Friday, November 30, 2007

Orthodox Church May Set Up Alliance with Catholics

Posted on: Monday, November 26, 2007 at

Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad: Orthodox Church May Set Up Alliance with Catholics

The Moscow Patriarchate has noticed the intensification of its contacts with the Catholics during Pope Benedict XVI's pontificate and suggested that alliance between the two churches could theoretically be set up in the future.

"After Benedict XVI was elected pope and declared the development of dialogue with the Orthodox Church among the priorities of his pontificate, bilateral relations between our churches have noticeably enlivened," Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, the head of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations, said in a report he presented at an inter-religious conference in Naples.

Both the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches "understand more clearly today than they have ever done before the importance of their joint testimony to the secular world about Christian values, which this world is trying to marginalize," Metropolitan Kirill said.

He noted that the proposal to set up a Catholic-Orthodox alliance produced mixed reaction in the Protestant world. However, he said, this proposal is based on the objective tendency towards deeper cooperation between Catholics and Orthodox and does not presuppose an alliance "against someone." "As regards the so-called alliance, I do not think that we should talk about some inter-Christian organization today, although it would be wrong to absolutely rule out the establishment of such an organization," Metropolitan Kirill said.

Under the word "alliance", he specified, one may understand "the possibility of a more coordinated and structured interaction between the Churches, primarily in their relations with the secular world and non-Christian religions. For a successful dialogue with the others there should be from the very outset a higher level of agreement among Churches and Christian communities than the one that exists today in the framework of the ecumenical dialogue." For example, according to Metropolitan Kirill, it is unlikely that the full-scale dialogue between Christians and Muslims which is so necessary today will be successful "while deep contradictions remain among Christians in the sphere of anthropology and ethics."

The doors of such an alliance between the Orthodox and Catholic believers "cannot be categorically closed to our Protestant brothers," Metropolitan Kirill said.

A New Site

An interesting new site out there: Early Church Texts. The site is well organized and is a growing collection of links to early Church texts both in the original languages and English translation. Well worth the look.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

hat tip: Mike

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Orthodox Patriarch Accepts Papal Primacy?

While I need to find the rest of the story, or better the complete interview, the following report from Catholic World News is certainly interesting.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

29-November-2007 -- Catholic World News Brief

Rome, Nov. 28, 2007 ( - Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople has said that he is prepared to recognize the primacy of the Pope--although he does not accept the Catholic position on the implications of that primacy.

In an interview with a Bulgarian television network, the Orthodox leader-- who is himself recognized as the "first among equals" in the Orthodox world-- indicated his support for a statement released by the joint Catholic-Orthodox theological commission at an October meeting in Ravenna, Italy. That statement had recalled that during the first Christian millennium, the Bishop of Rome was recognized as the foremost of the patriarchs.

Patriarch Bartholomew went on to say, however, that he does not believe the primacy enjoyed by the Pope in the early centuries of Christianity included authority over other patriarchs. The primacy of Rome, he explained, involved precedence of honor rather than disciplinary status over the world's bishops.

The Occult and Demonic

You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it (Jn 8:44).

At their request, I am speaking this evening (29 November 2007) at St John the Baptist Orthodox Church (OCA) parish here in the Youngstown area. My topic, again by request, is the occult and the demonic. I would hardy call myself expert or even knowledgeable about such matters. Frankly, I'm not sure anyone is, because, given their nature, I don't think anyone can be. After almost seven years in northern California, I am certainly acquainted with the topic however.

Some 75% of the adults in the part of California where we lived and served have no religious affiliation at all. While Roman Catholics are the largest single religious group, the vast majority of the population that identified themselves as Christians are Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, or some form of contemporary Evangelical Christianity. What unites all of these groups is an absolute absence of any commitment to even a vaguely recognizable adherence to the historical Christian understanding of baptism. In many cases, especially in the Jehovah Witness and Evangelical Christian communities, there is an explicit rejection of the sacramental character of baptism.

What this meant for me is that, for the first time in my life, I lived where almost no one I met was baptized. Quite literally, I served as a priest surrounded by a truly, pagan (and not simply, non-Christian) culture more widespread and deeply rooted than many other places in the world. In addition to the almost absolute absence of baptized Christians, many, many people engaged in some form of occult activity.

I met Wiccans, self-professed vampires, and practitioners of the art of black magic. All of this was highly sexualized and often associated with drug and alcohol abuse. Very quickly I began to think of middle aged New Agers as quaint. Or at least they seemed so in comparison to many of those often (but not always) adolescents and young adults who came through the door of my church. Sadly, a significant number of those involved in the occult also professed to be Christians. Usually (though again not always) these people were in a charismatic or Pentecostal congregation. Sadder still in more than one or two cases, the person was an Orthodox Christian.

What I found most distressing though were not those who dabbled in the occult. Yes, certainly such activity is spiritually, psychologically, and spiritually dangerous. Typically an interest in the occult reflects more immaturity then it does a serious commitment. No, what I found frightening was the number of people whose interest in the occult led them deeper and deeper into demonic activity.

For most of us our view of the demonic is informed more by Hollywood and the popular media rather than the Scriptures, the witness of the Church or any firsthand experience. Looking back on my childhood and early teen years, I would certainly have to include myself in the former category. I grew up not only on the classic horror movies of the 30's and 40's, but also the schlock, and shock horror of the 50's, 60's and 70's. Like many, I read horror novels (especially Stephen King) and comics, played with Ouija boards and read my daily horoscope in the newspaper. Thank God, by the time I got to college, I put all that behind me. Or so I thought.

When I moved to Shasta County I discovered all this again. This time though the occult was not frivolous entertainment, the chosen life commitment of men and women I met on a daily basis.

Jesus calls Satan the father of lies. When our Savior says this He isn't simply saying that the devil says untrue things. Demonic lies are often mostly true. This is where they get their power to deceive. St Augustine says that evil is the absence of a good which should be present. Evil is also the presence of a good which should be absent. While not absolute, human beings tend toward the former, the demonic toward the latter. Satan brings disorder with him—the word diabolic (from Greek, "throw across," from dia- "across, through" + ballein "to throw") carries within itself the connotation of division, disorder, chaos. It is the opposition of symbolic, (from syn- "together" + stem of ballein "to throw") or that which throws together, or brings about a union (since they unite us to Christ, the sacraments are "symbols" in the etymological sense of the word).

The devil's lies are twisted. If he can through his lies he causes us to doubt or reject what we know to be good, and true, and beautiful, and just. The temptations of the devil, and I saw this again and again in California, is not so much that the devil tells us things which are untrue. It is rather more the case that he tells us the truth, untruly. Origen's words about the devil are applicable to the whole of the demonic realm: "And the reason why truth is not in him is that he has been deceived and accepts lies, and he has himself been deceived by himself." This is why, Origen concludes, the devil "is considered to be worse than the rest of these who are deceived, since they are deceived by him, but he creates his own deception himself."

St Augustine reminds us that Christ does not say "'The devil was naturally a stranger to the truth' but that 'The devil did not remain in the truth.'" The devil falls because "he refused to submit to his Creator and proudly exulted as if in a private lordship of his own. In this way he was deceived and deceiving." To encounter the demonic is to encounter a twisted fabric of truth offered in the service of falsehoods; freedom in the service of slavery; life, happiness, faith, hope and love in the service of death, sorrow, doubt, despair and hatred. The devil is a unity that service chaos.

The Apostle Paul reminds us that "we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Eph 6:12). St Jerome tells us in his commentary on Ephesians that

Satan has cleverly transformed himself into an angel of light. He is striving to persuade us to regard him as a messenger of goodness. This is how he throws his full weight into the struggle. He employs deceptive signs and lying omens. He sets before us every possible ruse of evil. Then, when he has so ensnared us that we trust him, he says to us, 'Thus says the Lord.' This is not flesh and blood deceiving us. It is not a typical human temptation. It is the work of principalities and powers, the rulers of darkness and spiritual wickedness.

There are two responses to this that we should avoid.

First, we might want to response with anxiety, or fear, or even terror and panic. While understandable, these are simply distractions. St Teresa of Ávila, the great reformer of monastic life in the West, says that we ought not to fear the devil because he is a poor and pitiful creature who does not even know how to love. Again, as Origen points out, the devil and the whole of the demonic order have first and foremost deceived themselves. There is no need for anxiety; much less is there any reason for fear, or terror, or panic.

The one thing I learned in my ministry with those who opened themselves to the occult and the demonic is that this whole darker realm is powerless against Christ and those who are in Christ. The demons, St Anthony the Great teaches, have only that power over us that God grants them. Any power they have beyond tempting us, they have because we have given it to them. Nothing the demons would tempt us with is true or will come true. If God gave them leave to do more than tempt us, then—greedy beings that they are—they would do that and leave behind in scorn even the possibility of doing us the lesser harm.

Second, and this for many years was my shortcoming more than the first, we ought not to dismiss St Paul's observation that we fight against evil spiritual beings. We ought not to doubt that there is evil. But this evil is not in the world, it comes from outside the world. Everything good in our life comes to us by God's grace, that is from outside of us. In a similar fashion everything wicked and evil comes from outside of us, that is, from the devil. In neither case are we without freedom or responsibility. Rather, in both cases we are called to exercise our true freedom and responsibility. Our freedom is the freedom to respond—to say "Amen!" or "No!" since in the face of divine grace and demonic temptations, both words are possibilities for us.

Curiously the more I realize that sin is first and foremost the human ratification of demonic deceptions, the easier it is for me to be both compassionate with others in their weakness, but also firmer in my unwillingness to collude with their sin.

Who among us has not been deceived? If even the devil has been deceived by the devil, who among us can truthfully say that he or she is free from deception? We must understand that we have all been deceived, and, in our own way, been the deceivers of self and others. This must be grasped if we are to have any compassion for each. At the same time we need to grasp our own sinfulness so that we do not, by our very compassion for one another, ratify and collude with evil. To paraphrase St John Chrysostom's words about the priest, more of us have fallen from compassion then lust.

Understanding and compassion are not meant to rob human beings of our freedom and responsibility—after all we are not simply victims, but also all of us victimizers. A true compassion and understanding will always see human freedom and responsibility within a wider context. Too often, and in an ironic imitation of the devil, we imagine that we human beings have "a private lordship," that somehow our rule of ourselves is absolute. It isn't. To quote Bob Dylan,

You may be an ambassador to England or France,
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance,
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world,
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

"The battle is not against flesh and blood or ordinary temptations," St Jerome observes. "The scene is the war of flesh against spirit. We are being incited to become entrapped in the works of the flesh." And what are these works?

Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal 5:19-21).

Compare the works of the flesh to the works of those who say "Amen!" to Christ: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law" (vv. 22-23).

In the end, the only real temptation I've ever encountered in my experiences with those who associate with the occult and the demonic is to forsake the "fruit of the Spirit." Lose that, and you cannot stand against the powers of darkness. As St Augustine says, "These spiritual fruits reign in one in whom sins does not reign. These good things reign if they are so delightful that they themselves uphold the mind in its trails from falling into consent to sin. For whatever gives us delight, this we necessarily perform."

The whole of the Church's sacramental and ascetical life has as a primary goal the fostering in us a delight in virtue and in the fruit of the Spirit—and in the face of this delight the occult and the demonic are revealed as they truly are, impotent.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

My Superpower

Your Superpower Should Be Manipulating Electricity

You're highly reactive, energetic, and super charged.
If the occasion calls for it, you can go from 0 to 60 in a split second.
But you don't harness your energy unless you truly need to.
And because of this, people are often surprised by what you are capable of.

Why you would be a good superhero: You have the stamina to fight enemies for days

Your biggest problem as a superhero: As with your normal life, people would continue to underestimate you

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A Man of Sorrows

In a comment on a recent post that examined the relationship between the life of the Church and the American character, Magdalena (a regular commentator on this blog) asks:

What interpersonal and social skills do you feel a priest should be required to master?

As I thought about the question, I looked to my own experience and to the fathers of the Church.

In a sermon on Matthew's Gospel, St John Chrysostom says that:

The person characterized by humility, gentleness, mercy and righteousness does not build a fence around good deeds. Rather, that one ensures that these good fountains overflow for the benefit of others. One who is pure of heart and a peacemaker, even when persecuted for the sake of the truth, orders his way of life for the common good.

Of all the things I think a priest needs, the ability to keep his attention focused on "the common good" of the community he serves is most important.

Contrary to what we often assume (and how some priests behave) the priest does not serve the common good because he has some privileged knowledge about God's will for the community. This is far from the case in fact.

Often the priest has less knowledge about what is going on in the parish then anyone. As a priest, I have come to know some communities and some parishioners very well. I have to admit that there are other communities and parishioners, I hardly knew at all. Sometimes this reflected indifference on either my part or theirs, but more often it simply reflected the inherent limitations of being human.

So if the priest doesn't "know better" or "know more" about what God wants from the parish, how does he serve the common good? What I've learned as priest is that I serve the common good first and foremost by my willingness to abide with people when they suffer. Let me explain.

Someone once asking me: "What do you like best about being a priest?"

I answered hearing confessions, sick calls and funerals. This surprised the person and they asked why I thought these were the best part of the priesthood. I told the person that everyone gets to go to weddings and baptisms, but the priest is the only one who is invited into those moments when a person stands vulnerable and ashamed before God. At that moment the priest is called to be a witness to God's mercy, love and forgiveness. It is nprecisely those moments in our life when we feel most estranged from God that the priest realizes most fully his office. As a result it is only through his willingness to abide with others in their suffering that the priest can hope to serve the common good of the parish.

Thinking about this I am reminded of the words of the prophet Isaiah. He says about the Messiah:

He is despised and rejected by men,/A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief./And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him;/He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.//Surely He has borne our griefs/ And carried our sorrows;/Yet we esteemed Him stricken,/Smitten by God, and afflicted.//But He was wounded for our transgressions,/He was bruised for our iniquities;/ The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,/ And by His stripes we are healed.//All we like sheep have gone astray;/ We have turned, every one, to his own way;/ And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.//He was oppressed and He was afflicted,/Yet He opened not His mouth;/ He was led as a lamb to the slaughter,/ And as a sheep before its shearers is silent,/ So He opened not His mouth (53.3-7).

Taking Isaiah at his word, and Christ as our model, the priest is despised, rejected, stricken, smitten, afflicted, wounded, bruised, chastised, oppressed, slaughtered, and silent. In a phrase, the priest is a man of sorrows.

This understanding is different than the image often presented to young men considering the priesthood. The vision of the priesthood is often glorious and noble, but just as often divorced from the witness of the Suffering Servant so beloved by Isaiah.

And Isaiah offers us a view of the priesthood than that which is typically expected by the parish and the bishop. Not unreasonably, we want priest to be well-educated, knowledgeable men who can preach, teach, and counsel.

While these are important, they aer all at the primary task of the priest: To bear with people in their suffering. The priest is a man of sorrows because he is called by Christ to suffer alongside people and bear witness to the mercy, love and forgiveness of God. And this he does especially in those moments when people are most in need of God and least likely to reach out to Him.

And this witness is always personal, it always points to human weakness and suffering. Suffering especially has a way of binding us together and it will bind the priest and the person together. Ideally this bond is a shared (if imperfect) openness to God's grace. If it isn't then, then human weakness and suffering come to dominate every thought, gesture, word and meeting. In the latter case, the priest soon discovers that even those who bear the Name of Christ will turn away from, and even turn against, him. And so, in his willingness to bear loneliness and even isolation and exile in the midst of the community, the priest is again a man of sorrows.

Again, because the witness is always personal, the priest's witness to the redeeming presence of God requires from him a willingness not to ignore, minimize or exploit the weakness of others. From my own experience I have discovered that this requires not only that I root out sin from my life (a never ending task to be sure), but that I also root out the myriad socially sanctioned lapses that allow me to overlook, and at time even exploit, other people.

The priest is called to suffer for his people, by suffering with his people. This suffering doesn't mean that the priest allows himself to be beat up—this serve no good purpose for the parishioner and only drains the priest of the strength he needs to care for others. The real suffering of the priest, the one "skill" he needs I think above all, is the ability to stand with people, often silently, and remind them that their suffering, their failure, and even their sinfulness, does not exhaust the meaning of their life.

And more importantly, he must bear witness to the great, redemptive truth that human physical and moral weakness does not negate the mercy, love and forgiveness of God.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Sunday, November 25, 2007

10,000 Hits!

Hurray! and Glory to God For All Things!

This site broke 10,000 hits today!

If it weren't the Christmas Fast, I'd say ice cream for everyone!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Because It Is Always Good To Laugh: Two Cats Talking

With a hat tip to Clement Ferguson!

First, watch the video:

Then watch the translation here: Cat Talking, Translation.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Friday, November 23, 2007

Our 'Post-ecclesiological' Age

At the web site of the Exarchate of Parishes of Russian Tradition in Western Europe (Ecumenical Patriarchate), there is a very interesting article "Our 'Post-ecclesiological' Age" by Archimandrite Grigorios (Papathomas). Archimandrite Grigorios is Professor of Canon Law and Dean of the St Sergius Theological Institute in Paris. According to the summary provided on the web site, Papathomas "argues that we live in a post-ecclesiological age due to our loss of sense of the local church belonging in a particular place. He also analyses the ways in which overlapping 'co-territorial' Churches define themselves by use of particular rites (Catholic), by confession (Protestant), or, in the case of the Orthodox, by ethnic origin." The article is on the longish side (22 pages) but well worth the effort to read. To give you a sense of his argument, let me offer you his conclusion. He writes that

In our multicultural societies today cultural demands are more comprehensible than the feeble ontological answers provided by the Churches. The Churches will have to choose whether to preserve the Pauline ecclesiology of the New Testament that guided them for fifteen centuries, or to give in to the confessional, ritualist, cultural or nationalist demands of this post-ecclesiological age. These demands have unquestionably determined the established ecclesiology of this present age – and by the look of things - of the future as well. In the latter case, the Church of Christ will be the fifth wheel of the wagon, tragically trailing behind the worldly progress of the nations rather than leading them along the path to the eschaton already traced out by the Resurrection (Rev 22:20). The fault will lie with the Churches themselves.

I would encourage you to download and read the entire article. One of the great challenges facing the Orthodox Church, especially in the United States and Western Europe, is the multiplication of ethnic jurisdictions.

Papathomas's analysis is spot I think. The reality we face is that Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christians have all embraced a radically unbiblical ecclesiology. Fr Grigorios's theme is also addressed in a less historical, more systematic fashion by Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) in his work Being as Communion, and earlier (from a more liturgical viewpoint) throughout the work of the late Fr Alexander Schmemann. All three argue that the Church of Jesus Christ is always the Church of a particular place and that the celebration of the Eucharist—whatever the liturgical rite used—is a gathering of the Body in that locale.

The historical, canonical, liturgical and dogmatic implications of this view of ecclesiology are beyond me I'm afraid. My own interests are more pastoral and applicative. As we discuss in these pages the life of the parish in the tradition of the Orthodox Church, I cannot help wondering: How well do we express even the "limited" fullness of even those who are gathered for a parochial celebration of the Eucharist? Do we make room for the diverse gifts, spiritual as well as cultural, that are present in a given parish?

Often it seems to me, we try to limit the gifts to those that fit our preconception of the parish. Usually this means keeping the parish's Greek, or Russian, or Serbian flavor. But, and just as often, it can mean keeping the American flavor by excluding, or at least limiting, all things Greek, or Russian, or Serbian. My concern here is not ethnic or linguistic per se. Rather I offer these examples because they highlight what I would call (for lack of a better term) a pastoral myopia. We can see what is close to us, what we recognize essential like "us." But what is different, what requires from me that I stretch myself that I transcend my own understanding of the Church—that I can't see so well.

In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus talks about the word of God being scattered like seed. Different areas bring different harvests—but the seed that fell "good ground and yielded a crop that sprang up, increased and produced: some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred" (Mark 4.8). In His explanation of the parable Jesus tells us explicitly that the seed "sown on good ground, [represent] those who hear the word, accept it, and bear fruit: some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred" (v. 20).

When we exclude the spiritual or culture gifts of others, we not only dishonor them, we rebel against Christ and condemn ourselves since it is Christ Who gave those gifts through the Holy Spirit. One of the first steps I think to bring our ecclesiological practice in line with the biblical witness and the canonical tradition is learning, on the parish level, to make room for each other and the different gifts we bring. This means more than simply passive acceptance or non-interference; there are no roommates in the House of God. We need to actively seek out and cultivate our personal gifts and the gifts given to the other members of our parish. And given that multicultural reality of modern society is increasingly fragmented, this means finding a way in our parishes to be together from our different cultural backgrounds without falling not tribalism or covert hostility is a necessary part of our evangelistic mission.

As always, your questions, thoughts and comments are not only welcome, but actively sought.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Which Father Am I?

You’re Origen!

Check out Origen, Prayer, Exhortation to Martyrdom for more information on Origen.

You do nothing by half-measures. If you’re going to read the Bible, you want to read it in the original languages. If you’re going to teach, you’re going to reach as many souls as possible, through a proliferation of lectures and books. If you’re a guy and you’re going to fight for purity … well, you’d better hide the kitchen shears.

Find out which Church Father you are at The Way of the Fathers!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

House Keeping

After trying various ways of tracking comments, I have settled (I think) on HaloScan. This will allow me not only to track but (when needed) ban spammers. Your earlier comments are all still on my blog, but it will be sometime before I can import them. I do have them all in my gmail account should you have a burning desire to see what you wrote.

Also, please notice that on the right hand side underneath site hits, you will see a column that shows the recent comments. Hopefully this will encourage more lively discussions among us.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Metropolitan John (Zizoulas) On Primacy

In light of our conversation on the Orthodox understanding of primacy and the Ravenna statement of Catholic/Orthodox relations, I thought this interview with His Eminence Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) might be of interest. The interview appeared in the September 2005 edition of 30Days, an Roman Catholic news magazine.

In the interview His Eminence does a good job of laying out the history and rational for the various Orthodox responses to the question of primacy in the Church.

To read the interview please click here: "Where the Eucharist Is, There is the Catholic Church."

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory
clipped from
Where the Eucharist is, there is the Catholic Church
Catholics must take seriously the notion of the full Catholicity
of the local Church promoted by Vatican Council II, and must apply it to their ecclesiology». Ioannis Zizioulas, Metropolitan of Pergamum, takes stock of the debate between Catholics and Orthodox regarding the primacy.

by Gianni Valente
Above, Benedict XVI with Ioannis Zizioulas, head of the delegation of the Ecumenic Patriarchate of Constantinople, come to Rome on the feastday of Saints Peter and Paul, 29 June 2005; down, Bartholomew I in prayer before the Confession of Saint Peter in the Vatican Grottos, 29 June 2004
blog it

Friday, November 16, 2007

Some More Thoughts on Ravenna

I wrote this in response to a question emailed me regarding the recent Catholic/Orthodox Joint International Theological Committees statement on ecclesiology. I offer this for your consideration and, as always, I welcome your comments. The complete text of the Ravenna statement can be found on my blog:

In Christ,


Reading through the Ravenna statement on ecclesiology, I find it to be well balanced and consistent with an Orthodox understanding of the Church. Rightly understood, and the document addresses this, there is not a single primacy in the Church, but rather primacies. Moving from the "bottom up," each primacy becomes part of a synod with its own primate, who in terms is in another, more expansive synod with its own primate, etc. Moving from the "top down," these different levels of primacy nest in each other—each primate having a responsibility to care for the primacy of those in the "lower" level.

For example, in our own spiritual lives, we have primacy—we are autonomous (we are NOT isolated from one another; autonomy does not negate our mutual dependence on one another). Self-rule for persons and Churches is what makes it possible our free participate in every larger community: the family, the parish, the diocese, the universal Church. On each level, there is a primacy, the family, the husband; the parish, the pastor; the diocese, the bishop; the national church, the patriarch. In the Ravenna document, the Bishop of Rome (assuming reconciliation between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches) is primate within the synod of the Pentarchy (the Five Patriarchs of Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandra and Jerusalem).

Moving from the more universal to the more particular, each primate is called upon to both lead and protect those among whom he is first: the person for his or her own spiritual life, the husband/father for his wife and children, the priest for his parishioners, the bishop for his diocese, the patriarch to his synod of bishops, the Pope of Rome (again, assuming reconciliation) for the Patriarchal Synod.

What makes this particular document interesting is (1) this is the first time the Orthodox have been willing to discuss the question of papal primacy AND (2) this is the first time the Roman Catholic Church has been willing to discuss the question of papal primacy within an explicitly synodal structure.

How seriously ought we to take all of this? It really depends on what we mean by "serious."

Certainly there is much more to be discussed between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches so the Orthodox ought not to receive Holy Communion from Roman Catholic priests, nor should Catholics approach the Holy Chalice in Orthodox parishes. Everybody ought to go to his or her own Church this weekend please!

But, Ravenna does represent a significant convergence of East and West that, if God so wills, can bear the short-term fruit of better understanding of Catholics and Orthodox.

As I have said in other venues, before the Great Schism can be healed we—Orthodox Christians and Catholics—must desire reconciliation. For that desire to be born in our hearts we need at least some mutual understanding or sympathy for each other's ecclesiology. On that score, I think, the Ravenna document represents a significant advance in Catholic/Orthodox ecumenical relations.

And as for the future, well that belongs to God and He will bring about the end of the Schism in His time and according to His good plans and purposes.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The American Character and the Life of the Church

We have been thinking together here on these pages about the parochial ministry of the Orthodox Church in the United States. In the December 2007 issue of First Things, I came upon the following observation (and caution) in an article written by the historian Mark Noll. In "America's Two Foundings," (subscription required) he writes:

the strength of religion in American history has been its voluntary organization, religious organizations would be well advised to guard carefully their voluntary character while they carry out their religious and social missions. With the prospect of ­government assistance to faith-based organizations in view, churches and other religious bodies would be wise to adopt the advice of A.B. Simpson, which he offered to his Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination when it faced the question of speaking in tongues. Simpson's advice was to "seek not, forbid not." The strength of America's voluntary religious heritage is not imperiled by a small measure of government funding, but it will be imperiled if religious groups insist on that funding and come to rely on that funding for their existence. Religion in America flourished when it was most acutely aware of corruption from state entanglement; it has always exerted its most beneficial public effects in the shape of the NGO.

While many Orthodox theologians, notable the late Fr Alexander Schmemann, have criticized the volunteeristic character of Christianity in America, such complaints, in my own opinion, miss the mark almost entirely. Let me explain.

I would concede that there is a great danger in assuming that we choose the Gospel in much the same way we choose to purchase this automobile rather than that one. The Gospel is not simply one consumer product among many—but is in fact the way of salvation and a participation in the divine life. So with Schmemann I would say, no, we do not (strictly speaking) choose the Gospel anymore than we choose Christ. Rather, Christ chooses us, He chooses me, even as He calls me to commit myself to the Gospel, to take up my cross and to follow Him.

What Noll is concerned with in the passage cited above, is with religious institutions (and not simply Christian churches) surrendering their independence to federal and states governments through an institutional alliance between church and state. The best way for churches, as he says, to exert "beneficial public effects" is to remain free from "state entanglements." It is in this second sense that, at its very best, American Christianity is described as volunteeristic. In the American experiment, religious commitment is free from civil compulsion.

The hallmarks of American Christianity—and I think of an American approach to all things religious and spiritual—emerged in the first half of the 19th century. Noll writes (with my emphasis):

The American religion that flourished so luxuriantly in the first sixty years of the nineteenth century was republican: It had internalized the fear of unchecked authority and the commitment to private virtue that drove the ideology of the first political founding. But it was also Christian republican: The virtue that the United States' energetic itinerants promoted was not classical manliness but humility in Christ. The religion that came to prevail was more antiformal than formal. It did not trust in ascribed authority or inherited bureaucracies but rather in achieved authority and ad hoc networking. It was populist or democratic, championing the ability of any white man to assume leadership in any religious assembly. And it was biblicist, speaking of the Scriptures as a supreme authority that trumped or even revoked all other religious authorities.

While some aspects are now suspect (specifically the "championing of any white man to assume leadership in any religious assembly") in the main the events that unfolded the first half of the 19th century have come "to shape all of American society by the standards of evangelical religion. Most remarkably, evangelicals even conquered the South, where an honor-driven culture of manly self-assertion had presented a far less propitious field for labor than regions to the North where the Puritan leaven survived."

Looking at Noll's analysis, and reflecting as well on my own experiences as a Roman Catholic, I find his words most instructive for me now as an Orthodox priest. If an Evangelical mindset could conquer the "honor-drive culture of manly self-assertion" of the American South of the late 18th and early 19th century, is it reasonable to assume that it will not make inroads into the contemporary Church? Indeed, hasn't Orthodoxy here in American, as with the Roman Catholic Church for that matter, already taken on many of the qualities that Noll's associates with Evangelicalism?

Voluntarism was a mind-set keyed to innovative leadership, proactive public advocacy, and entrepreneurial goal setting. Voluntarism also became an extraordinarily influential practice that began with church organization and then mushroomed to inspire local and national mobilization on behalf of myriad social and political causes. Voluntarism also became a foundation for the strength, and weakness, of American society as a whole. Local civilization would be built as local groups and individuals enlisted to address local needs. Not government, not an inherited church, not the dictates of big business, but enterprising connections—forged voluntarily—built American civilization in the decades before the Civil War.

Reading Noll's I can't help but think—as more than one Orthodox seminarian has mentioned to me—while the Orthodox Church has maintained a connection with an incredibly rich past we are rather consistently failing in our ability to connect that past with our present situation. Ours is a sublime theology entrusted all too often to ministers who social and interpersonal skills fall far short of the poetry of faith. This dissonance between content and character is pastorally fatal in an American context.

American culture is marked by a real humility. Granted sometimes this humility takes on an unhealthy form (for example, a moral or theological relativism/indifference, superficiality, an uncritical egalitarianism, or an anti-intellectualism), but in the main American culture from the 19th century on has been marked by a combination of moral idealism and practical and personal philanthropy (think for example of the Peace Corps or VISTA). Many Orthodox, and including those who joined the Church as adults, simply misunderstand the anti-authoritarianism, the antiformalism, and populism of American culture. These "-ism's," are not inherently ideological. Rather they are in the service of American idealism and practical philanthropy.

For better and worse, American culture is concerned with the contribution that I can make personally. Are my hands dirty and calloused through service to my neighbor?

This "commitment to private virtue," is not (necessarily anyway) a radical individualism. It is rather grounded in the anthropological conviction that any society, secular or religious, is composed of persons. Thinking about this for a moment, I realize how could it be otherwise? Whatever its immediate founding principles, aren't all human society, more or less, a reflection of the Divine Society of the Holy Trinity?

That American evangelical society stresses private virtue does not mean that it is necessarily opposed to the tradition of the Orthodox Church. If anything it is precisely this radical rejection of "ascribed authority" and "inherited bureaucracies" in American culture that challenges the Church to recapture for herself the primacy of virtue in the life of the Church. At their best, American Evangelical sensibilities, the personal and cultural commitment to humility, volunteerism, idealism and commitment to practical philanthropy, will buy those in positions of leadership (and again, secular or religious, Christian or non-Christian, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant or Evangelical) a certain deference. But as recent history demonstrates, and again secular and religious, there are limits.

If leaders prove themselves hostile, or even indifferent, to virtues of American Evangelical character, they will simply forfeit all credibility with an American audience. And again, precisely because American culture is practical, words alone are not enough.

Indeed, words alone are suspect.

An enduring concern for the practical and the virtue of prudence in the American character is an echo of the second chapter of the Epistle James. After discussing the necessity of personal virtue, and above all showing no partiality toward the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and the weak (how very American!), the Apostle comes right to the point:

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Depart in peace, be warmed and filled," but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, "You have faith, and I have works." Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also (vv. 14-26).

Reflecting as we have been on the life of the parish in the Orthodox Church, it seems to me we would do well to embrace—as a culture protoevangelium—the best of the American character. And not only that; just as the early Church's willingness to embraced and then transfigured of Greek thought, allowed her to find new ways of proclaiming the Gospel that is "ever ancient, ever new," might not American culture likewise provide us with new evangelical and pastoral opportunities?

Are we willing, as St Augustine was in his own way and in his time, to find that God is here, in America, waiting for us to discover Him and respond to His call to repent of our sins? I'll leave you with that thought and Augustine's own words from The Confessions:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Monday, November 12, 2007

“What’s Wrong With Us?”

Just a reminder (and a bit of shameless self-promotion) I will be speaking tomorrow evening (13 November) at the Youngstown-Warren chapter of the Society of St John Chrysostom. The title of my presentation is "What's Wrong With Us? Thoughts on Why East/West Christian Relationships are Difficult." The meeting, which is free and open to the public, starts at 7pm and is being hosted by St Mary Byzantine Catholic Church, 7782 Glenwood Ave, Boardman, OH.

For more information about either the meeting or the Society of St John Chrysostom, please call 330.755.5635.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory










TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 13, 2007, 7 P.M.













(FOR INFORMATION CALL: 330-755-5635)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Pondering God's Mercy

The following is an excerpt from the sermon preached today at Holy Incarnation Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church. Using the propers for Gregorian Use parishes in the Western Rite Vicariate, the sermon is based on the Gospel reading for the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost.

Hat tip to Fr John Fenton at Conversi ad Dominum.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The book of Job invites us to ponder this age-old question: Why do bad things happen to good people? Yet as we enter into the conversation with Job, as we listen to the deliberations between righteous Job and his unrighteous friends, as we hear our own voices in Job's searching and also in the searing arguments of his so-called friends, we might begin to understand that the real question is not why bad things happen to good people, but rather why the Lord gives good to anyone. For when the words of Job are ended, when he is exhausted and is out of words, when the Lord finally gets his say, then we hear the rat-a-tat-tat of rhetorical questions—questions all designed to ask one thing: Why am I, the Lord and Maker of all things, why am I good? And merciful? And kind?

Job has no answer. And neither do we. But notice the question. It is not the self-centered question we ask: the question about why God lets us or makes us suffer; or why the all-knowing God doesn't stop the suffering. That is the lesser question because it begins with us, and it is the product of our pride. With it, we presume to question God. And by questioning God we implicitly blame Him. And by questioning God, we go nowhere.

But the question God asks; the question that spring not from us but from Him—this question does not lead us nowhere, but leads us to consider all that we have and all that we are. God's question—Why am I merciful?—that question leads us not to wallow in our misery, but to reflect upon the Lord, and the manifold ways in which He deigns to have mercy, and—most importantly—why He has mercy at all. For with the patriarch Jacob we must say, "I am not worthy of the least of all thy mercies, and of thy truth which thou hast showed to thy servant." (Gen 32.10) And yet, even as we repeat these words, even as we hear ourselves say, "Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest enter under my roof,"—with those words we must admit that the Lord inexplicably has mercy on us; that He graciously gives us what we do not deserve; that He kindly overlooks our sins and does not deal with us as we deal with each other; and that He not only has mercy, but even also is mercy.

And then, with the patriarch Job, we have nothing left to say except: I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes; for I know that You can do every thing, and that no thought can be withheld from You. And with St. Paul, we can only acclaim the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God.

As we acclaim the Lord's wisdom; as we proclaim that all wisdom is from the Lord God (Sir 1.1); as we confess that the Lord's foolishness exceeds our wisest wisdom—then, perhaps, we will begin to understand the point Our Lord is making in today's parable.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

A Problem Solving Approach to Ministry?

Kathryn Britton, a software engineer and professional coach has an essay at Positive Psychology that addresses some of the concerned that we have discussed here regarding the character of parish ministry. She writes about how "appreciative inquiry" can help communities make "transformational instead of incremental change" in their shared life. For those who are unfamiliar with appreciative inquiry, until our more typical approach to change which focuses "on what is wrong or broken," appreciative inquiry is a systematic search "for the best in people, their organizations and the world around them." Rather than looking "for the problem, [doing] a diagnosis, and [then working to] find a solution," appreciative inquiry directs our attention to "what gives a system 'life' when it is most effective and capable in economic, ecological, and human terms." Appreciative inquiry involves the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system's capacity to heighten positive potential. It mobilizes inquiry through crafting an 'unconditional positive questions often involving hundreds or sometimes thousands of people.'" (D.L. & Whitney, D., "Appreciative Inquiry: A positive revolution in change." In P. Holman & T. Devane (eds.), The Change Handbook, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., pages 245-263) In a word, ," appreciative inquiry stresses a "cooperative" approach to community life that begins with a community's strength and seeks, to borrow from St Paul, to help them go "from glory to glory."

So how do we proceed with an appreciative inquiry? Well, Britton writes,

The first step is Discovery, figuring out what is already strong and resourceful in the system, often surprising the people involved. The second is to Dream, to collect aspirations for the future. The third is to Design, to invent ways to reach our aspirations from where we are right now. The fourth step is Destiny, putting our innovations into practice, practice, practice. Let me say a little more about Discovery and Design for sustainability.

Because we typically proceed along the problem solving approach to parish life, if we ever do look at our strengths (the Discovery stage) we do so in terms of the problem or problems we are trying to solve. There certainly is value in doing this, especially when we are in a crisis. But the potential difficulty of approaching our strengths in terms of our problems is that it narrows our understanding of our abilities. This happens in a two-fold manner.

First, looking at strengths in light of our problems, tend to limit how we use our strengths. For example, I am generally considered a reasonably good counselor. At the core of counseling is the ability to listen and understand the other person. Especially important is the ability to transcend sympathy, a feeling for the other person, to empathy, a feeling along with the person, (or compassion). If I only use my counseling skills for problem solving, then I will look at people primarily in terms of their weaknesses. No matter how effective I might be in any particular conversation with them this approach teaches them that they are only "valuable" or interesting to me in terms of their shortcomings. Slowly but surely, my relationships with the people I am called to serve will be structured in terms of power: "I'll only talk to you or pay attention to you if you come to me in need or poverty, so that I (who am rich and gifted) can make you better."

Not only does this slowly but surely result in my crippling the person or community I am trying to serve, it also results in my coming to a very unrealistic—wrong actually—view of myself. In parishes it is not uncommon for clergy and congregates to fall into just this pattern. When this happens, rather than lifting each other up, rather than helping each other grow in the life of grace, each subtly minimize the other. And so, not unreasonably, each begins to resent the other. Instead of growing in love, we grow further and further apart. Not unlike the married couple who, somewhere along the way, simply stopped communicating, the parish community simply evaporates, vanishes.

When resentment sets in the life of the parish becomes merely routine. Because we do not experience each other as life giving, we stop giving ourselves one to another. This doesn't mean that the parish isn't active. Quite the contrary in my experience; if we do not experience each other as life-giving, but only as problem solvers, we frantically begin to generate problems so that we can solve them together. This is tragic. The men and women in the parish, the clergy and the laity, who unite around problem solving, even if it is done in a manner that is wholly positive and strife free, never really come to know each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. The priest, for all his skill and for all the positive sentiment that may surrounds his office, is never seen as a father in Christ. Mere ritual replaces Liturgy, and social convention replaces the life of Christian virtue.

Maybe quickly, maybe slowly, the parish dies. Maybe it dies with drama and conflict; more likely it dies through attrition and with the cry: "Oh Father! All the young people have moved away! There's not work here, there's nothing for the young. They can't build a life here." While this is often expressed in terms of worldly economics, it is also almost always the confession of a parish that has ceased to be a community, it is the confession of men and women who have lost, or maybe never even knew, the ability in Christ to be life-giving.

This leads second difficulty of a problem-solving approach to ministry: When we focus on problems, not only do we limit our understanding of the gifts we know we have, we blind ourselves to the gifts we have yet to discover in ourselves and others. Problem solving not only limit how we exercise our gifts, it limits the gifts we can imagine exercising.

Let me explain.

Often people come to the parish with only a vague sense of the life to which Christ has called them. If we have narrowed that life even further to only a very particular of range gift necessary or the problems we think need to be solved (typically fundraising since, after all, "The church needs money Father!") we tend not even to notice that someone is a gifted teacher or evangelist, to say nothing of a prophet or miracle worker. And if these gifts are exercised at all, we tend to overlook them or, if we do recognize them, we try to put them to at the service of our own agenda rather than use them as God intends.

In either case, the person does not find the parish life giving. Indeed, in this second case, the person is likely to experience the parish as an increasing source of frustration. And very quickly this frustration grows into a vague, and sometimes not so vague, sense of anger and humiliation at being overlooked and unappreciated. It is not uncommon for people whose gifts are overlooked because they do not correspond to the problems we wish to solve to simply walk away. This at least has been my experience as a pastor.

So what are we to do? How do we focus on building on our strengths? I'll address that in my next post. This weekend I'm presenting a workshop at conference in Pennsylvania and so I am unlikely to be able to post until Monday or Tuesday. Given that I have one talk and a series of radio interviews to do next week, it might be longer than that before I can return to this topic. Between today and when I can return to the topic at hand, I would invite, nah eagerly hope for, comments and suggestions based on what I've written today to help me sketch out a strength based approached to parish ministry.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Out of the Oooze

If you are interested in purchasing the book I recently contributed to, you can do so by clicking this link to the publisher's web page: Out of the Ooze.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

USAToday: Sen. Grassley probes televangelists' finances

This is an interesting article that I thought was worth reflecting on. There does come a point when Caesar, though granted for his own reasons, casts an investigative eye at Christians. If we do not keep our house in order, then we must expect God to make use of the civil authority to chastise us even as He used Babylon to chasten did Israel. We cannot afford to say, as some Christian groups have said, that the morality of our leaders—clerical or lay—is a purely internal matter. Like it or not, Christians are called to be the "light of the world" and "a city on a hill." It is to us, our good works and our love for one another, that is meant to shine plainly so that—seeing us and the character and integrity of our lives—the world might come to believe that Jesus Christ is Lord.

This does not mean that there is no privacy in the Christian life. But our respect for privacy and especially the dignity of the human person who, having fallen struggles to rise from sin, is not meant to excuse wrong doing. The Quaker community was so effective in the fight against slavery in Ante-Bellum America because it first made sure that no Quaker owned slaves. Rightly the world expects Christians to hold to the moral code we preach. Our failure to do so undermines not only our witness to the Gospel, it endangers our salvation.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The Associated Press. Acting on tips about preachers who ride in Rolls Royces and have purportedly paid $30,000 for a conference table, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee said Tuesday he's investigating the finances of six well-known TV ministers.

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa said those under scrutiny include faith healer Benny Hinn, Georgia megachurch pastor Creflo Dollar and one of the nation's best known female preachers, Joyce Meyer.

Grassley sent letters to the half-dozen Christian media ministries earlier this week requesting answers by Dec. 6 about their expenses, executive compensation and amenities, including use of fancy cars and private jets.

In a statement, Grassley said he was acting on complaints from the public and news coverage of the organizations.

"The allegations involve governing boards that aren't independent and allow generous salaries and housing allowances and amenities such as private jets and Rolls Royces," Grassley said.

Read more:
Sen. Grassley probes televangelists' finances

No Suprises Here . . .

Your Inner European is Irish!

Sprited and boisterous!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Eighth Sunday of Luke (Luke 10:25-37)

Luke 10:25-37

And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?" So he answered and said, "'You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,' and 'your neighbor as yourself.' "And He said to him, "You have answered rightly; do this and you will live." But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Then Jesus answered and said: "A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, 'Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.' So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves? And he said, "He who showed mercy on him." Then Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

St Augustine writes:

God our Lord wished to be called our neighbor. The Lord Jesus Christ meant that He was the one who gave help to the man lying half-dead on the road, beaten and left by the robbers. The prophet said in prayer: "As a neighbor and as one's own brother, so did I please" (Ps 34.14). Since divine nature is far superior and above our human nature, the command by which we are to love God is distinct from our love of neighbor. He shows mercy to us because of His own goodness, while we show mercy to one another because of God's goodness. He has compassion on us so that we may enjoy Him completely, while we have compassion on another that we may completely enjoy Him (Christian Instruction, 33).

At the center of human life is the compassion and mercy of God. These are not at the center of our lives because we are sinners. While they certainly do reflect God's gracious care for us in our sinfulness, we error if we imagine them to be merely the response of God to us. No, divine compassion and mercy what calls us "out of nonexistence into being" as we pray in the Liturgy of St Basil. God's mercy and compassion are that which cause me to be rather than not be.

To borrow philosophical language, I am constituted in all my uniqueness by God's mercy and compassion.

Part of the struggle we have as sinners is that we forget that our existence is the free gift of God. I do not own my own life; life comes to me from outside as a grace. Grace, in this sense, is not something added to me, as if it were possible for me to exist separate from God. Grace, like mercy and compassion, is what makes it possible for me to exist at all.

Too easily we reduce mercy and compassion to a mere response—as if God feels sorry for us. We likewise tend to imagine mercy and compassion in our own lives as a mere response—something I offer to you in your moment of need or you offer to me. But in either case, mercy and compassion are otherwise optional, something transitory rather than that which makes me to be, well, me.

St Augustine is clear, God show mercy to me because He is good, and my own acts of mercy reflect not any transitory need in my neighbor, much less any moral superiority on my part. Rather, mercy and compassion find their true meaning and value as my response to God's goodness. If I am merciful or compassionate at all, it is not because you are in need (though your need ought to matter to me) or because I am virtuous (though I should strive for virtue). If I am merciful or compassionate at all it is first and foremost because God is good.

None of this should be taken to mean that we are not in need. We are. But our need is precisely this: In each moment of our lives we depend absolutely on God and relatively on each other. For to be human means to always and everywhere be in need; I am always depend on God and my neighbor.

My dependence on God and neighbor is the context out of which arises everything that is good in my life. This is why Augustine can say with such conviction that the fruit of God's consideration of us in our weakness is joy and that our own personal entrance into a joyful life found only through our compassion one for another.

The great tragedy of sin is not that it makes me a "bad person" in a narrow moral sense. The tragedy, the horror, of sin is that I am willing to be a "good person" who uses my moral goodness to justify my refuse to participate in the web of human interdependence that is my life. This is what we see in the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan. In their indifference to the man who they found naked and beaten on the side of the road they revealed themselves as the true thieves in the story.

But what did they take?

In leaving the man on the side of the road, they not only failed to care for him in his great need, they also robbed the man and themselves of joy. More to the point, through their lack of compassion and mercy, they revealed themselves as joyless. Like the thieves, they imagined that a good life, a satisfying life, could be had separate from their neighbor. That they no doubt justified their indifference by an appeal to religious obligations or some other lofty motive only reveals the depth of their own depravity.

Ironically, it the Samaritan, the one outside the Chosen People, who reveals himself to be the one in whom "the life of Jesus [is] manifested in . . . mortal flesh (2 Cor 4:11). Whatever may have been his life until that point, when he reached out to care for the man fallen among thieves, he made manifest the mercy, compassion, and joy that are the hallmark of the Christian life.

Unfortunately for many of us these three are often lacking in us. For many of us who carry the Name above every other name, being Christian has become identified with any and everything under the sun but mercy, compassion and joy.

Let me illustrate what I mean by offering you some thoughts about how I have come to understand what it means for me to be a priest.

For most of my 11 or so years as an Orthodox priest, I have served people and communities more on the margin than the center of the life. While not without its struggles, frustrations and disappointments, I don't think I would have had it any other way. Though not without their own sins, those who are on the margin of society, or for that matter the life of the Church, are often more open to mercy of God than people more secure in their social or ecclesiastic position.

As a priest I have been entrusted by God and His Church with a great gift. Standing on the margins, sometimes willingly, sometimes not, I have come to realize that in each moment of my priesthood, the exercise of this gift is dependent upon the good will, the trust, of other human beings. I cannot become "great," If you will, unless I am willing to care for my needy neighbor. But more than that, I also have come to realize I must acknowledge my need for my neighbor.

While not in any manner denying the necessity of God's grace, I have come to realize that part of that grace, is the trust of others. It is only the trust of others that make it possible for me to be a priest. Without the invitation from others to serve them, what am I? Without the willingness of others to open to me the door of their heart, there is no value to the gift of the priesthood. And woe to me if, by word or deed, by action or inaction, by desire or indifference, I close myself off to that invitation. Worse still is my condition, if I discourage others from opening to me the door of their heart.

God in His mercy and compassion has not simply called us into being, He has called us to entrust ourselves to Him and to one another. The Samaritan in the parable grasped this and so becomes for us a figure of Christ. The challenge before each of us, before me, is whether or not I can accept that nothing good in me is mine apart from the grace of God and the trust of my neighbor.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Because it is good to laugh: The Dead Parrot Sketch

The famous "Dead Parrot" sketch from Monty Python's Flying Circus.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Thoughts on the Spirituality of Disagreement

From Peter Gilbert's blog, De Unione Ecclesiarum, a selection from a sermon by Patriarch John (Bekkos):

For if simplicity of faith had always prevailed, perhaps people throughout the world would have had no other identifying mark of their cultic, religious differences than the fact that some of them, through baptism, have been sealed with the seal of Christ while others remain unenlightened, with no participation in grace; thus, it would have sufficed that someone be called a Christian for that person to be known, by that very fact, to occupy the heights of godliness; between the name "Christian" and the summit of godliness, there would have been no gap. Such a supreme good would have been seen in all Christians, if multifarious differences over theology had not produced innovations, both in doctrine and in the Christian name, with each heresy offering, as a sort of common name for its adherents, the name of its founder. In this way, doctrinal variety has led to a loss of blessedness for many. For what is more blessed than that all who are called by the name of Christ be adorned with a single glory of faith? so that, as far as faith is concerned, the words "mine" and "yours" — those cold terms that banish godly concord — would not be known in the Church of Christ, neither this person belonging to Paul, that one to Apollos, that one to Cephas; but all would be of Christ and would consider each other as belonging to a single Body, joined and brought together into a common, connatural bond and referred together to a single Head, Christ.
Thinking about this, I realize that heresy harms not simply the heretic that leaves, but is also a great temptation for those who stay in the Church. Even if the matter is not one of heresy, not one of doctrinal disagreement in the strict sense, as Patriarch John suggests, responding to disagreements can bring about a lack of balance in our own spiritual life:
It would have been truly a blessing if the preaching of the Gospel had forever shone brilliantly in Christ's Church in all its unspeculative simplicity. It would have been genuinely salvific if the seal imprinted by the invocation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit upon those undergoing regeneration through baptism had been seen by all as the one and only seal of godliness. But since Sextuses and Pyrrhons (I mean those people who, at various times, have discredited the true teachings by their argumentation) have thrown ecclesiastical matters so far off center that, on the one hand, unspeculative simplicity of faith now appears as stupidity to our theological connoisseurs and religious intelligentsia, and those who know no more than their confession of faith in the Holy Trinity are scarcely counted as belonging to our religion, while, on the other hand, variety and hyper-speculation in doctrinal matters are considered a form of wisdom and of nearness to God, perished is the blessedness of simplicity of faith, perished is the common salvation which was expected to be enjoyed once and for all by all who are imprinted with the seal of baptism; for theological divergence over the Trinity, united above all reason, and theoretical variety over the Unity, ineffably made Three, have splintered the Christian people into competing denominations.
Does this mean we should not contest for the faith delivered once and forever to the saints (see Jude 1.3-4)? No. But it does mean that our conversations about the faith, especially when they touch on matters about which we disagree, needs to be entered into with great care. Absent this care, and at times even with it, we can too easily lose our balance. As I told someone just this weekend, it is a sin to just be smart, even as it is a sin to turn our back on the great intellectual tradition of the Church.

We need to find a point of balance least we sacrifice one virtue for another and thereby sink into a life of vice cloaked in godliness but devoid of it.

If we are to engage each other about our disagreements, and for reasons of charity and practicality we must, we must do so in a manner that fosters godliness in ourselves and those with whom we dispute. This I think is not only an imperative in ecumenical dialog, but also in our internal conversations with the others members of the Church.

Often, to take one example near and dear to my heart (and which I mentioned in my interviews for faculty positions at both St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology), our conversations in parishes do not have little if, anything, to do with godliness. How many of us are better off as a result of our conversations about the things we disagree over? Is a growth in godliness, for myself and the person I'm speaking with, even a concern? Or is it more a matter of proving that I'm right, or at least that you are wrong?

Paul reminds us that divisions are inevitable in the Church. But he also reminds us that the occasion of these divisions, the occasion of our disagreements, will also reveal who among us is really faithful to Christ (see 1 Corinthians 11:19).

I wonder how often in my conversations with others, and especially when we disagree, I reveal myself faithful to Christ? And I wonder, and especially when I'm in the right, how often do I serve the growth in holiness of the person with whom I am arguing?

Like I said, Patriarch John's words have got me thinking.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Two New Blog Links

Jason Zahariades, one of the contributors to Out of the Ooze, has a blog that might be of interest to many of the people who read Koinonia. I linked his blog, First Take the Blog Out Your Own Eye on my own list of blogs.

Also added is Clement Ferguson's odox. Clement, who I got to know when I was the OCF chaplain at Pitt/CMU in Pittsburgh and whose wedding to Sara I served earlier this year, writes about his blog is "Dedicated to Orthodox Christianity" and is a way for him " to share what I'm discovering, and hopefully guide others."

If you have a moment, do take a look at Jason and Clement's blogs and tell them Father Gregory say "Hey!"

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory