Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Limits of Forgiveness

Sunday, August 31, 2008: 11th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST - Tone 2. The Placing of the Cincture (Sash) of the Most-Holy Theotokos (395-408). Hieromartyr Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (258). St. Gennadius, Patriarch of Constantinople (471).

Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, 'Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.' Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, 'Pay me what you owe!' So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.' And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. 'Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?' And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.

Forgiveness, for me at least, is one of the hardest subject on which to preach. The struggle that I have is this: People tend to absolutize forgiveness. What I mean by that is that for many Christians, and even non-Christians, forgiveness is the most important of all Christian virtues. In fact for many, forgiveness, together with its ancillary virtues such as compassion, tolerance, and understanding, seems to have become the only virtue. As with other approaches (Christian or not) to the moral life that make, for example peace or justice, the only virtues, making forgiveness the only, or even the central, virtue of the Christian life betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the virtuous life.

In the classical Christian, and even some pre-Christian such as we see in Plato and Aristotle, understanding, virtue is a matter of balance. So for example, Plato understandings justice as the functioning of each part according to own limits and purposes. For Aristotle, courage is the means between the extremes of recklessness and cowardice. And for both Christians and non-Christians virtue is not simply a matter of balance, but the ability of the person to act or behave habitually in a right (that is, balanced) fashion.

Christ in the Gospel, or so I would argue, presents a similar understanding of the virtuous life as one of balance. The parable recounted in Matthew 18.23-35 is in response to Peter's question in v. 21: "Then Peter came to Him and said, "'Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?'" Jesus respond by saying, in v. 22, "Jesus said to him, 'I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.'" He then proceeds to offer the parable of the wicked servant.

From an exegetical point of view the interesting thing about the parable is that it seems to contradict what He has just told Peter. Yes, initially at least, the king forgives his servant an extraordinarily large debt in response to his servant's pleadings. But while the master's forgiveness is real, it is not unconditional, it is not absolute. What do I mean by this?

When the newly forgiven servant is himself approached by his fellow servant with a request similar to that he earlier made to the king, the wicked servant not only does not forgive the debt, he has the debtor thrown into prison. Hearing of this from other servants the king calls his servant into his presence and, in response to the servant's lack of compassion, rescinds his forgiveness and delivers the wicked servant over "to the torturers" until he is able to pay all that he owes the king.

Jesus concludes by telling Peter, and us, that the "Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses." (v. 35)

So here then is problem, it would seem that divine forgiveness is not absolute, has its limits. God does not forgive the unforgiving, He does not have mercy or compassion on those who themselves lack mercy and compassion on their neighbor. Let me offer a somewhat shocking summary of the point where we find ourselves: It would seem that there are circumstance is which forgiveness is not the God-pleasing thing to do. Evidently there are times when, as in the case of the servants who in their grief reported to the king the actions of the wicked servant, when a response other than forgiveness is required of us. Or maybe it is more accurate to say, that the virtuous response is not exhausted by forgiveness.

Let me explain.

St Matthew begins this chapter with the disciples coming to Jesus and asking "Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" (v.1) In response Jesus calls "a little child to Him, set him in the midst" of the disciples. (v. 2) Turning to His somewhat misguided followers, Jesus tells them "Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me. (vv. 3-5) But this doesn't end Jesus' response. He continues His teaching on "Christian greatness" with three brief lessons that come rapidly one after the other in verses 6-19.

He begins by offering a negative example of Christian discipleship. He warns His disciples that they must have a special care of the "little ones" of faith. To lead the weak of faith into sin is a horrible crime, so horrible in fact that it would be better for me "millstone" hung around my neck and be "drowned in the depth of the sea." (v. 6) In a fallen world, the little one's of faith will be offended, "but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!" For this person it would be better for them to cut off a hand or a foot or pluck out their own, and so enter into the Kingdom of God "lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire." (vv. 8, 9)

In verses 10-14, Jesus instructs His disciples to be always on the look out for the "lost sheep" among the faithful. The return of even one who has fallen away brings about more joy in Heaven than the 99 who remain faithful. Why? Because our Father in heaven desires that not even "one of these little ones should perish." (v. 14) Notice here the shift in Jesus' argument. The "little one" is no longer simply the child or the innocent among us, but the lost sheep, the sinful man or woman, who has strayed from the Gospel. Without losing sight of the innocent among us, we are also called to reconcile those who have a fallen into sin. How?

"Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.' And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. "Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. "Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them." (vv. 15-19)
Again, we are called to forgive, to call back those who have strayed. But we are to do so only within limits. What are these limits? Taking my cue from not only the first verse of the chapter (vv. 1-9) but also the reaction of the king to the wicked servant at the end if the chapter, I would suggest the limits of forgiveness are found when forgiveness comes at the expense of the weak and vulnerable among us. When forgiveness means tolerating harm done to the little ones of faith, when it allows for the exploitation of others in their vulnerability or weakness, then forgiveness must be with held.

Think for a moment of what it means to forgive someone who has harmed you? What are you doing in this situation but, like the merciful king in the parable, refusing to press your own legitimate advantage in the face of the other person's real and objective debt to you?

And when I refuse to forgive, what am I doing? It doesn't mean asking for my due. Rather, when I withhold my forgiveness, I not only ignore the demands of justice, but use your debt to me as a means to harm you. When I am unforgiving, I don't ask for what is owned me, I use what is owned me to punish you. So egregious is this behavior, that it evokes from the king a harsh, and seemingly unforgiving, response. But are things as they appear?

The wicked servant is willing not simply to press the demands of justice under the law, but to exploit the king's own earlier act of mercy to harm his fellow servant. The wicked servant poisons his lord's mercy by his willingness to inflict harm on his fellow servant. As the complaints of the other servants suggest, the willingness to make use of the mercy, compassion, forgiveness, understanding and freedom showed me to harm you undermines the very possibility of a peaceful communal life. We cannot live together in harmony or justice when the wicked are allowed to exploit the freedom of forgiveness to harm others.

Feelings of resentment (which no doubt the servants of the king felt for their wicked fellow servant), while not good, don't necessarily signify the lack of forgiveness. Neither does the unwillingness to trust someone or spend time in their presence necessarily mean that I have failed to forgive. Much as I wouldn't trust an alcoholic with the ability to limit his own drinking, there are people for whom my trust is likely to result in their fall.

Forgiveness then is my refusal to exploit others in their weakness, their poverty, their vulnerability.

When someone has harmed me, when by how they act or fail to act, they have indebted themselves me, forgiveness is the virtue on my part that keeps me from pressing my advantage over them. But I must do so in such a manner that a third party does not pay the cost for my action. This concern for a third party is critical because forgiveness is simply negative, it is more than simply writing off a debt owed, or not exploiting another's weakness. Forgiveness is in the service of reconciliation, of re-establishing a lost communion between God and humanity and humanity with itself.

For this reason, when I forgive someone I must do more than simply refusal to use people's own weakness against them or for my own gain, it also means that I refuse to colluded (even passively or unintentionally) with their mistreatment of others, even if they person they harm is themselves. It is not forgiving to allow others to use my gift to them to be used against others. Again, forgiving the criminal, for example, does not mean overlooking the harm he has done others, ignoring the possibility (granted more or less likely) that he will harm someone in the future, much less my remaining passive in the face of his willingness harm others. Likewise, forgiveness does not preclude reparations for harm done.

In the final analysis, though forgiveness is always more than NOT doing something; forgiveness must also be positive. The negative movement of forgiveness is ALWAYS in the service of the positive movement of reconciliation.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Archbishop Chaput's response to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi about the Church's historic stand on abortion

As I've mentioned here, the number of Orthodox Christians who favor few or no restrictions on abortion is terribly high (just over 60%). Given that number, I found the following from Denver's Roman Catholic Archbishop Charles J Chaput, O.F.M. Cap on abortion worthy repeating here.

You can download the rest of Archbishop Chaput's statement as a PDF, "ON THE SEPARATION OF SENSE AND STATE: A CLARIFICATION FOR THE PEOPLE OF THE CHURCH IN NORTHERN COLORADO" by clicking on the title.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Pelosi: "I would say that as an ardent, practicing Catholic, this is an issue that I have studied for a long time. And what I know is over the centuries, the doctors of the church have not been able to make that def-inition . . . St. Augustine said at three months. We don't know. The point is, is that it shouldn't have an impact on the woman's right to choose."

Chaput's response:

"Since Speaker Pelosi has, in her words, studied the issue "for a long time," she must know very well one of the premier works on the subject, Jesuit John Connery's Abortion: The Development of the Roman Catholic Perspective (Loyola, 1977). Here's how Connery concludes his study:

"The Christian tradition from the earliest days reveals a firm antiabortion attitude . . . The condemnation of abortion did not depend on and was not limited in any way by theories regarding the time of fetal animation. Even during the many centuries when Church penal and penitential practice was based on the theory of delayed animation, the condemnation of abortion was never affected by it. Whatever one would want to hold about the time of animation, or when the fetus became a human being in the strict sense of the term, abortion from the time of conception was considered wrong, and the time of animation was never looked on as a moral dividing line between permissible and impermissible abortion."

Or to put it in the blunter words of the great Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

"Destruction of the embryo in the mother's womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed on this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And that is nothing but murder."

Ardent, practicing Catholics will quickly learn from the historical record that from apostolic times, the Christian tradition overwhelmingly held that abortion was grievously evil. In the absence of modern medical knowledge, some of the Early Fathers held that abortion was homicide; others that it was tantamount to homicide; and various scholars theorized about when and how the unborn child might be animated or "ensouled." But nonediminished the unique evil of abortion as an attack on life itself, and the early Church closely associated abortion with infanticide. In short, from the beginning, the believing Christian
community held that abortion was always, gravely wrong.

Of course, we now know with biological certainty exactly when human life begins. Thus, today's religious alibis for abortion and a so-called "right to choose" are nothing more than that - alibis that break radically with historic Christian and Catholic belief.

Abortion kills an unborn, developing human life. It is always gravely evil, and so are the evasions employed to justify it. Catholics who make excuses for it - whether they're famous or not - fool only themselves and abuse the fidelity of those Catholics who do sincerely seek to follow the Gospel and live their Catholic faith.

The duty of the Church and other religious communities is moral witness. The duty of the state and its officials is to serve the common good, which is always rooted in moral truth. A proper understanding of the "separation of Church and state" does not imply a separation of faith from political life. But of course, it's always important to know what our faith actually teaches."

Wow. Praise God and pass the ammunition . . . There will no lack of clarity in Chaput's town this week - at least about what the Church Church teaches on the subject of abortion. Pelosi walked right into that one.

H/T Sherry W on Intention Disciples:

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Healed of Our Sins, Healed of Our Passions

Sunday, August 24, 2008: 10th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST — Tone 1. Hieromartyr Eutychius, disciple of St. John the Theologian (1st c.). Translation of the Relics of St. Peter, Metropolitan of Moscow and All Russia (1479). Ven. ArsĂ©ny, Abbot of Komel' (Vologdá—1550). Martyr Tation (Tatio) of Claudiopolis (305). Virgin Martyr Cyra (Kira) of Persia (558). St. George Limniotes the Confessor of Mt. Olympus (8th c.). St. Kozma of Berat, Evangelizer of Southern Albania (18th-19th c.). Repose of New Hieromartyr Cosmas of Aetolia, Equal-to-the-Apostles (1779). The "PETROVSKAYA" Icon of the Most-Holy Theotokos.

And when they had come to the multitude, a man came to Him, kneeling down to Him and saying, "Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water. So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him." Then Jesus answered and said, "O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him here to Me." And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him; and the child was cured from that very hour. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, "Why could we not cast it out?" So Jesus said to them, "Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting. Now while they were staying in Galilee, Jesus said to them, "The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and the third day He will be raised up. And they were exceedingly sorrowful.

We need to be careful in how we understand the idea that illness (whether physical or mental) is the result of sin.

While it can be, and at is, the result of my personal sin, for the Fathers of the Church sickness is a symptom of the fallen condition of all humanity. In other words, while I might be sick because of something I did, it is also possible that my sickness is the result not of my personal actions but rather a consequence of Adam's transgression all those many years ago in the Garden.

And even here, with the idea that illness is a result of our fallen condition, or of human sinfulness, we must exercise great caution. Again for the Fathers, illness, like physical death and all our other experiences of our own limits, is not a punishment. Rather sickness is given to humanity by God to help remind us of our absolute dependence on Him and our relative dependence upon each other. In other words, physical and mental illness are therapeutic, they are part of how God heals us--personally and communally--of our sinfulness.

With this in mind we can turn to the Gospel for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost. In line with the general patristic understanding of sickness, in his own comments on this passage, Origen (Commentary on Matthew, 13.4) says that "every disease and weakness which our Savior cured" during His ministry on earth "represents different symptoms in the soul." So, for example, "the paralytics" represent those who paralyze the soul by wedding it to the desire of the flesh. The "blind" symbolize for Origen those who are indifferent, and even hostile, to the "things seen by the soul alone," for example, faith, hope and love the three great virtues of the Christian life. (see, 1 Cor 13.13) The "deaf" remind us of those he says of those who close their hearts and will not receive "the word of salvation."

For Origen, as for the Fathers of the Church more generally, the meaning of the material world was found on two levels simultaneously. The physical (which includes the body and society) and the spiritual (which permeates the physical and both undergirds and transcends it). As with paralysis, blindness and deafness, so to with epilepsy, it has a physical, or we might say medical meaning, but also a spiritual meaning that transcends (but does not minimize or invalidate) the physical meaning. Origen tells us:

On the same principle it will be necessary that the matters regarding the epileptic should be investigated. Now this affection attacks the sufferers at considerable intervals, during which he who suffers from it seems in no way to differ from the man in good health, at the season when the epilepsy is not working on him. Similar disorders you may find in certain souls, which are often supposed to be healthy in point of temperance and the other virtues; then, sometimes, as if they were seized with a kind of epilepsy arising from their passions, they fall down from the position in which they seemed to stand, and are drawn away by the deceit of this world and other lusts.

In other words, Origen see epilepsy as symbolic of the passions.

We hear a great deal about the passions in Orthodox theology and spiritual writings but often we might not know what the word means. The word itself comes from the Greek word, pathos, meaning to suffer. It has the connotation of something in the face of which I am passive. So a passion is something that controls me that can come and (like an epileptic seizure) take over my life and rob me of my autonomy.

In coming then to heal the epileptic boy Jesus demonstrates His desire as well to heal all humanity of our passions, of those things in our life that rob us of self-possession, that enslave us and rob us of our freedom.

Thinking about it for a moment, the connection between my passions and my own lack of inner freedom should become clear to me. For example, I might be the nicest guy in the world (I am not I assure you. Nor, I hasten to add do I aspire to be, but that is for another day). But (and we all know someone like this, we might be related to this person, or even be this person) there are just little things that set me off--cause me for example to fly into a rage or sink into depression. When these things happen, I am no longer in control of my actions or (especially in extreme cases) my thoughts. What is in control? anger or despair.

Likewise we can see something similar happening with lust, or envy, or greed, or any of the Seven Deadly Sins in classical western theology or the eight evil thoughts about which Evagrius warns his monastic readers. Whatever list we use, the point is the same: We need to struggle against those habits of thought and action that have the power to rob us of our ability to act freely.

How do we do this? There are I think four things we can do.

There is first of all Holy Confession. When I come to confession I do so not simply to say what I have done wrong (much less what my spouse, children or co-workers have done wrong), but also to seek the help of Christ and the priest to understand why I have behaved as I have. In other words, not just what sins have I committed, but what are the particular passions that have control over me? This is what the father does when he confesses to Christ his own unbelief.

Second, it is important that as I come to understand what particular passions have gripped me, I need to learn two things: when are these passions likely to be aroused in me and how do I avoid feed into them when they do? The second of these is by far the harder of the two tasks since, especially early on, I am often unaware that I am consenting to the passion until it is too late. As a quick aside, this is why we have in the Church formal periods of communal fasting--so that we can slowly wean ourselves from our addictions to different passions.

Third, I must pray. Not only do I have to ask God, like the boy's father, to heal me, I also must be in the habit of setting aside time to simply sit in the presence of God with a listening and obedient heart. It is all too easy for me to always run to God with the things I want, asking Him in effect to bless my passions (especially if I have a passionate need to be seen by myself and others as a "good Christian"!). While it is good and proper to ask for what I need (as the father does, "Help my unbelief!"), it is also important that I allow God to instruct me in how He would have me live. I should ask Him to make me a good Christian, but to be a good husband or priest according to His will for my life.

Fourth and finally, I must be willing to bear patiently with not simply the will of God but the timing of God. Often it seems God allows me to suffer my own passions as a way to break me of my habits. In effect God seems to practice the spiritual equivalent of aversion therapy with me. There are times when God will keep giving me what I want until I realize I really don't want it. This actually seems to be Origen's opinion. He writes:

Perhaps, therefore, you would not err if you said, that such persons, so to speak, are epileptic spiritually, having been cast down by "the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places," (Eph 6:12) and are often ill, at the time when the passions attack their soul; at one time falling into the fire of burnings, when, according to what is said in Hosea, they become adulterers, like a pan heated for the cooking from the burning flame; (Hos 7:4) and, at another time, into the water, when the king of all the dragons in the waters casts them down from the sphere where they appeared to breath freely, so that they come into the depths of the waves of the sea of human life. This interpretation of ours in regard to the lunatic will be supported by him who says in the Book of Wisdom with reference to the even temperament of the just man, "The discourse of a pious man is always wisdom," but, in regard to what we have said, "The fool changes as the moon." (Sir 27:11) And sometimes even in the case of such you may see impulses which might carry away in praise of them those who do not attend to their want of ballast, so that they would say that it was as full moon in their case, or almost full moon. And you might see again the light that seemed to be in them diminishing,— as it was not the light of day but the light of night,— fading to so great an extent, that the light which appeared to be seen in them no longer existed. But whether or not those who first gave their names to things, on account of this gave the name of lunacy to the disease epilepsy, you will judge for yourself.

Again, while it is important to distinguish physical and spiritual illness, it is clear that for Origen, the spiritual epileptic is so as a result of his own foolish desires. God has given him over to what he (imagine) he wants until, finally, he repents.

My friends, Christ has offered us, and through us the whole human family and indeed the whole creation, the possibility of being free. This freedom does not come as the result of human action, I don't make myself free. It comes rather as a free gift of divine grace. When you or I struggle against are passions what we are really doing, is struggling against our own tendencies to reject the gift of freedom and divine life. Again as Origen says in his sermon, "they are free who abide in the truth of the word of God, and on this account, know the truth, that they also may become free from sin. If, any one then, is a son simply, and not in this matter wholly a son of the kings of the earth, he is free." Let us turn from our own willful, and unintended, rejection of divine grace and instead, with open and obedient hearts, stand together in Christ in Whose will for us personally and as a community we can find true freedom and life everlasting.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Setting the Stage: The Logic of Spiritual Formation

Returning to a topic introduced in an earlier post, I offer for your consideration some thoughts on the practical elements of spiritual formation in groups. Given the recent discussion in the comments section on the psychological and spiritual health, this topic is especially important. Let me explain.

Psychological testing for candidates for ordination (at least for priests and deacons) is important. There are a number of tests that are useful in identifying those candidates who have mental health concerns that might make them unfit for ministry. But no test is any better than the one who administers it. And, no matter how well the test in administered, it is of no value if we fail to act on the results. As I see it the irony in testing is this: The best science in the world is useless, and even harmful, in the hands of those who the intellectual and moral abilities to apply it to appropriately to the needs of the candidate. Psychological testing, at its best, helps us exclude those men for whom holy orders and ministry would be an unbearable burden because of their own psychological makeup. Testing can tell us who not to ordain; it cannot tell is who to ordain.

Empirical sciences (and this includes psychology and psychological testing) function inductively. This is to say that science makes general statements that are probably true, based on individual instances. For example, if you answer X to question Y then you are probably depressed. The Pew Charitable Trust Survey of the US Religious Landscape is an example of inductive reasoning. A large number of people are interviewed and the researchers draw general conclusions (expressed statistically) about religious life in the United States. While there has been over the years criticism of inductive reasoning, I think that if we bear in mind its limitations it is a valuable tool for ministry.

Most clergy are not trained in science, that is there are not (as part of their own education as clergy) expected to be experts in inductive reasoning. This I think is one of the reasons that frequently bishops and the lower clergy have difficulty in understanding, much less using appropriately, the findings of the social and human sciences. If scientists are trained in inductive reason, by virtue of their theological education clergy are more inclined to proceed along different lines in their understanding of the world of persons, events, and things. At least vocationally, clergy are theologians and theology, unlike empirical science (including psychology) typically uses deductive and not inductive reasoning.

Unlike inductive reasoning that moves from the particular to the general, deductive reasoning moves from the general (or universal) to the particular. For example, let's say you hold to the premise that all human beings have "sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." You know that I am human and while you know nothing about me except that I am human, you concluded that I am a sinner. This doesn't tell me how you I sin, but it does give you some insight into my life. Unlike inductive reasoning that offers us states of probability (or assertoric knowledge or information that is likely true) deductive reasoning offers (or claims to offer) certain knowledge (or apodictic knowledge or information that is necessarily or absolutely true).

Especially as an applied discipline, spiritual formation, to get finally to our topic here, uses a third, and often overlooked, form of logical reasoning: abductive. Unlike inductive and deductive reasoning, abductive reasoning is concerned with trying to reason, often by trail and error, to the best explanation. Abductive reasoning is by its very nature heuristic that is it is a way of focusing, and often refocusing, our attention in the search for a solution to a concrete problem.

Abductive reasoning is the mode of reasoning that we encounter in a story. Narratives are abductive in character; they are not necessarily true in an empirical or ontological sense. But a good story, even if it is fails to be truthful in an empirical or ontological sense, is still true. G.K. Chesterton puts it this way: "Fairy Tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."

So what am I saying in asserting that as an applied discipline spiritual direction is a mode of abductive reasoning, a story, if you will?

Simply this, the goal of spiritual direction is to help people see how the little story of their lives fits within the larger story of the Gospel and the salvation of the human race. It is essential that people see where their lives fits in that overarching story.

But not only this.

It is important that they see where the large, cosmic and heavenly story of salvation is written out in the smaller, but no less valuable, story of their own lives. This is why while both inductive and deductive forms of reasoning have their value, in the final analysis they both fail us, or rather we fail ourselves, if we try and use them to explain the spiritual life. This is why, if I may offer an opinion, why so much Orthodox preaching is bad; priests offer lectures and not stories--they offer history classes, but fail to show how the larger and smaller stories of salvation history presuppose each other. A good storyteller always suggests that he's leaving things out, that their are things he's left unsaid maybe to be said on another day, but then again maybe not. A storyteller and the story he tells has its own logic, but that logic is neither deductive nor inductive, but the logic of narrative, of the myth or the fairy tale or poetry, but never the lecture hall or the seminar room.

In spiritual direction, in the work of spiritual formation, we are primarily tellers of tales, of the true story of God, of the creation, the human community, and this community, or that person. How do we do this? That is for a later post.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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A Thought from Kierkegaard

"The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any word in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church's prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament. "

Soren Kierkegaard, Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, ed. Charles E. Moore (Farmington, PA: Plough, 2002), 201

H/T: ochlophobist

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Meg Funk: About Spiritual Ambition

Given the current series of conversations about spiritual formation I thought a recent post by Sr Mary Meg Funk, OSB, on Spiritual Ambition was appropriate. Sr Mary describes herself on her blog as "a nun seeking God through the monastic way of life under a Rule and a superior." She is a member of Our Lady of Grace Monastery Beech Grove, IN.

Sister is involved in ecumenical and interfaith dialog about monastic life. Her words bring a helpful mix of insights not only from Roman Catholicism, but also Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestantism and Buddhism. I would encourage people to take a look at Sr Mary's blog. While I am on the subject, I would recommend as well Vow of Conversation by the Roman Catholic Cistercian nun Sr Macrina. Post for both blogs will appear under My Blog List in the lower right.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Humility thrives without ambition. Yet, the ascetical life has the root word of an athlete. I've heard the Dalai Lama say competition for monks is desirable to assist the weak and encourage the strong.

We rightly esteem our Olympic Athletes. We applaud their discipline and mastery of skill demonstrated through their sport events.

St. Paul uses the athlete as an ideal for us to measure our efforts to life Gospel values with such dedication.

Benedict says he wants to temper the rule to have nothing harsh to discourage the weak, but also keep the strong motivated and on the path during the whole of his/her life all his/her life.

So, when is ambition opposing humility?

Spiritual ambition has attachments to special clothes, using objects and appropriating gestures without authentic initiation and ordination lineages. Spiritual consumerism has a profit motive rather than sacrifice.

Spiritual ambition implies competition that could foster violence rather than the warm community known as koinonia in the Acts of the Apostles.

Money exchange for services rendered is blessed and helpful for stability and good order. The services rendered by a competent and authorized minister warrant wages. To take advantage of spiritual hunger and exploit through consumerism is an affliction of vainglory.

Ambition is about motivation. Spiritual ambition risks the self-willed agenda rather than selflessness that gives honor and glory to God and right effort to the seeker.

Towards others we teach by example and words of encouragement. Here we see how the teachings on laughter fit with the teaching on spiritual ambition. We would not laugh or make fun of another. We applaud any effort toward doing the right thing with right intention.

We also imitate the good we see in others and remain supple to catch our next point of conversatio. on our spiritual journey. It comes from the inside, this impulse of grace. Spiritual ambition comes from the outside, i.e. impressing others, being higher and taking the places of honor. Leadership roles can be seductive as can be scholarship and academic rituals of advancement.

Our American culture sponsors ambition. Business, sports, musical accomplishments have a place in society, but in the realm of the Spirit there is Soul to Soul calculus.

Our ambition is helpful to repent and wait upon the subtle graces that come to ready hearts.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Some Further Reflections on Why Converts Leave

The response to the post that looked at why converts leave the Church they have joined as adults were thoughtful and thought provoking. Let me respond here in turn to each of these comments.

Tony-Allen recommends an essay by Fr Seraphim Rose (Converts - Chapter 88 from Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works). There is here a great deal of very good advice for all concerned whether we were born into an Orthodox family or joined the Church later in life.

Stuart Koehl offers a number of very helpful observations. His distinction between those who convert TO and those who convert FROM is right on target. I have told a number of inquirers that I will not make them catechumens, much less receive them into the Church, until they resolve their problems in their tradition of origin. Basically my thinking is this: Angry, unhappy Evangelical Christians (or Protestants or Roman Catholic) are eventually going to be angry, unhappy Orthodox Christians. Again as Stuart's words suggest, left unhealed, this foster in the person a growing "sense of betrayal which either causes the convert to move on to something else (the perpetual seeker syndrome), or worse, to abandon faith altogether."

Stuart's observation is also correct. He writes that:

I don't think, therefore, that catechesis is a the heart of the problem, unless you use the term to include discernment of a person's motives for joining the Church. I know a lot of pastors and catechists are reluctant to do that, given that converts aren't exactly falling off trees. We want to put the best possible face on the Church, we create the idealized image in an attempt to "sell" the faith to the seeker. Since most of us do truly love the Church, we tend to gloss over the grubby reality of parish life, focusing instead on the glories of the Liturgy, the spiritual riches of the Tradition, and that sense of koinonia that we sometimes manage to achieve despite our various foibles.

Where I might disagree in that (and S-P mentions this as well) catechesis includes (or should include) an examination of the person's motives for joining the Church. As I've mentioned before, the catechumenate is a graduate seminar--it is a formation process. After some initial failures, I learned not to enroll people as catechumens until (1) I was morally certain that God had called them to enter the Church and (2) that they demonstrated the necessary resolve and fortitude to remain faithful. The catechumenate itself, as I tell people, is meant to begin what should be a life-long process of repentance. In other words, the catechumenate is a school of repentance. Yes, there are facts about the Church to be learned, but (as with the whole Tradition) serve repentance. For what it might be worth, as I have become more and more consistent in my approach to inquirers and catechumens, I have never lacked for people to receive. I suspect that if converts aren't falling off the trees, or are staying once they arrive, it is because we have fundamentally misunderstood the catechumenate. (St Augustine has some helpful advice on all this in "On the Catechising of the Uninstructed." It is well worth a read.)

Theo's own story of entering and then leaving the Orthodox Church I think illustrates the importance of really scurtinizing the motives of inquires BEFORE they are made catechumens. The failure to do this is harmful not only to the inquiry but the parish that he joins and will later leave.

I think Stuart is right in his call for a more realistic, warts and all, presentation of the Church and how we live our Christian lives is something I have tried to follow since I first got into the evangelism and apologetics "business." While I have been criticized for it, since it seems to cause "some people to turn away," I have found that "those who persist will be entering the Church with their eyes wide open, less prone to disillusionment,[and] more willing to stick it out through the rough patches."

Finally, I would (maybe?) disagree with Stuart about the need for a Spiritual Father. At least in the Orthodox world that term carries a great deal of freight, not all of which is helpful. What we need, above all else (as S-P and Chrys both suggest), are well rounded, emotional and developmentally mature men in the priesthood. On this score I think the Orthodox Church could learn a great deal from the Catholic Church's emphasis on the human formation of candidates for the priesthood. You can read more about this here: Institute for Priestly Formation.

As part of this move away from catechesis as dogmatics (S-P) and the overselling of the faith (Chrys), and toward communities of mature mena and women under the leadership of clergy drawn from mature men, married to mature women, in good and sound marriages, we would do well I think to take our cue from Ben. The Orthodox Church (and I have Catholics friends who a similiar need there) needs to do more to encourage priest to share the load. That might mean more priests and deacons relative to parishioners. But it certainly means the encouraging a more active approach to lay ministry guided by the clergy. I am trying to do this at Holy Assumption Orthodox Church (the parish I currently serve) and, while it is early days yet, it seems to be working.

Michelle's observation about the Orthodox Church being a lonely place is often true. For several years I did supply work for vacationing and ill priests in the Pittsburgh area. While often people in the parishes were warm and welcoming, it was not uncommon for them to be cold and distant. That said, I have found in the main that the things Michelle wants parishes to do, are often done by many parishes, but still it is not uncommon to run into resistance from the "old guard." This, as AMM suggests, is not unique to ethnic parishes, nor (as my friends who are Evangelical and Mainline Protestant pastors have assured me) for that matter to Orthodox communities. While we might use different means of excluding others (as Chrys said), it happens in all communities. Yes, to return to Michelle's later comments, many, even most, Orthodox Christians are warm and hospitable. Where the problem develops, in my experience, is not so much that people are not hospitable as it is that parishes tolerate the lack of a welcoming attitude, or even a hostile attitude, in members of the community. The fact is, even if 9 out of 10 people in a parish are welcoming, if they do not correct that 1 person who is closed to new people, they end up colluding--and even encouraging--that negative attitude.

That said though, we do need to do better--we must move beyond a mechanical approach to our spiritual life. This, as Chrys points out, is the common human problem of nominalism. We all of us want to reap rewards without making an investment. He is right when he says that

The issue, it seems to me, is how to structure local parish communities so that they are able to prudently and faithfully tap into the tremendous resources of "the whole Body of Christ." This issue is urgent not only for the building up of the convert (whether cradle or otherwise), the development and exercise of each member's gifts, and the formation of tomorrow's leadership, but also to relieve the horrendous burden placed on our clergy. They should be "spiritual coaches" (as I have noted elsewhere), building up "the team" for the challenges entailed in a life faithfully lived. Clergy are not, can not be -- must not be -- the only active members of the team. So much more could be done for Christ if we could figure out a way to unleash the gifts of everyone in the parish. Yet so much care must be taken to do so in a way that is faithful to that which has been "handed on" to us. This, it seems to me, is one of the most critical challenges facing the Church today and would go a long, LONG way toward addressing the reasons (whatever they are) that cause so many to leave.

Trying to answer this question is why I was asked to start the Palamas Institute. We need to invest more resource not simply in training future priests, but studying and supporting the work of the parish, the parish priest and the ministry of the laity.

Again, thank you to all for your generosity in offering such thought provoking observations.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Contribution of the Social and Human Sciences to Spirituality

An earlier post argued that theological reflection is an insufficient basis for living a Christian life. Detached from a connection with not only the life or prayer, on the one hand, and a connection with daily life on the other, theology risks becoming a self-indulgent fantasy. We need the contributions and insights of the social and the human sciences. The best way to see that is to simply apply the insights of the empirical studies to a pastoral problem in the Church.

Think of the number of adults who join, and then, leave the Orthodox Church. If better than 50% of those who enter the Church as adult will eventually leave it would seem that we are overlooking something in our catechesis and reception of these people. What we are missing is not in the strict sense a theological but empirical question. Indeed theology as such, does not have the resources to even uncover the fact that many of our converts will later defect from the Church. This is an insight that we owe to the work sociologists.

I think it was James Fowler, who studies the psychology of faith development, who said somewhere that social scientists are professional gossips. What is meant by this is that the social scientist specializes in those sources of information that are not necessarily officially sanctioned, but which nevertheless "everybody" knows, but that they don't necessarily know that they know. Especially in matters of Church life, because we value unity of faith, we sometimes overlook or leave unspoken those things which would contradict our desire to appear as one.

And this then is the second epistemological element of the social and human sciences. Whether quantitative or qualitative in content, empirical work is often subversive in character. Owing to this subversive tendency, the social and human sciences are often allies of different political or moral ideologies such as feminism or gay rights. But this tendency toward what in American would be considered a more leftist or liberal agenda is not inherent to empirical work as such. It reflects as much the character and interest of the researcher as it does his or her science.

At its best, empirical work helps us call into question our own preconceptions and prejudices about the world of persons, events and things that make up our everyday life. For example, there is interesting research being done at George Mason University in the economic study of religion. Some of this research suggests that "strict" religions tend to grow while "non-strict" or "liberal" religions do not. Examining the research a little more closely and we see that "strict" doesn't mean authoritarian, much less abusive, but rather refers to those religious traditions that have relatively high expectations for who their members will behave. "Liberal" religions, on the other hand, tend to have minimal expectations for their members. Further, when we look at questions of ministry, "strict" religions tend to encourage members to be actively involved in some aspect of the form of service valued by their tradition. On the other hand, "liberal" religions tend to see themselves as providing services for their members.

In other words, a growing parish is likely to encourage young mothers to work together to meet their own, and other people's child care needs. A declining parish would simply establish a day care with paid staff. Or, to take another example, a growing church is growing because it expects, and makes possible, people's commitment to serve others both inside and outside the their tradition while declining churches tend to see themselves as there to take of their own members.

Interestingly enough, none of this is linked to whether or not the community is theologically conservative or progressive. Rather, and this is worth reflecting on at another time, it seems to be that growing communities are outward looking in their service and are so because they view God as actively engaged in creation. In other words, if we preach a God Who is actively engage with humanity, and then actively encourage and support each other in imitating that God in our personal and communal lives, we are likely to grow. And again, this has very little to do with the usual typology of "liberal" and "conservative" as those terms get taken over into religion from politics.

If over 50% of our converts leave, we might at least wonder if it is because we have no ministerial opportunities for them after we receive them. Interestingly, a large number of male converts who stay, go on to take holy orders (even as, I suspect, a large number of female converts marry to, or will be married to, men who are later ordained). But for the majority of converts, there is simply no place for them to use their own unique gifts and talents.

Compare this to say the situation in a large Greek ethnic parish. The annual Greek food festival, to take but one example, provides an opportunity for a large number of lay people to share in a project that offers a valued service to those outside not only the parish but also outside the community's ethic and theological tradition. Often (in my experience at least) while the majority of those who participate in the food festival are Greek, a fair number are also non-Greek parishioners (whether converts or cradle Orthodox Christians). This helps me at least answer a question that I, and many have had for a while. Why is it, and contrary to what seems to be a general preference for English and a less "ethnic" (i.e., Greek, Russian or Arab) feel even among cradle Orthodox themselves, that ethnic parishes continue to exist and even grow numerically? I suspect that the parish institution of the food festivals are a significant factor in why even intentionally and heavily ethnic Greek parishes are successful (and they are, often fostering not only converts, but also vocations to seminary and monastic life).

My pastoral problem I have with food festivals is not with the festival as such. It is rather with the relative lack of other, equally valued and socially supported opportunities, for service by parishioners to those outside the parish. (If anyone is interested in working with me to generate ideas in how to build on the food festival and use it to expand the ministry of the Church, please feel free to email me privately.)

I hasten to add, that this is not universally the case by any means. There are, for example in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, several standout communities (for example, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Mount Lebanon, PA works extensively with the Orthodox Christian Mission Center providing both financial support and missionaries. Another stand out program is Camp Axios for inner city children sponsored by Saint Sophia's Greek Orthodox Church in Los Angles). But even in those parish that more oriented to outward service, there is a tendency to be more concerned with serving "our people" rather than in encouraging "our people" to serve. And again, it is important to emphasize that the specific content of service is less important than the fact that service, ministry, by the parishioners themselves and for others (especially, though not exclusively, outside the parish) is not only expected, but fostered, encouraged, and supported.

Theological scholarship can, and certainly does, support the findings of the social and human sciences. But left to itself, Orthodox theology does not necessarily have the resources to translate faith into action. This is not, I should add, to say that the social and human sciences should replace theology. Just as we aspire to a syndiakonia between clergy and the laity, likewise scholars in theology and the empirical sciences should work together for the sake of the building up of the Church.

Some of this work is already being started.

For example, Alexei D. Krindatch, who administers the "Parish Life Project" at the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute in Berkeley, CA, has done several empirical studies meant to examine "the inner realities of Orthodox parish life in the United States and to investigate major problems facing American Orthodox Churches." While this work is valuable, more needs to be done. Sociological studies such as those done by Krindatch need to be extended up and complimented by studies that help us understand the experience of the faithful in the parish.

In my next post, I will examine how the findings of the social and human sciences can help the Church meet the need for the spiritual formation of both laity and clergy in the parish.

As always, your comments, questions and criticism are not only welcome, but encouraged.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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Announcement: Board Nominations

A Request for Palamas Institute Board Members. As I mentioned in an earlier post, when I lived in Pittsburgh, PA I worked with other Orthodox Christians to develop the general framework for the Palamas Institute, an independent Orthodox educational and research ministry for research in pastoral ministry, especially clergy continuing education/training, adult religious education and spiritual formation.

After much prayer and research, I believe it is now time to take this project to the next level. To accomplish this, I am asking the prayers and help of those who read Koinonia.

As a non-profit organization, the Palamas Institute needs to have its own board. For this reason I am asking interested Orthodox Christians to submit their names and qualifications for consideration for inclusion on the founding board for the Palamas Institute.

Key board responsibilities will include setting and implementing the vision of the Palamas Institute.
Implementation of this vision will include fundraising and administrative oversight.
Setting the vision will include collaborating with the director to determine viable research and training projects for the Institute.
  1. ­ As part of the research program, board members will be responsible for working with the director to develop venues for the dissemination of Institute research findings. A critical component of the Institute’s success will depend upon identifying productive networks that could develop into meaningful long-term distribution systems.
  2. As part of the educational its mandate, board members will be responsible for developing and facilitating continuing education opportunities for Orthodox clergy and lay leader. Ideally, board members will contribute to the research and/or educational mission of the Palamas Institute will be “hands on” as either researchers or teachers.
The invitation to the work of the Palamas Institute, is I believe, an invitation from Christ to build on what the Church does well and correct ourselves where we are less than our best communal and personal selves.

In Christ,

Rev. Fr. Gregory Jensen, Ph.D.
Palamas Institute
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Thursday, August 14, 2008

“Why Do Converts Leave?”

Reflecting on the great number of adult converts who have over the years left the Orthodox Church (over 50%) it is clear to me that something is drastically wrong with how we catechesis, form and integrate new adult Orthodox Christians into the life of the Church.

Falling back on my own training in the social and human science, I would like to understand how our pastoral practice is failing so many who join the Orthodox Church as adults. As part of my attempt to understand, I would invite those who read this blog and who have left the Orthodox Church to contact me either in the comment box of this post or by clicking the red on the lower right side of this page. Alternative, if you know someone who has left the Church, I would ask you to direct them to this blog and encourage them to speak with me.

Basically what I would ask from those who contact me is that they put written form a brief summary of what it was that lead them to leave the Orthodox Church. Let me be very clear here. Though I am an Orthodox priest, I am not asking for this to convince someone to return to the Church. Ideally I hope your comments will provide the Church with a better sense of why people leave. Eventually this might help grow into a research project to develop pastoral strategies to improve the retention rates for converts. It is even possible that, as a result of your participation in this project that you might reconsider your decision to leave the Church. But these are all secondary to my primary concern here which is to understand what has lead people who have joined the Church as adults to later leave.

Finally to those who wonder if what I am proposing is in the best interest of the Church, let me leave you with an observation of G. K. Chesterton: "What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." If anything has become clear about the life of the Orthodox Church (especially in the United States) it is that we cannot fulfill the great evangelical and pastoral work that Christ has given us without appreciative self-criticism. Everywhere the Church in America is faltering, and however it is faltering, it is because of the absence of appreciative self-criticism. What I hope to do with this invitation is to build on what the Church does well so that we can, by God's grace and our own efforts, correct ourselves where we are less than our best communal and personal selves.

In Christ,

+Fr. Gregory

Theology Isn’t Enough, We Need Spiritual Formation

It was the spirituality of the Church that attracted me first to Orthodoxy.

By spirituality, I mean the whole package of the Orthodox Christian life: not only Liturgy and theology, but fasting, icons, art, architecture and music. Truth be told, even though I became Orthodox later in life, I also find the various and sundry ethnic customs (at least in small doses) to be life-giving.

From a more systematic point of view, what I was attracted to was the anthropological vision of Eastern Christianity. Above all, it was the idea that salvation as theosis, that is deification or participation in Divine Life and the spiritual life as therapeutic, that really captured my heart.

Begging your indulgence, I'll skip the examples, and simply say in recent years I've come to the rather uncomfortable conclusion that the things which most attracted me to the Eastern Church are honored more in the gap then in practice by most Orthodox Christians.

As I have thought and prayed about this state of affairs, I have found my own priesthood more and more concerned with the spiritual formation of the laity. Especially in the parish, it is spiritual formation, which is most neglected in the life of the Church or so, I would say based on my own pastoral experience and my conversations with both clergy and laity.

What, you might ask, do I mean by spiritual formation? Simply, spiritual formation is the art and science of helping people shape their lives according to the Tradition of the Church in light of their own vocation and the concrete circumstances in which they live. Or, to put it more simply, spiritual formation is about the application of faith to daily life.

This then becomes the central question of my own ministry as a priest and scholar: Together with the whole Church, how do I help the people Christ has entrusted to my care apply the faith and spirituality of the Church to their daily lives?

Answering this question in practice is significantly more involved than simply celebrating the various liturgical services of the Church and teaching people the catechism. Yes, the services and the catechism are important—but their importance is structural. They provide us with the grammar and vocabulary of the Christian life to be sure and so are essential. But as anyone who has tried to learn a foreign language (and I have failed to learn, in order, Spanish, German, Latin, Hebrew and Greek), competency, much less fluency, requires much more than simply knowing grammar and vocabulary. As for eloquence—while this requires that we not simply think in German, for example, but do so "thoughtlessly"—that is, without effort, naturally and fearlessly.

And this brings me back to the formation of the laity (and we ought not to forget, since we draw our clergy from the laity—a deficit in lay formation means a later deficiency in the spiritual formation and leadership provided by the clergy for the laity). While the tradition of the Orthodox Church is almost unimaginably rich, it seems to me that we seriously neglect the formation of our laity (and so necessarily of our clergy, but that is for another day). While some would object to this, I would simply point to the findings of the recent Pew Charitable Trust study of religion in America. Almost a third of those baptized as infants leave the Church as adults. Only about a third of all Orthodox Christians attend Liturgy on a weekly basis. And how can we think we are succeeding in the formation of the laity when over half those who joined the Orthodox Church as adults will eventually leave?

Whatever may be the tradition moral teaching of the Church, the findings of the Pew Survey reports that we are, in the main, a pro-choice and pro-gay rights community (these later two, I should add, have not gone unnoticed by those outside the Church. See for example the posts found in the Catholic blog The Black Cordelias, here and here.) Combined all this with the relatively low rates of participation in Holy Communion and even fewer who come to Holy Confession and a picture of a spiritual weak laity comes quickly into focus.

Somehow, for all that we talk about the Fathers, about being the Church that never changes, about being the True Church and holding to the Historic Christian faith where are found the fullness of the means of salvation, for all that we easily, even glibly, point out the failures of Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Mainline Protestants, Evangelicals Christians, in practice Orthodox Christians are often no better and in some case worse.

As I said in an earlier post on preaching, spiritual formation needs to be Christ-centered and systematic. It must also take into account the unique vocation and life circumstances of the person and/or community. Too much of what we do, I fear, is not done systematically and done with only a vague understanding of the life circumstances of the laity. As I pointed out in an earlier post on the response of the Orthodox Church to same-sex marriage, to simply assert that an issue is not compatible with the tradition of the Church, or, as the Orthodox Peace Fellowship did in response to the US invasion of Iraq did with the just war doctrine, assert that a given moral issue is not addressed in the tradition, is insufficient. As with Bishop Hilarion argument about theology so to the pastoral life with the Church: "It must be patristic, faithful to the spirit and vision of the Fathers, ad mentem Patrum. Yet it also must be neo-patristic, since it is to be addressed to the new age, with its own problems and queries."

Orthodox spiritual formation is, or rather should be, both patristic and neo-patristic. Especially as it pertains to historical, dogmatic, and liturgical matters we excel as a community on the patristic side of the question. But we have very far to go in fulfilling the "neo-patristic" dimension of our tradition, especially as it pertains to parish ministry.

In the next few post, I hope to address this lacuna in Orthodox practice by looking at (1) the contribution of the social and human sciences to spirituality,(2) the practical elements of spiritual formation in groups, and (3) some ecumenical possibilities that I think are worth exploring.

As always, your comments, questions and criticism are not only welcome, but encouraged.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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Monday, August 11, 2008

In Our Beginning We Find Our End

Summer, 2008 will end for me in much the same way it began—with my serving the funeral of a friend.

In May, I served the funeral of Khouriya Joanne Abdallah, the wife of Fr John Abdallah. The service itself was large, 8 bishops, 20 (or more) priests, several deacons, and over 200 people in the congregation.

Tomorrow I will serve the funeral for another friend, Charlene Cannon. Like Joanne, Charlene lived with cancer for many years—for almost the whole of the 15 years I've known her in fact. And like Joanne, Charlene was usually cheerful and optimistic in the face of her illness.

Unlike Joanne's funeral, tomorrow's for Charlene will not be as grand. There will only be two priests serving Divine Liturgy for her funeral, her pastor Fr Jonathan Tobias and me. And yet, for all the service will be smaller, it will be no less significant for that fact. In the Gospel Jesus challenges us: "Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?" He then asks us more directly: "Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?" (Mt 6.26-27)

The great paradox of the Gospel is that our trust in God arises not out of intellectual reflection or study, but from the living sense of our own powerlessness:

"So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? "Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. (vv. 28-33)

St Irenaeus, in his reading of the fall of humanity recorded in Genesis, makes much of the fact that God closes our first parents in "garments of skins." As did some of the Fathers who would follow him, Irenaeus saw God clothing us with these garments as an act of divine compassion. God eases the burden of my shame. But He does so in a way that will remind me of my powerlessness, my absolute dependence on Him and my relative dependence upon others.

The "garments of skin" are all of those experiences of my own contingency that I would turn away from; primarily sickness and mortality, but also failure and my seeming insignificance in the eyes of the world.

Both Khouriya Joanne and Charlene lived for many years with a more intense experience of the "garments of skins." Bearing up under their own illnesses as they both did with grace and good humor, allowed God to use their illnesses to transform them those around them.

Thinking about both women, I realize that they were both open-hearted and hospitable. Certainly they were hospitable in the sense of welcoming others into their homes. There was also in a more fundamental hospitality that both embodied however.

This more basic hospitality is one that welcomed people into their hearts and allows their presence there to shape their lives. Hospitality of home allows the host to do for the visitor; hospitality of the heart allows the visitor, to transform the host; to allow visitors in their need and with their own gifts to become someone through whom Christ can redeem their host.

These two hospitalities are not opposed to each other; far from it. But of the two, it is the hospitable heart that is the more demanding ascetically. Why? Unlike a hospitable home, which in Charlene's case was always welcoming, but cluttered, a hospitable heart must always remain empty of the passions and any hint that I would impose my own will and desires on you. This certainly was the case with both Charlene and Joanne's hearts—their hearts were always empty in order to make room for others.

Years ago I heard a tape of a lecture given by Fr Henri Nouwen on the spirituality of marriage. Reflecting on the Ark of the Covenant, he pointed out that the cherubim that God ordered to be placed on the Ark faced each other. And it was there, in the empty space between them, where the Glory of God dwelt. Charlene and Khouriya Joanne each in her own way and in a manner compatible with the circumstance of her own life, where able to create in their own hearts that empty space in which God's glory was able to dwell among us.

These women whose death serve as bookends for the Summer of 2008 embody for me the great mystery of the Christian life—it is only by self-emptying that I am able to fulfill my own unique vocation. How could it be otherwise? What else does the example of Christ tell us but that the Glory of God dwells among us only in human poverty? For me at least, it is easy to lose sight of this. To forget that the failures, the disappointments, the miss opportunities, are all part and parcel of how God makes room in my heart and life for His Glory.

Thinking of how Summer 2008 began and now ends, I am put in mind of the hymns sung at Matins for women martyrs:

Made radiant with the beauty of the noblest contest, you were revealed as shining lamps, Maidens of Christ, with shining rays making resplendent those who cry: Glory to your power, O Lord! You were made beautiful, O Virgins, and radiantly glorified, having loved without limit the glorified Word, wounded by whose love you most valiantly endured the assaults of sufferings. By your intercession with Christ drive away the attack of the varied temptations and dangers of me, who fervently celebrate with you all-festive memorial, O worthy of praise. (Ode 4, Matins for Women Martyrs)

Except for those who knew them, and unlike to the women martyrs of old, Joanne and Charlene, wives and mothers both, lived and died in relative obscurity. And granted as well, the "lawless tyrant" that caused their deaths was illness and not Caesar. But for all these and other differences of time and place between those ancient women martyrs and them, I think Joanne and Charlene both stand now before Christ wearing a martyr's crown. Not because they suffered Caesar's lash, but because they suffered with nobility and charity under their long illnesses and in so doing bore witness to

"the beauty of the Bridegroom, with an unswerving intent towards him God-bearing Maidens, you contemplated immortality while in mortal bodies, therefore you are fittingly called blessed. You appeared as spotless lambs in the midst of tyrants like ferocious wolves, overthrowing their savagery, and being brought to Christ as acceptable sacrifices. Together you wove a garland that does not grow old, O Virgin. You attained divine glory and were found worthy, as Martyrs, to obtain a truly unshakeable kingdom with the Martyrs. As you have freedom of access to the Master, holy Virgins, intercede that those who celebrate your memory with love may attain the glory of which you were found worthy and the choir which you attained. ." (Ode 9, Matins for Women Martyrs)

As we sing in the Funeral Service:

May he who has authority over the living and the dead, as immortal King, and who rose from the dead, Christ, our true God, through the intercessions of his most pure and holy Mother, of the holy, glorious and all-praised Apostles, of our venerable and God-bearing fathers, of the holy and glorious forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of the holy and righteous Lazarus, dead for four days, the friend of Christ, and of all the Saints, establish in the tents of the righteous the soul of his servants Khouriya Joanne and Charlene who have gone from us, give them bith rest in the bosom of Abraham, and number them with the righteous; and have mercy on us and save us, for he is a good God and loves mankind.
Eternal your memory, our sisters, worthy of blessedness and ever-remembered.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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