Friday, February 26, 2016

"Can't Find My Way Home"

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"And He said, 'There was a man who had two sons'..."

This is how Christ begins what is perhaps the greatest of his parables, the one we know as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but which could easily be titled the "Parable of the Two Sons" or the "Parable of the Compassionate Father."   With this parable, which we will hear at the Divine Liturgy on Sunday, February 28, we are invited to prepare to enter the "school of repentance" -- Great Lent -- and sit at the feet of the Master, so that we can hear the words of eternal life and "keep them."

After receiving his portion of the inheritance, even before his father had died, the younger of the two sons "gathered all that he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living" [Luke 15:13].  This one sober understatement does not demand a great deal of imagination to yield its meaning.  We know that loose living refers to a web of wrong choices, bad company, unrestrained satisfaction of "the passions," and forgetfulness of God.  This spiritually suicidal combination leads to bankruptcy on a further series of interrelated levels: the material, moral/ethical and spiritual.  In no time, the prodigal son is forced to feed "on the pods that the swine ate" [Luke 15:16].

Before succumbing to the temptation of trying my hand at an updated melodramatic script that would luridly describe the sins of the wayward young man of the parable -- replete with money, sex and drugs -- together with all of the didactic apparatus meant to strengthen our resolve to protect our children (since we are now too old for all of that), I would rather more modestly pause at the words about a journey "into a far country."   

The far country of the parable is geographical, for the young man of the parable ventured far from his home.  Yet, a "far country" can also refer to a hidden place in our interior landscape; a "place" in which we can distance ourselves from God and right living to a frightening degree, even if slowly and unintentionally.  At first, that interior far country can prove to be appealing.  It can appease our vanity, protect our pride and/or feed "the passions" that we can nurture with pleasure, even if hidden from the view and censure of others.  This is initially stimulating and seems to promise endless delight -- perhaps like the endless freedom that an unsupervised dorm may offer to an innocent college student away from the sheltering, but seemingly restrictive, atmosphere of home.

When the emptiness of such a landscape becomes evident, we too can desperately desire to "feed on the pods that the swine ate."  The self-serving (or "self-help!") philosophies on which we squandered our "inheritance" from God will no longer satisfy us, but in a restless and hungry search for something else to replace these, we can even fall to the level of "swinish delights" -- anything to relieve our boredom or frustrations.  Without moving anywhere, and without changing the patterns of our lifestyle, we can still withdraw to a "far country" in that interior landscape that can prove to be as treacherous as any unknown environment of the exterior world.  

It is said of the prodigal son of the parable, that when at "rock bottom," he "came to himself" [Luke 15:17].  This is certainly one of the key expressions found in this endlessly rich parable.  The young man found his right mind, his sanity was restored, and basically he "got a grip on reality" an undramatic, but meaningful, way to describe "conversion," or the process of turning back toward God and the warm embrace of our heavenly Father.

In effect, the prodigal son repented.  This major character of the parable did exactly what Christ taught as the beginning of His public ministry:  "Repent, and believe in the Gospel." [Mk. 1:15]  This call to repentance will allow me to again quote what I consider to be one of the best descriptions of repentance, at least among contemporary Orthodox writers, and that is from Archbishop Kallistos Ware's book The Orthodox Way:

"Repentance marks the starting-point of our journey.  The Greek term metanoia, as we have noted, signifies primarily a "change of mind."  Correctly understood, repentance is not negative but positive.  It means not self-pity or remorse but conversion, the re-centering of our whole life upon the Holy Trinity.  It is to look not backward with regret but forward with hope - not downwards at our own shortcomings but upward at God's love. It is to see, not what we have failed to be, but what by divine grace we can now become; and it is to act upon what we see. To repent is not just a single act, an initial step, but a continuing state, an attitude of heart and will that needs to be ceaselessly renewed up to the end of life." (p.113-114)

A certain clarity of thought is needed to find our way home when we drift off toward a far country. The short-lived rock band of the late 1960s, Blind Faith, had an intriguing song entitled "Can't Find My Way Home." Perhaps that was an honest and clear-sighted assessment of the band's state of mind at that time (money, sex and drugs?) and a poignant recognition of being in a "far country." Two other songs on the album, however -- "In the Presence of the Lord" and "Sea of Joy" -- may have pointed to more promising discoveries.

Every year, through the lectionary of the Church, especially in this pre-lenten season of preparation, we are powerfully reminded of just how far away from "home" we may actually be in mind and heart. If we have been equally prodigal with the gifts bestowed upon us by God, then we can equally "come to ourselves" and return home to the embrace of our compassionate Father.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Our Common Task

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The kontakion for the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee reads as follows:

Let us flee from the pride of the Pharisee and learn humility from the Publican's tears.  Let us cry to our Savior:  Have mercy on us, O only-merciful One!

Our common task, therefore, is to "flee from pride" and instead "learn humility."  Life experience most probably teaches us that this is easier said than done! 

Along this challenging path, we are accompanied by the great saints of the Church - the holy Fathers from the ancient Church and those who are much closer to us in time.  There is a consistent teaching among them on the themes of pride and humility, as struggling with pride and acquiring humility was a goal that they set for themselves, mindful of the words of Christ, as found in the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. 

With this in mind, I thought to simply share some of these  "maxims" of the saints in order to provide us with a good deal of profound and meaningful wisdom as we progress through the Week of the Publican and the Pharisee.  My pastoral hope is that we carry the Gospel with us through the week, struggling against forgetfulness and distractions that push the Lord's teachings out of our minds and hearts. If the proud Pharisee went away from the temple "unjustified" - and thereby cutting himself off from experiencing the grace of God - this means that the consequences of his attitude were serious indeed. 

The Fathers of the Church write with that same seriousness in mind. Some of these sayings will "grab" — or even grab hold  — of us more than others; perhaps those will be the ones that we will meditate on with some attention.

These assorted texts are from the book Wisdom of the Divine Philosophers, compiled by Tom and Georgia Mitrakos:

A humble person lives on earth as if in the Kingdom of heaven - always happy, peaceful, and satisfied with everything.  —St. Anthony of Optina (19th c.)
Have patience, my child, in the trial which the goodness of God is sending you for the greater benefit of your soul ... Many times, man's pride becomes a cause for God to give us a fatherly "slap" so that we can walk more securely in humility.  This is the best sign of how greatly God is concerned for our souls.

Why do we clash over a trifle? Because we do not have humility. He who has humility wards off troubles. Without true humility, troubles remain intact and increase, such that all hope of correction is lost.  A humble person does not remember any past wrongs that his neighbor did to him, but with all his heart forgives and forgets everything for the love of God.  Beg our humble Jesus in your prayers to give you a spirit of humble-mindedness and meekness.

—Elder Ephraim of the Holy Mountain, (a contemporary elder)
There are certain kinds of trees which never bear fruit as long as their branches stay up straight, but if stones are hung on the branches to bend them down they begin to bear fruit. So it is with the soul.  When it is humbled it begins to bear fruit, and the more fruit it bears the lowlier it becomes. So also the saints: the nearer they get to God the more they see themselves as sinners.  —St. Dorotheos of Gaza (5th c.)
He who is humble in this thoughts, and engaged in spiritual work, when he reads the Holy Scriptures, will apply everything to himself and not to his neighbor. —St. Mark the Ascetic (4th c.)
For every humble person is gentle, and every gentle person is invariably humble.  A person is humble when he knows that his very being is on loan to him. —St. Maximus the Confessor (7th c.)
Always consider yourself as needing instruction so that you may be found wise throughout your life. —St. Isaac the Syrian (7th c.)
Before the Lord, it is better to be a sinner with repentance than a righteous person with pride. —St. Macarius of Optina (19th c.)

Friday, February 19, 2016

Who Do I Resemble?

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The Gospel reading at the Divine Liturgy for February 21, 2016—the first of the four pre-Lenten Sundays—is Luke 18:10-14.  In it we discover our Lord’s parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.

As with all of the parables of Christ, we can understand this parable in two very different ways.  We can listen to it carefully, reflect upon it through the course of the week, and discern what in the parable “speaks” to us today.  Or we can take a “ho-hum” attitude—essentially forgetting the parable by the time we return home from the Liturgy—while moving on to the next distraction on our busy schedules (which now includes Sundays), and conclude that the parable does not really apply to us anyway.  Presented in such stark terms, I am not leaving you much of a choice!  But even with the best of intentions, we need to remain vigilant.  The mind strays ...

For those who actually “hear” the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, the first question that may arise is very basic: Do I resemble the Publican or the Pharisee in my attitude toward God and my neighbor?  Other questions follow: Am I also afflicted with self-righteous pride, as was the Pharisee of the parable; or is my goal at least the slow and patient road of learning and practicing humility?  Is the Church a society reserved for the pious; or is it a healing center for sinners? Then there is a blunt but honest question: Do I even care?  Somewhat unusual for the parables is that the intention of this parable is clearly stated before Christ actually delivers it: “He also told this parable to some who trusted themselves that they were righteous and despised others” [Luke 18:9].  Is this a fair description of me when I enter the church on any given Sunday?  If so, what could I possibly do to change such an attitude?

Even with the best of intentions, we could turn this great opportunity for “self-examination” into the ho-hum approach of selective forgetfulness or selective remembrance, wherein we forget the parable but remember the score of whatever game was on television later in the day or evening.  That would be a colossal example of a missed opportunity.  Perhaps one way to spare everyone from the ho-hum approach would be to provide the insights of others during the week – Church Fathers or contemporary writers – on this parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.  This way, at least the material that lends itself to meditation will be present, and then we can choose to avail ourselves of it – or not.  Can we focus our internet surfing to the search for precisely such edifying material that can further open us to us the depths of meaning contained in this parable and others?  There are countless Orthodox websites that are easily accessed and which post a great deal of just such material.  We have to take some time and do the necessary searching. 

A good beginning could be this passage from the Blessed Augustine:  “How useful and necessary a medicine is repentance.  People who remember that they are only human will readily understand this.  It is written:  ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble….’  The Pharisee was not rejoicing so much in his own clean bill of health as in comparing it with the diseases of others.  He came to the doctor.  It would have been more worthwhile to inform him by confession of the things that were wrong with himself instead of keeping his wounds secret and having the nerve to crow over the scars of others.  It is not surprising that the tax collector went away cured, since he had not been ashamed of showing where he felt pain.” 

From a time closer to our own, we read this from St. John of Kronstadt:  "When taking into account our own virtues, do we include self-love or other unseemly motives that were in fact the true reason for our good deeds.  The poison of sin has penetrated deeply into our souls, and, unbeknownst to us, its poisons almost all of our virtues.  Is it not better to scrutinize oneself more often and more closely, and to notice our faults in the depths of our soul in order to correct them, rather than to display externally our virtues?"

When we contrast pride and humility; self-righteousness and honest self-examination; false piety and heartfelt repentance - which of these describes us the best?

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Zacchaeus — The Gospel in Miniature

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

We arrived at the Sunday of Zacchaeus this last Sunday at the Liturgy with the reading of the Gospel According to St. Luke (19:1-10).  The story of the repentance and conversion of the publican (tax collector) who was "small of stature" prepares us for the upcoming cycle of pre-lenten Gospel readings which will, in turn, prepare us for the beginning of Great Lent on Monday, March 14. 

Most attentive Orthodox Christians already know this, as well as knowing the actual story of Zacchaeus very well. Yet, knowing any particular Gospel passage well does not mean that we have exhausted the meaning of that passage.  The Gospel can never grow old, or worse, stale.  The "words of eternal life" (JN. 6:68)  are contained in the Gospels. Therefore, the Gospel is a "living text," which means that every time we hear it, we are open to new insights and new depths of meaning that can even startle us.  Something like an endless "aha!" experience.  Repeated reading and/or hearing of any passage, therefore, should not blunt the revealed truth of the passage, but continue enriching our understanding of the Good News revealed to us in Christ. 

Bearing this in mind, I would submit that in the wonderful story of Zacchaeus, we are hearing the Gospel "in miniature."  For in this story there are sin, repentance, grace and salvation, precisely that interplay of various factors that predominate in the revelation of the Gospel. 

If we were to break that down in terms of this particular story we find that in the concise framework of ten verses, St. Luke narrates an encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus, a sinful man who, in his sinfulness, is representative of all humanity.  He has "missed the mark" - the meaning of the Greek amartia which we translate as sin - with his admission of defrauding others, among perhaps other failings.  The publican was synonymous with a thief, as there was no system in place that could check the abuse inherent in collecting taxes for the hated Roman occupiers of Israel.  And, as a publican/thief, he was "rich" but at the expense of the neighbors he was defrauding.

Yet the story quickly shifts its emphasis to the almost humorous detail of Zacchaeus climbing up a sycamore tree in order "to see Jesus."

Jesus scandalizes the spectators who are witnessing this drama by desiring to enter the home of the sinful publican.  There is no place that is "off limits" for the Messiah as He has come first to call "the lost sheep of the house of Israel."  Scandal is "built into" the Gospel, for the ultimate scandal will be that of a crucified Messiah. In the presence of Christ, Zacchaeus publicly repents, expressed with the words, "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold" (LK. 19:8).  Repentance is always sealed with divine grace, as Jesus then publicly states, "Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost" (v. 10).  We are all "lost" in sin, so the Son of Man has also come to save each and every one of us.  Hence, our contention that the story of Zacchaeus is the Gospel "in miniature."

That salvation, however, cannot be assumed or taken for granted.  The gifts of grace and salvation are bestowed upon us inasmuch as we too will repent and change our pattern of living.  That will depend on our capacity to "see" that we are also "small of stature" - each and every one of us.

Zacchaeus was apparently a short man, and thus he was literally "small of stature," and this forced him up into that sycamore tree.  But clearly, his lack of stature was a metaphor for his sinfulness.  Our human nature - created in the image and likeness of God - "shrinks" through our sinfulness.  Sin makes us a lesser being than what we were created to be.  No amount of status, wealth or power can protect us from the corrosive effects of sin. 

Once we see and acknowledge that painful truth then we, too, must find a way to overcome our shrunken stature even if it means "losing face" with our neighbors.  (How humiliating it must have been for Zacchaeus to climb that sycamore tree in front of his neighbors!)  This becomes difficult if we expend a great amount of energy building up a self-image that we (foolishly?) hope will make us impervious to criticism or ridicule.  The affirmation of others grants credence to our self-affirmation. 

As we strain to protect that artificial good image, we can further become blind to our flawed character.  Then we will learn the hard way, that the more we struggle to preserve the little stature that we have, we will only succeed in further shrinking in stature!  Such is the "human comedy."  But it is actually all quite tragic since we are all participants in the divine-human drama of sin and repentance and the salvation of our souls.

That brings us to the paradoxical nature of the Gospel:  the more we can acknowledge our short stature through sinfulness, and begin the process of conversion through repentance, then the uplifting process of growing "to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ" (EPH. 4:13) can begin. This is an endless process of spiritual maturity and growth - a process that continues in the Kingdom of Heaven. 

There is no room for comparison here, meaning that we cannot find solace in the "fact" that others are clearly so much more sinful than we may be.  To shrink from including ourselves in the company of Zacchaeus, the cheating publican, would be to undermine the power of the Gospel in our lives.  We must humbly align ourselves with Zacchaeus — even "become Zacchaeus" in terms of a shared experience of being forgiven — as we read and/or hear this text.  If we approach the story of Zacchaeus with the presupposition that we are "better" than him, than the living text of the Gospel becomes a "dead text" — perhaps informative or interesting, but unable to open our minds and hearts to God's graciousness.  Let us avoid any such temptation as we continue our movement toward Great Lent the glorious paschal mystery which is our final destination.

"For the Son on Man came to seek and to save the lost."

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

If Chrysostom had watched the Super Bowl!

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

This pales beside the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharist, and the real 'Super Sunday', Pascha!

The Super Bowl and the secular Super Sunday is now over. The colossal social phenomenon -- the Super Bowl -- was viewed by hundreds of millions of people worldwide this past Sunday.  Not to be disparaging or dismissive, it might be wise to approach this phenomenon from the perspective of our shared Orthodox Christian faith.  No sense carrying on about the hype and the madness. When all is said and done, it is what it is.

But I could not avoid speculating on how someone like Saint John Chrysostom, who fell asleep in the Lord in AD 407, would have approached the Super Bowl phenomenon in his own unique and pastoral manner.  Of course, there is a huge chronological gap between Saint John's time and our own, but we also know that there 'is nothing new under the sun," and we can discover some very close parallels just under the surface when comparing different eras and their cultures.  Saint John very well knew and understood the lure of the "games" and other forms of public entertainment in his own time, as he lived in large, cosmopolitan and urban settings such as Constantinople and Antioch. Such urban settings invariably had a hippodrome -- the equivalent of our stadiums -- at the center of a teeming social milieu that was also open to public entertainment.

What is quite interesting in Saint John's pastoral approach is that even if there is an implicit criticism of these public forms of entertainment (as he was very critical of the "theatre" as it existed in his day), that was never his main concern.  Saint John would employ what we would call today "sports" and other diverse forms of entertainment in order to exhort his flock to be vigilant and committed in its adherence to and practice of the Gospel.  Being a "fan" of a sport is far from being a "member" of the Church.  As a pastor, Saint John would challenge his flock to ensure that the great gap in that distinction is not somehow closed by lack of vigilance.

The great saint was fully aware of a kind of nominal membership in the Church, and he was quick to point out how erosive of genuine faith that lack of commitment could be for the entire flock under his pastoral care.  Saint John was basically asking whether Christians are as committed to the Gospel and the life of the Church as they are adherents, participants and performers in the "entertainment industry" of the fourth and fifth centuries?  Primarily, this would include athletes and actors. Do Christians show the same level of passion for the Gospel as do the fans of the games and theatre? Here is one example from among many of how Saint John used his rhetorical skills in challenging Christians on this front:

"We run eagerly to dances and amusements.  We listen with pleasure to the foolishness of singers. We enjoy the foul words of actors for hours without getting bored.  And yet when God speaks we yawn, we scratch ourselves and feel dizzy.  Most peoples would run rabidly to the horse track, although there is no roof there to protect the audience from rain, even when it rains heavily or when the wind is lifting everything.  They don't mind bad weather or the cold or the distance. Nothing keeps them in their homes. When they are about to go to church, however, then the soft rain becomes an obstacle to them.  And if you ask them who Amos or Obadiah is, or how many prophets or apostles there are, they can't even open their mouths.  Yet they can tell you every detail about the horses, the singers and the actors.  What kind of state is this?"

Yet, this rhetorical deflation of the theatre and games serves as a backdrop that only intensifies the strength of his descriptions of the manifold riches of the Church, especially the Eucharist. From the same homily, here is Saint John's impassioned and rhetorically brilliant description of the glory of the Church:

"The Church is the foundation of virtue and the school of spiritual life.  Just cross its threshold at any time, and immediately you forget daily cares. Pass inside, and a spiritual ray will surround your soul. This stillness causes awe and teaches the Christian life.  It raises up your train of thought and doesn't allow you to remember present things.  It transports you from earth to Heaven.  And if the gain is so great when a worship service is not even taking place, just think, when the Liturgy is performed -- and the prophets teach, the Apostles preach the Gospel, Christ is among believers, God the Father accepts the performed sacrifice, and the Holy Spirit grants His own rejoicing -- what great benefit floods those who have attended church as they leave the church.

"The joy of anyone who rejoices is preserved in the Church.  The gladness of the embittered, the rejoicing of the saddened, the refreshment of the tortured, the comfort of the tired, all are found in the Church.  Because Christ says, 'Come to me, all who are tired and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest' [Matthew 11:28].  What is more longed for than [to hear] this Voice?  What sweeter than this invitation?  The Lord is calling you to a Banquet when He invites you to church. He urges you to be comforted from toils and He transports you to a place of comfort from pain, because He lightens you from the burden of sins. He heals distress with spiritual enjoyment, and sadness with joy."

Saint John was not called Chrysostom -- the "Golden-mouthed" -- for nothing!  He does not admonish his flock in this homily to give up on the games and other forms of entertainment; but he surely makes it clear that there is no comparison between the two.  And that, therefore, our desire and commitment cannot be so misplaced to somehow put the two on the same level of attraction.  The perfectly legitimate desire to "fit in" with one's neighbors and participate in socially popular events must be balanced by an awareness of not being fully of the world once one is baptized into the Church.

Bearing all of that in mind, if I were to write in the spirit of Saint John and try to apply his approach to parish life in the contemporary world, I would make the following pastoral "suggestions" based on the recent Super Bowl -- or for that matter, any existing commitment we might have to the world of professional sports/entertainment.

If you watched the Super Bowl from its opening kick-off to the end of the game, but if you chronically arrive late for the opening doxology of "Blessed is the Kingdom" at the Liturgy, then it may be time to show the same commitment to the Liturgy and arrive at the beginning.  That opening doxology opens us up to a reality hardly matched by an opening kick-off.

If you spent time watching all of the pre-game hype and analysis, all meant to prepare you for the game, but if you have never given much thought to arriving before the Liturgy for the reading of the Hours; then I would suggest arriving in church before the actual Liturgy begins in time for the pre-Eucharist chanting of those very Hours -- a mere 20 minutes.  This way you are able to settle in and calm down a bit in preparation for the Liturgy that will shortly unfold in all of its majesty.

If you have been engaged in some of the (endless) post-game analysis since last Sunday; or watched "highlights" of the game, or recall some of the more significant and game-changing plays of the game, but if you struggle by mid-week to remember what the Gospel was at last Sunday's Liturgy, then I would suggest engaging in some post-Liturgy analysis of the Gospel that you heard on any given Sunday with  family and/or friends (or within your own mind and heart).  Such "analysis" can eventually become genuine meditation of even contemplation.

To leave the Divine Liturgy as a "changed human being..."
This is all more than possible, according to Saint John, because of the inexhaustible riches of the Liturgy. Once again, Saint John exhorts us to leave the Liturgy as changed human beings, having communed of the Risen Lord:

"Let us depart from the Divine Liturgy like lions who are producing fire, having become fearsome even to the devil, because the holy Blood of the Lord that we commune waters our souls and gives us great strength.  When we commune of it worthily, it chases the demons far away and brings the angels and the Lord of the angels near us.  This Blood is the salvation of our souls; with this the soul is washed, with this it is adorned.  This Blood makes our minds brighter than fire; this makes our souls brighter than gold."

We are slowly drawing near to the Church's own "Super Sunday" which is, of course, Pascha.  Let our preparation and desire for that day far surpass any of our other passions or commitments, for the Lord taught us, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" [Matthew 6:21].


For those who would like to read the full homily of St. John Chrysostom, entitled in the English translation as "Attending Church," please use the link provided for your convenience below. Some of the teaching may be "dated" or not as meaningful today with other social and cultural norms, but it is a truly magnificent homily, and can serve to revive our own appreciation of the Divine Liturgy.