My sister-in-law came over for dinner last night and shared with us a bit about her week in San Francisco.
She is a catechumen at St. John the Baptist and is looking for ways to work with orphans and homeless people. For a long time, she thought she might have to leave the country to do the kind of work she feels called too. After a week in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, she's not so sure she needs to leave anymore!
She was there with some of her evangelical friends, praying for the city and trying to find ways to volunteer to help the homeless. At one point, a rough looking man came up to them on the street. He saw that several of the girls had crosses around their necks and asked if they were praying. Tentatively, they said yes. Then he surprised them--he asked if he could pray with them! Not only did he pray with them, but he concluded his prayer with ,"In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." He smiled at them warmly and walked away....Strange things....
It reminded her of St. John Maximovitch and she asked for his prayers, knowing that he still prayed unceasingly for his old city. She could see now why he wept over San Francisco...in many respects it was the most spiritually dark cities she had ever been to.
My sister-in-law struggled with certain elements of her experience there. Her group constantly worried about where they were going to eat, at one point even fighting over doughnuts in front of some homeless. It saddened her how pettiness and pride still overtook them on many occasions.
As the week wore on, she noticed how much similarity there was between the homeless and her group. And how, in more ways than she could count, she was a sinner in the same ways the homeless were. The only difference is that she is better able to hide her sins. The greed, the gluttony, the lust for power, the sloth....in a new way, she realized the power and truth of the Prayer of St. Ephrem that the Orthodox pray every day in Lent:
"O Lord and Master of my life, give me not a spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk.
But give rather a spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to your servant.
Yea, O Lord and King: Grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother.
For you are blessed unto ages of ages. Amen."
"Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it has sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God speedily shatters such dreams."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from his book "Life Together"
Like so many things in the spiritual life, what Bonhoeffer says here about community is so true. Humility must be our modus operandi in community life. As I've talked with people about my ideas about more intense community living, one thing that has struck me is how different each person's vision is. We each bring our own baggage and ideas and pre-conceived dreams into it, hoping, perhaps, that maybe we might "get something out of it." I've even caught myself in this type of thinking.
In an excellent introduction to the monastic life the Monks of New Skete write about this "first fervor" in their book "In the Spirit of Happiness". This overconfidence in one's own power very often overtakes those who embark on a new path for the first time. The danger of relying on your expectations is very great and can ruin what was once a noble and fervent desire.
Just like fasting, prayer, liturgy and the whole Christian life can't be treated as a "mystical supermarket" to meet all of my spiritual needs, neither can the communal life be made to serve me. I must serve God and my neighbor *within it.* Just like being a part of the parish life and especially like a marriage, one must enter into these commitments with three things firmly in mind:
1) this will be hard work, much harder than you can see now
2) in many ways, it won't be like you expected it would or should be
3) if you enter into it with the mind and heart of a servant and not a consumer, it will become the arena in which you will come to know God.
Yesterday, as I stood in the Vesperal Liturgy for the Feast of the Annunciation, I pondered on the nature and reality of the angelic hosts and their role in salvation history. During the litanies, we pray that our guardian angel may "be a guide and guardian for our souls and bodies." (See Matt. 18:10). What a guide Gabriel was for the Theotokos! First annoucing to her the good news and then patiently answering her honest questions about how the Incarnation would take place. One wonders what went through his mind as he waited in that crucial moment to see if the Virgin Mary would say "Yes" to God?....so much work had gone into that moment--would humanity finally turn back to God?
The Feast of the Annunciation gives us this answer! Now that the Annunciation is past, the following day the Church turns our attention to Gabriel, that supreme angelic messenger of God. Here is a bit on that from the Prologue from Ochrid:
"Gabriel is the announcer of the Incarnation of the Son of God. He is one of the seven archangels who stand before the Throne of God. He appeared to Zacharias about the birth of the Forerunner. Gabriel said of himself, "I am Gabriel, who stand before God" (St. Luke 1:19). His name Gabriel means "Man - God." The Holy Fathers, in speaking about the Annunciation, interpret that an archangel with such a name was sent to signify who and what He would be like, who must be born of the All-Pure One. Therefore, He will be Man-God, mighty and powerful God. Some of the Fathers understood that this same Gabriel appeared to Joachim and Anna concerning the birth of the Virgin Mary and that Gabriel instructed Moses in the wilderness to write the Book of Genesis. The Holy Fathers think that Gabriel has pre-eminence in the first and greatest order of heavenly powers, that is, the Seraphic Order, since the Seraphims stand closest to God. He is, therefore, one of the seven Seraphims, closest to God."
What a profound mystery! Here are the angels and all of the heavenly hosts before the face of God continuously and yet, in humility, they serve God by serving his creatures! They fight for us, they announce the messages and words of God to us, they travel with us, and in many other ways minister to us. Though these powers have not fallen through sin, they still deign to serve us fallen humans and are never ceasing in their efforts to lead us back to, as the Lenten hymnody says, "the paths of repentance." And yet, we are to judge the angels! (1 Cor 11:10).
During the Presanctified Liturgy (which we will participate in tonight) there is a hymn sung in a haunting chant that relates to this. As the Presanctified Gifts are transferred to the altar, the choir sings:
"Now the heavenly powers do minister invisibly with us. For behold the King of Glory enters. Behold the mystical sacrifice, all fulfilled, is ushered in. Let us with faith and love draw near that we may be partakers of everlasting life."
The Church, in her wisdom, gives to us today the Feast of Gabriel to help us see the glory, not only of event of the Annunciation on the previous day, but to show us what this Lenten season is all about. The heavenly powers of heaven are truly "with us." As are all the saints (Heb. 12:1). The Kingdom of God is just that: a Kingdom, a community, a people united in purpose. And it is "in faith and love" that we enter into the ascetic, sacramental, liturgical life of Lent and of the whole Church year. With all of the angelic hosts, with all the saints, with all of creation, we look to Christ, our "King of glory" "in faith and love."
My wife and I have been thinking and praying quite a bit about community in our lives. It is a subject I keep coming back to when I muse on the spiritual life. The monastics hold up for us the ideal "Christian life," not because they are single and chaste, but because of their way of life.
Simplicity, communal living, shared liturgical services, common labor, silence, etc...
All of these are to be the attributes of the married life as well (at least in Orthodoxy)....
Living in Portland, with such a low number of "Gen-X" Orthodox makes this more of a challenge. It is especially hard at our church because of its downtown city location and large numbers of commuters who come to it from large distances. We have a nice community at St. Nicholas, but unless we start to get several new waves of young converts, it will continue to lack what is becoming for us a necessary quality. Even if this never happened and St. Nicholas never grew much more, I would still be happy here. But deeper community, more intense shared living experience, etc are still ideas I am playing with.
Here are a few of my thoughts about what I would like to see happen:
1) Living within walking distance (or at least a couple of miles) away from an Orthodox Church.
2) Living in a more rural environment where a large gardens, fruit trees, etc can be grown and where a more silent and contemplative way of life is possible.
3) Sharing meals and even living space with other Orthodox people. It is such a shame that we cart off our parents and grandparents to nursing homes. Why can't we figure out a way of living with them in large community? For example, pooling resources and buying 10-20 acres of land and putting up several houses?
4) Reader's services (such as Matins or Vespers) would be done every day, thus giving our daily lives a more structured and prayer-centered existence. Not quite as intense as a full-blow monastery, but a bit more than the usual 2 Vespers a week + Liturgy.
We are talking with my wife's parents, who go to a Greek Orthodox Church on the other side of town, about possibly pooling our resources together in this venture. And at this point there are so many questions, issues, possible complications involved--it seems more of a pipe dream at this point....But it is something we keep toying with....(See my 12/2/02 post for more on this)
The whole idea of "lay ascetic/lay monastic community" is one I will be musing about over the next few months...
I have been quite sick the past few days, which is why I have not posted as often as I usually do. This always happens during the first 3 weeks of Lent it seems. I don't know whether it is because I am eating more healthy food, or because of the work of the those pesky "Lenten demons." There is nothing harder than trying to pray with a splitting headache, achy muscles and joints, and a fever. Then again, sometimes prayer comes more easily during those times of physical suffering.
Presanctified Liturgy is tonight with the communal potluck and our 30 minutes of silent prayer. I've been looking forward to it all week.
Let us pray for peace, not only for the world, but for our own souls as well. True peace starts in the heart of the human person. As I watch on tv what is going on in the world right now, it reminds me of the battle in my own soul.
I'll be back next week at full strength, Lord willing.
The Lenten Struggle: Temptation in a Fortune Cookie
Lent is a curious time. Over the years, I have found that spiritual axiom to be true over and over each Lent: the more one applies themselves to the disciplines of the spiritual life, the more "fiery darts of the evil one" come into their path.
In a humorous way, this was shown to me today. I went to lunch with a co-worker. By the second week of the fast, I tend to have dreams of big hamburgers, big slices of cheese, loads of pizza etc....(is your mouth watering yet? See, now even the blogs are becoming a stumbling block!)
Anyway, my co-worker was loading his plate at the Chinese food buffet with the most mouthwatering meat dishes one could imagine. (I won't go into a play-by-play of it. I've tortured all of us enough as it is...) I sat there, trying not to think about how much I wanted to break the fast. I began to chuckle inside as I thought about how weak I am. It is an amazing thing to realize how little we depend on God and how much we are addicted to our own desires. Not that meat is bad. It isn't. But what is bad is the fact that I have so little will power over my own body. Simply stunning.
Then it came: the final test. The fortune cookie. One would think that after the sweet-n-sour chicken was out of reach, one would be safe.....
Like a message from Hades, my fortune cookie revealed this message:
"Tomorrow will be too late to enjoy what you can have today."
Wow. Now there is a nice summary of the world's wisdom, wouldn't you say?
The saints willingly give up their bodies to torture, starvation and death. I have a hard time giving up meat. The saints willingly give themselves to prayer and repentance. I stand in Vespers thinking about my petty concerns and struggle to be still in the presence of God.
The saints live for God and their neighbor and are victorious over their fallen passions. I think only of myself and indulge my passions at the drop of a pin.
Lent is amazing....but what a joy it is to realize one's weakness and then turn to God in prayer and thanksgiving! What a treasure the Church is in providing us weak creatures this, as Vespers proclaims, "time of purification of body and soul."
Worship, Evangelism: More on Closed vs. Open Communion
Tripp has hit on a very interesting point over at his blog today about worship and the connection to evangelism. And the discussion on this issue over at Jeff's blog is in full force!
The early church (and the Orthodox Church today) *never* saw worship as a forum for evangelism...only in modern times do we see this phenomenon. Liturgy and the sacraments are, as the Liturgy says, "for the faithful." I think is why there is a disconnect between East and West in terms of the issue of "closed" communion. We just have radically different ways of understanding what worship is.
Now in the West, with the rise of "concert style" worship, PowerPoint presentations, and emotionally manipulative "altar calls," worship has lost its original purpose. It was never meant to woo non-believers in. Now, it seems, that in many cases that is *all* it is for....how things change...
It is through living a life of holiness that one brings people to Christ...not by allowing them to participate in something they have not already pledged their lives too....
A weak analogy: My sister-in-law has worked with lots of orphans. She loves them. She "includes" them in her life. But only those who she has adopted (or will adopt) and have chosen to be adopted by her get to participate in her family life. She doesn't let them come over to the house, eat all of her food, and live in the house. They have to accept the *responsibility* that comes with being a family member before they get to participate in the privileges of that family life. That is just how family life works.
Bottom line: family privileges come with family responsibilities. It is a package deal. Confession, communal life, acceptance of common creeds .... these are the responsibilities that come with the privilege of partaking of the Holy Mysteries. Always has been in the history of the Church. I still would love to see a pre-Schism patristic defense of open communion. (Any takers?)
And again, the doors are locked from the inside. We pray every Liturgy for the "union of all." The doors of the Church are always open for those who wish to become "part of the family." So the "exclusiveness" is always the result of the individual excluding themselves, not the Church imposing its will on them! This is why the Orthodox don't view excommunication as a "penalty" as such. It is simply the declaration and acceptance of the *fact* that the person has willingly left the communion.
As my dad always said to me as I was growing up: If you don't want to do your chores, that is fine. Just don't expect to have a place set for you at the dinner table! It isn't fair, to you, or to the rest of the family."
The amazing thing is that the "responsibilities" of life in the Church become privileges themselves! EVERYTHING about life in the Church becomes a sacrament, a feast, a blessing, and an out pouring of the love of Christ on us. But we have to accept the WHOLE of the Faith and PRACTICE its truths and ways with our whole heart.
"A goal concerning Lent is to teach it, not so much as a
"religious" exercise, but as being a time in which we are given the
opportunity to concentrate on what is really real and what is really
human. "Orthodoxy," I once heard a speaker say, "is not a 'religion' but
the Truth." And I think the same idea is true with Lent: Lent is a time
to concentrate on life, on being human.
Thus my struggle - with myself and my children - is to keep Lent from degenerating into something silly
and petty - such as simply giving up candy or movies. The struggle is to
cultivate and understand the revelation that there is something deeply
wrong and sad about human life; that there is evil in the world and that
this evil, subtle as it is, often enters into our hearts and minds; that
we sin and are disobedient to God, and really lack the emptiness of self
and humility before God that is the very foundation of Christian life.
To love God, just to learn to love Him and understand and rejoice in His
Word; to stand before Him with humility - like the Publican in the
Temple; to be tenderhearted and sensitive toward others and their
sufferings; to understand that life is meaningless without Christ: this
I think is part of the essence of Lent and what I strive to instill in
---From an article written by Matushka Nadia Koblosh
I like Matushka Nadia's thoughts here....every Lent, it seems, I get into conversations with friends and family where I am trying to explain why the Orthodox "don't give up" anything for Lent, even though we (usually) are following the Church's fasting canons. It isn't about giving up *things*--it is about giving up our self-will and sinfulness. The only thing we should focus on "giving up" in Lent is sin! Having a rule of prayer, fasting from certain passion-arousing foods, attending extra services, partaking of the sacraments--all of these activities are to point us in one direction. And that is toward God and away from ourselves.
It is a topic that is dear to many of my non-Orthodox friends and family and the practice of closed communion by both the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox continues to be a problem for many of them. While I believe, and have articulated many times, that Orthodox sacramental theology can not be understood in the juridical way most of western sacramental theology has been portrayed, it seems we are still talking past one another.
With St. Paul's warnings in 1 Cor 11:27-29 in mind, I would like to hear a defense of the practice of "open communion" from my readers (especially my non-Orthodox and non-Catholic readers).
At this point, I am honesty curious how anyone could defend this practice without ignoring the complete and total repudiation of it by the Church Fathers, the absence of it in pre-Schism Church history, and the radical shift in incarnational theology that must take place to accept it. Even the Reformers rejected this teaching!
"[Orthodoxy has] a quality of sad joyfulness, a sense that life in a minor key is life as it is. Christianity is a religion of suffering. The suffering of Christ and of the martyrs is at the center of the Christian tradition and suffering grounds the Christian to the suffering of the world. As the old slaves knew, suffering can't be evaded, it is a mark of the authenticity of faith."
(an excerpt from "A Sorrowful Joy" by Albert Raboteau).
There is something about having your legs hurt, your back hurt and your stomach growl that makes you realize two things: how weak you are and how powerful God is in that weakness. Participating in last night's Presanctified Liturgy and Canon of St. Andrew of Crete at church helped remind me of this again. (see also Clifton's great post today about the canon).
The reality of suffering is something many people, and sadly many Christians, tend to run away from. We want our faith to be easy, light, and fulfilling. But this is not the way of the cross. As Matthew Gallatin wrote, "The Orthodox faith calls us to fast and pray continually, to confess our sins and to weep bitterly for them, to deny our personal pleasures and comforts for the sake of the kingdom, to yield to our spiritual fathers' guidance, to mistrust our own subjective opinions and emotions, to take up our cross daily, to genuinely forgive the unforgivable, and to wholeheartedly love the unlovable. In short, it calls us to live a life that is entirely "not of this world" (John 18:36).
As we begin the long trek toward Golgotha with our Lord, in anticipation of his glorious Resurrection, we must hold the paradox of what so many of the Fathers call "joyful sorrow." We weep for our sins, but rejoice in God. We mourn our mortality, but expect the resurrection of the dead. This Lenten springtime that the Church provides, guides us in this paradox.
Jay Nordlinger, one of my favorite pundits, has this great line in his most recent Impromptus:
"A key feature of the totalitarian state is a coercion to politics."
I love that! I am as passionate about political issues as the next person (since politics is a natural extension of incarnational theology and philosophy). In fact, during my high-school and early college days, I was more involved and informed about political issues than I was about theological and spiritual issues. But I must say I am getting a little weary of the tired and incessant political maneuvering by both the pacifists (or in many cases, the "anti-Bushites") and the those who support military action against Iraq.
Last night, I got into a little tussle with a member of my church about this issue. (Ironically and sadly enough, at a prayer/spirituality discussion group meeting! One more thing to add to my confession this Lent!) It all stemmed from the recent publication written by Jim Forrest and signed by several hundred prominent Orthodox priests, bishops and theologians about the upcoming war and their opinion about the use of force in this situation and about the necessity for caution and restraint.
The problem I have with so much of our current political debate and the public square in general is the dualism with which so many issues are debated. Conservative vs Liberal, pro-war vs peace, more taxes vs tax cuts, etc....So many false dichotomies....
Western politics suffers the same "either/or" problem that western theology does!
There is no room for, as my friend Tripp likes to say, "plurality" in the debate. Now, this does not mean that on some issues it is very clear what the Church does and should teach. (ex. abortion is murder. Period). However, unlike the creedal truths of Christianity and the clear historical, spiritual witness of the Church, some political issues are not always as clear cut. There is a little more room for ambiguity in the City of Man than there is in the City of God.
What is interesting about Orthodoxy is the fact that it does not suffer a specific "political" label like most of western Christian groups do. As someone who had left western Christianity once said, "I am tired of Christianity being nothing more than a philosophy to placate upper-middle class, suburban, white, SUV driving Republicans." A very sad, but true assessment of much of the conservative, evangelical scene. One could also say they were tired of it being used as an ideology to placate upper-middle class, angry mainline Christian Democrats who wished they could kill George Bush and then move to France. (a little tongue in cheek).
In any case, the political plurality I have seen in the many Orthodox churches I have been in over the past 5 years continues to amaze me. For the most part, it is impossible to pin the Orthodox down on many political issues and stick a nice, clean label on them as "conservative" or "liberal." Orthodoxy transcends these neat little labels because, as CS Lewis said, you can't have "Christianity AND." True Christianity can't be subservient to a political cause or candidate. It can't be "Orthodoxy AND the war" or "Christianity AND organic produce" or "Christianity AND tax cuts." It just doesn't work that way. As we say in the Liturgy, "put not your trust in princes and sons of men, for in them there is no salvation." Of course the spiritual life in Christ will include a "political" component. We will care about our world, our fellow man, and our society. But we will not let any of those things distract us from "the one thing needful."
We Americans have a long way to go in learning the proper place of politics in the Christian life.
Last Sunday, Fr. Michael led the teens in a discussion and a "stump the priest" session. One of the activities he did was getting the teens to write down some of the things they actually believed in. Not what their parents believed, or their church school teachers....what THEY believed.
Some of the resulting creeds were quite humorous, some sad, and some just plain interesting:
"I believe that George Bush will win in 2004 and I believe I like polish sausages."
"I believe in God...but not in Jesus."
"I believe abortion is wrong."
"I don't have anything I believe in."
While some of the kids took the exercise a bit more seriously than others, it was clear that many of them had not given any serious thought to what they actually believed in. Fr. Michael went on to point out that, whether they knew it or not, all of them had well established beliefs about everything, including God and the Church....even if they didn't think they did.
"All of you in this room," he said, "will be deciding whether you are going to be a Christian sometime in the next 10 years. You may do so actively or passively. But make no mistake--you WILL be choosing. If you think Jesus Christ was just a good philosopher, or that Buddha was God, or that there is no God... that is fine. I had some of those beliefs when I was 14. But make sure you know what the Church teaches, what you believe and, most importantly...WHY! Don't let other people, even your parents, make these choices for you. The Nicene Creed starts out with the word "I" for a reason...you have to make the Faith your own."
One of the great things about Orthodoxy is the fact that so many of the priests, bishops, and church school teachers I know are so calm in the face of typical teenage rebellion. They not only expect rebellion in matters of faith, but almost encourage it! Making the faith one's own is very important in Orthodoxy....the paradox here is that one can be nurtured in the faith from the time of birth, when one can't make those decisions, but then encouraged to aggressively engage the faith later. The gift of Baptism places the potential for true sanctity in us, but we must work to actualize this potential, with God's grace. Even though many of the teens are "cradle" and thus have participated in the life of the Church, we must encourage them to continue to make it their own.
And the Orthodox can remain calm in the face of rebellion because we know we have the fullness of the faith. There is no issue or question that has not been dealt with by the Church in the past 2000 years. Some issues may seem new, but almost all of them have foundational, philosophical, and theological assumptions that the Church has dealt with explicitly in the past.
It will be interesting to see if the "Gen Y" in our parishes actually stick with the Faith in the next 10 years....I wonder if many of them (as well as many of my own fellow Gen Xers) will follow a similar pattern in coming to the Faith as many Boomers are now. A period of agnosticism, followed by a stint in low-church evangelicalism. Then, after an encounter with church history or the Fathers, a move towards RCism or the Anglican Church....then in their mid-40's-mid 50's, coming to Orthodoxy....
This past weekend's events at Annunciation Church were an amazing time of learning and insight into youth ministries, church school formation and the Orthodox Church. Fr. Michael Anderson led a 4 hour workshop that for about 40 of the various OCA church school teachers and youth workers.
The first point Fr. Michael made was that youth education is important, not because youth are "our future," but more importantly because they are the "now!" Orthodox soteriology clearly shows that ALL human beings, regardless of their age, can become full members of the Body of Christ. When an infant gets baptized and chrismated, they are just as much a member of the Body as the 90-year old babushkas. When we make youth education and ministry a priority in our churches, we are actively proclaiming that our youth need that crucial support as members of the Body.
Fr. Michael outlined the four major aspects of all youth ministry:
Every youth event (retreat, camp, school, etc) needs to have all four of these elements in it to properly transmit the Faith. These are the basic elements of the Christian life itself, and so when we base our youth ministries on this model we setting the groundwork for the whole Christian experience.
One of the biggest challenges for youth ministries is making *relationships* more important than "doing things" or "building programs" or teaching "true doctrine"....how hard this is for our American, post-technological, western minds to comprehend!
We need to pray for our youth, we need to spend time with them outside of "church" sponsored events...As Fr. Michael pointed out, when you spend time with the kids outside of church it isn't you that is coming to them: it is the Church!
Fr. Michael kept coming back to one central point that he felt was absolutely critical: Our own neglected spiritual life is the main reason why we are not keeping our teens and young adults in the Church. Youth ministries really starts with us, the teachers and workers. If we are not living the sacramental, ascetic life, why should our kids care what we say about Jesus or the Church?