Friday, May 30, 2008

More on Metropolitan Nicolae

Icon of the PentecostImage via Wikipedia

Thank you everyone for your comments both those on the site here and emailed to me privately regarding Metropolitan Nicolae's reception of Holy Communion at a Romanian Catholic celebration of the Divine Liturgy.

First off, let me please remind everyone whether they post comments or not, while it is one thing to disagree, even strongly, with Metropolitan Nicolae's actions, his status as an Orthodox bishop, much less the state of his soul, is NOT for me to judge. Again, I would not have done what he did—and I think Chrys has given a rather elegant and charitable explanation as to why Metropolitan Nicolae's actions are not acceptable. But until the Holy Synod tells us otherwise, Metropolitan Nicolae is an Orthodox bishop in good standing.

That said, whatever might have been His Eminence's intent or however we might characterize his actions, one thing that has come out of this is a conversation about the relationship between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. What I find distressing, however, is that the conversation (1) seems largely limited to Catholic blogs and (2) is rancorous to say the least. Mind you, the rancor is not between Catholics and Orthodox as much as it is among Catholics. Be that as it may, however, accept for this blog I have come across no conversation about what Fr Paul (the online pseudonym of a Catholic priest serving in Greece) over at the blog De unione ecclesiarum calls the "Timisoara incident."

The central point he makes is this (my emphasis in bold):

It is not my place to say whether it was in the event helpful to the cause of ecumenism for the Metropolitan to choose this course of action. It is even less my place to say whether it was right from an Orthodox point of view to infringe the discipline of his Church in view of what, as I said at the beginning, we must presume he believed to be a greater good. I have said why, as a Catholic, I believe that it was right for his request to receive communion from a Catholic altar to be granted. Some will see his gesture as a prophetical sign destined one day to bear fruit by the very reason of its provocative nature. Others will say it is well-intentioned but in reality premature and counter-productive. Others still will think it scandalous and sacrilegious. It is not given to me to know which judgement is correct. Only let those who cry "scandal" remember that scandal in its theological meaning is not, as in common parlance, the shock which an action causes to our sensibilities and our comfortable presuppositions, but that which causes us to sin. And let them ask themselves whether complacency in the face of a divided Christendom is not a sin, however much it hides behind rhetoric about not sacrificing truth to gain unity. In the end, truth and unity are the same thing; sin against unity damages our ability to see the fullness of truth.

I cannot help wondering if in fact we—Orthodox and Catholic Christians—really wish to be reconciled to one another. And given that the rancor I've seen on at least one popular Catholic blog regarding Metropolitan Nicolae's reception of Holy Communion is every bit a foul and bitter as what I hear when we as Orthodox Christians rip into each other, I can't help wonder if we even want to be reconciled with those in our tradition much less with those with whom we disagree.

Could it be we are estranged from each other because we are estranged among ourselves? And if we are estranged from those with whom we share Eucharist, how can we ever hope to reconcile the wound inflicted on us all by the Great Schism?

And since the it's come up--isn't my estrangement from my neighbor simply the symptom of my own sinfulness and my heart being divided against itself? Where does the line of schism run accept through the human heart?

Again I disagree with Metropolitan Nicolae's actions. At the same time I hope and pray that whatever else might happen as a result it encourages the faithful in both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches not only to desire the reconciliation of the two Churches, but for us to actively seek and prepare for reconciliation. You see that's really what strikes me most about the "Timisoara incident." Even granted the inappropriate nature of His Eminence's actions, the character of the responses suggest to me that most of us—Catholic and Orthodox—are at best indifferent, and even actively hostile, to the reconciliation his actions imply.

Well, there you go.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

What Grace Doesn’t Do: Some Thoughts on Orthodox/Catholic Conversations

Now that my more academic research is finished (for the moment, I'll be starting a new project on the passions and levels of consciousness in S. Freud (psychoanalysis), A. Beck (cognitive psychology), and A. van Kaam (existential-phenomenological psychology) in the next few weeks), I have time to put in writing a talk I gave at the Society of St John Chrysostom. The talk discussed, rather poorly in my view, why conversations between Orthodox and Catholic Christians so often degenerated into polemics and ad hominem. As part of finishing up that work, I thought I would offer a few thoughts here and invite your comments.

What Grace Doesn't Do

One of my professors in graduate school, Fr Adrian van Kaam (to download a pdf that summarizes van Kaam's life and work, click here) pointed out on more than one occasion that though it was a great blessing for which we should be grateful an experience of God does not exempt us from the laws of human development or "an evident need for psychotherapy." In other words, not matter how profound my experience of God, it is ought not to be confused with either maturity or healthy psychological functioning.

And why would it?

For van Kaam, a cheerful and committed Thomist, the answer is that grace perfects, but does not replace, nature. While I don't disagree with my professor's explanation (which I have merely summarized in slogan form), I would add to it. To assume, as many seem to, that an experience of grace exempts me from the normal process of human growth and development is Christologically unsound. It to deny that in Christ the whole of human life is sanctified.

We read in the Scriptures, that "Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man." (Lk 2.52) Taking Jesus Christ as our example, we can argue that the normal ebb and flow of human development is not necessarily opposed to sanctity and wisdom. Indeed, and again looking to Jesus as our example, it would seem that each stage of human developmental is capable of participating in the divine nature, even as in each developmental stage of His life, Jesus was Himself the Theanthropos . To borrow from Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution of Divine Revelation from the Second Vatican Council:

For this reason Jesus perfected revelation by fulfilling it through his whole work of making Himself present and manifesting Himself: through His words and deeds, His signs and wonders, but especially through His death and glorious resurrection from the dead and final sending of the Spirit of truth. Moreover He confirmed with divine testimony what revelation proclaimed, that God is with us to free us from the darkness of sin and death, and to raise us up to life eternal.

For Christians, Eastern or Western, Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant, is the whole of His life that is revelatory. His voluntary and life-giving death and glorious resurrection from the dead on the third day, together with Ascension into heaven and bestowal of the Holy Spirit, is the confirmation of what is true for the whole of His life. If this is true for Jesus Christ then it is (at least potentially) true for those of us who received His Name in Baptism.

This idea is probably not one that most of us would contest. Though I suspect that, in some cases at least, the agreement reflects more sentiment than rigorous anthropological reflection (but, as another of my professor's once asked, "Who am I to do things for the right reason? I know what's right and should simply do it. My thinking will, hopefully, catch up with by doing."). What is more controversial is the suggestion that an encounter with God does not bring with it mental health.

I need to be careful here. When I say "mental health" I do not mean this in a narrow, culturally bound, sense of the term. One of the most encouraging developments in the profession and science of psychology is the growing realization just how bound the notion of mental health is to the experience of one relatively small segment of contemporary American culture.

So when I say mental health I mean it in the broad sense, of the integrity of the person's cognitive, emotional and social functions. In classical philosophical and theological anthropology, this life of integral living is the life of virtue. By necessity virtue means for me that there is a certain degree of tension in any psychologically healthy life. Why? Well because, just to take one example, my social situation might be such that a virtuous response demands of me social isolation. Or virtue might even require of me that I live in a state of relative conflict with those around me.

Mental health then, reflects a convergence of internal and external factors. And like human development, it is dynamic. Within the limits of his/her life situation, the psychological healthy human being is flexible and adaptable in his or her thinking and behaving. Indeed though it is often (wrongly) conflated with political liberalism, a central characteristic of mental health is the ability to change, to become if you will, evermore who I am.

Mental illness, to return to the second of the two human realities that an experience of grace does not exempt us from, is the precisely the lack of this ability to change in a positive direction. Psychotherapy is concerned with those times in human life when we are unable to exercise our cognitive, emotional and social functions in the service of becoming more fully who we are. In a broad sense, psychotherapy serves the life of virtue.

Think for example of the alcoholic.

The problem with alcoholism is not that the alcoholic enjoys wine. The problem, the real sorrow of alcoholism, is that the person only enjoys wine—until of course his or her indifference to the other joys of life and his or her fixation on wine becomes so pervasive that even wine is no longer enjoyed and its consumption becomes a compulsion and what yesterday reflected human freedom, today is the sign and source of freedom's lack.

Returning now to the centrality of virtue to any anthropologically sound view of mental health what can we say? Virtue, as Aristotle and the Christian tradition, understands the term is about finding the mean between extremes. It is moderation that is the key to wholeness—and moderation is learned.

An experience of grace then does not allow us to leap frog over the typical stage of human growth and development. Just as we grow from child to adult, we also grow (ideally anyway) in virtue, in wholeness of being. To be human, to borrow from existentialism, is to live a life of dynamic openness to the future. But as Emmanuel Levinas and Gabriel Marcel remind us, the future, as future, is always unknown and unknowable. Or, to us van Kaam's phrase, to live a constant human life means that we remain open in awe, trust, and gratitude to the Mystery of Being (God) and becoming (human life as a life of dynamic openness).

So, what has this to do with the difficulties we often see in Catholic/Orthodox conversations?

Though it needs to be developed more fully, I would suggest this: We often talk as if the Catholic/Orthodox dialog is a conversation is between two different, even competing, traditions. In fact these conversations are always conversations between human beings who in their conversations with each other, make selective appeals to their own understanding of the past, both their own and the other's. Traditions, to state the painfully obvious, do not have conversations—only human beings can speak, can enter into a conversations. Tradition, as Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) has pointed out in Being in Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church, only exist enhypostatically, that is, by way of the person.

Too often conversations between Eastern and Western Christians are not understood as human encounters. In fact, I would suggest that the reason that our conversations are so often polemical, is because we imagine that there is nothing of ourselves in our talks with each other. Let me go even further, we are so often polemical because we are striving not to encounter one another. We do not wish to know the other, because not only do we do not wish to be know by the other, we do not know, or even wish to know, ourselves personally. Any human encounter is necessarily one that demands from me both self-knowledge and change. To refuse one or the other of these is to refuse the encounter, the gift of the other person and so to refuse to receive my own life as a gift from God.

For too many of us, our attachment to our religious tradition is an escape, a refusal, of the dynamic and gratuitous quality of our own lives. We do not wish to grow, to change. Our conversations are polemical because more often than not, our thinking about ourselves is static and rigid. Catholic/Orthodox polemics—at least as we see them in contemporary practice—are only accidentally theological. In the main (and I will address this more in another post) our polemics reflect our own lack of wholeness, of balance, of our own lack of virtue. Or, to borrow from psychology, our encounters so often go wrong because of we are neurotic. And, to push things a bit further, Eastern and Western Christians tend to favor different neurotic styles.

As always, your questions, comments, and criticisms are not only welcome, they are desired.

More later.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Orthodox bishop shares Communion with Catholics

Romanian Orthodox Metropolitan Nicolae Corneanu receiving Holy Communion at a Romanian Catholic celebration of the Divine Liturgy.

Christ is Risen!

don't know what to think--I do not understand why Metropolitan Nicolae asked to receive nor why he was allowed to do so. I'm not sure what will happen as a result of this, but I pray God something good come out of all of this.

+Fr Gregory

Timisoara , May. 27, 2008 ( - A Romanian Orthodox bishop has shared Communion with Catholics, causing a sensation in a country where Byzantine Catholics and Orthodox have a history of tense relations.

At the consecration of the Queen of Peace parish church in Timisoara on May 25, Orthodox Metropolitan Nicolae Corneanu of Banat asked to share Communion. The Orthodox metropolitan approached the altar and received the Eucharist from his own hand.

Romanian Catholic Bishop Alexandru Mesian of Lugoj was the celebrant of the Divine Liturgy in the Byzantine Catholic church; Archbishop Francisco-Javier Lozano, the apostolic nuncio to Romania, was also present.

Although Orthodox and Catholic bishops often join in ecumenical services, and occasionally participate in each other's liturgical ceremonies, they do not share Communion-- an indication of the breach in ecclesial communion between the Orthodox churches and the Holy See. In Romania, tensions between the Orthodox Church and the Eastern-rite Romanian Catholic Church have been pronounced, adding to the surprise created by Metropolitan Corneanu's action.

With some Orthodox believers outraged by the metropolitan's sharing Communion with Catholic bishops, the Orthodox Patriarchate of Romania issued a statement saying that at the next meeting of the Orthodox synod, in July, Metropolitan Corneanu "may be asked to give an appropriate explanation" for his action.

The statement from the Orthodox patriarchate went on to say that ecumenical relations with the Catholic Church, "already quite fragile, cannot be helped, but are rather complicated," by sharing in Communion.

Metropolitan Corneanu-- who was one of the first Orthodox bishops to admit that he had cooperated with the secret police under the Communist regime-- has a record of friendship with Romanian Catholics. He was among the few Orthodox leaders prepared to return church properties that had been seized by the Communist government from Catholic ownership in 1948 and handed over to Orthodox control.

Memory Eternal! Khouriya Joanne Abdalah

It is with great sadness that I report that this morning Khouriya Joanne Abdalah, wife of Fr John Abdalah
(together in the picture above) fell asleep in the Lord.

Please remember Kh. Joanne and her families un your prayers

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

From the web page of the Antiochian Archdiocese of America:

Kh. Joanne Abdalah of St. George Cathedral/Pittsburgh, Pa., fell asleep in the Lord on Tuesday, May 27, after suffering with ovarian cancer for more than two years.

She and Fr. John are the parents of three children: Gregory, a 2008 graduate of St. Vladimir Seminary in Crestwood, NY, Joseph of Houston, TX, and Maria at home. Please remember them all in your prayers.

Among other ministries, Kh. Joanne was co-editor of the WORD magazine and a past president of the North American Board of Antiochian Women.

The funeral arrangements are as follows:

She will be laid out at the Cathedral of St. George in Oakland, PA, Thursday evening, May 29, from 4pm to 8pm. Immediately after that at 8pm we will have the funeral service. The internment will be on Friday at the Monastery of the Holy Transfiguration in Ellwood City, Pa.

Condolences can be sent to the V. Rev. Fr John Abdalah, St. George Cathedral, 3400 Dawson St., Pittsburgh, PA 15213.

May she rest in peace.

Read Khouriya Joanne's story in the May issue of the Word Magazine (pp 3-4)

Read a dedication to Khouriya Joanne and learn more about ovarian cancer in Antiochian Women's Diakonia Magazine (pp 1, 6-7)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Brain Research and the Passions

On his blog, Neuromarketing, Roger Dooley has a though provoking post entitled "Money, Social Status Similar in Brain." In the essay he asks:

Why do people do things that will gain them social approval? It turns out that the same parts of the brain are activated for a positive social outcome as for a monetary reward. In other words, the same reward circuitry is turned on both by social and monetary gains. Corporate marketers as well as non-profit fundraisers have always known that most individuals crave social approval, but these new findings show how our brains process these social rewards and how they relate to money.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas offers a similar conclusion in one of her seminal works on the economics that she co-authored with Baron Isherwood, The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption (1979). In this work see tries to answer an obvious, but often unasked question, why do we want goods? Her answer is that we desire material possessions, for example money, not as ends in themselves. Rather we desire things for social status. For Douglas and Isherwood at the heart of this status is freedom. A wealth person is one who both has relatively more options than his or her neighbor AND who has to invest a relatively smaller percentage of effort to acquire that which s/he wants.

So, a person is wealthy not on any absolute scale, but within a given social context. And who is wealthy? The person who, for example, not only has a relatively wide array of food options but who also needs to expend little effort (relative to others) to get the desired food. High options + low work = wealth.

So back to the brain.

Dooley writes that current brain research suggests, well in his own words, "that our brains are performing a balancing act when making a decision and that social benefits may be weighed directly against monetary costs." This he thinks is a possible explanation for what "a surprising number of people were early adopters of the Toyota Prius, despite the fact that any annual fuel cost savings would be offset by the higher initial cost of the car." For at least some of these early adopters, "driving an obviously 'green' vehicle would be a reward in itself and would justify the higher price." And so, to "continue the Toyota theme, could this reward system also explain why people will pay many thousands more for a Lexus than the equivalent Toyota model, even though the difference in features and function don't themselves justify the price differential?" In both cases, the owners see their purchase as a way to elevate their relative "social status." Current brain research, along with the early work of Douglas Isherwood, might also explain "why non-profit fundraising is always more successful when donors are recognized in a visible and public way." Successful fundraising requires it seems some recognition of those who donate. And so whether "it's as simple as calling a donor a "Gold Patron" in an event program or as significant as naming a building after him, public recognition is important to the vast majority of donors."

While the brain research, Dooley's application of the research, and Douglas and Isherwood's work are interesting in and of themselves, what is left unexamined is the role of human freedom in making the decision to exchange money for status, or for that matter status for money. That the same area of the brain processes money and social status (and other research suggests that the same part of the brain that processes spending decisions also processes pain; read about that research here: "The Pain of Buying") does not answer the question as to why I might by a Prius. How is it that I make that exchange?

Here we enter into the rather murky world of human motivate. Psychoanalysis, for example, would argue what actually motivates me in a given situation is largely unknown to me. For many people both during Freud's life time and since, his argument was an affront to human freedom and dignity. "After all," or so the argument went (and goes), "I am not a cauldron of conflicting desires. I live by the light of reason" (or "the Gospel," or "common sense," or "ethics."). Well, not so fast says Freud and now evidently some brain research.

For the Fathers of the Church, I am not motivated, at least initially, by reason, or the Gospel, or common sense, or ethics, but by the passions. The passions are my disordered desires. What makes these desires disordered is that they are self-referential. My desires serve me as I try and live a life of pleasure and avoid a life of pain. But what my desires don't do is draw me closer to God. For St Maximos the Confessor, for example, my passions are disordered because they lock me in on myself; I am forever running toward pleasure and fleeing from pain.

And, the physiology of my brain is part of this process. But what's interesting is not simply the link between social status and money, but also the link between money and pain. All three of these share common physiological links. According to some research, "brain scans predicted buying behavior almost as well as the self-reported intentions of the subjects. In other words, absent any knowledge of what the subject intended to do, viewing the brain scan was nearly as predictive as asking the subject what he would do." But, the social context (and this, I would suggest, includes social status) is also important.

The society is important because "it isn't just the dollar amount, it's the context of the transaction. Thus, people can spend hundreds of dollars on accessories when buying a car with little pain, while a vending machine that takes 75 cents and produces nothing is very aggravating. Auto luxury bundles are designed to minimize negative activation because their price tag covers multiple luxury items. The consumer can't relate a specific dollar amount to a particular item, e.g., $1000 for leather seats, and hence can't easily evaluate the fairness of the deal or whether the utility of the accessory is worth the price."

Yes, yes, yes, I can hear you ask. But what does this have to do with the spiritual life? What has this to do with my struggles against my own passions? Simply this: The passions—what I desire, what goals are worth the cost of my efforts if you will—not only have a physiological basis, they are also highly social or if you will traditional. Broadly speaking, my tradition tells me what desire to value, what purchases are worthy making (and I make these purchase by spending money, time and/or effort).

Likewise, asceticism—the effort needed to re-direct my desires so that they draw me closer to God—also has both a physiological and social or traditional character. We cannot grow in holiness, in real and lasting freedom, if we neglect either our physical bodies or our social situations. Yes I need to fast, I need to pray, I need to give alms, for example. But I also need to be a member of a community that values not simply fast and praying, and caring for the poor, but my fasting, my praying, my service to those in need. My ascent to grace is just as much bodily and social process as is my fall from grace. The body and our peers are both part of the problem and part of the solution.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Proposed Typology for Orthodoxy in America

16th century Russian Orthodox icon of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.Image via Wikipedia

I have received several private emails regarding my earlier posts on Orthodoxy in America.

One idea that seems to resonant with people is the America is an experiment. Thinking about that one person suggested to me that Orthodoxy itself is something of an experiment. As I thought about it, it made sense to me that—since the Christian life is dynamic (it is after all, life)—it would necessarily have an experimental quality. Think about it for a moment—how do we learn to pray, for example, except by trying out not simply different ways of praying, but different mixes of the different ways.

So I got to thinking, what comes to mind when I reflect on the possibility that the Christian life and the American life are both experiments?

It is somewhat ironic that, on the right, many would deny this outright. For these people, both the Orthodox Church and America are presented as a completed work to which people (usually other people by the way) must conform. For me at least, the great strength of both traditions is that they provide people with the "tools" need for self-discovery and self-expression. Granted in the political arena this most often means being left alone, but still the absence of coercion by civil authority and a broadly respect for the conscience of the individual is no small tool. In the case of the Church, we have the whole of Holy Tradition. Far from being an abstract standard to be fulfilled, it presents us with 2,000 years of wisdom and a theological and spiritual unity grounded in human and cultural diversity. Taken up in the service of our growth in self-knowledge, I find the Tradition to be a source of unimaginable richness. As I read more in Orthodoxy theology and spirituality, as I find myself facing new pastoral challenges as a priest, as I have conversations with people (both those who are and those who aren't Orthodox), I discover not only new layers and depth in Holy Tradition, but new things about me.

Growing in my understanding of Holy Tradition and growing in self-knowledge and self-expression are not opposed. In my experience, they come together—in fact, I can't seem to have one without the other.

Least I someone accused of taking sides, those on the left have their own characteristic way of denying the open end nature of both American and Orthodoxy. In this case the experimental nature of both becomes an end in itself. Yes, there is dynamism in both the American experiment and the Christian experiment. LIkewise there is room for, and even an expectation of, learning through what we might call trial and error (though strictly speaking we do not learn through error. It is only in coming, by trail, to know and understand the truth that we see the errors of our ways. But that for another day.) And above all in both there is a deep appreciation for personal uniqueness. BUT all of this is in the service of getting somewhere. The American experiment is in search of a more just and perfect union; the Church is a journey to the Kingdom of God (even if we are given that Kingdom proleptically in the sacraments, but that is for another day). America and the Church each take their meaning not simply from the past, therefore, but from the future. As Americans and as Christians, we remember the future—albeit futures with different, though not unrelated, contents.

Granted I have grossly simplified not only the "left" and the "right," but also America and the Church. Let me then offer my words then as a typology rather than a normative description of either America or the Christian life.

When you have a chance, dear readers, I would be most interested in your thoughts on this typology.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Skribit Activity & Voting for this Week

Here's your weekly report on the Skribit activity for Koinonia:

Suggestions Posted this Week


1. What does it mean to receive "who I am" from God? by Anonymous (7 votes)

2. Patristic anthropology and modern psychology (e.g. St. Maximos and Horney) by Anonymous (12 votes)

3. Orthodoxy and human rights by Steve Hayes (5 votes)

4. Addiction in Modernity (e.g Internet Pornography, video games, drugs) by Anonymous (9 votes)

Top Voted Suggestions


1. Patristic anthropology and modern psychology (e.g. St. Maximos and Horney) (12 votes)

2. Addiction in Modernity (e.g Internet Pornography, video games, drugs) (9 votes)

3. What does it mean to receive "who I am" from God? (7 votes)

4. Orthodoxy and human rights (5 votes)

The readers have spoken! Expect a post this week on patristic anthropology and modern psychology.

Thanks! And please, keep making suggestions and casting your votes!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Counseling Resource Recommendations

Counseling resource recommendations are hard for me to make without a sense of what skill level the person has. As a general rule of thumb, however, the very first thing to bear in mind is that we ought not to enter into a counseling relationship that is beyond our comfort level. So for example, even if I'm comfortable and competent (different things by the way, the former not being in anyway a predictor of the latter) in a therapeutic setting deal with this or that issue, I often find that I need to refer the person to a therapist who has more time and access to greater social service resources then I do in a parish.

What I'm getting at is this: The best resource we have in counseling is a sense of our own personal and technical limitations.

What studies that have been done on the effectiveness of counseling relationships suggest that the quality of the relationship between counselor and client is what is most important. Second on the list are the personal internal and social resources of the client. The specific therapeutic orientation and skill set of the counselor is relatively low down on the list of predictors for a successful counseling relationship. This doesn't mean professional competence is unimportant, only that it is not the primary predictor of success.

So, looking at the first element, the relationship between counselor and client, you might want to read Adrian van Kaam's The Art of Existential Counseling: A New Perspective in Psychotherapy. I have found this and a number of van Kaam's books to be very helpful and very accessible. You also might want to look at Dynamics of Spiritual Direction
also by van Kaam. The Art of Spiritual Guidance by Carolyn Gratton might also be of use to you. (Having studied with both authors I can testify to both their professional competency and commitment to Christ.)

As for the second element, before getting involved in any type of ongoing counseling relationship, it is important to have a sense both of the person's internal, moral strength as we well as what kind of social support they have to encourage and sustain change. People without these internal and social resources are generally not good candidates for counseling, at least without enlisting significant support from social services. In a parish setting we simply can't work with people who lack these personal and social resources. Again, this isn't a reflection on our commitment to Christ or His People, but rather of the whole range of resources we can bring to bear.

BUT, even if I cannot enter into a formal counseling relationship with someone, I certainly can refer them to a professional therapist and commit to being a support for them as they go through counseling. This works most effectively if I have a pre-existing professional relationship with area therapists (and this is one of the things on my "to do" list when I come to a new parish) who can act as potential partners when I refer folks. Also a relationship with a therapist is good to help me get a sense of when people bring me things about which I'm not in a position to help them.

Two resources that address the technical aspects of counseling that you might find helpful are Basic Types of Pastoral Care and Counseling: Resources for the Ministry of Healing and Growth by Howard John Clinebell and A Minister's Handbook of Mental Disorders by Joseph W. Ciarrocchi. Together these will give you a sense of the therapeutic lay of the land and help you recognize when you are passing from a spiritual/pastoral matters to more psychological/mental health issues.

In my own ministry I have some general rules that I follow.

First, I divide my counseling ministry into three basic areas:

  1. PASTORAL counseling for those who are still functional (i.e., can love and work successfully) and whose basic concern is to find meaning in Christ for themselves or their life.
  2. PSYCHOLOGICAL counseling is for those who are not able to function or only marginally functional. As a rule, these I refer to a professional therapist though I do try and offer what pastoral support I can give and they can receive.
  3. POLICE matters pertain to anything criminal. Here all I can really do is support the victim in making the best of the situation they find themselves in. As for perpetrators, these folks I encourage to turn themselves in. Any instance of actual or threatened physical violence is a police matter.

Second, I need to realize that I can't deal with every person who comes to me looking for help. While some times what they bring me are outside my area of technical competence, generally and for most part the issue is one of time management. I have limits on my time and energy. If I spend several hours in a series of high stress counseling sessions (which sometimes happens), I'm useless for much of anything else for DAYS.

Third, counseling in a parish setting is often crisis oriented--clergy are good first responders, but we are not in a situation to do long term, or even short term, counseling. The further we get from a pastoral relationship the more danger we are in of malpractice, malfeasance, misconduct or personal burn out.

Fourth, when in doubt about my abilities or if I don't have the time/energy to help someone I refer them to a professional therapist. Yes, this comes with a commitment to support them in therapy—but as their priest who will help them bear the cross of mental illness.

Fifth things which are clearly PSYCHOPATHOLOGICAL (e.g., depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder) I refer to a clinical psychologist. Pastoral support here means checking in with the person from time to time and seeing how they're doing. Oh, yes, I also will ask them about medication usage--basically, "Are you taking your medication(s)?"

Sixth, PHYSICAL VIOLENCE (either ACTUAL or THREATENED) is NEVER something that I work with as the primary caregiver. Instance of physical violence, like all crimes, are POLICE MATTERS. Yes there is a pastoral dimension to say domestic violence, but it is fundamentally a legal matter and I need to respect that even if my parishioner is not willing to report the crime.

Finally, I think one of the best things I have ever done for my own counseling ministry was to be in therapy. I have seen a therapist several times in my life. The old psychoanalytic model (now increasingly ignored) was clear: You must undergo analysis to become do psychoanalysis. Being in counseling has been most helpful for me learning what my limits are.

Let me know if the above is of any help to you. Of course you can always invite me to come and speak and do a clergy training workshop.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Skribit Voting

Hi All,

I've gotten some good suggestions using Skribit--now how about some voting?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Athens and Jerusalem, part 2

I have received several emails regarding my interviews with the host of "Our Life in Christ," on Ancient Faith Radio ((you can download the interviews here
and here). Below is an edited version of the second email I wrote to one listener, T.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Dear T.,

Your comments about understanding the limits of science (in your case __________, in mine psychology) are right on target. Much of the resistance I think to psychology comes out of not simply a lack of awareness of what psychology does and doesn't offer, but a more fundamental lack of a sound philosophy of science. I hasten to add at this point, a deficient philosophy of science is not limited to non-scientists—very rarely do psychologists seem to understand the limits of our own discipline. Psychotherapy, to take but one example, does not deal in certainties, but probabilities that are always, and necessarily, subject to revision and even rejection. In this sense, my therapeutic work is rather limited in what it can accomplish.

But for all its limits, I think psychology offers us a useful anthropological vision. This is less so in particular and more in a general or foundational sense. When evaluating any psychological theory or practice I return again to the provisional nature of all science. To me at least this suggests that psychology offers us a dynamic view of the human person. So not only are our findings are always subject to revision, any psychological theory that neglects to take account of the dynamic character of human life is in need of correction.

Taken within its own limits as a science, psychology is a rather humble endeavor. We are not concerned with articulating a unified theory of life, the universe and everything. Or even for that matter of what it means to be human. Psychology is the science of human dynamism and as such a great partner to Christian anthropology's view of the inherent and transcendent openness of the human. It is interesting that when one reads personality theorists, they are generally rather dismissive of static thinking or rigid patterns of behavior. While this is often hinted at by the social and political liberalism of the psychologist, this is accidental to the science of psychology as such. In fact I would suggest that the liberalism of psychology—at least in an American context—reflects not simply the character of psychologists, but a certain tendency in some quarters of American society to a moralizing anthropological vision that is "allergic" to a dynamic and transcendent view of the person.

You observed, correctly I think, that many clergy adopt uncritically pop psychology. In recent weeks, for example, I have pointed out to clergy that the Myers-Briggs Personality Test is NOT a valid (in the sense of validated) psychological test. From the point of view of science, the Myers-Briggs tells us nothing about personality. Indeed personality theory is an area of great debate in psychology precisely because it does not lend itself to empirical verification. This does not mean we have to dismiss the Myers-Briggs or personality theory, but it does mean that we need to be clear that in using it we are in the realm not of quantitative but qualitative science.

Clergy, however, will often pick up pop psychology without every applying the same standards that they would apply to any other philosophical or theological vision. Or, and here my cynicism is clear for all to see, I suspect that they do evaluate pop psychology with the same rigor they apply to their philosophical and theological reflections—which is to say they aren't very rigorous at all. Observing over the years the use of psychology by clergy I have come to think that—for all the seriousness with which they may speak—there is often a rather painful lack of intellectual rigor in how most clergy approach their own theological and philosophical patrimony. Yes, certainly, they are very good about quoting Scripture or the Fathers. But for all their quotations and systems building, the intellectual rigor is simply not there. If it were, then I suspect they would not be so easily swayed by pop psychology.

In other words, psychology is in my view something of a test case. How rigorous and thoughtful are we about the content of the Christian tradition and its implications for the pastoral life of the Church? Too easily, and here I will conclude and invite your comments, we confuse anger with conviction, bullying with real authority and rigid and narrow thinking with fidelity to the living witness of the Holy Spirit not only in the past but in the present.

Again, thank you for your comments.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Friday, May 16, 2008

Athens and Jerusalem, part 1

Image via Wikipedia

I have received several emails regarding my interviews with the host of "Our Life in Christ," on Ancient Faith Radio (you can download the interviews here andThe veneration of the Theotokos as a holy protectress of Vladimir was introduced by Prince Andrew, who dedicated to her many churches and installed in his palace a venerated image, known as Theotokos of Vladimir. here). Below is an edited version of an email I wrote in response to one such email.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Christ is Risen!

Dear T. and S.,

Thank you both for your very thoughtful comments and questions.

In response to T's question: "Is psychology necessary?" I would answer "No." But then, strictly speaking, anything that is other than God is also not necessary. This is not me language playing games. Rather it reflects what I think is the Christian faith that all that is not God is contingent upon Him and created by Him out of love and without compulsion. Creation does not add to God, but it does reflect His love.

Because everything created is, by definition, contingent, it is also unnecessary. But unnecessary does not mean unimportant or without value, though the value created being is always relative. This relative value is two-fold:

  1. relative to God (as a gift and expression of His love) and
  2. relative to its place in creation in general and the human community in particular.

Unlike the historical claims of Christian theology, modern psychology (and really it is more accurate to think in terms of a variety of schools of contemporary psychologies) does not claim to be universally applicable. Under the best of circumstances (as S. suggests) it is a tool. While it can be a helpful tool, its value depends on the skill of the craftsman using it and the needs of the person to whom s/he is responding.

Right up front, let me say that I am not convinced of the relative superiority in psychological matters of an earlier generation of Christians. How is one to evaluate the proposition that spiritual Fathers, directors or doctors of an earlier era were more effective than contemporary psychologists? First, we need to decide on the standard of comparison and then the measurement instrument. Simply put, even assuming we are comparing apples to apples, we have no way of actually making the determination that one group was more competent then the other.

Like it or not, we live in a world in which psychology has a large role to play. It seems to me that if earlier eras struggled with issues of Christology ours age seems to struggle with anthropological questions (and this includes the nature of the Church). While there are great anthropological insights to be found in the Fathers (and this is a central theme in my own writing and praxis as both a psychologist and a priest), these are not well developed or maybe as well developed systematically. Contemporary psychology, unlike the Fathers, is concerned with the systematic study of human behavior.

If this or that Father was a better natural psychologist then say a given contemporary psychologist, well thank God, but (absent written records) so what? While I can easily imagine, for example, St Basil or St John Chrysostom or St Augustine, as extraordinarily gifted confessors and spiritual directors, they did not leave us the kinds of records that help us understand how they heard confessions. It is a bit like asking if a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it does it make a sound. Yes, and while we know this theoretically, even if we do not know it experientially. And in the spiritual life, experience counts as much, if not more than, theory.

So yes, Chrysostom may very well have been an extraordinary psychologist (and certainly his sermons suggest this), but the Church today does not much profit from his skill. Contemporary psychology, to the degree that the psychologist (be he a researcher or a therapist) is honest can help the Church fill in the lack of anthropological data rooted in experience. In my work, I find a new depth of understanding of Chrysostom's sermons is possible precisely because--as a psychologist--I have some insight into human behavior that remains only implicit in his sermons.

As I think I alluded to in the interview, I did not come to psychology as an Orthodox Christian, much less a priest. Rather it was the other way around, I came as a psychologist to the Orthodox Church and eventually, and again as a psychologist, to the priesthood. This is to say I came looking for something to make up what I found lacking in my experience as a therapist and theoretician (and these days I am more interested in ideas about psychology and psychological theorists more than I am in actually doing therapy--though God knows I do a fair amount of that every week!). A therapist who is honest and committed to really working with and for clients will say that this work is invariably a confrontation with the fact of human contingency—that nothing in the client's life is necessary or of lasting value.

This is grim I realize—but this awareness is where faith begins.

I must first grasp that I do not possess my own life—that autonomy in the radical sense of the word, is not possible. This is so because I live in midst of a web of relationships that are given to me prior to any decision that I make. And, more painful still, it is precisely this web of relationships that exist prior to my free decision that in fact makes my subsequent freedom possible. I am free only to the degree that I first embrace the manifold limitations that make my life possible.

Tracing out the particular limits of a particular human life is what psychology excels at doing. In this sense then, psychology is the science, or maybe better art, that (like philosophy) is concerned with the pre-evangelism stage of human life. Psychology and especially psychotherapy (can) prepare us to receive the Gospel. How? By returning us to an appreciative consideration of our own limits, our own contingency in its ontological and empirical modes (what medieval philosophy refers to as primary and secondary causalities; I am absolutely dependent on God for my existence and relatively dependent upon my patents). Psychology, the other social and human sciences (sociology, anthropology especially) as well as the natural sciences (especially the biological sciences, but also the physical sciences and physics), are concerned with articulated the structures and dynamics of this secondary causality.

In this regard theology and the Church need modern psychology. Not need in an absolute sense to be sure, but certainly in a relative sense. For this reason I would assert that especially for pastors to ignore contemporary psychology is not only harmful but irresponsible. For all its shortcoming and limitations (and I am intimately familiar with these), modern psychology add insights about the human condition that the Fathers did not, at least not explicitly, have.

Implicit within the question of the use of modern psychology is a certain forgetfulness of the importance of our attending to the particular human person and the concrete community. Answering the questions "What use is contemporary psychology for Christians?" is not possible theoretically, but only personally. I think the examples that S. raises are good ones—I know as a priest that I have often encountered situations in the life of the Church in which my background as a psychologist has been extremely helpful. But, as I often tell my brother priests, being a psychologist doesn't make me more objective or a better priest, but simply a priest who has a different bias and a different set of skills. There are situations where an appeal to the Fathers will simply not move us forward. Granted those situations may very well be in the minority, but well, those are the situations within which God seems to call me to minister.

Finally, what I have found to be the best approach to the questions you raise T. is to seek not integration or hegemony, but reconciliation between the insights of the Fathers and contemporary psychology. As I said above, your questions do not admit to easy theoretical answers—but they can be answered personally.

In all humility I think that the work I do is consonant with the work the Fathers did in their time. These men and women of Christ, committed as they were to Him, the Gospel, and the life of the Church, entered into a conversation with Greek philosophy. At times they embraced pagan philosophy as a manifestation of divine wisdom. At other times they rejected it as demonic. It is as a result of that conversation however, that we have the great theological works of the first centuries.

In a similar fashion, and with the hope that I too will grow in holiness as a result, I have my conversation with contemporary psychology. Some of what I find is life giving and some is death dealing. But what is most important is not how this or that conversation or debate is resolved, but how struggle with the issues raised by the conversation between the two parts of my life transforms me. The questions you raised are important one, but their answer is given vocationally and not theoretically. In this, I would suggest, the questions you raise about contemporary psychology's relationship to the Church are no different the questions raised in an earlier age about the role that pagan philosophy and literature ought to play in the life of the Church.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Monday, May 12, 2008

More Thoughts On Orthodoxy in America

An interesting comment from Blogger Audra Wooten that many readers might have missed while I was trying to clean up the stray code on my blog.

Audra writes in response to my earlier post "American Orthodoxy?":

Father Gregory,

I had been pondering both the Ocholophibst post you reference and your comments on it, when today I opened the copy of The Word (publication of the Antiochian Archdiocese) and saw a related article: "Orthodox & American Ideals in Foundational Texts." I wonder if something like this is what you had in mind. At any rate, I thought you might enjoy reading it and might not have seen it if you don't subscribe to The Word.

Thank you Audra for your comment, I value them greatly. Thank you as well for bringing the essay by Gregory Cook to my attention. I took you advice and read Cook's essay in the May 2008 issue of The Word.

To answer your question, I would say that the article both was and wasn't what I had in mind.

To paraphrase Lincoln, historically we American have always seen ourselves as an "almost chosen people," committed fundamentally to an idea: "that all men are created equal." As Lincoln suggests both at Gettysburg and in his second inaugural address, this is an idea that will continually be tested even as it was tested by the Civil War.

The heart of this test, and the question that faces all American, including Orthodox Christians, is found in the last paragraph of the Gettysburg Address:

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Lincoln's words are pointed challenge to not only his contemporaries, but to us as Orthodox Christians. America, for better and worse, is a work that we are invited to participate in. As Orthodox Christians we are no more called to consecrate or hallow this work this work today, then were Christians of Lincoln's era called to consecrate or hallow the battlefield at Gettysburg. This has been done by those "brave men, living and dead who struggled," not only during the Civil War, but in the wars that both proceeded and followed.

If America is an idea, it is also a gift and a responsibility.

Lincoln is squarely within the tradition of American political philosophy when he says that it is our task to dedicate ourselves "to the unfinished work" of "a new birth of freedom," a form of "government of the people, by the people, for the people." The American experiment is both a challenge and an invitation. The questions for us as Orthodox Christians is this: Are we willing to participate, personally and as a Church, in that common task of civil self-government? And what, if anything, do we as Orthodox Christians contribute to this common task?

It seems to me that many in the Orthodox Church have succumbed to what I see as a growing problem in many segments of American society. Whether we see ourselves as politically liberal or conservative, many in American society, and in the Orthodox Church, seem more inclined to use America, then to contribute to America and to the American Experiment.

Allow me to borrow from another inaugural address, this time from President Kennedy: "And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country." Just prior to making this oft quoted challenge Kennedy recounts the global social and scientific changes since World War II. He then says "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

He tells both sides of the differences that divide the human family that they all should "heed . . . the command of Isaiah—to 'undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free.'" This can, however, only be accomplished Kennedy tells us through "cooperation." It is only by our willingness to cooperate with one another that we "may push back the jungle of suspicion." The American project, the American invitation, to all people of good will including Orthodox Christians, is that we "join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved."

For all his optimism, Kennedy is also a realist. He knows that this endeavor "will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet." But even if we are being invited to something that necessarily awaits an eschatological fulfillment, he says nevertheless "let us begin."

There is a certain humility that is as deeply engrained in the American character as is our optimism. If we go wrong, either on the world stage or as Orthodox Christians it is when we forget the humility and wisdom embodied in Kennedy's speech if not always his life:

In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.

American culture is deeply collaborative—from barn raisings onward, ours is a culture that fosters all sorts of voluntary associations. Working together to face a common challenge is part of our character. And so Kennedy says, "the trumpet summons us again—not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are—but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, 'rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation'—a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself."

An effective Orthodox witness to America, I would suggest, requires that we surrender our tendency to use America, and instead demonstrate by our actions our willingness to contribute to the great American project of promoting liberty in all facets of human life, physical, moral, political and cultural, both here and abroad. This might mean an explicit proclamation of the Gospel; but regardless of its theological and historical integrity our proclamation will be ignored by all but the most base in American society if it is not embodied in an active philanthropy which demonstrate to others that we hold ourselves (and to borrow from Kennedy's speech) to "the same high standards of strength and sacrifice" that we ask of them.

It is not sufficient, I think, for Orthodox Christians merely to be residences of America. We must be good citizens, even exemplary citizens, who are committed to bringing to bear all our resources, both personal and as a tradition, to the project of human freedom in all its many dimensions. In a word, our must be a witness not of judgment, but of cooperation and collaboration, "remembering" as Kennedy said, "that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof."

For all our theological erudition, as a Church we have failed in the most basic task of our witness to America. We have failed to be exemplary, or even, I fear, good citizens.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Everybody's A Critic

Everybody's a critic!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory


On the right hand side you may have noticed I've added a new widget, Skribit. This allows you as the reader to offer suggestions for future topics on Koinonia. Alternatively, Skribit allows other readers to vote on topics of interest. So if there's something you would like me to address, or there's a topic listed you think I ought to write on, please feel free to make your views know via Skribit.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Friday, May 09, 2008

Apologizes To All

Image via WikipediaDear Friends,

Please forgive me for not posting much of late. As you may have noticed there was some overlays on my blog that made reading most challenging. But after several weeks of fiddling I finally gave up and asked the good people at Zemanta and Google Blogger Help Group for help.

To make a long story short, there was a stray bit of code left over from a Firfox add-on that got inserted into my blog posts. The code is now gone and my blog is again legible (though whether it is worth reading is another question!).

In the next few days I hope to post some thoughts that arose answer from questions on interview on psychology and the spiritual life over at Ancient Faith Radio.

Again, sorry for the lack of posts and thank you to all of you for patience and assistance in fixing the problem.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Church Unity and Legitimate Variance, Part II: Two Other Voices

Some thought provoking reflections on Church unity from Wei-Hsein Wan at his blog Torn Notebook. This is the second in what I hope will be a series of essays. The first can be found here: "Church Unity and Legitimate Variance: A Lesson from St. Basil the Great." I am most impressed that in the essay below is based on the work of Bishop Hilarion of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Well do read and let me know what you think.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Church Unity and Legitimate Variance, Part II: Two Other Voices

First, St. Gregory the Theologian. In one of his orations, he remembers the endeavors of St. Athanasius of Alexandria to hold together the Greek East and the Latin West despite their different approaches to Trinitarian theology:

For as, in the case of one and the same quantity of water, there is separated from it, not only the residue which is left behind by the hand when drawing it, but also those drops, once contained in the hand, which trickle out through the fingers; so also there is a separation between us and, not only those who hold aloof in their impiety, but also those who are most pious, and that both in regard to dogmas of small importance (peri dogmaton mikron), which can be disregarded (parorasthai axion), and also in regard to expressions intended to bear the same meaning.

We use in an orthodox sense the terms "one Essence and three Hypostases", the one to denote the nature of the Godhead, the other the properties of the Three; the Italians [i.e. Latins] mean the same, but, owing to the scantiness of their vocabulary, and its poverty of terms, they are unable to distinguish between Essence and Hypostases, and therefore introduce the term "Persons", to avoid being understood to assert three Essences.

The result would be laughable, were it not lamentable. This slight difference of sound was taken to indicate a difference of faith. Then, Sabellianism was suspected in the doctrine of Three Persons, Arianism in that of Three Hypostases, both being the offspring of a contentious spirit. And then, from the gradual but constant growth of irritation—the unfailing result of contentiousness—there was a danger of the whole world being torn asunder in the strife about syllables.

Seeing and hearing this, our blessed one [i.e. St. Athanasius], true man of God and great steward of souls as he was, felt it inconsistent with his duty to overlook so absurd and unreasonable a rending of the word, and applied his medicine to the disease. In what manner? He conferred in his gentle and sympathetic way with both parties, and after he had carefully weighed the meaning of their expressions, and found that they had the same sense, and were in no way different in doctrine, by permitting each party to use its own terms, he bound them together in unity of action. (Oration 21, 35-36; emphasis added)

Of course I haven't studied the Fathers enough to discover a text like this on my own. Rather, I came across it (together with yesterday's letter by St. Basil) in Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev's wonderful book, The Mystery of Faith: An Introduction to the Teaching and Spirituality of the Orthodox Church. Here is Bishop Hilarion's commentary on the words of St. Gregory:
In the text quoted above, St. Gregory advances several important ideas. First, differences in dogmatic terminology do not necessarily presuppose disagreement in understanding the dogmas themselves. Not all arguments about dogmatic questions reflect differences in faith: many are simply "strife about syllables". The history of the Church sees many cases where the confession of faith of a certain local Church, translated into a different language or understood in the context of a different theological tradition, was misconstrued, considered heretical, and was rejected by another Church. In this way, many schisms and divisions arose: some of them were later remedied, but some have remained unhealed to the present.

St. Gregory's second thesis is no less significant: there are "dogmas (teachings) of small importance" about which disagreements are to be tolerated. These are the dogmas that can simply be "disregarded" for the sake of the unity of the Church.

The third point is that not only the "impious" but also the "most pious" separate themselves from the Church for various reasons; for example, in their different understanding of a dogma "of small significance". These people, one may consider, somehow remain within the Church while being formally separated from it. Thus, not all Christians who are separated from the Church are to be treated as heretics: a schism can often be a result of a mere misunderstanding. Any contemporary theologian who compares the dogmatic traditions of two Churches which are separated from each other must be able to distinguish between what is a heresy, incompatible with the Church's teaching, what is a disagreement on a "dogma of small significance" that can be "disregarded", and what is simply "strife about syllables" resulting from misinterpretation or misconception.

If we apply to our present situation what St. Gregory and St. Basil [see Letter 113 in yesterday's post] have said about their own age, we will see that they were in fact much more "liberal" than the most advanced "ecumenists" of today. Neither Gregory nor Basil regarded the disagreement on the question of the divinity of the Holy Spirit as an obstacle for reconciliation among the Churches; nor did they claim that those who did not confess the Spirit as God were outside the Church. Moreover, it was a common practice in the fourth century—indeed, approved by St. Basil—to accept Arians into the Church through repentance, not requiring baptism or chrismation. In our own times some Orthodox say that Roman Catholics, being "heretics", are outside the Church, and should be rebaptised when received into Orthodoxy. Yet neither Catholics nor Protestants would deny the divinity of the Son of God, as did the Arians, not would they deny the divinity of the Holy Spirit, as did most fourth-century theologians and bishops. And surely the question of the procession of the Holy Spirit is less significant than the question of his divinity. To regard today's Catholics and Protestants as "pseudo-churches" is totally alien to the spirit of the ancient Church Fathers such as Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian. Their understanding of the divisions among the Churches was much more dynamic and multi-dimensional, and much less rigid. Many divisions between the Churches could be healed if contemporary theologians used the methodology advanced by St. Gregory.

When dealing with the difficult question of Christian divisions, we must also bear in mind that God alone knows where the limits of the Church are. As St. Augustine said, "Many of those who on earth considered themselves to be alien to the Church will find on the Day of Judgement that they are her citizens; and many of those who thought themselves to be members of the Church will, alas, be found to be alien to her". To declare that outside the Orthodox Church there is not and cannot be the grace of God would be to limit God's omnipotence and to confine him to a framework outside which he has no right to act. Hence faithfulness to the Orthodox Church and her dogmatic teaching should never become naked triumphalism by which other Christian Churches are regarded as created by the "cunning devices" of people, while the whole world and ninety-nine percent of humankind is doomed to destruction. (The Mystery of Faith, pp. 125-127; emphasis added)

How we need more bishops like these!

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Any "Star Wars" Fans Out There?

Not taking sides, just love "Star Wars."

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

HT: Mirror of Justice