Friday, March 31, 2017

St Mary of Egypt, An Icon of Repentance

Dear Parish Faithful,

An Icon of Repentance

Icon of St Mary & St Zosimas, by Fr Andrew Tregubov

Yesterday evening (March 30), we read and heard the entire Life of St. Mary of Egypt in the church as we also chanted a part of St. Andrew's Canon of Repentance.  It seemed like we had present the largest group ever for this service.

In that Life we heard that St. Mary died on April 1, in the year of our Lord 522 A.D.  Thus, April 1 is the date on which her name appears on our Church calendar as her day of commemoration.  Her "death day" is her "birthday" into the Kingdom of Heaven.  And we also commemorate her on the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent, coming up this weekend.  So, a good deal of recent and immediately upcoming focus on St. Mary of Egypt, that great "icon of repentance." 

A few years back (2011) I wrote a Meditation on St. Mary entitled "Inappropriate Material for Church?"  The point of the Meditation was to reflect upon the heavy stress on unlimited sexual license that we hear about in the opening section of her Life, a focus that can raise an eyebrow or two since it is read in church. If you would like to read more about this, here is a link to that Meditation.

In fact, I have written quite a few meditations - admittedly somewhat repetitious - that include St. Mary's Life or combine it with further comments on St. Andrew's Canon.  Those can be accessed here. At the end of the first meditation on this page, there is a link to The Life of St. Mary of Egypt in its entirety, included here for your convenience.

Or, there is a lengthy portion available on the OCA webpage.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Fifth Week of Lent: 'Summary and Fulfillment'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Beginning today, we have a very full series of lenten liturgical services in the church for the remainder of the week.  Here is the schedule with some explanatory words that may inspire you further to "take Lent seriously" and come to church to worship and pray:

Wednesday at 6:00 p.m.
Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts

"The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is one of the great masterpieces of Orthodox piety and liturgical creativity. It reveals in its form and content the central Christian doctrine and experience, namely that our entire life must be spent in prayer and fasting in order that we might enter into communion with Christ who comes at the end as a 'thief in the night'.

"It tells us that all of our life, and not only the time of Great Lent, or one day of the Fast, is completed  with the Presence of the Victorious Christ who is risen from the dead. 

"It witnesses to the fact that Christ will come at the end of the ages to judge the living and the dead and to establish God's Kingdom 'of which there will be no end'. It tells us that we must be ready at His coming, found watching and serving, in order to be worthy to 'enter into the joy of the Lord'."

- Fr. Thomas Hopko

Thursday at 7:00 p.m.
The Canon of St. Andrew of Crete,
and The Life of St. Mary of Egypt

"If at the beginning of Lent this Canon was like a door leading us into repentance, now at the end of Lent it sounds like a 'summary' of repentance and its fulfillment.  If at the beginning we merely listened to it, now hopefully its words have become our words, our lamentation, our hope and repentance, and also an evaluation of our lenten effort:  how much of all of this has truly been made ours?  How far have we come along the path of this repentance?" 

- Fr. Alexander Schmemann

"The Life of St. Mary of  Egypt is read, so that the intellect and will of the believer may be detached from love of the world and, following in the footsteps of the saint, may be guided into the heart of the desert, into the heart of the mystery of repentance."

- Panagiotis Nellas

Friday at 7:00 p.m.
The Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos

"Theologically, poetically, and musically, one of the most profound and beautiful compositions bequeathed to us by Byzantium's sacred hymnographers is the Akathist Hymn to the Most Holy Theotokos. In this unparalleled  composition, Orthodox Christianity bears eloquent witness to its unshaken belief in the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God, and the Church's devotion to the 'Virgin who conceived and bore a Son'."

- Holy Transfiguration Monastery

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Real 'Stairway to Heaven'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

A pop-culture awareness that has staying power over about a forty-five year period is an immediate recognition of the song titled "Stairway to Heaven."

Even for those born well after the date of the song's initial appearance (1972) know that it was written by the now-legendary rock group Led Zeppelin.  I, for one, will openly "confess" to seeing and hearing this song performed live more than once!  I even recall reading an article that somehow managed to calculate that - up to a certain date, at least - it was the most-played song in rock radio history. Yet, I further recall hearing once that the members of Led Zeppelin were "sick and tired" of their famous song!

If not quite arresting, the title is at least attractive. Perhaps it awakens a vague longing deep within our soul: Is there a "stairway to heaven?"  Some sort of path to another reality that lifts us above the mundane and everyday cares of life?  Was there some formula hidden within the song's lyrics that pointed to that alluring path?

Admittedly, I always found the lyrics rather opaque and esoteric. (Certain members of Led Zeppelin were clearly taken by the esoteric and fantastic, obvious from some of their other songs).  Perhaps that simply added to the song's charm as devotees spent inordinate amounts of time and energy trying to decipher or unpack the tantalizing meaning of the song just beyond our grasp. A lot of pseudo-serious literature was actually generated - and passionately argued about - back then offering various interpretations of "Stairway to Heaven's" meaning. And the song did have a compelling energy behind it as its slow beginning moved toward a crescendo of a driving and now classic rock guitar solo.

Yet, the famous "Stairway to Heaven" is so contextualized in a moment of long ago pop culture history, that you can only wonder what the heady commotion was really all about. After forty-five years, it is now just another very recognizable "rock classic;" or, to say that in a slightly more deflating manner, just another "oldie."  For some, it may serve to awaken a certain nostalgia for the past. Or, for others, to a past that they would like to forget!

Certainly no one is drawn to analyzing  those opaque lyrics which really had nothing much behind them in the first place. Obscurity is often mistaken for depth. However, this is not the place to come down on Led Zeppelin and their famous song from the past.  Everyone, including the members of the group, have certainly "moved on."

These brief comments on the song "Stairway to Heaven" were prompted by the fact that on the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent we commemorate St. John Climacus, austere author of the famous treatise The Ladder of Divine Ascent. 

I refer to St. John's spiritual classic as the real "stairway to heaven," because after many centuries it is read to this day with great seriousness and pious devotion by Christians as precisely a sure guide to the Kingdom of Heaven. In fact, St. John offers a fine definition as to what it means to be a Christian:

A Christian is an imitator of Christ in thought, word and deed, as far as this is humanly possible, and he believes rightly and blamelessly in the Holy Trinity. (STEP 1)

St. John was writing for monks, but to the married Christian he had this to say:

Do whatever good you may. Speak evil of no one. Rob no one. Tell no lie. Despise no one and carry no hate. Do not separate yourselves from the church assemblies. (STEP 1)

More specifically, the abiding popularity of his famous treatise is all the more apparent for Orthodox Christians, for as Archbishop Kallistos Ware writes:

With the exception of the Bible and the service books, there is no work in Eastern Christendom that has been studied, copied and translated more often than The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus. 
Every Lent in Orthodox monasteries it is appointed to be read aloud in church or in the refectory, so that the monks will have listened to it as much as fifty or sixty tines in the course of their life.  
Outside the monasteries it has also been the favorite reading of countless lay people in Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia, and throughout the Orthodox world.  The popularity of The Ladder in the East equals that of The Imitation of Christ in the West, although the two books are altogether different in character.  
(Introduction to The Ladder of Divine Ascent, p. 1)

The great abbot of Mt. Sinai (+c. 650) writes with clarity and depth about the interior "withdrawal" from worldliness; the struggle with the passions; the acquisition of the virtues; and the final ascent of the soul into the realm where faith, hope and love are the final stages of that ascent that prepares the believer for the incomprehensible glory yet to be experienced when God will be "all in all:"

Love, by its nature, is a resemblance of God, insofar as this is humanly possible. In its activity it is inebriation of the soul. Its distinctive character is to be a fountain of faith, an abyss of patience, a sea of humility ...    Love grants prophecy, miracles. It is an abyss of illumination, a fountain of fire, bubbling up to inflame the thirsty soul. It is the condition of angels, and the progress of eternity. (STEP 30)

St. John's work clearly betrays the monastic milieu from which it emerged, but since those very passions that plague us remain unchanging; and since the very virtues we struggle to acquire also remain unchanging; and since our goal is the Kingdom of Heaven, then his writings more importantly have a timeless and eternal quality to them. Such a text is never really "dated." It does not belong to a particular movement or fad. The Ladder is an enduring monument of spiritual depth that flows from the Gospel. Thus, its singular characteristic and popularity as an enduring classic.

Now, St. John himself was inspired by the vision of the Patriarch Jacob of a ladder stretching from earth to heaven "and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!" (GEN. 28) Christ refers to this same vision in JN. 1.  St. John will develop this image with greater detail and this is a very effective teaching tool, for again to refer to the words of Archbishop Kallistos:

His ladder has thirty rungs or steps, one for each year in the hidden life of Christ before His baptism. John's ingenious use of the ladder-image soon became part of the spiritual imagination of the Christian East, and is frequently represented in panel icons, refrectory frescoes and illuminated manuscripts.  (Introduction, p. 11)

I cannot in the brief space of a meditation offer a detailed outline of The Ladder. I believe the best version available in English translation to be that which belongs to The Classics of Western Spirituality series:  John Climacus - The Ladder of Divine Ascent, translated by Colm Luibheld and Norman Russell, Introduction by Kallistos Ware, Paulist Press, 1982.  

I further believe that this would be an invaluable acquisition for one's library, and it could be read slowly and prayerfully over an extended period of time. 

Some of the book's content may appear foreign, but there will be so much that will resonate deeply and stay with the serious reader that what is foreign will seem unimportant.  

However, there is an extraordinary passage in Step One that so beautifully captures the meaning of the Gospel, and of God's love of his creation and creatures, that I would like to share at least this much.  This passage takes on an even greater meaning when we recall that St. John was fiercely ascetical and at times impatient with false teaching. But here he is truly expansive and he embraces all of humankind:

God is the life of all free beings. He is the salvation of believers and unbelievers, of the just or the unjust ... of monks or those living in the world, of the educated or the illiterate, of the healthy or the sick, of the young or the very old.  He is like the outpouring of light, the glimpse of the sun, or the changes of the weather, which are the same for everyone without exception. "For God is no respecter of persons." (Rom. 2:11)

Although employing what is essentially identical images, I believe that we can say with real assurance that The Ladder of Divine Ascent is on much, much firmer ground and has greater staying power than whatever is quite the endpoint of "Stairway to Heaven."  In fact, I may be reproached for even making the comparison! Yet, the association of images, and further reflection on the surrounding "culture" that produced each work - and which is embodied within each work - came to mind as we move into the Fourth Week of Great Lent.  

In an age of post-modernism and shifting narratives that compete for our attention, there is nothing quite like the "rock" on which the Gospel is firmly planted and not to be moved; while other enticements built on the shifting sands of impermanence are swept away by time (MATT. 7:24-27). 

St. John built his house on the Gospel and thus continues to nourish us to this day with his wise counsel:

Baptized in the thirtieth year of His earthly age, Christ attained the thirtieth step on the spiritual ladder, for God indeed is love, and to Him be praise, dominion, power.  In Him is the cause, past, present, and future, of all that is good forever and ever. Amen. (Concluding "Brief Summary and Exhortation)

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Connecting the Cross with our Lives

Dear Parish Faithful,

Over the years I have accumulated a group of meditations centered on the meaning and purpose of the Cross, attempting to connect the Cross of the Lord with our lives as Orthodox Christians, as we commit ourselves to the noble task of working out our salvation "in fear and trembling." 

In case anyone would be interested in having a "second look" at any one of them, I have compiled a series of links, and also provided the title given to each one, hopefully capturing something of the over-all content of each meditation. They are arranged to move backwards chronologically.

I just discovered that the meditation, "Through the Cross ... Joy!" has been posted on

Fr. Steven

"People of the Cross" (Sept. 2016)

"Cross-bearers - Not Simply 'Cross-wearers'" (April 2016)

"Before Thy Cross, We Bow Down in Worship" (Sept. 2015)

"The Life-Giving Cross" (March 2015)

"The Sign of the Son of Man" (Sept. 2012)

"The Place and Necessity of the Cross" (March 2011)

"The Place of the Cross - In the Church, and In Our Lives" (Sept. 2011)

"Through the Cross - Joy!" (March 2010)

"Inscribing the Cross in our Hearts" (Sept. 2010)

"We Belong to the Crucified One" (Sept. 2008)

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

'This is the great work of a human being...'

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT:  The Twenty-Fifth Day

"In time of religious peace, we take up our cross and follow Christ by putting our evil passions and desires to death through virtuous living. But when persecutions come, we must despise our own life, give up our soul for the sake of our Faith and therefore take up our cross and follow the Lord, so as to inherit eternal life. 'He that finds his life,' says the Scripture, 'shall lose it; and he that loses his life for My sake shall find it.' (MATT. 10:39)

- St. Gregory Palamas

"Sin is a blazing fire. The less fuel you give it, the faster it dies down; the more you feed it, the more it burns."

- St. Mark the Ascetic

"This is the great work of a human being: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath."

- St. Anthony the Great

An Orthodox Christian perspective on the Cross of Christ

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The issue of "atonement" was raised and discussed at Sunday's post-Liturgy discussion, and we could only touch on it briefly. That discussion, though, has led me to once again share a meditation from the past (2013) on that theme worked out with an eye on briefly explaining our Orthodox perspective - turning to the Scriptures and the Fathers - within the wider context of how we react to other theories of the atonement that seem problematic to us.

An Orthodox Christian perspective
on the Cross of Christ

Having come to the middle point of the path of the Fast that leads to Thy precious Cross, grant that we may see Thy day that Abraham saw and rejoiced, when on the mountain he received Isaac back alive as from the tomb. Delivered from the enemy by faith, may we share Thy mystical supper, calling upon Thee in peace: Our light and our Savior, glory to Thee!
[Matins of Wednesday in the Fourth Week of Great Lent]

The misunderstanding may still persist that the Orthodox Church downplays the significance of the Cross because it so intensely concentrates on the Resurrection, or on other such themes as transfiguration, deification, mystical encounter with God, and so forth. This is an implicit criticism that there is some deficiency in the Orthodox Christian presentation of the place of the Cross in the divine dispensation “for us and for our salvation.” 

Such criticism may not hold up under further reflection and inspection, for the Orthodox would say that based upon the divine economy of our salvation, resurrection – and any “mystical encounter” with God – is only possible through the Cross. 

As this was “the purpose of his will” and “the mystery of his will” (Ephesians 1:5,9), our salvation could not have been accomplished in any other way. The “Lord of Glory” was crucified (1 Corinthians 2:8) and then raised from the dead. Elsewhere, the Apostle Paul writes that “Jesus our Lord” was “put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25).

The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews writes of “Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).  A text such as this could be behind the hymn we sing at every Divine Liturgy after receiving the Eucharist: “For through the Cross, joy has come into the world.” 

Jesus himself said “that the Son of Man must suffer many things…and be killed and after three days rise again” (Mark 8: 31).  Of the Greek word translated as “must” from these words of Christ, Archbishop Demitrios Trakatellis wrote: 

“This expresses the necessity (dei) of the Messiah’s terrible affliction. Judging from the meaning of the verb (dei) in Mark, this necessity touches upon God’s great plan for the salvation of the world” (Authority and Passion, p.51-52).

Many such texts can be multiplied, but the point is clear: The Cross and the empty tomb – redemption and resurrection – are inseparably united in the one paschal mystery that is nothing less than “Good News.” Like Mary Magdalene before us, one must first stand by the Cross in sober vigilance before gazing with wonder into the empty tomb and then encountering the Risen Lord (John 20:11-18).

As something of an aside, part of this misunderstanding of the Orthodox Church’s supposed neglect of the Cross in the drama of human redemption could stem from a one-sided emphasis on the Cross in other churches at the expense of the Resurrection. The redemptive significance of the Cross somehow overwhelms the Resurrection so that it is strangely reduced to something of a glorified appendix to the salvific meaning of the Cross. As Vladimir Lossky wrote: “This redemptionist theology, placing all the emphasis on the passion, seems to take no interest in the triumph of Christ over death.”  

Since the “triumph of Christ over death” is so integral to the very existence of the Church—and since it is the ultimate paschal proclamation, as in “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death!”—then the Orthodox Church will never concentrate on a “theology of the Cross” at the expense of the Resurrection.  Rather, the one paschal mystery will always embrace both Cross and Resurrection in a balanced manner.  Within the Church during the week of the Cross (beginning on the third Sunday of Great Lent), we sing and prostrate ourselves before the Cross while chanting,

“Before Thy Cross we bow down in worship, and Thy holy Resurrection we glorify!”

In addition, and perhaps more tellingly, the growth, development and continuing existence of certain theories of atonement that have proven to be problematic today, but not shared by the Orthodox Church, have had an impact on evaluating the Orthodox Church’s understanding of the Cross on the whole. These theories of atonement will portray God as being primarily characterized by a wrath that demands appeasement, or “propitiation,” something only the death of His Son on the Cross could “satisfy.” These theories would stress the “judicial” and “penal” side of redemption in a one-sided manner. They may also bind God to act within certain “laws” of eternal necessity that would impose such categories as (vindictive?) justice on God in a way that may obscure God’s overwhelming mercy and love.

Not sharing such theories of atonement as developed in the “West,” the Orthodox Church may face criticism for lacking a fully-developed “theology of the Cross.” However, such “satisfaction” theories of atonement are proving to be quite unsatisfactory in much of contemporary theological assessments of the meaning and significance of the Cross in relation to our salvation “in Christ.”

The Orthodox can make a huge contribution toward a more holistic and integrated understanding of the role of both Cross and Resurrection, so that the full integrity of the paschal mystery is joyfully proclaimed to the world. From the patristic tradition of the Church, the voice of Saint Athanasius the Great can speak to us today of this holistic approach (using some “juridical” language!):

“Here, then is the…reason why the Word dwelt among us, namely that having proved His Godhead by His works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all, surrendering His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression. In the same act also He showed Himself mightier than death, displaying His own body incorruptible as the first-fruit of the resurrection” (On the Incarnation, 20).

In soberly assessing too great of a dependency on juridical language when speaking of redemption, and anticipating some later theories that would narrowly focus on the language of “payment” and “ransom” in relation to the sacrifice of Christ; Saint Gregory the Theologian argued that a “price” or “ransom” was not “paid” to the Father or to Satan, as if either would demand, need or expect such a price as the “precious and glorious blood of God.” Saint Gregory says, rather, the following:

“Is it not evident that the Father accepts the sacrifice not because He demanded it or had any need for it but by His dispensation? It was necessary that man should be sanctified by the humanity of God; it was necessary that He Himself should free us, triumphing over the tyrant by His own strength, and that He should recall us to Himself by His Son who is the Mediator, who does all for the honor of the Father, to whom he is obedient in all things …. Let the rest of the mystery be venerated silently” (Oration 45,22).

However, getting it right in terms of a sound doctrine of atonement is one thing – essential as it is – but assimilating the necessity of the Cross in and to our personal understanding and the conditions of our life is another. In fact, it is quite a struggle and our resistance can be fierce! 

If this is difficult to understand, assimilate and then live by, the initial disciples of the Lord suffered through the same profound lack of comprehension. Their (mis)undersanding of Jesus as the Messiah was one-sidedly fixated on images of glory, both for Israel and for themselves. A crucified Messiah was simply too much for the disciples to grasp, ever though Jesus spoke of this in words that were not that enigmatic. 

When Peter refused to accept his Master’s words of His impending passion and death in Jerusalem after just confessing His messianic stature and being blessed for it; he is forced to receive what is perhaps the most stinging rebuke in the Gospels when Jesus turns to him and says: “Get behind me Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Mark 8:33).  It was Satan who did not want Jesus to fulfill His vocation by voluntarily dying on the Cross, so Peter’s refusal to accept Christ’s words was his way of aligning himself with Satan.

The disciples were not enlightened until after the resurrection of their Lord and Master. We are raised in the Church so that we already know of Christ’s triumph over death through the Cross. Our resistance is not based on a lack of knowledge, but of a real human dread of pain and suffering. It may be difficult to us to “see” the joy that comes through the Cross until we find ourselves “on the other side,” for “now we see in a glass darkly, but then face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12).  It is our hope and the “certainty” of our faith that Christ has indeed triumphed over death, “even death on a Cross” (Philippians 2:8).  

God has blessed us with yet another Great Lent and upcoming Holy Week and Pascha in order to share in that experience of His glorious triumph that begins with the life-giving wood of the Tree of the Cross.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

At the Midpoint: The Opportunity to be Strengthened and Begin Anew

Dear Parish Faithful,

"Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master; and Thy holy Resurrection, we glorify."

The Third Sunday of Great Lent leads us to the Cross and our veneration of the "life-giving wood of the Tree."  We are thus almost exactly at the midpoint of Great Lent.

Two polarized reactions could be formulated as follows:  The sighing lamentation "Is that all?" or the more upbeat "That's fast!"  Of course, there is the soberly realistic: "It is what it is." Whatever the case may be, perhaps at this midpoint, we could make an honest assessment of how our lenten effort has unfolded so far. 

Have I/we embraced a "lenten way of life" and is it proving to be fruitful?  If so, we need to continue for the duration.  "Fight the good fight" to the end as the Apostle Paul exhorts us. Or, has it been "hit-or-miss" and rather haphazard so far? In that case, we may need to start over again - or simply start.  In Hebrews we hear:  "Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees."

Whatever the case may be, we have the Cross before us this weekend for our heartfelt veneration, anticipating the endpoint of our lenten journey, when we will stand at the foot of the Cross.  We cannot enter the empty tomb without first standing by the Cross of the Lord:  "For through the Cross joy has come into the world!"

If we take all of this seriously - which I hope that we do - you may consider the full cycle of services this weekend: Great Vespers on Saturday evening and the Liturgy on Sunday morning.  It is at the Great Vespers service that the decorated Cross is brought out in procession, placed in the midst of the church, and then venerated by all of the assembled faithful.  That can serve to also engrave the Cross in our minds as we prepare for the Liturgy and the Eucharist.

The challenge is to "make room" in our "busy schedules" for that service. It is not the time to seek entertainment or other distractions that can easily be postponed. It is, rather, the time to take action and to put the life of the Church first in our lives. It is also a wonderful service for our younger children who will see and experience true Orthodox worship and the place of the Cross in our lives. 

If your lenten effort is going well, the cycle of services with further strengthen you.  If your lenten effort has faltered, here is the opportunity to begin anew and rekindle that flickering effort.  Be serious and active about what you claim to believe and about whom you claim to believe in.

Friday, March 10, 2017

'Pray without ceasing in behalf of other men...'

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT:  The Eleventh Day

"And pray without ceasing in behalf of other men.  For there is in them the hope of repentance that they may attain to God. See, then, that they be instructed by your works, if in no other way. Be meek in response to their wrath, humble in opposition to their boasting; to their blasphemies return your prayers; in contrast to their error, be steadfast in the faith; and for their cruelty, manifest your gentleness.  While we take care not to imitate their conduct, let us be found their brothers and sisters in all true kindness; and let us seek to be followers of the Lord that so no plant of the devil may be found in you, but remain in all holiness and sobriety in Jesus Christ, both with respect to the flesh and spirit."

~ St. Ignatius of Antioch

Thursday, March 9, 2017

A 'pouring out of long accumulating, long pent-up pain'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

For some time now (for it is a long book) Presvytera Deborah and I have been reading together Elizabeth Gaskell's classic biography The Life of Charlotte Bronte.  This book has often been praised as the greatest biography of 19th c. English literature.

Charlotte Bronte, of course, is the author of one of 19th c. English literature's enduring classics and the creator of one of that literature's most memorable character in the novel bearing that character's name, Jane Eyre. All readers of this novel know that "plain Jane" is a high-spirited and perceptive young woman who has a rich and deep interior life that has endeared her to countless readers since the novel's initial publication in 1847. And there have countless stage and films adaptations that continue to be produced to this day. Yet, Charlotte Bronte wrote other fine novels, including The Professor, Villette, and Shirley

Charlotte Bronte had a deep Christian faith and sensibility. Her faith was severely tested as she first nursed, and then helplessly watched, three of her siblings die within about a six-month period (September 1848 - May 1849). Two of these siblings were also novelists: Emily wrote the famous Wuthering Heights; and Anne wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Of the three siblings that Charlotte lost, the oldest one to die was her deeply troubled brother, Branwell, at thirty-one.  Emily was twenty-nine; and Anne was twenty-seven. This was a series of crushing losses for Charlotte to bear. Her deeply personal and poignant letters following these untimely deaths testify to her belief in eternal life with God through Jesus Christ our "Redeemer" as she often referred to Christ.

Her father, Patrick Bronte, was a curate of the local Anglican parish in Haworth, and their home in the parsonage there is now a place of pilgrimage for Bronte devotees.  Charlotte Bronte was fiercely Protestant, and just as fiercely hostile to Roman Catholicism.  Supposedly, she both pitied and feared Roman Catholics. 

When she taught at the Pensionnat Heger, a school for girls in predominantly Catholic Brussels, Belgium, she felt surrounded by "Romanism."  She further thought that her Roman Catholic students were filled with superstition and susceptible to "sensual indulgence."  Yet, before we judge Charlotte Bronte too harshly for such prejudices, such antagonism between Protestants and Roman Catholics in 19th c. England, was probably not that uncommon.  Every time and place seemingly has its own prejudices.  We certainly have ours.

All of this makes one peculiar event in her life all the remarkable and difficult to fully explain.

Wandering through Brussels during a break from teaching, and at a time when she was suffering from a certain malaise that we would term despondency, if not depression, she found herself entering the large Roman Catholic cathedral of SS-Michel-et-Gudule for what seems to have been the evening service, what we would call Vespers.

Following the service she made her way to that part of the cathedral where the ornate confessional boxes were located. And at this point, something compelled her to enter one of the confessionals and confess to a Roman Catholic priest!

As one prominent Bronte scholar - Helen Cooper - has written:  "A daughter of a Church of England clergyman, Bronte must have been desperately depressed to have decided that her only hope of comfort lay in thus violating Protestant - Catholic 'rules'." It took her some effort to convince the priest to even hear her confession as she informed him that she was a Protestant.  Charlotte later wrote of this incident: "I was determined to confess," and after the priest relented to hear her -  presumably because it might lead to her conversion - she emphatically added:  "I actually did confess - a real confession." 

To this day there is no memoir or letter that reveals precisely what she confessed on that day in Brussels. However, in the words of her most autobiographical character - the ultra-Protestant Lucy Snowe from the novel Villette after she confessed under the exact same conditions - we read the following:

"the mere relief of communication in an ear which was human and sentient, yet consecrated - the mere pouring out of some portion of long accumulating, long pent-up pain into a vessel whence it could not be again diffused - had done me good. I was already solaced."

It is true that Charlotte Bronte never went to Confession again in her life, but nevertheless she acknowledges in these words of the fictional Lucy Snowe a truly deep experience.  Was this a once-in-a-lifetime concession to that inner need to "confess your sins to one another" (James 5:16)? A felt need that I am sure we often have.

Thus, I am offering a reflection about this real and literary event from the life and literature of Charlotte Bronte, because we are in that season when our own confession is a key component of our lenten effort as Orthodox Christians.  (I wonder what the ultra-Protestant Charlotte Bronte would have thought of our Byzantine Liturgy).

We, of course, may feel that Confession is an "obligation" that must be fulfilled as a member of the Church.  I even ask you to do so by appointment (!), and we may thus lack the spontaneity and even surprise of turning to Confession compelled by some inner need, as was the author of Jane Eyre and Villette

However, we too may be surprised by what we experience as was Charlotte Bronte against all of her expectations.  We (desperately?) need to "unburden our souls" to resort to something of a meaningful cliche.  Each and every confession is potentially a time to "break on through to the other side" - to quote a more recent "artist." Such a breakthrough is the path to inner freedom.

The Sacrament of Confession offers the supreme opportunity to overcome a bad habit, a disposition, a passion; to seek forgiveness of our sins against God and one another; or to remove those obstacles that we perversely create between ourselves and the living God. 

And, as Orthodox Christians, we have the liberty of not having to overcome any prejudices concerning Confession.  We need only overcome any reluctance or resistance; any self-justification or self-defense; or any illusions about ourselves that we refuse to abandon, so that we also may experience "the mere pouring out of some portion of long accumulating, long pent-up pain" to a priest "consecrated" for that very role.

As different as we are to Charlotte Bronte - though the "human condition" remains the same - there is no reason we could not fully agree with her when she said that Confession "had done me good."

Monday, March 6, 2017

'Take the first step towards reconciliation...'

GREAT LENT:  The Eighth Day

"When someone takes the first step towards reconciliation, he immediately feels joy, peace and relief.  

"Why? Prior to this hatred, enmity, separation and alienation laid like a heavy burden on his shoulders.  There was also pressure from the devil who wanted his way.  

"God, on the other hand, is love and humility. 

"All of us, nonetheless - and I first - are fooled by our egoism, and seek to erect our own will. We believe that we  are correct, that we are good, that others are at fault."

~ Elder Ephraim of Arizona

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Great Lent - Lent as 'Beginning'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

'Now is the Acceptable Time'—Lent as 'Beginning'

GREAT LENT - The Fourth Day 

A “good beginning” to Great Lent can go a long way toward a “good ending.” At this point in the Fast it certainly may seem premature—if not a bit ludicrous—to already allude to the end of Great Lent.  We are just beginning our Lenten journey, and the end is not quite in sight!  But I bring this up with a pastoral purpose in mind. 

I have, in previous years, raised the question, “Is there life after Lent?”  With this question in mind, I am asking whether or not there is something good and wholesome that we practiced in Great Lent that we can take with us once the season is over.  

If so, then it may be then that we can speak of a “good Lent.”  Yet, how often do we immediately go back to our earlier patterns of living as if Great Lent never really occurred, or as if Lent was some kind of pious interlude interrupting our “normal” way of living, to which we eagerly return as we wipe our brow in gratitude that the ordeal is over!  Obviously, we bring the fasting element to Great Lent to an end.  But there is hopefully more to the season than adherence to fasting rules.

Bearing this type of approach and experience in mind, I would offer the following pastoral and practical advice:  Is there some practice, habit or attitude in your life right now that you very much desire to eliminate from your life?  

Or, to pose that question with a bit more bluntness, is there any such thing in your life that you should eliminate from your life as a Christian?  Something sinful or at least something that undermines your relationship with God and your neighbor?  

With some effort, determination and focus—nourished by prayer, humility and a reliance on the grace of God—why not let this Lent be the “beginning of the end” of that practice, habit or attitude that you desire/need to overcome once and for all?  Then there would indeed be “life after Lent!”  Taking Lent seriously forces us to come to terms with our sinful inclinations, as well as serve as the appointed opportunity to face up to and struggle against those very inclinations with their eradication in mind as a goal.

If we look to our profound spiritual tradition in the Church, we know how the great saints of the past catalogued the more universal and characteristic “bad habits” that either tempt or actually afflict us to one degree or another.  These “bad habits” or vices the Fathers called “the passions” [in Greek, ta pathi].  

The presence of the passions would preclude the possibility of obtaining “purity of heart.”  The classic list of the eight passions, first drawn up by Evagrius of Pontus [+399]—called the great “psychologist of the desert”—include gluttony, lust, avarice, anger, dejection, spiritual listlessness/lassitude (the technical word behind this being acedia), vanity, and pride.

A certain “self-love”—here understood as an unhealthy self-absorption or self-regard—is the “mother of the passions” according to Evagrius.  We hear about these passions and their harmful spiritual effect in the Great Canon of Repentance, celebrated during this first week of the Fast:

A soiled garment clothes me - one shamefully stained with blood flowing from a life of passion and love of fleshly things.

I fell beneath the weight of the passions and the corruption of my flesh, and from that moment has the Enemy had power over me.

Instead of seeking poverty of spirit, I prefer a life of greed and self-gratification; therefore, O Savior, a heavy weight hangs from my neck.

Rhetoric or reality?  You have to decide for yourself as you stand quietly in church as these verses from the Great Canon ring out.

Actually, these passions begin as “thoughts” [in Greek, logismos/oi] that assail the mind.  (Hence, the aforementioned list of sins may at times be called the “eight thoughts”).  When entertained and acted upon, the thought enters and lodges itself in the heart, and once rooted there it is a difficult process to uproot that particular passion.  What may begin as a temptation from the evil one will eventually become an ingrained action or attitude that has gained control over us.  We are then basically “programmed” to return to that thought or action as our will to resist has become thoroughly weakened.  

Thus, what is an “unnatural”—because it is sinful—passion seems to be quite “natural” to us after endless repetition!  In our contemporary vocabulary, these very passions are called addictions, though the term addiction is usually used for more concrete vices such as alcohol or drug abuse.  Yet, according to our spiritual tradition, we can become as “addicted” to gluttony, avarice or pride as others may be to alcohol or drugs!  

The ultimate goal is not simply the eradication of the passions; the saints would contend that the "energy" behind the passions is good.  A pure eradication of the passions could leave an empty void, a certain apathy perhaps.  Therefore, the saints exhort us to replace the passions with the virtues.  Or, as Archbishop Kallistos Ware once summarized this process of spiritual struggle, we are not to eradicate, but to educate the passions. 

Can gluttony and lust be replaced by self-control?  Avarice by generosity?  Anger by patience or even meekness?  Vanity and pride by humility?  Warfare against the passions—the negative way of describing this struggle— is simultaneously an effort to acquire the virtues, a more positive way of describing the same struggle.

Is there anything in that list that we need to work on overcoming?  The very universality of the list makes that a real possibility!  Is anyone just sick and tired of doing the same thing over and over again, even when we acknowledge that it is either sinful or detrimental to our own lives or relationships—beginning, again, with God and neighbor?  Only then, however, will we seriously enter into the battle against a certain passion.

Of course, if that all sounds a bit “heavy,” or as something that will have to be approached professionally or therapeutically, there may be many simple but very human and positive actions and attitudes that we may desire to embrace beginning with Great Lent and continuing with beyond the forty days and Pascha.  Acts of kindness, concern and compassion, perhaps.  

Do we need to visit a sick friend or call a housebound aunt on the phone more often than we are now doing?  Do we need to work at becoming a more positive presence in our work environment?  Can we work at becoming more considerate toward others?  Are we as charitable or willing to share our resources with others as we can be—especially with the poor and dispossessed?  Do we need to change our attitude toward people we disagree with ideologically or politically?  Do we still retain vestiges of racial, social or ethnic prejudices that are based on nothing but worn-out stereotypes?  

With a certain focus on our “Church lives,” can we begin to read the Scriptures with greater regularity?  Or practice charity, prayer and fasting with greater care?  Finally, are we interested in becoming a decent human being that just may enrich the lives of others around us?!

As the Apostle Paul wrote, “Now is the acceptable time.”  Great Lent can become the “beginning of the end” of a way of life we need to abandon, and the “beginning of the beginning” of the acquisition of the virtues we desire to embrace and practice.  All this may be realized “through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.”  I therefore believe that there is indeed abundant “life after Lent!”

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Great Lent - 'A Restoration of Relationships'

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Third Day

"Nevertheless, even though fasting, rightly practiced, does indeed involve sacrifice and self-denial, it is not to be construed exclusively in negative terms. Its purpose is most definitely positive: not to chastise the body, but to render it spiritual; not to fill us with weariness and self-disgust, but to break down our sinful sense of self-sufficiency and to make us conscious of our dependence upon God.  

"Fasting is certainly an ascetic podvig (labor/feat), but its effect is to bring about a sense of lightness and freedom, of wakefulness and hope:

'Thus says the Lord of hosts: the fast ... shall be to the house of Judah seasons of joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts' (Zach. 8:19).

"Thus it becomes evident that fasting, which is often regarded as the chief feature of Lent, is not an end but a means. Fasting is valueless if it fails to bring about a restoration of relationships.  

"In fact, in the Gospels, Jesus does not simply speak of fasting alone but often employs the doublet 'prayer and fasting' (see Matt. 17:21; Mk. 9:29).  If we fast, it is in order to render ourselves more apt for prayer, that is to say, in order to bring us back into relationship with God.

"The early Christians expanded this doublet into a triad: along with prayer and fasting, they emphasized the need for 'almsgiving' (Greek: eleimosyni) for acts of specific and practical compassion towards others.  

"The money that we save through fasting and abstinence is never to be spent upon ourselves, but should be given to those in special need. Moreover, as we have already seen, what we are to share with others is not only our money but ourselves; we are to give our time, our companionship, our loving concern. 

"So the reawakening of our relationship with God in prayer comes to fulfillment in the renewal of our relationship with others.  Fasting, prayer and acts of compassion form a single whole."

"Lent and the Consumer Society" by Archbishop Kallistos Ware (found in Living Orthodoxy in the Modern World, p. 81, 79-80)