Monday, December 24, 2007

Christ is Born!

Christ is Born!

Apolytikion for the Feast
Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, hath shined the light of knowledge upon the world; for thereby they that worshipped the stars were instructed by a star to worship Thee, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know Thee, the Dayspring from on high. O Lord, glory be to Thee.

Kontakion for the Feast
Today, the Virgin bears Him who is transcendent, and the earth presents the cave to Him who is beyond reach. Angels, along with shepherds glorify Him. The Magi make their way to Him by a star. For a new child has been born for us, the God before all ages.

Thank you to all who have spent time here.

I will resume blogging after the New Year.

Wishing you and yours a Very Blessed and Merry Christmas!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Friday, December 21, 2007

SUNDAY BEFORE THE NATIVITY (Mt 1.1-25): Joseph Listens

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham: Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot Judah and his brothers. Judah begot Perez and Zerah by Tamar, Perez begot Hezron, and Hezron begot Ram. Ram begot Amminadab, Amminadab begot Nahshon, and Nahshon begot Salmon. Salmon begot Boaz by Rahab, Boaz begot Obed by Ruth, Obed begot Jesse, and Jesse begot David the king. David the king begot Solomon by her who had been the wife of Uriah. Solomon begot Rehoboam, Rehoboam begot Abijah, and Abijah begot Asa. Asa begot Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat begot Joram, and Joram begot Uzziah. Uzziah begot Jotham, Jotham begot Ahaz, and Ahaz begot Hezekiah. Hezekiah begot Manasseh, Manasseh begot Amon, and Amon begot Josiah. Josiah begot Jeconiah and his brothers about the time they were carried away to Babylon. And after they were brought to Babylon, Jeconiah begot Shealtiel, and Shealtiel begot Zerubbabel. Zerubbabel begot Abiud, Abiud begot Eliakim, and Eliakim begot Azor. Azor begot Zadok, Zadok begot Achim, and Achim begot Eliud. Eliud begot Eleazar, Eleazar begot Matthan, and Matthan begot Jacob. And Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ. So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations, from David until the captivity in Babylon are fourteen generations, and from the captivity in Babylon until the Christ are fourteen generations.

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins. So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel, which is translated, "God with us." Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS (Matthew 1:1-25).

Down in the bottom left corner of the Nativity icon, his face turned from Christ and the Theotokos and toward an old man, we see St Joseph. The old man that Joseph is listening to is Satan. The devil is tempting him, trying to convince Joseph that Mary has been unfaithful and that the Child to whom she has just given birth is another man's son.

And Joseph listens.

Satan taunts him. And Joseph entertains the possibility that the word spoken to him by "an angel Lord" is a lie and that the Child which Mary "conceived" is not "of the Holy Spirit" but another man.

And Joseph listens.

According to the Church's liturgical tradition Joseph is called the Betrothed. He is given this title to remind us that though his marriage to the Virgin is a real marriage, it is unconsummated. As a matter of law, Joseph is Mary's husband and the Child's father. But because the marriage is unconsummated, Joseph knows that he is not the Child's biological father; he did not conceive Jesus with Mary. And it is, ironically, the very obedience of the Betrothed to God's command that Satan uses to tempt him. Past faithfulness is twisted to tempt Joseph to disobey God and turn away, if only momentarily, from Jesus and Mary.

And Joseph listens.

And in so doing, Joseph risks being deceived by an "angel of light," one of the "false apostles, deceitful workers," who transform "themselves into apostles of Christ" (see 2 Cor 11:12-15). I remind my own spiritual children that it is the work of Satan to corrupt us from within. He tells us the truth untruthfully, he twists strength into weak, and poisons virtue so it becomes vice. The father of lies is himself the arch-heretic, the one who follows his own will and tempts us to do likewise tricking us into doing his will and not God's.

And Joseph listens.

He struggles with his own doubts, his own suspicions. That master psychologist of the spiritual life, St John Chrysostom, looks with great compassion on the struggling Joseph of Christmas morning.

What an explosive thing jealous is, . . . [We] know of many who have chosen to give up their lives rather than fall under the suspicion of jealousy. But in [Joseph's] case it was not a matter of simple suspicion, as the burden of Mary's own womb entirely convicted her. Nevertheless, Joseph was so free from the passion of jealousy as to be unwilling to cause distress to the Virgin, even in the slightest way. To keep Mary in his house appeared to be a transgression of the law, but to expose and bring her to trail would cause him to deliver her to die. He would do nothing of the sort. So Joseph determined to conduct himself now by a higher rule than the law. For now . . . grace had appeared . . . like the sun, not yet risen. (Homily on the Gospel of Matthew IV)

And Joseph listens.

Taking Chrysostom as my guide in the matter, I cannot judge Joseph harshly, or even at all. What choice did he have but to listen to the conflict messages of sin and grace?

Joseph lived at the very end of Satan's reign. Yes, as Chrysostom reminds us, even before His birth, "when about to rise from the womb" Christ casts "light upon the world." But for Joseph at the Cave on that first Christmas, the world is still shrouded in darkness. To be sure it is the fleeting darkness of dawn and no longer the deep darkness of night. But still Joseph lives in darkness.

In this way, Joseph is more a saint of the Old Testament then New. Joseph is like the Prophet Moses who stood in the last moments of his own life and looked at the Promise Land he was never to enter. But Joseph is not Moses. However the saints of Old, he is still a saint of the Church and, when the righteous arise at Pascha, Joseph will rise with them as a faithful follower of Christ. But on Christmas morning, this remains in Joseph's personal future.

And Joseph listens.

In his essay, "Christmas," G. K. Chesterton writes:

It is the very essence of a festival that it breaks upon one brilliantly and abruptly, that at one moment the great day is not and the next moment the great day is. Up to a certain specific instant you are feeling ordinary and sad; for it is only Wednesday. At the next moment your heart leaps up and your soul and body dance together like lovers; for in one burst and blaze it has become Thursday. I am assuming (of course) that you are a worshipper of Thor, and that you celebrate his day once a week, possibly with human sacrifice. If, on the other hand, you are a modern Christian Englishman, you hail (of course) with the same explosion of gaiety the appearance of the English Sunday. But I say that whatever the day is that is to you festive or symbolic, it is essential that there should be a quite clear black line between it and the time going before.

Of all the saints of the New Testament, even more than John the Baptist, it is Joseph who has the task of being that "quite clear black line" to which Chesterton refers.

And Joseph listens.

Though on that first Christmas morning Satan's rule is passing away, it has not quite ended. Even more than the Baptist, Joseph belongs more to Wednesday than Thursday, to Advent more than Christmas, to the Promise more than its Fulfillment; he is more a slave to sin and death than a slave righteousness (see Rom 6:17-18). And yet for all that Joseph is less in some ways then the other saints of the New Testament, he is greater in others because he believed in Christ before belief was really possible.

While Mary had the Gabriel's word, and the growing Christ Child, and John the revelation in the womb, and the disciples and apostles the words of Jesus' sermons and his miracles, Joseph had only the passing shadows of the old law that bore witness to the glory that was to come (see Col 2: 17).

And Joseph listens.

Mindful of his adopted father's struggle not simply at His birth, but throughout his life, Jesus reminds His disciples:

Then if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or 'There!' do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect (Mt 24:23-24).

And, at this moment, at the birth of the Son Who honors him by calling him father, finally Joseph hears in his heart the Voice of his Infant Son.

Though he will be tempted throughout his life, Joseph will also throughout his life imitate his adopted Son, and remains faithful to what God asks of him. Through his fidelity Joseph bear witness to us that no matter how powerful Satan's hold on us, no matter how deep the darkness of sin, the grace of God is never wholly absent; no matter how hard, faith is never impossible, hope never really extinguished, and love and forgiveness are always possible for us.

A Blessed and Merry Christmas to all!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Truth (Vertigo)

This is well worth watching, but you must watch it until the end.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

(Hat tip: David at Think Christian).

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Do We Wish To Be Reconciled?

We come now to the end of our consideration of "Basic Principles of the Attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church Toward the Other Christian Confessions." Having spent some time with the document, and the insightful comments and questions from those who read this blog, I find an uncomfortable question rising in my heart: Are we, Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants and Evangelical Christians willing to take seriously the task of reconciliation not simply with one and other, but with Christ? And, as a more basic question, are we willing to answer this question truthfully?

The bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate remind us that as, Orthodox Christians, we must tell the Truth. And the truth is that

The Orthodox Church is the true Church in which the Holy Tradition and the fullness of God's saving grace are preserved intact. She has preserved the heritage of the apostles and holy fathers in its integrity and purity. She is aware that her teaching, liturgical structures and spiritual practice are the same as those of the apostolic proclamation and the Tradition of the Early Church. (1.18)

As part of our affirmation of faith, we must also work for "the restoration of that unity among Christians which is required of us by God (Jn. 17:21). Unity is part of God's design and belongs to the very essence of Christianity. It is a task of the highest priority for the Orthodox Church at every level of her life." (2.1) But,

The restoration of Christian unity in faith and love can come only from above as a gift of Almighty God. The source of unity is in God, and therefore merely human efforts to restore it will be in vain, for "except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it" (Ps. 127:1). Only our Lord Jesus Christ, Who has commanded us to be one, can give us the power to fulfill his commandment, for He is "the way, the truth, and the life" (Jn. 14:6). The task of Orthodox Christians is to be co-workers with God in the task of salvation in Christ. As the holy fathers have said: God saves us, but not without us. (2.13)

To repeat what I said above, in baptism, God has Himself already given us all—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant—a pledge or down payment of that restored unity. I find in this section of BPA a profound warning to those of us zealous for the reunion of divide Christendom; reunion is not a human work. No matter how prayerful or well educated and articulate, unity among Christians is God's work and His gift to us.

Our work, as I remind my own spiritual children, is not to create this union, but to receive it with a resounding "Amen!"

There is likewise a warning for those who see the restoration of divided Christendom to unity as proceeding along the way of the conversion of individuals and communities. There is in this attitude a subtle, but real, temptation to imagine that we can reason people into the faith. No less than those who rush to celebrate a sacramental union that does not yet exist, this approach also reduces union to a human work.

But reconciliation is a gift of God—it comes on His terms or not at all. If I am committed to telling the Truth about the Gospel, about the Church, then I must likewise be committed to telling the truth about myself. Thinking about this human truth, I cannot help wondering whether or not polemic voices, on all sides of divided Christendom, real desire the gift of reconciliation.

While I value my friendships and working relationships with Catholic, Protestants and Evangelical Christians, I'm not sure that I am ready to accept what the gift of reconciliation with them might mean. What would it mean if tomorrow, for example, 1+ billion Catholics suddenly entered into communion with the Orthodox Church? What would it mean for me as a priest to suddenly find my tiny of some 50 families to grow to 200 or more families composed of my newly reconciled Roman Catholic brethren?

What would it mean for my Catholic priest friends to suddenly find in their own parishes among the new reconciled Orthodox Christian divorced and remarried communicants?

What would my Evangelical Christian ministerial colleagues do with an influx of Christians who brought with them icons, relics, and devotional services to the Virgin Mary?

However much we bemoan the fact, as in any estrangement, a part of us that not only accepts, but even welcomes, the separation.

While I can't speak for Catholics and Protestants, at least among the Orthodox (myself included I am ashamed to say), there are many who prefer a divided Christendom. It is simply easier not to have to deal with the many questions that seem to be tearing western Christian confessions apart. We happily exist in splendid isolation.

Alas, this isolation is, as Fr Alexander Schmemann points out, is only possible if we stay in our grace proof chancelleries and rectories. Yes, we can keep "alive"—like some spiritual Disneyland—the glories of Byzantium and Holy Rus and our separation from Western culture and Christendom, but at what cost?

How much of Orthodox resistance to a reconciled Christendom reflects a commitment to the Gospel and how much narcissism? How much of our talk about "conversion," is simply in the service of requiring that "you" change and conform yourself to "me." How much of our profession of faith is simply a way to excuses us from any real self-examination.

To speak of reconciliation means not simply that "you" change, but that "we" change, that "I" change together with "you." Even if that change is not dogmatic, it does mean making room in my parish for new people with their own problems and struggles. But oh, how this disturbs the "peace."

Aware of the human heart's resistance to change the bishops call us to mutual dialog and self-criticism in our conversation with non-Orthodox confessions:

The essential goal of relations between the Orthodox Church and other Christian confessions is the restoration of that unity among Christians which is required of us by God (Jn. 17:21). Unity is part of God's design and belongs to the very essence of Christianity. It is a task of the highest priority for the Orthodox Church at every level of her life. Indifference to this task or its rejection is a sin against God's commandment of unity. (2.1-2)

So I ask myself again: Are we, Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants and Evangelical Christians willing to take seriously the task of reconciliation not simply with one and other, but with Christ? If the answer is "No" how can we then claim to be faithful to Christ? As St Basil reminds us, fidelity to Christ demands of us above all this "one aim—to bring back into union [those] Churches [and Christians] that have been severed from one another." (Letter, 114).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Transcending Relativism & Triumphalism

Obviously, the position I've outlined in my last post requires further systematic and historical research and elaboration. But it makes, to my mind at least, an intuitive sense. Whether Orthodox or not, our communion with the Church is grounded in our communion with Christ. And this primordial communion is characterized not simply by the objective presence of grace, but subjectively by our freedom in response to the divine initiative. In their refusal to offer an evaluation of the ecclesial status of non-Orthodox confessions, the council fathers in BPA are trying to remain faithful to both the operation of divine grace and human. Granted we can debate the degree to which they succeed in this, and even if this is their intent, but this does allow us a way out of the impasse of what to many (both outside and inside the Orthodox Church) seems to be an ecclesiological agnosticism.

The differences between the Orthodox and, for example, Roman Catholic Churches on a given issue are often not simply theological, but also psychological. We can, I think, get at the psychological difference by considering statements by the Roman Catholic Church such as Dominus Iesus, "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church" and the recently released "Doctrinal Notes on Some Aspects of Evangelism." While there are some points of disagreement, in the main these are documents articulate a position that the Orthodox Church would also hold about herself. While I hope to offer a fuller treatment later, for now I would say this: Taken together, these documents are a prudential, pastoral response to aberrations that have arisen of emphasizing too much the commonality between the Catholic Church and non-Catholic confessions and non-Christian religions (For example see the American Catholic bishops' "Clarification" of some problems with Fr. Peter C. Phan's Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue and earlier corrections on the work of Fr. Hans Kung. A good summary of the bishops' concerns about Phan's work can be found on Touchstone's
Mere Comments.). The lesson as an Orthodox Christian that I draw from these documents is that good intentions to find common ground out not to be carried out to such a degree that we lose our zeal for evangelism and for the reconciliation of divided Christendom.

Overemphasize our similarities and you fall into a relativism that denies any real difference between Christian confessions and, indeed, between Christians and non-Christians. Overemphasize our differences, however, and you fall into a triumphalism that makes the Church a sectarian group radically divorced from the very human family that Christ joins Himself to and for which He suffers and dies. In both cases, the catholic (kata + holos, or wholeness) nature of the Church is lost.

The necessity of balancing of similarity and difference, of continuity and discontinuity, I should emphasis, emerges not from a divided Christendom, or even a religious divided humanity. Certainly the divisions in the human and Christian communities, flowing as they do from our personal sinfulness, serve to complicate these tensions, but it is not the cause. The deep structure of these tension are found in God's creative actions—there is between humanity and God a similarity and a difference, a continuity and discontinuity, that can never be dissolved. But it is a tension that can be transcended. (When I have time, I hope to look at the implications for evangelism and ecumenicism of some contemporary research in the psychology of human development that discussion the "post-formal" stages of human growth and development. This research can help us understand psychological how we can overcome some of the human obstacles to holding the tensions that are intrinsic to not only to human development, evangelism and ecumenicism, but the enormous challenges of parish ministry.)

It is through love, that is to say, in Christ, that we are able to embrace similarity and difference, continuity and discontinuity. This raises a question, and in fact, this is the last question of this series: "Do we want to be reconciled with each other?" Or, more directly, "Are Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants and Evangelical Christians willing to love one another, and the whole creation, as Jesus loves us?" (With a hat tip to Fr John Steffaro of St John Orthodox Church (OCA) in Campbell, OH, for the second question.)

To be continued, and concluded. . .

Monday, December 17, 2007

An Incomplete Communion: Ecclesiology or Anthropology?

One of the most frustrating conversations for many is the question is how the Church views the ecclesial status of Christians in non-Orthodox confessions. This frustration, by the way, is not limited to Roman Catholics or Protestants, but shared by many Orthodox Christians. It would seem that BPA is arguing that Christians in non-Orthodox communities both are, and are not, part of the Church. How does this statement arise from the Church's tradition?

For Orthodox theology, it is "only through relationship with a particular community that each member of the Church realises his communion with the whole Church." Likewise, a particular community of persons is only a "local Church" through its communion with the whole Church. And yet, even though separated from the whole Church, neither the individual Christian nor the particular separated Christian community is "not cut him off from her altogether" from the Body of Christ. Yes, any estrangement "damages [the] grace-filled unity" of the person or community "with the whole Church body, . . . [and necessarily] distances a person [or community] from the Church to a greater or lesser degree." (see 1.10) But as the "various rites of reception . . . shows . . . the Orthodox Church relates to the different non-Orthodox confessions in different ways" according to "the degree to which the faith and order of the Church, as well as the norms of Christian spiritual life, are preserved in a particular confession." (see 1.17)

Having acknowledge degrees of communion or fellowship, the council fathers are just as adamant in their position that these "various rites of reception" are not meant to "assess the extent to which grace-filled life has been either preserved intact or distorted in a non-Orthodox confession." Instead because such a determination is "a mystery of God's providence and judgement" the Church remains silent on the question (see 1.17). What the Church does say is that, on the one hand, that the "ecclesial status of those who have separated themselves from the Church does not lend itself to simple definition" and on the other even in "a divided Christendom, there are still certain characteristics which make it one: the Word of God, faith in Christ as God and Saviour come in the flesh (1 Jn. 1:1-2; 4, 2, 9), and sincere devotion." (1.16)

The key to understanding what is being said here is their observation that "Any sin distances a person from the Church to a greater or lesser degree, but it does not cut him off from her altogether." (1.10) Our communion with Christ and His Body the Church is not secured simply by our profession of faith, or sacramental life. Much less do canonical norms secure this communion for us. We are all of us only more or less a member of the Body of Christ. This a reference, I would suggest, not simply to Christians in non-Orthodox confessions, but first and foremost to Orthodox Christians and then, only secondarily, to Christians in non-Orthodox confessions.


While at first blush this might seem scandalous (I find myself taken aback by my own words), on further reflection, the history and practice of the Church—East and West—has long acknowledged a relative communion. For example those enrolled among the catechumens (those preparing for baptism) and the penitents (those who had fallen into serious sin and were doing public penance in anticipation of being reconciled with the Church, typically at Pascha) were allowed to remain in the Divine Liturgy through the sermon, but were dismissed immediately afterwards. Why? Because, unlike unbelievers (who were not to be in the services at all), their communion with the Church, while real, was incomplete, and so they were unable fully participate in the sacrifice that was offered in the second part of the Liturgy. The sign of this inability was that they were not, albeit for different reasons, unable to receive Holy Communion.


In the early Church, it is worth noting, this acknowledgement of a limited communion is never taken to be a rejection of the catholic nature of the Church as such. Nor did it turn the grace of God into something "free floating" and divorced from the Body of Christ. The emphasis, I would suggest, in a partial or incomplete communion is not on a rarified view of the Church, but an attempt to take seriously human freedom in response to divine grace. Though they have implications for ecclesiology, statements about an incomplete communion, or so it seems to me, are fundamentally statements about anthropology. I would suggest that, in speaking about incomplete fellowships, the bishops are making statements about the human person, and even concrete human communities, in whom they can recognize at least a partial communion with Christ and His Body the Church. They pass over in silence the ecclesiological status of these communities because their concern is anthropological and not about ecclesiology as such. The tension they are trying to maintain is between God free bestowal of His grace and human freedom to respond to that grace. Though in varying degrees, both of these are essential to communion with Christ and His Body the Church.


To be continued. . .


Friday, December 14, 2007

Dialog and Self-Criticism

For the council fathers, ecumenicism and evangelism, far from being secondary or tangential to the life of the Church, have deep Christological and biblical roots, and are two hallmarks of a committed Orthodox Christian spiritual life. But, and the fathers are also clear about this, neither of these can

be a monologue, since [both] assumes the existence of listeners and therefore of communication. Dialogue implies two sides, a mutual openness to communication, a willingness to understand, not only an "open mouth", but also a "heart enlarged" (cf. 2 Cor. 6:11). That is why the problem of theological language, comprehension and interpretation should become one of the most important issues in the dialogue of the Orthodox theology with other confessions" (4.5).

Enlarging our heart, what in another context I have called empathy, is the central instrument of Orthodox witness. Writing as they do at the close of the 20th century, the council fathers were painfully aware that recent human history

has been marked by the tragedy of divisions, enmity and alienation, but in it divided Christians have shown a desire to achieve unity in the Church of Christ. The Russian Orthodox Church has responded to this desire with a readiness to conduct a dialogue of truth and love with non-Orthodox Christians, inspired by the call of Christ and by the goal of Christian unity as ordained by God. And today, on the threshold of the third millennium after the Nativity according to the Flesh of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the Orthodox Church again lovingly and persistently calls all those for whom the name of Jesus Christ is above all other names under heaven (cf. Acts 4:12) to seek blessed unity in the Church: "Our mouth is open unto you, our heart is enlarged" (2 Cor. 6:12).

It is tempting to assume that we can create that unity through our own efforts. In BPA the bishops identify theological relativism and triumphalism as the ways in which we often succumb to the desire to a man made union. In sections 2.4-2.10 they address the dimension of relativism. While not denying the role of human sinfulness and cultural misunderstanding the bishops rightly root relativism that reduces the Gospel to a purely human reality.

Also unacceptable is the idea that all the divisions are essentially tragic misunderstandings, that disagreements seem irreconcilable only because of a lack of mutual love and a reluctance to realise that, in spite of all the differences and dissimilarities, there is sufficient unity and harmony in "what is most important". Our divisions cannot be reduced to human passions, to egoism, much less to cultural, social and political circumstances which are secondary from the Church's point of view. Also unacceptable is the argument that the Orthodox Church differs from other Christian communities with which she does not have communion only in secondary matters. The divisions and differences cannot all be reduced to various non-theological factors (2.8).

If relativism is ruled out, this is not meant to suggest that Orthodox Christians are without our own failings. Directly and forcefully the fathers rule out any hint of triumphalism. As wise pastors they remind the faithful and clergy that

One should not yield to the temptation to idealize the past or to ignore the tragic shortcomings and failures which marked the history of the Church. Above all the great fathers of the Church themselves give an example of spiritual self-criticism. The history of the Church in the IV-VII centuries knew of not a few cases when a significant proportion of believers fell into heresy. But history also reveals that the Church struggled on principled terms with the heresies that were infecting her children and that there were cases where those who had gone astray were healed of heresy, experienced repentance and returned to the bosom of the Church. This tragic experience of misunderstanding emerging from within the Church herself and of the struggle with it during the period of the ecumenical councils has taught the children of the Orthodox Church to be vigilant. The Orthodox Church, while humbly bearing witness to her preservation of the truth, at the same time remembers all the temptations which arose during her history (1.9).

The remedies for relativism and triumphalism are the same: not only knowledge of the faith of the Church, but also a commitment to dialog that is rooted in both an openness to others and a spirit of self-criticism ground in Christ's call to His Church to always empty herself of any pretention and self-confidence.

In my own pastoral experience I have found, for example, that an acknowledge both of the fullness of the Church's faith, and a willingness to acknowledge the shortcomings of her members, is very positive thing not only for those interested in the Orthodox Church, but also for those who were raised in the Church.

Taking our cue from BPA, it seems that both our ecumenical activities and evangelical outreach, are grounded in our profession of the Orthodox faith. And in both cases, mutual dialog and self-criticism, vivified by our personal kenosis, are the means by which our profession of faith is lived out. This is certainly what the Apostle Paul counsels when he writes to the Church at Philippi

Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (2.1-11).

To be continued. . .

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Mangling Grasp of Relativism

I thought the following article posted by Gabriel on Going Along makes several good points that might be of interest. The author argues that since 1920 or so Orthodox theology has been working with one arm tied behind its back while hopping on one foot. What I mean is that, especially among English speaking Orthodox, we have more or less intentionally limited ourselves to "Cappadocians, Maximus the Confessor and Gregory Palamas." While these are all luminaries in the Church, they do not exhaust our theological tradition.

He quotes Fr Patrick Reardon, an Orthodox priest and editor of Touchstone, to the effect that: "What almost always passes for 'Orthodox theology' among English-speaking Orthodox these days is actually just a branch of the larger Orthodox picture. Indeed, it tends sometimes to be rather sectarian." For example,

one will look in vain in that theology for any significant contribution from the Alexandrians, chiefly Cyril, and that major Antiochian, Chrysostom. When these are quoted, it is usually some incidental point on which they can afford to be quoted. Now I submit that any 'Orthodox' theology that has so little use for the two major figures from Antioch and Alexandria is giving something less than the whole picture.

He notes as well, that contemporary Orthodox theology, for all its appeal to being traditional and following the theological methodology of the Fathers, glosses over how some of the Fathers did theology. For example, there is

[St John] Damascene's manifestly 'Scholastic' approach to theology. Much less does it have any use for the other early Scholastic theologians, such as Theodore the Studite and Euthymus Zygabenus. There is no recognition that Scholasticism was born in the East, not the West, and that only the rise of the Turk kept it from flourishing in the East.

This resonant with my own thoughts when I read St John Damascene; he struck me as writing in a manner that was markedly similar in style and method to what I had read in Aquinas. Frankly, this is also why, though like the Prodigal Son I drifted for a time, I use an analytical methodology in my pastoral work and in my writing both in psychology and theology (I am often mistaken for a philosopher, thank you very muc).

And this brings us to Gabriel's second point, the increasingly anti-Western sectarian orientation of much Orthodox theology and popular piety. He writes:

There is also no explicit recognition that the defining pattern of Orthodox Christology was formulated in the West before Chalcedon. Pope Leo's distinctions are already very clear in Augustine decades before Chalcedon. Yet, Orthodox treatises on the history of Christology regularly ignore Augustine. Augustine tends to be classified as a 'Scholastic,' which he most certainly was not. But Western and Scholastic are bad words with these folks.

Why should I as an Orthodox Christian care? Well, "Augustine and the Scholastics represent . . . rooms in the larger castle" of Orthodox tradition and theology. And so,

This problem—if it is indeed a problem—is analogous to the problem Strauss identified in philosophy: If [insert modern philosopher here] is taken as the culmination of philosophy, then the entire history of philosophy is but a series of building blocks on the way to the great pyramid whose apex in said philosophers work. It's the problem of the modern conception of "progress" (subtle as it oftentimes is) becoming the lens through which history is examined. This may be no less true of theological history as well.

Gabriel's conclusion?

I believe it does a grave disservice to the Church to not have the whole of the Tradition available. When the gaps are identified and the Orthodox response is to either deny relevancy to those gaps (a useful but ultimately self-degrading "trick") or claim all is answered in Palamas (which may very well be true, though confirmation can only be achieved by eliminating the gaps), the Church leaves itself open to charges of being reactionary, stubborn, and unfaithful to its own mission. None of this is to say all is lost, Orthodox thought is plunged into crisis, and there is no hope. Clarification is underway, but the process is slow and in the meantime there is still a deeply entrenched prejudice not simply against all things allegedly "Western" (which, to be sure, is not an unfounded prejudice if those "Western" elements are shown to be false), but anything that remotely smells "Scholastic" (in the broadest possible sense). What this has come to mean in the hands of some inept minds is that Orthodoxy begins and ends with experience, that anything cerebral is anathema and to say one thing and stick to it is to be "definitional," "confining," and---you guessed it---"Western." It is not hard to see where this line can slide (and perhaps has already slid) certain elements of the Church: straight into the mangling grasp of relativism.

My pastoral experience would suggest that Gabriel's concern about relativism is well founded. For example, I have met people attached to non-canonical or pseudo-dox (a term I use for those who are almost Orthodox) groups who would argue that because they keep the tradition of the Church, they are Orthodox. They've not been baptized or chrismated by any Orthodox bishop or priest. Often they would deny the importance of actually being received into Church by a canonical bishop. Again and again, these folks were simply deluded—they didn't even keep the externals of the Church's life—only those elements that they thought were "really" Orthodox.

What Gabriel is point to is the unfortunate tendency among some Orthodox—laity and clergy I hasten to add—is not simply to relativism, sectarianism and an anti-Western bias, but borderline Gnosticism.

Your thoughts are most welcome.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Conversion or Reconciliation?

Especially in the last 20 years or so, it has become common for Orthodox Christians to refer to those of us who become Orthodox later in life as "converts." While the term has a certain pastoral and existential value, I believe that the bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate bringing to light another, often overlooked dimension of becoming entering the Orthodox Church as an adult. When baptized Christians from a Catholic or Protestant background enter the Orthodox Church, the bishops seem to argue, they are being reconciled to the Church from which they are in some way already a member, even if through no fault of their own, their fellowship is incomplete and they are estranged from her.

At the end of the last installment, I suggested that the August 2000 document by the Jubilee Bishops' Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, "Basic Principles of the Attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church Toward the Other Christian Confessions" offers us a vision of ecumenical dialog and activity that I would describe as therapeutic rather than the more typically apologetic that is common especially among Americans. If, as the bishops argue, Christians outside the Orthodox Church, by virtue of their baptism, have a real, if "incomplete" communion with the Church, then becoming Orthodox is more accurately described as a reconciliation or the healing of an incomplete communion.

This therapeutic approach to ecumenicism is rooted, I would argue, in the more general, therapeutic approach of Eastern Church to the spiritual life. In my experience, the Orthodox tendency to see Christian faith and morality in therapeutic terms is very powerful. For many Roman Catholics and Protestants however, the therapeutic emphasis of Orthodoxy is one of the most attractive and life-giving aspects of Holy Tradition. It is with some irony then that when the topic turns to ecumenicism many Orthodox Christians, especially in America, eschew any language that suggests that reconciliation or healing is what is called for in our conversation and witness to Christians in other confessions.

The bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate however take the high road and refuse to acquiesce to those strident and sectarian voices that would counsel a simplistic reduction of ecumenical work to "us" vs. "them" or "Orthodox" vs. "heterodox." Instead, BPA challenges Orthodox Christians to foster the reconciliation of non-Orthodox Christians with the Church. Speaking of reconciliation is more appropriate because, as we have seen, the bishops argue that the grace of Christ is not absent from non-Orthodox confessions. Indeed central to any Orthodox ecumenical witness is the conviction that "In spite of the rupture of unity, there remains a certain incomplete fellowship which serves as the pledge of a return to unity in the Church, to catholic fullness and oneness." (1.15)

Speaking or reconciliation rather than the conversion of Catholics and Protestants does not, in the view of the council fathers, undermined Church's self-understanding. While the "ecclesial status of those who have separated themselves from the Church does not lend itself to simple definition," there nevertheless exist in these communities "certain characteristics" which are shared with the Orthodox Church "the Word of God, faith in Christ as God and Saviour come in the flesh (1 Jn. 1:1-2; 4, 2, 9), and sincere devotion." (1.16) Through our use of "various rites of reception (through Baptism, through Chrismation, through Repentance)" we affirm as Orthodox Christians that there are varying degrees to which non-Orthodox communities embody "the faith and order of the Church, as well as the norms of Christian spiritual life, are preserved in a particular confession." While I will address this more fully later, it is important that, while we can speak of reconciliation and varying degrees of communion with the Church, we cannot "assess the extent to which grace-filled life has either been preserved intact or distorted in a non-Orthodox confession, considering this to be a mystery of God's providence and judgement" (1.18)

To be continued. . .

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Answering Critics

Continuing my earlier post, I would argue that the document, "Basic Principles of the Attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church Toward the Other Christian Confessions" (BPA) is offered at least in part as an answer to those in the Orthodox Church who would reject ecumenical dialog either whole or in part. The legitimacy and urgency of ecumenical discussion needs to be affirmed and articulated because support for it is absent in many quarters of the Orthodox Church. Unlike our Western Christians brothers and sisters, many Eastern Christians have not yet put behind us the "intolerance and suspicious[ness]" that have for too long characterized our relationships with Catholics and Protestants. Many in the Church are actively hostile not simply to ecumenical activity but or even of an ecumenical attitude or disposition.

While there certainly are abuses, much of the opposition to ecumenism is the result of bad will and misinformation. And so: "The Church condemns those who, by using inauthentic information, deliberately distort the task of the Orthodox Church in her witness before the non-Orthodox world and consciously slander the Church authorities, accusing them of the 'betrayal' of Orthodoxy. (7.3) Quoting the pan-Orthodox meeting in Thessaloniki in 1998 (7.3) BPA calls those who reject ecumenical discussions and encounters "schismatics," and members of "extremist groups" within the Church who "deliberately distort . . . and consciously slander" the Church. Speaking in a pastoral voice, they say that these anti-ecumenical voices are sowing "seeds of temptation" among the rank and file faithful and are "subject to canonical sanctions" (suspension or defrocking for the clergy, excommunication for the laity).

To repeat what I said yesterday, in BPA, ecumenical dialog is seen as an imperative. Again quoting from Thessaloniki 1998, the bishops' argue that Orthodox participation in ecumenical dialog "has always been based on Orthodox tradition, on the decisions of the Holy Synods of the local Orthodox Churches, and on Pan-Orthodox meetings." Indeed it is not optional, but part of "the mission laid upon us by our Lord Jesus Christ, the mission of witnessing the Truth before the non-Orthodox world. We must not interrupt relations with Christians of other confessions who are prepared to work together with us." Responding to Orthodox critics of ecumenical dialog, the bishops affirm that during the Church's "'many decades in the ecumenical movement, Orthodoxy has never been betrayed by any representative of a Local Orthodox Church. On the contrary, these representatives have always been completely faithful and obedient to their respective Church authorities, and acted in complete agreement with the canonical rules, the Teaching of the Ecumenical Councils, the Church Fathers and the Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church.'" (7.3)

This is not to say however that the bishops' are wholly supportive of everything done in the name of ecumenicism. The characterize as a "threat to the Church . . . those who participate in inter-Christian contacts, speaking on behalf of the Russian Orthodox Church without the blessing of the Church authorities, as well as by those who bring temptation into the midst of Orthodoxy by entering into canonically inadmissible sacramental communion with non-Orthodox communities." (7.3) It is the very seriousness and necessity of ecumenical work that makes these actions unacceptable. It is worth noting that BPA's criticism is not simply for those on the "liberal" or "progressive" side of the issue. Yes, there are those who rush to celebrate sacramentally a communion that does not exist. I doing so they presume to speak for the Church. But, there is also a threat to be found in those self-appointed defenders of Orthodoxy on the "conservative" or "traditionalist" who in their own way also distort the teaching of the Church in their rejection of any common ground between Orthodox and Western Christians.

Ecumenical work is not something that can be engaged in simply out of a personal interest—one needs to have the blessing of the Church in order to represent her in ecumenical contacts. It is, I would suggest, a vocation, a ministry to which one is called by Christ and which must be confirmed by the Church. There are those in the Church who Christ calls to help heal the wounds on the Body of Christ. Much like the priest in confession, ecumenical healing requires that we examine ourselves and our respective communities carefully. This is done not simply to root out sin but also to uncover God's hidden mercy in the midst of human failings and shortcomings. As presented in BPA, ecumenical work participates in the larger therapeutic work of Christ and His Church.

But this raises for us a question: If ecumenical dialog and encounters are therapeutic, at least in part, how then are we to proceed in our witness to Christians in other confessions?

To be continued. . .

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A New Blog

I created a new blog today, Other Voices About Orthodoxy. This, together with a Google discussion group by the same name, is sort of a theological experiment. The point is to try and develop a collaborative writing project in which different people come together to write what I someday hope will be a book about Orthodoxy Christianity in an American Context.

If I've got your attention, go over and take a look at what I wrote there and consider participating. Thanks!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

An Ecumenical Imperative

The Catholic News Agency, among other sources, reports that the recent meeting between His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI and His Eminence Metropolitan KYRILL of the Moscow Patriarchate. In published reports, His Eminence describes the meetings as "very positive" and told L'Osservatore Romano, that he left his conversation with His Holiness "with great sentiments of hope."

Given this most recent meeting, as well as what seems to be, in the words of Walter Cardinal Kasper, the general thaw in the relationship between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, I thought I would take this as opportunity to have a very brief conversation about how Orthodox Christians should witness to our faith to those outside the Orthodox Church. As the basis of that conversation, I would like to look a document published in August 2000 by the Jubilee Bishops' Council of the Russian Orthodox Church. In this post and subsequent posts, I want to examine the document, "Basic Principles of the Attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church Toward the Other Christian Confessions" (hereafter, BPA). In this document we find articulated for us, and with great clarity, how the Orthodox Church understand her relationship with those Christians outside here visible boundaries. From this we are also able to draw, as I will in subsequent post, concrete directives about how as Orthodox Christians we are to witness our faith to those outside the Church.

Central to BPA is the assertion that the divisions caused by schism are "an open and bleeding wound on the Body of Christ . . . . [that] has become a serious visible distortion of Christian universality, an obstacle in the way of her witness to Christ before the world." This wound effects all of Christendom and especially the Orthodox Church since, as the council fathers write, "the reality of this witness of the Church of Christ depends to a considerable degree on her ability to live up to the truths preached by her in the life and practice of Christian communities." (1.20)

Given the ease with which many Orthodox Christians give themselves over to polemic statements about Roman Catholics, Protestants and Evangelical Christians this statement by the Moscow Patriarchate is extraordinary. For many Orthodox Christians, whose views on these matters boarders on an ecclesiological positivism, the acknowledgement that a divided Christendom is a wound upon the Body of Christ, is tantamount to heresy. Indeed, the text of BPA anticipates this charge when it quotes the Third Pre-Conciliar Panorthodox Conference that met in 1986:

The Orthodox Church, in her profound conviction and ecclesiastical consciousness of being the bearer of and the witness to the faith and tradition of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, firmly believes that she occupies a central place in matters relating to the promotion of Christian unity within the contemporary world …It is the mission and duty of the Orthodox Church to transmit, in all its fullness, the truth contained in the Holy Scripture and the Holy Tradition, the truth which gives to the Church her universal character. The responsibility of the Orthodox Church, as well as her ecumenical mission regarding Church unity, were expressed by the Ecumenical Councils. These, in particular, stressed the indissoluble link existing between true faith and sacramental communion. The Orthodox Church has always sought to draw the different Christian Churches and confessions into a joint search for the lost unity of Christians, so that all might reach the unity of faith.

The Orthodox Church has carried out dialog with Christian communities separated from her for over 200 years. The 1903 statement "Response to the Letter of the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate," affirms the necessity of theological dialogue with non-Orthodox confessions and BPA makes its own the central principle of that document that for Orthodox Christians—hiearchs, clergy and laity—"there must be fraternal readiness to help" Christians outside the Orthodox Church. Especially "given the age-old division," that we suffer, we must offer not only "explanations" for what we believe, but also "normal consideration for their best wishes, all possible forbearance towards their natural perplexities, . . . [and] at the same time the firm confession of the truth of our Universal Church as a sole guardian of Christ's heritage and a sole saving ark of divine grace. While bearing in my our "task with regard to them should be. . . to interpret for them our faith and unchangeable conviction that it is only our Eastern Orthodox Church, which has preserved intact the entire pledge of Christ," we must do so "without putting before them unnecessary obstacle for union by being inappropriately intolerant and suspicious." It is only in this way that "the Universal Church," can help our Christian brothers and sisters outside the Church them to "consider and decide upon if they really believe that salvation is bound up with life in the Church and sincerely wish to be united with her."

To be continued....

Catholic Biblical Supersite Now Available

From Teófilo de Jesús at Vivificat! A Catholic Blog of News, Opinion, Commentary and Spirituality this just in:

Folks, the Congregation for the Clergy has opened a new website dedicated to biblical interpretation. The site, Biblia Clerus offers offers "Sacred Scripture, its interpretation in light of Sacred Tradition and the teachings of the Magisterium, with appropriate theological commentary and exegesis." A downloadable version allows the user "to connect Sacred Scripture to the complete works of many Doctors of the Church, Councils, Encyclicals, teachings of the Popes, Catechisms, as well as commentaries from secular literature, etc."

Wow. And then again, wow. This site must be part of our armor of faith. Please access it and add it to your bookmarks. This is the URL:
What is most exciting, for me at least, is that the entire site can be downloaded. This includes not only a wealth of resources in English, but also Hebrew, Greek, and Latin as well as French, German, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese.

This site is a great blessing for those interested in biblical studies as well as spiritual ecumenism. Understanding how we understand Scripture--and especially seeing our common sources for our different understandings--is an important part of fostering reconciliation in divided Christendom.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

P.S., I've added FoxyTunes, Now Playing Signature, for those interested in the music I listen to. Yes, I like the Pogues.

Now playing: The Pogues - Dirty Old Town
via FoxyTunes

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Top Russian ecumenical official to meet with Pope

Vatican, Dec. 6, 2007 ( - Pope Benedict XVI will meet on December 7 with the top ecumenical-affairs official of the Russian Orthodox Church, L'Osservatore Romano reports.

Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk-- who is in Rome this week for festivities marking the feast of St. Catherine of Alexandria, the patron of Rome's Russian Orthodox Church-- met on December 6 with Cardinal Walter Kasper, the president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity. Informed sources said that Cardinal Kasper would convey an invitation for Patriarch Alexei II to attend the next meeting of the Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, which is scheduled to take place in 2009.

Metropolitan Kirill-- who is regarded as a likely eventual successor to Patriarch Alexei as leader of the Russian Orthodox Church-- has praised Pope Benedict for his commitment to ecumenism. But earlier this week he criticized the Catholic Church for establishing new dioceses in Russia. The Orthodox prelate said that the four Catholic dioceses of Russia, established in 2002, should be downgraded to their previous status as apostolic administrations. Catholic dioceses in Russia are an affront to the Orthodox claim that the country is the "canonical territory" of the Orthodox Church, he said, and "we shall never recognize them." The Vatican does not accept the Russian argument regarding "canonical territory."

In related news, in an interview with the KAI news agency, the general secretary of the Russian Bishops Conference, Father Igor Kowalewski, said the country's Catholic bishops are ready to discuss the Moscow patriarchate's claims to special canonical status in Russia. He said that the recent remarks by Metropolitan Kirill upset many Russian Catholics, and the country's bishops will bring up the subject at a meeting with Orthodox leaders in January.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

If R2D2 Were an Orthodox Christian. . .

Thanks to R2D2 Translator I have provided for you some translations of traditional Orthodox Christian greetings into the the blips and beeps of R2D2.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

It's About the Cross

"It's About the Cross" is by the band Go Fish set to images from the Passion, the Jesus Film, the Gospel of John, The Nativity Story, It's a Wonderful Life, The Chronicles of Narnia, and other productions. The thing I like best about this video is that in reminds us that if "Jesus is the Reason for the Season," God's mercy and love in the response to my sin is reason for Jesus.

Anyway, please take 3 minutes and 43 seconds and watch the video.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Monday, December 03, 2007

Looking Inward

Icon of the "UNEXPECTED JOY" (right).

Then He said, "What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and put in his garden; and it grew and became a large tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches. And again He said, "To what shall I liken the kingdom of God? It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened."

And He went through the cities and villages, teaching, and journeying toward Jerusalem. Then one said to Him, "Lord, are there few who are saved?" And He said to them, "Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the Master of the house has risen up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock at the door, saying, 'Lord, Lord, open for us,' and He will answer and say to you, 'I do not know you, where you are from,' then you will begin to say, 'We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets.' But He will say, 'I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.' There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves thrust out. They will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and sit down in the kingdom of God (Luke 13:18-29).

Jesus' words in the Gospel ought to give us pause: Not everyone who cries out. "Lord, Lord, open for us" will be saved. Jesus goes further and says that some of those who cry out to Him will hear in response "'I do not know you, . . . Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.'" These words, it must be emphasized, are not directed at the unbeliever, but to the believer. Jesus is not speaking to Jew or Greek, but to apostles and disciples, that is, to we who are Christians.

St Cyril of Alexandria takes Christ's words at face value. Turning to his congregation the saint says:

Who again are these? Many have believed in Christ and have celebrated the holy festivals in his honor. Frequenting the churches, they also hear the doctrine of the gospel, but they remember absolutely nothing of the truths of Scripture. With difficulty, they bring with them the practice of virtue, while their heart is quite barren on spiritual fruitfulness. These will also weep bitterly and grind their teeth, because the Lord will also deny them (Commentary on Luke, Homily 99).

I try and imagine myself standing on front of a congregation and repeating in my own way Cyril's words. And every time I imagine this, and in fact every time I've preached this, it ends the same way: People are really, really, angry at me.

But these are not my words or St Cyril's for matter. These are the words of Christ directed to those who of us who follow Him. When this teaching is rejected, it is not me, or Cyril, who is rejected, but Christ.

There is something to be said for every once and a while being remind that I am a sinner and, if given the chance, liable to twist the words of the Gospel to my own liking. Presumption is always a temptation. And if Christ's words in the Gospel evoke in me a certain dread and anxiety, well so what?

Granted, too much attention to these words is liable to plunge me into scrupulosity (an "obsessive concern with one's personal sins, including 'sinful; acts or thoughts usually considered minor or trivial . . . . The term is derived from the Latin scrupulus, a sharp stone, implying a stabbing pain on the conscience") or even cause me to despair of my salvation. But to ignore them all together seems to me even unwise since we are all of us at one time or another "hidden enemies" of Christ (to borrow from St Augustine).

It's hard listening to this Gospel and its explication by the Fathers, and not feel anxious for my own salvation. Do I really recognize Christ is the Eucharist? Have I eaten and drank unworthily? Has the character of my life caused me to appeal unjustly to Christ? Thinking about these questions causes me to turn inward and examine myself. Such an inward turn is essential to living a Christian life. Such an turn can serve to remind me that, left to my own devices, I cannot be saved.

At the same time I need to exercise care when I look within.

As I alluded to above, such an inward turn flirts with despair—my own sinfulness might seem to me so large that it blots out the Sun of Righteousness. Or, seeing the enormity of my sin, I might be consumed with a neurotic attempt to do things the "right way." In either case, whether I am afflicted with despair or scrupulosity, I lose the experience of joy that is a hallmark of the Christian life. The real danger of this inward turn is leaving it unbalanced by conversation with my brothers and sisters in Christ. Deprived of their affection and encouragement, my faith will slowly erode. The experience of anxiety and an increasing unhealthy distrust not only of self, but my brothers and sisters in Christ and eventually even God and His mercy is the fruit of this absent faith.

Whatever the risks, however, I need to take that inward turn and examine myself. St Paul tells us as much when he writes: "Whoever eats and drinks unworthily is eating and drinking judgment upon himself" (1 Cor 11.29). "How can the table which is the cause of so many blessings, and is teeming with life," St John Chrysostom asks, "become a cause of judgment?" He answers his own question:

Not from its own nature, says Paul, but because of the attitude of the one who comes to it. For just as the presence of Christ, which conveyed to us those great and unspeakable blessings, condemned those who did not receive them, so also Holy Communion becomes a means of greater punishment to those who partake unworthily. ("Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians," 28.2)

"All those," Augustine says, "who live unjust and irreligious lives . . . even if they are signed with his name and are called Christians" cannot appeal to their participation in the sacraments to excuse or protect them from the consequence of their actions. Indeed, if Augustine is any guide, the sacraments themselves, they very thing we try to use to bind God's will to our own, will stand in judgment against us since by our actions we reveal that we "did not value [them] very highly."

As Cyril merely rephrases Jesus, Augustine is merely rephrasing Paul, who himself has merely rephrased Christ. The one theme that unites all of these is the value they place on human responsibility, on our ability to shape our own lives for good or ill.

Though central, we must bear in mind that our freedom is always secondary. My only real freedom is to respond to God's mercy. If I lose sight of this, then scrupulosity, despair, complacency and unjust and irreligious habits will follow quickly.

So what about the people who cry "Lord, Lord"? I suspect that they imagined themselves as initiators of the relationship with Christ. Or, if not quite that, then certainly as people who added something to Christ and His ministry. But this is simply speculation on my part.

In the final analysis, our great joy, as I said earlier, is not to say "Lord, Lord," (after all the demons can say this) but "Amen" to God.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Friday, November 30, 2007

Orthodox Church May Set Up Alliance with Catholics

Posted on: Monday, November 26, 2007 at

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Site

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

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

hat tip: Mike

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Orthodox Patriarch Accepts Papal Primacy?

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

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

29-November-2007 -- Catholic World News Brief

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

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

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

The Occult and Demonic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are two responses to this that we should avoid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

My Superpower

Your Superpower Should Be Manipulating Electricity

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A Man of Sorrows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory