Friday, April 30, 2010

Saint Platon, Bishop of Banja Luka

Icon of various saints, including the hieromartyr PLATON, Bishop of Banja Luka (first from left)

A while back, I wrote an article on the consecration of the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Banja Luka, Bosnia.  I told the story of how the Bishop of Banja Luka +PLATON was murdered by the Ustashe (Croatian Nazis) near the beginning of World War 2.  He has been canonized by the Serbian Church, and I thought you might like to read the story of his life.  The following article is from Orthodox Wiki

The holy hieromartyr Platon of Banja Luka, (in Serbian, Свети свештеномученик Платон Бањалучки) was the third Serbian Orthodox bishop of Banja Luka.


Saint Platon was born in Belgrade, on September 29, 1874. His parents Ilija Jovanović and Jelka (maiden name Sokolović) were from Herzegovina. He attended primary school in Vranje and Nis, and then continued his education in the Seminary in Belgrade. Milivoje took monastic vows as the third-grade pupil of the Belgrade Seminary. Having completed seminary, he was ordained a deacon and afterwards presbyter. In 1896, he was sent in the Serbian mission in Moscow, where he continued his theological education at the Moscow Theological Academy. He completed his studies in 1901. Returning from Russia, he was appointed the head of the Rakovica Monastery in Belgrade. Soon afterwards he was appointed professor. He worked as professor in Aleksinac and Jagodina, and during this period he was raised to the ranks of syncellos, protosyncellos, and archimandrite.

In 1912, during the war, Archimandrite Platon was assigned as a brigade priest. During World War I, he was assigned as a military priest. For a short period of time Platon was an administrator of the Ochrid Diocese. He spent the period of occupation in Serbia, and with the help of his acquaintances abroad, he managed to render aid to all the people who suffered afflictions - especially orphans and widows. From 1932 to 1938 he was the manager of the monastery printing office in Sremski Karlovci, as well as the editor of the " Glasnik Srpske Patriaršije". Archimandrite Platon was also the head of the Krusedol Monastery. In 1936, he was elected auxilary Bishop of moravice. Platon was consecrated bishop by Patriarch Varnava, Metropoliatan Dositej of Zagreb, Metropolitan Anastasije, head of ROCOR, bishop Irinej of Bačka, bishop Makarije of Boston (he was also from ROCOR) and auxilary bishop of Srem Sava October 4/17, 1936 in Sremski Karlovci. June 22/July 5 1938, he was elected the Bishop of Ohrid and Bitolj. He was transferred to see of Banja Luka December 8/21 1939. Platon was the Bishop of Banja Luka when the World War II came in Yugoslavia.


The territory of his diocese became part of so-called Independent State of Croatia. Since he was a Serb born in Serbia, not in Bosnia, he was told to leave Banja Luka. He wrote back: "The authorities appointed me Bishop of Banja Luka lawfully, according to canon law; having such a position I took the obligation before God, Church, and people, that inseparably binding my life and my destiny with the life and destiny of my spiritual flock, to take care of my spiritual flock permanently and firmly, regardless of any events, and to stay on its spiritual path all the time of my life given to me by God, persevering in my staying with the flock as a good shepherd who gives his soul for his sheep…"

He asked a Roman Catholic bishop, Dr. Jozo Garić (who was a Croat like Ustašas) to intervene with the authorized military officer and let him stay for two or three days more so that he could prepare for the departure. This Bishop told him to be calm and peaceful. However, the Ustaše arrested Bishop Platon the very next night, May 5, 1941, and took him, together with priest Dušan Subotić, who was hierarchal administrator from Bosanska Gradiska, somewhere out of Banja Luka. The two of them were killed there and their corpses were cast into the Vrbanja River. Ustasa Asim Celic committed this repulsive deed. The bishop's corpse, which was scarred and disfigured, was found in the village of Kumsale, on May 23, 1941. He was buried in a military graveyard in Banja Luka. Then in 1973, his remains were transported to the Banja Luka Cathedral for reburial.

At the regular session of the Holy Assembly of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church in 1998, Bishop Platon of Banja Luka was canonized and included on the list of the saints of the Serbian Orthodox Church. His feast is on April 22 on the Julian calendar (May 5 on the Gregorian calendar)

Monday, April 26, 2010

Elder Sophrony (Sakharov) on Harmony Among People

Icon of the blessed elder Sophrony (Sakharov) and St. Silouan the Athonite

I have recently begun re-reading a classic work of Orthodox spirituality:  St. Silouan the Athonite, which is a summary of this great saint's life and teaching, written by his spiritual son Elder Sophrony Sakharov.  St. Silouan was a very holy monk and elder who lived most of his life on Mt. Athos.  Elder Sophrony was his scribe, and thankfully, he wrote down a good deal of his spiritual father's teachings.  Many of these teachings are collected into the 500-page work that I am now attempting to read.  It is not easy reading...much of it can really only be read a few pages at a time in order to be adequately (note I did not say "fully"!) understood.  Since my time for blogging these days (other than my Bible study notes, which I have to do anyway) is very limited, I am going to try and slip in a few brief quotes from Elder Sophrony's book.  Although the words are Elder Sophrony's, the real source of the quotes is St. Silouan (a fact that the Elder readily acknowledges).  I hope you enjoy these nuggets of wisdom.

"So we see that even as a young man, Simeon realised that an essential condition for harmony amongst people is that each should recognize his own shortcomings."  (p. 19)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

James Hargrave arrives in Tanzania!

Metropolitan JERONYMOS, Bishop of Bukoba and Kenya, who James will be working with in Tanzania

Here is an update from James Hargrave. We thought it to be an appropriate follow up to the previous post.

Dear friends,

Utukufu kwa Mungu! Glory to God! After ten eventful days of travel, I have arrived in Tanzania. I am writing to you from the hostel where I will be staying during language school. Yes, the room has wireless internet. This may be Africa, but it's still the 21st century.

God willing, I hope to write more in a few days. For the time being, please know that I have arrived well. I'm settling in, finding my bearings, resting, and am in good health. My luggage may arrive as soon as Sunday. By some mercy, this time I remembered to pack my carry-on carefully and have had all the supplies I've needed to function well even as I've been separated from my baggage since leaving the US ten days ago.

Thank you for your prayers and encouragement this past week as my journey was unexpectedly lengthened. My serendipitous stay in the UK was wonderful, and I'm very happy to be back in Africa. It is rainy season here, and all is lush and green. It's hot and humid-- but not nearly as bad as Florida summer.

By your prayers,

James Hargrave

Thursday, April 22, 2010

How an Orthodox Missionary gets to the field...

James, as he waits in London to get to his mission field

Below is a note from James Hargrave, who many of you remember shared his story with us on this blog. You can read his first installment here.

He is in transit to Tanzania, where he will work as a missionary, in affiliation with the OCMC. He shared this note with us and we thought it worthy to pass along to you.

Please remember James (and all of our missionaries) as they labor to share the gospel of Christ.

Dear friends,

Christ is risen!

And greetings from England, where I have been stranded since last Thursday. The first leg of my trip to Tanzania arrived at London Heathrow airport just as UK airspace was shut down by clouds of ash from the volcano in Iceland. My connection to Dar es Salaam has now been cancelled three times. The next flight, volcano permitting, is scheduled for this Saturday April 24th.

I had hoped to greet you from Africa several days ago, and am certainly anxious to begin life in Tanzania. However, my stay in England continues to be delightful. I've spent the past several days in Oxford, where I had the great blessing to venerate St. Frideswide at her shrine in Christ Church Cathedral. The weather here is beautiful and springtime is in full blossom.

I've been overwhelmed by the kind hospitality of the British and am grateful especially to those of you who have helped me get in touch with friends and hosts here in the UK. God is good. I may be able to obtain a pay-as-you-go cell phone for the remainder of my stay, and if so will pass that number along.

Thank you for your prayers. Traveling mercies have been in abundance this past week, and I'll be need of yet more in the coming week. Do stay in touch!

In Christ,

James Hargrave

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Word of the Lord Lasts forever (1 Peter 1:22-25)

22 Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, 23 having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever, 24 because

   And all the glory of man as the flower of the grass.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Pascha 2010 at St. Anthony's

Here are some photos from the Paschal services at St. Anthony's, the wonderful parish where I had the privlege of serving as Interim Pastor from January 25 to April 11 of this year.

Let us lift up our hearts...we lift them up unto the Lord!

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty...

And make this bread the prccious Body of Thy Christ....

The previous three pictures were taken by my friend Katarina Galagaza during the Divine Liturgy.  The next three were taken after Agape Vespers, while I was leading a prayer of blessing of the grounds on which the new church temple of St. Anthony will be built.  Thankfully, the weather was perfect.

"Is this the right place?" the confused priest asks...

"Now, what page is it again?"

"Oh Lord, bless this parish and the site of this new Temple!"

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Living Before God our Father (1 Peter 1:13-21)

13 Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; 14 as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; 15 but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.” 17 And if you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear; 18 knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. 20 He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you 21 who through Him believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

St. Peter starts this section with “therefore,” referring back to the great salvation that God has made available to us through Christ. In light of this wonderful divine gift, we now need to “gird up the loins” of our minds. This is a reference to the clothing of the time. In St. Peter’s day, most people wore flowing robes that impeded quick movement. Before anyone did anything that required walking fast or running, they would “gird up their loins,” that is, they would tuck their robes into their belt so that their legs were free to move easily. To say “gird up the loins of your mind,” then, means to get your mind ready, to be prepared. The world and the demons will throw many challenges and temptations our way, and we need to prepare ourselves for them.

The importance of St. Peter’s command to “be sober” cannot be overestimated. As FF writes, “The word rendered be sober is the Greek nepho, which refers not just to physical sobriety (that is, the absence of drunkenness), but to self control, maintaining an inner vigilance and balance. The world can provoke a sense of excitement, of agitation, even of panic, and the Christian must keep his head” (68). Note that the noun form of nepho is nepsis, which means “sobriety,” “watchfulness,” or “vigilance.” This concept figures prominently in the writings of the Fathers, particularly the Fathers of the Philokalia. Like a watchman on an ancient city wall, we must be always on the alert against temptation so that we can nip it in the bud.

But to live the Christian life as God intends, we must not only be watchful and ready, but we must also be hopeful. As usual, FF explains it beautifully and concisely: “…the Christian fixes his hope completely on the favor and glory that Christ will bestow upon him when He comes. Thus, when the world tempts him to sin, he is strengthened to resist as he thinks of the reward his enduring righteousness will win” (68). Conversely, it is also a good idea to be mindful that we could very well forfeit the reward St. Peter speaks of if we turn away from God into a life of sin (more on this in just a bit).

St. Peter then speaks more about how we are to live our lives as Christians. Now that we belong to Christ, we should no longer conform ourselves to our former lusts, that is the lusts that control most of the people in the world. Instead we should live a holy life, in imitation of God, because He is holy. God commanded the people of Israel to be holy (the quote is from Leviticus 11:45), and he expects no less of those of us who are part of the New Israel.

Another attitude we need to develop in order to live the Christian life is fear. The fear that St. Peter speaks of is the fear of God, which in the Scriptures refers not to a servile, cringing timidity, but rather to a deep sense of reverence for and awe of our Creator. Here, St. Peter probably also uses the word fear to refer to a mindfulness of the judgment. Fear of the Day of Judgment can help keep us on the path of salvation. In FF’s words, “they must conduct themselves in fear during the time of their sojourn in this age, for He will show no favoritism to them. If they sin grevoulsy, He will judge and condemn them, both in this age…and at the Last Judgment. Let them therefore fear to sin, and be holy in their daily conduct” (69).

But fear should not be the only thing that motivates us to not sin. We should also do so out of gratitude, for as St. Peter points out, we have not been redeemed with silver or gold or any other corruptible thing, but with the precious blood of Christ. “Christ shed His blood to buy them back for God and bring them to life,” FF writes. “Gratitude for this sacrifice is an even more potent incentive to righteousness than fear of judgment. Christ, the blameless and spotless Lamb, offered his life for them—how can they live in such a way as to nullify that holy sacrifice?” (69).

Finally, note how St. Peter mentions that Christ was foreordained before the foundation of the world. God the Father knew before the world began what he would do through his Son. Christ’s coming was not an afterthought; it was planned all along, since God knew that his beloved children would sin against him and need redemption.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Heavenly Inheritance (1 Peter 1:3-12)

Icon of the Prophet Isaiah

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, 5 who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

6 In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, 8 whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, 9 receiving the end of your faith—the salvation of your souls.

10 Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, 11 searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. 12 To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things which angels desire to look into.

Normally, ancient letters began with a prayer for the well-being of the recipient(s), and St. Peter begins such a prayer. After beginning, however, he gets a little carried away (in the spirit of St. Paul!), exploding in thanksgiving to God, and his prayer lasts until the end of verse 12. He begins by speaking about what God has done for His people.

First, he has “begotten us again” (FF, “regenerated us;” NIV, “given us new birth.”). This clearly refers to the new birth of baptism, not just to new birth given after a faith decision in Christ. St. Paul connects the ideas of regeneration and baptism in Titus 3:5, where he calls baptism, “the washing of regeneration.”

This regeneration comes through baptism, but ultimately it comes through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (without which, there could be no regeneration). This is because, as FF states, “[T]he risen life of Christ was bestowed upon them in baptism, so that they now share the power of that resurrection (compare Rom. 6:4-5” (64). This passage that FF refers to reads as follows in the NKJV: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.”

What we have been given new birth (or regenerated) into is a “living hope,” hope in an undefiled and incorrupt inheritance. This inheritance is not money, a house, or land, all of which pass away, but rather eternal life, which can never fade away. And this reward is kept in heaven, that is it is out of the reach of those who would persecute us. FF aptly summarizes St. Peter’s point here:

“[St. Peter’s readers] may rest assured that their inheritance is safe and will be there for them when they reach the end. And they may be confident of safely reaching the end. In moments of persecution, they may be tempted to think that God has abandoned them. This is not so…the persecutors might take their property and even their lives, but they cannot really touch them… “ (64-65). In other words, no one can take away the reward that God has promised to those who steadfastly believe in him and remain faithful to the end (although we can certainly give it up ourselves!)

This knowledge of the surety of a heavenly reward for our steadfast faith enables us to rejoice, even when we are persecuted and face trials. Note how St. Peter implies that at least some of the trials we face are given to us for a reason: to test the genuineness of our faith. As St. James points out in his epistle, God does not send temptations on us, in order to make us sin, but he does on occasion send trials to us to make our faith stronger.

St. Peter continues to commend his readers in that they love Christ and rejoice through their trials, even though they have not seen their Lord. He assures them that if they remain steadfast, they will one day rejoice even more at the revelation of Christ (that is, at his second coming). In FF’s words, “That is, even though they do not now see Him, they rejoice with a joy that defies description, a joy that partakes of the glory of heaven. How much more then, will they exult and rejoice when they finally see Him face to face?” (65).

And when we finally do see our Lord face to face, we will receive “the end of your faith—the salvation of your souls” (v. 9). But in a sense, we are already receiving it: Note how St. Peter speaks of salvation as an ongoing event (he says we are “receiving” our salvation), not as a one-time gift that we have already received.

This salvation which we are receiving is something that the prophets of the Old Testament period “sought out and examined out” when the Messiah would come and who he would be. St. Peter refers here to the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of Christ” because to these prophets the Spirit revealed some details about the life and ministry of Christ, especially his suffering and his glory (Isaiah 52-53 is a classic example of this). FF points out that the Greek verbs St. Peter uses for “sought out” and “examined” are intensive forms of the verbs, adding that “These intensives show how greatly the prophets wanted to discover whether this grace and salvation was to come to them in their day. The salvation was so wonderful, they could hardly wait!” (66).

Finally, in this section, St. Peter points out that the prophets were foretelling nothing more than the same gospel that his readers had heard from the apostles and other preachers of Christ. As FF writes, “Peter stresses that the Gospel is preached by the apostles by the Spirit’s power to show that the new age predicted by the prophets has begun. The same Spirit who gave the prophecies in ancient times now inspires the apostles to interpret them correctly as being fulfilled in Jesus” (66).

Finally, this Gospel that we have heard is something that “was unknown to the angels” (Theotokion of the Resurrection, Tone 2). The angels did not know about it prior to its revelation, and they still do not fully understand it. Again, FF has a great comment: “The salvation of the Christians is so wonderful that even the angels watching from heaven long to bend down for a better look and see all the details of their salvation’s fulfillment. What a great privilege therefore is theirs!” (66). And ours too!

Monday, April 12, 2010

The First Epistle of St. Peter: Introduction and Greetings (1 Peter 1:1-2)

Icon of St. Peter

Unfortunately, I don't have time to write a long, detailed introduction for St. Peter's First Epistle.  You'll have to be content with a brief, outline-like sketch of the background information.  Please accept my apologies.


Author: St. Peter (probably using Silas/Silvanus as secretary)

Place of Writing: Rome (aka “Babylon;” see 5:13)

Date of Writing: 63/64. St. Peter, after leaving Jerusalem, spent many years in Antioch and then traveled to Rome. He probably arrived there in late 62 or 63. This was a couple of years prior to the great Neronian persecution of the Church, during which both St. Peter and St. Paul were martyred in Rome.

Audience: Christians in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (which make up the majority of Asia Minor)

Greeting to the Elect Pilgrims (1:1-2)

1 Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, 2 elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace be multiplied.

Just as St. James had in his epistle, St. Peter addresses his epistle to Christians in the “Dispersion” (Gk. Diaspora). But while St. James wrote primarily to Jewish Christians, St. Peter intended his epistle mainly for Gentile Christians. St. James had addressed his letter to the “twelve tribes,” but St. Peter writes instead “to the pilgrims.” This phrase can be translated in many ways (NASB has “to those who reside as aliens;” NIV has “to God’s elect, strangers in the world,” which is closer to FF’s more literal “to the chosen exiles.”

The “diaspora” is a technical term for the Jews who were spread throughout the Mediterranean world, but St. Peter here applies it to gentile Christians, “since these Gentiles, through their faith, had become part of God’s people” (FF, 61). They were now the new Israel, or in St. Paul’s words, “The Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16). St. Peter also refers to his audience as “pilgrims” (or “aliens,” or “strangers,” or “exiles”), to emphasize that although they live on earth, their true homeland is in heaven.

Rather than simply greeting his audience (as was the custom in ancient letters), St. Peter instead first reminds them of what God has done for them and what He has called them to do. He tells them, in FF’s words, that “though they are under pressure to conform to the world around them, they must remember who they now are and refuse to conform” (62).

The first of God’s actions that St. Peter mentions is his choosing of them out of the world. They are elect (chosen) according to the foreknowledge of the Father. This election is not arbitrary; it is not independent of their (or our) actions. As FF writes, “God knew from the foundation of the world who would be humble and open-hearted, and these He transforms in holy baptism, making them His sons through Christ” (62). In other words, God has chosen those whom he knew would respond to his invitation to salvation.

This choosing was done in (or “with”) the sanctification of the Spirit. Sanctification is the process by which God makes us holy, by which he changes us from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God. It is essentially synonymous with theosis and requires our active and willing participation. Sanctification leads to ever-increasing obedience to God’s will.

Note also St. Peter’s reference to the “sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.” This sprinkling, FF, points out “refers to the shed blood of Jesus, which cleanses his disciples as they partake of His sacrifice in the Holy Eucharist (see Heb. 9:13-14; 10:19-25; 12:24). This baptism leads them [and again, I would add US!] to a life of continued obedience and cleansing, thus making them [us] different from the world around them [us]” (62).

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Study: Our Brains Are Wired For Liturgy

The following article, which first appeared in the online version of The National Catholic Reporter, was sent to me by a brother priest. I found it fascinating and thought you might also. It was written by NCR staff writer Rich Heffern.

With their scientific research into the biology and anthropology of religious behavior, Andrew Newberg and the late Eugene d’Aquili, both physicians at the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, have shed light on the origins of ritual and liturgy in the human sphere and in particular on the tensions that underlie the “liturgy wars.”

In an interview with NCR, Newberg said: “We have observed how different types of rituals result in slightly different effects. For example, praying to God will give a different result than praying to a saint. Different holy days cause different experiences based on their liturgies. It would be an interesting research study to determine exactly what kind of effect -- and with what strength -- appears to arise from liturgy that is focused on the priest versus one focused on the assembly. Perhaps such an exploration would yield important information about what people experience differently depending on the type of ritual. It would be nice to know whether the different approaches result in similar or different experiences. And if they are different, how are they different?”

Dr. Andrew Newberg

Their research on the relationship between the brain and our experiences of prayer, meditation, sacred story and liturgy is a step forward in the study of religion. Previously, religious behavior was thought to be purely cultural. Now we know there are biological correlates for many kinds of religious activities.

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, Neanderthals built altars and conducted funeral ceremonies. This proto-religious behavior shows that as soon as hominid brains got big and complex enough for mind to arise, we began to wonder about the mysteries and problems of existence, and found some resolution in religious story and ritual.

The brain has an inbuilt tendency to turn all thoughts into actions, according to these researchers. Vestigial contacts that exist between the highly advanced frontal lobes and the brain’s motor areas inhibit the brain’s inclination to act out all thoughts, yet this inhibition can be overridden, and often is. By mentally rehearsing actions like running, stalking or fighting, hominids probably honed those abilities and prospered accordingly.

It would be no surprise then if the brain compelled us to act out our religious and sacred stories. “The ideas these stories convey about fate, death, and the nature of the divine and human spirit … would certainly gain the mind’s attention,” Newberg and d’Aquili write in their 1999 book, The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience (Fortress Press). Combine the neurological functions and the meaningful context, and we have the source of ritual’s power.

Add to this the reality that ritualized dancing, singing or chanting can drive the brain’s frontal cortex into producing ineffable, pleasurable feelings. In combination with other activities often a part of ritual -- fasting, repetition or call and response, hyperventilation or inhalation of incense -- this multisensory stimulation can affect the body in ways that lead to altered mental states. All this combines to powerfully reinforce the beneficial effects of liturgy and ritual.

Ritual or liturgy, Newberg and d’Aquili write, is performed in order to solve a problem presented to the verbal, analytic part of the mind/brain. The problem may be that of discerning between good and evil, life over death, or the disparity between God and humanity. These are not abstract concerns solely; they are lived out all the time in our lives, and they produce anxiety, unrest and dissatisfaction.

Like all other animals, humans must often cope with environmental stimulation by means of motor behavior. When the situation is ambiguous, the most useful response is some kind of repetitive motor activity, like a bull pawing the ground, a dog barking, or a cat repeatedly licking itself. Such rhythmic stimulation strongly drives the arousal system that allows us to fight or flee when danger presents itself or to focus the mind.

Prayers, chanting and other repetitive behaviors associated with ritual can also stimulate the arousal system. In ritual behavior, the quiescent system is also stimulated, that part of our nervous system that provides us with rest, equanimity and balance.

Ritual behaviors bring about a simultaneous discharge of both the arousal and quiescent systems. The result is not only a feeling of “union with a greater force or power but also an awareness that death is not to be feared and a sense of harmony of the individual with the universe.”

Ritual is the brain’s mechanism for relief of existential anxiety, they summarize. This explains its persistence in the range of important human behaviors that have been with us over hundreds of thousands of years.

Newberg and d’Aquili also point out that if a ritual or liturgy is to maintain meaning from one generation to another, the balance between rhythm and content must constantly be adjusted. By rhythm, they mean that it recurs in the same or nearly the same form with some regularity. As an example, they refer to the Second Vatican Council prescribing the use of the vernacular for Mass. The content of the ritual had been preserved but the change remained controversial; some found the vernacular Mass less satisfying. “Virtually all rituals must maintain this delicate balance, between permanence and impermanence,” they write.

The Mystical Mind presents much of their research on ritual and liturgy. Newberg is a specialist in brain imaging; d’Aquili, who died in 1998, was a lecturer in psychiatry and held a doctorate in the anthropology of religion.

The researchers are not saying brain physiology alone creates ritual and liturgy, only that biology, over the hundreds of thousands of years of our development, has created and shaped the neural pathways to render these aspects of experience useful and effective. The general structure of religion and theology necessarily arise from the functioning of our brains.

This research shows how intimately linked our bodies are with our souls.

Ritual and liturgy are powerful because they allow participants to taste, if only for a moment, the transcendent spiritual unity that all religions promise, Newberg and d’Aquili say. “One can see why so powerful a behavior has persisted through the ages and is likely to persist for some time to come.”

[Rich Heffern is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is]

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Easter Mass at Ancient Monastery in Iraq

I can't remember who sent me the link to this article and photo, but I thought I'd share it with you anyway.  Isn't the photo incredible.  The source for both the article and the photo is the website Operation Iraqi Freedom, the official website of U. S. military forces in Iraq.  Please remember to pray for our troops.

CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE MAREZ – More than 250 service members and civilians celebrated Easter with a candlelight mass Saturday at St. Elijah Monastery, the oldest Christian monastery in Iraq.

The mass was one of three Christian services scheduled at the monastery for Easter weekend.

"This is the second time we've done this," said Capt. Patrick Van Durme, the battalion chaplain with the 1-19th Field Artillery Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division and a Dansville, N.Y., native.

Van Durme said turnout for the event was large and included civilian workers from around the world and from the Mosul area, which has the largest Christian population in Iraq.

"It's an amazing thing for them," he said.

First Lt. Geoffrey Whitaker, the garrison chaplain here with the Regimental Fires Squadron, 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), said he was honored to be part of the services at the 1,700-year-old monastery.

"To get to celebrate Easter in the oldest Christian monastery in Iraq ... it's a once in a lifetime opportunity," said Whitaker, a Murphy, N.C., native.

Whitaker said he expected more than 1,000 Soldiers and civilians to attend the three services.

Van Durme said the monastery has held great historical relevance throughout the ages.

Local traditional suggests the monastery was first built in the year 350 AD and the current structure was probably added 1,000 years later, he said.

In 1743, the monks and orphans at the monastery were killed by a Persian leader for refusing to convert to Islam, and Christians in the area have been persecuted since, said Van Durme.

"If you go back 50 years, you'll find thousands of Christian families in Mosul. You'll now find maybe 100," Van Durme said. "You have to wonder what its future will be."

Whitaker said the chaplains are working with the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Mosul to preserve the monastery and repair structural damage that has occurred in the years since the U.S. came to Iraq.

"The Department of the Army has signed on to do some restoration," said Whitaker. "The plan is still ongoing."

Monday, April 5, 2010

Christ is Risen!

I'm baaaaaaaaaaaack!  First of all, let me wish you a kali anastasi! (Good Resurrection, or, roughly translated into western language, "Happy Easter!")

Lent, Holy Week, and Pascha at St. Anthony's in Spring were wonderful but (as they were for most everyone) grueling.  Now that I can take a breath and relax a little, I thought I would try to start blogging again.  I have several interesting articles and photos that other people have sent me, and I will share some of them with you.  Then, next week, I will start posting more reflections on the Scriptures--this time on the Epistle of St. Peter.

Next Sunday, April 11 (St. Thomas Sunday) will be my last Sunday at St. Anthony's.  I will miss my dear friends there, but at the same time I'll look forward to being reunited to my friends at St. Joseph's.   The new pastor of St. Anthony's, who will take over on the 12th, is Fr. Anthony Baba.  He is a native Houstonian, a life-long Orthodox Christian, and a son of St. George's here in Houston.  He is a graduate of Holy Cross Orthodox School of Theology and has been serving as the diocesan youth director for the Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America in the Antiochian Archdiocese.  I have known him for several years and have nothing but respect for him.  He is young and energetic, and I think he will be an outstanding pastor.

Axios!  (Fr. Anthony with Bishop +BASIL)

For now, I'll leave you with some photos of his ordination to the Holy Priesthood, which occurred just this last March 21st here at St. George in Houston.  Next time, I'll share some photos from recent events.

He is worthy!