Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Few Thoughts After One Year

Like many others in Orthodoxy, the return of Holy Week and Pascha brings the anniversary of our entrance into the Church. I refer, of course, to my family. It was last year that our journey TO Orthodoxy was completed and our larger journey IN Orthodoxy began. I won't go back over the long journey (at least it seemed long to me) to become Orthodox, but rather want to look over the past year and what a change it has made in our lives.

Before last year, my children went to Church because we took them. I suppose in some ways, that is still the case, but I don't ever recall being told to "hurry up or we will be late" before we became Orthodox. My oldest son, Joey, serves as an acolyte during most services that we are able to attend. Being late means he can't serve. So he always wants to make sure we get there on time. On the few occasions that we have arrived and he has not been able to serve (because there were already enough acolytes for the day), the look of hurt in his eyes fills me with mixed emotions. Like any parent, I hate it when my children hurt. But I am also overjoyed that my 9 year old son has a real avenue of service that he can find joy in providing. My prayer is that he is able to harness that devotion and live a life of service in the Church. Yesterday and today were both very special to me. At the Lazarus Saturday Liturgy, he was able to lead the procession (only two acolytes were there) during the Great Entrance. Showing my lack of Christian development, I felt immense pride in my son. Today, he was excited because he finally got to wear "another color." Because of his age and size, most of the non-gold sticharion are too large for him. But he finally grew enough to wear the purple one. In a sense, he feels that he is "growing up" in his role. He is.

My daughter, Becky, sings in the choir with my wife, Debbie and me. It almost feels like our experience in the choir is a family affair. We are all able to talk about the songs, sing them together and share an invaluable experience that helps to bond us even closer as a family. I know that in a real sense, my daughter (as well as Debbie and I) is learning more about service, worship and the wonderfulness of our God every time she sings the hymns. The words are being poured into her, just as she sings them out. I feel blessed.

Of course, Debbie and I are getting the same benefit from the Choir, as we are able to share what meager talents we have in singing (OK, Debbie has quite a bit of that talent. I get by.). But in one short year, we have gone from wandering to finding a community within the community in the choir. We get to know the wonderful folks that we stand next to each time we gather together. We learn to work together, to compensate for one another (or be compensated for - that is my forte). We learn to love one another and appreciate one another.

Then there is Tommy. I know I recounted last year of how he would walk through the house "censing" with a toy light saber. He doesn't do that so much anymore, but just yesterday, he couldn't wait to show me his classroom in Sunday School. It was just after the liturgy for Lazarus Saturday. I went in and commented on his drawings that are displayed, assuming he was looking for validation. But I was humbled by what he really wanted to show me. He took me over to one wall, where several icons were located. He said, "this is where we pray." His pictures were fine and I am sure he liked me telling him how good they were. But the thing in that room that really touched him was the place of prayer. Smart little fellow.

So after one year, as I reflect on what we have done and how we have grown, I realize that sure, we are not as far along as we should be, but we are further along than we were. I realize that I have made missteps and bad decisions in some cases, but I am headed in the right direction. None of us is what we should be, but by God's grace and the prayers of the Theotokos and the Saints, we on the right road to get there.

I can't wait for the second year.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Brief Look at Monastacism, part 3

The Holy Monastery of Aghiou Pavlou (St'Pavlou)is in the western part of Mt. Athos (taken from here)


The life of a hermit was not the only form that monasticism took, however. While St. Anthony’s followers were attached to him, the confederation was very loose. There were no strict rules, besides the relationship between the ascetic and his spiritual father. At the same time that St Anthony was instructing his followers, another style of monasticism was instituted.

St. Pachomius, who lived in southern (upper) Egypt, wrote a rule for a community of monks. This very rule was later taken and adapted by St. Benedict of Nursia. This rule was a system of organization that led the community of ascetics to live their lives in unison and harmony with one another. They prayed on the same schedule. They worked, fasted, meditated and studied on that schedule. They even ate together, sharing all possessions in common, hence the name Cenobite. In this system, developed by St. Pachomius, the head of the monastics was to be strictly obeyed in all things. This system soon led to the development of ‘houses’ and even came to include groups of female ascetics (separated from the males, of course). These developments are viewed to be the first ‘order’ of monastic communities, though the use of the term “order” is really a Western terminology. Orthodox monasticism doesn’t really have “orders,” though the monk will be connected to a monastic house.

Following up on the advancements made by St. Pachomius, St. Basil of Caesarea began to promote the “common” lifestyle of monastic orders in Cappadocia and Pontus. St.Basil advocated these monastic orders being situated at the edge of urban communities, where the monks could serve the people, and even instruct them. St. Basil’s writings on his vision of monastic orders has been retained in his Longer Rules and Shorter Rules, and are still used in monasticism today.

The geography of monasticism that has been discussed to this point has focused upon Egypt and Asia Minor, part of the Eastern Church. But the movement actually spread across the whole of the empire. Two centuries after the arrival of St. Anthony, monasticism had become an important part of the Western Church, as well. Jesus’ words, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (St. Mark 8:34), became the charter for Western Monasticism.

Western Christian luminaries as St. Augustine established monastic communities, influenced both by the life of St. Anthony and the cenobite monastics. However, it is St. Benedict of Nursia that has had the longest lasting and most profound effect on monasticism in the west. St. Benedict wrote the Rule of St. Benedict of Nursia, which outlined not only the physical rules (when to eat, pray, etc.), but also interprets monasticism as “a way of understanding the meaning of the life and person of Jesus…identifying the image of Jesus as the Monk who ruled the world.” St. Benedict’s followers continued the practice of renouncing possessions, and seeking sexual purity. His monks stayed in their community for life. Just as St. Basil had been in Asia Minor, St. Benedict was dubious of extreme ascetism and was suspicious of the individual nature of the hermit monks. His Rule was fairly strict and insisted on the governance of love in the community.

Christian monasticism began as a reaction to the changing culture, where Christians were no longer being called to renounce the world around them. Individuals began to remove themselves from society, in order to engage in a struggle for a deeper Christian experience. Eventually, these monastics began to attract followers, some of whom organized themselves into structured communities. These monks served an important role within the Christian community. “They reminded Christians that the kingdom of God is not of this world” – a role they still continue today.

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Brief Look at Monastacism, part 2

St. Anthony the Great


This conundrum was solved when it became evident that this physical separation did not mean that those who retreated to solitude were in reality separated from the Church. “The Monk", said Evagrius of Pontus, "is one who is separated from all and united with all.” These monks were separating themselves from the world, but were still an important part of the Church. In fact, it became evident that they served a vital role in the life of the Church. It came to be embraced and encouraged by the ecclesiastical leadership.

The monastic movement is generally recognized as beginning, at least in its fullness, with the life of St. Anthony the Great. St. Anthony was born into a wealthy Christian family of Egypt, around the year 250. He tended to prefer a simple life and though from a family of means, did not seek after extravagant things. His parents died when he was in his late teens, leaving him to care for his family’s business and younger sister. Shortly thereafter, he encountered the words of Jesus to the rich young man (St. Matthew 19) to sell all that he owned and follow Christ. St. Anthony took the admonition personally and followed through with his convictions, selling all that he owned or even giving much of it away, though he did leave a stipend behind to care for his sister. What proceeds were left after the sale, save for the care of his sister, he gave to the poor.

Eventually, he forsook civilization and entered the Egyptian desert. He spent approximately 20 years in solitude near the Red Sea. During this sojourn, he faced many trials and tribulations. Just as the martyrs had struggled, so St. Anthony fought against demonic attacks, from without and within. At the end of this solitary period, he had overcome these evil forces.

He emerged from the desert, and was viewed as a true holy man, whose nature was restored to the proper glory, regarding his union with God. He performed many miracles of healing, and was effective in teaching others about communion with God. This holiness caused other men who desired to become ascetics to join themselves together with St. Anthony. This loose gathering of fellow strugglers trained under him.

At the same time, other ascetics and communities began to appear. By the time that St. Anthony died, at over 100 years of age, there were thousands of ascetics who had secluded themselves in the desert. Those who followed the monastic style of St. Anthony are referred to as hermits. These ascetics tended to seek solitude and withdraw from society. They might live in caves, trees, huts and even tombs. This type of eremitic life is still to be found in the monastic life of the Orthodox Church today. Some of the famous examples of this lifestyle include St. Simeon the Stylite, who lived on top of a pillar for over 30 years, as well as numerous ascetics, such as Ammoun, who wandered the desert naked or unwashed for years at a time.

To Be Continued...

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Brief Look at Monastacism, part 1

The monastery of St. Catherine, built by Emperor Justinian I in the sixth century

By the time that St. Constantine arrived on the historical scene, the Church had endured 200 years of sporadic, and at times intense, persecution. Countless martyrs had suffered and died for their faith. St. Constantine’s conversion and subsequent legislation brought an end to this persecution at the hands of the Roman government. Yet this change in relationship between the Church and the government did not bring about an end to the principles behind martyrdom.

While the Church was no longer an underground institution, with the threat of personal or economic dangers, many dedicated Christians began to take the ascetic undertones of the Christian message to heart in a new way. It is true that persecution had ceased and Christianity had become fashionable, but these ascetics became practitioners of a bloodless martyrdom. In fact, they possessed a “rebellious martyr-spirit” and became proponents of withdrawal from society, intentionally practiced poverty and dedicated themselves to a denial of fleshly lusts. This movement eventually evolved into the monastic movement, as it is called in modern times. This monasticism, as a reaction to the cultural climate, is an “outgrowth of human life and instinct.”

The foundation of the monastic response is the admonition of Jesus to eschew attachments to the world. This had been the standard experience of many Christians through the first two centuries after Christ. They had been forced to choose between their families, livelihoods, positions, etc. and a life of service to, and in union with, Jesus Christ. With the advent of St. Constantine’s reforms, the circumstances had changed. Christians were able to become mainstream within the society. Rather than being defined as “counter-cultural,” these Christians faced the danger of losing focus upon the reality of their Christian calling. Monastics recognized this danger and determined to continue the Christian tradition of renouncing attachments to the world. They did not seek riches, but dedicated themselves to a life of poverty. They avoided the entanglements of marriage, but were committed to sexual purity. They devoted themselves to prayer, fasting, and the study of the scriptures.

An important element of this monastic movement was the fact that it tended, in its earliest days, to be a movement amongst the laity. It was not an intentional, Church-wide reaction. Instead, it began when individuals sought solitude in order to struggle with the aforementioned renunciation of worldly attachments. A consequence of this solitude was that not only did the ascetics remove themselves from the daily life of the common person, they also removed themselves from the active participation in the daily life of the church.


Monday, March 8, 2010

Incense: It does a body good

(NaturalNews) If you think burning incense is just for certain religions or old hippies, it might be time to take a new look. Myriad religious traditions have held to the notion that burning frankincense incense (made out of resin from the Boswellia plant) is good for the soul and now a new study says it apparently is good for the brain.

The research, published on-line in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) Journal ( , by an international team of scientists, including Johns Hopkins University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem researchers, concludes that burning frankincense activates specific ion channels in the brain. The result? Something right under our noses, incense, appears to quell anxiety and depression.

Another non-drug way to help these afflictions could be good news for millions. According to the National Institutes of Health, major depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability in the United States for people ages 15 to 44 and affects about 14.8 million American adults. Anxiety disorders, which often go along with depression, affect 40 million Americans.

In a prepared statement for the press, one of the researchers, Raphael Mechoulam, stated that most present day worshipers assume that incense burning has only a symbolic meaning. However, there is much more going on when frankincense wafts into your nostrils.

"In spite of information stemming from ancient texts, constituents of Boswellia had not been investigated for psycho-activity. We found that incensole acetate, a Boswellia resin constituent, when tested in mice lowers anxiety and causes antidepressive-like behavior," Dr. Mechoulam said.

To study frankincense's psychoactive impact, the researchers administered incensole acetate to mice and discovered the compound significantly impacted areas in the brain intricately involved in emotions as well as in nerve circuits that are targeted by modern-day drugs currently used to treat anxiety and depression.

"Perhaps Marx wasn't too wrong when he called religion the opium of the people: morphine comes from poppies, cannabinoids from marijuana, and LSD from mushrooms; each of these has been used in one or another religious ceremony." said Gerald Weissmann, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal, in a press release. "Studies of how those psychoactive drugs work have helped us understand modern neurobiology. The discovery of how incensole acetate, purified from frankincense, works on specific targets in the brain should also help us understand diseases of the nervous system. This study also provides a biological explanation for millennia-old spiritual practices that have persisted across time, distance, culture, language, and religion. Burning incense really does make you feel warm and tingly all over!"

Read this at the original source.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Estonian Saints, final post (I think)

Estonia is a very small country. It has a population of only 1.5 million or so now. I have made a few posts about the prominent Orthodox Saints that have have come from there. However, there are several others about whom it is difficult to find a complete story. The Estonian Orthodox Church has some very nice icons of these saints that you can see. The Orthodox Church in Estonia under the Moscow Patriarchate also has some, as well as a nice history (that you can read in English) of the Estonian Orthodox experience. I recommend a look at those links, just to see what the Orthodox Christians in that part of the world have undertaken and endured over the centuries. It is worth your time.

Here are a few icons of these wonderful Saints, even if we don't know their whole story:

Here are hymns to St. John (Kochurov) - called St. Joann above.

Troparion (Tone 1)

Aflame with love for God,
You gave your life as a martyr for Christ and neighbor;
O Hieromartyr, John,
Entreat the Most Merciful God
To preserve the Holy Church in peace and save our souls.

Kontakion (Tone 8)

As you zealously fulfilled your pastoral service,
You brought your soul to God as a well-pleasing sacrifice, O Father John.
Entreat Christ God to grant peace to the world and great mercy to our souls.