracing it with thanksgiving and heartfelt commitment.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

'We are on a Journey . . .'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Unless we find ourselves on an exciting vacation somewhere far from home, it seems that nothing can conceivably be more uneventful than a Monday morning in mid-July.  The only “variety” offered seems to be found in the weather.   Will it rain or will the sun shine?  Will the blistering heat continue, or will we feel some relief?   At this point in the summer, we may have already been on vacation – which means that there isn’t much to look forward to; or we are awaiting an upcoming trip that at least fills us with some sense of anticipation and “escape.”  Which poses a further question:  are those carefully-planned vacations into which we invest so much time, energy, money – and even hope – always as rewarding, relaxing and renewing as anticipated?  I suppose that can only be assessed once we have returned – hopefully as intact as when we departed!  Whatever the case may be, the following passage from the Scriptures may just inspire us to see beyond the tedium that leads to the forgetfulness of God: 

Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather healed.” (HEB. 12:12-13)

Adding to our spiritual ennui is, admittedly, the fact that July is the most uneventful month of the year liturgically:  no major fasts or feasts occur during this month.  Basically, there is “only” the Liturgy on Sundays and the commemoration of a few well-known saints throughout the month.  With vacationing parishioners, there can be a noticeable drop in church attendance.  There may also be certain signs of “spiritual laziness” setting in (induced, perhaps, in part by the haziness of the weather) leading to that condition of spiritual torpor known in our spiritual literature as akedia.  July, therefore, is something of a month-long stretch of desert, for we celebrated the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul at the end of June and await the major Feasts of the Transfiguration and Dormition in August within the context of the two-week fast from August 1-14.

Of course, we never want to find ourselves saying that there is “only” the Liturgy on Sunday mornings.  The word “only” is hopelessly inadequate when applied to the Lord’s Day celebration of the Eucharist!  “Only” implies “uneventful.”  Yet, every Liturgy is the actualization of the paschal mystery of the Death and Resurrection of Christ, and our participation in that mystery.  At every Liturgy we proclaim and bless the presence and power of the Kingdom of Heaven.  We are praying to and praising the Holy Trinity together with the angels and the saints.  We are in direct communion with God and one another in the Liturgy.  This means that every Liturgy is “eventful” in a manner that we can barely comprehend!

If, indeed, the summer proves to be something of a spiritual drought, then we can only thank God for the weekly liturgical cycle that begins and culminates with the Divine Liturgy on the Lord’s Day so that we can recover and renew our genuine humanity that has been created, redeemed and transformed “in Christ.”  To speak of our life “in Christ” on the communal level we believe that at every Liturgy, we anticipate the messianic banquet where and when many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (MATT. 8:11). The heavenly manna, or the “Bread from heaven” that we receive by the grace of God, strengthens us in the somewhat outward and inward “desert-like” conditions of the world around or within us.

On a more interior level, we may one day make the wonderful discovery that we need not travel far away geographically in order to embark upon a life-transforming journey. In the Prologue to his book The Orthodox Way, Archbishop Kallistos Ware relates the following anecdote:

One of the best known of the Desert Fathers of the fourth-century Egypt, St. Sarapion the Sidonite, travelled once on pilgrimage to Rome.  Here he was told of a celebrated recluse, a woman who lives always in one small room, never going out.  Skeptical about her way of life – for he was himself a great wanderer – Sarapion called on her and asked:  “Why are you sitting here?”  To this replied: “I am not sitting, I am on a journey.”

Admittedly, this will not work well with the children.  But at one point in our lives, we need desperately to make that discovery of our interior depths wherein we find a point of stillness that will further still our excessive restlessness that endlessly pushes us “outward” rather than “inward.”  In one of my favorite sentences in The Orthodox Way, Archbishop Ware puts it this way: 

We are on a journey through the inward space of the heart, a journey not measured by the hours of our watch or the days of the calendar, for it is a journey out of time into eternity.

“Vacations” are one thing, and “journeys” (or pilgrimages) another.  The packaging and planning of the former make them much more predictable that the limitless possibilities of the latter. So, as we plan our outward vacations by plane or car, we need make provisions for the interior journeys into the greater space of our hearts through “faith, hope and love,” as well as through the practices of prayer and fasting, so as to remain attentive to the “still voice of God” that gives direction and meaning to our lives.  Be that as it may, we pray that God will bless us on both forms of travel!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Guest Essay: 'Does the Orthodox Church have anything to say to the Contemporary World?'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Doing something a bit different today, I am simply sharing a short essay that one of my recent students wrote for the appropriate credit on her final exam.  This young woman, a nursing student, was one of the best students I have had in my many years of teaching at Xavier University.  She is a faithful and practicing Roman Catholic and, interestingly enough, a distant relation to one of the most prominent Roman Catholic theologians of the 20th c., Karl Rahner (though she admits that she has never read his work!).  She is the type of person that restores your faith in the upcoming generation of college graduates who will be in positions that can positively affect others and the world around them.  It is a wonderful experience as a teacher to perhaps add something to her over-all learning experience that she may take into her future life. Be that as it may, she had the choice of the following question to answer with her short essay to follow:

Does the Orthodox Church have anything meaningful, significant, or challenging to say to the contemporary world?  Explain why you think that this may be so.

   Contemporary trends are leading the world, especially the “developed West,” further away from tradition and religion toward secular “political correctness.”  This seems to continually decrease the importance and relevance of organized Churches such as the Eastern Orthodox.  The further the ways of the world stray from teachings of the church, however, the more relevant those teachings become. The Orthodox Church reminds the world today of the value of tradition, challenges human beings to live in service of God and others, and places the whole of life on earth in eternal perspective.

   The Orthodox Church is very much a church of tradition, with doctrine based solely on the first seven Ecumenical Councils, the writings of the Church Fathers, and Scripture.  Much of its tradition may be deemed inapplicable in the midst of today’s science and technology, but the sheer fact that it has continued to exist through millennia is a testament to its sustaining merit.  Young people today often enjoy exploring and forming opinions of the world on their own, but just as older individuals have wisdom to share that only comes with age, so too do the teachings of the Orthodox Church contain revealed truth confirmed through the ages that it would be unwise to ignore.

   “Social justice” and “service” are rather fashionable terms among Christians and non-Christians alike. Many uphold these ideals and the value of such work without a religious basis.  The Orthodox Church challenges all to take part in service of others as an extension of the perichoresis of the Trinity. If God’s nature reflects mutually-shared love, and humans are made in  God’s image, we too are called to live every moment of life as an icon of the Trinity.  As Bishop Ware quotes St. John Chyrsostom in The Orthodox Way,  “The most perfect rule of Christianity … is this:  to seek what is for the benefit of all.”  (39)  Thus in the Orthodox perspective the practice of serving others becomes a divine task and a lifelong duty.

   In recent years there has been a notable popular focus on the end of the world as visible in the claims about a religious “rapture,” hype over the end of the Mayan calendar, and a proliferation of films with apocalyptic settings.  This phenomenon reflects humanity’s awareness of its mortality, but sadly often neglects an overall hopeful perspective of the eschaton.  The Orthodox Church’s teaching on the Kingdom of Heaven and the second coming of Christ transforms this life into one of anticipation.  Rather than inspire fear of the future it encourage faith in God’s unfathomable love for his creation, and promises a life beyond time.  This idea completely changes the way one might live his or her life on earth. Earthly existence is always a blessing and yet always disappointing, since we are ultimately only satisfied by communion with God.  Orthodox Christianity recognizes this fact and challenges humans to live with this eternal mindset.

-          Elizabeth Rahner.

Monday, July 1, 2013

'Become What You Are!'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Come, O believers,
Let us celebrate in song today,
Glorifying the memory of all the saints:
Hail, O glorious apostles, prophets, martyrs, and bishops!
Hail, O company of all the just!
Hail, O ranks of holy women!
Pray that Christ will grant our souls great mercy!

(Sunday of All Saints, Aposticha, Vespers)

The Sunday of All Saints fittingly follows the Sunday of Pentecost, for the saints of the Church are the “fruit” and manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s presence among us.  They are the living icons that are transparent to the glory of God that shines in and through each of them as a gift of the Holy Spirit.  The saints (literally, the “holy ones”) have “escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of passion and become partakers of the divine nature” (II PET 1:4).  Created in the image of God, they “are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another”  (II COR 3:18).  In the Book of Revelation, St. John has recorded his incomparable vision of the saints in heaven:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all the tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!”  (REV. 7:9-10)

Since, in the one Church of Christ, the heavenly and earthly realms are united, the saints are “the great cloud of witnesses” that surround us and exhort us to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (HEB. 12:1-2).  At the most basic level, the saints are the true friends of God:  “But to me, exceedingly honorable are Thy friends, O Lord” (PS. 138:16, LXX).  The saints put Christ above all else in the fulfillment of their Master’s words:

He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.  (MATT. 10:37-39)

The words of the Scriptures are the seeds that nourish the life of sanctity which results in the slow transformation of a human being, made in God’s image, into the very likeness of God, so that this particular person becomes by grace what Christ is by nature.  The saint is thus a scriptural man or a scriptural woman, inasmuch as he/she hears the Word of God and keeps it – meaning acting upon and living out what is heard.  The saint has responded positively to the paradoxical admonition:  “Become what you are!”

Now, as we like to say today:  “No pain – no gain!”  If we were “bought with a price” (I COR. 6:20), then we could say that the saints “bought” their sanctity at “a price,” abandoning security, comfort and safety which, we acknowledge, are so central to our own understanding of life.  (It is rather easy, though it may go unnoticed, for Christians to be transformed in Epicureans over time:  avoid pain and seek pleasure).  Being “destitute, afflicted, and ill-treated” they “wandered over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.”  As such, God has revealed that “the world was not worthy” of them. (HEB. 11:37-38)

The “diversity” of the saints is remarkable:  fathers (and mothers), patriarchs (and matriarchs), prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics, and every righteous spirit made perfect in faith,” culminating in “our most holy, most pure, most blessed and glorious Lady Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary” (Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom).

On the Sunday of All Saints, we do not commemorate only the saints whose names have been included on our ecclesiastical calendars; those, in other words, who have been officially “glorified/canonized” by the Church and whom we remember and venerate by name. We remember all of the saints, that vast multitude, both known and unknown, (symbolically numbered at 144,000 in the Book of Revelation; a multiple of 12 that signifies an incalculable figure as well as wholeness and totality – much to the dismay, I would imagine, of the Jehovah’s Witnesses) “who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (REV. 21:27).  Perhaps this will include our own ancestors who lived modest and humble Christian lives.

All of the saints, therefore, intercede before the throne of God on our behalf.  They are with us and not cut off from us by death. Rather, they are now more alive than ever and being “in Christ” are present wherever Christ is present.  The earthly lives of the saints become sources of inspiration and models of emulation for us, teaching by examples of faith, hope and love; of long-suffering, perseverance and patience; of lives steeped in prayer, almsgiving and fasting.  They do not discourage us because they attained what may seem unattainable to us; but rather they encourage us to struggle to overcome our weaknesses as men and women who did precisely that in their own lives.  They were not born saints or privileged from birth.  They became saints by co-operating with the grace of God.  We, in turn, simply need to become what we already are:  saints of God through Baptism and Chrismation and membership in the Church!

Many of us are deeply impressed by the total dedication, perseverance, training, commitment and love of the sport exhibited by today’s athletes.  (Possible envy of their great wealth and fame is a different subject).  Many may shake their heads in disbelief or nod in admiration.  Hardly anyone will call these athletes “fanatics.”  But if someone is that single-minded and intent upon the life in God, that is a word that will inevitably ring out.  But the saints are not fanatics – they simply have a passion for God and put the Gospel and the Kingdom of God above all else.

To be inducted into any particular Hall of Fame – from baseball to Rock ‘n Roll – is considered to be a great human achievement and a goal only an elite few could even aspire to.  However, these Halls of Fame are the secular and rather pale – if not pitiful – reflections of an earlier age’s striving for the heavenly realm of the Kingdom of God.  The saints looked beyond the fleeting and temporal “glory of men” to the unchanging and eternal “glory of God.”  That seems to be the vocation of all Christians and the Lord’s desire for us.