Wednesday, April 30, 2008

My Interview on "Our Life In Christ" (Ancient Faith Radio)










Above: Our Life in Christ, program hosts Steven Robinson and Bill Gould,

Interview with Fr. Gregory Jensen on Psychology, Part One
Tuesday, April 29, 2008

From the program web page:

Steve interviews Fr. Gregory Jensen, an Orthodox priest and psychologist. Fr. Gregory discusses the place of clinical psychology within Orthodox spirituality, particularly as it relates to pastoral care and confession.

You download the interview as an mp3 by clicking here: Our Life in Christ.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

American Orthodoxy?

 An interesting post from The Ochlophobist in which he reflects on the difficulties of embodying the Orthodox faith in American culture.  He offers five comments that are worth reflecting on:

1. What authentic human culture existed in American locals in prior generations is now dead, even if it remains in caricature form. Thus Orthodoxy is not to "incarnate" into American culture, or to save or baptize American culture. There is no authentic American culture anymore. Orthodoxy in America must seek to create an American culture. There are certain local cultural "ingredients" which might be used, but what needs to be sought is a new cultural creation.


2. This can only be done by coming to terms with the secularism that rules American life and disabuses what would otherwise be authentic American cultural forms. Until we acknowledge the pervasiveness of secularism and its dreadful hold on virtually all aspects of our lives, we are simply playing the games of boutique religion.


3. The fundamental problem - if one seeks for Orthodoxy to become fully fleshed and blooded in America, completely embedded in the existential ethos of this place and people, how does one go about it in a pluralist society in which all things are sought (usually with success) to be commodified and delegated to a percentage of market share? How does one avoid, on the one hand, becoming a particularly placed fleshed and blooded micro-culture that is separationist (the Amish), or, on the other hand, how does one avoid becoming a religious movement which fully collaborates with secular materialist culture (Evangelicalism)? Assuming that we do not want to run to the hills, how do we fully confront and transform an ever morphing ethereal pluralist materialist ├╝bercommodified anti-culture?


4. Should we even be seeking the transformation of America at large? America is colossal, too big in any number of ways. Would it not be more modest, and might it not be more appropriate with regard to discernable human culture, to seek rather a Delta Orthodoxy, an Upper-Midwestern Orthodoxy, a New England Orthodoxy, an Appalachian Orthodoxy, a Pacific Northwestern Orthodoxy, a Canadian plains Orthodoxy, and so forth?


5. There must be no agenda. As soon as we have as our agenda to “win America for Christ” Orthodoxy style, we have become one agenda competing in a saturated market of agendas, and we have then condemned ourselves to petty market share. The American Orthodoxy of mission statements and evangelism strategies is simply more of the Evangelicalish-materialist banality. If there is to be a full existentially realized Orthodox culture in America, it must come to be because this is what Orthodoxy is, how she realizes herself in a place. There is a charismatic and fragile human element to this. Such will not be brought about because Orthodoxy has been marketed well. Ironically, those most concerned with religious market success doom Orthodoxy to cultural failure, precisely because they do not understand their own commitments to secularist materialism, and the fact that there can be no Orthodox-secularist culture that is truly a culture. Not to mention the pragmatically obvious – that in a pluralist-materialist setting, Orthodoxy will never rise above the fray of constant competition (a competition which assumes and implicitly teaches a fundamental relativism among competing truth claims) and the trite mechanisms associated with such an environment.

American Orthodoxy?
The Ochlophobist
Wed, 30 Apr 2008 11:49:00 GMT

My thoughts on the Ochlophobist's comments:

Thinking about my own experience of the Orthodox Church both in the "rust belt" and the West Coast, I think Ochlophobist is on to something in point 4.  The Orthodox Church on the West coast, and for that matter in much of the Pacific Northwest and old West, is relatively wealthy.  Unlike the midwest and middle Atlantic regions, small economically and demographically struggling parishes are relatively (though of course not absolutely) unknown on the West coast (and the Pacific Northwest and Old West).  Ethnic identity is also less intense in the western United States.

Point 5, the necessary of not having an agenda, is also on target, though I would prefer the notion of detachment to the phrase "no agenda."  For better and worse, the large number of ex-Evangelical Christians has set the tone for Orthodox witness here in America.  Again, while there has been some good from this, for exactly the reasons outlined by Ochlophobist,  I would be hard press to say that this infusion of Evangelical Christian sensibilities is a good thing. 

While yes, we must take Evangelical Christianity seriously as the religious language of American society, it often seems that it embodies a religious world view that as commodified as the wider American milieu.  And then there is the toxic convergence of  phyletism and Evangelical sectarianism that especially, though not exclusively, on the West coast takes the form of 19th century Russian peasant chic (i.e., let's all dress as we imagine the dressed and spoke in Holy Russian in the golden age of the 19th Century--think a rather distressing tendency of some converts to dress like Fundamentalist  Later Day Saints.)

Where I might disagree (and his and your comments are welcome on this point) from the Ochlophobist is with his assessment of American culture--or rather the absence of an American culture.  Here I think I would say that yes, on a popular level at least, American society is increasingly less humane--less humanistic in the best sense of the term.  But there is underneath this popular culture, a deeper, more humane, more humanistic culture grounded not simply in the Enlightenment, but also in some of the best of western culture (in is hard for me to read Thomas Jefferson and NOT hear echoes of Aquinas).  We see this deeper culture evident not simply in the classical works of American political philosophy (e.g., the Declaration of Independence and the supporting literature, but also the US Constitution and its apology in the The Federalist Papers,  and before that the writings of de Tocqueville) and contemporary thinkers in that tradition (for example, John Courtney Murray).  And then there is the range of American literature, novelists, short story writers and essays, as well as the arts, musicals and films to which we can appeal to as embodying the best of American culture as such.

All that said, I think Ochlophobist is on to something--we are not as a Church prepared to actually incarnate the faith in an American context.  This is not, I hasten to add, primary a matter of a deficient theological education.  No, it is not that we do not understand the Fathers (though there is much work that needs to be done there for sure), but that we do not understand the foundations of the very society in which we live.

As I have alluded to at other times, putting aside for the moment our interest in Orthodox theology, there is to my view of things, a very disturbing anti-Western, and really anti-intellectual, trend in the Church.  As a quick example, more often than I care to recount, I have sat with Greek immigrants and Greek-Americans who were quite proud of the Greek language, but woefully ignorant of classical Greek philosophy and literature.  More than once, I have found that I was the only one at the table who had read Aristotle or Homer.

What I'm getting at is this, to embody the faith in American means that we need to not only be well grounded in that faith, but also the deep cultural roots of America.  Sadly, and this is significantly weaker a word that I would like to use, for many Orthodox Christians the point of being in the Church (and this includes not only "converts" but also "cradle" Orthodox) is to NOT have to wrestle with the culture. 

In a word, for all our newly found evangelical enthusiasm, we remain sectarian.  We are more interested in  the "low hanging fruit" of unhappy Evangelical Christians, mainline Protestants and disappointed Catholic and Episcopalians then we are in really doing the work required to present ourselves as a credible alternative to secular culture.  To use a phrase I heard recently, we are concerned more with "nickels and noses" than in doing the hard work of transfiguring American culture.

So thanks to the Ochlophobist for his usual insightful and provocative obsevations.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Saturday, April 26, 2008

In the Last Hours Before Pascha


Resurrection Icon

A few hours from now, I will serve my 14th celebration of the Resurrection of Our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ as an Orthodox clergyman.

The first four of those celebrations was a deacon, the last nine, and this evening's, as a priest. One year, my last year as a deacon as it happened, I actually served two Pascha liturgies—after distrubtuing Holy Communion in one parish, I throw off my vestments, jumped into the car, and was driven to a second parish that also need my help that Sunday.

For the next six celebration of the Lord's Pascha I served as a mission priest. And it was during Holy Week of that proceeded the last of those celebration that my little mission parish collapsed for reasons that are still not clear to me.

But this year, thank, I am looking to the celebration of the Anastasis without anxiety, without the dread that has until this year been my companion in years gone by. The music is different, the rubrics for the service (always a challenge in the Orthodox Church) are mostly the same as what I'm familiar with, except of course where they are different. As for the music—well, I don't know the music the community sings—and I will have to struggle to remember to sing in English (instead of my usual, and rather bad, liturgical Greek).

This evening at Liturgy we'll hear again the words that St Luke uses to begin the Acts of the Apostles:

The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which He was taken up, after He through the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom He had chosen, to whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God. And being assembled together with them, He commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, "which," He said, "you have heard from Me; for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now. Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, "Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" And He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (1.1-8).

And then, immediately following the reading from Acts, the Prologue from the Gospel of St John:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. John bore witness of Him and cried out, saying, "This was He of whom I said, 'He who comes after me is preferred before me, for He was before me.' " And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace. For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (1.1-17).

Thinking about my past, anxious celebrations, I realize that while I was quite taken by the majesty, the cosmological and the eschatological grandeur of Pascha, I lost sight of the homey, the common, ordinary and familiar face, of the celebration. How easily I allowed the weight of Pascha to overwhelm the lightness and joy of the feast.

What, after all, does it matter if the cosmos is redeemed and I lose sight of the human face of that redemption? Christ is Risen, not for angels, but for humanity. He triumphs over death for no other reason than His love for humanity. He contests with death out of His love for my neighbor and yours. It is for your sake and mine that He lay three days in the tomb and descended into Hell.

Lose sight of the human reason for Pascha, and you lose sight of the very story that St Luke offers as the second chapter to the Gospel. If we lose sight of the human reason, the human face of Pascha and how can we stand in the Presence of the Risen Christ with anything other than anxiety and worse, the sick dread that has been so often my companion on past Pascha?

The great and surpassing joy of Pascha is that Christ's resurrection embraces not some abstraction called "humanity," but rather the lives of the ordinary men and women we meet, I meet, everyday. If I cannot see with joy the faces of these people, how can I hope to see Divine Joy in the icons and music of Holy Pascha? To borrow from the Paschal Sermon of St John Chrysostom—that like every other Orthodox priest I will read tonight:

Wherefore, enter ye all into the joy of your Lord;

Receive your reward,

Both the first, and likewise the second.

You rich and poor together, hold high festival!

You sober and you heedless, honour the day!

Rejoice today, both you who have fasted

And you who have disregarded the fast.

The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously.

The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.

Enjoy ye all the feast of faith:

Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness.

Tonight,

Christ is risen, and Death is overthrown!

Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!

Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!

Christ is risen, and life reigns!

Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.

For Christ, being risen from the dead,

Is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!

In the Risen Lord Jesus Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Friday, April 25, 2008

Eschatologically Thinking

Pastoral obligations as well as travel for family events and conferences have caused me to neglect posting here with my usually regularity. So, while I had a moment, I thought I would offer some thoughts based on an excellent essay by S.M. Hutchens on Mere Comments. Wring about his attendance some years ago at a gathering of political conservatives he reflects on the difference between his own understanding of conservatism and what he appeared to be the understanding of conservatism that he saw reflected in the words and actions of some in attendance. He writes that

The principal lesson the experience drove home to me, early in adult life, was that while Christianity and "conservatism" have certain agreements, they have very different roots and very different ends. The majority of those present at this meeting would probably be called "country club Republicans" today, although I don't think the term was in use then. All signs pointed to the likelihood that this group was comprised almost exclusively of political conservatives, with whom I was used to identifying. I refused to go to subsequent meetings, and was told that I had insulted both the organization and my host by failing to avail myself of the opportunity. Regretting having disobliged the very decent man who had attempted to sponsor me, I nevertheless made it clear I had no interest in giving religious sanction to whatever game that bunch was playing--and so remained, to the chagrin of certain members of my church board, down among the immobile and shaken, joining, without knowing it, the local liberals, Catholics, and shabbier brands of Protestant in the estimation of the People Who Counted. In their minds I was not a conservative, and, given their lights, they were right.

He continues by observing that, unlike political conservatives, "The social and political operation of Christians is not based upon theorizing about what works best for the ordering of the world, but belief about what pleases the living God." Christians therefore embody, or at least should embody, "a way of thinking and acting that may or may not be agreeable to those whose understanding of the ordering of state and economy is based on a realistic appraisal of human nature coupled with an ideals of moderation and resistance to earthly utopias--that is, the classical tradition usually identified as 'conservatism.'" While there is, or ought to be at least, an affinity of Christians for "political, economic, and social conservatism" as this movement responds to the problems seen "in societies suffering from moral breakdowns" and the subsequent adverse effect that breakdown has on "all areas of life," for Christians "the difference between 'conservative' and 'liberal' theory is still only a difference between theories, one more reasonable and more in agreement with Christianity about the nature of man than the other, but still based on a theory about human good that deals only with the achievement of happiness in this world."

To be sure, not all policy decisions are compatible with the Gospel. But putting those aside for the moment, there is a more, fundamental point of disagreement between the Christian church and political conservatives (and liberals for that matter): the Gospel is necessarily eschatological. No matter what might be the content of Christian social involvement, our "ultimate desire is not the good of the world in its present form, or the comfort of human life here, but an Ultimate Good that involves giving up this world for the Life that lies beyond it. To the pure conservative this giving up is a giving over, and the Christian who does it a traditor."

In the face of the eschatological focus, of the commitment of the Christian to an "end outside the world, and its beginning in the same Place," we might find something to admire in both conservatism and liberalism, but in the end, both will "find an enemy in Christianity when the ethics of the faith overrides" the pragmatism that guides their policies. Unlike much contemporary political theory, Christians are not utopians, our commitment is not to the belief "that life on earth can be more happy and comfortable for its inhabitants" in any absolute sense. Rather, we remind the world that, for all the real joys of this life, this life is not the ultimate good.

While the Gospel blesses the good things of this life, but it reminds us that these goods are secondary and that the Kingdom of God, which is to come, is the ultimate good—or rather Good, since the Kingdom is Jesus Christ. Remembering this is important at all times, but especially during Holy Week. If from the Gospel we do not get a lasting home in this life, we do get the grace to endure our exile. The blessings of the Christian life come, at least in part, from this willingness to endure our "cosmic" homelessness. Like the Son of Man Who has no place to lay His Head, we ought ignore this world, the world for which Christ suffered His own Exile from the Throne of Glory, but neither should we lose sight of the Kingdom of God which is to come. It is only in the light of this coming glory that we can see properly the things of this life.

Kalo Pascha! (Good Pascha!)

+Fr Gregory

Friday, April 18, 2008

This Ain't God




I remind my own people, the Church is, or at least should be, a "NO SHAME" zone. God does not become incarnate to shame us, but rather (as I recently pointed out) to lift us out of our shame.

He does through the Cross, by willingly and without reservation entering into our shame, taking it upon Himself and not turning back even at the cost of His Own Life.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Hat tip: Orrologion



Thursday, April 17, 2008

Joy, Love and Our Common Good

An illustration of the traditional interior of an Orthodox ChurchImage via WikipediaContinuing yesterday's post Institutional Problems, Personal Solutions:

In moments of transition, there is a need to acknowledge, to affirm, what is going on in the community. Especially when that transition is associated with powerful feelings, be they positive or (as is more likely) negative, these need to be acknowledge and given a place within the life of the community. Practically this means helping people listen to and identify their feelings. More important still, people often need help in situated their feelings within the larger process of the community's transition, even as the community's transition needs itself to be situated within the larger story of the Gospel (i.e., oriented).

As I think about things, it seems to me that helping and compassion are fundamentally about orientation and acknowledgment. This doesn't mean I ought not to offer practical solutions where that is possible. But these solutions to actually be practical, to really be helpful and compassionate, must grow out of orientation and acknowledgement. At a minimum, if I don't know where the community is going (orientation), or if I don't know what people are struggle with (acknowledgment), then my help and compassion is likely to be ineffective. Worse, I may be serving my own needs rather than the community's.

Finally, playfulness.

Playfulness is not a value we usually associate with the Orthodox Church. And yet, in every traditional Orthodox culture there is a tradition of feasting, of music and dance. Pastorally I have found that one the best ways to unite an ethnically mixed community is to encourage people to eat each other's foods, sample each other's alcohols, and to encourage and welcome everyone's music, language and customs.

None of this can be done if the leadership—clerical or lay—or overly serious. There is a place, a valuable and important place, in our spiritual lives for frivolity, for fun.

If I were to make any critical comment about the way in which the Orthodox Church response pastorally to transitions, it is that we are often not very playful. Sometimes we are so deadly serious. But playfulness admits a bit of space, it allows us some room to move without being self-conscious or anxious. This all to say, that we must cultivate in our communities, a real sense of joy.

This is hard to cultivate of we are unwilling to look at ourselves honestly. It is hard to cultivate joy if we either take our eyes off the Kingdom of God, or the practical steps along the way. And apart from our willing to bear each other's burdens there can be no joy.

But while all this is true, without joy these other things are likewise impossible.

In a 1983 homily for Forgiveness Sunday, Fr Alexander Schmemann says:

As once more we are
about to enter the Great Lent, I would like to remind us – myself first of all, and all of you my fathers, brothers, and sisters – of the verse that we just sang, one of the stichera, and that verse says: "Let us begin Lent, the Fast, with joy."

Only yesterday we were commemorating Adam crying, lamenting at the gates of Paradise, and now every second line of the Triodion and the liturgical books of Great Lent will speak of repentance, acknowledging what dark and helpless lives we live, in which we sometimes are immersed. And yet, no one will prove to me that the general tonality of Great Lent is not that of a tremendous joy! Not what we call "joy" in this world – not just something entertaining, interesting, or amusing – but the deepest definition of joy, that joy of which Christ says: "no one will take away from you" (Jn. 16:22). Why joy? What is that joy?

Fr Alexander answers his own question by saying that Lent is a gift. And while this gift has many facets, is the gift that makes possible our

return to each other: this is where we begin tonight. This is what we are doing right now. For if we would think of the real sins we have committed, we would say that one of the most important is exactly the style and tonality which we maintain with each other: our complaining and criticizing. I don't think that there are cases of great and destructive hatred or assassination, or something similar. It is just that we exist as if we are completely out of each other's life, out of each other's interests, out of each other's love. Without having repaired this relationship, there is no possibility of entering into Lent. Sin – whether we call it "original" sin or "primordial" sin – has broken the unity of life in this world, it has broken time, and time has become that fragmented current which takes us into old age and death. It has broken our social relations, it has broken families. Everything is diabolos – divided and destroyed. But Christ has come into the world and said: "... and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself" (Jn. 12:32).

In the final analysis, all communities are, in one form or another, in transition because all human beings are in transition. What we learn from those communities that are suffering because of a trauma is that our love for one another is maybe not as deeply rooted and firmly held as we might like to think. I am not as loving as I imagine I am—the sign of that is my lack of joy.

In helping communities and individuals negotiate transitions, I must first and foremost love them. This love is not by any means sentimental. It is rather the willingness on my part to bring to place all that God has given me personally, professionally and as a priest of the Orthodox, at the service of the person in front of me. Reflecting both as a social scientist, and more importantly as a Christian, I have come to realize that it is only in my willingness to serve the good of this unique person that I am able as well to serve the common good of the institution, of the parish or diocese that is also my concern.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Institutional Problems, Personal Solutions

Dysfunction in the context of a religious community is one of my areas of research interest. As an Orthodox Christian who is also a social scientist, I am more than a little distressed at the lack of good research that examines how as a community the Orthodox Church responds to the different kinds of trauma that can happen in a parish or diocese. Absent this research, we might find ourselves, for example, at a loss as to how to respond pastorally to the unexpected death of a child in the parish, or some kind of misconduct on the part of a trusted lay or clerical leaders, or any of a myriad other more or less predictable events.

Recently Emory University's business school published an interesting article entitled "When Supporting Employees Enhances a Company's Competitive Advantage" on their blog Knowledge@Emory. The article summarizes the contribution on this issue made by panelists during the fourth annual Atlanta Competitive Advantage Conference (ACAC) held at Emory University's Goizueta Business School.

One comment that stood out for me was that made by Margaret Cording, assistant professor of management, Jones Graduate School of Management, Rice University. She said that during times of change, employees actually "go out there looking for signs of fair treatment" by those in management. In other words, as Cording and her co-author D. Brent Smith, associate professor at the London Business School, argued during times of key change, a firm's performance is increased when the firm demonstrates fairness and care for the employees' emotional well being. According to the article, Goizueta's Russell Coff argues that "the link between employee satisfaction and performance indicates . . . that a problem at the macro level might best be solved at the micro level."

What does this mean for the life of the local parish in times of transition?

In simple terms it means that the resources of the parish, and by extension the diocese, need to be intentionally at the service of the good of individual parishioners and clergy. Monica Worline, assistant professor of organization and management at Goizueta Business School, in her paper, "Organizing Resilience by Cultivating Resources: A Practice Perspective," argued that five practices:

  • Orienting
  • Acknowledging
  • Playing
  • Helping
  • Acting with Compassion

were important in the cultivation of personal and share resources—knowledge, positive emotion and high quality connection—that were important in foster resilience in response to the stress associated with change. As the article notes that in the hospital billing unit that the study examined there was a

tendency to "celebrate everything," she says. "From most manager's perspectives, 'playing' is a waste of time. But doing fun things, [the billing department] cultivated this positive emotion, this ability to tackle challenges. And that helped them adapt at a collective level." Additionally, when one employee faced a personal financial crisis, fellow employees left an envelope with cash on her desk. "These things go on all the time [in the unit]," says Worline. The practice of "noticing suffering," adds Worline, cultivates relational knowledge and attention—resources that also help employees be more adept in their work.

Looking at the list, I wonder how these might be applied to a parish in transition?

In my ministry I have found that the last two practices, "helping," and "acting with compassion" are not effective and rarely raise above the level of the sentimental apart from the first two practices, "orienting" and "acknowledging." Pastorally this means making clear not simply the ultimate goal of the parish (the Kingdom of God) but also the more proximate and immediate goals of the community. These goals, even if they are rather prosaic, are important as steps along the way to the Kingdom of God.

Often we fail to realize that while these proximate and immediately goals are secondary and contingent, they are still important. There importance comes not only from the fact that they are steps along the way, but because the make concrete in our everyday experience our own journey to the Kingdom of God. Our experience of the Kingdom cannot be divorced from our daily experience. Why? Because while we are not "of this world," we are certainly "in this world" and this cannot be forgotten. This, or so it seems to me, is one major themes of the Epistle of St James, faith and works are not divorced (2.13-26).

But being right practical and eschatological orientation is not sufficient.

To be continued…

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Shamed No More: The Triumphant Entrance of Christ


Sunday, April 20, 2008: ENTRY OF OUR LORD INTO JERUSALEM (Palm Sunday). Ven. Theodore Trichinas ("the Hair-shirt Wearer"), Hermit, near Constantinople. Ven. Alexander, Abbot of Oshevensk (1479). Child Martyr Gabriel of Bialystok (1690). Ss. Gregory (593) and Anastasius the Sinaite (599), Patriarchs of Antioch. Ven. Anastasius, Abbot of Sinai (695).

Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was who had been dead, whom He had raised from the dead. There they made Him a supper; and Martha served, but Lazarus was one of those who sat at the table with Him. Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. But one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, who would betray Him, said,Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor? This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it. But Jesus said, "Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial. For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always. Now a great many of the Jews knew that He was there; and they came, not for Jesus' sake only, but that they might also see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead. But the chief priests plotted to put Lazarus to death also, because on account of him many of the Jews went away and believed in Jesus. The next day a great multitude that had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, and cried out: Hosanna! 'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!' The King of Israel!" Then Jesus, when He had found a young donkey, sat on it; as it is written:

Fear not, daughter of Zion; Behold, your King is coming, Sitting on a donkey's colt."

His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written about Him and that they had done these things to Him. Therefore the people, who were with Him when He called Lazarus out of his tomb and raised him from the dead, bore witness. For this reason the people also met Him, because they heard that He had done this sign.

John 12:1-18)

Reading the sermons of St John Chrysostom it is hard for understand why he seems to be so marginal to the theological life of the Church. His work us especially important for those of us who are interested in reflecting on the pastoral life of the Christian community. Chrysostom's sermon (Homily LXVI) on John 12 is a case in point.

St John begins with his usual forthrightness: "As wealth is wont to hurl into destruction those who are not heedful, so also is power; the first leads into covetousness, the second into pride." He then proceeds to examine the events recounted in the Gospel passage for Palm Sunday.

See, for instance, how the subject multitude of the Jews is sound, and their rulers corrupt; for that the first of these believed Christ, the Evangelists continually assert, saying, that "many of the multitude believed on Him" (Jn 7: 31, 48); but they who were of the rulers, believed not. And they themselves say, not the multitude, "Hath any of the rulers believed on Him?" But what saith one? "The multitude who know not God are accursed" (Jn 7: 49); the believers they call accursed, and themselves the slayers, wise.

The unwillingness of the rulers to accept the Christ reflects not such much a lack of faith, but the presence of pride and a desire to hold on to the power that they have acquired. Where the majority saw a reason for belief, for example, in the raising of Lazarus from the dead by Jesus, those who coveted power saw a pressing need to "kill Lazarus." By an act of human power these men hope to be able to overcome the power of God in their midst.

The rulers had Chrysostom says at least contrived grounds "to slay Christ." After all "He broke the Sabbath," and "He made Himself equal to the Father," and He represented a threat to Roman rule. But "what charge had they against Lazarus that they sought to kill him? Is the having received a benefit a crime? See thou how murderous is their will?" It is here that Chrysostom diagnosis the illness that afflicts many in the Church: I see God's bestow of blessing on my neighbor as somehow an affront to me.

And the greater the miracle, the greater seems to be my anger and jealousy.

Yet He had worked many miracles; but none exasperated them so much as this one, not the paralytic, not the blind. For this was more wonderful in its nature, and was wrought after many others, and it was a strange thing to see one, who had been dead four days, walking and speaking.

The malice I feel toward my neighbor reflects my deeper animosity toward God Himself. The great temptation of any who have power and authority is first to try and "to draw away the multitudes." And when I fail at this, when it is clear that I can find "no fault" with Christ, what choice do I have but to kill the one who Christ has blessed?

Since then the charge which they continually brought against Him was removed, and the miracle was evident, they hasten to murder. So that they would have done the same in the case of the blind man, had it not been in their power to find fault respecting the Sabbath. Besides, that man was of no note, and they cast him out of the temple; but Lazarus was a person of distinction, as is clear, since many came to comfort his sisters; and the miracle was done in the sight of all, and most marvelously. On which account all ran to see. This then stung them, that while the feast was going on, all should leave it and go to Bethany. They set their hand therefore to kill him, and thought they were not daring anything, so murderous were they. On this account the8 Law at its commencement opens with this, "Thou shall not kill" (Ex. xx. 13); and the Prophet brings this charge against them, "Their hands are full of blood." (Is 1,15).

And when even this fails? When I am unable to kill the one who Christ has blessed?

Murder to be murder need not slay the body. Jesus makes this clear in the Gospel when He tells us "do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Mt 10.28). Commenting on this passage St Augustine tells (LXV Ben) us that in saying this Jesus teaches us "in fearing not to fear, and in not fearing to fear. " He continues

See where He advised us not to fear. See now where He advised us to fear. "But," says he, "fear Him who has power to destroy both body and soul in hell." Let us fear therefore, that we may not fear. Fear seems to be allied to cowardice: seems to be the character of the weak, not the strong. But see what says the Scripture, "The fear of the Lord is the hope of strength." Let us then fear, that we may not fear; that is, let us fear prudently, that we may not fear vainly. The holy Martyrs on the occasion of whose solemnity this lesson was read out of the Gospel, in fearing, feared not; because in fearing God, they did not regard men.

As the events of Great and Holy Week make clear, what the rulers of the Jews feared was Roman power and authority. And what the rulers feared as well was the loss of their own power and authority if they lost Roman favor. Like all who acquisition of power has given birth to pride, what I fear is not God but human opinion.

This plays itself concretely in human communities through shaming.

We get an example of this is Judas' criticism of the woman who anointed Jesus' feet with myrrh; "Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?" Here we can see the power of shame. Shame minimizing the good we have done by contrasting it negatively with the good that we do not do.

Human life being what it is, every good thing that we do necessarily leaves a myriad of other equally good, or even better, things undone. And how can it be otherwise? We are creatures, we are finite and so our power to do the good is always and everywhere limited. Shame exploits human finitude, human limitations. And it does so in such a way as to cause us to turn against our own humanity—the shameful of shame is that it cause us to reject our own humanity, to condemn ourselves not for our sinfulness, but our creatureliness. (As an aside, it is not unexpected that shame is often associated with sex. Our sex, our being male or female, is intrinsic to our identity. While sex does not exhaust human identity, it is still foundational to that identity.)

Like Judas, those who exercise power in a shaming fashion do so not simply for their own profit, but for a profit that comes at the expense of others. "This he [Judas] said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it." Shame is the consequence of those in power using their power to exploit us in our weakness. And again, because we are creatures, because we do not possess our one existence but receive it each moment as a free gift, we are all of us weak and so vulnerable to exploitation by others.

Given as well that to be human is to be a relational being our vulnerability is global. Because our absolute dependence upon God is incarnated as a relative dependence upon other human beings, shame remains a universal aberrant possibility in human relationships.

For many of us, sadly, the Christian life is often a life of shame, of turning toward the gift of our own life and humanity not with gratitude, but disdain or even despair. Like the woman in the Gospel, the gift we have received from God and which in gratitude we return to Him, is often greeted with self-serving contempt by those around us. Especially when that contempt comes from a Christian brother or sister, or worse still a father or mother in Christ, the wound is unimaginably deep and painful.

It is worth noting that the Gospel story of Christ's triumphal entrance into Jerusalem embraces not simply the political, but also the personal. Yes, Jesus challenges the authority, the power and the pride of the political and religious rulers of this world. But He also makes manifest that same challenge in the midst of the more ordinary, homey relationship that make up our everyday life. Jesus challenges not simply the powerful of this world, but the human heart out of which that attachment to power arises.

It is worth remembering that even as we are all vulnerable to shame, we are all of us also tempted to shame others. The vulnerability that shame exploits is shared—we are all of us able to wound as well as to be wounded. The Gospel that embraces says "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," (Gal 3:27-28) finds its opposite number in our shared sinfulness. In sin there is also "Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female." But where in Christ this opens us the Infinite God and to each, sin closes us in on ourselves and so to God and to our neighbor.

The divine response to sin's toxic mixture power, pride, shame that exploits human ontological and psychological vulnerabilities is to come to us in humility, "Sitting on a donkey's colt." It is because of the humility of God that we are able to live without free. As Chrysostom reminds us, unlike kings of this world who are "the most part . . . unjust and covetous kind of men," our God is "meek and gentle."

The powerful of this world, and this includes at moments each of us, cannot see this. In my sinfulness, in my love of power, I am offended by, a King Who suffers and is betrayed. It simply cannot be this way for Him, but only because I do not wish it to be this way for me.

But the Kingdom that Jesus comes to announce is not of this world. It is an eschatological Kingdom that, by its very natures, comes as gift and so confounds all human attempts at power and control. It is, humanly speaking, a powerless Kingdom. And paradoxically it is in its powerlessness that the true power of the Kingdom of God is revealed.

St. John Chrysostom says "I call Him King, because I see Him crucified: it belongs to the King to die for His subjects." On Palm Sunday, on His Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, Jesus reveals Himself as the King Who has come to die for His subjects. And in so doing He puts to death our sinfulness and liberates us from the grip of shame that gives pride its real authority in our life.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Shakespeare's Who's On First

An Elizabethan twist on Abbot and Costello's famous vaudeville routine. Performed by STNJ actors David Foubert and Jay Leibowitz on New Year's Eve of 2006 in Morristown, NJ. Written by Jay Leibowitz and directed by Jason King Jones. Material Copyright 2007 Jay Leibowitz - www.jayleibowitz.com.




hat tip: Dr Platypus

Monday, April 14, 2008

Reflections on St Isaac the Syrian-Part IV

Thinking about St Isaac the Syrian and having read his works to great personal, pastoral and professional profit, I tend to view his work much like I do the questions I ask in therapy or confession. Much like a Zen koan, St Isaac's work is given to the Church by God to provoke reflection on the Gospel and our own personal and communal stance relative to God. And so I find myself agree with BH when he says that "Isaac's teaching on universal salvation evokes the following questions: what is the sense of the whole drama of human history, if both good and evil are ultimately to be found on an equal footing in the face of God's mercifulness? What is the sense of sufferings, ascetic labour and prayer, if sinners will be sooner or later equated with the righteous? Besides, how far do Isaac's opinions correspond to the Christian tradition and to the teaching of the Gospel, in particular, to the Parable of the Last Judgment, where the question concerns the separation of the 'sheep' and the 'goats'?"

What self-knowledge I have suggests to me the truth that I need to believe in a Hell populated with other people. Even if I rarely will admit that to myself, much less others, I recognize in me the bitterness, the anger, the desire for revenge that resonates deeply with a populated Hell. One of the good reasons I am as attracted to psychoanalytic thought is that it serves to remind me of just how hard real healing is—and theologically it is hard because, as a sinner, wholeness does not naturally attract me.

This division within myself is one that I replicate in my view of humanity. But St Isaac "in speaking about the absence of any middle realm between Gehenna and the Kingdom of heaven" is not denying "the reality of the separation of the sheep from the goats, . . . he even explicitly refers to it." No he is concerned, I would suggest, in imitating the God Who does not separate Himself from either the sheep or the goats, the repentant or the unrepentant, the saint or the sinner, the virtuous or the vicious. We should is the saint's view ponder daily the reality of the Last Judgment. But I asking us to do so, is to make clear to us that "the present life is a time when the separation actually takes place, and the Last Judgment will only reveal that spiritual state which was reached by a person during his life." Isaac's teaching is not, BH argues, "a dogmatic statement concerning the final destiny of the righteous and sinners, but as a prophetic warning against not having and manifesting love for one's fellow humans during one's earthly life."

I can immediately hear the objections that are raised. Let me simply say for myself, it does not speak well of me that I need the threat of Hell to love, much less that I believe that I think you do and that I am the appointed agent to deliver that stern warning.

For Isaac, God is primarily a householder making those who worked only one hour equal to those who have borne the burden of the whole day (Matt.20:1-15). A place in the Kingdom of heaven is given to a person not on the basis of his worthiness or unworthiness, but rather on the basis of God's mercy and love towards humankind. The Kingdom of heaven is not a reward, and Gehenna is not a requital: both are gifts of the merciful God 'Who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth' (1 Tim.2:4).

When I was in college one of the great Christological debates in academic theology centered on the self-awareness of Christ. What was it like for Jesus to be aware of Himself? Did He know Himself with His mind to be the Pre-Eternal Son of God? Oh how we all went round and round on these and other questions.

That is until the day we asked Fr Christopher Rabay, a pious Cistercian priest. After a moment's pause he said that having himself never been God become man, he had no frame of reference to even begin to answer the question. After all, he continued, he didn't even understand how the saints thought himself not being a saint. Likewise, I think it is good to keep in mind that "the theological system of Isaac the Syrian is based on the direct experience of the mystical union of an ascetic with the love of God." Whatever else this might mean existentially, St Isaac offers us an insight into an experience of God and His creation that "excludes any possibility of envy of other human beings, even to those who have reached a higher spiritual state and thus have a chance of receiving a higher place in the Kingdom of heaven." For the saint, and unlike me, the spiritual life bears fruit in an "experience of unity with God as love is so full of delight in itself that it is not for the sake of any future reward that a person prays, suffers and toils in ascetical labours: in this very suffering, in this very prayer and ascetical labour, the experience of encounter with God is concealed." For St Isaac, and unlike me, the "reason for prayer, bearing afflictions and keeping the commandments is, therefore, not one's striving to leave other human beings behind and to obtain a place in the age to come that is higher than theirs." Instead, he tells us that the only "reason for all ascetical toils is the experience of the grace of God which a person acquires through them. An encounter with God, a direct mystical experience of the divine love which one receives during one's lifetime is, for Isaac, the only justification for all struggles and efforts."

I would be the first to admit that, view from the vantage of systematic theology, St Isaac's teaching leaves something to be desired. But then view from the viewpoint of systematic theology, so does poetry and the text of Scripture. But this is not to pit systematic theology against mystical prayer any more that the deficiencies of physiology, psychology, sociology, to capture what it means for me to say to my wife, "I love you" means that these disciplines are of no value. What I am saying, I think, is this, let us be wary of St Isaac's teaching, but that wariness ought not to be born out of an indifference to the delight and joy his teaching can inspire in us.

St Isaac writes:

Be at peace with your own soul

then heaven & earth will be at peace with you.


Enter eagerly into the treasure

house that is within you,


And you will see the things that are in heaven,

for there is but one single entry to them both.


The ladder that leads to the Kingdom

is hidden within your soul...


Dive into yourself and in your soul

and you will discover the stairs

by which to ascend.

I cannot help but wonder how much of our concern about matters pertaining to the life to come reflect our being at peace within our own souls. Nor can I shake the feeling that, for all our theological erudition, if our objection to St Isaac of Syria and our defense of Hell and of divine justice trumping divine mercy, does not likewise reflect that lack of peace. Whatever else might be the case, if you are condemned for all eternity to Hell, I can easily think myself "absolved" of any responsibility for you. And yes I know, the universalist tendency allows for a similar neglect of my neighbor and of myself. But, again as St Isaac says:

Gratefulness on the part of the recipient spurs on the giver to bestow gifts larger than before. He who embezzles petty things is also false and fraudulent concerning things of importance.

The sick one who is acquainted with his sickness is easily to be cured; and he who confesses his pain is near to health. Many are the pains of the hard heart; and when the sick one resists the physician, his torments will be augmented.

There is no sin which cannot be pardoned except that one which lacks repentance, and there is no gift which is not augmented save that which remains without acknowledgement. For the portion of the fool is small in his eyes.

In my own experience, and again I am certainly no saint, generosity of spirit, a willingness to not reject or abandon another human being, is certainly harder, but eve so much more effective.

In Christ our True God, the Physician of our souls and body, the One heals our every disease and Who forgives us our every sin,

+Fr Gregory

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Reflections on St Isaac the Syrian-Part III

For many where St Isaac's teaching becomes questionable is when the universal scope of God's love is extended beyond creation to embrace eschatology.

As BH writes:

According to Isaac, the final outcome of the history of the universe must correspond to the majesty of God, and that the final destiny of the humans should be worthy of God's mercifulness. 'I am of the opinion that He is going to manifest some wonderful outcome', Isaac claims, 'a matter of immense and ineffable compassion on the part of the glorious Creator, with respect to the ordering of this difficult matter of Gehenna's torment: out of it the wealth of His love and power and wisdom will become known all the more - and so will the insistent might of the waves of His goodness. It is not the way of the compassionate Maker to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in punishment for things of which He knew even before they were fashioned, aware how they would turn out when He created them - and whom nonetheless He created' (II/39,6).

His Grace continues:

All afflictions and sufferings which fall to everyone's lot are sent from God with the aim of bringing a person to an inner change. Isaac comes to an important conclusion: God never retaliates for the past, but always cares for our future. '...All kinds and manner of chastisements and punishments that come from Him', Isaac suggests, 'are not brought about in order to requite past actions, but for the sake of the subsequent gain to be gotten in them... This is what the Scriptures bring to our attention and remind us of.., that God is not one who requites evil, but He sets aright evil' (II/39,15-16).

Central to St Isaac's eschatological vision is the idea that "love contradicts the idea of requital." For Isaac, BH argues, "if we are to suppose that God will punish sinners eternally, this would mean that the creation of the world was a mistake, as God proved to be unable to oppose evil, which is not within His will. If we ascribe requital to God's actions, we apply weakness to God: 'So then, let us not attribute to God's actions and His dealings with us any idea of requital. Rather, we should speak of fatherly provision, a wise dispensation, a perfect will which is concerned with our good, and complete love. If it is a case of love, then it is not one of requital; and if it is a case of requital, then it is not one of love' (II/39,17).

At the core of what is being taught is the reality that we simply do not understand God. All we know of Him we know by way of His free revelation to us. This is simply to day that all "God's actions are mysteries that are inaccessible to human reasoning" and this includes the mystery of Hell or "Gehenna." Where many Christians, and not simply Western Christians, view hell as a place of torment and punishment, St Isaac sees it in more therapeutic terms as a place created by God "in order to bring to a state of perfection those who had not reached it during their lifetime" BH goes so far as to describe hell in St Isaac's teaching as "a sort of purgatory rather than hell" as that term is more generally understood. That Gehenna is a place of purification is something "hidden from those who are chastised in it." The true meaning if their confinement there is something that "will be revealed only after Gehenna is abolished" and when "All those who have fallen away from God will eventually return to Him [having been purified] through the fire of suffering and repentance."

Speaking personally for a moment, I find the teaching presented by St Isaac to be both attractive and troubling. Attractive because I find comfort in the idea that God will never abandon me, never cease to love me. I find it troubling—and here I must be honest with myself—because I think it lets OTHER people off the hook for their bad behavior. In my mind's eye I can see a parade of wicked, and not so wicked, people appealing to St Isaac to justify their own malfeasances.

Damn it all, I need bad people to be punished, or at least I need to be able to threaten them with punishment to keep them in line.

And there it is of course. God doesn't need hell, but I certainly do. I need to think that justice will be done and that the wrongs I suffered (though not the wrongs I committed) will be righted. And righted they will, Isaac suggests, but by divine love and mercy and not justice.

Isaac was quite resentful of the
widespread opinion that the majority of people will be punished in hell, and only a small group of the chosen will delight in Paradise. He is convinced that, quite the contrary, the majority of people will find themselves in the Kingdom of heaven, and only a few sinners will go to Gehenna, and even they only for the period of time which is necessary for their repentance and remission of sins: 'By the device of grace the majority of humankind will enter the Kingdom of heaven without the experience of Gehenna. But this is apart from those who, because of their hardness of heart and utter abandonment to wickedness and the lusts, fail to show remorse in suffering for their faults and their sins, and because these people have not been disciplined at all. For God's holy Nature is so good and compassionate that it is always seeking to find some small means of putting us in the right, how He can forgive human beings their sins - like the case of the tax collector who was put in the right by the intensity of his prayer (Luke 18:14), or like the case of a woman with two small coins (Mark 12:42-43; Luke 21:2-3), or the man who received forgiveness on the Cross (Luke 23:40-43). For God wishes for our salvation, and not for reasons to torment us' (II/40,12).

To repeat what I said at the beginning, Isaac the Syrian explicitly teaches universal salvation. But while the Orthodox Church rejected the teaching apokatastasis ton panton (restoration of all), in BH's view Isaac is teaching something different from "the universal salvation [inherent in an] Origenist 'restoration of all'. For

Origen, universal restoration is not the end of the world, but a passing phase from one created world to another, which will come into existence after the present world has come to its end. This idea is alien to Christian tradition and unknown to Isaac. The latter is more dependent on other ancient writers, notably Theodore of Mopsuestia and Diodore of Tarsus, who also developed the idea of universal salvation, yet in a way different from Origen's. On the other hand, it would not be fair to say that Isaac simply borrowed the ideas of his predecessors and inserted them into his own writings. Isaac's eschatological optimism and his belief in universal salvation are ultimate outcomes of his personal theological vision, whose central idea is that of God as love. Around this idea the whole of his theological system is shaped.

BH's distinction here is, I must admit, lost on me. As I get older I become ever more content to leave the heavy theological lifting to those with intellects, and prayer lives, better than my own. Again, the older I get the more I realize that I do not pray well enough to do theology as it ought to be done even as I pray to well to be happy doing theology the way that it is done. And so I find myself evermore content that God has made me a priest-psychologist rather than a priest-theologian.

To be continued…

In Christ our True God, the Physician of our souls and body, the One heals our every disease and Who forgives us our every sin,

+Fr Gregory

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Reflections on St Isaac the Syrian-Part II

Reading what I've written, I am put in mind of the many people I serve in my own ministry that has me standing more often than not in that gray area between spiritual direction and psychotherapy. So many of the people I encounter live lives ruled by shame, guilt, fear, dread, doubt and even a quiet, though no less real, sense of despair. More often than not, this is ground the person's lack of a felt awareness that he or she "is a continuing realization of the creative potential of God, an endless revelation of the Divinity in His creative act." It is this love that is not only the foundation of the person's identity, it is also "at the foundation of the universe, it governs the world, and it will lead the world to that glorious outcome when the latter will be entirely 'consumed' by the Godhead: 'What profundity of richness, what mind and exalted wisdom is God's! What compassionate kindness and abundant goodness belong to the Creator! With what purpose and with what love did He create this world and bring it into existence! What a mystery does the coming into being of the creation look towards! To what a state is our common nature invited! What love served to initiate the creation of the world..! In love did He bring the world into existence; in love is He going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised' (II/38,1-2)."

Unfortunately, it is not simply that we fail to understand our identity, but we often work against who we are and are called to be by God. The standard for human life is not my own good, much less my own desires, but rather that of God Whose "attitude to the created world is characterized by an unceasing providential care for all its inhabitants: for angels and demons, human beings and animals. God's providence is universal and embraces all (I/7, 65). None of His creatures is excluded from the scope of the loving providence of God, but the love of the Creator is bestowed equally upon all: '...There is not a single nature who is in the first place or last place in creation in the Creator's knowledge.., similarly there is no before or after in His love towards them: no greater or lesser amount of love is to be found with Him at all. Rather, just like the continual equality of His knowledge, so too is the continual equality of His love' (II/38,3).

St Isaac paints a picture of a God Who holds all creation in His "providential care." That this care extends to angels and demons, the human beings and the organic and inorganic world is itself a certain type of universalism to be sure, but this is a universalism that sees all creation in a "hierarchical structure" and in which each creature is given his or her own place in the universe and this is place that cannot be "taken away from anyone even if one falls away from God." As Isaac teaches: "Everyone has a single place in His purpose in the ranking of love, corresponding to the form He beheld in them before He created them and all the rest of created beings, that is, at the time before the eternal purpose for the delineation of the world was put into effect... He has a single ranking of complete and impassible love towards everyone, and He has a single caring concern for those who have fallen, just as much as for those who have not fallen" (II/40,3).

Scandalous no doubt to many—and not simply Western Christians—is St Isaac's unwillingness to allow God's justice to override His mercy.

Thus the image of God as Judge is completely overshadowed in Isaac by the image of God as Love (hubba) and Mercy (rahme). According to him, mercifulness (mrahmanuta) is incompatible with justice (k'inuta): 'Mercy is opposed to justice. Justice is equality of the even scale, for it gives to each as he deserves... Mercy, on the other hand, is a sorrow and pity stirred up by goodness, and it compassionately inclines a man in the direction of all; it does not requite a man who is deserving of evil, and to him who is deserving of good it gives a double portion. If, therefore, it is evident that mercy belongs to the portion of righteousness, then justice belongs to the portion of wickedness. As grass and fire cannot coexist in one place, so justice and mercy cannot abide in one soul'. Thus one cannot speak at all of God's justice, but rather of mercy that surpasses all justice: 'As a grain of sand cannot counterbalance a great quantity of gold, so in comparison God's use of justice cannot counterbalance His mercy. As a handful of sand thrown into the great sea, so are the sins of the flesh in comparison with the mind of God. And just as a strongly flowing spring is not obscured by a handful of dust, so the mercy of the Creator is not stemmed by the vices of His creatures' (I/51, 244).

The goal here is not, as it might be a different context, to articulate divine justice, but rather any appeal to divine justice that has as its call the "decisiveness . . . of requital." Rather, Isaac wants to make clear that

God loves equally the righteous and sinners, making no distinction between them. God knew man's future sinful life before the latter's creation, yet He created him (II/5,11). God knew all people before their becoming righteous or sinners, and in His love He did not change because of the fact that they underwent change (II/38,3). Even many blameworthy deeds are accepted by God with mercy, 'and are forgiven their authors, without any blame, by the omniscient God to whom all things are revealed before they happen, and who was aware of the constraints of our nature before He created us. For God, who is good and compassionate, is not in the habit of judging the infirmities of human nature or actions brought about by necessity, even though they may be reprehensible (II/14,15).

For this reason, BH points out that even "when God chastises one, He does this out of love and for the sake of one's salvation rather than for the sake of retribution." There is in God, unlike fallen human beings, an absence of coercion. Rather, and somewhat scandalously to the mindset of the ancient world, "God respects human free will and does not want to do anything against it: 'God chastises with love, not for the sake of revenge… Far be it that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness!' (I/48, 230).

To be continued…

In Christ our True God, the Physician of our souls and body, the One heals our every disease and Who forgives us our every sin,

+Fr Gregory

Friday, April 11, 2008

Eastern Christian Blog Awards

Josephus Flavius is hosting a new site Eastern Christian Blog Awards which he describes as "the initial website for the inaugural (often erroneously called "first annual" tsk tsk) Eastern Christian Blog Awards. Please click on the links below to submit names for submission in their respective fields. Feel free to submit more than one entry per category. Based on the number of submissions the voting will begin in 1 to 3 weeks."

The contest is straight forward and "open to all Eastern Christian blogs regardless of affiliation. Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Catholic, Assyrian Church of the East et al. are welcome and encouraged to be submitted for voting." The categories for the award are:

  • Best Blog on the Domestic Church: Blogging about everyday life informed by faith - family, home, work-life, and everything in between.
  • Best Individual Blog: Preeminent blog written by an individual.
  • Best Group Blog: Premier blog worked on by a group of people.
  • Best Church News Blog: Best blog at keeping up with current events and providing insightful commentary.
  • Best Theology Blog: Most well regarded blog on matters theological. This doesn't require lofty examinations of arcane topics, but perspicacity that enlightens and provokes thoughtful discussion.
  • Funniest Blog: A blog that is simply, unequivocally funny.
  • Most Visually Attractive Blog: A blog that either presents beautiful images on a regular basis, has a well designed blog format, or in some other way is pleasing to the eye.

You can contact Josephus Flavius either by following the link in the title or by emailing him ecawards at gmail dot com.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Reflections on St Isaac the Syrian, Part I

c. 1220Image via Wikipedia

Recently His Grace, Bishop Hilarion (Alfeyev) of the Moscow Patriarchate delivered a paper at the World Congress on Divine Mercy, that meet at Lateran Basilica, Rome, 4 April 2008. While the paper, "St Isaac the Syrian, a theologian of love and mercy," received a good response in the media, as I mentioned to a Roman Catholic friend who emailed me, the report was less than accurate in its summary of His Grace's argument. Contrary to what the report suggests, neither Bishop Hilarion, much less the Orthodox Church as a whole holds to a universalist view of salvation.

This is not to say, I hasten to add, that we ought not to hope that all will be saved. We should devotedly hope that such is the case.

Nor do I mean it to deny that there is certainly a tendency among Orthodox Christians that lends itself to a universalist view (for example, the writings of St Isaac the Syrian that formed the substance of Bishop Hilarion's remarks). But to say this is our hope and even this our tendency, is very different from saying this we believe.

I thought that I would reflect on some of what I see as the more interesting points of Bishop Hilarion's talk. These reflections, like my blog as a whole, reflect my own admittedly eccentric interests and ought not to be taken as the dogma of the Church.

So, let us begin.

His Grace begins his talk by saying that he is presenting "the teaching of St Isaac the Syrian, one of the greatest theologians of the Orthodox tradition, on love and mercy." After a brief biographical sketch of this 7th century hermit, Bishop Hilarion (hereafter BH), summarizes the major points of St Isaac's teaching on love and mercy. Specifically BH address the St Isaac's teaching on the created and eschatological manifestation of love and mercy. Both of these are ground is Isaac's understanding of God.

Regarding the first, he writes that "first of all immeasurable and boundless love. The idea of God as love is central and dominant in Isaac's thought: it is the main source of his theological opinions, ascetical recommendations and mystical insights. His theological system cannot be comprehended apart from this fundamental idea." BH continues with an explication on creation as a manifestation of God's "immeasurable and boundless love."

On the one hand, "Divine love is beyond human understanding and above all description in words." Nevertheless, and at "the same time it is reflected in God's actions with respect to the created world and humankind: 'Among all His actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and the end of His dealings with us' (II/39,22). (Here and below the figure 'II' refers to Part II of Isaac's writings: Isaac of Nineveh, 'The Second Part', chapters IV-XLI, translated by Sebastian Brock, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium 555, Scriptores syri 225, Louvain, 1995). Both the creation of the world and God's coming on earth in flesh had the only aim, 'to reveal His boundless love to the world' (Chapters on Knowledge IV,79)."

For St Isaac, and the main thrust of the Christian tradition East and West with him, creation (and this includes the human person, body, soul and spirit; you, me and everybody) is not morally neutral. Nor is it "good" in a narrow moral or ontological sense. No for Isaac creation is fundamentally sacramental, it makes manifest and tangible divine love. BH quotes St Isaac to the effect that it is in and through the creation of the world that "divine love revealed itself in all its fullness." And so, in the words of St Isaac:

What that invisible Being is like, who is without any beginning in His nature, unique in Himself, who is by nature beyond the knowledge, intellect and feel of created beings, who is beyond time and space, being the Creator of these, who… made a beginning of time, bringing the worlds and created beings into existence. Let us consider then, how rich in its wealth is the ocean of His creative act, and how many created things belong to God, and how in His compassion He carries everything, acting providentially as He guides creation, and how with a love that cannot be measured He arrived at the establishment of the world and the beginning of creation; and how compassionate God is, and how patient; and how He loves creation, and how He carries it, gently enduring its importunity, the various sins and wickednesses, the terrible blasphemies of demons and evil men (II/10,18-19).

To be continued…

In Christ our True God, the Physician of our souls and body, the One heals our every disease and Who forgives us our every sin,

+Fr Gregory

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Thoughts on that “Other” Mary: Mary of Egypt

The Scripture Readings for Sunday, April 13, 2008: Today's commemorated feasts and saints... FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT — Tone 5. St. Mary of Egypt. Hieromartyr Artemon, Presbyter, of Laodicea in Syria (303). Martyr Crescens, of Myra in Lycia. Woman Martyr Thomais, of Alexandria (5th c.).

Then one of the Pharisees asked Him to eat with him. And He went to the Pharisee's house, and sat down to eat. And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, "This Man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner." And Jesus answered and said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." So he said, "Teacher, say it." There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more? Simon answered and said, "I suppose the one whom he forgave more." And He said to him, "You have rightly judged." Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little. Then He said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." And those who sat at the table with Him began to say to themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" Then He said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you. Go in peace."

(Luke 7:36-50)

At the risk of identify myself as ever so "post-modern," there is in the Christian tradition a certain irony surrounding the name "Mary." Let me explain.

Looking backwards to the Old Testament, we encounter Miriam, the older sister of Moses. It is Miriam who placed the infant Moses in the basket and floating him down the river to be found and adopted by Pharaoh's daughter and raised as a prince of Egypt. And it is Miriam who, at the request of Pharaoh's daughter, arranges for Moses' own mother to be his wet nurse. Later when they are all adults and newly liberated from slavery, it is Miriam who leads the Hebrew woman in song:

Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam answered them:

"Sing to the LORD,

For He has triumphed gloriously!

The horse and its rider

He has thrown into the sea!" (Ex 15:20-21)

Biblical, the first "Mary" of salvation history is a warrior, one who even as a child uses the resources at hand to fight against the oppression of her people. And she does so unapologetically.

Another "Mary," is Mary of Bethany the sister of Martha. It is she who, according to the words of Jesus, "has chosen the better part." (See Lk 10:41) After being careful to not denigrate the service of either women, in his sermon on this section of the Gospel, St Cyril of Jerusalem tells us that "let those who open to them their house, meet them cheerfully, and with alacrity, and as their fellows: and not so much as those who give, but as those who receive: as those who gain, and not as those who expend." He continues by saying that, those who practice hospitality

profit doubly; for in the first place they enjoy the instruction of those whom they hospitably entertain: and secondly, they also win the reward of hospitality. Every way therefore they are profited. When however they receive the brethren into their house, let them not be distracted with much service. Let them not seek anything beyond their means, or more than sufficient. For everywhere and in everything excess is injurious. For often it produces hesitation in those who otherwise would be glad to receive strangers, and causes but few [houses] to be found fit for the purpose: while it proves a cause of annoyance to those who are entertained. For the rich in this world delight in costly banquets; and in many kinds of viands, prepared curiously often with sauces and flavors; a mere sufficiency is utterly scorned, while that which is extravagant is praised, and a profusion beyond all satiety is admired, and crowned with words of flattery. The drinkings and revellings are excessive; and the draining of cups, and courses of wines, the means of intoxication and gluttony. But when holy men are assembled at the house of one who fears God, let the table be plain and temperate, the viands simple, and free from superfluities: but little to eat, and that meager and scant: and a limited sufficiency of drink. In everything a small supply of such necessaries as will allay the bodily appetite with simple fare. So must men receive strangers. So too Abraham by the oak at Mamre, received those three men, and won as the reward of his carefulness, the promise of his beloved son Isaac. So Lot in Sodom honored the angels, and for so doing, was not destroyed by fire with the rest; nor became the prey of the inextinguishable flame.

Very great therefore is the virtue of hospitality, and especially worthy of the saints: let us therefore also practice it, for so will the heavenly Teacher lodge and rest in our hearts, even Christ; by Whom and with Whom, to God the Father be praise and dominion, with the Holy Ghost, forever and ever, Amen.

For the saint, the service of Martha, the contemplation of Mary, are not opposed but meant to work together (synergia). It is Mary who keeps Martha from being overwhelmed, but it is Martha that allows Mary to receive a double blessing of instruction and of offering hospitality.

There is Mary Magdalene, one of the band of women who ministered to Jesus and the woman out of whom Jesus cast seven demons. (Luke 8:2-3) It is this Mary, together with the other women and Joseph of Arimathea who will prepare Jesus' body for burial. Come that first Sunday after the crucifixion it is to this Mary, distraught and mourning that Jesus appears. It is this Mary who is the apostle to the apostles, who announces to the Apostles the joyful message of the resurrection.

And of course, there is the most holy Theotokos and ever Virgin Mary who will give birth to Christ our Lord.

All of these Mary are in the background when on the fifth Sunday of Great and Holy Lent we commemorate St Mary of Egypt. This former prostitute who becomes a desert dwelling ascetic is in her own way a reflection of the other women named Mary that came before her. Warrior, Contemplative, Hospitable, Handmaiden of Christ, and the one in whom Christ the Word comes to dwell.

Reading the story of her life in Lenten Synaxarion, I am struck by the fact that it begins not with her manifold sins, but on the pride of Zosimas the monk who

a certain Palestinian monastery on the outskirts of Caesarea. Having dwelt at the monastery since his childhood, he lived there in asceticism until he reached the age of fifty-three. Then he was disturbed by the thought that he had attained perfection, and needed no one to instruct him. "Is there a monk anywhere who can show me some form of asceticism that I have not attained? Is there anyone who has surpassed me in spiritual sobriety and deeds?"

As the story unfolds, Zosimas is lead to a monastery where it is the practice for the brothers to spend the Great Fast alone in the desert returning only to the monastery on Palm Sunday. While in the desert Zosimas meets Mary and learns of her life. In quick order he also learns that Mary is not only an ascetic, but a clairvoyant and miracle worker. When he asks her blessing she at first refuses, but then, out of obedience, relents.

And then she relates the story of her life.

Beginning in Egypt we hear briefly of her life of sin. Then we hear of her journey to Jerusalem and of her conversion to Christ.

She tells Zosimas of her life in the desert. The first 17 years are life of constant struggle: "But from that time until the present day, the power of God has guarded my sinful soul and humble body. I was fed and clothed by the all-powerful word of God, since man does not live by bread alone, but by every word proceeding from the mouth of God (Dt 8:3, Mt.4:4, Luke 4:4), and those who have put off the old man (Col 3:9) have no refuge, hiding themselves in the clefts of the rocks (Job 24:8, Heb 11:38). When I remember from what evil and from what sins the Lord delivered me, I have imperishible food for salvation." And from "that time until the present day" when she meets Zosimas is a period of 30 years. For 47 years after her conversion (at about 30 years of age) Mary lives as an ascetic in the desert.

During this time she sees no one, she has no books to read. She is taught simply, directly, by the Holy Spirit Who enlivens the Word of God in her heart.

Eventually the monk must leave, but before he does Mary asks him to return to her the next year on Holy Thursday and to bring her Holy Communion. A year passes and Zosmias returns to Mary. Like Moses, Mary parts the Jordan for Zosmias to cross over to her and give her Holy Communion.

A year later the monk returns again to the desert to speak with Mary but when he finds her she is dead. Preparing her body for burial he discovers a note written by the saint. In the note she tells him that she died soon after receiving Holy Communion. And so the monk, with the help of a friendly lion, digs a grave for Mary and returns to the monastery to tell the story of her life.

Like the other Mary's of the Old and New Testament, Mary of Egypt calls in to question our vision of what it means to be not only a Christian, but also a woman and thus a man. But where contemporary anthropological visions tend to be reductionist and subversive, the life of St Mary of Egypt is different; it points beyond itself and directs us to fix our gaze on ourselves but on the Kingdom of God. It is in this way that the life of Mary of Egypt, along with those other Mary's who precede her in salvation history, reveals itself to be truly radical and revolutionary.

What this "other" Mary challenges is not simply social and culture structures of power, but the human hearts out of which those structures grow. She is a woman of great obedience who has learned to love much because she was forgiven much. It is easy to look at her life, and the life of the woman in the Gospel read on the Fifth Sunday of the Great Fast and think, "Well, I'm not that bad." And, in one sense, I'm not.

But in another sense, and here is the great surprise of this "other" Mary, how much of the sin in her life was made possible by those who weren't all that bad? And as I think about this other Mary, I begin to wonder how was it that Jesus was crucified except through the passive collusion of those of us who weren't all that bad? Looking back at the Mary's who proceed Mary of Egypt, which of these women didn't suffer at the hands of those who weren't all that bad, whose sins weren't all that serious, and who were respected by their contemporaries?

There is something helpful about the extreme example for my spiritual life. Whether it is an extreme in virtue or vice, reflecting on the extreme can help me see myself a bit more clearly. I am not a great sinner, but neither am I a great saint. I tend to want to be respectable in my vices and my virtues. And whatever else one might say about Mary of Egypt and the other Mary's of salvation history, they challenge me in my respectability.

In the final analysis the challenge the issue is this: Will I accept responsibility before Christ for my own life and actions? Or will I rather flee into a "respectability" grounded in fear and my own secret lack of thankfulness of God for the gift of my own life?

Like the other Mary's, Mary of Egypt accepted the gift of her own life and allowed nothing to stand in the way of her obedience to what God called her to do with that gift. Can I do any less.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory