Sunday, November 30, 2014

Homily of Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Dear Parish Faithful,

As is our tradition, at the Thanksgiving Day Liturgy I always read to the parish the final homily of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, given on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. This was the last time that Fr. Alexander served the Liturgy before his death a few weeks later on December 13 (the day of the repose of Fr. Herman of Alaska).  It is a short, concise, but extraordinary "last testament" from a man who knew he was dying. It is a perfect expression of all that Fr. Alexander believed in and committed himself to as an Orthodox Christian priest, theologian, teacher and writer.  That homily is accessible from the link below:

Fr. Alexander Schmemann was the dean of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary for many years and up until the time of his death in 1983. (I graduated from the seminary in 1981 and Fr. Alexander became sick with the cancer that would take his life the following year) He was the most charismatic person that I ever knew personally, and it was a great privilege and joy to be a seminarian when he was still a vigorous and illuminating presence. The atmosphere in a room was always transfigured the moment that Fr. Schmemann entered it, and his presence was almost magnetic in how he attracted immediate attention.  And he almost always had something memorable to say. Some people are naturally charismatic, and I think that this was true in the case of Fr. Schmemann.  However, I also believe that his charisma was derived from the fact that he was imbued with a profound sense of gratitude for the gift of life and for the gift of salvation in Christ.  Fr. Alexander had an extraordinary sense of the gift of life in all of its variety and richness.  There was hardly anything about "life" that he did not enjoy; and for him this all came together in the Liturgy when we offer the world back to God in adoration with the words: "Thine own of thine own, we offer unto Thee of all and for all."

When Fr. Schmemann died in 1983, a brief tribute to him was filmed by CBS News.  Reminding me of this, Mother Paula (Vicki Bellas) sent me the following note and link.  I would like to share it with anyone who may be interested.  Fr. Alexander appears briefly at the beginning, so there is a brief glimpse of him and his style. The rest is a series of tributes to him from various bishops, scholars, friends, etc. including the words of Fr. Thomas Hopko, who was his son-in-law.  The video ends with Fr. Alexander's funeral, an extraordinary event that I returned to New York for.  I recall approaching Matushka Anne Hopko (Fr. Alexander's daughter) and making a comment about the unique atmosphere of the funeral. She smiled, and then replied:  "Yes, just like Pascha!"  That response caught the essence of Fr. Schmemann's life - and his death.

Bless Father, perhaps you have seen this.

Interview by Fr Tom Hopko

Monday, November 24, 2014

On Death and Our Daily Lives

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

In the Orthodox Prayer Book under the heading "Before Sleep," we find the following:  "A Prayer of St. John of Damascus, said pointing at the bed."  This particular prayer begins in the following manner:

    O Master Who lovest mankind, is this bed to be my coffin?  Or wilt Thou enlighten my wretched soul with another day?

As St. John was a monk we could, of course, dismiss or ignore such a prayer as "monastic excess" or even as a morbid and medieval fixation on death.  (It seems that whenever our contemporary ears  encounter anything  strange, unfamiliar or jarring from the past the label of "medieval" allows us to disengage from any thoughtful consideration of what is being said).  If we are sleepy, but essentially healthy, as we prepare for bed on any given evening, then it seems quite unlikely - thank God! - that our bed will serve as our coffin as we prepare to enter into it. The inevitable seems safely postponed for the moment and we feel confident that we will rise with the sun the following morning.  And yet a moment of serious reflection on our common destiny - that great equalizer that we call death - should alert those who are spiritually vigilant, that such a prayer cannot simply be dismissed as either monastic or morbid. Understood in the over-all context of how and for what we may pray before sleep according to the Prayer Book and our personal prayers, it is an open-eyed, and hence realistic, reminder that "you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  (GEN. 3:19)  Perhaps a bit more poignant for those of us who are working on a second half-century that will most assuredly not be completed.

This theme comes to mind on this Monday morning because of yesterday's Gospel reading at the Liturgy:  the short parable of the "rich fool" as found uniquely in LK. 12:16-21.  Short but devastating.  The foolish landowner is far-reaching in his plans for the future.  He will tear down his old barns, now inadequate to store his abundant crops, and build "larger ones."  Anticipating the enjoyment of a life of ease based upon his accumulated wealth, he says:

    I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry."  (LK. 12:19)

However alluring, this was not to be.  For the very next thing we hear in this parable are these frightening words:

    But God said to him, 'Fool!  This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So is he who lays up treasure
    for himself, and is not rich toward God.  (LK. 12:20-21)
Such planning is mere foolishness in the eyes of God.  (As Tevye the dairyman said: "The more man plans, the harder God laughs").  The brevity of life and the uncertainty of our end has - although containing a timeless and universal truth but perhaps because of sheer repetition - often been reduced to the level of a pious cliché or religious platitude.  For that reason, spiritual vigilance is essential.  In the Church's spiritual tradition we are exhorted to cultivate the "remembrance of death." And yet our highly-secularized society convinces us to practice the "forgetfulness of death."  Which is more realistic? Or true to life?  Try as we might, we cannot forget death, of course.  So, as living human beings "go for it" in terms of life in this world the unwanted "remembrance of death" is there to trouble the mind.  In his book, God With Us, Fr. John Breck, in a chapter entitled "The Thought of Death" captures this underlying and unresolved tension:

    A great many people actually do chastise their soul with the thought of death.  They suffer acute anxiety at the thought that their life will come to and end,
    that they will die and be buried in the earth.  They fear death because of the unknown.  What lies beyond the threshold behind that veil?  Heaven?  Hell?
    Nothing?  The dread of death, which provokes questions like this, can, with tragic irony, push a person over the brink and into suicide. (p. 101)

The "remembrance of death" taken in isolation, especially among those who "have no hope" (I THESS. 4:13), can have a horrible effect upon the soul. It only makes sense to forget about it!  The Christian practice of the "remembrance of death" needs to be the result of a lively faith in Christ, the Vanquisher of death, for it to be the spiritually positive practice it is meant to be.  St. Paul has said it with an unmatched clarity and eloquence from the very dawn of Christianity:

    If Christ is not raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.  Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.  If for this life only we have
    hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.  But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For as by a
    man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.  (I COR. 15: 17-22)

From an intolerable reality that leaves us as creatures to be pitied, death itself becomes a passage to life in the risen Lord.  St. John Chrysostom could therefore write: "what was the greatest of evils, the chief point of our unhappiness, what the devil had introduced into the world, in a word death, God has turned into our glory and honor."  With the powerful words of both the Apostle Paul and St. John in mind, we can fully understand what Fr. John Breck further relates in his chapter about the thought of death:

    Our physical death remains before us, certainly and inevitably.  But is has been emptied of its power.  For those who are "in Christ," true death
    occurs at baptism, when we go down into the baptismal waters, then rise up from them, in a mimesis, or reactualization, of Christ's own death
    and resurrection.  Baptism effects a "new birth," but only because it signifies the death of the "old Adam," or former being. (p. 101)

The daily practice of the "remembrance of death" is a Christian practice that - besides its realism as mentioned above - allows us to further meditate upon the overflowing love of God that has been poured out for our salvation in Christ, the "Coming One" whose death has overcome death, fully revealed in His glorious  resurrection.  It may not be the most timely subject for dinnertime conversation or the banter of the workplace; but it has a crucial and time-honored place in our prayer life and in our "search" for those essential truths that we meditate on throughout the course of our lives. Imbued with a Christian realism that we embrace with open eyes and the virtue of hope that leaves the future open-ended, we can consciously avoid the foolishness of the rich man of the parable, but rather heed the teaching of St. James:

    Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain; whereas you do not know
    about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we shall
    do this or that."  (JAS. 4:13-15) 



Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Only Wonder Grasps Anything

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

I was reading an article that was dealing with the issue of the possible convergence between theology and science. The specific theme of the article was an analysis of the current Pope's remarks on the compatibility of belief in God and evolution. Not addressing that specific issue here, I did want to share an interesting metaphor attributed to Albert Einstein on the wonder of the created universe that the article closed with:

The human mind is not capable of grasping the Universe. We are like a little child entering a huge library. The walls are covered to the ceilings with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written these books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they were written. But the child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books - a mysterious order which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects."

I can never quite get a hold on just where Einstein stood on the "God question." Perhaps he was deliberately elusive about this ultimate question. Yet, a metaphor as the one above, certainly has a theistic ring about it; but I have read elsewhere that he did not accept the notion of a "personal God." However, this passage seems to point toward a conscious "Designer." I certainly read the metaphor in that light, as the author of the article also read it; and for which reason he closed his remarks with it. Be that as it may, Einstein's passage reminds me of something St. Gregory of Nyssa said back in the 4th c. (and St. Gregory was clearly one of the greatest minds of the 4th c. - and beyond for that matter):

"Concepts create idols; only wonder grasps anything."

Some of the things said by the Church Fathers are better left to stand without further commentary - as I believe is true of these words of St. Gregory - but rather meditated, reflected and thought over for their deepest meaning. As denizens of the information age, the question for us may be the following: Is there anything that truly fills us with wonder? And what good is a mind packed with information but unable to experience a sense of wonder when reflecting upon the seemingly infinite order of created things, both animate and inanimate? I am convinced that the Church is the "place" that we can maintain our sense of wonder to a remarkable degree. How can it be otherwise when we believe that the very creative Word of God became incarnate as a "little Child," and that after suffering the Cross He was raised from the dead?

Fascinating as it is, the question of the "how" of the existence of the universe - and of our place in it - is insignificant when compared to the "why" of the existence of the universe. We believe and we affirm that everything that exists does so because God exists and the God who exists is the "maker of heaven and earth of all things both visible and invisible." © 2014 Microsoft Terms Privacy & cookies Developers English (United States)

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Forty Shopping (and Fasting) Days Until Christmas

Dear Parish Faithful,

Forty Shopping (and Fasting) Days Until Christmas

On November 15, we will observe the first day of the 40-day Nativity/Advent Fast, meant to prepare us for the advent of the Son of God in the flesh, celebrated on December 25.  (The Western observance is from the four Advent Sundays before Christmas). For some/many of us this might very well catch us unaware and unprepared.  However, as the saying goes, “it is what it is,” and so the church calendar directs us to enter into this sacred season today.  This indicates an intensification of the perennial “battle of the calendars” that every Orthodox Christian is engaged in consciously or unconsciously.  The two calendars – the ecclesial and the secular – represent the Church and “the world” respectively.  Often, there is an underlying tension between these two spheres. Because of that tension, I believe that we find ourselves in the rather peculiar situation of being ascetical and consumerist simultaneously.  To fast, pray and be charitable is to lead a simplified life that is based around restraint, a certain discipline and a primary choice to live according to the principles of the Gospel in a highly secularized and increasingly hedonistic world.  That is what it means to be ascetical. It further means to focus upon Christ amidst an ever-increasing amount of distractions and diversions. Even with the best of intentions and a firm resolve that is not easy!  From our historical perspective of being alive in the twenty-first century, and leading the “good life” where everything is readily available, practicing any form of voluntary self-restraint is tantamount to bearing a cross.  Perhaps fulfilling some modest goals based on the Gospel in today’s world, such as it is, amounts to a Christian witness, unspectacular as those goals may be.  

Yet, as our society counts down the remaining shopping days until Christmas; and as our spending is seen as almost a patriotic act of contributing to the build-up of our failing economy; and as we want to “fit in” – especially for the sake of our children – we also are prone (or just waiting) to unleashing the “consumer within” always alert to the joys of shopping, spending and accumulating. When you add in the unending “entertainment” that is designed to create a holiday season atmosphere, it can all get rather overwhelming.  Certainly, these are some of the joys of family life, and we feel a deep satisfaction when we surround our children with the warmth and security that the sharing of gifts brings to our domestic lives.  Perhaps, though, we can be vigilant about knowing when “enough is enough;” or even better that “enough is a feast.”  An awareness – combined with sharing - of those who have next to nothing is also a way of overcoming our own self-absorption and expanding our notion of the “neighbor.”

Therefore, to be both an ascetic and a consumer is indicative of the challenges facing us as Christians in a world that clearly favors and “caters” to our consumerist tendencies.  To speak honestly, this is a difficult  and uneasy balance to maintain. How can it possibly be otherwise, when to live ascetically is to restrain those very consumerist tendencies?  I believe that what we are essentially trying to maintain is our identity as Orthodox Christians within the confines of a culture either indifferent or hostile to Christianity.  If the Church remains an essential part of the build-up toward Christmas, then we can go a long way in maintaining that balance.  Although I do not particularly like putting it this way, I would contend that if the church is a place of choice that at least “competes” with the mall, then that again may be one of the modest victories in the underlying battle for our ultimate loyalty that a consumerist Christmas season awakens us to. The Church directs us to fast before we feast.  Does that make any sense? Do we understand the theological/spiritual principles that is behind such an approach?  Can we develop some domestic strategies that will give us  the opportunity to put that into practice to at least some extent?  Do we care enough?

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

Friday, November 7, 2014

On "Spiritual Warfare"

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" And he said, "legion;" for many demons had entered him. And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss. Now a large herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside; and they begged him to let them enter into these. So he gave them leave. Then the demons came out of the man and entered into the swine and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and drowned. 

When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled, and told it in the city and in the country. Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. And those who had seen it told them how he who had been possessed with demons had been healed.

LK. 8:30-36) 

 The text above - a partial account of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac - served as one of two epigraphs for Fyodor Dostoevsky's gripping novel that was entitled, simply, Demons. (The novel has also been translated, less accurately, as The Possessed). For Dostoevsky, living and writing in 19th c. Russia, the "demons" were the newly-emerging revolutionaries who were not only determined to overthrow the Russian monarchy; but also committed to abolish belief in God and the Orthodox Christian culture that was shaped by that belief. Aspiring to such a radical rejection of the prevailing political, social, cultural, and religious order, these revolutionaries were named "nihilists," for they believed, essentially, that nothing was sacred or beyond their desire to destroy. Out of the ashes of this nihilistic disorder something resembling a utopian society was to emerge, now cleansed of any dead remnants from the past. Dostoevsky was hoping that the nihilistic revolutionaries of his era would self-destruct as did the demons - called "legion" - of the Gospel account. In his compelling novel that is precisely what happens, but Dostoevsky was enough of a realist to realize that the outcome could be different, especially with the decay that was eroding the effectiveness of the very institutions he was hoping would withstand such an onslaught. And the reality was that this nihilistic orgy of violence would occur in the generation following his death in 1881. Thus, Dostoevsky uncannily "prophesized" the later Russian Revolution that engaged in precisely such a sweepingly destructive movement against what was considered a God-established order. But the person who would repent of such nihilistic tendencies and to return to faith in Christ was to enjoy the transformative experience of "sitting at the feet of Jesus clothed and in his right mind." Demons proved to be an unforgettable artistic actualization of the Gospel account of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac and what it means to turn to Christ.

It is only in St. Luke's account that we read that wonderful verse of the healed demoniac sitting at the feet of Jesus. Yet, the story of the Garasene demoniac also appears in the Gospels of Sts. Mark and Matthew. It is thus a story that must have made a strong impact on the early Church. Details will differ - St. Matthew actually records the healing of two demoniacs instead of one - but the intense drama of this narrative cannot but stand out against the bleak background of the rugged landscape, the tombs where the demoniac(s) lived in isolation, and of course the cliff with the abyss below that swallowed up the herd of trampling and frenzied swine. It is an account that more-or-less assaults our modern sensibilities - especially a kind of rationalistic and moralistic Christianity. The realm and reality of the demonic and the "spiritual warfare" implied by recognizing such a realm and reality opens up our minds and hearts to both the irrational and supra-rational world of the Gospel in which Christ has come to "bind" the "strong man." This is a fierce battle that demands a greater commitment to Christ and the Gospel than conventional Sunday morning church attendance.

It is just such a deeper commitment that will perhaps "reward" us with sitting at the feet of Jesus "clothed" in our right mind. (A weaker commitment may mean that we are content with standing in the back of the room at a safe distance and only occasionally listening - or listening only when we hear something that appeals to us, while shutting out the "hard sayings"). Sitting at the feet of Jesus implies listening to his words, allowing them to penetrate our hearts, and acting upon them to the extent that we are able. We claim that Christ is the "Lord and Master" of our lives. Such a claim means that there is really no other place that we want to "sit" and absorb and be nourished by what we are hearing. To be in our "right mind" does not simply mean that we have not been diagnosed with a clinically-defined mental disorder. It implies a clarity of vision and a "worldview" grounded in the reality of God's existence and gracious presence. It also means freedom from moral, ethical and spiritual disorders. Perhaps to sit at the feet of Jesus and to be clothed and in our right mind indicates a state of spiritual sanity. With a surrounding world engulfed in modes of behavior that can only be considered "insane," the Church remains the "place" where we retain our sanity. That may take some time and some work. The "demons" must first be expelled. We must fear the abyss of destruction that swallows up the possessed swine of the Gospel account. Then we can join the ranks of the saints and sit at the feet of Jesus "clothed and in our right mind." 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Where do we start?

Dear Parish Faithful,

At the first session of this year's Fall Adult Education class, we discussed the first chapter of Fr. Andrew Louth's book Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology. This chapter had an interesting title: "Thinking and doing; being and praying: where do we start?" Fr. Andrew makes the claim that "these are fundamental human activities. It is the case, I would suggest, that we do not exactly learn to do these things - we engage in these simply by being human - what happens is that we learn what is involved in doing these things." (p. 3) He adds to this a bit more, by saying: 

 " ... we already know the world in some sense, simply by living in it, and what philosophy does is help us to reflect on what is involved in that knowledge of the world. So it is with theology: thinking and doing, being and praying, are activities we all engage in at some level or another." (p. 3) 

 In his excellent book, Fr. Andrew is trying to link theology directly with experience, or what he would call "engagement" with God. This, of course, involves worship and prayer. Here is passage in which he sums this up quite nicely: 

 "This sense of theology as rooted in experience, and yet the idea that this experience is beyond us, so that we are constantly pushed back to repent, to turn again to God: this seems to me absolutely central to the Orthodox experience of theology, of coming to know God." (p. 7) 

 Theology leads us to repentance, because "true" theology - a direction experience of God - is an overwhelming experience of the mystery which is God; a mystery before which we are aware of our sinfulness. 

At the close of this opening chapter, Fr. Andrew includes an extraordinary text that comes from Fr. Pavel Florensky, a brilliant Russian Orthodox theologian from the early 20th c. Fr. Florensky - a living refutation of all that Bolshevism and the Russian revolution stood for - ultimately perished in a Soviet prison camp around 1937. In this short excerpt from his monumental book, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters, Fr. Florensky captures the essence of what it means to live and move within the reality of the Church. There is real depth and beauty in this passage, I believe. A text perhaps to reflect on as we, in turn, live and move within the Church to this day: 

 the life of the Church is assimilated and known only through life - not in the abstract, not is a rational way. If one must nevertheless apply concepts to the life of the Church, the most appropriate concepts would be not juridical and archaeological ones but biological and aesthetic ones. What is ecclesiality? It is a new life, life in the Spirit. What is the criterion of the rightness of this life? Beauty. Yes, there is a special beauty of the spirit, and, ungraspable by logical formulas, it is at the same time the only true path to the definition of what is orthodox and what is not orthodox. 

The connoisseurs of this beauty are the spiritual elders, the startsy, the masters of the "art of arts," as the holy fathers call asceticism. The startsy were adept at assessing the quality of the spiritual life. The Orthodox taste, the Orthodox temper, is felt but it is not subject to arithmetical calculation. Orthodoxy is shown, not proved. That is why there is only one way to understand Orthodoxy: through direct orthodox experience ... to become Orthodox, it is necessary to immerse oneself all at once in the very elements of Orthodoxy, to begin living in an Orthodox way. There is no other way. (p. 14-15)