Friday, August 31, 2007

It Is Our Limits That Make Us Free

In a most interesting review of Chris Frith new book Making up the Mind: How the Brain Creates our Mental World, on sp! Stuart Derbyshire a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Birmingham, England, and director of pain research at the Birmingham University Imaging Centre offers us an overview of how contemporary neuroscientist are thinking about the relationship between the brain and the mind, or, if you prefer, the relationship between human brain structure and free will.

Derbyshire makes a number of interesting points in his review. Chief among them is his criticism of neuroscientists to think of free will as epiphenomenal, or "the view that mental events are caused by physical events in the brain, but have no effects upon any physical events."

I think the most salient for any consideration of spirituality and spiritual formation is his observation of the necessary, and indeed, constitutive, relationship between human limitations and human freedom. In effect he argues, as the title of this post puts it, it is our limits, those things that constrains us, that make freedom possible.

Derbyshire though says it better than I do. He writes:

The negotiation of constraint and indeterminacy is not substantive; it cannot be located in parts of the brain, boiled down and recorded on a graph. That negotiation is an active, lived process and free will is possible because of the uniquely human ability to interrogate nature. Early human mentality would have resided in the ability to put oneself into a relationship with the environment so as to call out specific stimuli such as food or warmth. Importantly, this is no longer a relationship that is dictated by anatomy or evolutionary instinct, but rather is one that is, minimally at first, breaking free from the pre-ordained possibilities provided by evolutionary history. This new relationship to the character of things calls upon a sentience that is inside the organism, but the entire process is not a purely mental product that can be located in the brain. This early mentality is that relationship of the organism to stimuli in the environment that are set free by exploration to address specific biological needs. Within that relationship, constrained by circumstance, constrained by the biological imperatives of survival and reproduction, and constrained by historical development, freedom and agency begin. This is quite different from the engagement with stimuli driven by programmed behaviours and fully constrained by anatomical limitations. For early humans, there is a transformation from stimulus-response behaviour to inquiry.

The fundamental mistake that . . . – and this is a common error – is to believe that agency or free will are products only of the human brain. The brain is necessary but it is not sufficient, and chasing agency into the brain will only yield disappointment or, in this case, a sense that agency is illusory. If agency is not merely a product of ordinary brains, then it follows that abnormal brains might not be the whole or only answer when there are psychiatric problems and delusions of agency such as in schizophrenia.

While a provocative argument to contemporary men and women--for whom the adolescent quest for freedom from all limitations and a consequent unlimited mode self expression is the ideal--this is a not a new thought for classical forms of spirituality. Rather, Derbyshire offers an anthropological observation that is unmistakably compatible with the biblical view of the human:

Jesus said to His disciples,

"Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels." (Mark 8. 34-36)
St Paul makes a similar point, but (since he is Paul after all) more pointedly:

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not! Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one's slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rm 12.15-23).
One of the great values for our spiritual life spiritual life of asceticism is the very practical ways in which asceticism, and by this I especially mean the whole range of fasting and abstinence practices as well as the Christian tradition emphasis on sexual purity, is that it introduces us to our limits.

While there are times when asceticism brings about an encounter with our limits in a dramatic or forceful way (for example the classical practice of abstaining from food and drink from midnight until after the reception of Holy Communion), asceticism's real value is found in its long term practice. Slowly, naturally, week in and week out, month after month, and over the course of years, asceticism traces out my physical and psychological limits.

For example, through my commitment to keeping the various fasts, I learn not only how little food, drink and sleep I need, but also how much. Almsgiving and tithing teaches me not only to give gladly, but wisely, teaching me to take into account not only the needs of others, but also my own. And in obedience, I learn (almost always painfully) how attached not only I am to my own will, but curiously enough, to the will of other human beings who approval I crave or whose disapproval I fear. In all of this I learn that, whatever might be the case in the moment, ultimately my obedience is owned not to any human being but to God and God alone.

In asceticism, I learn that the encounter of my limitations is not negative, not so much a failure, but an invitation to an even greater share in God's nature and a further realization of my own freedom in Christ. St Gregory Nyssa, of whom I am increasing enamored, expresses the point better than I, so allow me to allow him the last word is summary:
Thus though the new grace we may obtain is greater than what we had before, it does not put a limit on our final goal; rather, for those who are rising in perfection, the limit of the good that is attained becomes the beginning of the discovery of higher goods. Thus they never stop rising, moving from one new beginning to the next, and the beginning of ever greater graces is never limited of itself For the desire of those who thus rise never rests in what they can already understand; but by an ever greater and greater desire, the soul keeps rising constantly to another that lies ahead, and thus it makes its way through ever higher regions towards the Transcendent.
In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Thursday, August 30, 2007

We Simply Need Each Other

Fr. John Zuhlsdorf of the most delightful blog, What Does The Prayer Really Say? (WDTPRS), offers us his comments and translation of a recent interview of Patriarch Alexis II of Moscow and all the Russias (photo at right). Fr. John begins by observing that

At various times in my articles in The Wanderer, during talks and on this blog I have opined that if we are serious about an authentic ecumenical dialogue, we have to get our liturgical act together: "What must the Orthodox think when they see how we Latins conduct ourselves liturgically?" At the same time, the solemn Mass in the older use of the Roman Rite is as grand as anything the Easterners do.
He continues by reporting favorably that "the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and all the Russias, Alexis II, looks with favor on Pope Benedict's Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum and the derestriction of the older form of Mass. He also speaks clearly about his view of relations with the Holy See." The interview was given after His Holiness had finished celebrating the Divine Liturgy for the Dormition of Mary (15/28 August).

Here is what Fr John's translation of what he (rightly I think) identifies as "some of the significant points" from the interview of the Patriarch by Andrea Tornielli in the Italian language periodical of Il Giornale:
"The recovery and valuing of the ancient liturgical tradition is a fact that we greet positively. We hold very strongly to tradition. Without faithfully guarding the liturgical tradition, the Russian Orthodox Church would not have been in a position to resist during the period of persecution, in the 20's and 30's in the 1900's. In that time we had many new martyrs, whose number can be compared to the epoch of the first Christian martyrs."

Holiness, how do you see the relationship between Rome and Moscow right now?

"It seems that Pope Benedict XVI has repeated may times that he desires to work in favor of dialogue and collaboration with the Orthodox Churches. This is positive."

For years already there has been talk of the possibility of a meeting between you and the Pope. Do you think this is possible? When?

"A meeting between the Pope and Patriarch of Moscow must be well prepared and absolutely ought not risk a reduction to a photo opportunity or to walk around together in front of television cameras. It must be a meeting which truly helps firm up the relations between the two Churches…".

You speak of it as if it were rather remote hypothesis. Why?

"Unfortunately today there are still some Catholic missionary bishops who consider Russia as missionary territory. But Russia, Holy Russia has already been enlightened with a centuries old faith which, thanks be to God, was preserved and passed on in the Orthodox Church, and is not missionary territory for the Catholic Church. This is the first point about which it is necessary that problems be clarified and smoothed in view of a meeting with the Pope. The other problem concerns 'uniatism'."

Why do the uniate communities, those which maintaining the Eastern Rite and Eastern tradition reentered in full communion with Rome, are regarded as a problem?

"The phenomenon of uniatism is troublesome because we see this tendency also in regions where it never was before, for example in the Eastern Ukraine, Belorussia, Kazakhstan and in Russia herself. When these problems are dealt with and resolved then a meeting between the Pope and Patriarch of Moscow can be considered. Then it will truly have its proper meaning."
Reading the interview, and more to the point the statements made by some in the comment section, I am struck again of the importance of a certain, necessary inward turn, as the first step toward the reconciliation of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.

Paradoxically, it is when we are at the center of our respective traditions that we will be able to recognize each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.

The reason for this is profoundly anthropological: Tradition is always a response to the poverty of the human person and our need to be part of a larger community. Our appreciative obedience to tradition reflects our personal awareness of our own poverty and dependence upon others for even the very fact of our life, or what philosophers call "contingency."

Moving beyond the empirical to the more properly theological, tradition is not simply anthropological but also soteriological. According to the Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky the tradition of the Church, is the voice and work of the Holy Spirit from generation to generation. Among other things this means that what the Orthodox call Holy Tradition is nothing more or less than the prophetic voice of the Holy Spirit as it works in human history to deepen humanity's communion with the Holy Trinity and, as a result, with itself.

The inward turn that I spoke of as the basis of ecumenism, is the process by which we discover within ourselves the point at which, in our lives, the richness and abundance of God's mercy responds to the poverty of human sinfulness and divinizes the human person. In other words, "spiritual ecumenicism" grows out of our own, personal awareness, of how God's redemption of humanity in Christ is worked out in our own lives.

As I come to understand how God is "saving me" I can begin to recognize how He is also saving all humanity, and (more to the point) the person in front of me. It is this latter recognition which is the basis and goal of grassroots ecumenicism.

In contrast to this is the preference many have (as seen in the combo box of WDTPRS and any number of internet newsgroups) for theological polemics. As I've said before, these theological arguments are pointless since, invariably, the people who make them don't have the authority to resolve the issues at hand. More often then not such arguments merely harden the attitude of each party relative to the other. Frankly even if I'm on the right side of the question, what does it matter if I walk away with even less charity in heart for my neighbor then I had at the beginning of the argument?

And why do I do this? I am really that insecure that I need to prove the error of another person to really feel good about myself?

Patriarch Alexii's words, reflects an appreciation and support, for the insights and richness of the Roman Church. And Fr John's publishing these comments reflect a similar appreciation for the insights and richness of the tradition of the Orthodox Church.

It seems to me that, at a minimum, we need to bring the same spirit of appreciation and support to our own conversations with one another, both when we speak to Christians in other traditions, but also when we speak with members of our own Church, to say nothing of the members of our parishes and families.

In the final analysis, what trips me up is simply my own unwillingness to be human since this requires from me an acknowledgment of my dependence not only on God and the Fathers of the Church, but also on, well, the person right in front of me.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Wednesday, August 29, 2007



Troparion of St John the Baptist Tone 2
The memory of the just is celebrated with hymns of praise/ but the Lord's testimony is enough for thee, O Forerunner,/ for thou wast shown to be more wonderful than the Prophets/ since thou wast granted to baptize in the running waters / Him Whom thou didst proclaim./ Then having endured great suffering for the Truth,/ Thou didst rejoice to bring, even to those in hell/ the good tidings that God Who had appeared in the flesh/ takes away the sin of the world/ and grants us the great mercy.

From the Synaxarion (from Thomas (Michael) Purcell's wonderful program Menologion 3.0): The Beheading of the Prophet, ForeRunner of the Lord, John the Baptist: The Evangelists Matthew (Mt. 14: 1-12) and Mark (Mk. 6: 14-29) provide accounts about the Martyr's end of John the Baptist in the year 32 after the Birth of Christ.

Following the Baptism of the Lord, Saint John the Baptist was locked up in prison by Herod Antipas, holding one-fourth the rule of the Holy Land as governor of Galilee. (After the death of king Herod the Great, the Romans divided the territory of Palestine into four parts, and into each part put a governor. Herod Antipas received from the emperor Augustus the rule of Galilee). The prophet of God John openly denounced Herod for having left his lawful wife -- the daughter of the Arabian king Aretas, and then instead co-habiting with Herodias, -- the wife of his brother Philip (Lk. 3: 19-20). On his birthday, Herod made a feast for dignitaries, the elders and a thousand chief citizens. The daughter of Herod, Salome, danced before the guests and charmed Herod. In gratitude to the girl he swore to give her anything, whatsoever she would ask, anything up to half his kingdom. The vile girl on the advice of her wicked mother Herodias asked, that she be given at once the head of John the Baptist on a plate. Herod became apprehensive, for he feared the wrath of God for the murder of a prophet, whom earlier he had heeded. He feared also the people, who loved the holy ForeRunner. But because of the guests and his careless oath, he gave orders to cut off the head of Saint John and to give it to Salome. By tradition, the mouth of the dead head of the preacher of repentance once more opened and proclaimed: "Herod, thou ought not to have the wife of Philip thy brother". Salome took the plate with the head of Saint John and gave it to her mother. The frenzied Herodias repeatedly stabbed the tongue of the prophet with a needle and buried his holy head in a unclean place. But the pious Joanna, wife of Herod's steward Chuza, buried the head of John the Baptist in an earthen vessel on the Mount of Olives, where Herod was possessor of a parcel of land (the Uncovering of the Venerable Head is celebrated 24 February). The holy body of John the Baptist was taken that night by his disciples and buried at Sebasteia, there where the wicked deed had been done. After the murder of Saint John the Baptist, Herod continued to govern for a certain while. Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea, later sent to him the bound Jesus Christ, over Whom he made mockery (Lk. 23: 7-12).

The judgement of God came upon Herod, Herodias and Salome, even during their earthly life. Salome, crossing the River Sikoris in winter, fell through the ice. The ice gave way for her such that her body was in the water, but her head trapped beneathe the ice. It was similar to how she once had danced with her feet upon the ground, but now flailing helplessly in the icy water. Thus she was trapped until that time when the sharp ice cut through her neck. The corpse was not found, but they brought the head to Herod and Herodias, as once they had brought them the head of Saint John the Baptist. The Arab king Aretas in revenge for the disrespect shown his daughter made war against Herod. Having suffered defeat, Herod suffered the wrath of the Roman emperor Caius Caligua (37-41) and was exiled with Herodias first to Gaul, and then to Spain. And there they were from view.

In memory of the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, the feastday established by the Church is also a strict day of fast, -- as an expression of the grief of Christians at the violent death of the saint. On this day the Church makes remembrance of soldiers, killed on the field of battle, as established in 1769 at the time of a war of Russia with the Turks and the Poles.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Terrorism & the Just War Tradition

MSNBC has an online interview with Retired Vice Admiral John Scott Redd, the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, in which he says (among other things) that Western intelligence officials "have very strong indicators that Al Qaeda is planning to attack the West." He said in response to the following question:

Earlier this summer, there was talk that people were picking up chatter that reminded them of the summer before 9/11. The Germans basically said this is like pre-9/11. They said, "We are very worried." What do you make of this?
We have very strong indicators that Al Qaeda is planning to attack the West and is likely to [try to] attack, and we are pretty sure about that. We know some of the precursors from—

Attack Europe?
Well, they would like to come West, and they would like to come as far West as they can. What we don't know is…if it's going to be Mark Hosenball [ed., the interviewer], and he's coming in on Flight 727 out of Karachi, he's stopping in Frankfurt, and he's coming on through with his European Union passport, and he's coming into New York, and he's going to do something. I mean, we don't have that kind of tactical detail. What we do have, though, is a couple of threads that indicate, you know, some very tactical stuff, and that's what—you know, that's what you're seeing bits and pieces of, and I really can't go much more into it.

Right now the United States find itself in the midst of a war with at least some members of Islam. And anyone who has heard me speak in the past on related subjects knows that I am not a pacifist. Indeed I have on occasion argued forcibly that while I certainly have the right to accept death for my convictions, I do not have the right to not act if the cost my decision is paid by another with their life or safety. All this is to say that, unlike I think a good number of my fellow Orthodox clergy, I do embrace the just war tradition.

The current political conflict is one that I suspect was not envisioned by the early proponents of the just war theory. If I may borrow from Chesterton, in the current conflict the difference among Christians is not in the "things [we] will call evils" but we "differ enormously about what evils [we] will call excusable."

My own extended family was one in which many of especially my grandparents generation were sympathetic to the aims and means of the Irish Republican Army. Or, if you prefer, I grew up hearing terrorist praised for their actions. No one would came out and said it was a good thing that an innocent civilian got killed in a car bombing. But there was a willingness to excuse the consequence of the attack as part of the greater good of a free Ireland.

A just war, a limited war of defense in response to overt attack for example, is difficult when the aggressors are terrorist for whom no one is exempt and indeed civilian targets are very preferred. Again as I saw in my own family, terrorism breeds in those who make use of it, and indeed in those who support it, a blood lust that very quickly justifies, or at least excuses, all sorts of evils.

It is at the same time, tempting in response to terrorism to give oneself over to all manner of ills in the interest of protecting one's homeland. I find the use of the phrase "homeland" to be an most unfortunate choice one to use for the United States since we are a people united not by blood and soil, but by an ideal. I fear that in much of what is our justified response to Islamic terrorism the phrase homeland might very well foster in a certain forgetfulness of those ideals--even as a "free Ireland" caused many of my now deceased family members to become forgetful of their Catholic faith.

Somewhere in our long history, Christians have forgotten what it was that Christ has saved us from. We have reduced sin to a mere moral infraction--somehow we can't seem to realize that the bloody events of the 20th century fascism and communism (to take but two examples) are the fruits of what it is that we have been saved from, our own worse selves that slowly causes us to give ourselves over, by baby steps, to evil.

The desert fathers tell us to be very cautious in fighting the demons. Their concern was motivated not by any lack of faith in Jesus Christ--but by a sober anthropology. The fathers understood that when we fight demons--whether of spirit or flesh and blood--it is all to easy to become a demon ourselves. If that happens, then the demons in a rather frightful parody Christ, are victorious in defeat, even as we are defeated in victory.

"The greatest sin is this," T.S. Elliot's Thomas Becket says towards the end of Murder in the Cathedral, "to do the right thing for the wrong reasons." Whether our politics are secular or ecclesiastical, doing the right thing for the wrong reason is I think always the great temptation.

I cannot help but think that both on the world stage and in the Church, events are such that, now more than ever, we need to examine not only our actions, but also our intentions.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

In Christ,

14th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST: Matthew 22:1-14

I meant to post this yesterday, but I slept rather poorly Sunday night and was just too tired. Ah well, here's yesterday's post--hopefully I get a second one out later today.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The Scripture Readings for Sunday, September 2, 2007: Matthew 22:1-14 Today's commemorated feasts and saints... 14th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST - Tone 5. Martyr Mamas of Caesarea in Cappadocia, and his parents Martyrs Theodotus and Rufina (3rd c.). St. John the Faster, Patriarch of Constantinople (595). Ven. Anthony and Theodosius of the Kiev Caves (10th -11th c.). 3,618 Martyrs who suffered at Nicomedia (3rd-4th c.). The "KALUGA" Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos (1748).

Not without merit, it seems that the best evidence against the truth of the Gospel is the lives of Christians. Having spent the last 10+ years as a priest serving missions and as an interim pastor, I have come to see not only the best of what there is among Orthodox Christians, but also, I almost said, especially, the worst.

It amazes me, for example, that people can be so attached to their vision of how a parish is supposed to be, that they would rather see a community fail rather than change (forgetting for a moment as St Gregory Nyssa reminds us, the ability to change--and change often--is what makes it possible for human beings to become like the God Who changes not).

In my conversations with people--not only those aren't Orthodox Christians, but with those who have fallen away from the Church--the character of those who profess to be Orthodox Christians is without a doubt the single biggest complaint about the Church. "We have met the enemy," the comic strip character Pogo says, "and he is us."

The fact of the matter is, it often it is the behavior Christians that makes it the Gospel hard to believe. And this is not an unreasonable response, after all Jesus tells us:
"You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. "You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven." (Mt 5.13-16)

And, in another place, he says to us who are the light of the world, that our office carries with it great responsibility:

"Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me. Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!" (Mt 18:5-7)
So close is the relationship between the validity of the preaching of the Gospel and the character of Christians that the Apostle Paul goes so far as to say of his own spiritual children:
Do we begin again to commend ourselves? Or do we need, as some others, epistles of commendation to you or letters of commendation from you? You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart (2 Cor 3:1-3).
And yet, so often, we are ourselves rather poorly written letters for the very faith we will often profess with such fervor. To be very direct about it, the longer I am a priest, the more I come to appreciate Paul's comment that "we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us" (2 Cor 4.7).

Listening to the music, seeing the beauty of icons and vestments, that in fact the Church is filled with sinners. And not simply sinners in the sense that we are all sinners and "fall short of the glory of God" (Rms 2.23). Rather, there are in the Church men and women, and yes sometimes every clergy and bishops, who are sinners in the stronger sense to the word: Those who have not in fact repented and look to the Gospel not for salvation, but only for their own self-aggrandizement.

And, in a sense, this is in fact as God intends the Church to be.

St Gregory the Great in his homily on the parable of the wedding feast tells his listeners:
The character of those at the banquet reveals clearly that the king's marriage feast represents the Church of this time, in which the bad are present along with the good. The Church is a thorough mix of various offspring. It brings them all to faith but does not lead them all to the liberty of spiritual grace successfully by changes in their lives, since sin prevents it.
This is the state of affairs in the Church I think for two reasons--one the one hand, who else would Christ call into the Church but sinners? If, as St Gregory implies, God calls sinful humanity into the Church to heal us of our sins and to make us free, then we ought to expect at least a certain number of, well, failures in the mix of people.

But, and this is the second reason, the division between repentant and unrepentant sinners is a line that runs right through the center of the human heart, through my heart. St Gregory's words about the Church are also applicable to my own heart:
As long as we are living in this world we have to proceed along the road mixed together. We shall be separated when we reach our goal. Only the good are in heaven, and only the bad are in hell. This life is situated between heaven and hell. It goes on in the middle, so to speak, and takes in the citizens of both parts.
Not only the human family, but each human heart--and by this I again mean my own heart--is situated between heaven and hell. Or maybe more accurately, my heart contains within itself both heaven and hell being itself a citizen of both realms.

In our catechesis and preaching about the Church we need to be very careful that we not deny that the Church is a hospital for sinners. But we also need to be careful that, the acknowledgment that we are sinners is not an excuse to tolerate.
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named[a] among the Gentiles—that a man has his father's wife! And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed (1 Cor 5:1-3).
The shortcomings of Christians, especially my own, should fill us as Paul says with grief. We certainly should not respond with indifference, much less any attempt to offer a justification since "After all, we're all sinners."

When we do this, when we fail to take seriously the shortcomings of those of us who have been called to the wedding feast of the King, we overlook the end of the parable:
But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man there who did not have on a wedding garment. So he said to him, 'Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?' And he was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, 'Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' For many are called, but few are chosen (vv. 11-14).
St Gregory sees in the guest without a wedding garment a figure of the baptized Christian who comes to the Church without love in his heart. While such a person "may have faith" his lack of love shows that he rejects the example of Christ Who makes manifest God's love for us. For this reason Gregory warns his listeners:
[Since] you have already come into the house of the marriage feast, our holy Church, as a result of God's generosity, be careful my friends, lest when the King enters he find fault with some aspect of your heart's clothing. . . . We are correct when we say that love is the wedding garment because this is what our Creator himself possessed when he came to the marriage feast to join the Church to Himself.
I will be the first to admit that sometime the hardest place to hold on to those three things that last, faith, hope and love, is in the Church. One of the hardest Gospel truths to accept is that the Church is simply the world on the road to the Kingdom of God.

And it is so hard is it to believe this that we simply allow this reality to fade from our awareness. But when we do, we find ourselves either falling into a triumphalism that denies any problems in the Church (and ultimately, in myself) OR a despair that causes me to withdraw spiritually and psychologically and, eventually, physically, from the Church. But, in either case, my actions cede victory not only to the Enemy of souls, and leave my neighbor, and me, trapped in the very sinfulness that I find so offensive and faith destroying.

When I turn my back on the Church, I refuse from the Great King the wedding garment He offers me--I refuse to enter into my Lord's joy. Yes, there are sinners in the Church, but no, not all sinners are equal. To say otherwise is an offense against the Gospel.

But when I am confronted by the truth of sinful Christians, I need to find in myself the courage, the strength and fortitude, to say nothing of wisdom, prudence and charity, to respond effectively in the face of human failure. I have to avoid equivocation, but also harshness.

Speaking simply for myself, I have learned that I need to listen very carefully to precisely those areas where my faith is most challenged, and even damaged, by the misdeeds of Christians. Again in my experience at least, it is precisely in those areas where faith proves weakest in me that I have discovered God's invitation to me to take on new forms of ministry and to a experience new depth of faith.

So we should let ourselves be appalled, hurt, disappointed, angry, doubting--we ought not to deny any of this. But we also shouldn't stop there, but rather by God's grace and by our own efforts, we should push on and through the darkness that falls upon us and there, in the darkest moments of our experience, we will find Christ as the light Who shines in the darkness.

What trips us up in the Church is not so much that there are sinners in the Church, but our unwillingness to work to heal the wounds that sin inflict upon us and others. I give up too easily, I am too willing to let the unrepentant among us drive me away or keep me quiet.

But when this happens, then haven't I simply cast off the wedding garment of the King?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Sometimes I Really Miss Texas, part 2: The Astro Nun

This is a wee bit long, but it is very sweet and worth the time.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Enduring the Cross: Reflects on Preaching

This morning I served Orthros and Liturgy at Kimisis Tis Theotokou (Dormition of the Theotokos) Greek Orthodox Church in Aliquippa, PA in the absence of the vacationing pastor Fr Christopher Bender. While I often prepare the basic themes of my sermon earlier in the week, I am often struck--as I was this morning--of the importance of the congregation and their response in the final content of the sermon.

Much Orthodox preaching makes use of a very formal rhetorical style that seems to be modeled on 19th century translations of patristic works. While there are any number of problems with this style of preaching, I think a central problem is that it is a way of preaching that obscures the person of the preacher.

Whether the sermon is long or brief, it is usually the only opportunity that most of the congregation has to get any insight not only into the Gospel as a living reality, but also the character of their pastor. Sometimes I will listen to a sermon and be struck by how anyone could have preached the same sermon. The sermon is so formal or abstract that I have no sense that the preacher is preaching to me.

In these cases the sermon, no matter how rhetorically polished or theological sound, remains a dead word; there is no sense that the sermon is an act of living speech between preacher and congregation. What makes the sermon alive is that it is, or should be anyway, uttered under the inspiration and authority of the Holy Spirit. The sermon is not simply a lecture, but a prophetic utterance and preachers needs to take seriously their prophetic office in the life of the congregation.

But a prophetic word must rise above the purely formal. To do this it will necessarily reveal not only something of God but also the preacher and the congregation. The preacher's own spiritual life and struggles are the material out of which the sermon is crafted. And the preacher's desire to change the hearts of his listeners--to draw then closer to Christ or to turn from sin--is also necessarily a personal work.

As I preach, I pray attention to the faces and reactions of my listeners. Are they understanding? Are the thinking about the sermon? Is there any connection between us as speaker and listener?

This style of preaching makes great demands not only of the preacher but also the congregation. A purely formal sermon that does not engage reveal the heart of the preacher, or seek to engage the heart of the listeners, is certainly easier and safer. But this kind of preaching will never change the heart of either the listener or the preacher.

None of this is to suggest that the sermon is about the preacher--far from it. But if the preacher does not communicate to his listeners that he knows from his own experience, his own struggles, his own failures and successes, that what he is saying is true, he commits a fraud against the congregation.

Henri Nouwen puts the matter this way:

In order to bring any kind of message to people there has to be a willingness to accept the message. This willingness means some desire to listen, some question that asks for an answer, or some general feeling of uncertainty needs clarification or understanding. But whenever an answer is given when there is no question, support is offered when there is no need, or an idea is given when there is no desire to know, the only possible effect can be irritation or plain indifference (Creative Ministry, p.25)
To avoid preaching the results in irritation, or worse indifference, Nouwen says that the preacher must "be willing to lay himself down and make his own suffering and his own hope available to others so that they too can find their own, often difficult way" (p. 40) But, he warns us,
Nobody can ever claim to be a real preacher in this sense. Only Christ could, since only He entered into full dialogue with those He loved by laying down His life in total availability. But out of all those who witnessed His death and saw blood and water come His pierced side, only a few were willing to cast off their indifference and irritation and come to the liberating insight" "In truth this was the Son of God." (Mt 27.54)

A purely formal style of preaching--whether or the part of the preacher or his listeners--will never bring us to saving faith. And in fact, this purely formal sermon contradicts the reality that "every time real preaching occurs the crucifixion is realized again" in the life of both the preacher and his listeners. For this reason, the preacher who hopes to bring his listeners closer to faith, cannot hope to do so except himself "having entered the darkness of the Cross." For this reason, Nouwen says, "let us hope that there always will be men to endure the hardship of preaching and lead their people through their own darkness to the Light of God."

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Underdog Music Video

Saturday is a day to rest. In honor of resting, a music video based on one of my favorite childhood cartoons--Underdog. For copy write reasons, please click on Underdog and listen on

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

P.S., For those who wish to sing along:

When criminals in this world appear
And break the laws that they should fear
And frighten all who see or hear
The cry goes up both far and near
For Underdog! Underdog! Underdog! Underdog!

Speed of lightning, roar of thunder
Fighting all who rob or plunder

Underdog. Underdog!

When in this world the headlines read
Of those whose hearts are filled with greed
Who rob and steal from those who need
To right this wrong with blinding speed
Goes Underdog! Underdog! Underdog! Underdog!

Speed of lightning, roar of thunder
Fighting all who rob or plunder
Underdog. Underdog!

Friday, August 24, 2007

From Cranmer: Iraq and the genocide of Assyrian Christians

From the blog by Archbishop Cranmer:

It is perhaps one of the great ironies of the whole Iraq debacle that President Bush and Prime Minister Blair - two of the most avowedly Christian leaders of recent times – should have created a situation which has not only destabilised the entire region, but imperils the very existence of Assyrian Christians. In the liberation of the majority Shi’ia from their Sunni oppressors, the Christians, who once lived and worshipped freely under the regime of Saddam Hussain, now face genocide in their own country at the hands of determined Islamist fanatics. The Rev Canon Andrew White, vicar of the 1300-strong St George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, recently spoke in Washington, and said: “The situation is more than desperate. The Coalition has failed the Christians. We have done nothing to support the Christian community or the increased Christian suffering.”

To read more: Iraq and the genocide of Assyrian Christians.

The Challenge of the Extraordinary

The following is offered in response to a question in the combox from Jack. He writes:

Great post, Fr. I'd love to have a better sense of what you mean when you speak of Fatima as having a tendency towards "sentimentality and over-rationalization". Just from the position of understanding. I'm actually not someone with any significant attachment to that devotion and not sure if I follow what elements of it you see fitting that profile.

But I was very struck by the part that you put in bold about ecumenism.
Thank you Jack for your kind words. And now my response:

Dear Jack,

My comments about Fatima were in response to some of the things I've come across as I've been do research for my paper in October. For example the film shown on the EWTN, Call to Fatima, is presented in a sentimental, really almost cloying tone--as if the presenter did not trust the events of Fatima to be sufficient to evoke awe in his viewers. Instead, he tried by his tone of voice to communicate to me what I ought to be feeling at different points in his presentation.

I feel what I feel, I do not tell people what they ought to feel and I certainly do not like being told by someone what to feel.

My objection is to to sentiment as such, but what I see as the attempt someone to create in me a particular emotional response (sentimentality). For example, in the Divine Liturgy I turn and say to the people "Lift up your hearts." The injunction is simply given, without any expectation on my part as to the particular affective content of the response form the congregation. This is important since, by the very neutrality of my tone and expectation, it makes room for people to feel what they feel and to lift up the hearts as they truly are at that moment. This leaving people free is important--in Greek, the word for forgive in the New Testament, aphiemi, means (among other things) to permit, to allow, or not to hinder. While word studies have their limitations, it is worth noting that there is an absence of coercion in the term.

Much of what I've seen regarding Fatima seems calculated to get me to respond affectively in a very particular way--I find this rather offensive and frankly violent.

(I should point out, that there are PLENTY of examples of sentimentality in an Orthodox tone. My objection is not to Fatima per se, but to any attempt to manipulate the affective response of another person.)

As for the over-rationalization: Much of that seems to center on the request from the Virgin that Russia be consecrated to her Immaculate Heart. Leaving aside the theological differences I have with that, there is not a little controversy among Roman Catholics as to whether or not it was done, or done properly. The arguments tend to read like poorly written legal briefs and carry a tone of depreciative criticism and defensiveness that I find curious. I am not suggesting that all these arguments are of equally weight for Catholics, only that they represent a certain tendency towards over-rationalization that seems to have captured at least some people with a devotion to our Lady of Fatima.

Again, this kind of over-rationalization is not unknown in the Orthodox Church--ask any Orthodox priest why we have overlapping jurisdictions based on ethnicity and how we square that with our claim to be the True Church. Better, say that you considered the claims of the Orthodox Church and, because of ethnicity, you have decided that we are no better then denominationally ridden Protestantism and watch the response. At least from some priests yow will hear an almost stereotypical "Jesuitical" response; the casuistry of the Orthodox attempts to justify the unjustifiable is certainly no less subtle then what you might find in a Roman Catholic theological manual of the 19th century.

The point, in both the Catholic and Orthodox examples, is that we do not need to bluster God's grace and the appearance of His saints with our psychological posturing and attempts at manipulation. Tangible appearance in our lives of God's grace--miracles, visit by the saints, visions, etc.--are as they say their own hermeneutic--they challenge us to lay aside our attachment to our own internal psychological states and our accustomed behavior and social structures. In making manifest the hidden grace of God in our lives, they challenge us to live a life that has been made new "from above" (Jn 3.3). The appeal to psychological states or social structures, is simply an attempt to manipulate self or other and is, in the face of our refuse of grace and is, as I said above, profoundly disrespectful to God, self and others.

My suspicion is much of sentimentalizing and over-rationalizing is grounded in fear and, underneath that, the damage done to human will by Adam's transgressions--but that is for another day (and a paper I hope to present next at a psychology conference next April).

Again, thank you for your kind words and your question. Have I answered it at least a little?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Thursday, August 23, 2007 - MLB - Rangers first team in 110 years to score 30 runs - Thursday August 23, 2007 1:48AM

I usually don't post sports stories--but this one I couldn't let pass. I'm going to bookmark this story and, when I'm having a bad day and feelin' sorry for myself, come at remind myself: It Could Be Worse! O So Much Worse!!!!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

BALTIMORE (AP) -- Five runs in the fourth inning.

Nine runs in the sixth.

Ten in the eighth.

Six more in the ninth.

The Texas Rangers rounded the bases at a dizzying pace and became the first team in 110 years to score 30 runs in a game, setting an American League record Wednesday in a 30-3 rout of the Baltimore Orioles.

"This is something freaky. You won't see anything like this again for a long, long time. I am glad I was on this end of it," said Marlon Byrd, who hit one of two Texas grand slams.

Trailing 3-0 in the opener of a doubleheader, Texas couldn't be stopped. Finally, the last-place Rangers did something right.

"We set a record for something on the good side of baseball," manager Ron Washington said.

Texas kept right on hitting in the second game, too, although at a decidedly tamer pace. Travis Metcalf drove in four runs and the Rangers used a three-run eighth for a 9-7 victory and a sweep.

Texas set an AL record for runs in a doubleheader, surpassing the 36 scored by Detroit in 1937.

"Tonight there were some balls thrown across the plate and we put them in play," Washington said. "Everybody was part of it. It was a total team effort."

The Rangers had 11 hits in the second game, including three by Michael Young. The nightcap, however, will forever be regarded as a postscript to the incredible opener.

It was the ninth time a major league team scored 30 runs, the first since the Chicago Colts set the major league mark in a 36-7 rout of Louisville in a National League game on June 28, 1897, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

"It was AMAZING in capital letters," said Metcalf, who hit a grand slam after being called up from Triple-A Oklahoma earlier in the day.

To read the rest: Rangers first team in 110 years to score 30 runs - Don't Rush Pope-Patriarch Summit, Cardinal Says - Don't Rush Pope-Patriarch Summit, Cardinal Says:

"17-August-2007 -- Catholic World News Brief Don't Rush Pope-Patriarch Summit, Cardinal Says Moscow, Aug. 17, 2007 ( - Speaking to reporters in Moscow, a senior Vatican official has urged reporters not to place undue stress on the prospects for a 'summit meeting' between Pope Benedict XVI and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II. Cardinal Roger Etchegaray said that careful preparations should be made before a summit meeting takes place. He explained that 'all the circumstances should be favorable,' to ensure that the meeting is not merely a matter of 'posing for the camera.' 'Only God knows when it will happen,' the cardinal told Vesti-24 television in Moscow. When the world's two most influential Christian leaders do meet, he said, the event will be a powerful testimony to the unity of the faith. Cardinal Etchegaray, the vice-dean of the College of Cardinals, conceded that it is only natural to focus attention on the prospect of a meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch. But the French-born cardinal, who met with Patriarch Alexei during his trip to Moscow this week, explained that other contacts between Moscow and Rome are helping to prepare the way for the summit. The Catholic and Orthodox churches, he said, are finding many different ways to collaborate in promoting the Christian culture"

But Why Can't You Just Pray Like Me?!?

Upper left: Statue of Our Lady of Fatima.
Lower right: Icon, Theotokos of Kazan

So, I'm preparing a paper for a conference in honor of the 90th anniversary of the appearance of the Theotokos at Fatima Portugal. While I'm honored to asked to make a presentation, I have to be honest, much of the piety that surrounds Fatima just doesn't appeal to me. And this just isn't because I'm Orthodox, if I were a Roman Catholic (and I was), I wouldn't be inclined to the piety that I see when I look at Fatima.

At the same time, however, when I put the differences in style to one side, when I put on hold for a moment the desire to engage in theological polemics, I also have to admit that I see the evidence of grace in the lives of those men, women and children for whom Fatima is an important part of their spiritual lives.

And this brings to my point for this essay:

Ecumenicism is not simply, or even simply, a question of theological agreement, but also an ability to recognize the work of grace in life of the other Church.

Unfortunately, the lack of a stylistic sympathy with another tradition's piety not only makes theological agreement difficult, if not impossible, but can also (and more importantly) blinds us to the shortcomings in how we live our own spiritual lives.

Let me explain that last point.

The things I find troubling in much of the devotion of Roman Catholics and Anglicans to our Lady of Fatima, are what I see as a tendency toward sentimentality and over-rationalization of the faith. In both cases, the problem as I see it, is an overemphasis on the psychological dimension of the Christian life.

But, if I'm honest with myself, I must admit that this is hardly a Western problem. There is a fair amount of Orthodox Christian piety that is just as sentimental and rationalistic as anything one sees among the devotees of Fatima. For an Orthodox Christian to reject or criticize or minimize the importance of Fatima, at least in the lives of those for whom it is important, is not only a sin against charity, but short sighted for the health of our own Church as well.

I say short sighted because it reflects the all too common, and simplistically, habit among some Orthodox Christians to make Western forms of Christianity, and Western Christians, the source of all ills in the Christian world. When, for example, we talk about the "western captivity" of Orthodox theology, we make it sound as if the Jesuits came along and kidnapped us! That's not what happened--and in fact, Orthodox Christians were attracted to Western theological forms and spiritual practices because of a perceived lack in the life of the Orthodox Church.

We need to take seriously the piety of Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians. As part of that, we should ask ourselves if there isn't something in these Western forms of piety that fulfills a lack among Orthodox Christians?

Asking this question, and more importantly giving an affirmative answer to it, doesn't mean that we are embracing the "branch theory" or that we are rejecting the conviction that the Orthodox Church is the one, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ. It does mean that we are humbling acknowledging that while we see Orthodox Christianity as normative, we don't see it as exhausting the mystery of God's saving grace for His people.

We need to take seriously forms of piety outside the Orthodox Church especially when the offend us or (as in my case with piety), "turn us off." We need to carefully and prayerfully ask ourselves, why am I uncomfortable with another person's piety? More often then not, the discomfort reflects something in my own heart that needs to be corrected.

Maybe, in my own case, Fatima reminds me that I need to be a bit more willing to listen to my feelings and the contribution they make to my spiritual life. Or maybe, I need to re-evaluate the role of the intellect in my life. Or maybe, as I said in an earlier post, I simply need to remember and acknowledge that, while it isn't my piety, it was--and is--the piety of many of the people who were responsible for helping me become the person and priest I am.

In the final analysis, we need to permit each other as much freedom as we can in matters of piety. Granted, with the Apostle Paul, we need to see that everything is done in an orderly fashion--but part of orderly, is respecting each other and making room for each other's piety.

Outside of the Liturgy, very few of us pray in a manner that would pass strict theological muster. And, truth be told, if we examine not simply the words we sing at Liturgy, but the hearts out of which those words arise, how many of us would be saved?

In the Roman rite, the celebrant asks that God look not on our personal sin (I'm paraphrasing, anyone with the exact text is most welcome to post it), but on the faith of His Church. We are none of saved by our piety, and I dare say most of us are saved in spite of it. What saves us is God's grace and our incorporation into the Body of Christ through the sacraments and our ongoing repentance. Personal piety and devotions have their role for sure, but it they are secondary and we must never make them primary either for ourselves or for other people.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Inside Baseball vs. Evangelization

This just in (and with a hat tip to Sherry W at Intentional Disciples):

From Oswald Sorbino's blog, Catholic Analysis:

When you blog on Catholic topics, the natural and understandable tendency is to spend a lot of time on what one could call "inside baseball"--arguments about liturgy, Catholic problems, charisms, etc. But, once in a while, it is good to set forth the Good News so that non-Catholic or non-Christian visitors can see what is surely most important: Jesus Saves.

Jesus not only saves; but, as I have heard others say, Jesus loves to save. And "saving" includes healing of all kinds, not just spiritual but also emotional, psychological, and physical. Saving includes healing all wounds, even those from a very long time ago. Saving also includes forgiveness so that one can start again and be born anew from above (if you have already received the Sacrament of Baptism, then it is a matter of activating again the new birth you have already received).

Saving also includes empowering to live in the Holy Spirit in joy and peace. Saving includes the power to do the right thing, not to be crushed by impossible moral ideals that we, on our own, can never meet. Saving also means making us part of the Body of Christ where we can be refreshed with the sacraments, the prayers, and the communion of our fellow Catholics. Saving means we enter a new family united in the joy of praising the Lord Jesus and bound together by a bond that can surpass even biological ties to others.

The formula is basic: repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. But notice that repent is not just regretting this sin or that sin. The Gospel call to repentance, in the original New Testament Greek, has the sense of turning ourselves around, of changing our hearts and minds, of surrendering control to the true Sovereign and Lord. If you are non-Christian, you hand over your life to Jesus and begin instruction for receiving the Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist). If you are a non-Catholic baptized Christian, you receive instruction to receive the Sacraments of Penance, Confirmation, and the Eucharist. If you are already Catholic, you rededicate your life to Jesus and seek out the Sacrament of Penance, also called the "Sacrament of Conversion." The end result is the happiness that never dies.

Yes, sometimes we have to take a break from all the "inside baseball" and talk about the crucial arena of our lives because the stakes are too high for all of us and because we may forget that many are desperately seeking Je

The Whole Russian Orthodox Church Officially Honours the Saints of the Isles

This was posted yesterday by Fr Andrew at Orthodox England:

Today, Tuesday 21 August 2007, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church has officially recognized the Feast of the Saints of the Isles. (See our Service to these Saints on this website under 'Hisperica Liturgica' – Western Liturgica). This Feast is in honour of the Saints who lived in Great Britain and Ireland before the Western Schism of 1054. This was when most of Western Europe tragically split off from the Church, thus founding Roman Catholicism and later the myriad of sects which grew up from this.

The Feast will be observed, as it already has been for many years in parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia and elsewhere, on the third Sunday after Pentecost. The Synod has also decided that these Saints' names should be included in the Church Menologion, once their lives and exploits have been studied.

The Synod's decision follows the appeal of 3 March 2007, when the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain and Ireland of the Diocese of Sourozh, petitioned His Holiness Patriarch Alexis II and the Holy Synod of the Russian Church to give official recognition to the Feast of the Saints of the Isles.

Once again, we see how the work begun by the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) in New York is being completed in Moscow. First, in 2000, His Holiness and the Synod in Moscow recognized and completed the ROCOR canonization of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia of 1981. Now it is recognizing the Local Saints of the Western Lands, who previously had not been known or venerated in Russia, but had been venerated since the 1970s in ROCOR.

This decision is clearly a historic turning-point. The Local Saints of the Western Lands now begin their entry into the calendar of the whole Russian Orthodox Church. This is a sign of the universalism or catholicity of the Russian Church. It is also, we must add, the recognition of our thirty-three years of unceasing struggle against both the forces of ecumenistic modernism and ritualistic conservatism. We well remember how the persecution and mockery that we faced from both extremes in the 1970s, when there was virtually no sympathy for our cause. Later we recall how our writings on them had to be published at personal sacrifice, in order to make these Saints of God known. This is once more the victory of the royal path of moderation, victory over the spiritual death of extremes. We pray and hope that the Local Saints of other Western Lands will now also make their entry into the consciousness and calendar of the whole Church of Rus.

God is wonderful in His Saints! Glory to Thee, our God, Glory to Thee!

Indeed, God is wonderful in His Saints!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Sometimes, I really miss Texas

From Rod Dreher's Crunchy Con blog:

Texas is Texas

The European Union has asked the state government of Texas to implement a death penalty moratorium. This just came via e-mail from Gov. Rick Perry's office, in response:

"230 years ago, our forefathers fought a war to throw off the yoke of a European monarch and gain the freedom of self-determination. Texans long ago decided that the death penalty is a just and appropriate punishment for the most horrible crimes committed against our citizens. While we respect our friends in Europe, welcome their investment in our state and appreciate their interest in our laws, Texans are doing just fine governing Texas."

That's not gonna cost Ol' Rick many votes, just so you know.

Thoughts in a coffee shop

As is my custom, I have found a coffee shop with free wifi near our new house so that I can write in the early morning before returning to my own research (I'm currently writing a paper to be presented at the October meeting of the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary-USA, but more on that another day). One of the interesting things about where I am writing is that it is a gathering spot for area school teachers. This means that, if I "very, very quiet," (to borrow from Elmer Fudd), I can hear bits and pieces of conversations about how classroom teachers see education in America--or at least here in eastern Ohio.

What is most interesting is that the teachers speak about their students with real affection and concern. Certainly there is the expected complaints about the students, and more frequently about the higher ups in the school's administration, but in the main the teachers speak about their students with warmth and love for the children entrusted to their care.

As I have been listening, I have begun to think a bit about not only my own life, but the larger society in which we live.

Very early on in my counseling career, I discovered two things almost simultaneously. First, I was very good at counseling and therapy, I had a gift, a vocation, if you will, to the work that transcended mere technical mastery. Second, very few people around me had a vocation to the work. Absent from their work was the warmth, affection and love that I hear in the voices of the teachers around me.

This sense of vocation--or more precisely the absence of a vocational commitment--is one of the things that I think causes us the greatest difficulties in our society. Not to romanticize, but when our work becomes purely a question of economics, work becomes increasingly eroding both of our own dignity and of the dignity of those with whom we interact.

The lack of a higher purpose, a higher vision, to our work means that work becomes merely a means to fulfilling our own , often transitory, desires. Think for example of the current collection of presidential hopefuls--how many communicate a sense of vocation to public service? Precious few I think. And likewise for most of us our interest in this or that candidate reflects our own desires for at least the semblance of power through our support of them.

I can't help but think of the men in Utah who lost their lives trying to rescue trapped miners who were themselves in all likelihood already dead. Who I wonder is really is more fit for leadership, profession politicians who see public office as a means of acquiring personal power at public expense, or teachers who love their students or miners who willingly risk their lives to honor the memory of their co-workers?

As I reflect on current events (both those that do and don't make the news), I am struck that the best of what is done here in America is done by the teachers here in the coffee shop, or the miners in Utah.

David Bentley Hart in his book The Beauty of the Infinite, points out that when as Christians we point to the Empty Tomb and say that "Christ is Risen!" we are issuing a challenge to the rulers of this world. We are not simply criticizing them, we are challenging their dominion. This is inherently a political act and one that will inevitably bring the Church into conflict with the world that has rejected Christ and the Gospel.

As a priest, some of my role models are those men and women I met when I first started working in mental health back, well back longer ago then I care to admit (where have 30 years gone?). I don't mean those whose commitment to the profession was merely technical, but those men and women whose work reflected their own sense of vocation. It was their vocational commitment to care for those suffering from mental illness that made them courageous, generous and even sacrificial, in their work with people most of us would cross the street to avoid. And it was their deep personal commitment, that made it possible for me to recognize a like possibility in myself.

What is so disheartening when we read the newspaper, or watch the news on television, is not bad news--not shootings and wars and starving children and disasters natural and man made. All of this, and more, is real and tragic to be sure. But what does us in, is the absence of any evidence of higher calling in the voices, actions and policies of those who we have entrusted to lead us and to guide us through the periods of "bad news" and "hard times."

It should not be such with those of us who carry that Name which is above every other name.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Monday, August 20, 2007

From Monasic Musings: The Dialogue of the Mother and the Zygote

The a wonderful brief essay by Sr Edith OSB, a Benedictine nun and sociologist at the College of St Scholastica in Minnesota. Sister offers a summary on a recent Roman Catholic document on the journey of the human egg from fertilization to implantation. She writes:

When I took human genetics in the 1970s, we heard general, mechanical sounding statements: "The fertilized egg continues down the Fallopian tube and implants." It sounds like an assembly line carrying an inert lump, the zygote, into place. The reality I was reading last night was MUCH different!

The report is written for lay people, not scientists - but it assumes the reader is willing to pay attention and follow along. The sperm don't just stumble upon the egg - there are receptors and chemicals that help them find it. It doesn't just crash into the egg like a torpedo: there's a sequence of chemical exchanges that open the door of the egg to one sperm and, just as quickly, firmly close it to all others.

Her conclusion is very encouraging and one that I wish more Orthodox Christians would embrace as the emblem for how the relationship between their own work and spiritual lives. Again Sr Edith:

I came across this as part of my reading for a short Catholic Bioethics Seminar online - but I'm finding that the beauty and detail of the science makes it spiritual reading.
To read the report her essay is based on click here: The Human Embryo in its Preimplantation Phase. To read her whole essay, and the other wonderful things on her blog, click here: The Dialogue of the Mother and the Zygote.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

13th Sunday of Matthew

On Sunday, August 26th, we hear the parable of the vineyard owner and the wicked tenants from the Gospel according to St Matthew (21:33-42). St John Chrysostom is quite taken with opening verses of the parable:

There was a certain landowner who planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a winepress in it and built a tower. And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country. Now when vintage-time drew near, he sent his servants to the vinedressers, that they might receive its fruit (vv. 33-34).

In his homily (Homily 68) on the passages Chrysostom asks his listen to "[o]bserve the great care that the owner took with this place and the extraordinary recalcitrance of the people." The saint goes on to say that the owner of the vineyard "did the work the tenants should have done." It was the owner who "planted" the vineyard, "set a hedge around it" to protect the crops, "dug a wine press" to crush the grapes in order to make wine. The owner even "built a tower" so that the works could observe the whole vineyard and see to its well being. For their part all the tenants had to to "was taken care of what there was there and to preserve what had been given to them."

Though nothing "was left undone" and all things necessary were "accomplished" by the owner, the tenants sadly "made little effort to be productive." When the time for the harvest came the tenants "not only failed to give the fruit, after having enjoyed so much care," they flaunted "their laziness" and "were angry with the servants who came" to collect what was due the owner.

The owner first sends his servants and then finally his son to collect what is his due. And each time the tenants "add even more to their previous pollutions" each new offense surpassing "their former offenses" until finally their greed drives them mad and they kill the owner's son.

Just as the tenants profited by the owner's labor, humanity is "honored" St John says by God becoming human for our sakes and working "countless miracles." At His own cost, "He pardoned" our sins and calls us into His Kingdom. And for our part, we are asked only be productive--to tend to what God has given us by His labor.

The fact of the matter is, whatever we do, we do so only as a return on the investment that God has made in us. No one succeeds except because of the labor of others, and ultimately no one succeeds who tries (as the ungrateful tenants did) to succeed apart from being of profit to others.

Too often I fail to cultivate in my life a spirit of gratitude to God and my neighbor for who their labor has made it for me to be successful in my life. And I forget, that my success is not only dependent upon my neighbor's, but, in imitation of the example of Christ, I am only successful to the degree that I labor on my neighbor's behalf. I cannot develop the gifts God has given me if I am indifferent, much less hostile, to helping you develop the gifts God has given you.

Sometimes I am asked, "How do you build a parish?" or "What's the secret to being a successful evangelist or missionary?" The answer is simply: Guided by the Tradition of the Church, I need to us all the resources at my disposal, personal, professional, pastoral, for the good of the person right in front of me. And as part of that work, as I have suggested before, I need to respect not only the conscience of the Church (as expressed in Holy Tradition), but also the conscience of the person I am caring for, as well my own conscience. In the latter two instances this more often then not means not only respecting the person's (and my own) limitations, but seeing these limitations as a positive invitation to become co-labor's for each other's well-being and for the life of the world.

To do less then this is to repeat the sin of the ungrateful tenants and assume (wrongly as it turns out) that if we "kill" the son "the inheritance shall be ours" (v. 38). It is this, more than anything else, that keeps our parishes from growing not only numerically, but spiritually.

And yet, at the same time, God is patient and waits for our repentance. What does this repentance look like? Simply put, we cultivate gratitude in our lives for the work of God and neighbor on our behalf, and we in turn work not simply for our own good, but for our neighbors' well-being also.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Why Boring Liturgy is Good--Or At Least Not Bad

Debra Dean Murphy at the Ekkelsia Project has some interesting things to say about Liturgy and human emotions. Her main point is that, in a certain sense, Liturgy is "supposed to be boring, or at least seriously underwhelming."

This I think is a serious challenge to what is sometimes overdone approach to Liturgy in some Orthodox parishes. The parish is not Hagia Sophia during the time of the Emperor Justinian or Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow.

If boring isn't quite right, maybe a bit of simplicity. For example in some smaller communities, especially missions, Vespers & Orthros are often simply intoned and the Divine Liturgy is sung simply by the congregation lead by a chanter.

Anyway, if you are interested in Debra Murphy's thought you can read more here: Just There.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Doug Giles: Imprecatory Prayer: The Intercessor's Elephant Gun

Doug Giles at has an interesting essay on imprecatory prayer or

prayer asking God to crush a clear enemy of His, an enemy which is an aggressive adversary of freedom and peace loving people. Yes, Mr. and Mrs. Precious Moments Figurine Collector, the Bible is filled with maledictions prayed by saints and speedily answered by God against violently impenitent enemies of liberty and righteousness.
While I'm not sure I agree with everything he says, it is an essay worth reading.

He concludes his essay with this:

Of the 150 psalms contained in the Bible's prayer book, i.e., the Psalms, 104 are imprecations. Hello! Also, these psalms are to be sung and read, unedited, during the worship service (Ephesians 5.19). For an irrefutable book on this hot topic, check out James Adams?s work War Psalms of the Prince of Peace. In the mean time, here?s a short list of imprecatory psalms: Psalm 5, 7, 9, 10, 17, 25, 28, 31, 35, 40, 41, 54, 55, 56, 58, 59, 63, 68, 69, 70, 71, 74, 79, 83, 94, 104, and 109.

Take a look at the whole essay over at

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

What Kind of Sandwhich Am I?

You Are a Ham Sandwich

You are quiet, understated, and a great comfort to all of your friends.
Over time, you have proven yourself as loyal and steadfast.
And you are by no means boring. You do well in any situation - from fancy to laid back.

Your best friend: The Turkey Sandwich

Your mortal enemy: The Grilled Cheese Sandwich

Friday, August 17, 2007

Moving Beyond Zero Sum

BBC News reports this morning that "The international aid group, Care, has rejected a [food] donation of $45m (£22.7m) from the United States government." The story continues:

Care criticised the way US food aid is distributed, saying it harms local farmers, especially in Africa.

It said wheat donated by the US government and distributed by charities introduced low prices that local farmers are unable to compete with.

But USAid says assessments are carried out to try to ensure that commodities do not disrupt local production.

Correspondents says disagreements have emerged in the US aid community on the best way to use food aid.

"We came to the realisation that if we wanted to do what was in the best interest of poor people and efficiency in aid, that this wasn't it," Care President Helene Gayle told Reuters news agency.

Care said it did not oppose emergency food aid during periods of drought or famine.

But the group said the US government's method of food aid did not help communities which were permanently in need.

I'm struck by this story because it calls in to question are naive thought that simply "intending good" is the same as "doing good." But in fact, as the above news report suggests, sometimes doing what we think is good--and might even be good in the short term--has negative consequences in the long term.

Likewise we often discover that doing this or that particular good thing, precludes are doing other, equally good things. For example, if I give $5.00 to a homeless man on the street I don't have that money to say, give to the Church to spend on mission work. Granted the example is simplistic, but it is offered for illustrative purposes only.

In the background of all of this is what we might call a "zero sum" approach to the various good works of the Church. What is zero sum? Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, describes it this way:

In game theory, zero-sum describes a situation in which a participant's gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the other participant(s). It is so named because when the total gains of the participants are added up, and the total losses are subtracted, they will sum to zero. Chess and Go are examples of a zero-sum game: it is impossible for both players to win. Zero-sum can be thought of more generally as constant sum where the benefits and losses to all players sum to the same value. Cutting a cake is zero- or constant-sum because taking a larger piece reduces the amount of cake available for others. In contrast, non-zero-sum describes a situation in which the interacting parties' aggregate gains and losses is either less than or more than zero.
While there is much in the tradition of the Church--East and West--that is incalculably value for our spiritual lives, we need to exercise a bit of prudence that we not uncritically take over the zero-sum world view that is common in many pre-modern (i.e., pre-capitalist) cultures.

Often in our conversation about the spiritual life and the life of the Church we in fact do fall into looking at reality as a zero-sum game. We think there is only one way to be good and when that happens we hold on to this one good thing even in the face of evidence to the contrary (like in the BBC story above).

Take for example the resistance we often encounter in parishes when they begin to add new members either through transfer from other parishes or by conversion. The concern is often raised by the established members that the "new people" are changing everything.

In a sense of course they are. A parish is a fairly complex social group. New members invariably change the relational dynamics in the community much the same way as adding rocks to a stream can change not only the flow of water within the stream, but even cause the stream to over flow its banks. Adding rocks doesn't just change the internal dynamics of the stream, it makes a "new" stream, that is, it changes how the stream interacts with the larger environment.

When we added new people to a parish, yes, things change and sometime, as when the circumstances of our personal lives change, new situations bring new stresses. But new people in a parish also allow us to discover new understandings of ourselves as a community, new insights into what God would call us to do, and even new opportunities for service. If we allow ourselves to welcome new people into our lives, they, like new situations, make it possible for us to discover new gifts in ourselves. And all of this is possible because the Christian life is not a zero-sum game. Life in Christ, St Paul tells us, means moving "from glory to glory" (2 Cor 3.18).

This phrase, "from glory to glory," was a special favorite of St Gregory Nyssa. He writes:

[Let] no one be grieved if he sees in his nature a penchant for change. Changing in everything for the better, let him exchange "glory for glory," becoming greater through daily increase, ever perfecting himself and never arriving too quickly at the limit of perfection. For this is truly perfection: never to stop growing toward what is better and never placing any limits to perfection.
Taken up in faith, hope and love, change in ourselves, our communities and the world around us isn't to be feared, but raced towards--a passage from "glory to glory." But this requires from us not only detachment in a spiritual sense, but also a basic sense of trust and a relaxed psychological openness to the world around us. This trusting openness, this detachment, is not possible however, if we allow ourselves to become run down trying to manage and control every element of our lives.

Again we see this in parishes that simply won't change. Eventually the desire to not change, to remain the same, takes over and soon not only are new people, new ideas and new ways of doing thing threatening, even the same old people, ideas and ways of doing things become a source of anxiety. Why? Because like it or not, things and people simply change--we can't remain static in our spiritual lives or our community lives without doing violence to others and ultimately ourselves.

In the end a zero-sum approach to life fosters in us fear and suspicion. Paradoxically, the harder we hold on to "the way things have always been," the less secure they become. Like trying to hold tightly on to water, it just doesn't work.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Role of the Theotokos in the Catholic/Orthodox Dialog

Fr Maximos, a hieromonk at Holy Resurrection Monastery (Byzantine Catholic) and the lead voice behind the blog The Anastasis Dialogue, this morning posted an audio file of a sermon by the abbot of the monastery Fr Nicholas. If you have a moment, I would encourage you to listen to the sermon here: Dormition Sermon.

In his sermon, Fr Nicholas argues, not convincingly to my mind, that the Orthodox and Catholic Churches share the same basic faith about the Mother of God. I have heard that before and, like arguments that advance the notion that Christians, Jews and Muslims all worship the same God, I wish it were so, but it just isn't or to be fairer about it, it isn't true without qualifications.

Yes, Catholics and Orthodox Christians give Mary the first place in the communion of saints. And yes, we both see the Virgin as the Mother of God, the icon of the Church and the exemplar of Christian discipleship. And while both Churches would refer to Mary as "sinless" (Panagia, "All-holy" in Greek), the Orthodox see the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception (Mary being conceived in the womb of St Anna without stain of original sin) as at best theologumena (theological opinion, albeit not necessarily an opinion without value), if not outright innovation.

We also both hold to the virgin birth and her perpetual, lifelong, virginity. And while we both celebrate liturgically her birth, her presentation in the Temple, and her conception of the Christ, we diverge somewhat about the facts pertaining to the beginning and the end of her earthly life, specifically her conception (see above) and her death.

For the Orthodox, Mary dies, she "falls asleep," and so we celebrate her "Dormition." Roman Catholic celebrate Mary's Assumption. For me at least (and I am more than willing to be corrected) the question of her death is not as clear in the Roman Catholic teaching that only says "when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory." To my reading the fact of her death is left open to interpretation.

So yes, there is much convergence--but also some divergence. Whether this divergence is minor enough for us to say we hold to the same faith about the Theotokos is for the Orthodox Church, at least, an open question.

Where I agree with, or at least am intrigued by, Fr Nicholas is his contention that rather then looking to the icon of SS Peter and Paul as the icon of Catholic/Orthodox relations, we should look instead to the icon of the Dormition. In his reworking of the icon, he envisions Latin priests on one side of Mary and Orthodox priests on the other. And slowly, the two sides slowly come together in the regard for the Theotokos. Leaving aside the absence of the laity in his sermon, I think there is some merit to Fr Nicholas's image.

Ecumenical dialog is often undertaken in a masculine key--it is as if Peter and Paul are still arguing. Might not there be something to be said for taking a more Marian key in our conversation? Might it not advance the cause of reconciliation if we focused not simply on doctrine, but also on how can we help each conceive and give birth to God the Word?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory