Friday, December 30, 2011

Super Max Visit

What do you talk about for six hours with a man in solitary confinement?Yesterday Bonnie and I visited Monk Anthony at the Super Maximum Security Penitentiary in Florence, Colorado. Monk Anthony is 45 years old; he went into prison when he was 23 and has spent most of that time in solitary confinement. There is a good chance that he will spend most of the rest of his life in solitary confinement. Bonnie and I began corresponding with Rodney (before he became Monk Anthony) about fifteen years ago. At that time Rodney had begun painting Icons in his cell using his hair as a brush and pigments made from his meal tray: mustard for yellow, ketchup for red, coffee for brown , etc. Fr. Dwane, the head of the Antiochian Orthodox Prison Ministry asked Bonnie if she would begin corresponding with soon-to-become Monk Anthony to teach him the basics of Byzantine Iconography. Shortly after we began corresponding, Rodney was tonsured a monk while still in prison by His Eminence Isaiah, the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Dallas. He was the first person ever to be tonsured in prison in the U.S. Over the years we have shared our lives with each other: the marriage of our children, the death of his mother, our struggles in a small Orthodox mission church, his struggle to love the men who want to kill him. That's right, kill him. For several years there has been a contract on his life by the Arian Brotherhood (a white prison gang) because Monk Anthony is kind and "talks to" blacks, Moslems and Jews. Of course there is very little talking in solitary as we on the outside know it, but there are ways: sign language, tapping code, talking through plumbing and venting, and shouting to other cages when out for 30 minutes of "exercise" three times a week (assuming good behavior--yours and others--and good weather). You have to shout in the cages because the concrete walls are ten feet high covered with chain link fencing: you can't see who is in the other cages.This was Monk Anthony's main concern when we spoke yesterday. Last week in the cages a prisoner in the next cage kept saying that he didn't know how and didn't know when, but one day he would kill him. Monk Anthony wasn't bothered by the fact that these men want to kill him; he was bothered that it was hard for him to find the same love in his heart for these men as he could find in his heart for others. He wanted me to help him. "How do you love everyone like Christ asks us to do?"Just to be with him (on the other side of poly glass and through a fuzzy speaker phone) I felt like a liar. I am a priest. It is my job to help others grow in Christ. I had to say something to encourage him. I struggle to love rude drivers and unhelpful clerks. What do I have to say about loving those who want to kill you because you are too kind to blacks, Moslems and Jews? I shared what came to my mind knowing that I was speaking pure conjecture, not from experience as the Fathers exhort, and hoping that somehow the Holy Spirit would use the fuzzy speak phone to morph it into what he needed to hear. We also talked about food. It's one of the only bits of variation in his life: the guards had given the prisoners "Christmas bags" of candy and crackers and fruit juice boxes. Monk Anthony's favorite was the Cheese Its. We talked about crocheting and the sweater he had made for our little rat terrier. We talked about the technique of making prayer ropes and put in our order for the upcoming year. He particularly likes making prayer ropes. He can pray and make knots and "the time flies by." Bonnie and he spoke for at least an hour on the finer points of iconography. And we stopped at intervals to pray first, third, sixth and ninth hours together.We had to pray ninth hour early, so that we would not be interrupted when the guards came. After nineth hour, Bonnie and Monk Anthony were having a lively conversation about the best possible pattern to crochet a tea cozy when the guards came to the steel door behind Monk Anthony. He stood and put his hands behind his back and out the slot in the door so that the guards could handcuff him before they opened the door. Monk Anthony winked at us. I blessed him with the sign of the cross. And he was gone. Bonnie started "leaking." I was lost in thought. Two guards came and escorted us back up the two or three flights of stairs and out of the maze of steel doors to the reception area. We could go home. No one wanted to kill us.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Jesus Prayer and Desperation

At the monastery I visit, the brothers have a rule that includes one hour of saying the Jesus Prayer while doing nothing else.  Of course they strive to pray at all times, but for at least one hour each day each monk stands before the icons in his cell and says the Jesus Prayer.
When I visit the monastery, I also try to practice this rule.  (Gentle snickers are appropriate at this point.) I admit that I have experienced very brief moments of something that smells like a cousin to transcendence, but mostly it is a battle of self discipline that I lose several times within the hour until I finally give up and sit on the edge of my bench-like bed telling God I'm sorry for the last ten or fifteen minutes. There doesn't seem to be any energy to pray that I have learned to tap into. 
However, when I am on vacation or at a conference, I experience something very different.  I take long walks when I am away from home; and when I do, I say the Jesus Prayer.  Although I still do not experience consistency in my prayer, I do experience something else.  I experience a kind of desperation that becomes a fervent energy to pray.  
When I'm at home (and certainly at the monastery), the temptations I experience are usually of a subtle nature.  I don't recognize a train of thought as dangerous right away.  However walking the shopping district of Boulder, Colorado, or downtown Chicago, or any city center, I am immediately bombarded with multiple easily-recognizable deadly tempting thoughts. Fear caused by  such thoughts so easily gaining traction in my mind and producing almost immediate passionate responses in me creates a desperation that in turn energizes prayer.  I find myself internally shouting the Jesus Prayer as I walk as fast as I can.
In my experience, desperation is a key.  I think that if I more carefully paid attention to my inner life, I would probably recognize the danger of subtle thoughts sooner.  And in turn, I would probably find energy to cry out to God for help in contexts that are actually conducive to Communion--like my own office at home or in my cell at the monastery.  Baby steps, baby steps, baby steps.  Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.
May God grant us all something like desperate prayer, that even in the quietness of our own prayer corners, our hearts would shout out fervently for mercy.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Happy Weakness

King Uzziah of Judah is, I think, most famous for his death, or the year of his death.  The Prophet Isaiah in the year of King Uzziah’s death had his famous vision of the Lord, highly exalted and sitting on a throne surrounded by cherubim with six wings (“with two they cover their feet, and with two they cover their face, and with two they fly”), who cried out ceaselessly, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” 
King Uzziah was a good king of Judah, one who “did what was right in the sight of the Lord.”  A particularly intriguing verse in the story of his early life says that “he loved the soil.”  King Uzziah devoted many public works to improving the land: digging wells in the desert and planting vineyards in the mountains.  
I think when my wife dies, she will be remembered as one who loved the soil.  I’ll be remembered as one who loved his wife and so helped with the soil.
It says of King Uzziah that he was “marvelously” helped by the Lord, until he became strong.  When he became strong, it says that “his heart became proud to his own destruction.”  In his pride, King Uzziah entered the temple of God to offer incense, which only a priest should do; and when he resisted the remonstrance of the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead.  He spent the rest of his long life living in a separate house, apart from his family and his people.
Isn’t that the way it is?  Isn’t that the fruit of pride: separation from those you love and those who love you?
When we are weak, God’s help in our life is “marvelous.”  The most dangerous position is one of strength, in war, in argument, in religion, in business, in anything.  The strong are preparing for a fall.  The weak are hoping in God.  Perhaps that’s why the psalmist continually reminds God and himself (which, in prayer, is the same thing) that he is poor and needy.  
And really, any illusion of strength or of being right or of having it under control is really just that: an illusion.  But illusions are so appealing, all gain and no pain.  
Nevertheless, pain is necessary.  It’s the reality check.  It reminds us that we are dependent, that we are weak, that we have nothing to feel triumphant about over against our brother or sister--no matter how right we seem and how wrong they seem to be.
Oh the happiness of weakness, of loving the soil (or loving someone who loves the soil) and of watching God act marvelously in our lives.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Slipping Out Of The Grace Of God

Pippi posted a comment on my entry entitled Righteousness, and asked if "it is possible for one to slip out of the grace of God."  To answer this question, we have to carefully look at what we mean when we say "grace of God."  For many western Christians, the expression "grace of God" is used as a kind of synonym for salvation--salvation defined as going to heaven when you die.  Within this paradigm, Roman Catholics and Protestants have many theories as to how one is saved by the grace of God, and most pivot on the question of will: divine or human.  That is, is one saved by God's will (so that the human will has no role) or is one saved by one's choosing to be saved?  Of course the arguments become quite convoluted because if one is saved by God's will, then the fact that a particular person wants to be saved is because God willed it that way.  And if one is saved by choosing to follow Christ, then (to get back to Pippi's question) one can lose salvation by ceasing to follow Christ: can one "slip out of" the grace of God. 

In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, human beings are always understood as free creatures.  But freedom does not mean independence.  All created things are dependent on the grace of God at all times.  There is no existence apart from the grace of God, so it is indeed impossible to slip out of the grace of God, in one sense.  In another sense, human freedom is such that God has given us the power to say "no" to Him.  Still dependent on the grace of God on one level, human beings have the ability to reject the grace of God on another level.  

Further, there is an experience often called the "withdrawal" of the grace of God testified to by many saints.  This refers to an experience in which the manifest grace of God (the grace of God that one can experience and know) is (or seems to be) removed.  This experience of the withdrawal of the grace of God is sometimes (but indeed not always) associated with a particular sin that seems to be the "cause" of the withdrawal of grace.  However, the remedy for this condition is not merely repentance of a particular sin (if a particular sin is known, which is often not the case).  The manifest grace of God returns only as one seeks God Himself, by faith, even when nothing at all is felt.

Salvation, as usually conceived in the Eastern Orthodox Church, is the restoration of the fallen image of God in the human being.  From an Orthodox perspective this restoration requires the will of both God and man.  It requires the work of both wills, the effort (or energy) of both.  In the Orthodox Church we will often say that salvation is a matter of synergy (working together).  Therefore, one cannot "slip" out of the grace of God, but one can nonetheless resist the grace of God--and God will allow you to do it.  Salvation is a work of cooperation, a work of transfiguration that requires human desire, will, and participation.  However, it is also a free gift, a miraculous work of God in our lives.  It is a work of God that you have to accept, have to want, and have to cooperate with.

Salvation, for the Orthodox, is a process.  It is not a decision by either God or a human being that settles the matter in a moment.  It is a decision by both God and a human being that the human being must continue to make.  God does not change.  God wills, according to scripture and the teaching of the Orthodox Church, that all be saved.  God's decision never changes.  We are the fickle ones.  Like children, we want to work with Dad in the shop--until we learn that Dad's work requires discipline, patience and self control.  We want to be saved, we want to be like God (restored to the image of God that was undistorted in creation) until we realize that salvation means that we have to change.  We have to become ourselves, we have to grow up, we have to shed childish ways to grow up into Christ.

And so our journey of salvation is seasonal.  We draw near, we draw back.  We are excited by the touch of God's manifest grace, we draw back because we fear change.  We want to be mature in Christ, yet we don't want to control our minds and bodies.  And God is merciful.  God is patient.  God as the loving Father lets us back into the shop to learn a little more, to try again, and does not hold on to us when we begin to resist.  But His word is in our heart.  Even when we are (or seem to be) far away, we feel a tug, we hear a gentle calling back, we have an unsatisfied longing.  Prodigals are we all.  The journey home is always longer and harder than we expect, but not nearly so long and hard as we deserve.  And even before we reach home, our Father is running out to meet us.

Thursday, December 08, 2011


This morning I read about King Rehoboam, the son of Solomon.  I feel sorry for Rehoboam.  He had a very tough act to follow.  Imagine being the son of King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived and the richest man of his age.  Imagine inheriting an empire that took a genius to build.  Imagine the pressure.  
Imagine also growing up knowing nothing but extravagant wealth and privilege:  The household utensils, we are told, were all of gold--silver being common.
Rehoboam didn’t have a chance.  
At the beginning of his reign we hear about his fatal decision to ignore the counsel of his father’s advisors and to follow the advice of his peers.  Really, what else do you expect him to do?  He had probably spent all of his time growing up with peers--his teachers would have been from a class far below him--probably slaves.  His father and his father’s counselors had a kingdom to build.  They didn’t have time to build a relationship with the up-and-coming generation.  Rehoboam knew his peers, so of course he trusted them.
However, at the end of Rehoboam’s reign we learn something about him that, I think, helps us understand his failure a little more deeply.  After all, Solomon was raised with wealth and privilege and he began his reign by calling on the Lord for wisdom.  Just about everyone knows of people who have had all of the spiritual “advantages” as a child, and yet have made a wreck of their lives; and we also know of others who from the gutter have come to have relatively healthy lives rooted firmly in Christ.  Human life is far too complicated to apply determinism to any aspect of it.  Nevertheless, some knots are easier to untie than others--assuming you want to untie the knot.
And this is the issue for Rehoboam.  We read the following commentary made at the end of his life, “And he did evil because he did not direct his heart to seek the Lord” (2 Chron. 12:14).
I find it interesting that it does not say that he did evil because he sought evil or did not seek good.  It says that he did evil because he did not set his heart to seek the Lord.  What it looks like when one sets one’s heart to seek the Lord, how such a set heart would be manifest in words and actions, I think, varies by culture, generation and person.  There is no way to judge another in this matter.  We can only reflect: Do I set my heart to seek the Lord?
The story of Rehoboam is, however, not all bad news.  After losing almost all of his father’s wealth (having been plundered by the Egyptians), Rehoboam repents and “the Lord does not destroy him completely” (12:12).  The theme of the Prodigal Son here is too obvious to ignore.  God always receives the repentant, even at the eleventh hour.  Really, all that is lost is prestige, power and wealth--nothing of any value in the age to come.  However, and this brings me back to why I feel sorry for Rehoboam, repentance at the eleventh hour is brought about by the hell of the first ten hours.  
Those of us who live in relative wealth and privilege, and that probably includes everyone who reads this, might learn a lesson from the life of Rehoboam.  It doesn’t take intention to do evil, to do evil.  All it takes is a heart that is not directed to seek the Lord.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Love Wins by Rob Bell

I don’t normally read popular Protestant books. However, several of my Protestant friends have read and been disturbed/intrigued by Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. Some have said that it reminds them of some of what they have heard about Orthodox Christian understandings of heaven and hell.
To set the record straight from the beginning, I have to say that there is not a well-defined Orthodox Christian understanding of heaven and hell: except that there is heaven and hell. Various Fathers of the Church have talked about heaven and hell in different ways, in different contexts and for different purposes. The reason why a firm dogma on heaven and hell is impossible is that heaven and hell are realities of another age, an age that has already begun and is also not yet. In his book, Rob Bell does a good job of discussing this problem of ages.
In the Bible, the word aion (age) is often translated “eternal.” This leads to a common misunderstanding that “eternal life” and “eternal judgement” are references to life or judgment that does not end--in the sense that there is no change, day after day after day, forever. Here “eternal” is misunderstood as an adjective describing duration. However, aion refers rather to another age. Eternal life and eternal judgement are the life and judgement of the age to come, the age of the Kingdom of God. You might even say that “eternal” is a quality word, not a quantity word. Eternal life refers to a quality of life, a kind of life--the life of the age to come--not to an unending continuance of life as it is commonly known.
Rob also does an excellent job of pointing out that this life of the age to come is not something that begins after one dies; rather, it began at the Cross (I would say at the Incarnation). All human beings are called to enter eternal life now. Similarly, the torment of hell is not something postponed until the afterlife. Torment and the judgement of the age to come begins now. Every person who continues to despise and abuse his or her neighbor is already building a “great gulf” (c.f. Luke 16:26) and is already beginning to experience a burning torment, although drugs from adrenaline to alcohol and from endorphins to heroin, along with unending distraction, keep us from noticing it too much--until the drugs and distractions are taken away.
Another excellent point Rob makes is that not everyone who is saved by Jesus Christ, knows that it is Jesus Christ. The image and name of Jesus have been so terribly distorted by those who wish to justify their own perversions that some people may be honored by Jesus Christ for rejecting the Jesus Christ their culture or experience presented to them. Wars are fought in Jesus’ name. Witches have been burned, Africans (and others) have been enslaved, girls have been raped (c.f. Mormon fundamentalism), and children have been mercilessly beaten all in Jesus name. Truly some Jesuses must be adamantly rejected as false.
In Love Wins, Rob takes his readers on a tour through some of the biblical passages that demonstrate that God’s ability to save is not limited to one specific way of “accepting Christ." And he points out that Christ is able to call everyone to salvation, even those who have never heard of Him, and even those who have heard of only a perverted version of Him.
What Rob doesn’t do well, in my opinion, is present the more challenging aspects of Christian life: what Orthodox Christians call asceticism. Using the parable of the Prodigal Son as a template, Rob spends the last couple of chapters of the book arguing that all that is necessary to “join the party” is to trust God’s version of the story of your life. It’s as if he skips the repentance part of the story of the prodigal and jumps right to the “let’s party” part. In Love Wins there seems to be no place for transformation, for disciplining our body to bring it into subjection (c.f.1 Cor. 9:27) or for obedience (e.g. Heb. 13:17).
To be fair, no book can cover everything. My criticism is merely what I think needs to be emphasized along with the rest. After all, a party at God’s house wouldn’t be much fun if you didn’t want to be with Him. Asceticism is teaching ourselves to enjoy being with God.
Nevertheless what I think Rob wanted to say, he says very well: salvation and heaven and hell are much broader concepts than many Protestants (and Roman Catholics and Orthodox, for that matter) imagined.

Animated Nativity Greeting

Bonnie's drawings were used by (a company that specializes in ancient and liturgical music) to make an animated Nativity greeting card.  I hope you enjoy it.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Romanian Hermits

I have pasted a video of hermit monks in Romania. It ends with an interview with a hermit. Would to God that we all had his zeal for prayer, love and humility.
It is in Romanian with subtitles. It is a little easier to follow with the sound off (unless you speak Romanian). The video is 10 minutes long.

Sunday, December 04, 2011


TeresaAngelina asked the following question:

Is there a danger, do you think, of our looking for confirmation in those whom we know will agree with us? And should this be a danger, how does one keep watch for it? From the examples given, it is not only from the clergy that we seek confirmation of our experiences (if we did, you'd all be a little exhausted) but from our trusted friends as well. Perhaps even a chance encounter with a stranger who loves God.

Dear TeresaAngelina,
Yes there is a danger that we might say that we are seeking confirmation when what we are really looking for is affirmation.  A reliable spiritual father or mother is someone who is willing to tell us the truth even if it will disappoint us.  And, of course, it is only experience that teaches us whether or not someone is reliable in this way.  

Yes, God can speak to us through anyone and anything--"The heavens declare the Glory of God."  But one must be very careful that he or she does not go "confirmation shopping."  The reason we need confirmation in the first place is that our own internal guidance system is broken.  If I have to rely on my own discernment to determine the reliability of a stranger's or friend's confirmation, then I have short-circuited the process.  It is still me doing all of the discerning.

Certainly clergy and monastics are not the only sources of reliable spiritual discernment--in fact, it is a mistake to trust the discernment of someone merely because he or she is clergy or monastic.  It is only in the context of a relationship over time that one can come to trust the reliability of someone's discernment.  

Having said that, I must also point out that sometimes the faith of the one seeking advice works in such a way that even an undiscerning priest or monastic or an apparently wise older person nonetheless speaks with great insight and truth.  However, a prerequisite to any confirmation of an inner experience or revelation at any time or from any one is that we hold it loosely and be ready to let it go.  

Unfortunately, we quickly become attached to our experiences; sometimes we even build an identity around them: "I have the gift of _________." or "God has told me _________." or "God is going to use me to ___________."  These are very dangerous thoughts.  Our salvation is in humility, not in building an identity.  Our only identity is to be hidden in Christ.  Our salvation is found in following the example of the Mother of God who, although she was Most Pure and had been ministered to by angels before, nevertheless went to her cousin for confirmation--who was much older than her and the wife of a high priest.

Sometimes we have to rely on writings because we seem to have no living person to turn to.  And it has been my experience that (1) God can indeed grant great consolation through the writings of the Fathers and Mothers of our faith, and (2) a word from a living, breathing father or mother is even more powerful.  But in every case, humility is called for.

Once I was speaking to my first spiritual "father" in the Orthodox Church--who was a spiritual mother, an abbess.  At one point she told me something that, on one level, I knew was true, but that on another level, I struggled with.  As soon as I brought up an objection, she said to me, "Well, I am probably wrong then."  She was not being facetious.  Her humility was such that she easily assumed that she was wrong. Immediately I had to tell her, "No, you are right.  I am just struggling."  

Humility is key.  

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Not Trusting Our Own Experience

Quoted below is a long paragraph from Elder Sophrony's book, His Life is Mine.  Because it is a little difficult to understand, I want to unpack it for you.

Elder Sophrony seems to be saying that in our longing for God, we may experience many kinds of consolation that cause us to feel the love and nearness of God; however, we must be careful not to trust in these experiences--our trust must be in God alone.  Even the Mother of God, Elder Sophrony points out, went to Elizabeth to have confirmed for her the message of the Archangel Gabriel and St. Paul, to whom Christ appeared, submitted his Gospel to the Church hierarchy in Jerusalem--twice. Self-confidence is the enemy of humility, and humility is the first rung on the ladder of divine ascent.

The soul knows but cannot contain Him, and therein lies her pain. Our days are filled with longing to penetrate into the Divine sphere with every fibre of our being. Our prayer must be ardent, and many-sided is the experience that may be given. In our hearts, subjectively, it would seem—to judge by the love whose touch we feel—that the experience cannot be open to doubt. But despite the all-embracing surge of this love, despite the light in which it appears, it would not only be wrong but dangerous to rely exclusively on it. From Sacred Writ we know that the most pure Virgin Mary hurried off to her cousin Elisabeth to hear from her lips whether the revelation was true that she had received—of a son to be born to her who should be great and should be called the Son of God the Highest; and whose kingdom should have no end (cf. Luke 1.32-33). St Paul, who ‘was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words’ (cf. 2 Cor. 12.4), affords another example. ‘It pleased God ... to reveal His Son in me’(Gal. 1.16); nevertheless, he went twice to Jerusalem to submit to Peter and others ‘which were of reputation’ (Gal. 2.1-2) the gospel he was preaching ‘lest by any means [he] should run, or had run in vain’ (Gal. 2.1-2). The history of the Church provides innumerable such instances, and thus we learn to ask those with more experience to judge whether our case is not merely imagination but grace proceeding from on High. We look for reliable witnesses who are to be found only in the Church whose age-old experience is immeasurably richer and more profound than our individual one. Such in the distant past were the apostles who bequeathed to us in gospel and epistle the knowledge which they had received direct from God. They were followed by a succession of fathers (doctors and ascetics) who handed down the centuries, above all, the spirit of life itself, often endorsing their testimony in writing. We believe that at any given historical moment it is possible to find living witnesses; to the end of time mankind will never be bereft of genuine gnosis concerning God. Only after authoritative confirmation may we trust our personal experience, and even then not to excess. Our spirit ought not to slacken in its impulse towards God. And at every step it is essential to remember that self-confident isolation is fraught with the possibility of transgressing against Truth. So we shall not cease to pray diligently to the Holy Spirit that He preserve our foot from the paths of untruth.

Thursday, December 01, 2011


Just as a mother sees a child reaching for a toy or a bottle and brings it into the child's reach, so God sees us striving for righteousness (which is out of our reach) and brings it near so that we can attain it.  This is Grace. But Grace does not come to those who do not want it. We tell God that we want Him and His righteousness by striving for it. And in striving we come to know experientially, not as a matter of theology, that righteousness is beyond our reach, and that righteousness is by Grace alone. Righteousness is not a juridical standing, it is the manifestation of God in our life. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Beatitudes and The Many Ways to be Saved in Christ

St. Isaac the Syrian:
"But lo, the majority of men do not attain to such innocency [purity of heart], yet we hope that for their good deeds a portion is reserved for them in the Kingdom of the Heavens.  This can be ascertained from the understanding of the Beatitudes of the Gospel, which He stated differently in order to make known to us the many variations in the diverse modes of life within these same Beatitudes.  For in all the measures of every way upon which each man journeys to Him, God opens before him the gate of the Kingdom of the Heavens."

One way to view the Beatitudes is as a ladder, a progression of spiritual growth.  However, St. Isaac points out that the Beatitudes may also be viewed as a list of ways, or examples of ways, the Holy Spirit works in Christ's many-membered body to save the whole.  "The majority" of us will strive our whole life, yet the circumstances of our life will preclude the attainment of great purity of mind and heart.  But St. Isaac says that from understanding the Beatitudes we know that within the blessing of the Kingdom of Heaven there are many modes.  Some may mourn while others hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Some may have a meek "mode of life," while others excel in peacemaking.  Of course these all together describe Christ, whose body we are.  

We need not despair when we see how spiritually poor we are, for the first Beatitude is for us:  Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Harsh Parables of Luke

“You fool, this night your soul will be required of you” (Luke 12:20). Of the four Gospel writers, Luke seems to present the parables of Jesus in the harshest light.  For example, Luke’s telling of the parable of the talents includes this grizzly note: the king has slain in his presence those who did not want him to rule over them.  Only Luke’s Gospel includes the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, in which we see the Rich Man tormented in flames. And only Luke has the parable of the Unjust Steward, in which Jesus praises a servant who cheats his master.  Similarly, only Luke includes the parable of the Prodigal Son.  When people speak of this parable, they almost always focus on the loving Father who awaits for the return of the son--they almost never point out that the same loving Father was the one who gave his son what he asked for and freely allowed him to embark on a life of debauchery ending in a pig sty.   “Loving Father” takes on more nuance in Luke’s Gospel.  Only Luke gives us the parable of the Good Samaritan and the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, both with their very low view of good, religious people.  Luke’s is a tough Gospel.
In the parable of Successful Farmer (Luke 12: 16-21), Jesus tells us about a prosperous farmer whose land produces so well that he has to tear down his barns and build bigger ones.  He says to himself, “You have many goods stored up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.”  It is at this point that God speaks to him: “You fool, this night your soul will be required of you.”  Then Jesus comments on the parable saying, “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”
Rich toward God?  How does one become rich toward God?  
I’d like to suggest that some of the other parables in Luke teach us how it is that we become rich toward God.  For example, in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus we learn that the reason why the Rich Man suffers in tormenting flames after he dies is that during his lifetime he had his good things while Lazarus, the poor man who begged at his gate, had evil things.  The good things the Rich Man had were his, he didn’t steal them; they were his to enjoy.  Yet at the same time, a beggar, Lazarus, had evil things.  The evil things are not identified as “his,” they were just evil experiences and circumstances that happened to fall upon him.  After both men die, we find out that Lazarus is comforted in the next life while the Rich Man suffers torment.  And the only explanation we are given for this state of affairs is that during his lifetime the Rich Man had his good things and Lazarus had evil things.  
It seems that what we do with our own things in this life has a huge impact on the next.
The parable of the Unjust Steward (whom we might even call the Embezzling Steward), which comes right before the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, teaches the same thing.  Here a steward of a wealthy master learns that he is going to loose his position and calls in his master’s debtors and erases large amounts of their debt. The wealthy master learns what he has done and praises the Embezzling Steward for being wise.  This parable makes no sense if we think it is really just about money and material goods.  
Let me interpret this parable.  The wealthy master is God and every human being is a steward of the master’s wealth: our life with all of our abilities, resources and circumstances, which is our stewardship from God, our good things, you might say.  Those in debt are those who have very few good things and many evil things.  They are in debt because they must depend on others.  That the steward learns that he will lose his stewardship means that he realizes that he will die--we all, one day, will lose our stewardship, the life entrusted to us by God.  What the steward does next is interpreted for us by Jesus: he uses the “unrighteous mammon” (the resources entrusted to his care) to gain friends who will receive him into “an everlasting home.”  Of course, the everlasting home is a reference to heaven, which we find out in the next parable (the Rich Man and Lazarus) is where the poor are comforted.  So the poor are the ones who will receive the rich into their heavenly homes if during this life the rich use “unrighteous mammon” to earn their friendship.
Such an interpretation does not go down very well in our Protestant-Capitalist culture.  Conveniently, the religious edict against “works righteousness” fits nicely into an economic system that prioritizes the accumulation of wealth--bigger barns.  However, the Church Fathers, and none more loudly than St. John Chrysostom, are pretty consistent in their teaching that what one does with one’s resources in this life plays a large role in what happens in the next. 
And I would hasten to add, however, that “unrighteous mammon” may refer to more than just money and material resources.  It might refer to anything that we tend to horde or protect for ourselves: our abilities, our talents, our influence, our time, our listening ear, our helpful hand, our compassionate tears.  Giving, as St. Paul says, is not measured by what you don’t have, but by what you have (2 Cor. 8:12).
And one more thing.  Maybe we can all be the poor.  The wealthiest man in the world may be starving for an honest word.  It seems everyone lies to a rich man.  Often those rich in one area are abjectly poor in another.  Didn’t St. James say that God has chosen the poor in this world’s goods to be rich in faith? (James 2:5)  It may be, if we have ears to hear it, that giving and receiving is something we all must do.  The rich person may have to receive as a gift the faith, prayer or thanks of a poor person.  It may be the only way in this world that treasures of the next world will enter his heart, so poor in faith he is.
Which brings us back to bigger barns and harsh parables.  Life and death, wealth and poverty: these are the realities, harsh realities, of this world.  St. Luke wants his readers to be certain that whatever we do in this world will certainly influence what happens in the next world, with its eternal realities that may prove both harsher and more comforting than anything experienced in this life. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tower Heist

Last night Bonnie and I saw Tower Heist: I don’t recommend it.  I wouldn’t have normally gone to see such a movie, but when I looked at the rating I saw the “PG” but not the “-13.”  Even then, I would not have avoided a movie that interested me based solely on the rating without first reading about why it received that rating on the imdb website.  I almost always do this, but this time I just didn’t think about it.  I saw the trailer and the premise seemed interesting: a very wealthy investment tycoon swindles the pension fund of the workers at the high-end New York apartment building in which he lives, so the workers try to steal it back--classic Robin Hood story.  
I should have read the imdb website.
It says that the PG-13 rating is for language and sexual content.  The “sexual content,” however, is not scenes of people having or about to have sex.  In this case sexual content refers to explicit talking about sex in humorous contexts.  I must admit I did laugh a lot.  Perhaps a more pious man wouldn’t have found it funny: you are free to draw your own conclusions.  Nevertheless in my defense, the film studio did spend a lot of money tweaking the dialog and the settings so that what would certainly be distasteful in any other context was humorous here.  Of course Bonnie picks up on these things much more quickly than I do.  She didn’t laugh much.  It took me half the movie to realize that I had made a mistake about the movie’s rating.
By the end of the movie, I was not laughing much either.  
What disturbed me the most about the whole experience last night was not being exposed to explicit talk about perverted sex.  I know the pain of real lives trapped in sexual addictions and delusions.  What disturbed me most was the nervous couple sitting right next to me.  They couldn’t have been more than 14 year old.  All they know is the laugh, the glitz, and the implication that everyone is doing it in all sorts of different ways--with no consequences, at least none serious enough to mention.
My heart is very heavy this morning.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Doubt gets a bad rap in the New Testament.  James says that one who doubts is a double-minded person who is unstable in everything he or she does, and the writer of Hebrews warns,  “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God.”  
I’d like to suggest, however, that there are different kinds of doubt.  Or to put it more clearly, a lot of different sorts of inner experiences may be labeled as doubt or unbelief.  
One experience that can be called doubt is what James and the writer of Hebrews talk about.  This is a questioning in one’s mind that causes one to draw back from God, to draw back from the Church.  This doubt manifests itself as a kind of excuse to indulge ones desires.  
For example, if I had been raised in a home that does not drink alcohol, I might go through a period when, wanting to do what others are doing or driven by curiosity or even rebellion, I use my doubt of the logic of my parent’s prohibition as an excuse to indulge my desire.  I have not really done the mental and spiritual work of thinking though what is indeed appropriate and why I so much want to have a beer (or several) with my friends.  I just use the fact that I have some doubts regarding my parent’s prohibition as an excuse to do what I wanted to do anyway.  This, in my opinion, is similar to the “departing” or more literally, drawing back, referred to in Hebrews and the double mindedness spoken of by James.
This is the kind of doubt experienced by Eve in the Garden of Eden.  The fact that the Serpent and injected an element of doubt into Eve’s mind (“Did God really say…”) was not for Eve a sin.  What Eve does with that thought will make all of the difference.  In the end, Eve uses the doubt as an excuse to indulge in what appealed to her senses: “the woman saw...the tree was good for food...pleasant to the eyes and to be desired to make one wise….”
But not all doubt goes this direction.  Thomas doubted the resurrection.  And not Thomas only, for the end of Matthew says that some doubted.  But what did Thomas do with his doubt?  Did he “draw back” from the other disciples?  No, he stayed with them even though they believed in the risen Christ and he just couldn’t.  Did he use his doubt to escape from the frightening situation of hiding in an “upper room” (an attic, perhaps?) for fear of the Jews?  No, he did not forsake the relationships that he had forged even though he could not believe.  Thomas stayed where he was.  He stayed with his doubt until the doubt was cleared up.  
And when Thomas’ doubt is cleared up, Thomas becomes the first human being in the Bible to call Jesus God.  In seeing the resurrection, he sees Christ’s divinity in a way that perhaps the other disciples had not yet seen it.  Fighting through doubt, hanging in there in spite of doubt, Thomas eventually not only sees but touches.  It reminds me of Job’s great trial, which, after Job is sorely tested yet refuses to curse God, Job sees with his eyes the God whom he had only heard of with his ears.

Someone once said that the secret to dealing successfully with doubt is to stay the course.  It is like walking across a room when suddenly the lights go out.  As long as you keep walking according to what you last saw before the lights went out, you will be safe.  However, if in the darkness you begin to change course, there is a good chance you will bang your shins on the coffee table.  
This does not mean that there is never a time to change course.  Doubt is also often the beginning of the rejection of something false.  To return to the example of doubting a prohibition against drinking any alcohol, doubt may be the beginning of a deeper understanding.  Doubt can often lead to a nuanced understanding.  Doubt can cause us to ask hard questions and work out hard answers; it makes us look seriously at ourselves and seek out the wisdom of others.  The trick is to stay the course, remain engaged, and not allow doubt to become merely an excuse to do what you want.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


“For just as on the stage actors enter with the masks of kings, generals, doctors, teachers, professors, and soldiers, without themselves being anything of the sort, so in the present life poverty and wealth are only masks” (St. John Chrysostom’s second homily on the rich man and Lazarus).
I have been rereading St. John’s homilies contained in the little volume by St. Vladimir’s Seminary called “On Wealth and Poverty.”  One of the things that has struck me in his homilies is his likening of death to an actor’s coming off the stage.  In death all of our masks are removed and we must confront who we “really” are in the face of who Jesus Christ is.  
In a sense, masks are a necessary part of our lives in this world.  We all must serve in different relationships that require that we fulfill certain roles.  I am a priest, but to my wife I am a husband.  I do not hear my wife’s confessions.  This is not a problem.  Boundaries and limits are a necessary part of all relationships.  I am on the Conciliar Press editorial board, and as a board member I must evaluate works submitted for publication and recommend them or not for publication.  I hate this.  I don’t want to judge someone else’s labor.  And yet such judging as Christ recommends against is nonetheless required if any books are going to be published at all.  If children are going to be taught, if doctors are going to be trained, criminals are going to be corrected, someone has to wear the mask of teacher, doctor and judge.  
That we wear masks is not our problem.  Our problem, I think, is that we sometimes mistake our masks for our selves.  We hide behind our masks rather than express ourselves through them.  Yes, express ourselves, our true selves, through a mask.  
Jesus said that from the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.  Our bodies themselves are a kind of mask, and it is through what we do (and say) with our bodies that our true hearts are revealed.  Similarly, what I do and say as a priest, husband, teacher and friend can reveal who I really am.  The tricky thing is to stay aware of the self who speaks through the mask, and not to think the mask is anything real, anything enduring.  The masks come and go as life ebbs and flows.  Who I am in Christ endures forever.
Paying attention to Christ in my heart at all times helps keep me from being deceived by whatever mask I may temporarily be wearing.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Tender-hearted God

[I wrote the following on the flight from Arkansas to Dallas, after saying good by to my daughter and her children]

Last Sunday, Fr. George at St. Anthony Church in Tulsa spoke about God's tender-heartedness.  His text was one of the Orthros prayers that the priest prays while the chanter reads the six Orthros Psalms.  The prayer beseeches God's mercy based on God's own tender-heartedness.  

I have been thinking about this all morning.  Initially, the impression I feel is one of relief--it is God's own tender- heartedness that motivates God's mercy. God pities me, God pities us, His heart is tender toward us--like my heart is tender toward my grandchildren.  They are a handful, lost in an ever changing inner world, annoyingly pushing boundaries, blissfully unaware of the inconvenience and stress they create for their parents, overwhelmed by strong emotions that will take them years to control.  And did I mention that they are adorable?  Tender-heartedness.  God is tender hearted toward us.
But while I may begin to experience a sliver of God's tender-heartedness with my grandchildren, I am miles away from sharing in God's tender-heartedness for everyone.  God loves everyone much more than I have begun to love my grandchildren.  God understands me, my weaknesses, my fears, my insecurities, my still unending childish tendencies much more than I understand and love my grandchildren.  And just as God understands me, He understands you, He understands everyone.  And here is the miracle that has captured my mind today: not that God could love so well, but that God could pour that same love into our hearts.  God can make us tender-hearted too.
 But a tender heart, like a tender sore spot, feels pain more quickly than a hard heart.  Slowly, slowly God comforts us in our pain, taking away the fear, taking away the sting.  Slowly, slowly we learn to trust in hope, to accept, to be at peace even in the pain.  And then somehow even the pain is transformed.  Somehow rejection and suffering and even death become gateways to life.
And then we can love.  Then we can love the unlovely. Then tender-heartedness compels us to give ourselves not expecting anything in return.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Moths, Wool and Arkansas

I'm on vacation visiting my middle daughter in Arkansas. I packed my favorite Pendleton wool plaid shirt. I always wear wool shirts on vacation--except in the summer. They don't make wool clergy shirts.

This morning when I looked at myself in the mirror, I saw that moths had eatten some small holes in my shirt. I guess I no longer have an excuse not to wear my favorite shirt when I'm doing chores around the house.

I find it interesting to watch how my daughter and her husband (also the son of a priest) live their Orthodox Christian faith. Viewed from the outside (always a misleading thing to do), they are the least pious of my three daughter's families. The outside isn't something they spend time thinking much about.

Let me explain.

I am a convert. Orthodox Christianity is something I put on, kind of like an after-market improvement. I find that I often ask myself, "What is the Orthodox way to do this or that." I am consciously Orthodox.

My daughter and son-in-law never converted. They just are who they are. Faith for them is not something they put on. It is the background of their whole life. It's kind of like my favorite red plaid shirt. There is a lot of busyness in the plaid, but red is background of everything, it is the foundation.

This is the Orthodox faith in my daughter's family. They are a busy, happy, busy, loving,(did I mention busy), hard-working family whose whole life is colored by their faith. Orthodoxy is not something they put on, it is just who they are.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Priests and Prophets; Bishops and Charismatics

One of the mysteries of the Church throughout the ages, Old Covenant and New, is that God has set up at least two sources of authority among His people. In the Old Covenant these were often typified by the priest and the prophet, in the New Covenant this same reality, this same tension, is seen in the bishop and the charismatic.

The priest/bishop and prophet/charismatic are both sources of authority in the Church, but different kinds of authority. And both are necessary. The priest/bishop preserves the tradition, the law, and the teaching (that is, both the written scripture and its interpretation). In the Old Covenant, it was the priests who preserved temple worship and who preserved the Law of Moses. Were it not for the priests, temple worship as God had revealed it to Moses would have been completely lost (along with the Scripture). It was the priests who preserved the Book of the Law that had been lost during the reign of wicked King Manasseh. It was the priests who preserved the knowledge of temple worship so that the Second Temple could be rebuilt after the return of the exiles from Babylon.

The priests, and the bishop in the New Covenant, are the ones who preserve the form of worship and correct teaching of God's people. They are the ones with the God-given authority to tell God's people how God is to be worshiped and what are the correct ways to speak about God (doctrine) and to guide God's people in orderly assembly.

If you look at St. Paul's criteria for selecting a Bishop, except for the ability to teach, no other specific charisms are called for. What is called for is moral integrity, faithfulness, and good repute in the community. A bishop may have many other charismatic graces, but these are not essential to his calling as bishop. A bishop is an administrator, an overseer, a faithful preserver of the truth "once and for all" handed to the Church, he is the teacher of the Tradition, the Great Shepherd's shepherd of the flock.

Prophets and charismatics , on the other hand, have a different kind of authority. The prophet calls the people to faithfulness to Tradition that the priests have preserved. And sometimes even calls the priests themselves to faithfulness to the tradition they have preserved, but that they follow only in outward form. The prophets do not stand outside of the community of God's people. They also are subject to the Law and Tradition and worship led by the priests. But the prophet by the manifestation of the Spirit becomes a sign to the people of God. Not only the words of the prophet call the people to return to God with their hearts, but the whole life of the prophet is a "word" or sign calling the people to return.

In the New Testament, we see this tension play out in St. Paul's letters. The Corinthians, a community zealous for spiritual gifts, are warned by St. Paul that everything must be done decently and in order and that others are to judge the prophets. Yet he says explicitly, "forbid not prophesying." Charismatic people and graces have their place in the community; however, that place is determined by the overseer (bishop and elders) of the community. This becomes particularly evident in the Pastoral Epistles, where St. Paul is giving instructions to Sts. Timothy and Titus, two young newly-appointed bishops. St. Paul does not quibble about their authority to "teach, correct and rebuke in righteousness."

In the history of the Church since New Testament times, the charismatics have often found their place and their voice in the monastic communities. Bishops have authority over the teaching and worship of the Church, but the holy, charismatic monastics are the ones who through their evident holiness and the power of God manifest in their lives have historically called the Church to repentance, to a faithful return from the heart to the faith preserved and taught by the bishops. And when, as it has happened occasionally in history, the bishops are making a terrible mistake in teaching (as was, for example, the case during the iconoclast controversy) it was the holy monastics and holy lay people who humbly rebuked and resisted the erring bishops.

However, the opposite has also been true. When charismatic persons (monastic or not) have led people away from the Church and into false teaching, the bishops are the ones who stand firm, refusing to be led by charisms away from the Apostolic Tradition.

Both kinds of authority are important to God's people. God has established both. Sometimes those inclined to favour charisms may be tempted to look at the bishops and the structure of the Church as lifeless. This would be a mistake, a mistake as serious as it would be for the bishops to cut off from the Church those annoying monks, and the miracle working saints, and the fools for Christ sake who always seem to be stirring up fervour that threatens to bubble out of control.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Freely Give

Jesus commanded us to give freely, to lend expecting nothing in return.  This applies to all of our life, not just our money.  

How often do we give expecting certain results?  We give kind words, we help, we give time, money, labor; we do all this expecting some kind of result. We "minister" in various ways--of course it is not really ministry, for if it were, we would merely be doing our duty, fulfilling our calling with no expectation, like a slave, which is what "minister" means.  But we expect results.  Often we don't even know how to think about giving without first thinking about what we want our giving to accomplish.

The results that we expect vary.  We might expect that our good example will be followed by others; or that the Grace of God will touch someone's heart because of what we have done; or that someone will change their ways (even just slightly) because of some word or act or grace or gift that we have given.  We expect good things.  Yet even to expect good things is not really to give freely.  

When Jesus told the rich ruler to sell all he had and give the money to the poor and follow Him, Jesus wasn't telling him the way to fix the problem of poverty.  Jesus was telling him how he could be saved.  Giving saves us.  We give because God gives, and in giving we begin to imitate God.  What others do or don't do with the gift is a separate matter completely.

For me, it is easier to apply this principle to money.  It is easier, but not easy.  When it comes to other things that I give away--time, labour, words, care, tears--when it comes to these things, it is much harder not to expect some good result--or some result that I would recognize as good.  It is hard to give love freely.  It is hard to give care freely.  It is hard to freely weep with those who weep.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

More Spacious Than the Heavens

The icon of the Mother of God, More Spacious Than the Heavens, is found on the wall above and behind the Altar in most Orthodox Churches. This icon shows Mary interceding for the universe with Christ inside her (in some versions of this icon, Christ is surrounded by a circle of sorts, indicating that He can only be seen by faith). So in a mystery, Christ God in the heart/womb of Mary intercedes through Her to the Father on behalf of the universe. And more than that, because Christ already holds the universe in his hand (according to the Psalmist) and holds all things together by the Word of His Power (according to St. Paul), within Mary already is the whole universe. Thus we call Her More Spacious Than The Heavens because she held in Her womb Him who holds the whole universe.

However, in another mystery, Mary is a type or symbol of the whole Church in whom Christ dwells. And at the Divine Liturgy of the Church, like Mary, the Church bearing Christ in its heart--in the hearts of all the faithful--intercedes for the universe. Or Christ through the Church intercedes to the Father. This is one of the reasons why the icon is placed where it is in the Apse (the curved dome above and behind the Altar) of the Church.

Christ in taking on human nature has so united Himself to mankind that He abides (dwells, lives, tabernacles) in the hearts of men and women who draw near to him through faith. St. Paul likens this reality to both a marriage and an adoption. By Christ's dwelling in our hearts, we mere creatures are made partakers of the Divine, for Christ's humanity and divinity cannot be separated. Just as in marriage or adoption someone becomes a member of a new family, so in baptism through faith we become members of God's family--not distant relatives, but as close as a wife or son.

And as Christ ever lives to make intercession, so those in whom Christ dwells also ever live to make intercession. And the first Christian, the first to hold Christ in Her heart, Mary His Mother, is the pattern, the prototype of the Christian people. In Christ She ever intercedes for us that we too might have Christ dwelling in our hearts by faith and ever learn to intercede.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

On Trying Harder

One of the characters in Dicken's Dombey and Son, Mr. Dombey's sister, often comments that people would not suffer as they do if they would only put forth a little more effort.  

I am afraid that I too am sometimes tempted to reduce the suffering and failings of others to such a simplistic condemnation:  If only they'd make an effort.

Can you imagine the outcry if someone said publicly, "Terry Fox would have made it across Canada if he had only put forth a little more effort"?  What a justified outcry we would hear!  Terry had only one leg; he was dying from Cancer; he did more than most perfectly healthy people ever do.  It is ridiculous to say that he should have or could have put forth more effort.  Terry gave 110%, but it was not enough.  The deck was stacked against him.

Perhaps we can easily see how unjust it is to say Terry should have tried harder because we could easily see both how hard he did try and how serious his handicaps were.  However, what about those whose handicaps and valiant efforts cannot be seen. There are lots of ways the deck is stacked against people.

In the Church we have to always remember that we are a community of the poor, the blind, the maimed and the lame.   The handicaps differ widely.  Some are obvious, most are hidden.  In fact, most of our handicaps are even unknown to ourselves.  It takes great spiritual struggle to come to see one's own weaknesses as they really are.  And yet whether we see it or not we are handicapped.  It is evidenced in our inability to live the lives we long to live, to love the way we long to love, to show kindness, generosity and faith the way we really do want to--when we are in our right minds and being our best selves.

Telling a lame person to try harder to walk does no good and only showcases your own blindness.  Telling someone whose life is falling or has fallen apart to try harder manifests the same blindness.