Friday, July 27, 2007

On Disappointment

Recently I was disappointed by someone I respect. While the particulars--the how's & why's--of my being disappointed are certainly important, their importance is nevertheless secondary. As an aside, I think that it is essential in the spiritual life that we be on guard so that we do not to confuse what is of primary and secondary importance. By the same token, we should also be careful that we not dismiss or minimize those matters of secondary importance in a misguided allegiance to what is primary.

And this gets me to the matter at hand: Being disappointed.

On the one hand, anything that I suffer or lose in this life pales in comparison to what I have received, and one day hope to receive, from Christ. "More than that, I count all things to be loss" St Paul says, "in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ" (Philippians 3.8). In one sense, my feelings of being disappointed, let down, or betrayed come flow not so much from what someone does, or doesn't, do as they do my indifference to or forgetfulness of the surpassing value of gaining Christ.

Ultimately, whatever I lose, whatever is taken from me, whatever I give up, I will receive back a hundredfold in the Kingdom of God: "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name's sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life" (Matthew 19.29).

But on the other hand, there is a real danger in minimizing or dismissing lesser goods in favor of greater goods. Our daily life is constituted by a whole of host of secondary and even tertiary goods that we cannot ignore without seriously deforming our relationship with God, our neighbor, the creation and ourselves.

Think for a moment about the husband who is always faithful, always loving, but indifferent to the myriad little things that go into actually being a husband. While he may never cheat on his wife or treat her rudely, these things are very different then treating her with warmth and affection. And even if he is warm and affectionate with his wife, what is this worth if it never takes concrete, practical form?

This, in a more exalted form to be sure, is the point the Apostle James makes in his epistle:

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder (James 2.14-19)
For better and worse, I live my life in the realm of those things that are of secondary importance. The great paradox of the Christian life is just this: In Christ, what is of secondary importance, what in fact seems trivial and transitory, has become of primary and even eternal significance. Human life, for all of its mundane and passing significance, has been taken up into the life of the Most Holy Trinity and has become, again in Christ and the Church, the sacrament of that divine life.

So what does this mean?

Yes, I am often disappointed because my expectations are not met. And while often my expectations are self-centered and unreasonable, they are not wholly that. In fact, they are often a rather complicated mix of "wheats and weeds," of good and bad desires. I can use disappointment to become more aware of my self-aggrandizing motivations and desires.

But I can also use disappointment to discover what is, at least provisionally, of significance for my own spiritual life. More importantly, and armed with this knowledge of what is of real importance, I can respond to others and become for them the kind of person who my experiences of being disappointed, let down, and betrayed, tell me I want in my own life.

Seen in this way, I can by my own effort and God's grace, transform disappointment into something life-giving both for myself and my neighbor. I can't think of one aspect of my life that has lasting value that didn't come through the experience of being let down or betrayed. This really is the power of the grace of repentance, it helps us see the gift that is hidden in the disappointment, and it does so without shaming us for being disappointed.

In the end of course, disappointment, being let down, or being betrayed, is simply my own share in the Cross of Jesus Christ. And in these moments, I also get to take up my own cross. Yes, it hurts, yes I would prefer to let the Cross (and the cross) pass--but as I look at the good that can come from these experiences, I have to ask myself, what good in my life, or in the lives of others, that has come through disappointment am I willing to surrender to avoid a bit (or more than a bit) of pain?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Looking over both the comment box, and especially my private emails, the idea of Christians of different traditions cooperating to support and sustain each others' spiritual formation work with their respective laity has struck a cord. What is especially interesting to me are the positive responses I have gotten from Orthodox Christian clergy who are otherwise not supportive of the official dialog that exists between the different Christian communities.

As I was reflecting on this I came upon the following post from Gil Bailie's blog, "Reflection of Faith and Culture":

"No discipline can survive the loss of inwardness."

Philip Rieff again:

Here we now see, with startling clarity, how little our established political distinctions between left and right, conservative and radical, revolutionary and reactionary, matter nowadays. Rather, any remaking of political distinctions will have to ask, first, whether there is in fact a discipline of inwardness, a mobilization for fresh renunciations of instinct; or whether there is only the discipline of outwardness, a mobilizing for fresh satisfactions of instinct. Such a distinction will divide contemporary men and movements more accurately; then we shall find fashionable liberals and fascists on the same side, where they really belong.

Rieff and Bailie are right on target. The reconciliation of Christians with ourselves is not primarily an outward movement, but an inward one. We able to reach out towards one another only if we move inward and deeper into our own traditions and ultimately into our own hearts.

When I was in Toronto last month, I found that the people I felt most connected to were not those with whom I would have necessarily agreed theologically, or politically, or morally. Rather, it was those who seemed to value and foster inwardness with whom I felt most connected.

This doesn't mean that we could or should move toward theological or political or ethical agreement--only that this agreement is the fruit of an inward turn and our willingness to foster stillness and listening. I suspect that much of the activity that characterize ministry and ecumenical work is a fleeing from inwardness, an implicit refusal, or at least fear, of communion.
We need, I need, no so much to still my desires, but rightly order them so that they serve my communion with God, my neighbor, creation and myself. We are made to be desiring, and desirable, beings--but when our desires are improperly ordered, when I desire lesser goods in place of greater goods for example, then I am in turmoil.

While it is good to desire unity among Christians, as many have pointed out, this unity must be a unity in faith and not simply an ability to find a mutually acceptable doctrinal or moral statement. But this shared faith is itself the fruit of silence--of a real inward turn that allows us to recognize the work of God's grace in ourselves and in each other.

To make this inward turn means we need to risk all the things that we are so attached to--our tradition, our positions, the prestige we have in our respective communities. Does this mean that, for example, everything is up for grabs? No. But it does mean, as our phenomenologist friends are found of saying, that our approach to those things which are essential and lasting will necessarily be sacrificed.

The divisions that afflict us run not between us, but through us--the source of schism and heresy, as well as the triumphalism and religious indifference that aids and abets our estrangements, our rooted in the human heart and so it is to our hearts we have to look for the solution.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Friday, July 20, 2007

A Hiatius

Next Tuesday and Wednesday my wife sits for the bar exam for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. After Liturgy that Sunday afternoon we load up the truck and move to Youngstown, OH where my sweetie begins her new job as a law clerk for a federal judge (go MARY!).

For these reasons, my blog for the next 10 days or so will be intermittent at best. I ask for your prayers for my wife and our move.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Monday, July 16, 2007

NEW LINK: Anastasis Dialogue

You will notice a new link under my blog list, Anastasis Dialogue. What is this, you ask? Well let the blog's author, Byzantine Catholic priestmonk Fr. Maximos, speak for his own work:

Welcome to the latest ecumenical endeavour of Holy Resurrection Monastery. We have always been convinced that Eastern Catholic monastics have a special responsibility to work for the re-union of the Churches, especially those Churches with which they share their tradition of prayer, theological reflection and ascetic practices. Not only is this idea one we hold firmly, it is actually a demand made of us by our own Church, and made with special forcefulness by the late Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter, Orientale Lumen.

There are a number of monastic ventures around dedicated to building bridges between ecclesiasial communities and faiths. The Benedictine and Cistercian families in particular have institutionalized this work in such important organizations as the Dialogue Interreligieux Monastique and in the special vocation of the monastery of Chevetogne in Belgium. The monastic family of Holy Resurrection Monastery (including the sisterhood of Holy Theophany Monastery in Olympia, Washington) with the blessing of our hierarch, His Grace Bishop John Michael (Botean), and the encouragement of a number of other prelates both Catholic and Orthodox, is now beginning to embark on our own, more humble, version of these ministries.

Hence, The Anastasis Dialogue, a way to bring together Catholics and Orthodox, especially in the English-speaking world, to explore their common monastic heritage with a view to finding common ecumenical ground.
This latest addition to what Fr Maximos (following Walter Cardinal Kasper) calls "spiritual ecumenicism" is right in line with the different projects that have come my way in the last few weeks.

To give you a bit of the flavor of this most interesting site, let me quote again from Fr Maximos' work. Referring the the recent document of the Roman Church that communion with the Pope of Rome "is not some external complement to a particular Church but rather one of its internal constitutive principles," our intrepid priestmonk writes:

Yes. That makes sense to me. But should it not also be one of the "internal constitutive principles" of a particular Church that it should also maintain itself in communion with all other particular Churches? And if this is so with any particular Church, should it not especially be so with respect to that particular Church, namely the Roman Church, to which is granted the special charism of maintaining the universality of the whole Church?

In other words, aren't all the Churches today, whether Catholic or Orthodox, "lacking something"? Perhaps rather than claim for itself sole proprietorial rights to be the visible Church professed in the Creed, we Catholics should begin to reclaim a more patristic kind of language, speaking of a "wounded" Church on the level of history. This disunity between the Churches is nothing knew. The fathers saw plenty of it: the Meletian schism, for example, or the quite long breach between Rome and Constantinople after the deposition of St. John Chrysostom. What makes the current schism different is not, I think, the seriousness of the disagreement, but that it has gone on for so long that it has begun to seem like business as usual. The danger of that is that we no longer feel any urgency to heal it.

Fr Maximos' response is not only irenic, but it demonstrates a deep appreciation of how insensitive we have all become, Orthodox and Catholic, to the schism that now almost 1,000 years old! While we can argue back and forth as to who is or isn't the truest, True Church, both Catholics and Orthodox would do well, I think, to ask themselves if they are really better off without the other and if our side is committed to reconciliation as we are to, oh I don't know, justifying or excusing the rather bad behavior of some of our own clergy? Why is it that we don't invest at least as much energy and resources in reconciliation that we squander on triumphalism?

Any way, Axios! Dear Fr Maximos! May God grant you and your brother monks many years!

I would commend The Anastasis Dialogue to all of you who read this blog.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Sunday, July 15, 2007

New Blog: Orthophile

I have been neglect in giving credit where credit is due to the different blogs I read on a regular basis. To this list (down and on the right) I have added Orthophile a blog I have recently discovered.

The author, Cheryl, describes her blog this way:

Depending on the issue, I may be "Lutheran" or "R. Catholic" or E. Orthodox", even Reformed. Which leads me to the reason I decided to retain the title, "Orthophile" for this blog. In the beginning, it was meant to reflect my primary interest in E. Orthodoxy, but from a Lutheran perspective (I was not planning on converting). Now, it simply reflects my desire to "stay orthodox" as I wade through the various theological opinions, and hopefully come to peace with God (a peace I haven't had for any great length of time, since my childhood).

So do surf over and take a look. In the coming weeks, I hope to add a bit about the other blogs I link to, but for now, go take a look at what's being said at Orthophile.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

So, What Is Character?

We are often think of morality in objective terms--as if morality was something like physics. While I would not wish to suggest that morality is purely subjective or relative to the situation, I also think that too much an emphasis on the objective quality of what is morally right and wrong risks overlook, or at least minimizing, the moral character of the actor. I cannot do good unless I am good; likewise it is only by doing the good that I become good. Whatever else it might be

As Orthodox Christians, however, we tend to on dogmatics, liturgics and Church history in a way that tends to shortchange questions of character and character formation. While all these other areas are important, character is the most important element of our spiritual lives since everything passes through character. As Socrates says somewhere, good laws in the hands of evil me make us worse then slaves, they make us fools since by our good laws evil mean are able to rob us of our freedoms.

So what is character?

When I think of character I think of that relatively enduring constellations of thoughts and actions that form my life. If these habits are in the service of personal excellence (another question I know) they are called virtues; if these habits are not in the service of excellence, or worse cause me to be ground down, then they are called vices. Looked at this way, I would say that character refers to whole pattern of virtue and vice in the person (or community for that matter).

In my experience as an Orthodox Christian I have found (and I am willing to be corrected) a rather distressing lack of emphasis in the intentional formation of character. This is especially the case in our seminaries which seem more focused on training men in the academic content of Orthodox theology, chant and liturgics--and sadly the priests imitate this pattern in the parish.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

To Read More: Moral Character, Moral and Character Development, Ethics and Authentic Transformational Leadership, Search Institute's 40 Developmental Assets®, Journal of College & Character, and Values in Action (VIA).

Saturday, July 14, 2007

New Discussion Group

I have started a discussion group for those interested in having a more free flowing conversation about many of the issues I touch on here. The group (currently hosted on Yahoo, but I will probably move it to Google after it get up and running) is titled Eastern Orthodoxy & Character Formation and can be found on the web here:

I describe the group this way:

This group is dedicated to examining questions of character and character formation in light of the tradition of the Orthodox Church. It is open to all interested Orthodox Christians (clergy and laity) as well as those friends of Orthodoxy from other religious traditions (or no religious tradition) who are supportive of the basic aim of the group.

Given the checkered history of online discussion groups, polemics, rudeness or insulting language will not be allowed. After two warnings violators will be suspended; after two suspensions, they will be permanently banned.
If you are interested and moved to do so, please surf over, take a look and sign up.

My hope is that, by generating conversation and awareness of issue of character, we can begin to bring about the real renewal that is necessary in the Orthodox Church here in this country and overseas.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

O God, how long shall the adversary reproach? shall the enemy blaspheme thy name for ever?

The following is a copy of my recent post on the Orthodox-Forum on Yahoo. I believe the content of the post makes clear both the immediate and more generally contexts that moved me to write what I wrote.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Dear Father James,

Thank you for your post regarding the recent statement by the Church of Rome of various questions of ecclesiology. Why people, and especially Orthodox Christians, are upset about this statement is simply beyond me. I think Metropolitan Kyrill of the MP said it best when (and I'm paraphrasing here) he observed that what Rome says of herself, the Orthodox Church would say of herself. What the Church of Rome would say of the Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church would say of her. And both the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches hold to the same view of those communities that arose as a consequence of the Reformation: they are not Churches in the patristic understanding of the word.

I am uncertain what concerns me more about the posts on this thread: the bad manners of the Orthodox authors or the general poverty of their theological reflection. For the former I apologize (and certainly if Orthodox clergy and laity can speak for me without my permission, I can return the favor); for the later, well, I am simply sad.

If recent events in the GOA and the OCA have demonstrated anything it is that we in the Orthodox Church are failing in our mission to evangelize, catechize and reconcile to Christ not just the world, but even our own faithful (clergy and laity). While there have been notable, and ill-received exceptions, we have for years turned a blind eye to our own spiritual, pastoral and administrative shortcomings and flat out failures. And even when the fruits of our lapses are splashed all over the media, we still point fingers at each other rather than call for repentance and beg God with hymns and prayers for the renewal of His Church. Our internal scandals and divisions here in America, our triumphalism relative the the rest of Christendom, our bad manners both among ourselves and with visitors, all point to the fundamental lack of faith in Jesus Christ not only in our laity, but among our clergy and our hierarchs.

My brothers and sisters! Are we not able to be better than this? We lack nothing from God. All that is missing is our repentance, our tears. Why do we call others to repentance and ignore the call among ourselves?

People who believe in Jesus Christ simply do not behave as we behave and do not (as has been pointed out by many on this list) tolerate the malfeasance that is seen among us. While my own sinfulness does not compromise the integrity of Holy Tradition, it does compromise the integrity of my understanding of the Faith and it compromises, possibly, the integrity of my witness.

I think in the main, the Orthodox liked, but did not respect, Pope John Paul II. We were suspicious of his irenicism and jealous of his popularity. With Pope Benedict XVI, I think we do not (in the main) like him, but we (and especially the MP) respect him. While neither man could be called a fool, the current pope is tough and will in fact call us on our foolishness.

So again, my dear brother, Fr James, thank you for your posts and your patience.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Friday, July 13, 2007

Some Ecumenical Possibilities

In the past several weeks I've had conversations with both Roman Catholics and Evangelical Christians about the possibility of working collaboratively with them. Stated broadly, the goal of these projects would be for each partner to help the other in their respective spiritual formation ministry. So for example, Orthodox Christians would come together with Evangelical Christians and each offer to the other their gifts and insights to help strength the other's pastoral care; so rather then proselytizing, we want to help each other minister more effectively to their own members. Why would we do this?

The awful little secret in the Christian world is that surprising few Christians--of whatever tradition--are intentional disciples of Jesus Christ. This is not to say that people aren't convinced of the integrity or truthfulness of our own tradition's understanding of the Gospel. In fact, I think the less committed I am to being a disciple of Jesus Christ, the more likely I am to be very committed to my tradition.

We all know, among the Orthodox, fervent defenders of Holy Tradition and all things Eastern against all things Western, Protestant and Roman; among the Catholics we have strident proponents of papal infallibility and universal jurisdiction; among Evangelical Christians, we have aggressive soul winners who don't even bother to learn your name before they "share" the Gospel. Unfortunately, many of the loudest and most active among us have not, as the old song says, "decided to follow Jesus." Instead, we have allowed substituted a tradition, an institution, a program, for a living relationship with Jesus Christ.

In my informal conversations with people this is a fairly widespread phenomenon that cuts across not only traditional and denominational lines and is seen in clergy and lay leaders alike. Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholic, and Evangelical Christian congregations are filled with that most curious of creatures, the professing, even active, Christian (whether a lay person or a member of the clergy) who has never been evangelized, much less reconciled, to Jesus Christ.

As I have said before in these essays, I think that formal, theological ecumenical dialog is essential. But, and again as I've said before, the vast majority of Christians have neither the competency, nor the authority, to engage in such discussions.

Instead of focusing of these theological and dogmatic issues, the proposed projects reflect a pastoral mode of ecumenical dialog. What can we learn from other Christian traditions that will serve the pastoral care of the people that Christ has entrusted to our care? What can I as an Orthodox Christian learn from Roman Catholics and Evangelical Christians to make me a more effective priest? What can I learn from my Roman Catholic and Evangelical Christian brothers and sisters to help me bring myself and other Orthodox Christians into an intimate, life-giving and dynamic (in the sense of growing, not emotionally charged) relationship with Jesus Christ? And, in all humility, what can I as an Orthodox Christian and a priest offer in return?

I think that Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics and Evangelical Christians need to see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. Yes because of our respective historical and doctrinal commitments, there are painful divisions among us that undermine the very unity we might experience personally. So until our differences are resolved we must bear the pain of these divisions precisely because we are called by Christ not only to respect not only each others' consciences, but the consciences of the different Christian communities within which we stand.

At the same time, we can, and should, look to find the areas where our personal and communal consciences overlap. It may be a very small area. We might be able to have only a brief conversation or offer only minimal suggestions or assistance to one and other. But so what? As St Dionysius the Aeropagite says somewhere, Christians are all vessels of difference sizes, but whatever the size of the vessel, we are filled to overflowing with divine love.

As I tell my own spiritual children, this means that some of us our oceans of divine love, others lakes or swimming pools. Me? I'm a quarter teaspoon--but that's okay, because some time you need a quarter teaspoon. Try and bake a cake with only a swimming pool to measure out the ingredients.

Granted very little may come of these common projects--indeed beyond the idea, nothing may come at all. But in Christ, very little, or even nothing at all, can become an encounter with God's grace. After all, what do we sing in the hymns of the Feast of the Transfiguration?

Tone 7
Thou wast transfigured on the mount, O Christ God,/ revealing Thy glory to Thy disciples as far as they could bear it./ Let Thine everlasting light shine upon us sinners/ through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Giver of Light, glory to Thee.

Tone 7
Thou wast transfigured on the mountain, O Christ our God,/ and Thy disciples beheld Thy glory as far as they were capable,/ that when they should see Thee crucified,/ they might know that Thy suffering was voluntary/ and might proclaim to the world/ that Thou art indeed the reflection of the Father.

In both hymns we are reminded that God conforms His Self-revelation to our, rather minimal, ability to receive what He is offering. This it seems, from the Orthodox side of the conversation at least, is the way such a collaborative, ecumenical project should go. In imitation of Jesus Christ, let us offer to one another no more than what each can bear. And let us do so in the service of bring people to a deep and personal commitment to live as disciples of Jesus Christ.

I welcome your comments, thoughts, criticism, questions, suggestions and offers of help.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Wind

From Clip Joint:

Adverts shouldn't be moving, but we've found what appears to be an exception. "I was always misunderstood," says the narrator in this US commercial. "People just didn't seem to like me, I got on their nerves." It'll get to anyone who has been grizzling about the weather this summer.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Familiarity and the Priesthood

To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven.
(Ecclesiastes 3:1)

From Kevin Edgecomb's most excellent blog biblicalia comes this story from the desert fathers:

Abba Petros of Abba Lot said that "Once when we were in the cell of Abba Agathon, a brother came to him, saying, 'I want to dwell with the brothers. Tell me how I shall dwell with them.' The elder said to him, 'As in your first day of entering in among them, so guard your solitude, so that you will not become familiar with them. ' Abba Makarios said to him, 'For what does familiarity do?' The elder said to him, 'Familiarity is like a great burning wind, which when it happens, all flee from before it, and it destroys the fruits of the trees.' Abba Makarios said to him, 'Is familiarity so grievous?' And Abba Agathon said, 'There is no passion worse than familiarity, for it is the mother of all the passions. It is proper for the worker not to be familiar, even if he is alone in the cell. For I know a brother who spent time dwelling in the cell, possessing a small bed, who said that, I would have moved on from the cell, not knowing about the little bed, if others had not told me (about it). A worker such as this is also a warrior.'"
The longer I am a priest, the more I appreciate how a priest needs to be a man apart, but not necessarily in the sense of being aloof, distant, cold or even very formal. Rather the priest, I think, needs to avoid what the fathers above refer to as "familiarity," or attachment.

At its core cultivating a lack of familiarity means cultivating a spirit of hospitality and respect for the freedom of others--and really all creation. We can God perfect because He never changes. Creation too is perfect--or at least can be perfect--but the perfection of creation is its dynamism. I think it is St Gregory Nyssa, or maybe Nazianus (I always mix them up!) tells us that we are most like the God Who changes not only when we change.

Human beings, from the first moments of our life, are dynamic, growing, developing creatures. It is this dynamism that most clearly expresses the unchanging perfection of God. Like facets of a jewel, the dynamism of the human reflects continually the Divine Glory.

But familiarity works against the dynamism of creation.

Because of sin, there is something in us that wants today to look like yesterday and tomorrow to look like today. In the service of this static continuity we are willing to commit any injustice or act of violence. I do not want people, creation, myself, to change. Because sin is rebellion against God, sin in me causes me to hate that which in me, in my neighbor, and in creation is most like God: our shared dynamism.

When I cultivate a lack of familiarity, I cultivate a willingness to let be the dynamic impulse of creation. Overtime this passive allowing to be becomes an active cooperation on my part with the dynamism of creation. It is worth noting at this point that in the Divine Liturgy we pray of a life "of peace and repentance." We ask God to bring us to a sense of acceptance and gratitude for our need to always be starting again, to always transcend the limits of our life, to dive every deeper into the mystery of creation, redemption and deification of creation and our own lives.

On Sunday (8 July), I had the great joy of serving Clement and Sara's wedding, two lovely young people who I got to watch met and fall in love. If change was fundamentally a bad thing, if creation was not dynamic, if human perfection was not found in growth and development, well, then Clement and Sara's meeting, courting, falling in love and wedding would have represented a most unspeakable evil. After all whatever else might be true about them is that, thanks to coming to know each other, they have changed; they are not the persons "today" that they were "yesterday," and whoever they will be "tomorrow," well, that too will be a markedly different.

Unlike the ancient Greeks, Christians do not see the dynamism of creation as decay, but as a share in divine life. If at times change is painful, if at times I experience change as decay, this is a consequence both of the inheritance of Adam's sin and my willingness to ratify in my own life his rebellion.

But if I lay aside this rebellion, if I lay aside my desire to say to God, "I know how You ought to have made this or that person or thing," then I can embrace change. But again, this is only possible if I refuse familiarity, if I refuse the impulse to demand and enforce a static form on creation.

Back to the priesthood...

Because creation is dynamic, because human life is more a matter of becoming then being, as a priest I need to serve that process of unfolding and change in the lives of the people God has entrusted to my care. One of my greatest joys as a priest is watching someone reach a point where they no longer need me--where they become able to strike out on their own because they have discovered what it is that God would have for them. My vocation as a priest is in this sense is to be always willing to say good bye. Familiarity, as the desert fathers use that term, works against saying good bye.

The cost of this of course is a bit of loneliness, a wistful nostalgia, of missing people and places. That's alright though, since of course these people and places were never mine to begin with--and they only way I can keep them from changing, from being different, is if I kill them, and that's just wrong.

St Clement of Alexandria writes some where: "The Lord has turned all our sunsets into sunrise." To which G. K Chesterton adds in his delightful book Orthodoxy:
Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical ENCORE. Heaven may ENCORE the bird who laid an egg. If the human being conceives and brings forth a human child instead of bringing forth a fish, or a bat, or a griffin, the reason may not be that we are fixed in an animal fate without life or purpose. It may be that our little tragedy has touched the gods, that they admire it from their starry galleries, and that at the end of every human drama man is called again and again before the curtain. Repetition may go on for millions of years, by mere choice, and at any instant it may stop. Man may stand on the earth generation after generation, and yet each birth be his positively last appearance.

So the paradox, it is only our dynamism, only our vitality, that can give us the certitude and security we crave. We can only come to rest, to a life of peace, by embracing that life, it is our constant changing that, in the end, makes us changeless like the God in Whose image and likeness we are created.

And it is this grace paradox in the life of all that, as I priest, I realize I am called to serve.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Friday, July 06, 2007

Technical Note

Dear Friends,

You will notice at the bottom of each post the following:

Email this • Share on Facebook • Discuss on Newsvine • Sphere: Related Content

These links allow you my dear readers to forward to others anything of interest on my blog to your friends. As I am trying to build my blog's readership, I would appreciate your taking a moment or two to forward my material to any place you see fit.

Thank you!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

It's Deja Vu All Over Again!

While the content is certainly different (acceptance of terrorism by some Muslims vs. the acceptance of unevangelized Christians in the Church), the underlying psychological and social dynamic that former Islamist radical Hassan Butt discusses in a recent article is instructive for those of us who see a need for renewal in the Church (with a hat tip to Rod Dreher, the Crunchy Con).

I have copied below some of Butt's essay with my emphasis in bold and my comments in red"

But the main reason why radicals have managed to increase their following is because most Islamic institutions in Britain just don't want to talk about theology (even as many Orthodox parishes do not wish to speak about personal commitment to Christ as the necessary first step to active life in the Church). They refuse to broach the difficult and often complex topic of violence within Islam (or in our case repentance and conversion) and instead repeat the mantra that Islam is peace (or that Orthodoxy is the True Church), focus on Islam as personal (or ethnic), and hope that all of this debate will go away (and that somehow, our parish will grow and our young people will remain Orthodox).

This has left the territory of ideas open for radicals (or in our case, the indifferent) to claim as their own. I should know because, as a former extremist recruiter, every time mosque authorities banned us from their grounds, it felt like a moral and religious victory.
. . .

However, it isn't enough for Muslims to say that because they feel at home in Britain (or to "Americanize" the Church or increasing the number or monasteries, or whatever we say rather then face our shortcomings) they can simply ignore those passages of the Koran which instruct on killing unbelievers (or to "repent and believe" and to "preach to all the nations"). By refusing to challenge centuries-old theological arguments (or spiritual apathy among Christians), the tensions between Islamic theology and the modern world grow larger every day. (Or in our case, the Church will grow smaller and weaker everyday).

I'm not suggesting that the Orthodox Church is a terrorist organization. Nor am I suggesting that all Muslims are terrorists. But what I am saying is that spiritual apathy breeds violence--sometimes physical, but always spiritual.

When we fail to take the Gospel seriously, when we fail to take seriously our own needs to leave everything and follow Jesus Christ, when we fail to take seriously that as the People of God we

are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10 who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy (1 Peter 2:9-10).
we do something infinitely worse then what any terrorist can do: We leave Christ stillborn in the hearts of our brothers and sisters in Christ. This I would suggest is where Christians are called to fight the real war on terrorism, to help Christ be born first in each Christian heart, and then in each human heart.

So how are we to do? I leave the last word to Butt:

I believe that the issue of terrorism (or in the case of the Church, discipleship and spiritual formation of the laity as the foundation of the Church's ministry) can be easily demystified if Muslims and non-Muslims start openly to discuss the ideas that fuel terrorism (or fuel the acceptance among Christians of spiritual indifference as the norm). (The Muslim community in Britain must slap itself awake (even as the Orthodox Christian community must do as well) from this state of denial and realise there is no shame in admitting the extremism (or spiritual indifferent Christians) within our families, communities and worldwide co-religionists.) However, demystification will not be achieved if the only bridges of engagement that are formed are between the [British jihadi network] and the security services.

And here I am stymied--who among us will be the bridge people?

I guess all we can any of us do is respond as did Isaiah the Prophet and leave the rest to God:

I heard the voice of the Lord, saying:

" Whom shall I send,
And who will go for Us?"

Then I said, "Here am I! Send me." (Isaiah 6:8)
So, here I am Lord, send me.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Faith & Reason

An interesting observation by Fr John Richard Neuhaus. His argument, in a nutshell, is that "Christian faith is informed by and vulnerable to a universal reason." He writes:

Is it possible that the claims of the Christians or of the atheists could be falsified? [Stanley] Fish answers: “As it is usually posed, the question imagines disconfirming evidence coming from outside the faith, be it science or religion. But a system of assumptions and protocols (and that is what a faith is) will recognize only evidence internal to its basic presuppositions. Asking that religious faith consider itself falsified by empirical evidence is as foolish as asking that natural selection tremble before the assertion of deity and design. Falsification, if it occurs, always occurs from the inside.” The difference between Dawkins and Saint Paul, says Fish, is that they are each enmeshed in different “structures” of reason and faith that “speak to different needs and different purposes.”

Not quite. In fact, not at all. The reasons that Christians give for their faith are not an inside job, so to speak. See, for instance, 1 Corinthians 15: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” That is a “structure of reason” shared with Dawkins et al., and indeed with all reasonable people.

Christians can imagine the hypothetical possibility that the remains of the physical body of Jesus of Nazareth will be found buried in the Holy Land and scientifically identified beyond reasonable doubt, with foundation-shaking consequences for Christian faith. That is because Christian faith is informed by and vulnerable to a universal reason that Fish refuses to acknowledge. (Impressive statements of the convincing case for the physical resurrection of Jesus are Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Jesus—God and Man and, more recently, N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God.)

This is a claim that many Orthodox Christians unwisely reject out of hand. I say unwisely not because I think faith arise simply and without qualification from human reason, but because the lack of appreciation for the reasonable
character of the Gospel lends itself to a sectarian view of faith that says (in effect) the Gospel is only for "us," whoever "us" might be. While reason alone cannot validate the Gospel, when Orthodox Christians reject that
reason can know, at least in part, the Gospel we deny those outside the Church any understanding of Christ's message. After all we are told by the Apostle Peter:

And who is he who will harm you if you become followers of what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you are blessed. “And do not be afraid of their threats, nor be troubled.” But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear; having a good conscience, that when they defame you as evildoers, those who revile your good conduct in Christ may be ashamed. For it is better, if it is the will of God, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil (1 Peter 3.13-17)

I think we hold this unappreciative view of human reason less from a respect for revelation (indeed we can only hold it if we reject revelation) and more from an unwillingness to subject ourselves to criticism. If my faith is divorced from universal reason, or can only be understood from "the inside," then I can (and will) easily dismiss critics who simply "don't get it."

More importantly though, if faith and reason are divorced--if faith owes nothing to reason, and reason to faith--then the evangelistic work of the Church comes to a halt. The outside will remain outside failing some miracle of grace quite separate from the Church's preaching. But if this is really the case, why preach? And for that matter, why even hold to the notion that salvation is synergisitic? If there is no active role for human reason, why do we we say that there is a role for the human body?

"That which is not assumed," St Ireneaus argues, "is not saved." If there is no role for reason, then a key element of the human person is not redeemed.

Anyway, to read more of Fr. Neuhaus essay: FIRST THINGS: Stanley Fish’s Take on Richard Dawkins & Co.-with Unhappy Consequences for Reason.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

East and West

From the delightful blog "Shrine of the Holy Whapping":

Benedict XVI received in audience Patriarch Chrysostomos II of Cyprus. Chrysostomos requested a papal visit to Cyprus, as part of a coordinated effort of the European Churches to counter the growing secularism of Europe:

Your Holiness,

We ask your support through the invincible weapons of brotherly prayer, but also through your fatherly cry for the defense of the inalienable rights of the Ancient and Apostolic Sister Church of Cyprus, this crossroads of peoples, religions, languages and civilizations of the Mediterranean and Middle East.

We want you beside us! Through us the Holy Apostle Barnabas invites his elder brother, the Blessed Apostle Peter, to make a first Visit to his humble home and to receive hospitality in it, to feel as though it were his own home and to bless it!

We await you, Your Holiness, as Bishop of the Roman See which presides in charity, in the Cyprus of dialogue, democracy, dignity, faith, monasticism, hospitality, monuments and works of art! May you deign to come to us and give us the opportunity to reciprocate your fraternal hospitality during these splendid days that we have spent in the Eternal City!

The Patriarch shares much of Benedict's ecclesiology, and his full response (available at is very optimistic about the eventual reunion of Orthodox and Catholic Churches--though also realistic, recognizing that he himself will likely not live to see that day.

A Life No Longer Shameful: Genesis 3.8-24

Shame is a universal human experience. Psychologically, shame is the experience of being vulnerable, unable to protect ourselves in a hostile world. To understand what shame means for our spiritual life, we can turn to Genesis where we read the following:

And they heard the voice of the LORD God, walking in the garden in the cool of the day. And Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden. And the LORD God called unto Adam and said unto him, "Where art thou?" And he said, "I heard Thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself (3.8-11).
Shame in biblical anthropology is the experience not of being naked, but of the fear of one's nakedness of being vulnerable. This fear flows from my disobedience to God and causes me to lose the experience my own humanity and dependency on God and my neighbor as a good and even joyous thing.

Ironically, it is precisely my dependency on others that brings me this experience of shame. Again, as we read in Genesis:

And He said, "Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?" And the man said, "The woman whom Thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate."And the LORD God said unto the woman, "What is this that thou hast done?" And the woman said, "The serpent beguiled me, and I ate." (vv.11-13)
As the text suggests, once we cease to care one for another, once we fail to actively seek th good of our neighbor, everything begins to break down--a cascade of failure, degradation, corruption and shame flows naturally from our disobedience and indifference to the commandments of God and the good of our neighbor. Again, from Genesis:

And the LORD God said unto the serpent, "Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field. Upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life. And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her Seed; It shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise His heel." Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return (vv. 14-19) .
The serpent loses his ability to walk up right; the woman becomes subject to the man and only fulfills her maternal nature through submission and pain; the man's stewardship of creation is rob of joy and becomes a painful labor; creation itself becomes disordered and divested of its original beauty.

And death and reigns where once life and glory held sway.

And yet, all is not lost. There is still the possibility for renew, for forgiveness and starting anew:

And Adam called his wife's name Eve; because she was the mother of all living. Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them. And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life (vv. 20-24).
Though we are no longer clothed in divine glory, but in mortality ("coats of skin") and have been expelled from Eden, the First Eve becomes the mother of the Second Eve how will herself give birth to the Christ. From Eve until the birth of the Theotokos, each new conception represent the renewal of hope--that now, this time, our Redeemer will come to us. And not only is this hope if fulled in the Incarnation, each new birth since then is a reminder of the fulfillment of humanity's hope in Jesus Christ. Before Christ each new human life hinted at redemption; maybe this time our Redeemer will come.

And after Christ, each human life embodies the real opportunity for the human family to shake off a bit more of the "coats of skin." Each new human life represent the real opportunity for humanity, in this or that person, to clothe ourselves anew in divine glory through baptism and the sacraments.

Our great inheritance as Christians is this: To us has been entrusted the liberation of all humanity from a life ruled by fear and shame. This is at the heart of the Gospel we preach; this is the Gospel that we are called to testify to not simply in words, but through the integrity of our lives personal and ecclesiastical--in our daily lives as individual Christians, in our families, in our parishes and as the Church. Though this world, and the princes of this world, rule by fear and shame, we live and serve by love and glory and beauty and peace having been freed from fear and shame by our cooperation with divine grace.

In her blog The Dawn Patrol, Dawn Eden offers a lovely meditation on just this theme. She writes:

One of my favorite prayers is the Anima Christi, "Soul of Christ," which dates from the 14th century.

The Anima Christi is a series of petitions that begins, "Soul of Christ, sanctify me. Body of Christ, save me. ..."

A few lines further and the petitioner is hit with a strange and mysterious verse: "Within Thy wounds, hide me." The original Latin is more evocative: "Intra tua vulnera absconde me." Vulnera, the root of vulnerability. We are asking Jesus to hide us in the wounds caused by His consenting to suffer for our sake.

As a single, childless woman who desires to be married and a mother, my temptation is to focus on feeling the sense of lack in my life. When I allow myself to feel that lack, it feels as though I am carrying around a great void within my heart that has never been filled and, for all I know, may never be filled. The void resembles a gaping spiritual wound.

Jesus has wounds too — but the voids in his body are not because He was never full, but because He emptied himself. For me and for you.

If I am carrying around a big void, I can't hide in Jesus' wounds. I'm too big. He has room for the entire world, but not for those who insist on taking emotional baggage with them — let alone one who's toting an outsized storage cabin "TO THE UNKNOWN HUSBAND."

At some point, difficult though it is, in response to Christ's invitation I need to lay aside, at least for the moment, my own fear and shame and see myself as He sees me. This, in a nutshell, is what happens when I go to confession--I realize that even in the midst of my shame and sinfulness, I am loved by Christ; even while I crucify Him, He forgives me and intercedes on my behalf to the Father. At some point, I need to not allow fear and shame to be the dominate notes in how I see myself, my neighbor and my God.

The great challenge that the Orthodox Church faces in America is that we are here and for the first time in centuries, free not only from Caesar's persecution but also his support (which the finally analysis is even more deadly then his torturers and prisons). Can we now really live in freedom--can we live in gratitude for the gifts Christ has given us not only in Holy Tradition, but in each of our neighbor.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Thursday, July 05, 2007

What's My Blog Rated?

Oh my, I guess I better clean up my blog!

Online Dating

Actually, if you think about it, how can we discuss the particulars of the Christian life and keep a G-rating? Why this rating? According to (who rate blogs as a marketing tool for a free online dating service):

"This rating was determined based on the presence of the following words:
* pain (4x)
* sex (2x)
* hell (1x)"
Who would of guessed?

My thanks to and a hat tip to Alice C. Linsley of Just Genesis (whose blog is rated G by the way).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Thoughts on Yogi Bear

No doubt it is the psychologist in me, but I am always a least a wee bit suspicious when someone has "special rules" that only work in one area of life. For example, in families in which one ore more members are alcoholics, there are specific (if unspoken) rules about what families are allowed to speak about. More importantly, there are topics ("Mom's" or "Dad's" drinking) that are never discussed--or at least never discussed without risking one's place in the family.

Special rules tell me that in these circumstances I am no longer an ordinary human being--I'm better or my job is more important. Like Yogi Bear I can steal "pic-a-nic baskets" because, well, "I'm smarter than the average bear!" In other words, special roles reflect pride and the common human tendency to self-aggrandizement.

So what has this to do with the spiritual life?

St Maximos the Confessor reminds his monastic readers that they must not prefer one person to another based on virtue or its absence. We must love the good man as a friend he says, and the evil man "as an enemy and by this hopefully win him over as a friend." Concretely, Maximos says this means we must be willing to care for the bodily needs of others regardless of their character. To fail to do so means that we have "divided human nature."

Often we apply special rules to the spiritual life that simply don't work in any other area of human life. Take for example our need to be intentional in our Christian discipleship.
And yet, we are content to let people participate in the life and work of the Church who have no relationship with Jesus Christ, who's presence in the Church--and at the chalice--is was never chosen, but is merely assumed.

For too many Orthodox Christians faith is rarely chosen, but only assumed as part of a more general commitment to family or culture. If this isn't sufficient for marriage, or child rearing, or career, why do we think it is sufficient for our commitment to Christ?

We all understand that we don't, or at least shouldn't, simply simply drift into a marriage because it is just easier to go with the flow. Likewise, we wouldn't, or shouldn't, pick our spouse simply to keep peace in the family? Can we imagine someone saying to us, "I want to marry you not out of love, but to please my grandparents?" Can we imagine a husband turning to his wife (or wife to her husband) and saying "I don't really need to know you, to be intimate with you, it is enough that other people in my family have always had good marriages in the past."

Rightly we would say that this kind of decision making is simply absurd and reflect a rather toxic mix of immaturity and pride.

When I think that I don't need to make a conscious decision for Christ and the Gospel, I am saying that I ams simply too important to ask to be admitted into a relationship with Jesus Christ. It is a rather curious kind of pride that simply assumes I'm in a relationship with Christ because of who I am, or what I've accomplished, or where my family came from. Again, apply it to marriage. Imagine a man saying to a woman: "Of course you'll marry me, my momma expects you to do so. Beside, we're an old and important family."

Just ain't goin' happen.

Look the bottom line is this: If I have not chosen to follow Christ, then I simply am not anything other than a nominal Christian. Unless I have decided to follow Jesus, my faith is faith in name only.

But a nominal faith is not a saving faith, it is not a sufficient faith and it will not transform me. This doesn't mean that God will not work through me--it just means that the works that God does through me will stand in judgment of me in the life to come.

While faith and vocation are not the products of human intellect and will, they are still acts of intellect and will. Faith is a gift that needs to be received and acted upon--it simply can't be assumed. If I have not chosen to follow Christ, then I'm not following Him.

It is time to follow.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory