Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Church New Year - Possibility for Renewal

Dear Parish Faithful,

The Church New Year will begin on Tuesday, September 1. New beginnings always hold out the possibility of renewal. As members of the Church - the Body of Christ - we thus have the opportunity to re-commit ourselves to the life "in Christ" as presented in the Gospels and in the life of the Church.  The goal is the "salvation of our souls." (I PET. 1:9). 

At the beginning of the Church New Year, I try to send out a couple of practical reminders about some of the most basic components of our corporate and personal lives as Orthodox Christians.  Therefore, I have attached an outline I wrote on maintaining the discipline of a Rule of Prayer; and a summary of Preparation for Receiving Holy Communion. 

As familiar as you may be with these essential practices, you may still want to look at these summaries by way of reminder and, if necessary, renewal.  Getting "back to the basics" - or the ABCs of Church life - may be just what is needed to pursue "the one thing needful."

Fr. Steven

Getting Closer to God - A Rule of Prayer

Thursday, August 20, 2015

What Jesus was like

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Actor Robert Powell in a still from 'Jesus Of Nazareth'   

Regardless of how well one may know the Gospels, it is challenging to form a clear image of “what Jesus was like.” This is not in reference to His deeds and words, for these are amply recorded in the four canonical Gospels. I am referring more to what we would today describe as someone’s “personality.”

Are we able to get behind the personality of Jesus? Are we able to describe or analyze His personality with certainty, or at least with a measure of confidence? Some would formulate the question differently and ask if we are able to penetrate or understand the “self-consciousness” of Jesus.

New Testament scholars, beginning in the 19th century and through to the present day, are often preoccupied with questions concerning the “messianic consciousness” of Jesus. Did Jesus know He was the Messiah, and if so, when did this messianic consciousness dawn upon Him? Yet, we may ask, besides a genuine and justifiable curiosity, is it that important for us to probe either the personality or self-consciousness of Jesus? Is it even possible?

The Gospels are decidedly not preoccupied with these questions, for the Gospels do not consciously offer a “personality sketch” of Jesus, nor do they attempt to analyze the psychology of Jesus. The Gospels proclaim Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God through His deeds and words. Therefore, whatever insights that we are given into “what Jesus was like” are revealed precisely through His actions and His words – not through a psychological sketch or analysis.

In a very insightful article entitled “Quite Beyond Us,” Father Patrick Reardon of All Saints Church, Chicago, writes the following about what he calls the “unfathomable self-consciousness of Jesus.”

“The identity of the man Jesus is rooted in this eternal relationship of the Son to the Father,” Father Patrick writes.  “Self-awareness in Jesus is indivisible at every point from the consciousness of his eternal relationship to the Father. He has no personal identity apart from that relationship.

“Now I submit that there is nothing else in any human soul even remotely analogous, and this is the reason why psychological analysis… is an inadequate and even misleading path to the interpretation of Jesus. Jesus, while possessing a human psyche, transcends psychology for the same reason that He, partaking fully in created being, transcends metaphysics,” he continues.  “The ‘subject,’ the self, of Jesus’ consciousness is not a human being who is personally distinct from the consubstantial Son. We have not the foggiest idea how this self-awareness of Jesus took form in His soul, and speculation on the matter is an exercise in either futility or heresy” [Touchstone, October 2007, p. 13].

Father Patrick’s words will resonate strongly for any believing Christian who believes and confesses what is declared in the Nicene Creed about Jesus Christ in an orthodox manner: “Who for us men and for our salvation was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man.” Without that belief and confession, the psychology of the man Jesus would be fair game for many different and contradictory interpretations.

Bearing in mind the wise words of Father Patrick, which I would further claim are supported by our Orthodox understanding of the Person of Jesus Christ, I still believe that we can say a good deal about “what Jesus was like” that neither betrays the Gospel image of Christ, nor our Christological confession of faith in Him as God and Man. To do this, I would like to turn to a work by Denise and John Carmody.

Respectfully and soberly, and with an excellent command of the Gospel narratives, they take on the task of summarizing what they believe is a genuine portrait of “what Jesus was like.”  They do this in a book titled In the Path of the Masters, in which Christ is discussed together with the Buddha, Confucius and Muhammad. Each figure is treated sympathetically and respectfully. Their goal is to be descriptive and informative, with no polemical edge.

Of course, for many Orthodox Christians this would prove to be a questionable, ambiguous—or perhaps blasphemous—endeavor! We do not consider Jesus as a “great religious figure” to be compared with others, but again, as the Son and Word of God incarnate. And, together with the Evangelist Luke, we also claim,  “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” [Acts 4:12]. 

Nevertheless, the Carmodys, Christian thinkers themselves, have offered a finely written and deeply reflective passage on some of the main characteristics of what they term Jesus’ “personality.” They have obviously meditated on this deeply, and I would like to share some of their insights.

Reading this section in their book, I can compile the following descriptive list about Jesus, though it may not be exhaustive. For them, Jesus:

  • is both fiery and gentle, both sociable and solitary.
  • is full of energy and subject to fatigue.
  • is both conservative and a revolutionary.
  • is eloquent and compassionate.
  • possesses a heart open to the poor, the sick and children.
  • makes friends and wins the allegiance of women, a very rare quality in His time.
  • is celibate and unmarried.
  • wanders from village to village and lives simply.
  • is courageous in standing up those who opposed Him.
  • is quick-witted in debate.
  • is committed to the spirit above the letter of the Law.
  • is filled with love.
  • seeks and responds with appreciation to genuine faith.
  • seeks only His heavenly Father’s will and glory.
  • is consoled by the Spirit of God.
  • never sins and is without moral faults.
  • is not drawn to wealth and power.
  • never succumbs to flattery or threats.
  • possesses a sense of humor “now and then.”
  • is often ironic according to Saint John.
  • loves His friends deeply.
  • is forgiving.
  • is realistic about human weakness.

As thorough – and convincing—as this may sound, the Carmody’s also acknowledge the “unfathomable self-consciousness of Jesus.”  They write, 

Still, Jesus remains a mysterious figure, a personality that we cannot fathom, not only because all human beings finally escape our judgment… but even more because the depths of His personality lie in the undecipherable relationship he had with his Father. For Jesus to be was to be God’s Son. This is now orthodox Christian theology, expressing the Christian conviction that the godhead is a Trinity of divine ‘persons’ among Whom Jesus is the second, the Son and Word of God become flesh…  On the human level, Jesus seems filled with concern for the needs of the poor people whom He encountered. On the more mysterious, divine level, His sole concern seems to be to glorify His heavenly Father.

I very much appreciated these words of caution on their part. Yet, as a kind of final assessment, I will admit that this following sentence resonates deeply with me when meditating on what Jesus was like: 

But His over-all disposition seems serious, sad, absorbed in a mighty struggle.

And I also found their concluding paragraph on this subject compelling and profoundly challenging about our own relationship to Christ: 

There must have been something compelling about the personality bearing all these traits. By the time of Jesus’ ascension to heaven… He had stamped many lives indelibly. Simon Peter and Mary Magdalene, the beloved disciples John and James – all His intimates felt that He had become the substance of their lives, the only treasure they cared about. The report of later Christian saints has been similar. The most intense Christians have felt that Jesus was their reason to be.

For a moment, just imagine Jesus as the “substance” of your life, its true “treasure” and the “reason” to be!

Friday, August 14, 2015

'Are You Flossing?' — Spiritual Insights from the Dentist's Chair

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

My trip to the dental office on Wednesday proved to be anti-climatic, as the encounter between two clashing worldviews (those who floss and those who do not) never materialized.  This was due to the fact that my hygienist for the morning was Tracy, and she and I know each other well from the past.  (From past conversations she always asks if and when my parish is planning another mission trip to Guatemala). And having a good memory of her patients' dental habits, she remembered that I am not a flosser, so she tactfully decided not to ask the big question:  "Are you flossing?" And I was prepared to just say no. Tracy is a very conscientious hygienist, so that level of restraint was admirable in my view. 

However, this did not prevent the day from being enlightening as I learned something that could be recast in a theological "key."

In those few precious seconds between the invasive dental pick and the "water-pistol," I thought to engage in some dental office small talk, so searching for a "hot topic" and playing to Tracy's strength, I asked her:  "Just what is the distinction between plaque and tartar?" 

This was Tracy's specialty, so I was the recipient of an impressive summary that proved to be a bit technical, but clearly well-expressed and with genuine enthusiasm.  (To get a feel for this dialogue, you may imagine trying to make small talk with me by asking:  "Just what is the distinction between ousia and hypostasis in Trinitarian theology?")  When all was said and done, I learned that tartar is "calcified plaque."  Quite interesting.

After a thorough and very professional teeth cleaning, I set off for home with that expression of "calcified plaque" in my mind. I was playing a CD of the Vespers of Dormition, and then it struck me:  The passions are "calcified" sin! 

If calcified can be loosely translated as "hardened" then the point is very clear.  For when a particular sin becomes habitual — "hardened" — the Fathers tell us that it then becomes a "passion."  And the passions, according to the Fathers, not only invade the heart, but actually "harden" the heart, spiritually conceived.  (To employ another metaphor, we could describe this condition as a spiritual cardiac sclerosis, perhaps).  As Archbishop Kallistos Ware summarizes this teaching, he writes:

By "passion" here is meant not just sexual lust, but any disordered appetite or longing that violently takes possession of the soul: anger, jealousy, gluttony, avarice, lust for power, pride and the rest.  (The Orthodox Way, p. 116)

Once hardened in the heart, the real spiritual center of our being, the battle to remove the passions becomes especially fierce, to the point that we speak of "warfare against the passions."  We can live with this condition on the surface quite well, perhaps, but underneath the surface the "soul-destroying passions" continue their erosive effect on our entire being.  Then we face the danger of being a "white-washed tomb" according to Christ.  Or something like the "picture of Dorian Gray."

This comes to mind as Tracy was telling me that the visible plaque or tartar on the surface of the teeth can be removed rather easily; but it is the "invisible" traces of those invasive bacteria underneath the gums that needs to be "dug out" if your mouth and teeth are going to be healthy - hence the unpleasantness of that pick and the occasional sensitive nerve that once struck, can make you squirm a bit. 

It is one thing, then, to flash a set of white teeth, but it is more important to remove that "calcified plaque" that we call tartar, not only on the surface but underneath the gums as well.  So, it is one thing to "look good" on the surface and project an image of moral rectitude, if not religious piety; but another thing to remove the "soul-destroying passions" underneath the neat exterior so as to become "pure in heart."  For, as Archbishop Ware further writes:

Many of the Fathers treat the passions as something intrinsically evil ...  Some of them, however, adopt a more positive standpoint, regarding the passions as dynamic impulses originally placed in man by God, and so fundamentally good, although at present distorted by sin ... Uncontrolled rage must be turned into righteous indignation, spiteful jealousy into zeal for the truth, sexual lust into an eros that is pure in its fervor.  The passions, then, are to be purified, not killed; to be educated, not eradicated; to be used positively, not negatively.  To ourselves and to others we say, not "Suppress," but "Transfigure." (The Orthodox Way, p. 116)

Now that an expert has told me that "tartar is calcified plaque" I will remember that as a helpful metaphor that can be applied to our spiritual lives, for the "passions are calcified sin."  The "passions" are removed by prayer, fasting and almsgiving; by Confession and Communion; by meditation upon the Scriptures; by those "tools" given to us by God so that we may emerge victorious in this life and death struggle for the "salvation of our souls," what St. Peter hopes is the "outcome of our faith." (I PET. 9)

Monday, August 10, 2015

St Herman of Alaska: A 'nobody' who became a 'somebody'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

We served the Akathist Hymn to St. Herman earlier this morning, as we commemorate his glorification/canonization on August 9. 

At the Liturgy yesterday morning I reminded everyone that this was the forty-fifth anniversary of his official glorification which occurred in Alaska on August 9, 1970.  This Service of Glorification was the first major action of the OCA's Holy Synod, which only four months earlier, on April 10, 1970 received its status as an autocephalous Church.  We have an almost inexhaustible collection of resources on our parish website - books, icons, even YouTube videos!  Please spend some time with St. Herman there.

We need to know our North American saints as well as possible.  No better place to begin than with the humble yet holy elder and wonderworker of Alaska - the Venerable Fr. Herman!  As I said yesterday, Blessed Fr. Herman was a "nobody" (in the eyes of the world) who became a "somebody" (his name written in the Book of Life).  As Fr. Hopko of blessed memory expanded on this theme in his inimitable style:

By American standards, Saint Herman of Alaska, like the Lord Jesus Himself, was a miserable failure.  He made no name for himself.  He was not in the public eye. He  wielded no power.  He owned no property. He had few possessions, if any at all.  He had no worldly prestige.  He played no role in human affairs. He partook of no carnal pleasures.  He made no money.  He died in obscurity among outcast people. 
Yet today, more than a hundred years after his death, his icon is venerated in thousands of churches and his name is honored by millions of people whom he is still trying to teach and seek the kingdom of God and its righteousness which has been brought to the world by the King who was born in a cavern and killed on a cross.  (The Winter Pascha, p. 47-48)

There are so many current "somebodies" today who are making a name for themselves by various methods:  endlessly talking and twittering in an effort toward self-promotion.  To say something provocative, controversial or politically incorrect is to almost insure coverage on the national news or on talk radio and other sources of social media. It is getting difficult (because it is all so tedious?) to keep up with it all.  Who said what about whom, etc.?  Who has managed to be the most offensive? These statements and the ensuing debates often inflame and provoke passionate responses - if not our actual "passions."  

This is true of politicans, entertainers, professional athletes and other figures in the public eye.  There are even faces that seem ubiquitous and who are "famous for being famous" and not much else.  Their fame may last more than the now-proverbial fifteen minutes, but one has to wonder about any long-lasting fame or, more importantly, about the over-all quality of what they are promoting.  How long before today's "somebodies" are tomorrow's "nobodies?" In all of this "noise" just what are we being taught to seek?  Certainly not the kingdom of God as taught by St. Herman!

I am not counseling passive withdrawal from some of the current issues that we need to respond to thoughtfully and carefully.  We live at a certain point in history and as "historical beings" we cannot but enter into the current debates that will shape our culture and society for the future. In fact, withdrawal from the debates swirling around the burning moral and ethical issues of the day can even be irresponsible. 

But when someone like St. Herman enters into the conversation, because we encounter him within the life of the Church - our true "home" - then we begin to understand  the overwhelming importance of the eternal questions that will shape our destiny, as our response to those questions will shape our apprehension of the world.  Then "fame" recedes in importance before the goal of truth and holiness.  

Then we understand that the scandal and madness of the Cross far exceeds the "wisdom" of the world.  For we follow the One "who was born in a cavern and killed on a cross."

Thursday, August 6, 2015

A Feast of Light - 'All human faces have acquired a new brightness'

Dear Parish Faithful,

A Feast of Light
We experienced a splendid celebration of the Feast of the Transfiguration yesterday evening.  There were many faithful parishioners present, though I wish we had more of our children and young adults also present.  The purpose of the Vesperal Liturgy is to make that possible. Be that as it may, we have entered into a "feast of light" a light meant to dispel some of the darkness of the world around us, and perhaps in our minds and hearts "from time to time." 

There is a splendid new book on the Transfiguration recently published:  This is My Beloved Son, by Andreas Andreopoulos (I think he is Greek Orthodox).  From the preface of that book, Archbishop Kallistos Ware writes the following:

Who is Christ?  What am I?  For an answer we may turn to one of the most mysterious events in the Gospels:  the Transfiguration of Christ on the mountain in the presence of his three chosen disciples - Peter, James and John.  The dazzling light that shone from the face of Jesus reveals to us his true stature as the eternal Son of God.  It reveals to us also the highest potentiality of our created nature, our ultimate vocation as human beings.
In the light of Christ's face that was so strangely and so strikingly altered upon the mountaintop, in his garments that became dazzling white, all human faces have acquired a new brightness, all common things have been transformed. For those who believe in Christ's Transfiguration, no one is despicable, nothing is trivial and mean...

Monday, August 3, 2015

A Challenging Saint: Mother Maria Skobtsova

Icon of St Maria of Ravensbruck

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

For those unaware of the remarkable twentieth century Orthodox saint, St. Maria of Paris/Ravensbruck (+1945), I made a modest attempt to introduce her to the parish at large at yesterday's Liturgy through the form of the homily. 

Saint Maria, commonly known as Mother Maria, is actually commemorated on July 20. Together with the Venerable Martyr the Grand Duchess Elizabeth (July 18th), we encounter in these holy martyrs two of the most extraordinary women of the twentieth century.  Both bore witness to Christ under truly horrific conditions, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth dying at the bottom of a mine shaft into which she was flung by Bolshevik thugs in 1918; and Mother Maria dying in a gas chamber at one of the notorious Nazi concentration camps, that at Ravensbruck, in 1945.  (From the beginning, Mother Maria understood the Nazi threat, referring to it as a "new paganism").

In this short meditation, I am going to further concentrate on Mother Maria, and point out here that she was glorified/canonized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 2004, together with her son, Yuri; her priest, Fr. Dmitri Klepenin; and the religious philosopher, Ilya Fundaminsky, a Jewish convert to Orthodoxy.  These saints also perished in concentration camps, at Dora,  Buchenwald and Auschwitz  respectively.

Below, you will find some links to excellent material of a detailed nature outlining Mother Maria's unique path through life. Above is one of many wonderful icons that have been written of her since her glorification, depicting her standing before the gates of Ravensbruck.
In addition to writing poetry, Mother Maria was a writer of very trenchant essays and we are now fortunate enough to have a fine collection of them translated into English under the title, Mother Maria Skobstova, Essential Writings. The essays are introduced by a solid thirty-page biography of Mother Maria, by the book's editor, Jim Forest.

Mother Maria's essays are highly recommended.  But to read Mother Maria is to place oneself in the vulnerable position of being not only challenged, but convicted.  She had an uncompromising understanding of the Gospel and adamantly refused to soften its proclamation of the Cross.  A characteristic passage, would be one like this, from her essay "On the Imitation of the Mother of God:"

What is most essential, most determining in the image of the cross is the necessity of freely and voluntarily accepting it and taking it up. Christ freely, voluntarily took upon Himself the sins of the world, and raised them up on the cross, and thereby redeemed them and defeated hell and death.  To accept the endeavor and  responsibility voluntarily, to freely crucify your sins - that is the meaning of the cross, when we speak of bearing it on our human paths.  Freedom is the inseparable sister of responsibility.  The cross is this freely accepted responsibility, clear-sighted and sober.  (Essential Writings, p. 64)

This is why Olivier Clement, in the Preface to this collection of her essays, could write this about Mother Maria:

Her immense, forceful, and passionate vitality expressed itself in a surge of love.  Her love was not increasingly calm, but crucified; it expanded into infinity and was transformed into spiritual  motherhood...  Later she would see the prototype of this love in the love of the Mother of God at the foot of the cross, contemplating both her son and her God in the Crucified Jesus.  In the same way, she said, we have to discern in the face of everyone both the image of God and of the Son who was so compassionately given to us.  This was the theme of her last icon at Ravensbruck. (Essential Writings, pp. 7-8)

There is no doubt that Mother Maria was considered a controversial figure, strongly criticized in her lifetime and afterwards.  Her approach to monasticism was very unconventional and she never spent time in a monastery once she was tonsured a nun. Her life of cross-bearing service she described as "monasticism in the world."  Jim Forest speculates that it was this type of unconventionality that may have delayed her official recognition by the Church until the beginning of the twenty-first century, even though she died a martyr's death on behalf of others.  Again, it is Olivier Clement, who stated that the life of Mother Maria was seen by many as "one long scandal" - she was a former socialist revolutionary who was twice-married for starters, and she "remained an intellectual of leftist bent" throughout her life.  Olivier writes further:

This nun, who denounced most monasteries as mediocre substitutes for family life, scandalized many committed to solitary contemplation and carrying out the "works of God."  For Maria, it was a matter of renouncing all comfort - whether it was a soothing liturgy or the peace of a cloister - to completely dedicate herself to a life of poverty and love for others.  She immersed herself in a form of abasement similar to the abasement of God, who became human because of love.  (Essential Writings, p. 7)

Clearly, not someone everyone can fully emulate! With her passionate and intense nature, perhaps she failed to understand that about others.

Be that as it may, we can summarize her approach to the life of a Christian as primarily one of service to "the other" by an oft-quoted text from her writings:

The way to God lies through love of people.  At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made.  Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners.  That is all I shall be asked.  About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says "I:" "I was hungry, and thirsty, I was sick and in prison."  To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need... I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.

That may come across as an "uncomfortable" reminder, but one of the most spiritually deadly temptations for us today is to remain in our "comfort zones."

- Fr. Steven
Resources for further reading on St Maria of Paris:

Pearl of Great Price: The Life of Mother Maria Skobtsova, 1891-1945, by Sergei Hackel.

Articles and Resources from In Communion:

Numerous icon images here:

There is also this insightful article by Fr Peter Preble:
Engaged Monasticism: Mother Maria Skobtsova and Twenty- First Century American Orthodox Monasticism

Children's Book on Mother Maria:
Silent As A Stone: Mother Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue