Friday, November 27, 2015

The Abundance of Our Possessions

Dear Parish Faithful,

"Take heed and beware of all covetousness; for a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possession."  (LK. 12:15)

Icon of the Parable of the Rich Fool: He dines like a king at the table in the center, while servants build his new barns on the left. At right, an angel is seen coming to his deathbed to receive his soul.

There is hardly a Christian who would disagree with this teaching of the Lord, as expressed in the words above, when it comes to our relationship with the "abundance of our possessions."  We know that our life does not "consist" in them.  In other words, these very possessions do not, and simply cannot, impart genuine meaning and significance to our lives. These possessions are external to our inner being; for they cannot define us as human beings made "in the image and likeness of God." And we can say that without dismissing these possessions as just so much "mammon."

There are things that we need and there are things that we enjoy.  Yet, I also cannot but arrive at the inescapable conclusion that even though we know this teaching to be true, we seem to pay such teaching just so much "lip service" because of the extent to which we are enamored and captivated (enslaved?) by "the abundance of our possessions!"  Who is the person that can claim otherwise? 

On one level - certainly not the highest! - our lives seem to be a steady progression of accumulating as much as possible, the only limit to this accumulation being imposed on us by the extent of our available resources.  This means that the abundance - or at least the quality - of our possessions will increase as our access to "purchasing power" increases.  (Thus, at Christmas, the extent and quality of the gifts that end up in the hands of children will depend upon the wealth - or lack of wealth - of their parents.  Those who have will simply have more once Christmas comes and goes).

As Christians, then, we find ourselves in the awkward position, indicative of a genuine tension, of accepting our Lord's teaching about the dangers of accumulating possessions as true, and yet unable to arrest the desire and endeavor of adding to this abundance.  The "consumer within" is a driving force indeed!

The Lord reveals the obviousness of His teaching about possessions through the Parable of the Rich Fool, found immediately after the words already cited above. (LK. 12:16-21)  This parable is relatively short and to-the-point, so I will include it here in order to refresh our familiarity with it:

The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, 'What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?  And he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; that there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample good laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.'  But God said to him, "Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?'  So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God."

Not only short and to-the-point, but almost brutal in its clarity and inescapable truthfulness:  You can plan all you want, but death will cut short the most well-conceived plans with an unexpected finality that makes a mockery of those very plans. When death comes, the rich man's wealth is shown to be a worthless form of security for his "soul." (This parable always brings to my mind the words of Tevye the dairyman, who once mused that the more man plans the harder God laughs!). 

The parable does not make a moral monster of the rich landowner. There is no hint of his being a particularly sinful person. Indeed, he is probably quite indicative of his "type:" at least outwardly decent and a man of status. And he may have attended his local synagogue with regularity.  It is his preoccupation with "the abundance of his possessions" - "what shall I do;" "I will do this" - that renders him a "fool" in the judgment of God; a preoccupation that was self-centered in its orientation, culminating in a blindness that resulted in forgetfulness of God, instead of pursuing the meaningful task of striving to be "rich toward God."  As a Jew guided by the Law, he had that opportunity but squandered it.

His careful plans to build larger barns in order to accommodate his ever-increasing store of crops had the immediate impact of making life easier and enjoyable - a time to "eat, drink, and be merry." This, in turn, was a self-satisfying expansion and investment of his time and energy. In the process he pushed the inevitability of his death into a vague and perhaps far-off future. (The saints teach us that the "remembrance of death" is a key component of our spiritual lives, precisely to protect us from any such foolish forgetfulness). It is an attitude/temptation as alive today as it was in the time of Christ.

As real as the barns the landowner envisioned may have been, they are equally symbolic of a choice he made with the direction of his life. And this choice toward wealth proved to be quite costly.  Is our present-day portfolio-building equivalent to the rich landowner's building of barns?  Are we more preoccupied with becoming "rich toward God," or simply with becoming rich in the accumulation of our possessions?  Will we have to suffer with being called a "fool" when that time comes?

Perhaps we can understand the rich landowner's pursuit of an abundance of possessions as an unconscious strategy toward finding and establishing a sense of security in life. 

We are all aware of the fragile nature of our lives, and the threats posed to our security on a host of fronts:  poverty, illness, death itself.  There is nothing quite so reassuring as the feeling of security that would protect us from such threats.  While to feel insecure is a cause of great anxiety. Civilization and technology are built and developed to provide security for human beings in an insecure world. 

Thus, we find ourselves facing the same dilemma as the landowner of the parable in our own search for security; and often turning to the very means that he did in order to build up that ever-shifting sense of security:  the accumulation of an "abundance of possessions."  How ironic, though, that we tend to "secure our security" with the very means that cannot really provide it, while we neglect trying to get "rich toward God, the only true security! 

As the biblical scholar Timothy Luke Johnson has written:

"It is out of deep fear that the acquisitive instinct grows monstrous.  Life seems so frail and contingent that many possessions are required to secure it, even though the possessions are frailer still than the life"  (Gospel of Luke, p. 201).  

And, as another biblical scholar - Brendan Byrne - writes with a certain bluntness: 

"Attachment to wealth is incompatible with living, sharing and celebrating the hospitality of God" (The Hospitality of God, p. 115).

The impact of the Parable of the Rich Fool is precisely in the choice with which the parable confronts us between two very different types of "security:"  the abundance of our possessions, or being rich toward God.  It seems like a simple choice - especially for Christians - but somehow it ends up being a good deal more complicated.  We need to search our minds and hearts as to why this is true.

Christ did not deliver parables in order to entertain us with pleasant stories.  Neither to simply edify us with a moral story that remains within our "comfort zone."  The choice that the parable does confront us with demands a response - though it is possible that if we do not have "ears to hear," we can walk away from the parable with indifference.  ("Let us attend!" always precedes the reading of the Holy Scriptures in church so as to focus our minds on the appointed readings).

Let us, however, assume that we do have "ears to hear." If, then, the parable shakes us out of the false sense of security that possessions may give us, we then have to reflect deeply on how to become "rich toward God." 

Of course, we must begin by cultivating the gifts of God graciously bestowed on us:  faith, hope and love.  We can direct our prayer towards this. We need to un-hypocritically practice prayer, almsgiving and fasting. 

We further immerse ourselves in the "words of the Word" - the holy Scriptures.  It is essential that we confess our sins, and then wage a "spiritual warfare" against them.  The possibilities within the grace-filled life of the Church are many indeed.  We are neither predestined nor forced to avail ourselves of these possibilities.  We must choose to do so, supported by the grace of God.  This choice may very well determine whether or not, at the end of our lives, we will hear either "Fool!" or "Well-done, good and faithful servant."  As Jesus often exclaimed: "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!"

*As a kind of footnote to the above, I would like to point to a tremendous story of great narrative power and psychological insight, that almost reads as an extended and artistic embodiment of this parable:  Leo Tolstoy's "Master and Man."  In the story the rich landowner of 1st c. Palestine is now re-conceived as a wealthy 19th c Russian landowner.  His ultimate fate is rather terrifying.  A great work of literature well worth the time and effort.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Indulging not in food, but in giving thanks to the Lord!

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

A few years ago I ran across an op-ed piece in our newspaper titled "A Moveable Fast" by Elyssa East.  Such a title in a well-known urban secular publication was a bit intriguing, especially since the article's concluding paragraph can be read in an "Orthodox manner" without a great deal of manipulation: 

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

In other words, the uneasy alliance that has formed over the years between Thanksgiving and indulgence does not properly capture the meaning of this national holiday.  For Thanksgiving to be properly "observed," a "gathering together in thanks and praise" is the most appropriate response. 

This is a good, albeit brief, definition of what we do in the Divine Liturgy.  The Eucharist is about our thanksgiving to God not only for what we may have, but for who we actually are as the People of God in the process of growing in His likeness, our life in Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  We celebrate that service of thanksgiving — the Eucharist — so that we may realize our vocation as "eucharistic beings," and not as mere "consumers."  For those who like theological jargon, our anthropology is maximalist, not minimalist.  So, just as we engage in the festal Thanksgiving Day table in our homes, we continually make the effort to receive the eucharistic food from the altar table in a spirit of praise and thanksgiving.  And we do so joyfully and eagerly.

Elyssa East's op-ed article includes a fascinating historical sketch of the mind and practices of the early Puritans in 17th century New England.  Fasting and feasting were part of their way of life.  Admittedly, I would acknowledge that the "Orthodox ethos" and the "Puritan ethos" are as far apart as one could imagine.  There is the saying that a Puritan is a person who is afraid that someone, somewhere, and for some reason is actually enjoying himself!  The Calvinist conception of an angry God Who needs to be appeased before He acts swiftly through punishment does not resonate for Orthodox Christians.  And we thank our merciful God for that. 

Perhaps the harsh environment and struggle for survival experienced by these early Puritans further influenced some of their bleak theological conclusions.  However, some of our practices may coincide.  The author relates that the Puritans' fear of "excessive rains from the bottles of heaven," in addition to "epidemics, crop infestations, the Indian wars and other hardships," led them to call for community-wide days of fasting or a "day of public humiliation and prayer."  She further writes:

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

Our fasting as Orthodox Christians, however, is not based on a fearful notion of appeasing God; rather, it is a freely-chosen ascetical effort of self-discipline so as to actualize the words of the Lord when He fasted in the desert: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" [Matthew 4:4].  The rhythm of fasting and feasting is directed by our liturgical calendar, as we are now fasting in preparation for the Feast of the Nativity.  We are, however, granted a hierarchical "dispensation" on Thanksgiving Day to "break the fast" in order to celebrate this national holiday as Americans. 

Actually, the Orthodox can hold their own with any other religiously-based culture when it comes to feasting.  We have a great deal to feast about when we reflect upon the "divine economy!"  Yet even feasting is not about "gross overconsumption" and mere indulgence.

A few more of Elyssa East's paragraphs help us understand the historical, cultural and religious background of our Thanksgiving Day celebration. "It was in the late 1660s that the New England colonies began holding an 'Annual Provincial Thanksgiving,'" she writes.

The holiday we celebrate today is a remnant of this harvest feast, which was theologically counterbalanced by an annual spring fast around the time of planting to ask God's good favor for the year.  Yet fasting and praying also immediately preceded the harvest Thanksgiving. 
In 1690, in Massachusetts the feast itself was postponed, though not the fasting, out of extraordinary concern that the meal would inspire too much 'carnal confidence.'  As life in the New World wilderness got easier, the New England colonies gradually began holding only their annual spring fast and fall harvest feast. 
Even after Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863, Massachusetts continued to celebrate its spring day of abstention for 31 more years.

As "right believing" Christians, we know to Whom we offer our thanksgiving and why — not only on Thanksgiving Day, but at every Eucharistic Divine Liturgy.   As the "royal priesthood" of believers, it is our responsibility to hold up the world in prayer before God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  If this national holiday is now characterized by "gross overconsumption," that does not mean that we need to follow such a pattern when we have the opportunity to thank and praise God before we share our domestic meals together.  Perhaps a properly understood "fear of God" can be spiritually healthy when we contemplate our choices.

We have a wonderful opportunity to begin our Day of Thanksgiving by first attending the Divine Liturgy on Thursday morning at 9:30 a.m.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

True Love of Wisdom

Dear Parish Faithful,
I have a new book that I am looking through, entitled Wisdom of the Divine Philosophers.

With such a title, you may justifiably think that it covers some of the great philosophers throughout history, with a good deal of admiration, if not exaggeration, expressed in the title by referring to them as "divine."  I could understand that being said of such philosophers as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, for many of their insights have been absorbed, refined and incorporated into Christian theology, especially the theology of the great Church Fathers.  (Yet, I would have a very time referring to such philosophers as, for example, Descarte or Satre as "divine!").

However, this book is actually an anthology of wonderful texts taken from the saints of the Church — theologians, ascetics, pastors, etc.  If "philosophy" means the "love of wisdom" — philia in Gk. is one of the words for "love;" and sophia is the Gk. word for "wisdom" — then the great saints were true lovers of wisdom, and their pursuit of wisdom was their life's vocation. 

Of course, Wisdom is also one of the key scriptural titles for Christ - the eternal Wisdom (Sophia) of God.  In this light, the Christian "love of wisdom" is synonymous with the love of Christ. Any and all other concepts of wisdom found in other religions, philosophical systems or cultural expressions could be interpreted as an intuition that divine Wisdom did exist and that a lifetime of pursuing such wisdom was a profoundly worthy enterprise.  That is why Christians can appreciate genuine philosophers even outside of the Christian revelation.

Another way of looking at this is closely related:  Many of the Church Fathers referred to the Gospel as the "true philosophy" that was not a matter of speculation, but rather of revelation.  All of the ancient, pre-Christian claims about seeking, finding and loving wisdom were so many anticipations of the true philosophy that came down from heaven, so to speak.  Even the Old Testament descriptions of the pursuit of Wisdom were interpreted in this light.  God has revealed to us the one true philosophy in the Gospel, and if a person wanted to live life in its purest and noblest expression, then to follow and love Christ is the road that one needs to travel.

Returning to this new book I have at hand, Wisdom of the Divine Philosophers, compiled by Tom and Georgia Mitrakos, we find here a wide range of topics that all come together as part of the love of wisdom revealed to us in Christ.  The editors simply anthologize a wide variety of texts under various heading, conveniently listed in alphabetical order.  Thus, they begin with "Anger" and conclude with "Worship."  In between, we find such topics as "Conscience," "Forgiveness," ""Jealousy," "Remembrance of Death," and "Slander," to choose just a few examples. 

All together there are eighty topics and each topic is given about two pages of coverage.  Throughout the book, we read/hear the voice of the Fathers, ascetics and pastors mentioned above teaching us something worthwhile and for our meditation and reflection on these themes.

There is no commentary in between, so we perhaps lose something in the way of context, but each insight seems able to stand on its own level of truthfulness.  Also absent from the book is any mention of when a particular "divine philosopher" lived, so that we could distinguish say, St. Basil the Great (+379) from St. John of Kronstadt (+1908).  Perhaps this lack of dating points to the timelessness and consistency of the teaching of the saints throughout the ages. It is, ultimately, a book that you can open up at any page, and find something that can "hit home" and thus help us in our pursuit of "wisdom" in the process.  A page at a time, provides a great deal to think about!

As mentioned, the book begins with the topic of "Anger."  I therefore thought to share a few of these sayings as we are all wrestling - at least from time-to-time - with "anger issues" or "anger management."  I will also present them without commentary and allow everyone to absorb these words of wisdom as they stand:

Anger is a strong fire, consuming all things in its path; it wastes the body and corrupts the soul, and renders a man base and odious to look upon.
And if it were possible for the angry man to see himself at the time of his anger, he would not need any other admonition, for there is nothing less pleasing than an angry countenance. Anger is an intoxicant and more wretched that a demon.  
— St. John Chrysostom
The first step toward freedom from anger is to keep the lips silent when the heart is stirred; the next, to keep the thoughts silent when the soul is stirred, the last, to be totally calm when unclean winds are blowing.   
— St. John Klimakos
 Firmly control anger and desire, and you will speedily rid yourself of evil thoughts. Control desire and you will dominate anger; for desire gives rise to anger.   
— St. Thalassios the Libyan
To bear a grudge and pray, means to sow seed on the sea and expect a harvest.  
— St. Isaac the Syrian
Strive to receive a sure, unequivocal pledge of salvation in your heart, so that at the time of your death you will not be distraught and unexpectedly terrified.  You have received such a pledge when your heart no longer reproaches you for your failings and your conscience stops chiding you because of your fits of anger; when through God's grace your bestial passions have been tamed; when you weep tears of solace and your intellect prays undistracted and with purity; and when you await death, which most people dread and run away from, calmly and with a ready heart.  
— St. Theognostos of Alexandria

From Wisdom of The Divine Philosophers, Volume I, p. 1-2.

Monday, November 16, 2015

What can I do to bring Christ back into Christmas?

Dear Parish Faithful,

The Nativity/Advent Fast is underway, and I addressed some of the (many) challenges that we are thus facing in the "Fragments for Friday" from last week, and in yesterday's homily at the Liturgy. I will try to avoid repeating myself, but I would again like to remind everyone of the existing tension between an ascetical approach to the Nativity and a consumer-driven approach to Christmas. 

There is a genuine spiritual "tug-of-war" inherent in that tension. If consumerism eclipses the ascetical in us, then when we complain that "Christ has been taken out of Christmas" we, as Christians, must accept our responsibility in allowing that to happen.  (And what kind of example is that for our children?) We must acknowledge that the commercialization of Christian happened within a Christian society! We may not be able to change the surrounding secular culture and its "allergic" reaction to anything "religious," but we can change ourselves and some of our own patterns of behavior.

So, when we bemoan the commercialization of Christmas, we can only look first at ourselves and try and honestly analyze our own "contribution" to this seemingly irreversible trend.  I periodically bring up a wide-ranging study from the past, that concluded that there are no discernible distinctions that can be made between the consumer patterns of Christians and non-Christians. That just might say it all.  And I highly doubt that that has changed since I first became aware of that study.  I also remember Fr. Alexander Schmemann's perplexity and disappointment that in our contemporary cultural milieu, human beings are defined as "consumers."  That is far from the "Eucharistic being" that he envisions for "the life of the world!"

Therefore, when I hear about "Christ being taken out of Christmas," I must ask myself:  To what degree am I responsible for that happening?  Now, what can I do to bring Christ back into Christmas? I believe that this type of self-examination can protect me from judging or complaining about others.  It is this propensity to judge others - the secularist, the humanist, the atheist, etc. - that gives non-Christians the impression that "Christians" are narrow-minded moralists.

I would like to briefly summarize three questions that I posed yesterday in the homily:

1.  What can I/we do to be less distracted as we pass through this season of preparation?  What are my habits or obsessions that demand my undivided attention and from which I can "fast" as a way of recovering a sense of balance or even a touch of inner stillness?  That may begin with the prescribed fast from certain foods and drink, but it probably entails a great deal more.  Is it Facebook or is it bookstore browsing? What will that, in turn, leave me with more time and energy to do that is truly meaningful?

2.  What can I/we do to be less consumer-driven as we move toward the Feast of the Nativity?  Can I look over my Christmas spending budget honestly and realize that perhaps I am over-spending?  Can I make that qualitative shift from being a consumer to being a Eucharistic being?  A consumer seeks to get something out of Christmas (and may get exhausted in the process), while a Eucharistic being will be overcome with a sense of awe and thankfulness before the great mystery of the Incarnation.

3.  What can I/we do to be more charitable?  Can some of that money directed to my Christmas spending budget be re-directed to others who are in need at this time of year?  Besides the issue of money, can I use my time and energy in a more productive manner that embraces the neighbor in need?  Since God "gave" us His Son, can I "give" of myself to others?

This is a wonderful time of the year.  We don't have to spend a great deal of that time playing bumper-car in overcrowded mall parking lots.  We could use some of that time to become more Church-centered in our choices.  And that will depend upon just how Christ-centered we are in our lives.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Forty Shopping (and Fasting) Days Until Christmas

Dear Parish Faithful,

On November 15, we will observe the first day of the 40-day Nativity/Advent Fast, meant to prepare us for the advent of the Son of God in the flesh.  For some/many of us, this might very well catch us unaware and unprepared.  However, as the saying goes, “it is what it is,” and so the Church calendar directs us to enter into this sacred season on that day. This indicates an intensification of the perennial “battle of the calendars” in which every Orthodox Christian is engaged—consciously or unconsciously. 

The two calendars – the ecclesial and the secular – represent the Church and “the world” respectively.  Often, there is an underlying tension between these two spheres. Because of that tension, I believe that we find ourselves in the rather peculiar situation of being ascetical and consumerist simultaneously. 

To fast, pray and be charitable is to lead a simplified life that is based around restraint—a certain discipline and a primary choice to live according to the principles of the Gospel in a highly secularized and increasingly hedonistic world.  That is what it means to be ascetical.

It further means to focus upon Christ amidst an ever-increasing number of distractions and diversions. Even with the best of intentions and a firm resolve, that is not easy!  From our historical perspective of being alive in the 21st century, and leading the “good life” where everything is readily available, practicing any form of voluntary self-restraint is tantamount to bearing a cross.  Perhaps fulfilling some modest goals based on the Gospel in today’s world, such as it is, amounts to a Christian witness, unspectacular as those goals may be.

Yet, as our society counts down the remaining shopping days until Christmas; and as our spending is seen as almost a patriotic act of contributing to the build-up of our failing economy; and as we want to “fit in” – especially for the sake of our children – we also are prone (or just waiting) to unleash the “consumer within,” always alert to the joys of shopping, spending and accumulating. When one adds in the unending “entertainment” designed to create a holiday season atmosphere, it can all become rather overwhelming. 

Certainly, these are some of the joys of family life, and we feel a deep satisfaction when we surround our children with the warmth and security that the sharing of gifts brings to our domestic lives.  Perhaps, though, we can be vigilant about knowing when “enough is enough”—or even better, when “enough is a feast.”  An awareness – combined with sharing—of those who have next to nothing is also a way of overcoming our own self-absorption and expanding our notion of the “neighbor.”

Therefore, to be both an ascetic and a consumer is indicative of the challenges facing us as Christians in a world that clearly favors and “caters” to our consumerist tendencies. 

To speak honestly, this is a difficult and uneasy balance to maintain. How can it possibly be otherwise, when to live ascetically is to restrain those very consumerist tendencies? 

I believe that what we are essentially trying to maintain is our identity as Orthodox Christians within the confines of a culture either indifferent or hostile to Christianity.  If the Church remains an essential part of the build-up toward Christmas, then we can go a long way in maintaining that balance. 

Although I do not particularly like putting it this way, I would contend that if the Church is a place of choice that at least “competes” with the mall, then that again may be one of the modest victories in the underlying battle for our ultimate loyalty to which a consumerist Christmas season awakens us. The Church directs us to fast before we feast.  Does that make any sense? Do we understand the theological/spiritual principles that are behind such an approach?  Can we develop some domestic strategies that will give us the opportunity to put that into practice, to at least some extent?  Do we even care enough?

The final question always returns us to the question that Jesus asked of his initial disciples:  “Who do you say that I am?”  If we, together with Saint Peter, confess that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” then we know where we stand as the “battle of the calendars” intensifies for the next 40 days.