Tuesday, March 31, 2009

WOA #8: On Guarding Against Vanquished Evil

In the eighth chapter of the book of Joshua, we read about Joshua and the Israelites' capture of the Caananite city of Ai. The Israelite army's first attempt to take the city was a miserable failure, for a variety of reasons. But Joshua learned from his failure, and he devised an ingenious plot to capture the city on the second try. He divided his army, placing part of it in front and part of it in back of the heavily-fortified city. The division in front of the city stormed the city head-on. When the defenders began to beat them back, the Israelites retreated. Drunk with their success, the army of Ai charged after the Israelites, leaving the city undefended. Quickly, the division of Israelites to the rear of Ai marched into the city unopposed, and the city was won.

This tactic has been repeated by armies countless times in the 3000-plus years since the battle of Ai, usually with the same result. And the demons often attack us in the same way. One demon will tempt us in one way, and we fight off the attack. But in so doing, we leave ourselves undefended for another attack from another demon to the "rear," and so we still lose the overall battle. In chapter eight of Way of the Ascetics, Tito Colliander warns us about leaving one "side" of our souls undefended:

"The first time you are victorious over self may be a sign to you: Now I am on the way! But do not consider yourself virtuous, only thank God, for it was He who gave you the power; and do not rejoice beyond measure, but swiftly go on. Otherwise the vanquished evil may come to you and conquer you from the rear" (24).

In our struggle toward salvation, we will encounter many defeats, but many victories also. In order to make our victories last, however, we must not neglect our defenses, as did the army of Ai. Our enemy the devil is relentless, "walk[ing] about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour" (1 Pet. 5:8). Unlike us, the demons do not sleep or get tired. Their attacks will continue. So, as St. Peter warns us, "Be sober, be vigilant!" (op cit). As Colliander writes, "...always the next phase of the battle is already waiting. We must be constantly prepared. There is no time to rest." But how can we do this? Colliander gives us some practical suggestions.

"Once again, be silent! Let no one notice what you are about. You are working for the Invisible One; let your work be invisible. If you scatter crumbs around you they are willingly picked up by birds sent by the devil, the saints explain. Beware of self-satisfaction: in one mouthful it can devour the fruit of much toil.

"Therefore the Fathers counsel: act with discernment. Of two evils one chooses the lesser. If you are in private, take the poorest morsel, but if anyone is looking, you should take the middle way that arouses the least notice. Keep hidden and as inconspicuous as possible; in all circumstances let this be your rule. Do not talk about yourself, of how you slept, what you dreamed and what happened to you, do not state your views unasked, do not touch upon your own wants and concerns. All such talk only nourishes your self-preoccupation" (25).

Finally, if we are to succesfully guard our hearts against the attacks of the enemy, we must cultivate a spirit of humility. Again, Colliander offers down-to-earth advice on how to accomplish this:

"Do not seek higher posts and higher titles: the lower the position of service you have, the freer you are...And do not be prompt to show your learning or skill. Hold back your remarks...Contradict nobody and do not get into arguments; let the other person always be right. Never set your own will above that of your neighbour. This teaches you the difficult art of submission, and along with it, humility. Humility is indispensable.

"Take remarks without grumbling: be thankful when you are scorned, disregarded, ignored. But do not create humbling situations; they are provided in the course of the day as richly as you need" (26).

From my experience, I can say "Amen" to that last sentence! It seems that every day something humbling occurs to me (and some days, SEVERAL things happen!). I give thanks for that, because I need it!

Monday, March 30, 2009

WOA #7: On the Transfer of Love From the Self to Christ

Saint Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894), Russian asectic, bishop, and prolific author

Colliander begins chapter seven of Way of the Ascetics by discussing another reason why it is so important that we deny ourselves, as Christ commanded:

"If we move out of our self, whom do we encounter? asks Bishop Theophan. He supplies the answer at once: We meet God and our neighbor. It is for this very reason that denying oneself is a stipulation, and the chief one, for the person who seeks salvation in Christ: only so can the centre of our being being moved from self to Christ, who is both God and our neighbor" (20).

In other words, if we do not practice denying ourselves, then it is impossible for us to transfer the "care, concern, and love that we now lavish upon ourselves" to the Person to whom it truly belongs: our Lord Jesus Christ. And when we truly love Christ, then we will truly begin to love our neighbor as well.

To the person who might say, "But I AM dedicated to Christ and to my neighbor. Just look at all the activities I am involved in!", Colliander says, "Refrain from busying yourself, therefore, with charity bazaars, sewing meetings, and other such occupations. Busyness over many things is, in all its forms, chiefly a poison. Look within, examine yourself accurately, and you observe that many of these apparently self-giving deeds spring from a need to deafen your conscience: that is, from your uncontrollable habit of satisfying and pleasing yourself. No, the God of love and peace and complete sacrifice does not care to live in the midst of bustling and ado to please oneself, even if this is carried on perhaps under some kind of pretence". (21).

Of course, Colliander is not saying that we should never involve ourselves with acts of charity and service. On the contrary, these activities are an essential part of our working out of our salvation (see, for example, Matthew 25). However, we must keep two things in mind when doing good works. First, we should not get so busy and involved with serving others that we neglect the inner life of prayer, worship, and spiritual reading. Second, we should not do works of service so that others will see us and praise us (Matt 6:1-4). Our acts of service must be balanced with prayer, worship, and Scripture reading, and they must be done solely out of love for Christ and our fellow man. When we live by these principles, we are following the example of Christ himself.

Returning to the idea of denying ourselves, Colliander concludes the chapter thus:

"For what is denying oneself? He who truly denies himself does not ask, Am I happy? or, Shall I be satisfied? All such questions fall away from you if you truly deny yourself, for by so doing you have also given up your will for either earthly or heavenly happiness.

The obstinate will to personal happiness is the cause of unrest and division in your soul. Give it up and work against it: the rest will be given you without effort" (23).

Sunday, March 29, 2009

ALSH #13: Fasting and Spiritual Gifts

Kyrollos (Cyril) VI, Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria (+1971)

When fasting, you should fast in body, and in heart; abstaining from meat, gossip and slander. Do not say - this person is good or this person is bad. The fasting tongue is better than the fasting mouth; and when the heart abstains from wrath, that it better than both.


Fasting is an essential function for every Christian in this world. Christ Himself fasted, although He did not need to, but He wanted to teach us that the trials of the devil can only be controlled through fasting. By fasting we also receive spiritual gifts, become closer to God, and our prayers are accepted.


St Isaac the Great said, "A little cloud can obscure the sun, but after having passed, the sun reappears as it was." The same thing applies to the tribulations faced by [a true Christian], although they are difficult, they enlighten his soul after they pass.

Thank God who allows temptations and for all good things that work together for the good of them who
love and trust in the Lord. And I, myself, as you know, have received many spiritual benefits. This is one of God's blessings.

Pope Kyrollos the Sixth, Christian Behavior According to Saint Pope Kyrollos the Sixth (Cairo: St. Mina Monastery Press, 2000), 7, 43, and 68.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Just for Fun: You Might Be a School Employee If...

Since yesterday's post was pretty tough (and since once again, I didn't have time to prepare a new devotion based on WOA), I thought I'd lighten things up a bit (actually, a lot!).

Here's something from comedian Jeff Foxworthy that a parishioner sent me. As an eleven year veteran of the school system, including eight years in the classroom, I could really relate to this. Enjoy!

YOU might be a school employee if you believe the playground should be equipped with a Ritalin salt lick.

YOU might be a school employee if you want to slap the next person who says, 'Must be nice to work 8 to 3:30 and have summers off!'

YOU might be a school employee if it is difficult to name your own child because there's no name you can come up with that doesn't bring high blood pressure as it is uttered.

YOU might be a school employee if you can tell it's a full moon or if it's going to rain, snow, hail....anything!!! without ever looking outside.

YOU might be a school employee if you believe, 'shallow gene pool' should have its own box on a report card.

YOU might be a school employee if you believe that unspeakable evils will befall you if anyone says, 'Boy, the kids sure are mellow today.'

YOU might be a school employee if when out in public, you feel the urge to snap your fingers at children you do not know and correct their behavior.

YOU might be a school employee if you have no social life between August and June.

YOU might be a school employee if you think people should have a government permit before being allowed to reproduce.

YOU might be a school employee if you wonder how some parents MANAGED to reproduce.

YOU might be a school employee if you laugh uncontrollably when people refer to the staff room as the 'lounge.'

YOU might be a school employee if you encourage an obnoxious parent to check into charter schools or home schooling and are willing to donate the U-HAUL boxes should they decide to move out of district.

YOU might be a school employee if you think caffeine should be available in intravenous form.

YOU might be a school employee if you can't imagine how the ACLU could think that covering your students chairs with Velcro and then requiring uniforms made out of the corresponding Velcro could ever be misunderstood by the public.

YOU might be a school employee if meeting a child's parent instantly answers this question, 'Why is this kid like this?'

YOU might be a school employee if you would choose a mammogram or a sigmoidoscopy over a parent conference.

YOU might be a school employee if you think someone should invent antibacterial pencils and crayons...and desks and chairs for that matter!

YOU might be a school employee if the words 'I have college debt for THIS?' has ever come out of your mouth.

YOU might be a school employee if you know how many days, minutes, and seconds are left in the school year!

Jeff Foxworthy

Thursday, March 26, 2009

WOA #6: On Eradicating the Desire for Enjoyment

Enter by the narrow gate...because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matt. 6:13-4)

Chapter six of Way of the Ascetics is one of the toughest chapters--perhaps THE toughest--in the entire book. In it, Colliander makes some very strong statements that are tough for the average Christian, especially in the West, to take. Please bear with me as I make an attempt, however feeble, to explain them.

Most of us who live in the industrialized democracies of the West are very pampered people. We rarely if ever go without the things we need. Moreover, we constantly indulge ourselves with luxuries such as fancy cars, expensive vacations, fine foods and drink (usually in too great quantities), $4 cups of coffee, and so on. These things are not evil in themselves, but if not checked and controlled, they can make us soft, both spiritually and physically.

As we saw in chapter three, the Fathers of the Church teach us that if we are to advance in the path toward salvation, we should not constantly pamper ourselves. Instead, we should, in the words of St. Isaac the Syrian, "persecute ourselves." In other words, we should disicipline ourselves by denying ourselves excessive pleasure. Along with this, we must also deny ourselves the right to engage in smaller sins or even non-sinful excesses. As Colliander explains:

"We overcome after a fashion, perhaps, our serious and dangerous vices, but there it stops. The small desires we freely let grow as they will. We neither embezzle or steal, but delight in gossiping; we do not "drink," but consume immoderate quantities of tea and coffee instead. The heart remains quite as full of appetites: the roots are not pulled out and we wander around in the tanglewoods that have sprung up in the soil of our self-pity" (17).

Note his reference to self-pity. Self-pity is a serious obstacle to growth in the spiritual life. Colliander thus urges us to "make an assault on your self-pity, for it is the root of all ill that befalls you....You are compassionate only for yourself and as a result your horizon closes in. Your love is bound up with yourself. Set it free and evil departs from you" (18). The main problem with self-pity is that it is totally focused on SELF. We lose perspective when all we can think about is how OUR needs are not being met.

Returning to the desire for comfort, Colliander urges us to "Suppress your runious weaknesses and your craving for comfort; attack them from every side! Crush your desire for enjoyment; do not give it air to breathe. Be strict with yourself; do not grant your carnal ego the bribes it is restively demanding. For everything gains strength from repetition, but dies if it is not give nourishment" (18).

Finally, Collander gives this advice from the Holy Fathers, including a startling statement: "You must set about rooting out the very desire to have things pleasant, to get on well, to be contented. You must learn to like sadness, poverty, pain, hardship. You must learn to follow privately the Lord's bidding: not to speak empty words, not to adorn yourself, always to obey authority, not to look at a woman with desire, not to be angry and much else" (19, emphasis added).

Learn to like sadness, poverty, pain, hardship? Wow, that's tough! What do the Fathers mean when they say this type of thing? My personal understanding (although I admit I could be wrong) is that we should welcome these things because they drive us toward total and complete dependence on God (or at least they can and should so drive us). Our chief desire in life must be to grow ever closer to God, increasingly taking on his character, rather than (in Colliander's words) "to have things pleasant, to get on well, to be contented" (19). Only then can we walk the path of salvation.

If you, dear readers, understand Colliander's words differently, or would like to add something, please do tell!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

ALSH #12: Garden of the Heart

Dr. Vigen Guroian, Professor of Theology at Loyola College (Baltimore, MD), prolific author, and Armenian Orthodox Christian

Here are some interesting and picturesque thoughts from a contemporary Orthodox author.

We make a big mistake when we devalue the body and the senses. Our senses are important stepping-stones on the path to God and Paradise. When I kneel in my garden, the aromas of the plants may overwhelm me, yet I may not see any save those immediately in front of me. When I kneel in prayer, God's presence permeates my entire being, though He remains invisible to my eyes.

It is true that, when all is said and done, we must transcend our fallen senses, including the sense of smell, for higher spiritual senses of a life unaffected by sin. Yet with the proper discipline even our earthly senses may assist us in the journey to God. God has filled the whole of Creation with signs of His existence, signs that our senses can apprehend and that our minds can translate into knowledge of Him...

God has created human nature with the capacity to resonate with the pulse of Divine Life. But sin has damaged this ability. It has put not only our senses "out of tune" but also the whole human instrument in disrepair. That is why we are unable to experience God in the garden with the same intimacy, harmony, and intensity of Adam and Eve before the Fall. That is what makes gardening such a bittersweet activity...

God wants us to hear His footsteps in the garden, to feel His embrace and kisses among the lilies, to feed on Him at the Tree of Life, and to breathe in His life with the fragrance of the rose, as did Adam and Eve. God wants us to inherent eternal life. But these things can come about only if we reorient our senses, tune our human instrument, so that we are able to respond to the grace that permeates ordinary life.

Christians are the "real" realists. The Son of God, by His incarnation, has demonstrated that the world is filled with symbols of God. These symbols that God has planted in the world testify not only to his existence but also to the goodness of His Creation. By the example of His own life, Christ teaches us that through our senses we may commence our spiritual journey, and that He will receive us into Paradise in the full integrity of our humanity, body and soul united, and together in communion with Him.

excerpts from Vigen Guroian, Fragrance of God (Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing, 2006), 11, 15, 16-17.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

ALSH #11: Image of the True Light

Are you feeling a little down (perhaps because Spring Break is over)? Here's a little lift for you, from the pen of St. Gregory of Nyssa:

[God] did not make the heavens in his image,

nor the moon, the sun, the beauty of the stars,

nor anything else which you can see in the created universe.

YOU ALONE are made in the likeness of that nature which surpasses all understanding;

YOU ALONE are a similitude of eternal beauty,

a receptacle of happiness,

an image of the true light;

and if YOU look up to Him,

you will become what He is,

imitating Him who shines within you,

whose glory is reflected in your purity.

Nothing in all creation can equal your grandeur.

All the heavens can fit into the palm of God's hand;

the earth and the sea are measured in the hollow of His hand.

And though He is so great that He can grasp all creation in His palm,

you can wholly embrace Him; He dwells within you,

nor is He cramped as He pervades your entire being, saying:

"I will dwell in them and walk among them" (2 Corinthians 6:18).

St. Gregory of Nyssa, in Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa's Mystical Writings, ed. J. Danielou (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press 1979) 162-3

Saturday, March 21, 2009

ALSH #10: Standing in the Temple

Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann (+1982), prolific author, beloved priest, and dean of St. Vladimir's Seminary

Just as he did a thousand years ago, so today the simple believer goes to church in order primarily to "touch other worlds" (Dostoevsky). In a sense, he is not interested in worship, in the way in which experts and connoisseurs of all liturgical details are interested in it. And he is not interested because "standing in the temple" he receives all that for which he thirsts and seeks: the light, the joy, and the comfort of the Kingdom of God, that radiance which, in the words of the agnostic Chekov, beams from the faces of the "old people who just returned from the church."

What use could such a believer have for complex and refined explanations of what this or that rite represents, of what the opening or closing of the royals doors is supposed to mean?

He cannot keep up with all these symbolisms, and they are unnecessary for his faith. All he knows is that he has left his everyday life and has come to a place where everything is different and yet so essential, so desirable, so vital, that it illumines and gives meaning to his entire life.

Likewise he knows that this other reality makes life itself worth living, for everything proceeds to it, everything is related to it, everything is to be judged by it - by the Kingdom of God it manifests.

And, finally, he knows that even if the individual words or rites are unclear to him, the Kingdom of God has been given to him in the Church: in that common action, common standing before God, in love and unity.

Father Alexander Schmemann, "The Symbol of the Kingdom", in Orthodox Synthesis: The Unity of Theological Thought, ed. Joseph J. Allen (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1981), 45-46.

Friday, March 20, 2009

WOA #5: On the Denial of Self and the Cleansing of the Heart (Part Two)

This post is the second part of a two-part series on denying ourselves and purifying our hearts. Before reading this post, make sure you have first read the first part, which you can find here.

You are probably wondering, "Why a picture of cornbread at the beginning of a post on denial of self and cleansing of the heart?" Here's the story. Immediately after I posted the first part of my reflections of chapter five of Way of the Ascetics, we had dinner. Jennifer had prepared a nice Lenten stew with peas, carrots, potatoes, onions, and fake beef broth. With it, she made some Lenten cornbread. The cornbread was REALLY good! Wouldn't you know it (typical me), right after writing about the need to deny ourselves little things to practice denying ourselves the right to sin, I ended up eating THREE large pieces of cornbread. I was stuffed, and after that, I was humbled. That experience demonstrated to me just how difficult it can be to say no to our stomachs. Was it a sin to eat so much cornbread? I doubt it. But did I miss out on a valuable opportunity to practice self-denial? You bet your boots. Sigh...at least today is a new day...

Having discussed the need to deny ourselves little things, Colliander continues chapter five by anticipating a question that his readers are likely to have: "You are perhaps wondering, is this really necessary? The holy Fathers reply with another question: Do you really think that you can fill a jar with clean water before the old, dirty water has been emptied out? Or do you wish to receive a beloved guest in a room crammed with old trash and junk? No; he who hopes to see the Lord as he is, purifies himself, says the apostle John (I John 3:3)" (14).

Here Colliander has moved from discussing denying oneself to his second theme in this chapter: purifying oneself. The connection between the two is obvious. We must deny ourselves the right to have impure thoughts, to set unclean things before our eyes, and to engage in sinful words or actions (among other things), if we are to purify ourselves. For example, if we (and men are the most guilty of this) allow ourselves to view pornographic or semi-pornographic images, how can we cleanse ourselves from lust? Or, if we allow ourselves to use foul language or to speak evil of others, how can we train ourselves to think pure thoughts or to love our brothers?

Cleansing ourselves is not just a great idea; it is God's command to us. For as Colliander writes, "In this way we are only doing what the Lord Himself commanded us through His holy apostle James, who says: Purify your hearts (4:8). And the apostle Paul instructs us to cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit (II Corinthians 7:1). For from within, says Christ, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and defile the man (Mark 7:21-23). Therefore He also exhorts the Pharisees: Cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also (Matthew 23:26)" (15).

This cleansing of ourselves is not an end in itself, but rather a means to an end: that Christ may dwell in our hearts through his Holy Spirit. Colliander explains it this way: "It is not for our own enjoyment that we furbish and tidy the guest chamber, but in order that the guest may enjoy it. Will he find it pleasant? we ask ourself. Will he stay? Our every thought is for him" (15).

There is so much more in this chapter, which is by far the most challenging section we have looked at thus far (and indeed, in the entire book). I could go on for pages discussing it. But instead, I'll recommend that you read the whole chapter yourself--slowly, prayerfully, and with a pencil in hand. For now, let me close with Colliander's closing exhortation:

"Therefore give yourself no rest, allow yourself no peace until you have slain that part within you that belongs to your carnal nature. Make it your purpose to track down every sign of the bestial within you and persecute it relentlessly. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh (Galatians 5:17).

"But if you are fearful of becoming self-righteous from working for your own salvation, or afraid of being overcome by spiritual pride, examine yourself and observe that the person who is afraid of becoming self-righteous suffers from blindness. For he does not see how self-righteous he is" (16).

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Day at the Zoo

I don't often write posts about my personal life, because--quite frankly--it's usually pretty boring. However, every now and then, I do like to post some up-to-date pictures of the kids for those of you who are interested.

Before you read the rest of this post, however, please scroll down or click here to read my reflections on the first part of chapter five of Way of the Ascetics. I started this post about two days ago and saved it as a draft. I then finished it earlier today, but since I saved it as a draft before I posted the last two posts, it appeared before them. So, go read it right now. Don't miss it, because chapter five is great.

Are you back? Great! Now, I'll update you a little on the family.

Many of you know that my wife Jennifer was a full-time stay-at-home mom for the overwhelming majority of the first 14 years of our marriage. Beginning in the Fall of 2004, she began working toward becoming an SLP (Speech-Language Pathologist, the profession formerly known as "Speech Therapist."). This required her to earn a Master's degree in Communication Disorders. Because her undergraduate degree is in English and she had no coursework in CD, she had to complete 27 hours of undergraduate work before she could even BEGIN the Master's program.

And, as Providence would have it, only a couple of months before she began the first semester of undergraduate studies, we found out that we were going to be blessed with our fourth child, who turned out to be Christine. She was due in January. So, Jennifer toughed it out, did the first semester of studies, and then laid out for a whole year. She was finally able to finish the undergraduate work in July of 2006.

Then in August of that same year, she began the actual Master's program. She completed a whole year and was beginning preparations for the second and final year, when we began having problems with some of our kids. Jennifer and I jointly decided that it would be best for her to lay out another year, so that she could devote more attention to our children's needs. Thankfully, this worked very well.

Finally, last August, she began her final year of studies. This last year has been very intense. She has not had to take quite as many courses, but she HAS had to work a full-time internship both semesters. This semester, she is working at an elementary school in the same school district where I work. She only has one class this time, but she also has to take two major exams in mid-to-late April. She has to pass both exams in order to complete her degree and to receive her state license to be an SLP. By May 8 or so, she'll be totally done! We are all looking forward to her first school-free summer since '06!

This past week has been Spring Break (may it be praised!) for all of us. Jennifer needed a lot of time to study for her upcoming exams, and so I agreed to stay home and watch the kids each day while she went to the library and studied. So that the kids wouldn't be totally bored the whole time, I took them a few places. Yesterday morning we went to the Houston Zoo, where we have a membership (we get one each year, because the cost to do so is about the same as only two visits for the six of us).

Houston has a really good zoo, and going there makes for a great family outing. Trouble is, nearly every school district in the 3 million-plus-populated Houston metro area was also on Spring Break this week. I think that at least 10% if not more of that population also decided to go to the zoo or to one of the nearby parks or museums at the same time we did. Houston has some of the nation's worst traffic, and I got to experience it first-hand! (Thankfully, I normally don't). It took us about an hour and a half to make the 15-mile trip to the zoo, park, and get in. Normally, it takes about 30 minutes. By the time we got to the street that the zoo is on at around 10:30, the police weren't even allowing anyone to turn onto the street! The parking lot was totally full and sealed off. So, we drove around and around trying to find a place to park that wasn't ridiculously expensive or far away.

Fortunately, the kids were all very good and almost supernaturally patient. We parked at a museum about half a mile away and walked. Here are some pictures from the outing. Isn't it amazing how fast my kids are growing? Surely other kids don't grow this fast!

This is Audrey, my oldest, with her boyfriend Cobin, who is a freshman in college. Audrey will graduate from high school in June and will be attending the Honors College at the University of Houston this fall. She'll turn 18 in just over a month. I can't believe it.

Here's Courtney, our 10-year-old. She'll also be changing schools next year, moving from her elementary school (here they have only grades K-4) to one of our new 5th and 6th grade campuses.

Beth, who will be 8 in June, is just about to finish second grade. She just entered her first karate tournament and won her match. Tomorrow, she'll try for her yellow belt (and almost surely get it).

Here's Christine, the runt of the litter. She just turned 4 a couple of months ago. She won't even start kindergarten until the fall of 2010. Yes, that means that this fall, I'll have a preschooler and a college student simultaneously!

And here's one more with me and the three youngest. Note my "Longhorn Football" shirt. Go horns!

May the Lord bless you all. Tomorrow, we'll get back into Way of the Ascetics.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Little Spiritual Help #9: Towards Holiness

Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh (+2003), outstanding Orthodox bishop and author

The Inaccessible One has become accessible, the transcendent God has taken flesh and dwelt among us. The holiness which surpassed every human notion and was a separation reveals itself to be otherwise: the very holiness of God can become infinitely close without becoming any the less mysterious; it becomes accessible without our being able to possess it; it lays hold of us without destroying us. In this perspective we can understand the words of St Peter in his General Epistle, that we are called to become partakers of divine nature...

All holiness is God's holiness in us:

It is holiness that is participation and, in certain way, more than participation, because we participate in what we receive from God, we become a revelation of that which transcends us. Being a limited light, we reveal the Light. But we should also remember that in this life in which we are striving towards holiness, our spirituality should be defined in very objective and precise terms.

When we read books on spirituality or engage in studying the subject, we see that spirituality, explicitly or implicitly, is repeatedly defined as an attitude, a state of soul, an inner condition, a type of interiority, and so on.

In reality, if you look for the ultimate definition and try to discover the inner core of spirituality, you find that spirituality does not consist of the states of soul that are familiar to us, but that it is the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in us, by us, and through us in the world.

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, God and Man (Hodder and Stoughton, 1974)

Monday, March 16, 2009

A Little Spiritual Help #8: God's Relationship of Love

Why has God allowed the angels and man to sin? Why does God permit evil and suffering? We answer: Because he is a God of love. Love implies sharing, and love also implies freedom. As a Trinity of love, God desired to share His life with created persons made in His image, who would be capable of responding to Him freely and willingly in a relationship of love.

Where there is no freedom, there can be no love.

Compulsion excludes love; as Paul Evdokimov used to say, God can do everything except compel us to love Him. God, therefore - desiring to share His love - created, not robots who would obey Him mechanically, but angels and human beings endowed with free choice. And thereby, to put the matter in an anthropomorphic way, God took a risk: for with this gift of freedom there was given also the possibility of sin. But he who takes no risks does not love.

Without freedom there would be no sin. But without freedom man would not be in God's image; without freedom man would not be capable of entering into communion with God in a relationship of love.

Archimandrite (now Bishop) Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1st Paperback Edition, 1979), 75-76.

WOA #5: On the Denial of Self and the Cleansing of the Heart (Part One)

St. Ephraim the Syrian, quoted in Chapter 5 of Way of the Ascetics

"Deny yourself," Jesus commanded us. This is incredibly difficult for 99% of us. But doing so is essential if we are to be saved. As Colliander writes, "If you cannot get rid of your own greatness, neither can you lay yourself open for real greatness. If you cling to your own freedom, you cannot share in true freedom, where only one will reigns. The saints' deep secret is this: do not seek freedom, and freedom will be given you" (12).

When Jesus and the authors of the New Testament speak of freedom or of being free, they are not speaking of the the type of freedom that Americans and residents of other democracies enjoy. By freedom, the Scriptures do not mean political freedom, and they certainly do not mean the freedom to do whatever we want, whenever we want to. Rather, by "freedom," they mean freedom from sin, freedom to live the kind of life that God has called us to. Of course, the main thing that prevents us from enjoying that freedom is our own sinfulness. Our sinful thoughts and actions prevent us from being all that we can be in Christ (not in the Army!).

But how are we to do this? How are we to master the passions that constantly lead us into sin? Colliander offers this advice: "If you wish to set yourself free from a great suffering, crush the small desires, say the Holy Fathers" (13).

He continues this thought: "...it does not pay to come to grips with the hard-to-master great vices and bad habits you have acquired without at the same time overcoming your small "innocent" weaknesses: your taste for sweets, your urge to talk, your curiosity, your meddling. For finally, all our desires, great and small, are built on the same foundation, our unchecked habit of satisfying only our own will" (13).

Now, after reading this quote, you might be thinking, "Gee, is he saying that it is a sin to like sweets (I hope not, or I'm done for!), to talk, to be curious?" and so on. No, he is not saying that. What he IS saying is that it is sinful to always give in to these things. It is sinful to never say no to ourselves. What's more, always indulging ourselves in small things teaches us the lesson that it is okay to always indulge ourselves in other things, things that more readily lead to sin.

This is a large reason why Orthodox Christians fast so strictly during Lent (and only slightly less strictly at many other times throughout the year). We deny ourselves certain types of food (the ones that most of us love the best) and drink so that we can tell our body that we are in charge of it, not the other way around. We attempt to gain control of our passions, rather than letting them control us. We say no to our desire to eat and drink so that we can better say no to our desire to sin. For, as Colliander states, "Since the Fall, the will has been running errands exclusively for its own ego" (13).

He goes on to give us some examples of how we can deny ourselves: "If you have the urge to ask something, don't ask! If you have the urge to drink two cups of coffee, drink only one! (Fr. James' note: Ouch! NOW he's hitting close to home!) If you have the urge to look at the clock, don't look! If you wish to smoke a cigarette, refrain! If you want to go visiting, stay at home! This is self-persecution; in this way does one silence, with God's help, one's loud-voiced will" (13-14).

We'll look at this idea, along with the rest of chapter five, next time.

Sunday of Orthodoxy in Houston

Houston is a great place to be Orthodox. We have a wonderful Clergy Association, which consists of the clergy from all the 20 or so Orthodox parishes in the greater Houston area. The clergy and the many churches generally get along very well.

Last Sunday evening, March 8, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, we celebrated a pan-Orthodox Sunday of Orthodoxy Vespers. Present were two deacons, 21 priests, and even a bishop, +IRINEAU of the Romanian Episcopate of the Orthodox Church in America. Above is a picture of all the clergy who were present.

The service was held at the Holy Forty Martyrs Antiochian Orthodox Mission in Sugar Land, just southwest of Houston. Because the next day (March 9) was the feast of the Holy Forty Martyrs, we wore red vestments.

The choral music was provided by the pan-Orthodox St. Romanos Chorale, under the direction of Dr Bill Attra. To say that their singing was beautiful would be a gross understatement!

Fr. Chad Hatfield, chancellor of St. Vladimir's Seminary, served as the main celebrant and delivered the homily.

Present among the clergy were two friends and brother priests, the always impressive Frs. John Whiteford (center) and Joseph Huneycutt (right), both gentlemen, scholars, and all-around great guys.

Hey, who let THAT kid in? "When I get older, losing my hair, (not so) many years from now!"

Thanks to Fr. Joseph Huneycutt, from whom I stole--oops, I mean BORROWED--the pictures. I'm sorry I took so long to post this information. It figures that a priest named Early would be such a procrastinator!

Here's one more picture for you, from the pan-Orthodox Sunday of Orthodoxy celebration that was held in Wichita, Kansas. These are the three hierarchs who rule over Texas (and, of course, other areas, if you care about anywhere else but Texas). From left to right, Metropolitan ISAIAH of Denver (GOA), Archbishop DMITRI of Dallas (OCA), and my bishop, BASIL of Wichita. I really love this picture. I hope that these three godly bishops will come concelebrate in Houston some time in the near future.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

WOA #4: On the Silent and Invisible Warfare

"You should see yourself as a child...who is taking his first tottering steps."

In chapter four, Colliander points out that the warfare that we are engaging in, that is, the battle to remain on the path to salvation, is an invisible warfare. It all takes place in the heart. And because of this, the Fathers tell us that we should not talk to others about the battle, with the exception of our spiritual father-confessor.

Why this need for silence? Colliander explains: "This silence is necessary because all chatter about one's own self-concerns nourishes self-preoccupation and self-trust. And this must be stifled first of all! Through stillness one's trust grows in Him who sees what is hidden; through silence one talks to Him who hears without words. To come to Him is your endeavor, and in Him shall be all your confidence: you are anchored in eternity, and in eternity there are no words" (10).

Having learned to keep our mouths shut, we must adjust the way in which we look upon the events of our lives: "consider that everything that happens to you, both great and small, is sent by God to help you in your warfare...Nothing happens accidentally or in such a way that you cannot learn from it; you must understand this at once, for this is how your trust grows in the Lord whom you have chosen to follow" (11).

This teaching is also reflected in the morning prayer of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, which is one of the morning prayers included (among other places) in the back of the Orthodox Study Bible. One line of this prayer says: "In unforseen events, let me not forget that all are sent by you."

Finally Colliander warns us of the need for humility: "...you should see yourself as a child who is setting out to learn the first sounds of letters and who is taking his first tottering steps. All worldly wisdom and all the skills you may have are totally worthless in the warfare that awaits you, and equally without value are your social standing and your possessions. Property that is not used in the Lord's service is a burden, and knowledge that does not engage the heart is barren and therefore harmul, because it is presumptuous" (10-11).

After all, did our Lord not say, “Assuredly (Gk. amen, amen), I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18:3).

And, as the Proverbs tell us, we must "Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths" (3:5-6). But how exactly do we do this?

This is the subject of the next several chapters.

Friday, March 13, 2009

WOA #3: The Garden of the Heart

Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life. (Proverbs 4:23, NIV)

Last time, we learned that we cannot walk the path of salvation without God's help. Trying to do it solely with our own efforts is foolish and impossible. But that does not mean that our actions play no part in our salvation. Nothing could be farther from the truth! As St. Paul write in Philippians 2:12-13: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure."

The work that God wants us to do is sometimes compared to the work of a farmer (see, for example, 2 Tim. 2:6 and James 5:7). Colliander uses the same analogy in chapter 3 of Way of the Ascetics. Listen to what he has to say:

"If the husbandman wishes to have a rich harvest, he must work early and late, weed and aerate, water and spray, for cultivation is beset by many dangers that threaten the harvest. He must work without ceasing, be constantly on the watch, constantly alert, constantly prepared; but even so, the harvest ultimately depends wholly on the elements, that is, on God.

The garden that we have undertaken to tend and watch over is the field of our own heart; the harvest is eternal life" (7).

The world often tells us "Take it easy! Live it up! Don't be so hard on yourself." But the Fathers tell us otherwise. Colliander gives but one of many possible examples of this. "Persecute yourself, says St. Isaac of Syria, and your enemy is routed as fast as you approach" (8).

The phrase that St. Isaac uses is at first startling. "Persecute yourself?" To some, this might smack of masochism or just plain old insanity. But the saint is using extreme language to make a point (the Fathers are not famous for understatement!). By "persecute yourself," I think the saint means the same thing that Jesus meant, when he told us "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." (Luke 9:23).

In other words, if we are to be saved, we must be tough on ourselves. We must not live our lives according to the world's easy standards (cf. Rom. 12:2). We must pray more, read more, fast more, give more, and sin less than the world would have us. This is the Way of the Ascetics. This is the path of theosis.

And God has placed within us the potential "both to will and to do for His good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13; see also Luke 17:21). As Colliander writes, "The stairway to the kingdom is within you, secret in your soul. Cast off the burden of sin and you will find within you the upward path that will make your ascent possible" (8).

Thursday, March 12, 2009

WOA 2: On the Insufficiency of Human Strength

Icon of St. Mark the Ascetic, author of On Those Who Think They Are Saved By Works, a work whose theme relates to today's post

If you're like me, after reading my mediation on the first chapter of Way of the Ascetics, you're fired up. You're ready to go. You are excited and eager to begin the challenge of walking the way of the ascetics. You're ready to focus with laser-beam intensity on growing closer to God. You may even be thinking something like "It's time to hunker down, roll up my sleeves and go to work!" I can do this if I just put my mind to it! All it takes is for me to, in the words of the turtle Crush in Finding Nemo, "Focus, duuuuuude!"

But wait just a minute. Not so fast! Listen to what Tito Colliander says in the second chapter of Way :

"The holy Fathers say with one voice: The first thing to keep in mind is never in any respect to rely on yourself. The warfare that now lies before you is extraordinarily hard, and your own human powers are altogether insufficient to carry it on. If you rely on them you will immediately be felled to the ground and have no desire to continue the battle. Only God can give you the victory you wish" (4).

Some of us seem to be blessed with genes that make us more easily able to live a Christ-like life. Some of us are naturally patient, humble, kind, compassionate, and/or loving (I missed out on all these genes for some strange reason). But even if you are blessed with one or more of these qualities naturally, you still have to beware of the temptation to think that you can do this on your own. Listen to Colliander:

"This decision not to rely on self is for most people a severe obstacle at the very outset. It must be overcome, otherwise we have no prospect of going further. For how can a human being receive advice, instruction, and help if he believes that he knows and can do everything and needs no directions? Through such a wall of self-satisfaction no gleam of light can permeate" (4-5).

The third sentence in this paragraph seems especially important. As a former classroom teacher, I can speak from experience that if a person doesn't think he needs to learn, you can't teach him anything. (I use "he" here on purpose; it seems like males are in generally more hard-headed and prideful than are females. But I digress...)

As Colliander continues, "We must empty ourselves, therefore, of the immoderately high faith we have in ourselves. Often it is so deeply rooted in us that we do not see how it rules over our heart. It is precisely our egoism, our self-centeredness and self-love that cause all our difficulties, our lack of freedom in suffering, our disappointments and our anguish soul and body. Take a look at yourself, therefore, and see how bound you are by your desire to humour yourself and only yourself" (5).

This is what Lent is all about: taking a good, hard look at ourselves, seeing how far we fall short of God's glory, and throwing ourselves at his mercy, asking Him to help us re-focus our lives on Him. But in doing this, of course, we must keep in mind that, in Colliander's words, "the power to put the good thought into practice is not your own, but is given you by the Holy Trinity" (6).

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Little Spiritual Help #7: Striving Upwards

Fr. Alexander Men,
Russian Orthodox Priest, Author, and Neomartyr (+1990)

I shall never forget the remarkable words about truth spoken by the simple Himalayan mountaineer Tensing, the Sherpa who climbed Everest with [the New Zealander] Hillary. He said that we must approach mountains with reverence, and God in the same way. Indeed mountains demand a certain mindset in order to grasp their magnificence and their beauty. Truth lies hidden from people who rush at it without reverence, who set out unprepared, disregarding the dangers, precipices and crevasses.

It is the mark of human history to strive upwards. You may well object: think how many steps there have been leading downwards. Yes, of course; at first glance there are more steps leading downwards; more people who have fallen and rolled down into the abyss. But the important thing is that human beings have all the same kept attempting to climb to this summit above the clouds, and the greatness of humanity lies in the fact that people have the capacity to reach the peaks of intellectual and spiritual contemplation, to reach what Pushkin called "the neighborhood of God. "

Human beings have two countries, two homelands. One is our own country, that place where each of us was born and grew up. But the other is that hidden world of the spirit which the eye may not see and the ear may not hear but where, by our nature, we belong. We are children of the earth and at the same time visitors to it...and contact with God is possible...Christ calls people to bring the divine ideal to reality.

Father Alexander Men, Christianity for the Twenty-first Century (lecture given September 8, 1990 - the night before he was murdered).

Russian version published in 1992; English translation from Christianity for the Twenty-first Century: The Prophetic Writings of Fr. Alexander Men, Edited by Elizabeth Roberts and Ann Shukman, pages 181,183 & 185. Continuum Publishing, New York.

Monday, March 9, 2009

WOA 1 - On a Resolute and Sustained Purpose

Well, my series on Orthodox Christians and the Scriptures is going to have to be put on hold for a while. My adult Sunday School class will resume meeting this coming Sunday, and I need to begin preparing for it. In the class over the next several weeks, we will be reading and discussing Tito Colliander's wonderful book Way of the Ascetics (WOA from here on). To prepare for the class, and to help the members of the class prepare, I plan to post a reflection on each chapter, one per day (except weekends) on this blog. I pray that they will be helpful and benefical to all of you who read this blog, even if you are not able to attend the class.

(I hope to post at least one reflection in the "Scriptures" series per week, perhaps on Saturday or Sunday, if I can).

Here is a reflection on the first chapter of WOA: "On a Resolute and Sustained Purpose."

If a person wishes to be saved--to successfully walk the path of theosis and to gain eternal life and a place in God's eternal kingdom--the single most important thing they must to is WANT to be saved. No one who does not really want to be saved will. But it is not enough just to want to be saved; one must want it bad enough to DO something about it. For example, I would guess that there are a lot of people who would love to be able to run a marathon. But very few are willing to actually put forth the effort to do the training required to be able to run one.

In the same way, probably 90% or more of people who believe in God want to be with Him after they die. But how many are willing to do whatever it takes? Not very many. Salvation requires not merely wishing for it; it requires action. Colliander comments on this need for action:

Faith comes not through pondering but through action. Not words and speculation but experience teaches us what God is. To let in fresh air we have to open a window; to get tanned we must go out into the sunshine. Achieving faith is no different; we never reach a goal by just sitting in comfort and waiting, say the holy Fathers. Let the Prodigal Son be are example. He arose and came (Luke 15:20). [Fr. James' note: by "faith," I believe that Colliander means the true faith that leads to salvation. Thus in saying "faith," he also means "salvation."]

And if you have not already begun your struggle towards salvation, the time to start is now. Whether you are old or young, whether you have been a Christian for many years or for a brief time, it is neither too late nor too early to begin, for as Colliander says:

However weighed down and entangled in earthly fetters you may be, it can never be too late. Not without reason is it written that Abraham was seventy-five when he set forth, and the laborer who comes in the eleventh hour gets the same wages as the one who comes in the first.

Nor can it be too early. A forest fire cannot be put out too soon; would you see your soul ravaged and charred?

In baptism, you received the command to wage the invisible warfare against the enemies of your soul; take it up now...this moment, the instant you make your resolution, you will show by your action that you have taken leave of your old self and have now begun a new life, with a new destination and a new way of living. Arise, therfore, without fear and say: Lord, let me begin now. Help me! For what you need above all is God's help.

What better time than this Lenten season to re-focus ourselves on God and His kingdom. What better time to get serious about taking our spiritual life to the next level? What better time to, as the Epistle to the Hebrews says, "lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (12:1-2)

Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2).

40 Save One

One year ago yesterday, I celebrated my 40th birthday. On that day, I decided that on subsequent birthdays, I would begin aging backwards until I again reach 30. Then I'll stop. This means, of course, that yesterday was my second 39th birthday. In honor of that, I thought I would repost a reflection that I wrote on my first 39th birthday, which occurred two years ago. I hope that you enjoy it.

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away (Psalm 89/90:10, KJV).

Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one (2 Corinthians 11:24, KJV).

I hope that you will forgive me for this, but I am not a big devotee of the King James Version of the Bible. I respect the beauty of its language, and I acknowledge that it was a great accomplishment in its time. However, I simply find its language to be too archaic and difficult for frequent use. For the first several years after I became a Christian, I read almost exclusively from the New International Version (NIV), until it was brought to my attention that it sometimes takes excessive liberty in translating the Greek text of the New Testament. I still think that the NIV is worth reading, especially if you are trying to quickly read through a book and gain the overall message of the book. For closer, verse by verse study, I recommend the New King James Version (NKJV) or the New American Standard Bible (NASB), which are the two most literal modern English translations.

Still, there are certain verses in which I still love the KJV above all other versions. I like the way some phrases sound, such as the temple curtain being “rent in twain” (Matthew 27:51) and “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16). I am also a sucker for words like “threescore” and “fourscore.” I don’t know why.

The second verse that I quoted above is another such verse. “Forty save one” seems so much more poetic that just saying “thirty-nine.” The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy provided for a punishment of 40 lashes for serious crimes (see 25:3). The Jewish leaders of the first century generally only allowed a maximum of 39 as a demonstration of their mercy.

I am blessed to have never received 39 lashes (or even one, thanks be to God!) with a whip, but the number 39 takes on a different significance for me on this day: it is now the number of years that the merciful God has allowed me to live on this Earth.

Long ago, in one of my college English classes, we were discussing a poem (which one, I cannot remember) that had the inevitability of death as its theme. I remember the professor saying, “We all know intellectually that one day we will die, but when you get to be about thirty-five, you start actually feeling it in your body.” Recent experience has shown me that the professor was correct. For some reason, all my pairs of pants have mysteriously started to shrink around the waist. Ditto with my shirt collars. I no longer seem to have as much energy as I used to. When I lift weights, I get pinched nerves in my shoulders and achy joints. Could these be initial signs of more to come?

Now I know that many of you who are reading this are … well, let’s just say “somewhat older than 39.” You are thinking “Don’t complain, Fr. James, you are still a young man.” Indeed, some people at work call me “young man” or even “kiddo.” Other people, particularly my former students and my own children, think I am older than dirt. So where does the truth lie?

Perhaps the first verse that I quoted above holds the key to answering this question. The Psalmist wrote that “the days of our lives are threescore and ten; and if by reason of strength they are fourscore.” Indeed, according to the CDC, the average life expectancy in the U.S. is currently 77.9 years. If we round that to 78, then my life is exactly one-half over. In other words, I probably only have about 39 years to go, give or take a few (and it might be much fewer). One thing is certain: my remaining years will go quickly; after all, the first 39 sure did

This morning, I mentioned this data to my oldest daughter Audrey, who is 15 [Note: Now she's 17], and she replied, “Wow, Dad. That’s really depressing!” Perhaps. However, I prefer to use the knowledge of my limited remaining time on earth as an incentive to make the most of it. Later in the same Psalm that I quoted above, the Psalmist asks God to “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (v. 12). St. Paul expressed the importance of doing just this when he told the Ephesians to “see then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (vv. 15-16).

These and other verses of Scripture tell us that we need to make all of our remaining time on earth count. We need to waste less time doing things that do not contribute to our growth in godliness. We need to spend less time on ourselves and more time on others. Less time tearing others down and more time building them up. Less time stuffing our own faces and more time feeding and clothing the hungry. Less time “shooting the breeze” and more time talking to God (and listening to him). Less time watching TV and movies and more time reading the Scriptures and the Fathers. Less time telling others the latest celebrity gossip (or even the latest news) and more time telling them about the way to eternal life.

May God grant us the wisdom and the self-discipline to do these things.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

More on Lent and a Little Humor

Yesterday's post on Orthodox Christians and the Scriptures was pretty heavy. I thought I would lighten things just a little bit today, before returning to the topic later today or tomorrow.

First, here is an excellent reflection on Lent from the excellent blog site "Fr. Ted's Blog," written by Fr. Theodore Bobosh, the pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Orthodox Church in Dayton, Ohio, and the author of three books, as well as many articles. Enjoy Fr. Ted's words:

Lent is a season of repentance. That is, a time for us to feel the depths of the sorrow and distress which our sins have caused the world. There indeed is a sorrowful tone to the music, the colors, the liturgical services. And yet, it is a season of joy, because with the coming of Christ and his death and resurrection, the impact of sin on the world is overcome. That joy is tempered by the fact that we still live in a world in which sin and death are all too obvious. So the lenten season brings us the mixed emotions of joy for the salvation God has freely bestowed on us, and sorrow for the affects of our sins on the world and on each other - sickness, sorrow, sighing, death. Look at the lives of our friends - the mother whose son has died, the man who just lost his father - and we see the tragedy, pain and suffering which death has become in our lives and in the world.

Lent reminds us that we need to feel that pain - not avoid it, not cover it over or pretend it isn’t there. We need to feel the pain and the suffering and the sorrow to bring ourselves to true
repentance. We also need that tragedy and grief so that we will ask, “Why?”

The rest of the post can be found here.

The next thing I wanted to share was something I heard in the newest edition of the "Theologically Thinking" podcast from the Orthodox Christian Network. This podcast features a talk given by Fr. William Chiganos, pastor of Holy Apostles Greek Orthodox Church in Westchester, Illinois. I recommend listening to the entire talk if you can. My favorite part was the very end, in which Fr. William emphasised that in addition to abstaining from food during Lent, we need to do the following five things:

1. Live simply.
2. Live generously.
3. Care deeply for one another.
4. Speak kindly to one another.
5. Leave the rest to God.

Finally, here's a little humor that a high school friend of mine sent me.


One Sunday morning, the pastor noticed little Alex standing in the foyer of the church staring up at a large plaque. It was covered with names and small American flags mounted on either side of it. The six-year old had been staring at the plaque for some time, so the pastor walked up, stood beside the little boy, and said quietly, 'Good morning, Alex!''

Good morning Pastor,' he replied, still focused on the plaque. 'Pastor,what is this?'

The pastor said, 'Well son, it's a memorial to all the young men and women who died in the service.' Soberly, they just stood together, staring at the large plaque.

Finally, little Alex's voice, barely audible and trembling with fear asked,'Which service, the 8:30 or the 10:45?'

Friday, March 6, 2009

Orthodox Christians and the Scriptures

(DISCLAIMER: The following post is not intended to be critical of, much less to condemn, my fellow Orthodox Christians. The intention is rather to point out something that I see as a problem and then later, to propose one or more possible solutions. If this post offends you, I ask your forgiveness.)

Here’s an experiment to try: This Sunday, stand outside the door of an Orthodox parish in your town, near the end of the Divine Liturgy. When the service ends, select ten departing worshippers at random. Give them a test of basic biblical knowledge.

The test should not cover mere Bible trivia (with questions like “Who were Shiprah and Puah in the book of Exodus?” or “In which three books of the Bible is Melchizedek named?”), but an overview of significant content (like, for example, “What are the nine fruits of the Spirit that Paul says we should display?” or “What was the problem addressed by the Jerusalem Council, and how did it resolve that problem?”)

Now: Next Sunday, do the same thing at the main morning worship service at a Southern Baptist church. Which group do you think would achieve a higher average score on the test? Sad to say, but I’m pretty sure that if you were to repeat this in ten different cities, the Baptists would win in at least nine (if not in all ten).

Nearly four weeks ago, I posted a series of quotations from St. John Chrysostom on the importance of the Holy Scriptures. These quotations had been annotated and sent to me by my Bishop, +BASIL of Wichita and Mid-America. The post generated some excellent discussion, and I would now like to follow up on that discussion (at long last).

One of the quotations from Chrysostom had the annotation “Ignorance of the Scriptures by Christians is a disgrace,” and it read as follows: "Is it not strange that those who sit in the marketplace tell the names, and races, and cities and talents of charioteers and dancers, even accurately state the good and bad qualities of horses, while those who assemble in this place [the church] understand nothing of what is taking place here and even are ignorant of the number of the [sacred] Books?" (Hom. 32 On John)

To this quote, I added my own thought: "I would add that it is also disgraceful that most evangelical Christians know their Bibles inside and out, but most of us Orthodox do not."

I stand behind my words. Based on my experience, the average evangelical Christian knows the Bible much better than does the average Orthodox Christian. Why is this? The simple answer is that the average evangelical Christian READS the Bible much more often and in more depth than does his Orthodox counterpart. But this further begs the question, “Why?”

My friend, frequent reader and commenter, and future godson Clint offered the following explanation: “One thing is that we have to remember that Evangelicals believe that the scripture is THE Word of God and therefore find life within the written pages of the Bible. Orthodoxy teaches that Jesus Christ is THE Word. Perhaps the Protestants are so intent on the scriptures because they are looking for life, and since they don't really find it (at least in its fullness) they devour the scriptures, thinking that they are missing something. Orthodox (and I can only presume Catholics), since they have a different relationship with scripture don't have that same "drive" to absorb it. We tend to be content with the ritual of our Faith.”

I think Clint is right on target. To help us grow spiritually, we Orthodox are encouraged to read at least four types of spiritual writings: the Bible, the writings of the Fathers, the lives of the Saints, and writings of contemporary Orthodox theologians (Schmemann, Meyendorff, Ware, Lossky, and so on). Evangelicals, on the other hand, only read two of these: The Bible and writings of contemporary authors (albeit evangelicals). To be sure, they do sometimes read biographies of some of their saints (oops, sorry—I meant to say “heroes of the faith”), but these books do not mean as much to them as the saints’ lives do to us.

To think about it strictly mathematically, the Scriptures are 50% of what Evangelicals are encouraged to read, while they are only 25% of what we are encouraged to read. In other words, if you ask an Orthodox person what he or she is reading right now (assuming the answer is not “nothing”), there is only a 1 in 4 chance that it will be part of the Bible, while for an Evangelical, it will be a 1 in 2 chance. All this is oversimplified, but I think you get the point.

Granted, for us Orthodox Christians, the Bible is not “everything,” as it is for Evangelicals. But that doesn’t mean knowing it (and knowing it WELL) is not important. The Bible is still the most important part of Holy Tradition. I believe that many, if not most, Orthodox Christians do not spend enough time reading and studying the Scriptures, and that this is a big problem.

So what do YOU think? Have I overstated the problem? Do you think that Orthodox Christians read the Bible enough? Are they familiar enough with its content? As my friend Fr. Gregory Jensen always says, “Your comments, questions and criticisms are not only welcome, they are actively sought.” For now, let’s limit ourselves to a discussion of the problem (if indeed one exists), and next time, we’ll try to come up with solutions. Fair enough?

What say you?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Little Spiritual Help #6: The Spiritual Journey

Archimandrite Meletios Webber,
Manton, California

Theosis, the transformation of the individual person into the closest possible union with God, is likely to occur towards the final stages of the spiritual journey. Repentance, on the other hand, is not only the initial stage of the spiritual journey, but also the path itself. It is the development of a way of repentance that most of us have the most to learn, and about which the Church has most to say. Repentance is a constant theme in the services of the church, in Holy Scripture, and in the teachings and discussions of the patristic authors. It is the first word of the Forerunner's message, and the last earthly act of the thief hanging on the cross beside the Savior. Repentance is the summary of prayer and sacrament, the act in which all human beings are beginners, all are equal.

Since everything we have and everything we are is a gift from God, repentance is one of the few genuine offerings that a person can make. Each person is free to make an offering of repentance to God, in return He agrees to participate in the transformation of that person.

It hardly needs to be said that in repentance it is the aim to change oneself, not to change the rest of the world or to change the mind of God... It is not possible to repent on behalf of another person. Naturally, this makes the process [of repentance] very different from the expected behavior of individuals or groups of individuals (up to and including entire nations) that tend to set about solving problems by changing the rest of the world first...It is God, not the individual, who is in charge. It is the individual, not God, who needs to change.

Archimandrite Meletios Webber
Steps of Transformation, pages 93-94,
Conciliar Press, Ben Lomond, California

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Four Great Books (Part Two)

Here are the reviews of the remaining two books that I promised you the other day.

3. Creation and the Patriarchal Histories by Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon. Commentaries on Old Testament books written by contemporary Orthodox scholars are very difficult to find. Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon, biblical scholar and pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, seems to be on a mission to remedy that problem. (Fr. Reardon is also the author of books on Job and Chronicles; both of these books are on my list of things to read later. He has also written an outstanding commentary on the Psalms and a great book on the lives of the biblical Saints, which I am reading right now).

In Creation and the Patriarchal Histories, Fr. Reardon offers reflections on each chapter in Genesis, as well as some excursi that delve deeper into selected topics and questions raised in the Genesis narrative. In his always engaging and highly readable (even humorous at times) style, Fr. Reardon brings the characters of Genesis alive. He has a special talent for showing how the lives of Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and others fit into the overall scheme of salvation history. As any good Orthodox writer would, Fr. Reardon clearly connects Old Testament types to their New Testament fulfillments. He masterfully brings out the Christological sense of Genesis, without disregarding the literal and historical sense (as, sadly, the notes on Genesis in the new complete Orthodox Study Bible often do).

Of course, as is true in any book of this type, not all the reflections are of equal quality; some, particularly toward the end, seem to be little more than retellings of the narrative. In reading the last third of the book, one gets the sense that Fr. Reardon may have been hurrying to meet a deadline. Still, this in no way detracts from the greatness of the book. Genesis is one of the books that the Orthodox Church recommends that we read during Lent. Doing so a chapter or two at a time, with Creation and the Patriarchal Histories as a supplemental resource, would be an excellent use of time.

4. Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, by Dr. Meg Meeker. Yes, once in a while, I do read a book that is not on the Bible or Orthodox theology. In fact, I firmly believe that every married Christian couple should read a book on marriage (from the Christian perspective) at least once a year, and every Christian parent should read a book on Christian parenting at least once every two years. This book is on parenting—particularly on the challenging area of how fathers should raise their daughters.

Having four daughters of my own, one of whom who is nearly eighteen, I consider myself to have a good amount of experience with this subject. I have probably learned enough about being a father to my daughters to write a book of my own on the subject, if I so desired. In fact, I could write a thick book about all the mistakes I’ve made, calling it something like 1001 Things Not To Do in Raising a Daughter! Some of you reading this could do the same. But no matter how much experience one has in being a dad, he must have the wisdom to admit that he always has something to learn. This is why all you dads with daughters should read this book.

Meg Meeker is an M.D. that specializes in pediatrics, as well as a mother of four. The topics that she covers can be derived from the names of the book’s chapters: You Are the Most Important Man in Her Life; She Needs a Hero; You are Her First Love; Teach Her Humility; Protect Her, Defend Her; Be the Man You Want Her to Marry; Teach Her Who God Is; Teach Her To Fight; Keep Her Connected.

Dr. Meeker’s main thesis is that a father must be highly active and involved in his daughter’s life, not allowing the girl’s mother to raise her alone (and certainly not allowing her school, her peers, television, or the movies to do so!). This is not only true in the early period of the daughter’s life, but throughout her life—and particularly through the tempestuous teenage years. Fathers must not be afraid to set limits in their daughters' behavior and activites, even if this results in conflict.

Much of the information that she presents is similar or the same to what you would read in any book on parenting that is written from a traditional Christian perspective (Meeker seems to be an evangelical Protestant, although she nowhere states this in the book). But some of the insights are unique, at least to me. These include the idea that when a girl is a teenager, her father needs to be MORE—not less—involved in her life than when she was little.

Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters is a great resource for men who are serious about being the best father they can to their daughters, helping them to avoid falling into substance abuse, premarital sex, eating disorders, and all the other evils that the world will tempt them with. If you are a Christian father who has a daughter, you must read this book—and the earlier, the better. Mothers, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for you to read it too!

(By the way, Dr. Meeker has recently published a book about raising boys called Boys Should Be Boys. For obvious reasons, reading this book has not been a major priority for me, but I am sure that it must be excellent as well).

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Fr. Stephen and St. Nikolai on Fasting

If you've read this blog for very long, you know that I'm a big fan of Fr. Stephen Freeman (pictured above)'s wonderful blog Glory to God for All Things. Many of you also read it, and if you don't, then I highly recommend that you start today! Fr. Stephen's posts are all either good, very good, or out of this world. A couple of days ago, he published an article on "Why We Fast" that was so good, I just had to reproduce it here in its entirety. Read and enjoy--and be sure to read the last paragraph.

Fasting is not very alive and well in the Christian world. Much of that world has long lost any living connection with the historical memory of Christian fasting. It is as though they were Jews who heard there was such a thing as kosher and decided to make up the rules for what to eat and what not to eat because no one knew what was actually kosher.

There are other segments of Christendom who have tiny remnants of the traditional Christian fast, but in the face of a modern world have reduced the tradition to almost meaningless self-sacrifice.

I read recently (though I cannot remember where) that the rejection of Hesychasm was the source of all heresy. In less technical terms we can say that knowing God in truth, participating in His life, union with Him through humility, prayer, love of enemy and repentance before all and for everything, is the purpose of the Christian life. Hesychasm (Greek Hesychia=Silence) is the name applied to the Orthodox tradition of ceaseless prayer and inner stillness.

But these are incorrectly understood if they are separated from knowledge of God and participation in His life, union with Him through humility, prayer, love of enemy and repentance before all and for everything.

And it is the same path of inner knowledge of God (with all its components) that is the proper context of fasting. If we fast but do not forgive our enemies - our fasting is of no use. If we fast and do not find it drawing us into humility - our fasting is of no use. If our fasting does not make us yet more keenly aware of the fact that we are sinful before all and responsible to all then it is of no benefit. If our fasting does not unite us with the life of God - which is meek and lowly - then it is again of no benefit.

Fasting is not dieting. Fasting is not about keeping a Christian kosher. Fasting is about hunger and humility (which is increased as we allow ourselves to become weak). Fasting is about allowing our heart to break.

I have seen greater good accomplished in souls through their failure in the fasting season than in the souls of those who “fasted well.” Publicans enter the kingdom of God before Pharisees pretty much every time.

Why do we fast? Perhaps the more germane question is “why do we eat?” Christ quoted Scripture to the evil one and said, “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” We eat as though our life depended on it and it does not. We fast because our life depends on the word of God.

I worked for a couple of years as a hospice chaplain. During that time, daily sitting at the side of the beds of dying patients - I learned a little about how we die. It is a medical fact that many people become “anorexic” before death - that is - they cease to want food. Many times family and even doctors become concerned and force food on a patient who will not survive. Interestingly, it was found that patients who became anorexic had less pain than those who having become anorexic were forced to take food. (None of this is about the psychological anorexia that afflicts many of our youth. That is a tragedy)

It is as though at death our bodies have a wisdom we have lacked for most of our lives. It knows that what it needs is not food - but something deeper. The soul seeks and hungers for the living God. The body and its pain become a distraction. And thus in God’s mercy the distraction is reduced.

Christianity as a religion - as a theoretical system of explanations regarding heaven and hell, reward and punishment, is simply Christianity that has been distorted from its true form. Either we know the living God or we have nothing. Either we eat His flesh and drink His blood or we have no life in us. The rejection of Hesychasm is the source of all heresy.

Why do we fast? We fast so that we may live like a dying man - and in dying we can be born to eternal life.
Fr. Stephen also reproduced a theological poem by St. Nikolai Velimirovic (pictured above), a twentieth century Serbian saint who served the Dachau concentration camp and later moved to the U. S., teaching at St. Tikhon's Seminary. This part of the poem deals with fasting, and it does so in a beautiful and powerful way. I liked it so much (and I'm not a big poetry fan) that I quoted from it in my sermon that I posted Sunday and yesterday. Read this slowly and contemplatively, and it will be a blessing to you.

With fasting I gladden my hope in You, my Lord, Who are to come again.

Fasting hastens my preparation for Your coming, the sole expectation of my days and nights.

Fasting makes my body thinner, so that what remains can more easily shine with the spirit.

While waiting for You, I wish neither to nourish myself with blood nor to take life–so that the animals may sense the joy of my expectation.

But truly, abstaining from food will not save me. Even if I were to eat only the sand from the lake, You would not come to me, unless the fasting penetrated deeper into my soul.

I have come to know through my prayer, that bodily fasting is more a symbol of true fasting, very beneficial for someone who has only just begun to hope in You, and nevertheless very difficult for someone who merely practices it.

Therefore I have brought fasting into my soul to purge her of many impudent fiancĂ©’s and to prepare her for You like a virgin.

And I have brought fasting into my mind, to expel from it all daydreams about worldly matters and to demolish all the air castles, fabricated from those daydreams.

I have brought fasting into my mind, so that it might jettison the world and prepare to receive Your Wisdom.

And I have brought fasting into my heart, so that by means of it my heart might quell all passions and worldly selfishness.

I have brought fasting into my heart, so that heavenly peace might ineffably reign over my heart, when Your stormy Spirit encounters it.

I prescribe fasting for my tongue, to break itself of the habit of idle chatter and to speak reservedly only those words that clear the way for You to come.

And I have imposed fasting on my worries so that it may blow them all away before itself like the wind that blows away the mist, lest they stand like dense fog between me and You, and lest they turn my gaze back to the world.

And fasting has brought into my soul tranquility in the face of uncreated and created realms, and humility towards men and creatures. And it has instilled in me courage, the likes of which I never knew when I was armed with every sort of worldly weapon.

What was my hope before I began to fast except merely another story told by others, which passed from mouth to mouth?

The story told by others about salvation through prayer and fasting became my own.

False fasting accompanies false hope, just as no fasting accompanies hopelessness.

But just as a wheel follows behind a wheel, so true fasting follows true hope.

Help me to fast joyfully and to hope joyously, for You, my Most Joyful Feast, are drawing near to me with Your radiant smile.

From Prayers by the Lake, section 41.