Wednesday, December 31, 2008

It Is Your Confession, But It Is My Sin—Part II

Taking the saints advice to heart, and thinking about my own earlier work as a therapist, I think it is when he is confronted with "new" sins (or at least sins new to him), that the character, natural talents and spiritual gifts of the confessor are put to the test. It is because of moments such as these that, I at least, have come to appreciate more and more the sacrifice made by soldiers who train for, and participate in, combat.

The soldier trains for war; he learns how to kill his neighbor efficiently. And he learns his art (ideally at least) with a fairly high degree of dispassion and self-possession, that is he learns to fight and kill without anger because he has fostered in himself the virtue of courage.

All this the soldier does not as an end in itself but on behalf of others, his nation, his family and friends, and for those who he will never met and who will in some cases even resent his sacrifice.

The warrior's sacrifice's his life for his nation. Even if he never goes to war, but certainly if he does, he comes to see himself in new ways, as one able and willing to kill. This carries with it a great, almost unimaginable, moral risk. And it is bearing this moral risk that is the heart of his sacrifice.

As with the warrior trained for battle, likewise with the confessor.

When he encounters in others sins that are unknown to him he most find in himself some understanding, some point of convergence between himself, his own struggles and failures, and the life, struggles and failures of the penitent. And he must do this without himself succumbing to the sin that he has newly come to see as a possibility for him. The attentive, self-aware confessor, like the warrior, is only able to do the task set before him by imagining a horror as a possibility for him.

And again, like the warrior, the confessor in each and every confession must proceed in a dispassionate and courageous fashion to face a temptation that he may never before have imagined as possible.

Speaking to the spiritual father, St Nicodemus summarizes the matter in this way:

Next, you must respond to many dangerous subjects in confession. You will hear so many shameful sins of people and so many disgraces and pollutions on account of their passions. Therefore it is necessary that you are either like an impasible sun, which when passing through filthy places remains unspotted, or like that pure dove of Noah, which when passing over so many grimy bodies of those drowned from the flood did not perch upon any of them, or like a silver or gold wash basin, which washes and cleans the dirtiness of others while none of the dirt sticks to it. (Exomologetarion, p. 74)
It is here that the importance of the confessor's own spiritual life, his own life of daily prayer and frequent communion. And it is here that we begin to see the importance of the confessor's willingness to go and prostrate himself as penitent to the very place where, only a moment before, he stood as a witness to God's mercy.

I tell my own spiritual children and parishioners, that the work of confession—like the work of marriage—is first and foremost a personal encounter. To use the language of the old Latin manuals in sacramental theology, the trust between confessor and penitent is the matter of the sacrament of confession. While trust, to be trust, must be mutual, the weight of that trust is bore by the confessor. It is his obligation not simply to root out sin in his own life, but (having entrusted himself first and foremost to Christ our True God), travel in empathy and compassion with the penitent to those areas of the penitent's life where sin and shame have a hold.

The ascetical struggle of the confessor is, however, not simply to see the depths of human shame—this after all is hardly something unknown to the secular therapist. No the confessor's task, his calling and that which is the teleos of his own ascetical struggles is to point out that it is there, in the darkest place of the penitent's life, that the redeeming, forgiving, and healing Light of Christ is to be found.

The confessor, St John of Krondstat reminds me, is a witness to divine mercy. This requires, as I said above, not only that the confessor root out his own sin but that he recognize that no sin is alien to him since all sin is but itself only a symptom of our common and personal estrangement from God. It is the reality this common estrangement in his own life that the confessor must confront and struggle against again and again each time he hears confession. And it is only in this way, to return to St Nicodemus' advice, that he can hope to heal the penitent's sin.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory
Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

It Is Your Confession, But It Is My Sin—Part I

As I promised, here is the last installment of my series on Holy Confession. In this section I want to reflect with you on the challenges of the sacrament of confession for the confessor. The more I confessions I've heard, the more I have come to appreciate how each confession is not only about the penitent's sin but also my own.

This all became clear for me when I sat down to read the Exomologetarion: A Manual of Confession, St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain. Toward the beginning of the work the saint has an interesting observation about why a confessor is unable to heal a particular sin. Whether he is too gentle or too harsh, to willing to excuse or to too hold someone accountable, the reason is the same: the confessor has not himself repented of the sin being confessed. Or, as the saint himself says to the spiritual father you

must have the passions healed and conquered, because if you unjustly seek to heal the passions of others before you have healed your own passions, you will hear the words, "Physician, heal thyself" (Lk 4.23), and: "A physician of others, himself full of sores," the reason being, if you truly wish to be an enlightener and perfector of others, you must first be enlightened and perfected yourself, so as to be able to also enlighten and perfect others. In short, you must first have and then afterwards give to others. (p. 73)
Let me say first off, I don't think that the Exomologetarion is a particularly helpful book for lay people looking for spiritual reading. While some of what St Nicodemus has to say, especially his anthropological observations about the inner life, is certainly useful, the text itself is meant more priest confessors and not a lay audience.

That said, as I have thought about St Nicodemus' advice, I see the wisdom of what he says. Certainly I see its importance in my own ministry hearing confessions: I am powerless as a confessor when I am confronted with sin in your life that I have not rooted out in my own heart. At a minimum, I must at least be struggling against the sin the penitent confesses if I am to be of any value. This is not to deny the grace of the sacrament. But the reality is—and again St Nicodemus makes this point—I can undermine your repentance by the lack of my own struggle against the very sin you confess.

What Nicodemus tells me is of unquestionable value not only for my work as a confessor, but also as a preacher and a therapist. Too often, in the case of preachers, a priest or minister will preach about which he has no personal experience. Worse still, it is not uncommon to hear a man preach against a sin that he has neither rooted out from his own heart or is even struggling against. When this happens, the best that can happen is that the sermon falls flat and fails to touch anyone. At worst the preacher uses the truth of the Gospel like a whip and his words wound without healing the hearts of his listeners.

In a counseling relationship as well Nicodemus offers us some insight. The antipsychiatric writer Thomas Szasz argues in his work that diagnostic terminology often serves to marginalize the patient. Taken to the all too common extreme, diagnostic categories facilitate my dehumanizing the patient and allow me to imagine that we do not share a common humanity, a common struggle for happiness.

As I said, there is no question that Nicodemus offers the confessor rich insight into the kind of spiritual life and ascetical struggle that is essential to his ministry as a confessor. But his work leaves me with a problem: What about those sins which I have not committed or toward which I am not attracted?

Unlike St Nicodemus I, as with many Orthodox and Catholic priests especially here in the States, are often called upon to serve communities that are highly diverse. We typically don't have the degree of cultural, social and linguistic homogeneity that Nicodemus seems to take for granted both for himself and his readers. Without going into the details, even coming to the priesthood with some professional experience in community mental health, I have some times heard, how shall I put this discretely, "new information."

The problem then is this: Yes, I know I can only heal sins that I have rooted out or at least am actively struggling against. But what about those sins that are alien to the confessor, what is he, what do I, do with then?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory
Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Crowds, Disciples and Apostles

Greek icon of the Twelve Apostles (in the fron...Image via Wikipedia

While I have a quiet moment, and it is quiet that won't last I fear, I can finally put the last of my retreat notes online for consideration. In my last session I looked with people at the typology of parish membership.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Fr. Ted Bobosh, the priest of St. Paul the Apostle Church (OCA) in Dayton, OH, has a very helpful way of thinking about the parish. In a blog post, "Seeking Christ: The Parish as Crowd," he begins by observing that:

Every parish gathering is a time for people to come to be near Christ. As in the Gospels, people came to Christ for all kinds of reasons - some to hear Him, some to see Him, some to oppose Him, some to touch Him, some to be healed, some to be fed, some to trap Him or trick Him, some to be His disciples, some out of curiosity, and some out of animosity, some in hope, some in despair, some to debate Him, some to stop Him, some to be comforted by Him, some to learn from Him, some to be praised by Him, some just to touch the hem of His garment and some to be glorified by Him. Whatever the reason, they came and crowded around Christ - friend, foe, follower. And He allowed it. He didn't chase away the curious or the hostile, the needy or the greedy, the hungry or those full of themselves. And just as the bishop notes in Leskov's novel On the Edge of the World, some really do just want to touch the hem of His garment and not become His disciples or his ambassadors. He welcomes them all blessing some, bantering with others, shepherding and being lamb, teacher and foil, giver of light and lightening rod.

As I have thought about this, and especially as I have thought about this in light of our conversations here, I have come to see the value of Fr Ted's observation.

During His earthly ministry, the vast majority of the human community was unaware of the events happening in Israel. Of those who may have had some awareness, most were indifferent. Of those who weren't indifferent, some were hostile, some were believers, but the vast majority were somewhere in the middle.

And even among those who were followers of Jesus Christ, there were two different groups: disciples and apostles—an outer circle and inner circle of believers. We can draw from the Gospel a typology of the Church that lets us see three concentric circles of believers: the crowd (who are the vast majority), the disciples (who were once part of the crowd but now have drawn closer to Jesus Christ as students who form their lives around Him and His teaching) and the apostles (those disciples who have said yes to a personal call to be ambassadors of Christ).

But again, we need to keep in mind that at any given moment, the majority of parishioners are going to be members of the crowd. These men and women are not—at least not yet—disciples, much less apostles, of Christ. This does not preclude them from the life of the Church, from her liturgical life or the sacraments.

As with the crowds who surround Jesus in the Gospels, they have their own motivation for coming Liturgy on Sunday, for receiving Holy Communion, baptizing their children, for having their marriages blessed, and it is important that we not put any obstacles in their way. The temptation of disciples and apostles is to send the crowds away, to leave them to their own devise, and to refuse to feed them from the bounty they have received from Christ. When they do this, when they drive away the crowds (whether passively or actively, by word or deed), the disciples and apostles fail in their own obligation.

This then raises a question: What is the obligation of the disciples and apostles to the crowd?

The task, the vocation of disciples and apostles, relative to the crowd is to invite the men and women in the crowd to become themselves disciples. This is hard work and work that is often met with frustration. But it is essential that those who are disciples and apostles within the Church understand that they are no more or less members of the Body of Christ then are those who are in the crowd. And just as those in all three groups are equally members of the Body of Christ, so to they are members of one another and they need one and other.

Events such as this one, retreats, workshops, pilgrimages, visits to monastic communities, adult education classes, preaching that has as its goal the spiritual formation of those who listen, all of these things need to be supported in the parish by those who are disciples and apostles. And they must encourage—and even make possible—the participation of those who are members of the crowd in these and other events that have as their goal awakening people to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Where we usually go wrong in the parish, is in one of two ways. First, and this is more the shortcoming of converts and communities in which converts are prominent, we want to exclude the men and women who are in the crowd. When I was first ordained, I did damage I think to people because I wanted a parish of all disciples and apostles. While this might seem a noble goal I wanted to be more successful than Jesus.

The second mistake that we often make is that we fail to distinguish the different groups within the parish. At the risk of being offensive, we cannot entrust leadership positions in the parish or the diocese, to the crowds. Discipleship is the prerequisite for any leadership position in the Church. Members of the crowd are certainly member of the Body of Christ, but they can't serve as parish or diocesan council members or church school teachers. Those who are not disciples, can't undertake the apostolic works of outreach and evangelism. And they cannot be seminarians and they certainly can't be ordained into the clergy.

Unfortunately, this is often what does happen. We are often so concerned to get volunteers, that we entrust leadership roles to those who are themselves not disciples of Christ. Doing this is it any wonder that we have some of the problems we have in the Church?

Let me conclude by encouraging you to take seriously the necessity of a personal commitment to Christ. And let me encourage you, no, better yet, let me beg you, to support your priest in his limiting leadership roles in the parish to those who have demonstrated by the integrity of their lives, their commitment to the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church, their stewardship of time, talent and treasure and their life of philanthropic involvement to others (whether inside and outside the Church), their commitment to Christ.

Leadership in the Church cannot be simply a matter of functional skills, much less a popularity contest or a frantic attempt to fill slots. Christian leadership is the fruit of a personal commitment not only to Christ and His Church, but also to the poor and all those who the world deems marginal and even useless.

I often hear from people that their parish is dying. And every time I've heard this, and heard the reasons why this is so, I have also seen possibilities for life and growth that people simply weren't taking. Parishes, I have concluded, don't die. The commit suicide.

The Way of Life for our community, your community, is by embracing all who are members of Christ, not only those who are disciples and apostles, but also those in the crowd. But not only this. We must understand that Christ has called to serve as leaders in the Church only those who are disciples. Having said this, though, we must remember that those who see themselves as disciples, as leaders—whether lay or clergy—must never tire of inviting, encouraging and sustaining those in the crowd to become disciples.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

This ends my retreat notes. I hope tomorrow, and to end 2008, to finish my thoughts on Holy Confession.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Monday, December 29, 2008


From Florida Hospital Church:


h/t: Bishop Alan Wilson.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

What's in Your Bible?

Christ is Born!

Vincent Setterholm of Bible Study Magazine has interesting chart outline the differences in content and organization of Sacred Scripture.  I have reproduced his chart here--do click on it and go to the web page for Bible Study Magazine and let me know what you think.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

What's in Your Bible? Find out at

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas! Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Long time ago in Bethlehem
So the Holy Bible say
Mary's boy child, Jesus Christ
Was born on Christmas day.

Hark, now hear the angels sing
A new King born today
And man will live forever more
Because of Christmas day.

While shepherds watched their flock by night
And see a bright new shining star
And hear a choir sing
The music seem to come from afar.

Now Joseph and his wife Mary
Come to Bethlehem that night
And find no place to borne she child
Not a single room was in sight.

Hark, now hear the angels sing
A new King born today
And man will live forever more
Because of Christmas day.

By and by they find a little nook
In a stable all forlorn
And in a manger cold and dark
Mary's little boy was born.

Hark, now hear the angels sing
A new King born today
And man will live forever more
Because of Christmas day.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Funeral Arrangements for Fr David Sedor

Visitation and services in Pittsburgh, PA:

Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church (
Friday, December 26, 2008, 6:00pm-8:00pm visitation; 7:00pm Trisagion

Saturday December 27, 2008, 9:00am Orthros, 10:00am Divine Liturgy, followed
by Funeral Service

Visitation and services in Binghamton, NY:

St. Michael's Orthodox Church in Binghamton, NY (
Tuesday, December 30, 3008, 9:00am-10:00am visitation; 10:00am Divine

Memory Eternal!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Memory Eternal: Protopresbyter David Sedor

Fr David Sedor, beloved husband of Eileen and father of Charissa and Stephanie fell asleep in the Lord this morning after a short illness.

In addition to serving as the pastor of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Altoona, PA, Fr Dave was a doctoral student in theology at Duquense University, the chaplain for the Orthodox Christian Fellowship in Pittsburgh and an adjunct professor at SS Cyril & Methodius Byzantine Catholic Seminary in Pittsburgh.

His daughter Stephanie posted the following this afternoon:

As many of you already know, my dad passed away this afternoon after a long week of battling complications from bypass surgery. One of the most beautiful experiences in my life happened this morning as we were saying goodbye - dad happened to be awake for a few minutes and mom said "You need to go with God now", and he nodded his head and closed his eyes. I know that often when families experience a sudden loss, there is a lot of anger toward God and others - but I don't feel anything like that at all. I know that dad is where he belongs, and that he has touched so many lives that his memory will always live with us. On behalf of my entire family, I thank every one of you for the outpouring of love and support through this entire situation; I know it would have been unbearably harder without you.

I will let everyone know when we've made arrangements for visitation and services, which will most likely occur in Pittsburgh, PA this Friday/Saturday, and Binghamton, NY on Monday or Tuesday.

Much love

Please remember Fr David, Eileen, Charissa and Stephanie in your prayers.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory
Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas In The Trenches

Christmas in the Trenches
words & music by John McCutcheon

Inspired by a back-stage conversation with an old woman in Birmingham, AL, this song tells a story that is not only true, but well-known throughout Europe. For some of the history behind the 1914 WWI Christmas Truce, click here.

My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool,
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.
To Belgium and to Flanders to Germany to here
I fought for King and country I love dear.
'Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung,
Our families back in England were toasting us that day,
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.

I was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound
Says I, "Now listen up, me boys!" each soldier strained to hear
As one young German voice sang out so clear.
"He's singing bloody well, you know!" my partner says to me
Soon one by one each German voice joined in in harmony
The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more
As Christmas brought us respite from the war.

As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent
"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" struck up some lads from Kent
The next they sang was "Stille Nacht," "Tis 'Silent Night'," says I
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky.
"There's someone coming towards us!" the front line sentry cried
All sights were fixed on one lone figure coming from their side
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shone on that plain so bright
As he bravely strode unarmed into the night.

Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man's land
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand
We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave 'em hell.
We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own
Young Sanders played his squeeze box and they had a violin
This curious and unlikely band of men.

Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more
With sad farewells we each began to settle back to war
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night
"Whose family have I fixed within my sights?"
'Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung
For the walls they'd kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone for evermore.

My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell
Each Christmas come since World War I I've learned its lessons well
That the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we're the same.

©1984 John McCutcheon/Appalsongs (ASCAP)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Site Worth Your Time

Photo by Argos'Dad of icon on the outside of A...Image via WikipediaA site worth looking at: Orthodox Answers.

Why not take a look?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Baptism, Monastic Life and Lay Spirituality

More of my retreat notes… 

The idea of a lay spirituality or lay discipleship is a new concept for many Orthodox Christians. And many of those who have thought about it, however, reject the very idea of a "lay spirituality." They argue that there is no such thing as "lay spirituality." There is simply the one Orthodox Christian spiritual life that each person fulfills as he or she is able. While this is certainly true as far as it goes, it is an inadequate response to the concrete needs of many Orthodox Christian men and women. And as for "lay discipleship," that is often dismissed out of hand as well because it sounds too "Protestant" or is a "Western" Christian idea.

But think about these words from Metropolitan MAXIMOS of Pittsburgh (GOA). His Eminence writes that "When, toward the middle of the second century of the Christian era, Christian life reached a low ebb, some Christians, both men and women, reacted to this by raising their own personal standards of austere Christian life." This austere life, of course, is monasticism. Throughout the history of the Church, monasticism, which was and still is a fundamentally lay movement, a lay form of spirituality and Christian discipleship if you will, upheld for the Church the highest standards of the Christian life. In addition, monasticism has been not only a source of renewal for the Church, but also the impetus behind Orthodox missions and evangelism throughout the world and especially in North America.

It is the faith of the Church that in Baptism each of us comes to participate in an intimate relationship with Holy Trinity. As a part of that relationship, we are each of us equipped to fulfill a priestly, prophetic and royal ministry for the "life of the world."

In other words, what we have talked about is possible because of our baptism. The Apostle Paul challenges the Church at Galatia to act on their baptism when he writes to them "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise (Gal 3.26-29). The Church is a great mystery of unity in diversity; we each of us have our own gifts and ministries within and for the Church. But while our gifts and ministries are different, in Baptism we have all been entrusted to share in the priesthood, prophetic ministry and Lordship of Jesus Christ. In this last conversation we will look together at what the mystery of Baptism means for each of us as we strive to follow faithfully Jesus Christ.

Reflecting on the words we heard this morning from St Peter, that Christians are "a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light" (1 Peter 2.9), St Clement of Alexandria writes that "We are called a priesthood because of the offering which is made in prayers and in the teaching by which souls are offered to God are won." 

Commenting on the same passage, Origen says that we are [the whole Church] "are a priestly race . . . [and] are able to approach the sanctuary of God. . . . If you want to exercise the priesthood of your soul, do not let the fire depart from your soul. 

More tomorrow…

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Our Original Beauty

A continuation of my retreat notes.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

As I have thought matters more and more, I have come to realize that when God creates, He does so by beautifying; God orders what is chaotic; He fills what is empty to overflowing; He illumines what is in darkness; He redeems that which is lost. In other words, God is not simply a Creator, He is not simply an Artist, He is, from the first moment of His relationship to the cosmos, a Redeemer and it is beauty that is the hallmark of His redemptive work.

Beauty is not merely decorative, a nice but optional after thought—it is a basic quality of creation. To be is to be beautiful. In the case of humanity this outpouring of beauty is a reflection of divine deliberation and intention. When God creates humanity, when He creates you and me, He does so with deliberation: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness." (Gn 1.26) God, St John Chrysostom says,

did not say, as He did when creating other things, "Let there be a human." See how worthy you are! Your origins are not in the imperative. Instead God deliberated about the best way to bring to life a creation worthy of honor.

According to the saint, God signals our creation with "deliberation, collaboration and conference . . . not because God needs advice . . . but so that the very impact of the language of our creation would show us honor."

But what is this divinely created honor that is given to humanity? As originally created, it belongs to humanity—to you and me, to each of us personally and communally—to sum up in ourselves, the beautiful creation.

Scripture informs us that the Deity proceeded by a sort of graduated and ordered advance to the creation of man. After the foundations of the universe were laid, as the history records, man did not appear on earth at once, but the creation of the brutes preceded him, and the plants preceded them. Thereby Scripture shows that the vital forces blended with the world of matter according to graduation; first it infused itself into insensate nature; and in continuation of this advanced into the sentient world; and then ascended to intelligent and rational beings. . . . The creation of man is related as coming last, as of one who took up into himself every single form of life, both that of plants and that which is seen in brutes.

To be human means that we are created in the "image and likeness" of God (cf., Gn 1.26); as icons of the Most Holy Trinity, we are both the reason for, and the voice of, creation. Let me make this a bit stronger.

God creates by naming things—He calls "the light Day," the darkness He calls "Night," the firmament, "Heaven," the dry land "Earth," the waters "Sea," and all of it He calls "good" (Gn 1.1-10). It is this god-like task of naming the creation that God entrusts to humanity. It is the Man who gives "names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field."(Gn. 2.20) To be human is to be a prophetic creature because, as the "mouthpiece" of God, we give voice to that which God has done. So while it is God Who creates the lion and the lamb, it is the Man who is called by God to bear witness in the presence of the angels (for who else can listen and understand the names that the Man bestows?) to what God has done by naming the animals.

As he goes about the task of bestowing, or maybe more accurately bearing witness, to the significance and meaning of creation, the First Adam discovers something about himself that we can reasonable assume God already knew: That in all creation "there was not found a helper for him." (Gn 2.20) The man is profoundly lonely and he knows without any doubt at all that it "is not good for man to be alone."

Unlike humanity after the Fall, Adam before the Fall is faithful to his prophetic vocation no matter where it leads him. Eventually his vocation to be the voice of creation leads him to discover and then bear witness to the fact that there is in him a longing not simply for communion with God, not simply for work, but for human companionship and community; to be human is to be a being-for-others.

God responds to the man's need for human companionship and community by causing "a deep sleep to fall upon the man." And while the man sleeps, God takes "one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh" and uses the rib to make "woman" who God then introduces to the man (Gn 2.21-22). When he sees the Woman the Man declares (again exercising his prophetic vocation):

This at least is bone of my bones

    and flesh of my flesh;

she shall be called Woman

    because she was taken out of Man (v.23)

Unlike the rest of creation, which is created by divine declaration and instantaneously, humanity is created only after divine deliberation and even then, only by stages. Like the rest of creation we are ontologically contingent, that is, dependent upon God for our existence. Unlike the rest of creation however, there is room in our being for our own freedom—yes we though we are dependent on God, we are not passive, God waits upon us before He completes our creation and then He only completes our creation together with us. Only when we discover and bear witness to what is lacking in us, does God act. As St. John Chrysostom reminds us, God "will not have us always saved by grace [alone], . . . He will have us contribute something from ourselves as well."

But, as we saw earlier, there is often a gap between who we are called to be in Christ and how we live. While there are a number of reasons for this, a very general reason is that we often fail to realize what we have been given.

More tomorrow…



Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Now the Bad News…

A continuation of my notes from the retreat I did this weekend at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Scottsdale, AZ.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

For several years I served as the chaplain for students at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. This left me free on the weekend to serve different parishes in western Pennsylvania and northeastern Ohio in the absence of their priest.

One year, I was at a different parish every Sunday for the entire summer. From May through August, I served Liturgy and preached at parishes in all the different jurisdictions: Greek, Antiochian, Ukrainian, Serbian and OCA.

And in each parish, my sermon was some variation of the same theme: Jesus loves you.

And in each parish for the whole of the summer, I got the same two responses again and again from multiple parishioners: (1) "Wow! That was the best sermon I ever heard!" and (2) "I never knew Jesus loved me." As you can imagine, the first response was gratifying—like everyone else, I enjoy hearing I did a good job.

But my joy was mixed with sorrow. It bothered me that some many Orthodox Christians simply did not know that they were loved by Jesus Christ.

I spent the better part of the next 2 or 3 years thinking about why people didn't know they were loved by Jesus Christ.

The conclusion I have come to, and I found this above all In St Augustine's own struggles in the Confessions, is that sign of our fallenness is not, primarily, that we do bad things. No I know that we are sinners when we realize that we are in the grip of grief, that we do not know that we are lovable, loved and able to love. To escape that grief, to hold it a bay, even momentarily, there is very little that we won't do.

How then do we put this grief behind us and become sensitive to love?

In a word, asceticism. As the newly elected primate of the OCA, His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah, argued asceticism, which is "the root and the foundation of our whole life as a Christian" is nothing more or less than the

awareness of the presence of God. It's what the Fathers called the "remembrance of God", and it doesn't mean that you're remembering it in your head that God is present, it's that God's presence is a fundamental part of your own awareness. You know that He is present, and when we can bring that awareness of His presence by stilling our minds and stilling our hearts, then His love overflows through us. And transforms us. And that experience of sanctity isn't just limited to when we walk into or church. It isn't just limited to when we venerate the icons or go before the relics of the saints. That experience of sanctity is with us everywhere, all the time. We have to do the one without forgetting the other.

Through prayer and fasting I begin to still my own egoic strivings for power and control. And over time I become in God and after God I become an authority for myself. The fruit of asceticism, the goal of asceticism, is for me to become the author of my own life rather than to live the life that is written for me by others who use (often unintentionally) my own transitory desires against me.

For this reason, again to quote Metropolitan Jonah,

We need to have spiritual discipline. And the disciplines [are] not in ends in themselves, but [serve our own growing] spiritual awareness and transformation and conversion of our souls, in order to do the act of ministries. Otherwise what are we doing with the act of ministries, they become some kind of projection of our own egos. And that's not going to help much, if anybody, least of all myself.

In my view, it is the bitterest of ironies that the more I turn my life and desire for happiness into a project of my own ego, the more happy alludes me and the more I lose control over my own life. Autonomy and happiness are the fruits of an ascetical self-denial that aims not only at the eradication of vice but the cultivation of the life of virtue that lies just below the surface of human sinfulness.

More tomorrow…

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Goodness of the Human

Because I have been preparing for the retreat I'm leading this morning in Phoenix, I haven't posted as much this week as I would like. So I thought I would put abbreviated versions of my conferences online for your consideration, comments, questions and criticism.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Looking up to God, King David cries out:

O LORD, our Lord,

How excellent is Your name in all the earth,

Who have set Your glory above the heavens! (Ps 8.1)

Commenting on this opening verse, St John Chrysostom say that by the Name of God, that is through Christ, "death was dissolved, demons imprisoned . . . heaven opened, the gates of Paradise thrown wide, the [Holy] Spirit sent down, slaves made free, enemies become sons [of God], strangers . . . , heirs [of the Heavenly Kingdom]" and most extraordinarily of all, human beings, you and me and all of us who are in Christ have "become angels."

With Chrysostom, you might ask, why does David speak of human beings as "angels"?

Angels, for St John, are not what our popular religious culture means by angels. Rather for him human beings have become angelic because as with the Cherubim and the Angelic Hosts we who are in Christ are no longer separated from God.

As we will celebrate in just a few days, God has become man, and so "man became God; heaven accepted . . . earth, earth accepted" heaven. The separation between God and humanity, the divisions within the human family, and in each human heart, all of these have been overcome. "The wall . . . removed, the partition dissolved." What once "were separated" the saint tells us, are now in Christ "united, darkness [has been] banished, light [shines and] death [is] swallowed up" by life.

Immediately after considering the majesty of God, King David turns inward, he looks at humanity, he looks at himself, his own life and his own experience with the eyes of faith and realizes that God silences "the enemy and the avenger" not only by granting life, but guiding the growth and development of that life:

Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants

You have ordained strength,

Because of Your enemies,

That You may silence the enemy and the avenger. (v. 2)


David for a second time turns his mind and heart to God and is overwhelmed by the beauty of creation, of the harmony of the cosmos. And then he pauses in his meditation, his reverie on the majesty of God, and returns for a second time to the human mystery, to his place, and ours, in the divine plan:

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,

The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,

What is man that You are mindful of him,

And the son of man that You visit him?

For You have made him a little lower than the angels,

And You have crowned him with glory and honor.


You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands;

You have put all things under his feet,

All sheep and oxen—

Even the beasts of the field,

The birds of the air,

And the fish of the sea

That pass through the paths of the seas. (vv. 3-8)


And just as it has twice before, the mystery of the human causes David to again turn back in praise and thanksgiving to God:

O LORD, our Lord,

How excellent is Your name in all the earth! (v. 9)


There is something extraordinary about humanity, about each and every one of you here this evening and indeed each and every human being who was, is, and will someday be.

As we will celebrate in a few days, our common humanity is something worthy of God Himself. Or, as I tell my own spiritual children, being human is so good even God wants to do it.

Think about that for a moment. The God we worship, the God we preach, doesn't simply know about us as our Creator. He knows about us as our Brother. God knows and values you not simply from outside and above, but from within and next to you.

All of this is part and parcel of the Gospel—that we, you and me, all of us, are loved by God. That's the primary truth of both our personal identity and the content of the Gospel, all of this is central to Good News about Jesus Christ that Church is called to preach.

My life, your life, is an extraordinary and awe inspiring gift.

And it is a gift that comes to each of us not simply from God, but also from our parents, even as their life came from their parents, and so on.

But this doesn't exhaust the mystery of the gift of our life. Because just as my life comes from God through my parents, and their parents, and in at least a small way through the whole family, my life also comes to me as part of the natural order—both animate and inanimate.

More tomorrow…

Friday, December 12, 2008

Orthodox Christian Faith in the Public Square

Fr Richard John Neuhaus has an interesting—and as usual, insightful—essay on the relationship (or lack thereof) between Christ and culture in the American context. Fr Neuhaus's reflect center on those

Christians who, knowingly or unknowingly, embrace the model of "Christ without culture"—meaning Christianity in indifference to culture—are captive to the culture as defined by those who control its commanding heights. They are not only captive to it but are complicit in it. Their entrepreneurial success in building religious empires by exploiting the niche markets of the Christian subculture leaves the commanding heights untouched, unchallenged, unengaged.

What I find interesting here is how well this model of the relationship between Christ and culture expresses how most Orthodox Christians here in America understand the Church's relationship to the larger culture. Whether "cradle" or "convert" in my experience at least, there are a surprisingly large number of Orthodox Christians are content to live in an Orthodox ghetto—at least on Sunday morning.

Whether the content of the ghetto is Greek or Russian or a crude imitation by lay converts of monastic life, I suspect that the vast majority of Orthodox parishes—like their broadly evangelical Christian neighbors—what cultural products they produce is one that "typically cater to the Christian market." The fact that a local Protestant congregation does this with Evangelical praise music and witness wear and the Orthodox do it with ethnic food festivals, by making sure we keep the parish for "our" people, or by dressing in the latest 19th Orthodox Christian peasant chic is a matter of little consequence. In all these case the Orthodox parish is contentment "with being a subculture."

But, as Neuhaus writes,

Christianity that is indifferent to its cultural context is captive to its cultural context. Indeed, it reinforces the cultural definitions to which it is captive. Nowhere is this so evident as in the ready Christian acceptance of the cultural dogma that religion is essentially a private matter of spiritual experience, that religion is a matter of consumption rather than obligation. Against that assumption, we must insist that Christian faith is intensely personal but never private. The Christian gospel is an emphatically public proposal about the nature of the world and our place in it. It is a public way of life obliged to the truth.

Having spent more than a little time with the recent sociological studies that examine the attitudes of Orthodox Christians, I can confirm that for a significant percentage—and in some cases, a majority—of Orthodox Christians draw their understanding of morality not from Holy Tradition but popular American culture.

As with our brothers and sisters in western Christian traditions, many, even most, Orthodox Christians too "have uncritically accepted the dichotomy between public and private, between fact and value, between knowledge and meaning." For all that we might imagine that we are preserving Hellenism or the "other worldliness" of monastic life, we live lives structured on the same "dichotomies [that] are deeply entrenched in American religion and culture and are closely associated with what is often described, and frequently decried, as American individualism."

In other words, our rhetoric notwithstanding, having withdrawn from the work of engaging the culture has not preserved Orthodoxy but surrendered it to American culture.

And so whether I understand my faith as an Orthodox Christian is "conservative or liberal, orthodox or squishy," the important point "is that it is my religion, certified and secured by the fact that it is mine. By the privilege of privacy, it cannot be publicly questioned, and it is forbidden to publicly question the preferred beliefs of others."

Bring our faith as Orthodox Christians into the public square not only in debating the great issue of our day but also in active philanthropy, can only happen if we are willing to shed the notion that our faith is private, merely a preference. This doesn't mean that people will agree with us. Far from it.

But what will happen is that the more I enter with my faith into the public square, the more I will be challenged by others and by events to repent of my own faith will be purified and (hopefully) strengthened. But this purification will not happen without my having to surrender my own fantasies, my own ideas about how the Gospel "ought" to be lived. But taking on this challenge cannot but strengthen not only my personal faith, but our faith as a Church.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

p.s., Sigh! I'm still in Charlotte—my flight is now leaving a hour late giving me 30 minutes from airport to presentation. Your prayers please for a successful retreat according to Christ's will not my own.


On the Road Again

Assuming that US Air can get its act together (a dicey proposition at the best of times), I'm off this morning to preach a retreat at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Phoenix, AZ where my friend Fr Andrew J. Barakos is the priest. Because I'm flying US Air I've brought lots of work to do, things to read and extra clothes (my last US Air flight from Phoenix got me a night at the Crowne Plaza—lovely but something I could do without).

I'll post more on the retreat later—for now let me say that I am speaking on theological anthropology and Christian vocation.

In honor of my travels, let me leave with Willie Nelson singing "On the Road Again."

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Reader Timothy Gates (Holy Assumption Orthodox Church, Canton, OH) sent me a link to a short film
"Validation" a film about the magic of free parking. Starring TJ Thyne & Vicki Davis. Writer/Director/Composer - Kurt Kuenne. The film from the Spiritual Cinema Circle, a project that "originally grew out of collaboration between film producer Stephen Simon and psychologists Kathlyn and Gay Hendricks. Stephen had produced many beloved movies with spiritual themes, such as "Somewhere In Time" and "What Dreams May Come," and had given hundreds of talks and seminars on the emerging genre of Spiritual Cinema. During that time The Hendricks had created a non-profit foundation dedicated to creating a new consciousness in mass media."


In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Monday, December 08, 2008

I Can Has TheoLOLgians? | The Scriptorium Daily: Middlebrow

H/t: Fr Michael Butler

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Salvific Coffee?

For consideration:

h/t: Byzantine, TX

Friday, December 05, 2008

TURKEY Bartholomew: search for unity between Orthodox and Catholics

Bartholomew: search for unity between Orthodox and Catholics "a duty"

NAT da Polis

On the occasion of the feast of St. Andrew, founder of the Church of Constantinople, the patriarch and Cardinal Kasper reaffirm that the ecumenical journey is a road without alternatives.

Istanbul (AsiaNews) - The homilies for the services and celebrations for the patron of Constantinople, St. Andrew, were centered on the certainty that the common journey toward full unity between the two sister Churches - Catholic and Orthodox - is the only answer, including to the challenges of today's world in full economic, political, and social crisis.

The celebrations were attended by a large delegation from the Church of Rome, led by Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the council for Christian unity, representatives of the other Christian confessions, the diplomatic corps, and various authorities.

Ecumenical patriarch Bartholomew began his homily by recalling the historic meeting in Jerusalem in 1964, between Paul VI and Athenagoras, which put an end to the historic and distasteful schism of 1054 between the two sister Churches, initiating a dialogue of love and truth in full and mutual respect, with the objective of reestablishing full communion. And precisely in order to highlight this journey toward full communion, Bartholomew gave the example of the two brothers "in the flesh," Andrew and Peter, who later became spiritual brothers in Christ, to emphasize the role that the two sister Churches must play. Although the two brothers Peter and Andrew followed different geographical paths to testify to the truth of Christ our Lord - the former sanctified the Church of Rome with his own blood, while the latter founded the Church of Byzantium, which later became Constantinople - they have remained united in the course of history through the two Churches: Rome and Constantinople.

This connection between the two apostles, Bartholomew continued, the beginning of which was biological in nature, later became a spiritual bond in the name of our Lord, and ended up constituting the bond that unites the Churches. And this bond must always be kept in mind, continued the ecumenical patriarch, in order to restore full unity. Because today, by honoring the apostle Andrew, one also honors the apostle Peter - it is not possible to think of Peter and Andrew separately. The thorns must therefore be removed which for a millennium have wounded relations between the two Churches, and guidance toward unity must be taken from the spirit of the common tradition of the seven ecumenical councils of the first millennium. And all of this is not only out of respect for our two apostles, Bartholomew concluded, but also because it is our duty toward the contemporary world, which is going through a tremendous sociopolitical, cultural, and economic crisis. A world that has urgent need of the message of peace, of which the founder of our Church, Jesus Christ, is the messenger, through his cross and resurrection. Only then will the word of our Church be credible, when it can also give a message of peace and love: "Come and see" (John 1:47).

Cardinal Kasper, as the pope\'s representative, also focused in his homily on the importance of dialogue for full unity between the Churches, saying that the same feast is celebrated today in Rome, a sign of our common apostolic heritage, which requires us to work for full communion. Because this ecumenical commitment is not an option, but a duty toward our Lord, in order to be able to consider ourselves an essential part of the Church of Christ, our Lord.

Kasper then cited the three visits of the ecumenical patriarch to Rome in 2008, which included his participation, together with Pope Benedict, in the inauguration of the Pauline year, and his address to the synod of Catholic bishops, also at the invitation of the pope. This reinforced the bonds between Rome and Constantinople. He concluded by speaking of the importance of the document of Ravenna (2007) in the dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox.

Finally, in a conversation with AsiaNews, Cardinal Kasper maintained that the journey with the Orthodox, although it will certainly not be short, has started on the right path, "in part because we have many, many things in common with the Orthodox." Moreover, Kasper continued, the fact that Constantinople has a very broad vision helps a great deal in the journey of dialogue toward full communion.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Memory Eternal: Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Alexy II dies

News reports are now coming in that His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II of Russia has fallen asleep in the Lord.

May the Lord our God make his memory eternal!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

MOSCOW (AP) — The Russian Orthodox Church says its Patriarch Alexy II has died.

The church says the 79-year-old died at his residence outside Moscow on Friday. It did not give the cause of death, but the patriarch had long suffered from a heart ailment.

The outspoken patriarch had led the world's biggest Orthodox church since 1990, presiding over a flock that by most estimates numbers two-thirds of Russia's population of 142 million.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Thursday, December 04, 2008

What is a monastery?

Given the recent conversations here about lay spiritual formation and monasticism, I thought the following by Hieromonk Maximos, a Romanian Catholic monk at Holy Resurrection Monastery might be of interest. The following is an excerpt from a somewhat larger post, "Monasticism vs. The Cult of Usefulness," which can be found at Fr Maximos' blog The Anastasis Dialogue.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

What is a monastery?

I'd like to begin with the definition of monasticism that you [Note: this reflection came about as part of a correspondence with a supporter] took from a Catholic dictionary:

an institutionalized religious practice or movement whose members attempt to live by a rule that requires works that go beyond those of either the laity or the ordinary spiritual leaders of their religions. Commonly celibate and universally ascetic, the monastic individual separates himself or herself from society either by living as a hermit or anchorite (religious recluse) or by joining a community (coenobium) of others who profess similar intentions. First applied to Christian groups, both Latin and Greek.

Against this I would like to contrast the statement by Pope John Paul II in Orientale Lumen, \"in the Christian East monasticism is the reference point for all the baptized.\" Do you see the difference? One is an institutional definition. The other is a statement of vision and purpose. One of the greatest challenges to our monastery has always been that plenty of people think they know what a monastery is (the institutional definition) but very few really understand why it should be (vision and purpose). Is that because we have failed to explain it? Or is that the challenge posed by the monastic vision is such that people are resistant to it??

Let me put this another way. The late Pope said that monasticism for Eastern Christians is the standard by which their whole Christian existence is to be measured. Good. Then where are the monasteries for Eastern Catholics?

Now this is not just a slam against Eastern Catholics! The reason that monastic life is not real for them is because for several centuries they have been greatly influenced by secular notions coming to them from the West. In the West \"religious life\" was divided into thousands of orders and congregations, each distinguished by its particular work or charism. This division was itself immensely helped by secular notions of religion as an (at best!) useful way of delivering social services like schools, hospitals and public moral instruction in parish churches.

What was lost in this was that ancient, patristic sense that the pursuit of perfection through prayer and asceticism is not simply one vocation among many, something for an elite, but the Christian vocation pure and simple. All Christians are called to martyrdom, witnessing to all their death to self and life in Christ. All Christians are called to martyrdom, either \"red\" or \"white\", witness of blood or marytiria of asceticism.

Sorry for the history lesson. I do have a point here! And the point is that people think they know what a monastery is, but really most people have no clue. Not really. And the reason they have no clue is because many, many people--even among those who attend church services regularly--have lost sight of the reason they were called to become Christians in the first place. The real reason for the decline in monasticism is the decline in fervor for the Christian struggle. Who, in the end, really wants martrydom?

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

FIRST THINGS: On the Square » Blog Archive » Desert Like a Rose

A special concern for Orthodox Christians in America is the intersection of Christ, culture and missions. On this point, Peter Leithart, a professor of theology and literature at New Saint Andrews College and pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, has some interesting observations. He writes in First Things' blog "On the Square," That,

Time was when Christian missions occurred "over there." Every now and then, the missionary would show up at church dressed like a time traveler, to show slides of exotic places and to enchant the stay-at-homes with tales about the strange diet and customs of the natives. Foreign missions still happen, but that model seems like ancient history. With the new immigration and the increased ease of travel and communication, the mission field has moved into the neighborhood, and every church that has its eyes open is asking every day how to do "foreign missions."
After some very well thought out biblical reflections on the missionary character of both Adam and Israel he concludes his essay by observing that:
In its first centuries, the Church was mainly preoccupied with evangelizing Greco-Roman culture, a process that Robert Jenson has identified as the “evangelization of metaphysics.” Despite liberal accusations that the Church fell prey to “acute Hellanization,” the reality was almost the opposite. Cultural and intellectual life was transformed from within as Christians fit a gospel of a crucified and risen Redeemer into Greco-Roman clothes. The clothes were never the same again.

Greek conceptions of “being” and “substance” remained, and even found their way into Christian creeds, but they were now used of a Tri-Personal God. Greeks believed in an absolute, but Christians confessed that the absolute entered the temporal world as a man. After Constantine’s conversion, the impressively efficient Roman institutions and legal instruments remained but were, sometimes imperceptibly and over centuries, turned toward compassion.

Similarly, even the Christians most hostile to modernity don’t want to abandon the gains of the modern age. Mission to the modern world would humble, but preserve, science. It would retain the modern emphasis on the dignity of the person, and give it a surer foundation than secularism could. To the mission field next door, it comes not as a destroying flood but as an irrigating river, preserving a difference as robust as anything in multiculturalism, without letting difference collapse into the sameness of indifference.

For the modern world as for the ancient, mission is like water. What grows when the gospel comes is native to the landscape, but what grows would never grow but for the river. When the water flows from the stricken Rock, the land comes to life; and the fish, floating lifeless on the surface the Sea, live again.
In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A Very Long Post on Very Important Matters

Chrys' post (Guest Post: Called and Gifted – Some initial thoughts) has generated some uncommonly thoughtful—and long!—comments that I would encourage people to read closely. Rare does one get this level of insightful conversation about lay spirituality. Add to this that the conversation is in an ecumenical key, and well, it is I think simply worth taking the time to read what has been written. You can find the comments here.

Thinking about what has been written reminds me that one of the difficulties in a conversation across traditions about the spiritual life is found not simply in the areas where we diverge or disagree. Often it is when we closest to each other that we face the most challenges. This, again to me at least, is understandable enough. The risk of communion, especially in its initially stages, is fusion—the loss of our own distinctiveness as either persons or communities.

One way of defending ourselves in these moments, a temptation that all the commentators have thankfully avoided, is to compare "our" best to "your" worst. (Or as I think to think of it in my less sober moments: "I'm eccentric," but "You're a nutter.") Another temptation, and this is by far the more common way of fleeing our responsibility to love and love responsibly, is to simply say we are all the same and denying our differences and (in so doing) and commonalities.

Jack is right when he say that "part of the challenge here is in the way one uses the word 'experience' and that that has less to do with the history of Western Christianity per se, as in the changes that occurred in the West." In my own graduate education we rather intentionally avoided the word "experience" because it is simply to subjectivistic. In place of experience we used the term event—one aspect certainly is what I think about what happens, but my thinking, my reflection on the event does not exhaust the meaning of an event—and it may even reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the event, i.e., I can be mistaken.

Put another way, while psychology is an important element of the spiritual life—and I will be speaking on what psychologists can tell us about the spiritual life at the January 2009 meeting of the Society of St John Chrysostom here in Youngstown—we can't equate the spiritual life with the psychological content of that life. This I think is simply to affirm both Jack's caution that we not "experience with emotions" and Chrys' concern with not falling prey to assuming that we not reduce to spiritual life to "the ecstatic experience itself."

In Christ, we are invited into a relationship with God the Father. Following St Paul, and as I mentioned at the Called & Gifted Workshop, the charisms represent the concrete content of that relationship. Sr Macrina's citation on he own blog ("A Vow of Conversation") of Zizioulas on the inter-relationship of Christology, Pneumatology and ecclesiology is germane here. Zizioulas writes that

The Spirit is not something that "animates" a Church which already somehow exists. The Spirit makes the Church be. Pneumatology does not refer to the well-being but to the very being of the Church. It is not about a dynamism which is added to the essence of the Church. It is the very essence of the Church. The Church is constituted in and through eschatology and communion. Pneumatology is an ontological category in ecclesiology. (Being as Communion, 132)

Sp too with us, the charisms are how we are brought simultaneously into a relationship with the Holy Trinity and with the Church. Clearly, there is—and must be—an experiential component in all of this. If personal experience was absent, if I had no experience of the Holy Trinity, I would not be in a relationship with God. And so, with Jack, I would say human "experience is vital to the life of a Christian and that it is the really fertile soil of the Christian life."

Our turn to human experience, as both Chrys and Jack argue in their own way, is not only fertile, it is fraught with real danger. We cannot, and must not reduce experience to emotions. But once we say, again as both Chrys and Jack do in their own way, that we must cultivate "(i) an openness to reality (and thus our encounter with it) and (ii) the act of judgment—of discerning the meaning of our encounters for our lives" we have left behind the merely experiential or subjective. Or, to borrow from Chrys, the Orthodox don't "denigrate experience—far from it. But there is a pervasive initial distrust of the thing itself, not just the emotions that may be involved, that I never saw in either Catholic or Protestant circles."

It is this last point by Chrys, where Sherry focuses her own comments.

I may be mistaken but Sherry seems to me to agree with Chrys' criticisms when she says in response to him that "It would be most inaccurate historically to believe that what characterizes common Catholic life now in the west has been the norm in the past." She continues later in her comments by saying:

I think it is important to realize that a large part of what you have encountered among Catholics today is post-modernity, not actual Catholic spiritual traditions. The working assumptions of post-modernity permeated the west in the 60's and entered the Catholic church in this country.

Our experience of having talked to many thousands about their spiritual experience is two-fold: the majority of American Catholics are not yet disciples of Jesus Christ, the vast majority are both universalist and Pelagian in their understanding of salvation, and many are essentially post-modern and New Age in their world view which is covered by a thin veneer of Catholic sacramental practice. I've summed this wide-spread but seldom articulated view of the faith this way:

We are all saved and we have all earned it but none of us are saints because that wouldn't be humble.

In other words, most of us have it reversed: a staggering presumption where humility and fear of the Lord is required and a complete lack of magnanimity where it is necessary.

Mindful of the failings I see around me in the Orthodox Church, I would suggest that pastorally, if not historically, a significant point of divergence between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches is the difference in each community's awareness (or lack thereof) of essential role of asceticism in the Christian life.

While I have great respect for the spiritual and ascetical tradition of the Catholic Church, for all practical purposes that tradition is no longer part of the awareness of most Catholics. While I do not wish to speak for the whole Orthodox Church, this lack of physical asceticism among most Catholics is a very worrisome thing for me. While the work of St Francis de Sales, for example, has much to recommend it, shifting the focus from physical asceticism . . . [to] spiritual, imaginative, and emotional detachment and serene attachment to the will of God" is I think precisely the turn to the psychological that Chrys is criticizing.

Sr Macrina offers me some insight into where the difference between Catholic and Orthodox spirituality when she writes

that there are various factors responsible for the falling apart of the ascetical tradition in the West and, while cultural factors of the last few decades have played a role, the roots go much deeper. These include the loss of the body's role as bearer of meaning, a juridically orientated understanding of salvation, the divorce between "mysticism" and ecclesial life and an increasingly institutional understanding of the Church, and probably many others. In any case, I have the impression that the penitential practices of the last few centuries had lost their connection with transformation and theosis, leading to a reaction that has made asceticism a dirty word in many Catholic circles.

Sr Macrina's observations brings to mind something from Chrys' original post:

the Orthodox starts with a firm understanding of ascetical practice as a foundational element of discipleship. The priority given to this practice is directly tied to the purpose of discipleship and the goal of salvation: theosis. Since this understanding tends to be absent, forgotten, misunderstood or diminished in the West, it can be difficult for Catholics and Protestants to understand. Many western Christians simply move from conversion to mission with only a vague notion as to the ultimate purpose or meaning of the Christian life.

While the Orthodox Church have preserved a living awareness of asceticism for all, where we have fallen down on the job is on making the connection between asceticism and discipleship in our parishes. Yes, we (the Orthodox fast), but we do not always see the connection between fasting and discipleship.

One of the reasons that I invited Sherry and Fr Mike to my parish is because, while their program arose out of a different set of pastoral concerns, it nevertheless speaks to a critical lack in the pastoral life of both our Churches: the call of the laity. Yes, I think that Catholic laypeople (as well as clergy and religious) would do well to return to the ascetical tradition that fell by the wayside in the Catholic Church some years ago (on this see After Asceticism: Sex, Prayer and Deviant Priests, by The Linacre Institute). I also think, however, that the renewed interest in lay spiritual formation among Catholics is something that the Orthodox can, and should, adapt to our own circumstances. There is a great deal Orthodox can learn from Catholics about lay spiritual formation.

In addition to the work of Sherry's own group, the Catherine of Siena Institute, there is the work of Fr. Luigi Giussani, the founder of the Catholic lay movement Communion and Liberation as well as the work of the current head of CL, Fr. Julian Carron. And if I may be permitted to put in a plug for my own doctoral work, I think what I learned from the late Fr Adrian van Kaam and the faculty at Duquesne University's Institute of Formative Spirituality, is also of undeniable value.

Looking over the conversation here, it seems to me that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches share significant areas of pastoral concern. As a personal matter, I do not think that either Church risks compromising its own ecclesiological claims for herself by acknowledge this and seeking to learn from the other.

But for this to work, and without reference to those who I have referenced in this essay, we must approach each other in a spirit of openness and gratitude, without defensiveness or polemics. As I said at the beginning, given our common challenges we will find this most challenging precisely because of our similarity to each other.

Again, thank you to everyone who posted. I look forward to further conversations with you all.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Cultivating Gratitude & Thanksgiving

I tell my spiritual children, and anyone else who will listen, that we must cultivate in our hearts a spirit of gratitude, of thanksgiving to God for the whole of our life. We are surrounded daily with what, to me as a child anyway, would have been unbelievable riches and technological wonders. How easy it is to take all this for granted rather than, as I think we should, stand in awe at the genius of the human person.

And why should we not see our own genius? We are all of us created in the image of God. And we are all of called by Christ to restore in ourselves by His grace and our own efforts, His likeness.

King David writes in the Psalm 8 about the majesty of God, His creation and the human person:

Psalm 8
O LORD, our Lord,
How excellent is Your name in all the earth,
Who have set Your glory above the heavens!

Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants
You have ordained strength,
Because of Your enemies,
That You may silence the enemy and the avenger.

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,
What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You visit him?
For You have made him a little lower than the angels,
And You have crowned him with glory and honor.

You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet,
All sheep and oxen—
Even the beasts of the field,
The birds of the air,
And the fish of the sea
That pass through the paths of the seas.

O LORD, our Lord,
How excellent is Your name in all the earth!
Commenting on this Psalm, St John Chrysostom says, "Taking full account of such marvelous care and such wonderful providence on God's part, and the arrangement he put in place for the salvation of the human race, King David is struck with complete wonder and amazement as to why on earth God considered them worthy of attention."

The saint then continues by asking us to consider that "after all, that all the visible things" are for our sake. It is for us that "the design implemented from the time of Adam up" to the coming of Christ was put in place. All things from God are given to us, for us: "paradise, commandments, punishments, miracles, retribution, kindness after the Law." And of course for us and our salvation, "the Son became Man."

And after all this what "could anyone say of the future [we] are intended to enjoy?"

But we lose all this if we are not able to cultivate in ourselves gratitude and thanksgiving for all that God has given us, things great and small, spiritual and material, eternal and temporal. To that end, I offer for consideration a brief video of the comic Louis CK on Late Night with Conan O'Brien."

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

h/t: Benedict Seraphim

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]