Thursday, May 31, 2007

Women in Art

Just because it is lovely.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

A Christian Craig's List

Fr Mike over at Intentional Disciples posted about an interesting online tool for parishes interested in becoming more philanthropically active. Fr Mike writes:

Craigslist is a centralized network of online urban communities, featuring free classified advertisements (with jobs, internships, housing, personals, for sale/barter/wanted, services, community, gigs and resumes categories) and forums sorted by various topics.

It was founded in 1995 by Craig Newmark for the San Francisco Bay Area, and as of November 2006, Craigslist had established itself in approximately 450 cities all over the world.

Sam, the Chief Operating Officer at Holy Apostles parish here in Colorado Springs turned me on to a very interesting and potentially useful tool for parishes similar to Craig's List. It might be valuable for parishes that are trying to move into a more 'mission focused' ministry.

Ark Almighty is connected to the new movie, Evan Almighty, which apparently is about God calling a character from the Bruce Almighty movie to become a contemporary Noah, complete with heavy beard and plans for an ark. Youth Specialties, Willow Creek Association and the International Bible Society, three religious groups apparently within the evangelical world, partnered with Universal Pictures and Grace Hill Media to shape the ArkAlmighty program.

The website is linked in the title of this post.

THE INSPIRATION: "Doing kind deeds for others isn’t a new phenomenon. Fourteen years ago, Pastor Steve Sjogren inspired thousands of people to engage in random acts of kindness in his ground-breaking book, Conspiracy of Kindness: A Refreshing New Approach to Sharing the Love of Jesus with Others. The book ignited a flurry of selfless, unexpected acts of kindness intended to help others understand God’s gift of love and grace to all people.

ArkALMIGHTY takes Sjogren’s ideas one step further by actively seeking out people in need and connecting them with those who are willing to help. Inspired by the themes in the upcoming film, Evan Almighty, ArkALMIGHTY seeks to follow God’s call for Christians to always do good - to friends, to neighbors, to family members, to strangers, even to those who don’t like us.

What makes ArkALMIGHTY unique is that it harnesses the power of the internet to effortlessly match needs with the skill sets of everyday people. The impact of ArkALMIGHTY is boundless – first by meeting the needs within the church, it can easily expand its reach into neighborhoods, communities, and beyond."

The idea behind the website is that church communities can sign up and have their own page in which parishioners or people from the local community can post requests for help, ranging from walking the family dog, helping repair a fence, to forming a prayer group. People in your church community can see the requests and then respond with offers of help.

Sam showed me the free starter kit that he was sent - a 3x6 foot vinyl banner, four t-shirts, four baseball caps, 200 door hangers, 200 flyers, a bunch of small buttons, a CD with instructions, a BOOK, a teen's guide to arkalmighty, etc. He was astounded at the haul - probably worth $100.00, he estimates.

"There's some money behind this," he said. I have to agree. I mean it's not every website that has John Goodman walk across the page and make a pitch to "get involved."

This seems to be a new way of promoting a movie, one that actually helps people in the process. It's also a very media-savvy way for churches to reach out to the unchurched. Included in the website are some "success stories" in which people tell how they benefited from the kindness of others through the website.

Check it out!

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Where Are You From?

According to, in the last 30 days readers of Koinonia have come from the following places:

* Akron
* Annecy-le-Vieux
* Ardsley On Hudson
* Arlington
* Athens
* Auckland
* Avon Lake
* Blandon
* Carmel
* Carpentersville
* Chicago
* Cleveland
* Columbia
* Dallas
* Dennison
* Denver
* Durham
* Elk Grove
* Feasterville Trevose
* Hayward
* Hubert
* Indianapolis
* Lake Forest
* Mentor
* Mittelheubronn
* Montclair
* New Berlin
* New York
* Nicosia
* Oak Ridge
* Oakland
* Owosso
* Paris
* Philadelphia
* Pittsburgh
* Portland
* Racine
* Redding
* Richmond
* Rockland
* Romeoville
* Saint Louis
* Serik
* Union
* Vancouver
* Warrendale
* Westborough
* Weston
* White Haven
* Winfield

Not of course that you need to, but if you'd drop a note in the comments section and introduce yourself, I'd grateful to you. If your so inclined I would also appreciate it if you let me know what you think of the blog and what topics you think I should address in the future.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Catholic/Orthodox Dialog on Formation-I

Sherry W from Intentional Disciples asks some very good questions about the spiritual formation of Orthodox Christian lay people. I have included her questions in this post (the sections in italics). My thoughts (I hesitate to call them answers) are below.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Dear Fr. Gregory:

Where shall we start? Since my knowledge of Orthodoxy is *extremely limited* but my knowledge of Catholic teaching in the area of the formation of the laity is truly expert, I'm completely lop-sided!

Actually, I think your limited knowledge of Orthodoxy is of great benefit—your questions are more likely to come from a point of view that we are likely to overlook.

Looking at the questions that you ask below, it is also pretty clear to me that though your “knowledge is ‘extremely limited’” you (helpfully) ask questions that assume ways of doing things that we never thought about. For example, the additional year of seminary to give men some basic catechesis and discipleship experience is first rate. But more on that later.

A number of Catholic seminaries are adding an additional year at the beginning simply to give the men the experience of basic catechesis and living as a disciple. So I'm afraid that it's a universal problem - with a few exceptions.

While I’m certainly not happy with the situation, I do take some comfort in the fact that a lack of basic catechesis and spiritual formation is NOT simply a problem in the Orthodox Church. I had some Catholic seminarians in a class I taught last year at Duquesne. Over the course of the semester I got to know the young men who were taking that additional year and was favorably impressed by the things they were doing.

One thing that I though was very helpful for our own seminarians was adoption of the seminars that seminarians had that examined celibacy. For our seminarians we might want to address not only the basics of human sexuality, but also the dynamics of marriage and pastoral ministry.

I wonder, could you please direct me toward some resources that might explain how this additional year works? My own thought is that this would be a good program for us to run say with our college students who are thinking of attending seminary.

I have some questions for you. One, does Orthodoxy have a theology of the laity that is distinct from that of monks/priests? Do you have a theology of the secular mission of the Church?

For the Orthodox Church, lay and monastic spirituality are the same. The vast majority of our monastics (male and female) are laypeople. What difference there is, is a matter of intensity. Monks might pray longer and fast more strictly then the typical man or woman in the parish, but at least in principle, they follow the same form of life. You can read more about this in an article by Fr Georges Florovksy “The Ascetical Ideal of the New Testament.”

So no, we don’t have a specific theology of the laity in the way that the Catholic Church does. As I think about it though, I think that a the Orthodox Church would do well to have a more systematic conversation about the theology of the laity. Paul Meyendoroff, a faculty member at St Vladimir’s Seminary, has done some work on this topic—but certainly more work needs to be done.

As for “a theology of secular mission” that is largely absent. Some work has been done on the idea of the symphonia of the Church and the Emperor during the Byzantine era and under the Russian Czars, but that doesn’t really get us very far in the modern era.

Again, do you have any recommendations of what I might read to help articulate an theological vision of the laity and their secular mission?

What is your catechetical practice at the parish level? How many of your parishioners would quality as simply "culturally Orthodox" (or whatever term you use) rather than disciples? What percentage of baptized Orthodox in the US attend the Liturgy on Sundays?

Alas, here we do not cover ourselves with glory. Overall our catechetical ministry us hit or miss.

On the parish level, catechesis is largely limited to children. In many dioceses we have a summer camp program for junior and senior high school students (though I would guess our camp program really only serves 10-20% of our young people). We also have small campus and young adult ministry programs, but these also only reach a small number of the people in that group.

Most of our parishioners are probably what you would term “culturally Orthodox.” On average I would guess that about 10-20% of our faithful attend Divine Liturgy any given Sunday—of those maybe 50% receive Holy Communion.

What are the really good lay formation initiatives in American Orthodoxy?

Our lay formation tends to be ad hoc—it largely depends on the relationship between the lay person and his/her spiritual father (typically, though not necessarily, the parish priest).

When this relationship works, it is an extraordinary blessing to all concerned. I know as both a layman and now as a priest that my relationship with my spiritual father has helped me understand what, concretely, the Gospel means in my daily life. It can however be a labor-intensive relationship for both parties. For example, confession, can easily last an hour and several hours over several days is not unheard of when making a life confession with a Priestmonk.

We do have philanthropic organizations for men and women, but beyond that formation is basically left to the local parish (which does not in the main do a particularly good job for the vast majority of the laity) or the desire of the individual lay person to seek out a relationship with a particular priest or monastic.

How would you sum up the difference between an Orthodox approach to forming the laity and a Catholic approach?

Orthodox spiritual formation is essential monastic. As you might have guessed, the Orthodox approach is generally not systematic or intentional. Certainly it is more rigorous in a monastery—though even in our seminaries we adopt sort of a milieu approach to formation. By that I mean we assume that simply attending services is sufficient.

Over the last several years, and I mentioned this in the entry “Credit Where Credit is Due,” I’ve come to realize how much of my spiritual growth as an Orthodox Christian lay person and now priest is the fruit of my initial formation as a Roman Catholic. People taught me how to pray and read the Scriptures and when I encountered the Orthodox Church I found an environment in which that initial formation could flourish.

Comparing the two approaches I would say that—when done well—the Catholic approach is more systematic and the Orthodox approach less so. Catholics tend I think to focus more on the individual and his or her inner life, the Orthodox focus more on the liturgical and shared ascetical character of the spiritual life. For example, Catholics peak about a variety of religious orders and schools of spirituality, the Orthodox tend to think simply in terms of the one tradition, the one Orthodox life, common to all, but lived with varying degrees of intensity.

Of course this isn’t to say one does only this, and the other does only that—but I think I have captured something of the general difference between the two traditions. Especially in the East the Church has been a persecuted Church for really almost 14 centuries (with the rise of Islam) and so ours is very much a spirituality of endurance

I guess I'm just trying to get a sense of the lay of the land. I hope these questions don't sound impertinent. They are the sort of questions we've had to ask ourselves for the past 10 years.

Far from being impertinent, you have asked very important questions. And you have asked them with great charity and clarity. When people first come to me about becoming Orthodox they often have questions about (among other things) confession. One of the things I tell a person about why confession is important is because none of us can see the back of our own heads. The questions you have asked are very helpful and I hope my answers generate a least a bit of discussion and mutual understanding.

I am reading “The Parish: Mission or Maintenance?” that you and Fr Michael wrote—when I’m done I hope to have some questions for our discussion. What I've read is very good--I would (and have) recommend it to my Orthodox friends and colleagues.

God willing my questions will at least approach the quality of yours for me.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Ethnicity and Evangelism

While I appreciate why one would say that Orthodox parishes are too bound up with ethnicity, I do not think ethnicity as such is really the problem in most of our parishes. Here in Pittsburgh we have over 100 Orthodox parishes. Almost all of these communities were built by ethnic Greeks, Russians, Serbians, Ukrainians, and Carpatho-Russian who went out an worked hard to involve people in the Church. That they focused on members of their own ethnicity is not necessarily good or bad--it is simply a fact. I'm more comfortable and effective with the unchurched so that's where I put my energy--that's the group God has called me to care for.

Likewise, Greeks (to take one example) cared for other Greeks and, in so doing, fulfilled the commandments of Christ.

Where we have gone wrong is not so much that we are Greek (or Russian, or Serbian, or Ukrainian, or Carpatho-Russian) as we use being Greek (or Russian, or Serbian, or Ukrainian, or Carpatho-Russian) as an excuse to not continue the very work our ancestors in the faith excelled at. Sadly, we'd rather work at being Greek (or Russian, or Serbian, or Ukrainian, or Carpatho-Russian or being American) then being Christian. In a word, we have gotten comfortable with who we are and lost that fire to build new parishes and reconcile people to Christ and His Church.

We have become so concerned with being comfortable (which is really the problem not whether we are Greek or Russian, or Serbian, or Ukrainian, or Carpatho-Russian or American) that have forgotten that we are a Pilgrim People who have in this world no lasting home. Historically, today's ethnic parishes were yesterday's evangelical powerhouses who used what they had to advance the Gospel. Our problem is not that we are Greek (or, well, you get the idea), but that we are cheap. We have lost the sacrificial spirit and commitment to hard work that the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ requires.

And this is not a problem of ethnicity, but of a poverty of catechesis and spiritual formation (especially of the laity). If today the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of American committed herself to reconcile even a percentage of those who have drifted away from the Church, we could build 2 or 3 parishes for every one we have know. But for this to happen the laity must know Christ and His Gospel--and this is a question of proper catechesis and intentional spiritual formation for the laity.

God has poured out on all of us great gifts and abilities. What is lacking is not divine grace, but human freedom. People must be taught use their gifts--intellectual, social, cultural and spiritual--for the sake of Christ and His Church.

Again, the problem is not ethnicity as such. Rather is our inability, and sometimes our unwillingness, to put all the gifts we have at the service of the Gospel. From my Greek (and Russian, andSerbian, and Ukrainian, and Carpatho-Russian) friends, I have learned a great deal about how to embody the Gospel in the context of my everyday life: icon corners and fasting, feast day customs and funeral meals, and above all in joy. Are my ethnic Orthodox Christian friends perfect? No far from it in fact--but the same can be said of me.

So what can we do?

"Let us love one another" and the many gifts Christ has given each of us. Then, let us support and encourage one another to use the gifts we've been given generously at the service of the Gospel. When I've seen this done in parish, the community grows. Where this is not done, the community dies, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, but die it does.

So, let us live by blessing God for the gifts He has given each of us.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

A Catholic/Orthodox Dialog on Formation?

I received the following comment on an earlier post ("The Parish: Mission or Maintenance?"). The author is Sherry W. a contributor to Intentional Disciples and co-director of the Catherine of Siena Institute. I have include Sherry's comment in italics and my response below in normal type.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Sherry W has left a new comment on your post "The Parish: Mission or Maintenance?":

Hi Fr. Gregory:
This is Sherry Weddell from the Catherine of Siena Institute. We're delighted that you are raising some of our favorite questions. It would be illuminating to be part of a discussion of our primary mission with an Orthodox group. I'll try to check in to see if anyone has comments or questions that I might respond to.

And my response:

Hi Sherry!

Thanks for your comment and invitation to a conversation. Yes indeed, I think that a Catholic/Orthodox dialog on issue of lay formation would be extremely valuable. Let me start the conversation by articulating four reasons and potential benefits of such a dialog.

First, I think both Churches would profit from seeing the richness of each other's traditions. Not only would this be profit in a positive manner, but I also think that through our shared exposure to the pastoral and formation concerns of each other's tradition we might come to see our own Church's pastoral problems as less overwhelming. Especially important here would be our ability to use the other's tradition as a "control." What I mean by that is when we see the same problems in another tradition we might be able to rule out some factors and have some insights as to possible new solutions.

Second, one phrase used to describe the ministry of Pope John Paul II was/is "friendship ecumenism." I think a conversation about issues of formation and lay ministries would help members of both Churches come to know, love and appreciate each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. A my wife is fond of pointing out, for the first time in over 1,000 years (especially in America) Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics share not only the same language, but culture, food, political system and often home and hearth. This is an extraordinary blessing and opportunity that cannot be wasted and your offer of a conversation fits quite well with what God has offered our two Sister Churches.

Third, over the years I have noticed that the Orthodox approach to the Gospel is often very helpful for Roman Catholics. When I lived in California, for example, Catholics would often ask me questions about the sacraments (especially Holy Confession) or the Virgin Mary or the Scriptures. Happily, and without fail, all of the Catholics I spoke with walked away much more committed to their Catholic identity. I think the Eastern way of speaking about the Gospel can help Roman Catholics see themselves and their tradition with new and more appreciative eyes--that's been my goal in these conversations anyway.

Fourth and finally, least you think I think we do everything well, let me assure you that one of the things that we Orthodox lack is any systematic approach to the catechetical and spiritual formation of the laity. While this is harmful in all areas of the Church's life, it is especially detrimental to our seminary programs. We simply cannot depend on candidates for holy orders having the same, or really any, catechetical or spiritual formation. So your offer could potentially be of great value to us. It is simply inappropriate for men who don't have a sense of their ministry as laity to be attending seminary. And it is even more inappropriate that they be ordained. We need to teach people how to fulfill their lay vocation and, only then when they have demonstrated that they know what it means to be baptized, should they be allowed to attend seminary. Seminary, for us, is being used to do the catechetical and spiritual formation work that is simply not being done in the parish.

And so now dear readers, what do you think?

Monday, May 28, 2007

Study: College students get an A in narcissism

I offer the following without comment:

NEW YORK — Today’s college students are more narcissistic and self-centered than their predecessors, according to a comprehensive new study by five psychologists who worry that the trend could be harmful to personal relationships and American society.

“We need to stop endlessly repeating ’You’re special’ and having children repeat that back,” said the study’s lead author, professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University. “Kids are self-centered enough already.”

Twenge and her colleagues, in findings to be presented at a workshop Tuesday in San Diego on the generation gap, examined the responses of 16,475 college students nationwide who completed an evaluation called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory between 1982 and 2006.

Read more: Study: College students get an A in narcissism

Committment to Transformation

Here's a comment I left over at Intentional Disciples. I wrote the post a while ago, but I think the information may be of interest to some.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Hi Keith,

Thank you, and to everyone at Intentional Disciples, for your thoughtful and challenging posts.

Regarding the parish council--in the Orthodox Church the council serves an active administrative role in the life of the parish (something that is at best a mixed blessing for the priest). In missions, I've been able to build on this administrative role to have the council work as active participants/leaders in the pastoral life of the parish.

While it can be done, I think based on my own experience anyway, there need to be clearly articulated boundaries and expectations. Again, when it works it is a great joy and blessing. But when it doesn't work it typically doesn't because someone comes on council with an agenda of power and control. When this happens quite literally all hell breaks loose.

From my experience the key seems to be having people on parish council whom(1) the pastor knows from his personal experience of the person in confession, is serious about the spiritual life and (2) this person demonstrates that commitment by actively working to help others discover and exercise their own gifts on behalf of Christ and His Church. As person who doesn't trust the pastor enough to come to confession and/or who doesn't trust his neighbors enough to make room for them to exercise their own gifts, is someone who you don't want on parish council.

Just some thoughts. Keep up the good and Godly work.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The Parish: Mission or Maintenance?

Fr. Michael Sweeney, O.P. and Sherry Anne Weddell have a real good post over at The Catherine of Siena Institute. The begin by quoting Pope John Paul II:“Throw open the doors to Christ!

They continue:

Pope John Paul II inaugurated his pontificate with this invitation to the world; now he inaugurates a new Christian millennium with the same invitation. And, throughout the Church, we are witnessing a remarkable convergence of signs of renewal of the Church in her mission to the world. The apostolic role of the laity has been resoundingly affirmed and promoted at the highest levels of the Church for the first time in our history. The Holy Father has called the whole Church to re-dedicate all her energies to the new evangelization. Lay Catholics who assume personal responsibility for the Church’s evangelical mission are emerging by the millions all over the globe. A dramatic shift in the historic relationship between clergy and laity is well underway, which has important implications for all Catholic leaders who work with lay people.

It is our conviction that, through these historic developments, the Holy Spirit is both illumining and empowering the office of the ordained, and releasing the full vigor of the lay apostolate, for the sake of Christ’s redeeming purposes in the world. But something even more unexpected is happening. As the apostolic gifts and call of the laity have become evident, the apostolic potential of the parish – the one truly universal Catholic institution and the place where ninety-eight percent of Catholics have their only contact with the Church– has also been revealed in a whole new light. No longer can the parish be simply a place where the laity receive the spiritual goods of the Church. If all lay Catholics are apostles to the world as the Church teaches, then the institutions that nourish them must become places of apostolic formation, support, and consultation. The worldwide network of parishes that has sustained the faith of lay Catholics for centuries can and must become primary centers of lay formation and outreach to the world. We would like to explore with you the theological and practical implications of this new challenge.

Interested? Then read the rest here: The Parish: Mission or Maintenance? and please leave your thought.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Listening While Sitting in a Coffee Shop

I love sitting in coffee shops. When I lived in Redding, CA I built a parish by sitting in coffee shop (Sue's Java) 1-2 hours/day 3-5 days a week. I learn an awful lot about people and the community just listening to people and watching them interact with one another.

Having spent almost 11 years now as a priest serving missions parishes and college students, I guess I've developed what might be called a rather eccentric view of the Orthodox Church. Or maybe more accurately, the ministry of the Orthodox Church here in the good ol' US of A. While I think we serve well the people we serve, I fear that we really do not serve all that many of the men and women who are Orthodox. When I look at the vast majority of people who we do not reach because they are not Orthodox, the amount of work facing us is unbelievable.

Looking at things from my own perspective I think that we have allowed ourselves to become rather passive. We are happy to serve those who come to us and meet our expectations. We seem curiously unwilling to allow ourselves to be challenged, to be changed by the needs of others.

The change that comes from serving others as the come to us is not a change in essentials, but priorities. This doesn't mean, as Roman Catholics and Protestants discovered, allowing the world to set the agenda for the Church. Rather, we need to ask ourselves, what are the unmet needs that I see around me?

For example, a few moments ago I heard someone use the phrase "real money." This struck me as an odd phrase since, well, money isn't real is it? It is a culturally agreed upon medium of exchange. Money is inherently artificial, as clear an example of a culturally conditioned object as we might hope to find. Anyone who has had the opportunity to travel to foreign country knows how odd and "unnatural" it can feel to try and buy things with someone else's currency. It just doesn't quite feel right.

And of course is doesn't feel right because I mistake something purely cultural (US currency) as being universal.

Likewise, I can rather easily confuse the parts of the Gospel that feel natural to me (because of the culture in which I was raised or, somewhat more narrowly, my own preferences) with being the whole of the Gospel, or at least the most important parts of the Gospel.

Having lived now in Pittsburgh for the past 4 years, I have been struck with how important buildings seem to be for many Orthodox Christians. Of course church buildings (and what is really "critical," halls) have their role to play. But often the building drives the agenda. Committing ourselves to large buildings means committing ourselves as well to having a community that can sustain financially our large building.

While this isn't necessarily wrong, it does mean that a parish must place a fairly high value on its own long term stability. The easiest way to stability is uniformity--"our people"--in the rather common phrase of Orthodox Christians here in western Pennsylvania. But uniformity means we either ask people to conform to our agenda or we ask them to leave. Again, within limits, this is appropriate--but these limits are not (or should not be) drawn by the need to maintain a building.

I guess what I'm saying is that while I don't want us to do away with buildings, we need to develop additional, more flexible, forms of ministry if we hope to reach even a small percentage of the large numbers of lapsed Orthodox Christians and unchurched out there. What these ministries might look like is unclear to me, but I think the idea of developing means of service and outreach that is not dependent upon a building is exciting and worth investing in financially and personally.

The Apostles were wandering preachers who established communities and moved on. Especially here in America this has proven to be a successful form of ministry and might be worth incorporating more intentionally in the Church's.

Other areas for service are schools, hospitals and counseling agencies. I have often come to appreciate the value of small groups that meet informally in people's homes, or coffee shops, for prayer, study and mutual support. Yes, all of these forms of ministry have their limitations, chief among them is that we can naively, or proudly, assume that they are REAL ministries and the stuff that happens in the parish is, well, not really real.

But this confusion is not limited to informal or non-parochial forms of ministry. We all of us our tempted to assume that what we do with what we all ought to do. It is rather easy to universalize our own prejudices.

What will the future of Orthodox Christian minstry in America look like? I don't know. But I hope that in addition to the good work that takes place in parishes we might see a growth in non-parochial work as well.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Gospel Should Be Shared in Love

The following passage from the life of St Silouan puts into words some ideas I've been trying to articulate recently. The Saint says it better though.

From Fr Stephen's blog: "Glory to God for All Things":

Father Sophrony’s Saint Silouan of the Athonite:

Father Silouan’s attitude towards those who differed from him was characterized by a sincere desire to see what was good in them, and not to offend them in anything they held sacred. He always remained himself; he was utterly convinced that ’salvation lies in Christ-like humility’, and by virtue of this humility he strove with his whole soul to interpret every man at his best. He found his way to the heart of everyone - to his capacity for loving Christ.

I remember a conversation he had with a certain Archimandrite who was engaged in missionary work. This Archimandrite thought highly of the Staretz [Saint Silouan] and many a time went to see him during his visits to the Holy Mountain. the Staretz asked him what sort of sermons he preached to people. The Archimandrite, who was still young and inexperienced, gesticulated with his hands and swayed his whole body, and replied excitedly,

‘I tell them, Your faith is all wrong, perverted. There is nothing right, and if you don’t repent, there will be no salvation for you.’

The Staretz heard him out, then asked,

‘Tell me, Father Archimandrite, do they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, that He is the true God?’

‘Yes, that they do believe.’

‘And do they revere the Mother of God?’

‘Yes, but they are not taught properly about her.’

‘And what about the Saints?’

‘Yes they honor them but since they have fallen away from the Church, what saints can they have?’

‘Do they celebrate the Divine Office in their churches? Do they read the Gospels?’

‘Yes, they do have churches and services but if you were to compare their services with ours - how cold and lifeless theirs are!’

‘Father Archimandrite, people feel in their souls when they are doing the proper thing, believing in Jesus Christ, revering the Mother of God and the Saints, whom they call upon in prayer, so if you condemn their faith they will not listen to you…. But if you were to confirm that they were doing well to believe in God and honor the Mother of God and the Saints; that they are right to go to church, and say their prayers at home, read the Divine word, and so on; and then gently point out their mistakes and show them what they ought to amend, then they would listen to you, and the Lord would rejoice over them. And this way by God’s mercy we shall all find salvation…. God is love, and therefore the preaching of His word must always proceed from love. Then both preacher and listener will profit. But if you do nothing but condemn, the soul of the people will not heed you, and no good will come of it.’

Friday, May 25, 2007

And He Descended Into Hell

The pagan, seeing the gold mixed with dross, throws away the treasure because he has no knowledge of how to refine it. The Christian, however, can extract the Divine gold from the dross of suffering and thus add to the wealth of his Christian character. Suffering then becomes assimilable to the soul through the power of the Cross. But to the worldling, it becomes a double-cross; inside as an intellectual complexity incapable of solution, and outside as a violent intrusion and disturbance of one's egotism. The man without faith is no more immune from a cross than the man with faith. The difference is that the Christian has only one Cross, which is so understandable, while the egotist has two crosses, whose names are Rebellion and Suffering. A moment can actually be reached by the Christian when his suffering is felt less and less as coming from the outside, or as being imposed on him, and more and more as a failure to accomplish perfectly within himself the Will of God.

Fulton J. Sheen Three to Get Married

I found the above quote from the late Bishop Fulton Sheen on Dawn Eden's most excellent blog The Dawn Patrol
. For those unfamiliar with her work she is well worth reading. Dawn (if I may presume to use her first name) is also the author of The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On which I have not read yet (but I hope to read it this summer).

The above quote from Bishop Sheen caught my attention this morning (I'm trying as I am to write at least once a day to get back into the swing of things for some articles I must to finish. But that's another story...).

There has been some recent theological discussion in Roman Catholic circles about whether Jesus descended into the Hell (with the damned) or into the Hades of the Just (of the Old Testament and pre-Christian world). Those of you interested in the debate might want to start here:
Balthasar, Hell, and Heresy: An Exchange over at First Things.

For Orthodox Christians the answer is clear and given to us in the Paschal Homily of St John Chrysostom:

By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive.
He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh.
And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry:
Hell, said he, was embittered
When it encountered Thee in the lower regions.

It was embittered, for it was abolished.
It was embittered, for it was mocked.
It was embittered, for it was slain.
It was embittered, for it was overthrown.
It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains.
It took a body, and met God face to face.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead,
Is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be glory and dominion
Unto ages of ages.

Christ descends into Hell and takes the devil captive and in so doing frees the human community. Whether we wish that freedom or not is what brings me now to Bishop Sheen's comments.

The great mystery of the Christian faith is that Jesus Christ redeems what the world sees as unredeemable. He does not do away with Hell--but He does empty it of those it held captive. In a similar fashion He does not do away with human suffering--He enters into it in every way. The culmination of this is His descent into Hell where human suffering and misery reach their infernal apex. And by entering into our suffering He reveals to us His mercy and love for us.

This means though if we--I--wish to find the mercy and the love of God for me I can't flee from my own suffering, much less my own sinfulness. Instead I must turn around and face my suffering, face my sinfulness. Indeed, I must enter into the depth of my suffering and sinfulness.

What does this mean?

When we turn and face our suffering we discover Christ on the Cross waiting for us and extending to us His mercy, grace, peace and love. Unfortunately for many of us--and I would include myself here--we are unwilling to bear the pain of our own shame, suffering and yes, sinfulness. We want to be loved, but loved not as we are but as we imagine ourselves to be.

Bishop Sheen points out there is no real peace or joy apart from the Cross of Christ. Whatever when we try and make sense of our suffering apart from the Cross we experience instead "an intellectual complexity incapable of solution, and . . . a violent intrusion and disturbance of one's egotism." The way past the double cross of "Rebellion and Suffering" is through the One Cross--but that Cross remains inaccessible to me apart from repentance born of accurate self-knowledge. I will only come to be a whole person by knowing myself wholly as, well, unholy and fragmented.

This kind of self-knowledge is painful for me because it requires a descent into the hell of my own making. Once there I find the Christ who I have betrayed, denied, humiliated and crucified. It is no wonder that some never repentant and that others, having begun the work of repentance, fall by the wayside.

And it also not unexpected that many Christians would try to soften the Gospel of Christ's descent into hell.

Some of this must be done since, as Paul reminds us, we need milk before meat. But sometimes we soften the Gospel because we are ashamed of the Cross. We are ashamed because we refuse to accept responsibility for our own sinfulness, our own complicity in the death of God.

And yet, if we turn inward, if we make our own, unique descent into the hell of our own creating, we will find Christ there to greet us. And greet us He will, not with judgment or shame, but with something more wonderful and terrible, His mercy, peace, love, joy and forgiveness.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Thoughts on Being A Spiritual Father

Now that I can type again, I have returned to my longstanding habit of sitting in a coffee shop (at the moment the Panera Bread in Monroeville, PA), preferable one with free wifi (yipe!) and a place to plug in my laptop (a Toshiba with a lousy battery thank you very much).

As I write this (and drink my third cup of coffee--I've been up since about 4.30 am) I'm listening to Chris LeDoux (a former Rodeo rider and fine country singer who died too soon). LeDoux sings about his life as a working cowboy and rodeo athlete and as a husband and father. Listening to him it is hard not to think about what it means to be a man and a father. These thoughts are especially poignant for me for a two of reasons in particular.

Recently I learned that a friend from graduate school has left his (Roman Catholic) monastery and the priesthood to marry. I happened upon his website and saw Timothy, his wife and two children. They all look very happy and while I am sad for what my friend has given up (in my Catholic days I thought seriously of joining Timothy's monastery, though God had other plans for me), I am very happy for him and his new life and pray that God grants him every good thing.

Somewhat closer to home, LeDoux's music provides the soundtrack for my thoughts about the various scandals (financial and sexual) currently afflicting the Orthodox Church. I can't help but think that these scandals are part of a broader pattern of misconduct in the Orthodox Church in the US and overseas.

In a recently published book (After Asceticism: Sex, Prayer and Deviant Priests), the author explores the spiritual, psychological and cultural roots of the recent crisis caused by sexually abusive Roman Catholic priests. While the whole book is well worth reading (though it will be a bit of a challenge for those unfamiliar with Thomism and the Thomistic style of analysis), one thing stands out.

The author argues that the role of the father (biological and spiritual) is to see to the well being and safety of his family. In addition to himself being virtuous (specifically courageous, temperent, honest and honorable) he must be committed to being faithful to his wife (or the Church) not only in what he does, but doesn't do, as well as in his imagination and his emotional life. In a word, fathers aren't good fathers unless they are chaste. And chastity is necessary so that the father can both know what the good thing is for his family, but act on the good, even in the face of temptations or opposition.

In the scandals afflicting the Orthodox Church I see little that suggests a true and chaste fatherhood. By that I mean a real commitment to the health and well-being not only of the institution of the Church, but to the People of God (there are some standout examples, like Vladyka JOB in the OCA).

Yes, by all means, let us extend forgiveness and mercy to those clergy and laypeople who have betrayed our trust. But we must also act to protect the whole Body from those who have engaged in misconduct and betrayed the Church's trust.

When we fail to do this we not only betray Christ, we also undermine the faith of the little ones--and I would include here those who have engaged in misconduct and betrayed the Church's trust. The true father--biological or spiritual--is not afraid to protect his wife and children, even at the expense of his own life.

Right now Chris LeDoux is sings his song "Big Love." In it he sings:

You need a man to get lost in with a heart big enough to roam
No more fences for you to look through with your heart caught in a strangle hold
I've got a love full of wide open spaces
I've got a big love wild and free room to grow as big as your dreams
Deep as a river in a raging flood endless as the stars above I've got a big love

When two hearts make a stand together on the solid rock of trust
They could be a million miles from each other and still be side by side in love
I want to love you like that forever
I've got a big love...

You never dreamed you could have all you ever wanted
Darling you can have it with me
I've got a big love...
I got a big love.

Ultimately of course, the Big Love we need, is Christ's love--He's the Big Man. It is only in Him that we can "roam wild and free" with no more fences and with a heart no longer strangled. But we need this also from our bishops and priests and laity as well.

At the risk of being pegged as sentimental, it is only in the Body of Christ that we can hope to find the freedom we need to roam free and to have our "grow as big as our dreams//
Deep as a river in a raging flood endless as the stars above." A real man, a real father, keeps his children safe and secure and provides them with what they need to grow in love and live without free.

I'll give the last word to G.K. Chesterton who (like me) never had biological children, but who has taught me a great deal about being a spiritual father and a priest. He writes in Orthodoxy:
Those countries in Europe which are still influenced by priests, are exactly the countries where there is still singing and dancing and coloured dresses and art in the open-air. Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff's edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.
Chesterton's right, real fathers build playground walls so that their children can experience true and lasting joy in the face of life's terrors.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Credit Where Credit Is Due

Over the last several weeks I have had conversations with a number of people--clergy and laity--about recent converts to the Orthodox Church. One theme that has shown forth is the number of converts who later go on to serve as clergy. For many of us who are converts and clergy we are able to serve effectively precisely because of our formation in our tradition of origin.

For example, in my own case I have been blessed by the time and effort put into my spiritual and intellectual formation by a rather substantial number of Roman Catholic scholars--clergy, religious and lay. These men and women not only taught me the basics of the Christian life, they also fostered in me the habits of intellectual inquiry that eventually lead me to join the Orthodox Church.

Now as a priest for the past 10 years, and as a deacon for 4 years before that, I realize just how valuable my formation by Roman Catholics really is. I have had the opportunity to start three parishes in the Pacific Northwest (an area of the country where 75% of the population has no religious affiliation at all) and a successful college campus ministry program here in Pittsburgh. While all of this was done within the context of the Orthodox Church, this work was possible in large part from what I learned first as an undergraduate and then graduate student at the University of Dallas and later had the opportunity to refine thanks to doctoral students at Duquesne University and my parish and youth work in both Roman and Byzantine Catholic parishes.

The conclusion I draw from my experiences is this: The Orthodox Church, especially here in the US, owes a great deal of our success to the work of Catholic and Protestant seminaries and formation teams. Sadly, this debt not only goes unpaid, it often goes largely unexpressed. In fact, many Orthodox Christians (including converts) seem not only unaware, but even hostile, to the reality that our current success is built on the foundations laid for us in another Christian tradition.

I have to wonder what would the Orthodox Church here in America look like not only without coverts--clergy and laity--but if we excluded those men and women who come to us with our theological and spiritual formation already largely completed for us when we join the Orthodox Church? I am not suggesting that this formation is sufficient, indeed it is not.

But it is also the case that converts often come to Orthodox extremely well prepared. Typically we have a relatively rich spiritual life, a good basic education in the Gospel (and often graduate degrees in theology or divinity), many years of pastoral and/or professional experience
that is applicable to the life of the Church, and a willingness, even a eager joy, to serve. And all of this reflects the work done with us when we were Roman Catholic or Protestant.

How then should the Church respond to this? Frankly, I'm not sure.

As a start though I think we would do well by acknowledging that when we lapse into triumphalism or polemics or when we proselytize among our Western Christian brothers and sisters, we are sinning against justice. The success of the Orthodox Church here in the US, at least in part, reflects the success and hard work of many Western Christian clergy, lay leaders, scholars and seminaries and we much--again in just--acknowledge this. Bottom line, we Orthodox are as strong as we are because we have profited by the good work done by Roman Catholics, Evangelical Christians and Mainline Protestants. It is time to acknowledge this and (at least) say thank you.

So, thank you,
to the Holy Cross Brothers at Notre Dame Prep School in West Haven, CT;
to the faculty at the University of Dallas, Irving, TX;
to the Cistercian Fathers of Our Lady of Dallas Abbey, Irving, TX;
to the the Dominican Fathers of St Albert the Great Prior, Irving, TX;
to the faculty of the Institute of Formative Spirituality, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh PA;
to the Roman Catholic parish of St Edward, Blawnox, PA;
to the Byzantine Catholic Archdiocese of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA.

To this, and to all who cared for me and my salvation and growth in Christ, thank you not only for what you have done for me, but what you have made it possible for me to do as a lay person, deacon and now priest in the Orthodox Church. I quite literally owe you my life.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Saturday, May 12, 2007

I'm Back

Christ is Risen!

It has been two months (and one day) since I last posted on my blog. In part this was because of the liturgical and pastoral demands of Great Lent as well as being married to a brilliant woman in her last semester of law school (my wife Mary graduates next month, takes the bar in July and starts her new job as a law clerk for a federal judge in August). Mostly though I have not written anything because of nerve damage in my left arm that caused not only numbness in the fingers on that side but a fairly pronounced loss of mobility.

So for the last two months I have not been able to do many of the things I have always taken for granted. I couldn't type, I couldn't run and don't get me started on the joys of trying to open jars or use a knife. Thank God the surgeon was able to repair the damage to my nerves. He took the stitches out on Monday of this week and--again thank God--I have more mobility and less numbness everyday.

So, I'm back!

One of the things I learned during this period of enforced inaction was just how much I have become rather dependent upon doing things--even things that really don't need to be done or done "right now"--in order to feel good about myself. Granted the internal psychological process is a bit more complicated then that, but in the end I sought to ground my self-confidence not in Christ but in my own accomplishments. This is deadly for anyone, but especially for a priest who is called by virtue of his vocation and ordination to point beyond this world and its standards to the Kingdom of God.

Alas many clergy, and again I would include myself here, often fail to remain faithful to our call to be a sign of contradiction
(cf. Lk 2:34) within the Church so that, in turn, the Church can be a like sign of contradiction to this world. It is the lose of this prophetic character that I think causes most of the difficulties that we encounter within the Christian community. We simply have forgotten--or worse have never know--that we are called to be a prophetic people who bear witness with our lives to Christ and the Kingdom of Heaven.

In part I would root this loss (at least in Orthodox Christian circles) to poor preaching and even worse catechesis; we simply do not teach people about who they are in Christ. And in part I think the problem is found in our rather lacks attitude towards asceticism. The Apostle Paul writes:

You know that while all the runners in the stadium take part in the race, the award goes to one man. In that case, run so as to win! Athletes deny themselves all sorts of things. They do this to win a crown of leaves that withers, but we a crown that is imperishable. I do not run like a man who loses sight of the finish line. I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing What I do is discipline my own body and master it, for fear that after having preached to others I myself should be rejected (I Cor. 9:24-27).
If Paul was concerned that, absent ascetical effort, he would lose his salvation how can it be any different for us? for me?

The great paradox of the Gospel is that it is only through self-denial that I can hope to really hope to become who I am. This paradox reflects the tendency of sinful human beings to reduce our identity to some few aspects of our personality; I am smart; I am a husband; a priest; a Christian. Or for that matter: I am a sinner; I am vain, or proud, or unbelieving.

These are all true of course, at least in varying degrees. But none of these things full expresses who God has called me to be from my mothers womb. The Prophet Isaiah bears witness to the true foundation of human identity and vocation when he writes of the Messiah:

Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The LORD called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother's womb he named me.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, "You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified."
But I said, "I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the LORD,
and my reward with my God."
And now the LORD says,
who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the LORD,
and my God has become my strength--
he says,
"It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth." (49:1-6)
Like Christ, our fidelity to God and our fidelity to self converge. God has called us to be who we are from the beginning--even as the world tries to seduce us to be other than who God has created us to be.

As I said, in our struggle to remain faithful to God and ourselves, the Christian tradition offers us the ascetical life. The goal of asceticism is first self-knowledge. Especially through a life of prayer and fast, we come to know who we are in truth. Following on this, albeit often in a concurrent manner, we learn to express who we are--we learn (and again, ascetically) to be who we are, who God has created us to be.

This adventure of self-discover and self-expression is the hallmark of tradition. And it is in light of how faithful it is to this two fold goal that we can adjudicate the health or validity of any tradition. A tradition need not offer the depth and breath of the Christian tradition to be true. Rather a tradition is true to within the limits and the degree to which it serves human self-discovery and self-expression.

Let me conclude by returning to my recent incapacitation. In this process of fidelity to God, self and tradition, illness has a unique, even privileged, role to play. When we are ill, or when we care for those who are ill, we are offered the opportunity to see just how foolish our are illusions of autonomy and individualism. We do not own our own life--it is given to us as a gift and we are stewards of the life God has given us. But I am not only the steward of my own life, but of my neighbors. The work of fidelity to God and self is not the work of individuals, no matter how virtuous or "Christian." It is a work that we share with one and other and for one another. Anything less, it seems to me, flies in the face not only of what it means to be human, but also reflects a lack of faith in, and fidelity to, the finished work of Jesus Christ to Whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and forever and ever. Amen.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory