Come to Jesus Meeting

August 4, 2010

Where I’m from, we call uncomfortable confrontations a ‘Come to Jesus Meeting.’ I supposed this post will be in the spirit of that.

For the last year or year and a half, the Desert Calling webforum community has been mostly inactive and has, at last, shut down. I must admit that I was somewhat responsible for not keeping up with things in the community and did not help when I could have, and let hurt feelings get in the way of Christian brotherhood and community spirit. For my friends and acquaintances from DC, I want to offer a heartfelt apology: Forgive me, for I am a wretched sinner.  In addition to this, the blog site here never really “came together” or coalesced around an idea or direction. The group of contributors had great and grand ideas and, initially, a shared vision and purose; that is, to share the depths of the Orthodox Christian faith with others, to encourage those who had found themselves at the doorstep of the Church, and to share how our own lives had been changed by the Church.

The problem is, we were all newbies. When we started the blog we were two enthusiastic catechumens and one overly-zealous convert on whom the Holy Chrism was not yet dry. We knew in our heads all about the Church, and, true enough, that changed our perceptions of the world pretty vastly. But we, each one of us, was not truly changed as much as we thought. We discovered where our hearts were, and–quite understandably, given the exile from the heart which characterizes our society–stupidly believed we had been (past tense) changed. We failed to realize that the depths we were discovering were not even really the depths, but just the edges of the beach where the tides occasionally washed over our still very dry feet.

So while the idea may have been started with the best of intentions, while the goals were good and the purpose fine, the truth is we lacked what was necessary to finish the task we had set for ourselves and to make a good report of it.  And in many ways it hurt us spiritually (at least, it did me) to continue to work on something that 1) I was not qualified to do and 2) was getting tired of doing. As time wore on and we sought more “help” (from more newbies) things just got worse; there was a lack of unity, a lack of true brotherly feeling (which had so characterized the formation of DC and was the initial inspiration for this blog), and differences in approach and philosophy that could not be reconciled because so many of us (read: Justinian) were convinced that our approach and our philosophy were correct. Instead of acting to compliment one another, we acted to try to prove our “side.” This is not Orthodox, and it shames me to say that I have acted this way. Again, I ask forgiveness from all those whom I wronged whether intentionally or unintentionally, knowingly or unknowingly.

That being said, the question is what to do with the Desert Calling Blog. I have considered just letting it die; either deleting it or just abandoning it. After considering that I’ve decided that is probably not a great option. So what I propose to do is to keep the existing posts and simply change what the blog’s main focus will be. Many of the most popular posts here have been on reflections from the Desert Fathers…so future posts will be along those lines. A story or saying of the Desert Fathers and then some small, quick reflection or devotion about it. If you liked these sorts of posts here in the past, please let me know. If this is of no use to anyone, you can feel free to tell me that as well.

God be with all of you. Blessed fast!

The first catholic epistle of the Holy Apostle Peter instructs the faithful to “Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8), and it is true that we must love one another. In fact, St. John records it in his Gospel as nothing short of a commandment from the Lord, who said “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). It is imperative, then, that we love one another. It is not optional. The loveless life is a graceless life, one that is unredeemed and ultimately unchristian. However, when we talk about loving one another, we often forget that love is often called upon to make sacrifices peculiar to itself; by this I mean that love, by its nature, desires closeness, joy, happiness, filial feeling, loyalty, devotion…but in fulfilling these (and by no means is this an exhaustive list), love sometimes has to rebuke, reprove, and correct. Did St. Paul love the Thessalonians any less for having to reprove them? In the Apocalypse, does not Jesus himself reprove the Churches? And who would suggest that He does so out of malice or maliciousness, and not out of his deep and abiding love for the sheep of His fold?

So the commandment to love one another, even as He loves us, must be remembered in this light; often we hear that we need to “speak the truth in love” and that is absolutely so. However, very often, this is just an excuse to avoid confrontation, possible hurt feelings, and as an excuse to keep from exercising our responsibility to love in this way. And so it is that sometimes, lest we be accounted puffed up and prideful, we will avoid these situations entirely, saying that it would be judgmental or uncharitable to say clearly what is the truth. But let us take a lesson from the Desert Fathers:

It was said concerning Abba  Agathon that some monks came  to find him  having
heard tell  of his great  discernment.  Wanting to  see  if he would  lose his
temper they  said  to him  'Aren't  you that   Agathon who is   said to  be  a
fornicator and a proud man?' 'Yes, it  is very true,'  he  answered. They
resumed, 'Aren't you  that Agothon who is always talking  nonsense?' 'I am."
Again they said 'Aren't you Agothon the heretic?' But at that he replied 'I am
not a heretic.' So they asked him, 'Tell us why  you accepted everything we
cast you, but repudiated this last insult.' He replied 'The first accusations
I take to myself for that is  good for my soul. But  heresy is separation from
God. Now I have no wish to be separated from God.' At  this saying they were
astonished at his discernment and returned, edified.

The great desert father, Agathon, would not consent to being called a heretic; heresy, he says, is separation from God. Even though he showed mercy to others and accused only himself of great sins, he nevertheless took heresy and heretical teaching very, very seriously.  Abba Agathon understood that the slightest deflection of the truth would lead one into a plentitude of errors. And so we must also understand this, and not shrink away from making out boast in the Lord and His Church and its eternal truth–which is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  Let us be unafraid to love our fellow Christians enough to reprove them in their errors…not in some kind of crusading, arrogant, condescending way, but honestly, frankly, and without compromising the Truth for the sake of appearing charitable. Because charity that doesn’t hurt a little, that doesn’t cost us anything, isn’t charity at all.

It is always particularly interesting to me when the Gospel reading has Jesus issuing some command, and today’s very short Gospel lesson has a number of interesting features.  In fact, it covers a somewhat famous event, but I think that there is some deeper meaning than that understanding with which I grew up.  So, let’s take a minute and read over the passage from St. Mark VII:30-34:

And he charged them that they should tell no man of him. And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the presbyters, and the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  And he spoke that saying openly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him. But when he had turned about, and looked on his disciples, he rebuked Peter, saying, Get thee behind me, Satan: for thou savorest not the things that are of God, but the things that are of men. And when he had called the people [to him] with his disciples also, he said to them, Whoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

This follows directly from yesterday’s reading, where Christ heals the blind man by spitting on his eyes.  This is one of those curious passages where Jesus strictly charges both the man he healed, and those who witnessed the healing, to say nothing about it.  Of course, the scriptures tell us in many places that often, these commands were not heeded.  But what is more curious, to me at least, is that He here goes immediately into teaching about His death and resurrection.  Almost as if there were a causal connexion.

Which, of course, there is.

As in the parable about the man who owned a vineyard, and improved it, and let it out to tenants who beat and stoned his servants, and finally conspired to murder his heir and take his inheritance, here we see that the chief men of Israel (the presbyters, chief priests, and scribes) reject Jesus for the very reason that He came to those who were lowly and in need, and rejected the way of temporal power.  He was not the sort of Messias they had been expecting; and it seems from the reading here today, His teaching on this matter was not what Peter–who, let us remember, was the first to confess Him as God–had been expecting either.

How often it is that I am like Peter.  I know that He is God, but rather than bring that understanding the the fore and interpret everything that I see through that one truth, I more often than not ‘savorest the things that are of men.’ I was raised in a tradition where that is what prayer was: asking God to do things for you.  Old habits die hard–especially when one is unwilling to crucify ones self upon one’s cross.  And yet, that is precisely how today’s teaching ends, with Jesus telling all of us “Whoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”

The sixth chapter of the Gospel of St. John tells us that after He told the people that they could not be saved unless they ate His flesh and drank His blood, many left Him because of this hard teaching.  Times like this morning, I feel far more wretched than they, because I believe that at the Eucharist I partake of His very Body and His very Blood, but I imagine myself to be greater than my Master.  “He was crucified for me” takes on a dangerous meaning in the minds of many; yes, He was crucified for each of us, to destroy Death in His flesh and make an end of the Law of Sin and Death…but He was not crucified so that we do not have to suffer our own cross, following Him and His example.  Today’s Gospel clearly teaches that this worldly understanding that “Christ did it for me” is of the things of men–and of Satan.  And if St. Peter, who was the first to confess Him, who saw Him transfigured upon Mt. Tabor, could fall into that trap, then so can any one of us.

May Christ, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief, illumine and enlighten all of us through the coming Feast of His Nativity according to the flesh. Amen.

Dominus vobiscum+

How strange it is that we hardly ever think about Christ’s human family.  We Orthodox acknowledge that He took on flesh for our sake from the Theotokos, and respect her accordingly–but what of her mother? Her father? Her family…which is, in a very real and literally human way, the family of God Himself, chose by Him outside of time?

Today, the Church celebrates the Conception of the Theotokos, and honors her mother, St. Anna, who is the grandmother of Our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.  Even in contemplating this, it seems strange to me, that God has a grandmother, just as I do.  And if the Theotokos becomes our mother through adoption when we join the Church, being identified with her son and our God, then in some sense, St. Anna becomes our grandmother.  Perhaps that is why she is so faithful to hear and answer the prayers and petitions given her–particularly about healing.

St. Gregory Palamas says this of the ancestors of God, of whom He is descended through His mother:

This is why the Lord God said on that occasion of the rejected ones, “My Spirit shall not abide with these men, for they are flesh.” Although the Virgin, of whom Christ was born according to the flesh, came from Adam’s flesh and seed, yet, because of this flesh had been cleansed in many different ways by the Holy Spirit from the start, she was descended from those who had been chosen from every generation for their excellence. Noah, too, “a just man and perfect in his generation,” as the Scriptures say of him, was found worthy of this election.

Observe also that the Holy Spirit makes it clear to such as have understanding that the whole of divinely inspired Scripture was written because of the Virgin Mother of God. It relates in detail the entire line of her ancestry, which begins with Adam, then Zerubbabel, those in between them and their ancestors, and goes up to the time of the Virgin Mother of God. By contrast, Scripture does not touch upon some races at all, and in the case of others, it makes a start at tracing their descent, then soon abandons them, leaving them in the depths of oblivion.  Above all, it commemorates those of the Mother of God’s forebears who, in their own lives and the deeds wrought by them, prefigured Christ, who was to be born of the Virgin.

And so it is that today, we celebrate the most immediate of the forebears of the Theotokos, her mother, the righteous St. Anna, and her conception by God’s grace and mercy of the Theotokos–for our salvation and the restoration of mankind.

Troparion of St Anna    Tone 4
Today the bonds of barrenness are loosed;/ for God listened to Joachim and Anna./ He promised them – although it was beyond hope -/ that they should bear a divine child./ From this child was born incarnate the Infinite God,/ Who told the Angel to cry to her:/ Rejoice, full of grace; the Lord is with thee.

Kontakion of St Anna    Tone 4
Today creation celebrates Anna’s conception which was effected by God./ For she conceived the Maiden who conceived the Word/ Who is beyond all words.

(Abba Isaiah) also said ‘When God wishes to take pity on a soul and it rebels, not bearing anything and doing its own will,  he then allows  it to suffer that which it does not want, in order that it may seek him again.’

It strikes me every year as we pull out the Lenten Triodion on the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, marking the beginning of the Lenten season, how much rebellion, how much hopeless self-will I continually pursue.  Being the unrepentant hedonist that I am, I continually complain and grumble over every little misfortune that comes my way, and yet, all too often I forget to bless and thank God for even the great things he has done for me (to say nothing of learning to actually thank Him for even my adversities).  Like a petulant child, I spend large portions of the year neglecting Him, forgetting Him, and relegating Him to my often-unused prayer corner and Sunday mornings.

Picking up the Desert Fathers always makes me realize something else about myself, something else that I’d rather forget, ignore, and lock up in a box under my bed.  Today, Abba Isaiah reminds me that it is God’s pity which sends misfortune and disaster upon the rebellious man, so that that man will suffer the pangs of desire for that which he ultimately does not want, so that he will come to himself, and realize that what he truly desires is God.

To come to one’s self is an important concept.  The Gospel tells us that, while lying in the mud with the swine and coveting their food, the Prodigal Son “came to himself” and realized that he would be better off even as a servant in the house of his father.  With the Sunday of the Prodigal coming up this weekend, reflecting on such an understanding of the suffering of rebellion takes on a much more poignant meaning to me.  Have I come to myself?  Or am I only dimly walking about in the shadows of death that permeate the world—that highlight the darkness of the world that I carry within me?

Lord, have mercy upon me, and show the light of Thy countenance upon me, revealing to me that which causes me to separate myself from Thee, that I may bring this brokenness and lay at Thy pierced feet.  Amen.

Orthodoxy and Triumphalism

September 26, 2008

It seems recently that accusations of “triumphalism” have been thrown around pretty wildly. I find it curious that it is being used by (presumably) Orthodox to denigrate other Orthodox, most especially when, on the first Sunday of Great Lent every year, we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy. If we make our boast in the Lord, or in his Cross, what is the harm in that? Did not the blessed St. Paul do the same?

Perhaps we need to turn our attention to what is meant by triumphalism.

It seems to me that, when I look at accusations of someone being “triumphalistic,” such an accusation normally occurs when one is chiding another about scaring off inquirers. Such people argue that it is unkind, even not Orthodox, to disturb the delicate sensibilities of those inquiring about the Faith, even to the point of not clearly saying what we believe. Don’t mention the ever-Virginity of the Theotokos, don’t mention full immersion baptism, and, whatever you do, don’t say anything about there being only One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church—we don’t want to offend people by telling them that they are not part of the Church, as they might “take that the wrong way.” In the approach the anti-triumphalists would take, we would lie to people—either blatantly, or by omission, or by presenting them with long, circuitous explanations that explain nothing—to bring them to the True Faith.

I must say, I most stringently disagree with this approach. There is a god who is the father of lies, but he most certainly is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who became man, who died to set the captives free from Hades, and will return again with glory to judge the living and the dead. The Christian God is the God who is Truth incarnate, and what congress can Truth have with lies? How will you bring someone to the Truth without telling them the truth? If, by refusing to lie to people to “bring them to the Church,” one becomes a triumphalist—by all means, let us all become triumphalists. Better that than a liar.

If the Orthodox Church is not triumphant, then the gates of hell will prevail over her—and Our Lord is made a liar. If the Orthodox Church is not triumphant, then she is just one more “church” among many, and there is therefore no truth to be found in the world. If the Orthodox Church is not triumphant, plainly stated, Christianity itself is a lie; and, if that is the case, St. Paul was right, and we are the most wretched of all men.

Often I am told “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” My answer to that is, the purpose of catching flies is to kill them; the Lord did not call us to catch flies, but to become fishers of men. We are to pull them out of the deep water of sin in which they are downing, and give life to them—how can we do that if we are deeper in the water than they? If we do not believe that there is one truth, one cross, one savior, one Lord, and one Church, then what have we to offer anyone that cannot be found elsewhere—and, elsewhere, requires less of people? Vinegar is bitter, yes, and sour tasting; but so, too, is the Truth to those who are accustomed to imbibing lies. Yet, that bitter draught of repentance, indeed, leads to nothing other than the Living Water of Christ Himself.

Are we afraid that the exclusivity of the Church will turn people away? Are we ashamed that the Church is exclusive in her understanding of those who are part of her and those who are not? If so, perhaps it is because we have forgotten that it is not we who exclude them; those outside the Church exclude themselves from her communion. If we were to say to a person “You cannot be part of the Church”—that would be sin. But it is no sin to tell someone “You are not part of the Church,” especially if you do so in the context of telling them how they can become part of the Church. The door is open, the table laid, and all are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb; but those without a wedding garment will be cast out, for many are called, but few are chosen (St. Matthew 22:13-14).

It is no sin to say what the Lord said Himself. This is made plain in the Gospel of St. John, in the sixth chapter; there are hard sayings, and many who followed turned away, because they could not bear them. The servant is not greater than the master, after all. If we would lead men to worship in spirit and in truth, we tell them the truth, the whole truth, about our Faith. We tell them, up front, what we believe. If they cannot receive it, they cannot—and that is not the fault of the Church. All are bidden equally to the feast; those who do not come, or who send excuses, are excluded; others will be brought in, from the highways and hedges.

For this particular sinner, nothing I can imagine is as full of life or joy as this understanding: that God became a man, so that I might become like Him. In return for this great gift, I will do whatever He asks of me, for as long as he gives me the strength to confess Him, and the Truth of His Holy Church, that is what I will do. If that is triumphalistic, so be it.

Pax vobicum+

As someone who fancies himself an intellectual (which shows my own pride more than anything else), I recognize a jarring trend in what we might call the “convert expereince” in Eastern Orthodoxy. It seems that, Fr. Seraphim of Platina’s wishes aside, those coming to Holy Orthodoxy, by and large, are still the well-educated, thinking individuals that in a bygone era of American life would have been considered white-collar folk. Nevertheless, these persons, whatever their work-status, tend to be by current standards well educated. That is, they have been exposed to certain vistas of history, philosophy, psychology, etc, even if they do not possess a great understanding of them. So many of these people were raised in nominally ‘Christian’ households, have at some point had their beliefs challenged, and then, instead of giving up on faith, to their credit, they plunge into the history of Christendom and discover the Holy Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church and seek entry into her communion.

At this time in North America, there is serious debate going on (if not openly, then at least quietly in parish hall coffee hours and on internet discussion boards) about the nature and character of the Church as it exists on this continent. What is her role to be in the larger Orthodox world? In what language should her liturgy be served? Should there be a union of the jurisdictions belonging to SCOBA? These are serious questions, and demand a great deal of thought, energy, and, most importantly, prayer. But it is in this climate of self-examination which many of our intellectual converts are coming to the Church, carrying with them the (post-?) modern expectation that individual feelings, intuitions, and ideas are of value and worth. In this time of questions, these people come to the Church, having read numerous reports of financial misdeeds, clergy misconduct, etc, and they imagine that they “know how to deal with all this.” Of course, this is nothing but fallacious pride that would set the judgment of the individual mind over and above the 2000 year wisdom of the Mind of the Church, and, as such, is totally unacceptable.

This time of questioning in North America has bred something of a “perfect storm” scenario in this regard. Potential converts are arriving that have been raised in an ideological climate of entitlement, where their parents and society at large have put mirrors into their hands and taught them to worship the image seen therein. They cannot be wholly blamed for believing that they alone can refound and reshape the world; after all, they’ve been brought up on pithy quotes from major figures in history, and raised to believe that each and every one of us can be changers of history–one thinks of the self-esteem movements in public school education in the last 25 years that taught us, “You can be anything you want to be.” Of course this is a ridiculous lie; you cannot be anything you want to be–you can only be what God wants you to be. This is why each of us is given talents and abilities unique to our personhood; to deny that is to deny personhood, to deny the operative work of God in our lives, and, ultimately, to pursue the satanic course toward the rule of the self-will, rather than the rule of the divine will. All the same, these folks are showing up at the doors of the Church, just when the Church in this continent is having a mild identity crisis. No strangers to identity crises, these potential converts come to the Church “knowing” what she needs to do to solve her problems. They have many and inventive solutions; but the fact that few of them seem to agree ought to be proof enough that the Holy Spirit, which is always one of unity and love, is not at work in these imaginative cogitations.

At the same time, there seems to be a lack of understanding about what the catechetical process is supposed to do. While it does serve to provide people with basic theological knowledge about the Faith, that is not its primary purpose. The purpose of catechism is to kill off the “old” man, so that the new one may be reborn in the Church. A person who comes to the Church with a lifetime of ego-centric selfishness, especially one that continues to imagine that there is value in in their own self-worth, cannot be catechized and receive into the Church in anything less than a year. Acquiring the phronema, the Mind of the Church, takes a while. It is foreign to our selfishness and pride; being people so inured to selfishness and pride, we are quite resistant to the process of acquiring the Mind of the Church, and as such, it is my belief that many people are being received into the Church who are merely fascinated with some aspect of the idea of Orthodox Christianity, but are not truly doing the work to become Orthodox in the heart. What, then, can be done?

First, we have to stress to people who are coming to the doors of the Church seeking entry that catechism is not just a confirmation process. It isn’t a stamp of approval on you that says “you believe the right things about Christ our God, so you can now commune with His Church.” A merely psychological assent to certain doctrinal positions is not enough. To enter the Church, you have to come to her in humility–you have to admit that everything you were before you came to her was wrong. Even the things in your past that you previously thought of as right or good; it has to be understood that there was nothing good in your past, because it was outside the perfecting ability of the Holy Spirit working on you as a member of Christ’s own Body. Anything less is holding on to the passion of pride, and will just cause more grievous harm to the person once they are received into the Church.

Second, people coming to the Church have to want it, more than anything. They have to desperately want it–to the point that they are willing to throw everything in their lives, as they are, away for the Truth. I believe this to have much scriptural support in the Gospels, from the lips of Our Lord himself. You have to have the humility to learn from the Church what is correct; coming to her seeking entry, you should never presume to judge her. It is the Church of the Lord which will be a judgment on the world (and the angels as well, according to St. Paul). No matter what is happening at any time within her life, the Holy Spirit guides and directs her. She has survived more and deeper crises than this. Remember that once, long ago, the world awoke and groaned to find itself Arian. The Nicene Faith eventually won out, and Orthodoxy was preserved. So will it always be, if we are to believe the words of the Lord, “for the Gates of Hell shall never prevail against [my Church].” Talk of ecumenism, the calendar, styles of music, and the language of worship does nothing but advance the position that the gates of Hell are prevailing against the Truth of the Church. Inquirers and Catechumens must not, in any situation, give in to the temptation of discussing these matters–and many of us who are already in the Church should refrain from discussing them so freely.

In conclusion, the only way to come to the Church, and, indeed, the only way to find Orthodoxy in the heart, is to come to her admitting that we know nothing. That is how we must smash the mirrors of our narcissism and pride, and come to her in all Truth. All that there is in the world lust of the flesh and the pride of life, according to St. John. It is all vanity and vexation of the spirit. If you would come into communion with the True Church, the visible, living, One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Faith, you must come to her in perfect submission and in all humility. For it takes nothing less than that to be willing to be taught by imperfect persons about a perfect thing. Those of us in the Church may not be shining examples of the Faith; we, too, are sinners working out our salvation in fear and trembling. No doubt, some of us will hear “Depart, I knew ye not” at the dread judgment of the Lord. But it is only here, inside Holy Orthodoxy, that you will find uncorrupt (and incorruptible) the faith unfeigned and a love unashamed.

Pax vobiscum+

What I’m “About”.

April 21, 2008

On our Myspace, someone requested our friendship and simply said: “Hey man, what are you about? Sounds intriguing.”

Let me tell you first what I’m not about.

I’m not about the modern expression of Christianity, little more than self-help seminars, visions of health, wealth and prosperity, and hedonism, all wrapped up in pretty walls and powerpoint presentations with a cacophony of modern music with a veneer — an idea — of what Christianity should be to the self-taught, undisciplined, prideful man.

I’m not about the idea of the Church being a place where you go simply to feel good on Sundays. I’m not about the idea of foolishly assuming that all we have to do is “believe” and we are eternally secure in salvation. I’m not about the idea of debasing the Christ, the Eternal Logos, ineffable in might and glory, to some “buddy” — I shudder at the thought.

I’m not about to think that God’s plan of salvation for man is entirely evident in what modern day Pastor Bob or Brother Jim has to say, nor do I think it can be found within our own biases, ideas, or assumptions. I’m not about asking “What is true to me”, I am about “what is true.”

To date, there are literally tens of thousands of ‘denominations’ expressing entirely contradictory views of Christianity. I’m not about to believe they are all true, as Christ says “A house divided against itself cannot stand”, and the Apostle Paul said “let there be no divisions amongst you” to the Corinthians.

It began with One Church, it will end with One Church.

I’m not about to say that God is not going to save anyone outside of His Church, for God’s love is as an infinite ocean, and our sins are as a handful of dust in comparison — however both Biblical and secular history point towards One, Holy, Universal and Apostolic Church.

In Acts we find that the Church began at the feast of Pentecost, in Jerusalem, where God the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples according to His Divine Providence around 33 A.D. From the point, after Christ gave the world what the West knows as “The Great Commission”, these disciples went into the world, building the Church, Baptizing in the name of the Holy Trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Three Persons, One God.

In a nutshell, as years passed the Church grew into larger proportions. The Apostles had formed Apostolic ‘Sees’, in 5 major places: Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, Constantinople(modern Turkey) and Jerusalem. In 1054 AD in a tragic event known today as the Great Schism, the Roman Patriarchate broke away from the other Four, thus forming the Roman Catholic Church. This Schism is where things tragically began to go downhill…

After Rome split, they started the Crusades in 1095. In 1517, the Protestant Reformation began, and by this time of course the Roman Catholic Monk, Martin Luther, had started his church, then came the Church of England, so on and so forth. All these years later, so many churches exist, and given the state of this world everyone is free to open a building, name it what they wish, and preach whatever gospel people want to hear.

No matter what one may believe today, there is a church to fit their specific idea, when in truth they only worship themselves, their own egos, their own ideals and mentalities.

What I’m about, is in opposition to all off this. It is the established, recorded, faith which lacks nothing. It is the Church of the Apostles, of the Creed, of the Councils, the Faith which established the universe.

Orthodoxy.

The Faith undistorted, unchanging, unmoving, and unwavering.

It is the answer to the void we seek to fill with carnality, hedonism, materialism, money, pride, adornment of self and self-gain. It is the path trodden by the Saints and Apostles, as paved by the Cross, as watered by the blood of the radiant and victorious Martyrs. It is what we were all born to find, it is among the hardest things you will ever do, yet beyond compare more free and liberating than anything this world can offer.

It is the descent into one’s own heart, and the ascent into the Kingdom. It is the renewal of the Fall of Adam, communion with God, growing in Christ. It is dying to the world and death to the self, forsaking the “do what thou wilt” philosophy of our nihilistic age and embracing the call to “Take up your own cross, and follow Me” as we read of in the Scriptures.

It is forgetting what WE are about. It is saying, “It is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives within me.”

It is the ancient way, the straight and narrow way, which few shall find and fewer shall walk. It is the careful and strong preservation of Spirit-given knowledge, which none can know, unless he is in the Spirit.

And what I’m about, is infinitely nothing in comparison. I am a sinner, and I am seeking to walk the Way.

… Whether or not this explanation was to the liking or disliking of this person, I cannot say. All I can hope is that I at least partially represented what Orthodoxy has come to mean to me personally.

The Pilgrimage

April 19, 2008

We rounded the turn just as the clouds began to give a soft drizzle, providing a welcome comfort from the hot North Carolina sun. The sun was still shining, most obviously noticeable on the white triple bar cross in the clearing — the harbinger of our arrival to the Panagia Prousiotissa monastery, a treasure of spiritual wealth, where a handful of nuns have been called to work out their salvation…

The Abbess and the nun beneath her welcomed us with the warmest smiles and gentlest eyes I had seen since my childhood. It was no task of obedience for them to greet us warmly, nor was it an act of obligation for them to welcome us as pilgrims to a part of their inner life, they were genuinely happy to see us, we were their joy, and we were their blessing. From the moment we stepped foot onto the grounds, it was as though I found a small paradise, where the earth itself was sanctified, and nature, in all ways, glorified its Creator… from the soft drizzle of rain, the gentle southern wind, the pine trees and the beautiful gardens which the nuns there had labored diligently for — how manifold are Thy works, O Lord! In Wisdom You have created them all.

The moment of arrival in and of itself was worth the trip, but truly, beauty had not even begun to reveal itself.

I bowed my heads humbly to the nuns, honoring them as the angels that they were, and they smiled back to me. The peace and love they seemed to show, and their gentle eyes, seemingly windows into their very souls, haven’t left me to this day. I count it a blessing to know that they remembered me even for a moment in their prayers. They led us all after their warm greetings to a place where they had prepared a wonderful Lenten meal, a pasta with shrimp sauce, some fresh cut fruit, and homemade bread, all served with water. The nuns left us to our meal, whether because they had their own obediences or as was their custom, I could not say. I was blessed to sit next to Father, who told me stories of his own obediences at this very monastery.

He had helped plant many of the flowers that we were now seeing fully bloomed, which was more than a blessing to Father Mark. He asked the nuns, humbly, if he could just put his face in lilacs and smell them. Seeing Father, with his cassock, pectoral cross and hat bury his nose in the lilacs as a warm smile grew across his face is an image that has also stuck with me to this day. Truly it is a blessing from God to find such happiness from such a relatively simple creation. We went into their small bookstore, where they had icons, incense, charcoal, censers, candles, Lenten foods, and other such things ready. I left with a beautiful prayer rope, an icon of St. Elias, of St. Paul the Apostle, and the Transfiguration. The nuns were happy with my choices, telling me that I had picked such beautiful icons.

After we had made our purchases with them, we sat for a small dessert with the nuns, who naturally touched nothing but were eager to serve. This, my friends, is where the most beautiful and striking part happened. It’s hard, even now, to not be visited with joyful tears at the recollection of such a beautiful thing. I won’t share it all, as words cannot rightly do it justice, but I will do my best to recall some of what has stayed with me to this moment.

The nun under the Abbess, who seemed to do a little more of the speaking, welcomed us once more with a smile. To this point, none of them seemed to say very much, but now was the time when their grace-filled mouths would bless us with the edification we came so eagerly seeking.

We spoke of several things…

Father Mark told us of how he began to come to Orthodoxy, and it set the tone for all of what was to come. He is a convert from Roman Catholicism, who, in a nutshell, visited holy places of Russia. He had lapsed from his faith, and went to confess to his priest of the time… and as he recalled this, he said in a soft whisper, “I always loved confession…” tears filled his eyes, as they grew distant, and I knew that he was recalling something of spiritual importance. It wasn’t long after this that he was Orthodox. He went on to tell us of how, visiting places such as those are by no accident, they are not mistakes, nor was it an accident or mistake that we were are Panagia Prousiotissa, but Divine Providence had led us here. I looked at my surroundings as one of the nuns began to speak after him, that “Here at the Panagia’s monastery, she visits us and blesses us in a very special and individual way… many come here and ask us, ‘What is this peace I feel?’ ‘What is this beauty I see?’ and we know that it is the Panagia smiling warmly upon us all.” She went on to tell us of how this was all built under the care of Father Ephraim, who told them upon leaving that their obedience is to show sheer love and hospitality to everyone, let this monastery be known for these things, and surely they had been succeeding in this for some time.

The nun under the Abbess, upon being asked by one of our parishioners, “When did you feel called to this life?” She spoke, after going silent and tears filled her eyes, and recomposing herself enough to speak: “I believe that the Almighty inscribed upon my heart the desire for this life before I was conceived. It is the hardest thing I have ever done… but it is the most peaceful, the most free…” the room was peacefully silent for a short time afterwards, as I glorified God within my sinful heart.

This was not armchair theology. This was not something I was reading in a book. This is not something to be pondered with the mind. This was living Orthodoxy.

A nun asked the Abbess, “Would you like to say anything?” Nothing. It was silent. At first thought, my sinful mind moved me to think that perhaps it was rude of her to not respond to such a question, but I remembered the story of the Desert Fathers, and of the Abbot who told his novice “If they are not edified by my silence, they will not be edified by my words.”

Father asked the Abbess, softly, “Can you tell us about prayer?” She looked down, and Father added, “If this is an unfair question please forgive me.” She was very quiet, and only seemed to say what was beneficial. She leaned towards the nun next to her and spoke perhaps 8 seconds in the Greek language.

“She says that she cannot answer, for this is something that is so new to her. She is only beginning herself.” Father again asked her forgiveness, slipping his prayer rope through his fingers.

Forgive me, for all of this is only a glimpse into what took place, and so much of this I have to lock within my own heart.

Upon leaving, I went to the nun who spoke more often, as her edifying story of being born to be a nun edified me so greatly. I thanked her for showing me such sincere hospitality, and told her that I am greatly blessed simply to have stood in this place. She held my arm and smiled at me, a smile which nearly causes me to weep, and told me that we are their joy, and I am always welcome to come back. She gave me a small card which I keep in my wallet, with a phone number which I intend to call very soon, if only to hear the voice of angels.

Know only that this brief recollection cannot possibly do justice to the visit… make an effort to visit this place for yourself and know, with certainty, you will be standing in a new Eden. Know that if your heart is even slightly open to it, it will be filled with such graces as will never leave you.

Forgive me a sinner.

A Lenten Prayer

April 15, 2008

O Lord, who am I that Thou shouldst feed me

On Thy precious and life-giving body,

Or give me to drink from Thine own holy veins?

I, deadened and hardened by the mire of my sins,

I, who have no repentance, nor still less any humility,

Even I, O Lord, Thou hast willed to be saved,

Through Thy life-creating passion, by Thy perfect humility.

Despise me not, Thou only Lover of Mankind, despise me not,

Though in my unworthiness I am but as the beast of the field,

Driven to and fro, hither and thither, by the ebbs and flows

Of the tides of lust and the winds of my haughty corruption.

Turn not away from me, My Savior and Redeemer, though I am afflicted

With such leprous spiritual disease! Save me, O Savior!

Humble me with the love of Thine own Holy Spirit,

And make known unto me the wisdom of Thy ways!

Forgive me, who am in no wise worthy of Thy forgiveness.

By the prayers of Thy most pure mother,

The Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary,

May I be delivered from the pains of my many transgressions;

May the prayers of her who gave birth to Thee beyond mortal understanding

Deliver me from the dark damnation of Hell;

O Thou, Christ Jesus, Lord and master of all,

Have mercy on me, Thy unworthy servant, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

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