Friday, March 5, 2021

As We Draw Near To The Fast . . .

 

Dear Parish Faithful,

 

Let us keep the Fast not only by refraining from food, but by becoming strangers to all the bodily passions.

- Forgiveness Sunday Vespers

 
As we draw near to the Fast, I would like to share a few passages from two of our recent or contemporary Orthodox thinkers/writers on Great Lent: Fr. Alexander Schmemann and Archbishop Kallistos Ware. They both understood the importance of Great Lent within the Tradition of the Church as it leads us toward the paschal mystery of the Death and Resurrection of Christ, and the joyful cry that "Christ is Risen!"

__________

 

To take Lent seriously 

means then that we will consider it first of all on the deepest possible level - as a spiritual challenge which requires a response, a decision, a plan, a continuous effort.

We can say without any exaggeration that although Lent is still "observed," it has lost much of its impact on our lives, has ceased to be that bath of repentance and renewal which it is meant to e in the liturgical and spiritual teaching of the Church. But then, can we rediscover it; make it again a spiritual power in the daily reality of our existence? The answer to this question depends primarily, and I would say almost exclusively, on whether or not we are willing to take Lent seriously.

And indeed, it is the truth and the glory of Orthodoxy that it does not "adjust" itself to and compromise with the lower standards, that it does not make Christianity "easy." It is the glory of Orthodoxy but certainly not the glory of us Orthodox people.

So much in our churches is explained symbolically as interesting, colorful, and amusing customs and traditions, as something which connects us not so much with God and a new life in Him but with the past and the customs of our forefathers, that it becomes increasingly difficult to discern behind this religious folklore the utter seriousness of religion ... what survived was that which on the one hand is most colorful and on the other hand the least difficult. The spiritual danger here is that little by little one begins to understand religion itself as a system of symbols and customs rather than to understand the latter as a challenge to spiritual renewal and effort."

From Great Lent - Journey to Pascha 

by Fr. Alexander Schmemann

__________ 

 

The human person is a unity of body and soul,

'a living creature fashioned from natures visible and invisible,' in the words of the Triodion, and our ascetic fasting should therefore involve both these natures at once. The tendency to over-emphasize external rules about food in a legalistic way, and the opposite tendency to scorn these rules as outdated and unnecessary, are both alike to be deplored as a betrayal of true Orthodoxy. In both cases the proper balance between the outward and the inward has been impaired.

Even if the fast proves debilitating at first, afterwards we find that it enables us to sleep less, to think more clearly, and to work more decisively. As many doctors acknowledge, periodic fasts contribute to body hygiene. While involving genuine self-denial, fasting does not seek to do violence to our body but rather to restore equilibrium. Most of us in the Western world habitually eat more than we need. Fasting liberates our body from the burden of excessive weight and makes it a willing partner in the task of prayer, alert and responsive to the voice of the Spirit.

If it is important not to overlook the physical requirements of fasting, it is even more important not to overlook its inward significance. Fasting is to be converted  in heart and will; it is to return to God, to come home like the Prodigal to our Father's house. In the words of St. John Chrysostom, it means 'abstinence not only from food but from sin.' 'The fast,' he insists, 'should be kept not by the mouth alone but also by the eye, the ear, the feet, the hands and all the members of the body: 'the eye must abstain from impure sights, the ear from malicious gossip, the hands from acts of injustice. It is useless to fast from food, protests St. Basil, and yet to indulge in cruel criticism and slander: 'You do not eat meat but you devour your brother'."

From "The Meaning of the Great Fast"

by Archbishop Kallistos Ware




 

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Re-centering Until Our Last Breath

 


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"God requires of us to go on repenting until our last breath." (St. Isaias the Solitary)


"Repentance ... It means not self-pity or remorse, but conversion, the re-centering of our whole life upon the Trinity ... 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." (Archbishop Kallistos Ware)




I believe that we should think of the Sunday of the Prodigal Son extending itself throughout the week, thus giving us the Week of the Prodigal Son and the possibility of meditating upon this extraordinary parable carefully and thoughtfully. This parable is perhaps "the parable of parables," and thus deserving of a great deal of attention on our part. Sundays come and go perhaps too rapidly and we find ourselves back in our "routines," and living in a world far different than the one we are given a glimpse into through the Liturgy. That fleeting glimpse, which is actually a vision of life that is Christ-centered and Spirit-guided, may thus appear to be "ideal," but not "real." However, it may actually be the vision of the one underlying Reality of all that exists and which makes everything else not only tolerable or endurable, but meaningful and embraceable. If our liturgical and eucharistic experience is forgotten the moment it is over, as we move on to Sunday's entertainment, and then prepare to endure Monday morning's responsibilities; perhaps then we are "cheating" ourselves of "the one thing needful." And in the process we lose sight of the riches of the Gospel if we only absentmindedly await next Sunday's. That certainly applies to the Parable of the Prodigal Son!

Yet, before briefly looking into some of the riches of this well-known parable, perhaps we should place it within the wider context of its setting in the Gospel According to St. Luke. For the evangelist Luke places the Parable of the Prodigal Son as the climax of a series of three parables in chapter 15 that reveal the "joy in heaven" when sinners are "found" following an implied or clearly stated repentance. In fact, these parables are told to a group of "tax collectors and sinners" who "were drawing near to hear him." (LK. 15:1) The first of these is the Parable of the Lost Sheep:

What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (15:3-7)


The Parable of the Lost Coin follows immediately:

Or what woman, having ten silver coins, is she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost.' Just so, I tell you , there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents. (15:8-10)


These are wonderful parables that serve as images of our heavenly Father rejoicing when He "finds" a sinner who has returned to Him through repentance. This "rejoicing" links together these two shorter parables with the masterpiece to come that closes out this trilogy of repentance-oriented parables. For the father of the parable will command his household to "make merry" with the return of his wayward son. (15:24, 32) Repentance is not simply a time of hand-wringing, regret and guilt. It is the beginning of a new life and an open-ended future that is a radical change in direction from the "no exit" of sin and alienation from God. The somber and stultifying atmosphere of sin is driven away by the "breath" of the Spirit, which "blows where it wills." Of course, repentance is hard work - for old habits die hard - but sustained by the grace of God and the promise of salvation, the entire process to this day is most perfectly described by St. John Klimakos as "joy-creating sorrow." Remorse for the past devoid of forgiveness will only produce sorrow - if not despair. The acceptance of divine forgiveness produces joy - both for God and the sinner. A profound awareness of God's gift of salvation as the only meaningful release from the sorrow of sin led to the "gift of tears" of the saints. Their weeping was the expression of an inner joy that was overwhelming.

If (or As?) we squander our "inheritance" from our heavenly Father, we resemble that representative figure of the prodigal son. We too, then, "journey into a far country" there to waste our wealth in "loose living." (15:13) Unlike the prodigal son, though, we can do this without moving a step away from our homes. We need only retreat into the seemingly limitless space of our imaginations where fantasies entice us with unrealizable visions of "self-realization" or "pleasure." Then, there are the murky recesses of our hearts; uncharted territory that if not filled with the grace of God will "fill up" with "inner demons" that will eventually frighten us by the sheer audacity of temptations we never thought ourselves capable of entertaining. Or, perhaps a bit less dramatically, there are "the pods that the swine ate" (15:16), symbolic of philosophies and worldviews totally foreign to the Christ-centered life of the Church. The end result will be an emptiness and desolation that will exhaust our own inner resources. Our humbled minds and bodies will begin to search elsewhere for more satisfying nourishment. Anyone in such a predicament will only hope to be blessed - as was true of the prodigal son - with that mysterious process that leads to repentance. Described simply as, "he came to himself." (15:17) Then, in words that have an urgency far greater than in an entire book of theology, we too may cry out, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants." (15:18-19)

We all know what follows: the compassionate father who runs to embrace his son in love; the clothing of the son in festal garments; the orders and preparations for a sumptuous banquet of joy; and the solemn words: "for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found." (15:24) As this parable repeats itself endlessly until the end of time, with its finely-etched descriptions of sin, repentance and redemption; we continue to witness some of the "mini-resurrections" that make up the meaningful dramas of everyday life.



Monday, March 1, 2021

A Saint for Leap Year Only?

 

 



Dear Parish Faithful,

 

If the year 2021 was a leap year, then today would be February 29. As it is, it is actually March 1. With this in mind, I would like to share a wonderful legend from our spiritual tradition that recognizes the usual non-appearance of February 29:

A popular Russian legend tells us how St. Nicholas and St. Cassian were once sent from Paradise upon a visit to earth. On their journey they met a poor peasant who had got his wagon, with a loud of hay upon it, stuck deep in the mud and was making fruitless efforts to get his horses on. 

 

 'Let's go and give the good fellow a hand,' said St. Nicholas 

 'Not I; I am keeping out of it,' replied St. Cassian, 'I don't want to get my vestments dirty.'   

'Well, wait for me,' said St. Nicholas, 'or go on without me if you like,' and plunging without hesitation into the mud he vigorously assisted the peasant in dragging his wagon out of the rut.   

When he had finished the job and caught his companion up he was all covered in filth; his vestments were torn and soiled and looked like a beggar's rags. St. Peter was amazed to see him arrive at the gate of Paradise in this condition. 

 'I say! Who ever got you into that state?' he asked. 

 St. Nicholas told his story. 

 'And what about you? asked St. Peter, turning to St. Cassian. 'Weren't you with him in this encounter?' 

 'Yes, but I don't meddle in things that are no concern of mine, and I was especially anxious not to get my beautiful vestments dirty.' 

 'Very well,' said St. Peter, 'you, St. Nicholas, because you were not afraid of getting dirty in helping your neighbor out of a difficulty, shall for the future have two feasts a year, and you shall be reckoned the greatest of saints after me by all the peasants of Holy Russia. And you, St. Cassian, must be content with having  nice clean vestments; you shall have your feast day in the leap year only, once every four years.'   

 

An effective story! However, the Church has been more lenient with St. John Cassian, since his feast day is transferred to February 28, whenever it is not a leap year, as was the case yesterday.

Actually, St. John Cassian (c. 365-c. 435) is one of the greatest of the Church's teachers on what we call "the spiritual life." He was born in ancient Dacia (present day Romania) and eventually traveled extensively throughout the Holy Land, spending time especially in Bethlehem. He eventually made his way to Egypt, where he sat at the feet of some of the greatest of the Desert Fathers, absorbing their teaching. St. John is one of the founders of Western monasticism, for his final move was to ancient Gaul, where he established monastic communities in Marseilles and the region of Provence. Once settled there, he wrote two highly influential books in Latin - The Institutions and The Conferences. In this latter book, he interprets the words of the Syrian and Egyptian desert dwellers, in the process deeply enriching the monastic movements in the West. In the words of the historian Owen Chadwick: "Like the Rule of St. Benedict, his work was a protection against excess and a constant recall to that primitive simplicity where eastern spirituality met western."

In his First Conference, St. John passes on the words of the Abba Moses from the desert of Egypt (a place called Scete). Here is just a bit of his teaching as presented through the words of St. John Cassian as he spoke to and listened to Abba Moses:

 

"Every art and every discipline has a particular objective, that is to say, a target and an end peculiarly its own. Someone keenly engaged in any one art calmly and freely endures every toil, danger, and loss. ... So, tell me what is the end and the objective which inspires you to endure all these trials so gladly."

"As we have said, the aim of our profession is the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. But our point of reference, our objective, is a clean heart, without which it is impossible for anyone to reach our target. ... Our objective is purity of heart which he so justly describes as sanctification, for without this the goal cannot be reached. In other words it is as if he said that you have purity of heart for an objective and eternal life as the goal."

"Not to be jealous, not to be puffed up, not to act heedlessly, not to seek what does not belong to one, not to rejoice over some injustice, not to plan evil - what is this and its like if not the continuous offering to God of a heart that is perfect and truly pure, a heart kept free of all disturbance."

From CONFERENCE ONE.

 

Perhaps some things here to mediate upon as we approach Great Lent.

 

There is a wonderful version of this book in translation and with an excellent Introduction by Owen Chadwick, one of greatest Church historians of the 20th c:

 



https://www.amazon.com/John-Cassian-Conferences-Spirituality-Paperback/dp/080912694X/

And for our kindle users:
https://www.amazon.com/Conferences-Desert-Fathers-Illustrated-ebook/dp/B0143Y8C8K/

 

 

Monday, February 22, 2021

'Unsettling Times' - A Contemporary Commentary

 

Dear Parish Faithful,

 



Another Grim Milestone - Watching the news yesterday evening, I learned that we have now surpassed 500,000 American COVID-19 deaths in about one year's time. This is the largest number of deaths in the world by far. This staggering figure surpasses the number of deaths among American soldiers in World Wars I & II and the Vietnam war combined. The news channel I was watching had a moving tribute to a handful of representative citizens who lost their lives. Some of them were quite young. This has been an ongoing American tragedy, and perhaps all we can do is pray with deep respect and conviction: Memory Eternal! And let us all continue to remain vigilant and follow the prescribed guidelines meant for our collective protection.

Domestic Concerns and International Horror - The news flowed into the latest edition of 60 Minutes. The first segment covered the alarming increase of threats of violence toward many American federal judges. They clearly need and deserve more protection.

The second segment covered the murderous and even genocidal reign of Assad in Syria. Some brave Syrian journalists and photographers have chronicled these horrendous crimes and shared them with the Western world. The thousands of saved photographs of tortured victims smuggled out of Syria (and verified by American intelligence as to their authenticity) are a grim record of just how horrible this has been for thousands of Syrians. Whole towns and villages have been ravaged and women and children are among these victims, with many tortured beyond recognition. The goal is to bring Assad to justice "one day" on an international level. The evidence is overwhelming, but the path to that justice will prove to be difficult. 

The Future of QAnon - The third segment of 60 Minutes dealt with the conspiracy theory known as QAnon, discussing its future following its many unfulfilled expectations. It is a troubling movement and since we live in unsettling times it could very well be a potent combination of fear, paranoia, and manipulation that draws people into such a world of fantasy and unreality. Is it too naive to think that practicing Orthodox Christians cannot be susceptible to such conspiracy theories? Probably so, but we have the "tools" on hand that protect us from such delusion. In the Church's spiritual tradition, the Fathers teach us about the virtue of diakrasis. This is usually translated as "discernment," the capacity to discern - and then choose - between good and evil; truth and falsehood; reality and fantasy. Archbishop Kallistos Ware has called diakrasis a "spiritual sense of good taste." The saints claim that the gift of discernment is essential to the spiritual life. Otherwise, we can fall into what is called plani in our spiritual tradition. And this means delusion and fantasy.

Keeping our gaze on the crucified and risen Christ remains absolutely essential. Following the precepts of the Gospel and looking to the saints as icons of sanity and holiness. Confessing our sins and seeking spiritual guidance, reading the Scriptures and receiving the Eucharist. Cultivating the virtues of humility, patience and love. These are the wonderful gifts granted to us in the Church so as to liberate ourselves from the fear, paranoia, and manipulation that threatens us and our children in what are, indeed, unsettling times. I often like to recall the words of Fr. Thomas Hopko: In the Church you can keep your sanity.

Watching the news post-dinner is hardly an opportunity for relaxation in today's deeply troubled world. It reinforces Fr. Roman Braga's urgent plea: "Stay in the boat!"

 

Friday, February 19, 2021

The Gospel Has Turned Things Upside Down


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

We have entered the season of the Triodion, that vast compilation of lenten hymnography gathered together in one book over the centuries that will guide us through the pre-lenten period; and then on through Great Lent and Holy Week; taking us to the very brink of the paschal celebration of the Death and Resurrection of Christ. 




The inspired hymnography of the Triodion interprets the Scriptures in a direct and accessible manner, in the process making it challengingly clear that each person and event from the Scriptures – Old or New Testament; positive or negative – is meant to be applied to our own lives as someone or something to emulate or avoid. The Church always treats the Scriptures as a living Word, not as a chronicle of the past or as an abstract system of belief. This form of concrete realism is indeed more challenging than a presentation of untested ideas. 

Be that as it may, the Triodion opens with the Sunday of the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (LK. 18:10-14). In the Orthodox Church, this reading is part of the pre-lenten cycle always prescribed for the fourth Sunday before Great Lent begins. The intentions of the Lord in delivering this parable are clearly expressed in the solemn pronouncement following the parable itself:

 

For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted. (LK. 18:14)

 

The pride and self-righteousness of the Pharisee – he who “exalts himself” – is rather starkly contrasted with the humility and repentance of the Publican – he who “humbles himself.” From these two examples of a revealed interior disposition, it is only the publican who is “justified” according to Christ. With a kind of “folk-wisdom” that would have resonated for his rural flock in early 20th century Serbia, Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich recasts the parable in an earthy story form that seeks to reinforce Christ’s teaching:

 

A man went into the forest to choose a tree from which to make roof beams. And he saw two trees, one beside the other. One was smooth and tall, but had rotted away inside, and the other was rough on the outside and ugly, but its core was healthy. The man sighed, and said to himself: “What use is this smooth, tall tree to me if it is rotten inside and useless for beams? The other one, even if it is rough and ugly, is at least healthy on the inside and so, if I put a bit more effort into it, I can use it for roof-beams for my house.” And, without thinking any more about it, he chose that tree.

 

And just to be certain, Bishop Nikolai drives home the moral point in the following conclusion:

 

So will God choose between two men for His house, and will choose, not the one who appears outwardly righteous, but the one whose heart is filled with God’s healthy righteousness.

 

The Pharisee acted according to the Law, keeping himself free externally from sin, fasting twice a week and paying a tithe on all that he had. How many parish priests secretly wish that that was precisely how their parishioners would live and act!? (For the moment we will not investigate just how parishioners would wish their priests to act). In fact, conventional wisdom would lead up to expect that in such a parable, the Pharisee would be praised precisely for his exact piety; and the publican would serve as a stark reminder of how not to live. 

However, Christ turns all of this conventional wisdom "upside down," for it is the interior orientation of the heart that Christ is most concerned with; and it is here that the Pharisee twisted righteousness into self-righteousness which is basically a form of idolatry – that of the “self.” Do any of us escape that self-destructive trap? If not, then better to admit it, as St. John Chrysostom reminds us:

 

It is evil to sin, though here help can be given; but to sin, and not to admit it – there is no help here.

 

The humility of the publican is perhaps best expressed in a series of short descriptions – unwillingness to look up towards heaven, the beating of the breast, the plaintive cry: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” – rather than an intellectually-constructed set of abstract notions. 

Why is it so hard to be humble? Perhaps because it frightens us. But what would the source of this fear possibly be? We fear being taken advantage of, of being used by others, of losing ground in our struggle to not only get ahead, but to survive in a harsh world. We may pay lip-service to humility as Christians, but we act as if deep down we “know better.” Humility is hardly a recommended survival tactic! I would rather doubt that humility is the “stuff” of self-help literature. 

This silent and implicit rejection of the virtue of humility makes a certain amount of sense if we equate humility – wrongfully, I am certain – with weakness, timidity, passivity, fear of conflict, etc. So we usually practice a safe form of humility when that will keep us in our “comfort zone.” But do we know better? Can we actually doubt the strength of a universally-acclaimed Christian virtue without having experienced it ourselves? Certainly we recognize the truth that we literally depend upon the humility of Christ for the gift of salvation! We praise and glorify Christ precisely because of His surpassing humility. Perhaps, then, if we ever made a sustained effort to be humble, we would appraise this essential virtue differently. As the saints teach us:

 

Until a human person achieves humility, he will receive no reward for his works. The reward is given not for the works but for the humility. (St. Isaac the Syrian)

A humble person never falls. Being already lower than any, where can he fall? Vanity is a great humiliation, but humility is a great exalting, honor and dignity. (St. Makarios the Great)

 

The Gospel – based on the scandal of the Cross – has turned many things upside down. In God’s judgment, according to Christ, the proud are humbled and the humbled are exalted. The parable of the Publican and the Pharisee sets this choice before us.