Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Understanding Death... and the Resurrection

Dear Parish Faithful,

"Strictly speaking, a system of ethics which does not make death its central problem has no value and is lacking in depth and earnestness."  (Nikolai Berdyaev)

"Our one and only war ... is the sacred battle with the common enemy of all people, of all mankind - against death." (Archimandrite Sophrony)

The tomb is empty... But why?

Recently I met with some folks from Norwood - both Orthodox and non-Orthodox - for what we rather laconically called a "theological talk."  The basis for our discussion was an article written by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, entitled "The Christian Concept of Death."  The title may not capture the full weight of the essay, since it is a look at the Christian concept of death in the light of the Resurrection of Christ.

With such a powerful theme, enriched by Fr. Alexander's usual style that combines insightful penetration into the given theme, a captivating style of literary expression, and a series of challenging assertions that question our unexamined assumptions, our discussion proved to be an intense one that led us in many directions.  All in all, a good way to spend an atypical Thursday evening. 

Obviously, the theme of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ digs deep into the very foundations of Christianity.  Who does not know the powerful words of the Apostle Paul:  "If Christ is not risen, then your faith is in vain." It is the Resurrection that ultimately makes the Gospel "Good News" - in fact the "best news" conceivable and outside of which all "other news" sounds rather vague and lifeless! 

It is this joyous Good News that imbues the entire life of the Church according to Fr. Schmemann:

The joy of early Christianity, which still lives in the Church, in her services, in her hymns and prayers, and especially in the incomparable feast of Pascha, does not separate the Resurrection of Christ from the "universal resurrection," which originates and begins in the Resurrection of Christ.

Yet, a good deal of the essay is taken up with something of a "lamentation" from Fr. Schmemann over the fact that many Christians are unaware of the ultimate consequences of the Resurrection of Christ, and that is the "universal  resurrection" just mentioned above and which means the resurrection of the dead at the end of time with the "spiritual body" that the Apostle Paul speaks of in I COR. 15.  Jesus, bodily risen from the dead, is called the "first fruits of those who have fallen asleep," thus anticipating and pointing toward the resurrection of the dead at the end of time.

But is this, in fact, what Christians believe? Fr. Schmemann's trenchant criticism is expressed as follows:

The Resurrection of Christ comprises, I repeat, the very heart of the Christian faith and Christian Good News.  
And yet, however strange it may sound, in the everyday life of Christianity and Christians in our time there is little room for this faith.  It is as though obscured, and the contemporary Christian, without being cognizant of it, does not reject it, but somehow skirts about it, and does not live the faith as did the first Christians. 
If he attends church, he of course hears in the Christian service the ever resounding joyous confirmations: "trampling down death by death," "death is swallowed up by victory," "life reigns," and "not one dead remains in the grave."  
But ask him what he really thinks about death, and often (too often alas) you will hear some sort of rambling affirmation of the immortality of the soul and its life in some sort of world beyond the grave, a belief that existed even before Christianity.  And that would be in the best of circumstances.  In the worst, one would be met simply by perplexity and ignorance, "You know, I have never really thought about it."

Fr. Schmemann is not speaking of non-believers in the bodily Resurrection of Christ, but of an unfortunate transformation of Christian thought about death itself and the impact of that unfortunate transformation on the understanding of the body, or of the relationship between "body and soul." 

Basically, Christians have resorted to a kind of warmed-up Platonism that claims that there is a real and natural division between the soul and body, a division which renders the body almost meaningless, or as a prison that the soul needs to escape from. 

In opposition to this dualism, the Church's Symbol of Faith (the Nicene Creed) affirms our belief in "the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come." 

This is far from merely claiming a vague belief in the "immortality of the soul."  Again, this is a resort to pre-Christian modes of thought and this way of thinking is foreign to the Biblical revelation. 

Here is how Fr. Schmemann puts it:

Indeed, all non-Christian, all natural religions, all philosophies are in essence occupied with our "coming to terms" with death and attempt to demonstrate for us the source of immortal life, of the immortal soul in some sort of alien world beyond the grave. Plato, for example, and countless followers after him teach that death is a liberation from the body which the soul desires; and in this circumstance faith in the resurrection of the body not only becomes unnecessary, but also incomprehensible, even false and untrue.

Such a pre- or non-Christian way of thinking will make us blind to the Apostle Paul's affirmation that death is the "last enemy;" and that God desires the whole person - both body and soul - to be saved and transformed in the Kingdom of God.  Such a belief even renders the Resurrection of Christ as a kind of superfluous miraculous event that does not really affect our destiny.

Orthodox Christian thinking at its purest resists and rejects this way of approaching death, but rather it drives home with a powerful realism the tragedy of human death. 

Again, in Fr. Schmemann's words:

Christianity proclaims, confirms and teaches, that this separation of the soul from the body, which we call death, is evil.  It is not part of God's creation. It is that which entered the world, making it subject to itself, but opposed to God and violating His design, His desire for the world, for mankind and for life. It is that which Christ came to destroy. 
Man, as created by God, is an animate body and an incarnate spirit, and for that reason any separation of them, and not only the final separation, in death, but even before death, any violation of that union is evil. It is a spiritual catastrophe.  From this we receive our belief in the salvation of the world through the incarnate God, i.e. again, above all, our belief in His acceptance of flesh and body, not "body-like," but a body in the fullest sense of the word: a body that needs food, that tires and that suffers.

In a relatively short essay, Fr. Schmemann presents us with the distortions of Christian thinking on death which have twisted our whole conception of the meaning of the Gospel, and which, more specifically, undermine the great power contained within the Resurrection of Christ.

Yet, if Fr. Schmemann was anything, he was a life-affirming person and thinker who, in his expressive manner, always spoke and wrote of the "Good News" proclaimed throughout the New Testament and liturgical life of the Church. He thus pointed out defects that have entered our way of thinking so that we could recover the Gospel in all of its power:

He alone rose from the dead, but He has destroyed our death, destroying its dominion, its despair, its finality.  
Christ does not promise us Nirvana or some sort of misty life beyond the grave, but the resurrection of life, a new heaven and a new earth, the joy of universal resurrection.  Christ is risen, and life abides, life lives ... 
That is the meaning; that is the unending joy of this truly central and fundamental confirmation of the Symbol of Faith: "And the third day, He rose again according to the Scriptures."  
According to the Scriptures, i.e. in accordance with that knowledge of life, with that design for the world and humanity,  for the soul and body, for the spirit and matter, for life and death, which has been revealed to us in the holy Scriptures. 
This is the entire faith, the entire love, and the entire hope of Christianity.  And this is why the Apostle Paul says, "If Christ is not risen, then your faith is in vain.

As a kind of appendix affirmation to the above, I would like to include, and thus conclude, with a passage from one of the most prominent Orthodox theologians of the twentieth century, the Romanian-born Dumitru Staniloae.  Attempting to capture the essence of the Orthodox Church's absorption of, and appreciation for, the gift of Christ's Resurrection, Fr. Staniloae chose the word "salvation" as the best to summarize the Church's interior knowledge of ultimate reality:

Salvation expresses the deepest, most comprehensive and many-sided meaning of the work which Jesus Christ accomplished. In this last dimension, that is to say, understood as the destruction of man's death in all of its forms and the assurance of full and eternal life, the word "salvation" produces in the Orthodox faithful a feeling of absolute gratitude towards Christ to whom they owe the deliverance of their existence and the prospect of eternal life and happiness.

For those who would like to read the entire essay from Fr. Alexander Schmemann, the link below is for your convenience:

Friday, July 15, 2016

God so loved this world

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"Remember, never to fear the power of evil more than your trust in the power and love of God." (Apostle Hermas of the Seventy)

In perhaps his most complex, yet theologically-rich Epistle - that to the Romans - the Apostle Paul provides a passage now justifiably famous for articulating his "theology of the Cross."  This passage in many ways stands at the heart of this Epistle and has been endlessly analyzed and commented on throughout the centuries.

St. John Chrysostom's commentaries are known to this day for their multiple insights into this passage and the entire Epistle. A significant part of this passage (which was proclaimed at last Sunday's Liturgy) reads as follows:

While we were yet helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man - though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die.  But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.
Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him for the wrath of God.  For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we have been reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.  Not only so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received our reconciliation.  (ROM. 5:6-11)

We may question the Apostle Paul's characterization of humanity as "ungodly," "sinners," and "enemies" (of God) as unduly bleak or negative; but that may reflect our own unwillingness to look long and hard into the abyss of a fallen humanity engulfed in evil and desperately in need of salvation. Yet, despite that "dark hole" in which we collectively find ourselves - and this regardless of how the brighter side of human nature, reflected in the lives of countless human beings, has always striven to live moral and ethical lives - the Apostle Paul assures us that the love of God, incarnate in Christ, prevailed on our behalf, and thus God acted in order to reconcile us to Himself - a reconciliation that was effected "by the death of his Son."  This is the Gospel, for this is "Good News."

If we turn to the Gospel According to St. John, we hear what is basically the same revealed truth expressed in different language by the Evangelist:

For God so loved the world that he have his only-begotten Son, so that those who believe in him may not perish, but have life everlasting."  (JN. 3:16)

Now for St. John, the word "world" stands for the fallen world of sin and death; of humanity alienated and estranged from God, a "world" both so indifferent and hostile to God's presence that the "giving" of the only-begotten Son culminated in His crucifixion.  Thus, what the Apostle Paul affirms about humanity - "ungodly," "sinners" and "enemies" - is included by St.John's all-encompassing term "the world." But, again, it is this world that God "so loved."  As the New Testament scholar, Andrew L. Lincoln expressed it:

"The force is not, then, that the world is so vast  that it takes a great deal of love to embrace it, but rather that the world has become so alienated from God that it takes an exceedingly great kind of love to love it at all."

Recent events of the most horrific kind imaginable are forcing us to take a careful look at the words of the Apostle Paul and the Evangelist John - both for their negative and positive insights.  The most pressing of these terrible events are, of course, the random mass shootings in our own nation that leave behind nothing but  carnage, mayhem and inexpressible grief.  We are learning the hard way that there are no longer that many "safe" public places that we can resort to, from shopping malls to elementary schools.  Global terrorism seems even more insidious in its utter callousness and disregard for human life, as women and children are killed with a chilling indifference.  The mass murder yesterday in Nice, France, bears this out. These are acts of evil, and they deeply trouble us, as well as make us fearful. We are now facing the renewal of racial tensions in our country. And, as Christ taught, there are "wars and rumors of wars" throughout the world that are further destructive of innocent lives (MK. 13:7-8). Not too difficult to think that our world is spinning out of control. 

The sacred authors of the New Testament saw this with utter clarity. The apostles and evangelists are neither myopic nor utopian. In this they are simply following their Lord and the realism with which he approached human hearts wandering far away from God:  "because he knew all men and needed on one to bear witness of man; for he himself knew what was in man" (JN. 2:25) They understood that there are no real limits to the depths to which sin implanted in the hearts of men can plunge the world around us into. This is the way of the world (see I JN. 2:15-17).  In no way whatsoever did they promise that all this would somehow go away with the advent of Christ.

The New Testament witness to this is that God entered into the world of human sinfulness once and for all in the person of Christ.  That He both suffered on the Cross because of human sin, but in the process, as the eternal Son of God, He absorbed all of that sin, death and evil, nailed it to the Cross, and thus overcame it from within.  We were "bought with a price" (I COR. 6:20).  As a Christian, I would say that there are no real "answers" to the human misery around us, but that Christ is our "Yes" to life that comes from God:  "For all the promises of God find their Yes in Him" (II COR. 1:20).

It may get worst before it gets any better.  We need to cling to Christ with faith, hope and love. We especially need to be alive in the Church for in the Church we will preserve our sanity and our basic humanity.  We will learn and receive the grace to lead lives worthy of our calling as disciples of Christ; and to strive to make the world around us a better place for our children and for our neighbors.  We will make every attempt to fight against evil with good.  And, I hope that we will be able to embrace the truth behind these powerful words from an early Christian witness from the ancient Church:  "Remember, never to fear the power of evil more than your trust in the power and love of God."  

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God." (II COR. 1:3-4)

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Divine Liturgy: "NOT always easy..."

Dear Parish Faithful,

I recently had an exchange of emails with one of our parishioners who came to the Church from a Protestant background.  I eventually received the response that you will find below.  I then made the request to be able to share this paragraph with the parish at large, and upon receiving permission to do so, I am now forwarding it to you.

I find this quite fascinating, but not just because it clearly favors Orthodox over Protestant forms of worship.  It also speaks of the challenges of the Orthodox Liturgy, as well as the "rewards" which demand some effort on our part as worshippers.

Liturgy does mean the work of the People of God.  All actually flows from the grace of God, but the reception of grace is a synergistic process requiring our attention and capacity to "listen" from within. We always have to "be" there ("lay aside all earthly cares"). 

I never like the question, "What do I get out of the Liturgy?"  But if pressed to answer, I would say, "That depends upon what you put into it."  That seems confirmed below.

* * *

Dear Fr. Steven,

My Protestant upbringing leads me to subconsciously place a lot of importance on the homily - something I feel isn't typical of Orthodox Christians. 
Being a parishioner at a Protestant church is, in many ways, easy.  The music is music of the day, the prayers are just people speaking in their normal voices using words they would use when talking to a friend, the text from the Bible is read in an "updated" translation, and the sermon is made as easy to understand as possible.  It is almost like entertainment. 
I find the Orthodox church to be quite different than that.  I have to work hard to pay attention to the Liturgy as I sing it.  I find it takes willpower to fully listen to the Gospel and the Epistle readings.  For some reason (perhaps my past?) anything that is chanted is much harder to listen to. 
But I LOVE this about our church - I find that our Liturgy much more closely mirrors the experience of a Christian life.  It is NOT always easy, it is not always handed to you.  There are many days and even phases in life where you really have to "work out your salvation."  I am learning this in many ways, but the most prominent is from the experience of Liturgy. 
I find the homily a time to sit and listen, without having to work quite so hard.  And every week, your homilies give me a clear glimpse of the Orthodox Faith. 
I still struggle to "become" Orthodox - there are many years of Protestant faith to undo.  Each week, I feel like I get another small piece of the puzzle, as Orthodoxy becomes more and more a way of life.   

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Saints: Examples of Holiness

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

We recently celebrated the Great Feast of Pentecost on June 19.  All of the subsequent Sundays of the liturgical year, until the pre-lenten Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee sometime next year, will be so numbered, challenging us to keep our spiritual sight on the overwhelming significance of Pentecost in the divine economy. 

The New Testament era of the Church began its existence on the Day of Pentecost with the Spirit’s descent as a mighty rushing wind that took on the form of fiery tongues alighting upon the heads of the future apostles [Acts 2:1-13].  The Church has always existed, but the Church as a remnant of Israel that would flourish and grow with the addition of the Gentiles began its final phase of existence with the death, resurrection and ascension of God’s Messiah, Jesus Christ Who, seated at the right hand of the Father, would send the Holy Spirit into the world and upon “all flesh” on the day of Pentecost. 

As Saint Epiphanius of Cyprus wrote in the fourth century, “The Catholic Church, which exists from the ages, is revealed most clearly in the incarnate advent of Christ.” 

The simple calendar rubric of numbering the Sundays after Pentecost is one way of reminding us of this essential truth of the Christian Faith.  The Church is the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and in and through the sacramental life of the Church we experience something like a permanent pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

The first two Sundays after Pentecost are dedicated to the saints -- the first, to All Saints, and the second, to local Saints, in our case, the Saints that have shown forth in North America.  We commemorate all of the saints of the Church – men, women and children -- from her beginning to the present day, including the “patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics and every righteous spirit made perfect in faith.”  That is, the entire “cloud of witnesses” that surround us and pray for us while serving as models for our own faith. 

God has revealed to the Church His innumerable saints, and we rejoice in their continuous presence, made possible by the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit.  The divine and co-eternal Spirit, holy by nature, makes human beings holy by grace.  That is why these particular Sundays fall so naturally after the Sunday of Pentecost.

The word we use for "saint" is the Greek word for “holy” – agios.   In a real sense, we are celebrating the presence of holiness in the world, incarnate in actual flesh and blood human beings. The descent of the Holy Spirit makes it possible for human beings to become and remain holy.  Without the Holy Spirit, human beings can be nice, pleasant and even good – but not holy.  And it is the holiness of the saints that is their one common characteristic, expressed in an endless diversity of vocations. 

Every baptized and chrismated member of the Church is already a saint – a person sanctified and set apart as a member of the People of God – and every such member has the vocation to become a saint.  The phrase often used to capture this paradox of the Christian life is “become what you already are.”  This phrase expresses an entire lifetime of striving and struggle to attain, by God’s grace, the highest of vocations – the holiness of a genuine child of God, “born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” [John 1:13]. 

Of this we are reminded in the Gospel reading for the Sunday of All Saints: 

“So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father Who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father Who is in heaven...
"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” [Matthew 10:32-33, 37-38].

We probably have a difficult time relating to such a passage, since we expend an enormous amount of energy – time, talent and treasure -- in order to guarantee for ourselves a comfortable life and the closest of possible family relationships.  God and Church may be a part of that choice, but perhaps only as one compartment of life among many.  At times, the greatest of our goals may be to create a certain form of “domestic bliss,” to the extent that this is humanly attainable.  Nothing else can seem greater or more desirable. 

Jesus, however, makes other claims on us.  And the first of those radical claims is that we must love Him above all else – including father and mother, son and daughter.  This is a “hard teaching.” 

Perhaps it is here that we discover the greatest “achievement” of the saints, and the reason behind the sanctity that they often so clearly manifest.  They simply loved Christ before all else.  And there is nothing that can deflect them from that love. 

But in no way does this diminish our love for our loved ones.  I believe that if we love Christ before all else, then we would have a greater love for those around us, including our very family members.  To love Christ above all else is to expand our very notion and experience of love.  If we live “in Christ,” we can then love “in Christ.”  Elsewhere, Jesus would claim that this would include our enemies!  This is a love that will not disappoint. 

With any other deeper love, there is always the lurking temptation of succumbing to one form of idolatry or another.  Jesus even says that if we love anyone else more than Him, we are not “worthy” of Him!  Clearly, there is nothing easy about bearing the name of Christ and calling oneself a Christian.  Is all of this impossible?  Jesus teaches that “with men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” [Matthew 19:26].

We share the most difficult of vocations – to live up to our high calling in Christ Jesus.  This is not something that we achieve on our own, but a process that includes the grace of God and our own self-determination, what we call our freedom of choice or “free will.”  There are obstacles that begin with the genetic and the environmental.  There are distractions and temptations too numerous to keep track of.  There is the unbelief of the world around us.  Yet, if we approach this “day by day,” we soon realize that we are simply trying to become genuine human beings, for the glory of God is a human being fully alive, to paraphrase Saint Irenaeus of Lyons. 

As disciples of Christ, we have the “inside track” to allow us to “run with perseverance the race that is before us” [Hebrews 12:1].  So, we thank God for the multitude of the saints who not only set an example for us, but who also pray for us unceasingly in the Kingdom of God.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Reflections on 'National Selfie Day'

Note from webservant: Fr. Steven sent this out to his email list on June 21, but I neglected to post it, and forgot about it until now. Perhaps that was providential, as at the same time, Fr. Steven had posted several important meditations for Pentecost (June 19), which might have eclipsed this unique and important reflection. In any case, my apologies!

Dear Parish Faithful,

Selfie Culture: Sign of the Apocalypse?

Perhaps some of you are aware that today (June 21) is "National Selfie Day."  I just found out more-or-less accidentally. IMHO this is just a bit absurd, but perhaps indicative of  our society's pulse.  For that reason I am providing a meditation that is only about a year old, for those who may be interested in revisiting what I wrote then; or perhaps for those who have never read it, but who are interested in the theme.

Admittedly, this is just one Orthodox Christian interpretation of the whole phenomenon of the selfie, and by extension of the idea of the "self."  The selfie, I believe, is something of an unintended caricature of the search for the "self."  Not really the dark side of the self, but its superficial side.

I was just informed that there now exist "selfie accessories" that are becoming something of a "cottage industry."  There is now a "selfie stick" that one can mount one's camera on and hold about four feet away from one's "self" and thus get a more comprehensive shot! 

But actually, this can lead to a more serious discussion about our self-perception as human persons.  Who am I?  What am I?  What is the purpose of my existence? After all, one of the most famous sayings from Socrates was "Know thyself" (gnothe seauton); and the Church Fathers used those words to lead each human person to the search for God who is the eternal Source of the self. 

Be that as it may, I hope "National Selfie Day"  does not become a national holiday.

Finding our "Self" in the Other

(Originally posted April 1, 2015)

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

What Is a "Selfie?"

As we approach the final days of Great Lent, I would like to turn my attention to a theme that surfaces often in my teaching and preaching in addition to my reflection and reading:  And that is the contemporary preoccupation and obsession with the "self."

From therapists to talk-show hosts and even  "spiritual teachers," we are enjoined to "discover," "get in touch with," or "enhance" our "self."  We now hear of popular personalities actually "re-inventing" themselves as they "move on" to a new phase of life and experience.  And perhaps the most indulgent of all of this self-expression is the phenomenon of the "selfie!"

In all of this, there seems to be an implicit understanding of just what this mysterious "self" actually is, because we refer to it so often and so readily.

But is there common ground as to what we mean by this term?  If we were to depend on more-or-less contemporary psychology, or the behavioral sciences, we might ask the following questions:

  • Does the self mean our "personal identity" - what constitutes each one of us as an unique human being?  We distinguish each other by referring to "myself," "yourself," "himself/herself," and so on, thus concentrating on our individuality.  
  • Perhaps it refers to our consciousness and ability to reflect upon our existence.   As in:  I know that I am alive and that one day I will die, therefore I have the capacity for "self-awareness." 
  • Is the self simply synonomous with the "I" or "ego?"  
  • Buddhism, on the other hand, rejects the very idea of the "self," calling it an illusion that is created by our constant desiring.  Perhaps, then, Buddhists are less self-absorbed than we are!  

Yet, since we do not agree with Buddhism on this crucial issue and accept the "self" as integral to being human, then as Christians we would ultimately claim that there is something meaningful indicated by the term, the self.  That is what we should be trying to discover.

However, as noted above, our contemporary preoccupation with the self borders on the obsessive and idolatrous.  Life is presented as a long and exciting journey of "self-discovery."  But is this in reality the ultimate "ego trip," leading to "self-delusion?"

Frankly, a great deal of today's talk about the self sounds terribly superficial.  It is a far cry from the Delphic oracle's ancient maxim - taken up by later philosophers:  "Know thyself!"

These are simply a few comments by way of preface to an insightful paragraph I came across while reading the book of a solid New Testament scholar, Ben Witherington III.  This author has uncovered a trend within certain writers today who transform theology (reality as God-centered) into anthropology (reality as human-centered).  In other words, in writing about God or Christ, they end up turning the whole quest into one more attempt at "self-discovery."

This is why such scholars are critical of the New Testament and attempt to bring some of the non-canonical Gospels into prominence.  These heretical and gnostic "Gospels" are essentially about discovering the "god within."  "Spirituality" is then really about "self-realization" if not "self-deification!"

In criticizing some of these modern spiritual quests that seem only remotely related to the Gospel centered in Christ, Witherington concluded with the following paragraph - simple, direct and to the point:

The problem with the advice "be yourself" or "be your own person" is that none of us are ourselves. We all have sinned and fallen short of God's glory, and we need the redemption Christ offers us, not another self-help program. We have fallen, and we can't get up on our own.
Self-help programs don't turn us into new creatures even if they can help us curb our addictions or become kinder, gentler folks.
Do we want to be ourselves as we are, or do we want to be something even better - to be like Christ and let Christ's life shine forth to others in such a way that they too will long to be like him?
We are not ourselves because we are fallen and sinful.  This is biblical.  A recognition of that fact may just serve as a good beginning to discover our "true self." And this is why Evagrios of Pontus, a desert ascetic, could write:  "The beginning of salvation is self-condemnation."   (You will not find a book in the "Self-Help" section on your local bookstore with this title!)  

This has nothing to do with an unhealthy "self-hatred." It means to recognize our sins and need for repentance freed from the useless refuge of "self-justification."  Whatever the self may be in relation to some of the suggestions I offered above as plausible possibilities, the real question becomes:  what is the foundation or ground of the self?  What guarantees its stability and continuity?  What prevents the self from being one more fleeting and ephemeral reality, so much "dust in the wind" that goes the way of our bodies?

If anything, it has to be God.

Either the self is grounded and stabilized in God, or it is grounded in "nothing."  We are either "God-sourced" or "nothing-sourced."  If the latter, then the self  is unstable and ever on the brink of disappearing into the void.

Perhaps all of the clamorous cries of "self-affirmation" that we hear today are an instinctive reaction or even rebellion against this inherent nihilism.  A godless quest of self-discovery leads to a dead-end encounter with our own nothingness!   Do atheistic therapists and secular counselors remind their clients of that cold fact?

That last statement needs to be qualified, so as to avoid any misunderstanding as to my intended meaning.

Undoubtedly, there exist many wonderful "self-help" groups and therapies that have been very effective in helping people overcome a wide range of aberrant behavioral problems, especially those plagued by addictions.  The most well-known has to be Alcoholics Anonymous, a therapy grounded in the Gospel that has rescued a countless number of men and women from alcoholism.  To this day, many people have recourse to such helpful societies in combatting their destructive behavior, and thus saving themselves from seemingly hopeless situations.

At the same time, a healthy "self-reliance" is cultivated and restored in persons who need such a change.  Many of these self-help groups acknowledge the existence of God and thus apply their respective therapies within a theistic context.  This adds a dimension of humility to the whole process.  However, it is not quite this phenomenon that I am dealing with here; but rather the empty promises, and even pseudo-theologies, that lead to any unhealthy preoccupation with the "self."

Something has to give between the contemporary obsession with the self that has generated an endless market for books, tapes, CDs, DVDs, seminars, programs, therapies, "self-help" gurus and the like; and the ever-demanding teaching of Our Lord:  "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself ... " (MK. 8:34).

This is not a Buddhist-like call to "self-transcendence" in search of enlightenment.  It is Christ's way of teaching us that to defensively, fearfully, or even idolatrously hold onto the "self" as some sort of autonomous entity will only culminate in the loss of our "life."  To deny such a self-centered way of existence for the sake of the Gospel is to actually "save" our life.

"Life" and "self" are very closely equated in this crucial passage.  Further, the word "life" is actually the word for "soul."  So biblically, we discover that the word "self" is basically synonymous with the word "soul/life."  Each and every one us is a "living soul," formed by the creative power of God and having received the "breath of life" that sustains us and lifts us up beyond the merely biological level of existence.

Employing our theological language further, we should also equate "self" with the person.  (The theological term is hypostasis).  Every living soul is a person - unique, unrepeatable and beloved of God.

As the three divine Persons of the Holy Trinity are never self-isolated, self-absorbed or self-centered, so we realize that that would be a false way of existing.  A genuine person is always turned toward another person in a movement of love and communion, as are the three Persons of the Trinity.  This gives us great insight into the teaching, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself"  (MK. 12:31).

"To be" is to be in communion, as one of our contemporary Orthodox theologians has explained.  If we could pour our energy into discovering the "wholly Other" - God, and the multiple others - the neighbor; then we would uncover our "true self" in the process.  Our Tradition tell us to find our "self" in the other - God and neighbor.

Being a living soul and/or a person, then, describes a mode of being, a way of life, that is as far removed from the thinly-veiled narcissism that passes today as "self-realization," as the "East is from the West!"

Orthodox Christianity affirms the self, but as dependent for its very existence upon the creative power of God and the redemptive grace of Christ.  Each and every one of us is created, sustained, and guided by God toward a destiny so glorious that it is essentially indescribable.  It is this humble acknowledgment of dependence on God that becomes the foundation of  that long process that will lead us from being "self-centered" to being "God-centered."

Perhaps we can go so far as to say:  we seek to be saved from our "self" in order to truly be ourselves in the embrace of God.   Today's world seems oblivious of this promise.

Fr. Steven