Sunday, April 30, 2006

Changeless and Eternal...Not!

Evangelical and Charismatic Protestants have been converting to Eastern Orthodoxy at a steadily increasing rate over the last decade or so. I won’t comment here on the reasons for this, since they are often as varied as the people themselves. But there is one peculiar phenomenon that is accompanying this trend and is witnessed in nearly every single instance. The converts, who in many cases have been members of their previous church groups for many, many years and enjoyed what they assumed to be close friendships with their brothers and sisters in Christ in those churches, are finding that these same friends are now treating them as heretics or worse over their decision to become Orthodox. I have heard stories of church women calling up all their friends and warning them to avoid Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so because, “they have joined a church that uses icons and has an altar and (gasp!) prays to Mary!”

To a certain extent, this is a human thing; people naturally dislike anything markedly different from their own grasp of how things ought to be. It is also a Protestant thing. Contemporary Christians have virtually no knowledge of how the early Christians worshipped or how they understood the communion of the saints—including Mary—and thus accept without question the teaching they continually hear from their pastors and bible-study groups that these things are wrong. It is ironic that old friends condemn converts to Orthodoxy as if they were ignorant, when the converts have likely spent years studying church history to arrive at their decision, a study that their former friends have never made and know nothing about. Who is ignorant here?

But what is also interesting to me is how quickly attitudes change in the world of Protestantism. Way back in the beginning of the Reformation, the earliest Reformers were entirely sacramental in their beliefs. In what was just a matter of a moment, a man named Zwingli arose who decided from his reading of the Bible that Holy Communion was not an actual sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ, but a spiritual memorial only. To him, the bread and wine were simply symbols of the Body and Blood and could not possibly contain any “actual presence” of the Lord. Luther and Zwingli engaged in a heated debate over this matter, during which Luther essentially accused Zwingli of being demonic. Today Zwingli’s view holds sway over much of the Evangelical/Charismatic world, in defiance of traditional (and truly Biblical) Christian belief dating back to the apostles.

When the modern Pentecostal movement got started on Azusa Street in Southern California, it was nearly universally rejected by mainstream Protestant churches. Anyone in, say, a Presbyterian or Baptist church in the 1930’s who confessed to speaking in tongues or to believing in the gifts of the Spirit such as healing would likely be “disfellowshipped” and asked to go somewhere else. Today, the vast majority of new “Praise Centers” are Charismatic and have been influenced to one degree or another by the pioneers of American Pentecostalism. It has gone from being anathema to becoming thoroughly mainstream.

The same is true with Christian Zionism. When the radical dispensationalists began teaching that the Christian Church was not the “New Israel” as had been nearly universally believed from ancient times, but in fact represented little more than a “speed bump” on God’s highway to return the Jews to their promised land, most Protestants cast them out of their churches and condemned Zionism as heresy. This was around the beginning of the 20th century. When a new state was formed in the Middle East in 1948 and was named “Israel”, many Christians began to wonder if perhaps the dispensationalists were right in their wild assertions. Given the fact that most Protestants at that time (and today) possessed a threadbare ecclesiology and saw the Church as nothing more than an “invisible body” on the earth, whereas here was now a visible, locatable Jewish state, it became easier to think that God had satisfied prophesy and that “the time of the Gentiles was fulfilled” and all attention should now be focused on the nation of Israel. Today, it is nearly impossible to find an Evangelical or Charismatic church that has not embraced Zionism. I recently heard a pastor from one such church claim that if you subscribe to “Replacement Theology” (in other words, that the Church is Israel), then you are anti-Semitic and opposed to the will of God. My, how things have changed in such a short time!

Perhaps this should give converts to Orthodoxy some hope. Seeing that there are essentially no boundaries to Protestant thought or dogma, that things condemned in one generation are wholeheartedly embraced in the next, perhaps in a hundred years or less they will have icons in their churches, put the altars back in, and even (gasp!) start praying to Mary. It could happen. After all, anything goes when you have no continuity of faith and all you have to go by is the latest fad in biblical interpretation. It’s like my friend in Seattle, Washington says about the weather; if you don’t like it now, wait a minute and it will change.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

In Spirit and Truth

What constitutes true worship in the sight of God?

To the woman at the well in John 4, Jesus said that “the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth”. From this passage it is clear that there is such a thing as “true worship” which is decided by God and not by man. But what is true worship? Is there such a thing as false worship? If the ancient Christians, those closer to the apostles and the direct inheritors of their teaching and tradition, worshipped God in one way, and modern Christians 2000 years removed from that apostolic tradition choose to worship in another, completely different way, are both equally valid in the sight of God?

Perhaps we should step back a bit and ask the even more basic question of why we should worship God. A young girl in our parish recently posed this question to me by expressing her confusion over why God, who is humble and the perfect image of humility, would demand to be worshipped. Don’t you love how children can boldly ask the questions that most adults are too afraid to even consider? God bless them! I told her that God doesn’t need our worship, but He demands it for our sakes and for our salvation. You see, it is we humans who need to learn that God is God and that we ourselves are not “god”. Only by worshipping Him in spirit and truth, according to the way that God specifies we must worship, can we learn humility before Him and begin to come into a right relationship with Him as His creatures. True worship pleases God because it corrects us (God knows we need that!) and leads us to unite with Him in the proper way.

If this is true, then obviously if we simply make up our own forms of worship according to what seems good and enjoyable to us, we are dethroning God and making ourselves the judge of what is acceptable worship. In this case, are we really worshipping God, or ourselves?

The earliest recorded instance of man formally worshipping God is found in the story of Cain and Abel. These brothers both recognized that the worship of God involved making an offering to Him. Abel, a keeper of flocks, brought to God the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. Cain, a tiller of the soil, brought some vegetables. As we know, God accepted Abel’s offering but rejected Cain’s. Many bible students conclude that the sole meaning of this is that only a blood offering is acceptable to God, but there may indeed be more to the story than this alone. Consider that Abel brought to God the absolute best that he had to offer, the choicest cuts and the juiciest fat. It was a truly desirable offering, a genuine sacrifice on the part of Abel, but he made it willingly to God whom he deemed worthy. Cain merely offered what he felt like offering; a few items from his garden that really didn’t represent any major sacrifice on his part. For this reason God did not respect his offering. If we understand that true worship is as much a correction of the worshipper as anything else, then what we see in this story is that Cain was not willing to be corrected. He stubbornly wanted God to accept what he thought was good enough, rather than to learn from God what would constitute true worship. Cain was therefore a false worshipper.

Throughout the history of Israel, we see God being very specific about true worship, not only in terms of what makes a true offering, the construction of the altar it should be offered upon, the Temple in which it should be offered, but even right down to the details of which incense to burn before Him. Once again, these instructions are given for man’s benefit, not for God’s. He who owns the cattle on a thousand hills does not need the blood of bulls and calves to be offered to Him. But man needed to offer them in order to humble himself before God, recognize his own sinfulness, and to glorify God as the Maker of all things and man’s only Redeemer.

When the Perfect Sacrifice was made upon the altar of the Cross on Mt. Calvary, the veil of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom, signifying that God was through with the offering of animals, and man now had access to the Holy of Holies through the Blood of Jesus Christ His Son. His Body broken for us, His Blood poured forth, is the only acceptable offering, the highest and most precious offering that can be made to God. Jesus Christ is both the Offering, and the One to Whom the Offering is made. He gives Himself freely to us, that we in turn may offer Him back to God as the perfect, once-for-all sacrifice on our behalf.

But how does this work itself out in terms of Christian worship? In the ancient Church, the altar was the focal point of the church and the Eucharist was the center of the worship experience. Christians would assemble and stand together in church and, following even more ancient Jewish models, would read Psalms, sing hymns, hear readings from the New Testament epistles and Gospels, listen to a brief teaching on the Gospel reading by the bishop or priest presiding, and then would culminate the worship experience by praying over and offering the sanctified bread and wine as the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ back to God. Having offered the Only Acceptable Offering, they then partook of the same, as a royal priesthood, just as the priests of Aaron also partook of a portion of the sacrifice made to God. Being filled with the life-giving elements of Holy Communion (“for unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you”), they then concluded with prayers of thanksgiving and went forth from the church to offer themselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, in their daily lives.

The New Testament scriptures, unlike the Old Testament scriptures, do not give specific instructions about these things because, quite frankly, none were needed. Each of the New Testament churches had already been established by an apostle who had previously instructed the people in these matters in detail. There would have been no need to go over them again in later epistles, except in instances where some correction was needed, as in the case of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Those who today see the Bible as a kind of manual detailing everything of importance to the church, are making the mistake of turning their backs on the historic testimony of the Apostolic Church and what it has to tell us to complete the story. The Bible itself calls the Church of the living God “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), yet this crucial foundation is swept aside to make the Bible (and more to the point, our preferred interpretations of it) the pillar and foundation of truth. By divorcing the Bible from the context of the living tradition of faith and worship in the Apostolic Church and interpreting it himself according to his own understanding and culture, modern man has once again found a way to usurp God from the throne and make himself the final arbiter of what is truth.

In contemporary Christianity, this takes the form of worship that ignores ancient models and turns it into something that would be unrecognizable to the apostles. For one thing, the pulpit has replaced the altar as the center of worship. People no longer stand as priests but sit as students and are “fed on the Word” not as in partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, but as in listening to the pastor teach his opinions from the Bible. Incrementally since the “Age of Reason”, faith and mystery has been replaced by intellect and rationalism in Western culture and finally in Western Christendom itself. No longer are Christians comfortable with the idea of Holy Communion being a sharing in the actual Body and Blood of Christ (“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”), and so they spiritualize it to become a mental memorial only, a mere symbol to be appreciated by the mind alone. Communion has been marginalized and made to be infinitely less important to giving life to the believer than reading the Bible. One wonders how Christians possibly survived before the invention of the modern printing press made Bibles commonly available to all! Of course the early Christians not only survived, but became remarkably holy by today’s standards, and turned the world upside down as they joyfully endured terrible sufferings and martyrdom in preaching the Gospel of Christ to the known world.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of modern Christendom, besides its having divorced itself from communion with the historic, Apostolic Church, is that it imitates Cain in its stubborn refusal to be corrected by the same. Rather than answering the question of “What is true worship?” by looking backward to see what the early Christians did, it puts a premium on devising continually “new and contemporary” forms of worship that ultimately are geared more toward entertaining the participants and pleasing them, rather than on pleasing God. Contemporary worship must be “exciting and lively” and “meeting the people where they are at” rather than on holy and reverential and lifting the people up to where God is at.

The contemporary worship experience can very nearly be likened to a junkie continually seeking a new and better “high”, and the value of a morning’s worship is evaluated entirely on whether or not its participants feel “blessed” by it. Does this not indicate the self-centered nature of such an experience, that they are putting their own blessing ahead of God’s? Can we imagine that St. Paul’s only concern for the church in Corinth was that they “get their socks blessed off during worship” and if they weren’t, then perhaps they should replace the bass guitarist with someone more “spirit-led”? His primary concern for them was that they judge and conduct themselves rightly in order to partake of the Body and Blood of the Lord in a worthy manner, for without this they were not providing the spiritual worship which they owed to God.

Modern Christians have drifted terribly from these things! Many groups are beginning to recognize this and are leaving behind contemporary forms of worship to embrace the more traditional Eucharistic-based forms. This seems like death to those who love toe-tapping worship, but in fact the Life of God is hidden in these ancient forms and they very much need to be brought back in our day. Even better would be for modern Christians to return to the Orthodox Church, which is the Apostolic Church, and which still focuses on the worship of God “in spirit and truth” as it has from its beginning.

May God preserve us in true worship for our salvation, and to the glory of His Holy Name!

Friday, April 28, 2006

St. Thomas Sunday

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!

A couple of months ago, I was involved in a discussion with a few guys on a Christian internet forum. One of the participants, apparently an agnostic, put forth the idea that if God wants men to believe in Him, He should not make it so difficult for them to do so. In his mind, God should perhaps leave a flaming cross in the sky, or speak from heaven each day, or make some other obvious sign of His presence so that men could more easily believe in Him. I suppose there are many people who are sympathetic to this man’s point of view. If it is so important that men believe in God, why does He keep Himself “hidden” from them? Why doesn’t He give us proof of His existence?

To be fair, this is a completely rational question. But that is also the problem with it. The question presupposes that God wants to reach us on a strictly rational level; to provide us with intellectual proof of His existence, as if that were all we needed to believe in Him and be converted.

But that isn’t the case, is it? If we look in the Old Testament scriptures, we see that God provided exactly such rational proof to the children of Israel as they were set free from bondage to Egypt. Not only did He send the many plagues against the Egyptians, not only did He perform many miracles through Moses His prophet, not only did He drown Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea, but He also provided the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day to be a sign of His presence with them, and to guide them in the wilderness. Yet, all these rational proofs of God’s presence did not convince them, and they still fell into grumbling and doubting and thanklessness, and into the worship of idols. They saw the proofs of God’s existence and presence clearly, yet most of them remained unconverted in heart.

These things were allowed to happen to them for our instruction. They demonstrate to us that the spiritual sickness of mankind has caused there to be an unnatural disconnection between the mind of man and his innermost being, his spiritual faculty, sometimes simply called his “heart”. What the eyes see and the mind observes does not often make it all the way to the heart to convert it. Thus no matter what outward and obvious sign God may give to men, such a witness still does not lead us automatically to have faith in Him. The mind may witness some sign or wonder, but the spiritual faculty in man is too darkened to comprehend its meaning and to be awakened from its slumber to a living faith in God.

Thus, to heal us, God must awaken that inner spiritual faculty. Whether as Christians or agnostics, if we live our lives strictly on the rational level, seeking some sort of “proof” without any stirring of a noetic awakening, we are living as “half-human” people and will ultimately fail to gain communion with the God who dwells primarily in the heart of man, rather than the mind of man.

Jesus once said, “The kingdom of heaven is within you” yet many people fail to grasp this reality, because we tend to live our entire lives on the rational or emotional or sensual level, and never find our way into the deeper realm of our own hearts to discover God. This is why God in a certain sense “hides” Himself from us on these outer levels, only to reveal Himself within the heart of man.

But of course, God does not hide Himself entirely in the outer levels. Romans 1 tells us that “…the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse…”. God’s presence and power and mercy can certainly be seen in the world around us, if we have the spiritual eyes to see them. Put two men under the desert sky at midnight and you can get two different reactions. One sees only distant balls of burning gas. The other is so moved by the witness in the sky that he exclaims with the Psalmist, “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou are mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him?” What a man sees is ultimately determined by his level of spiritual awareness, and his relative ability to perceive the Creator behind the creation.

All of this I offer as an explanation for our Lord’s mysterious statement to Thomas in our Gospel Lesson this morning. Jesus said to him “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed; blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed”. Jesus is of course speaking of us.

We are not direct eyewitnesses of the resurrection of Christ as the apostles were. This might seem to put us at a distinct disadvantage, especially in a fallen world that claims “seeing is believing” and thus dismisses the value of spiritual perception. Yet our Lord declares that we who have believed without seeing are more blessed even than those who did see. Why? Because for us to accept the testimony of these eyewitnesses and believe it, when even Thomas himself did not, means that there has to have taken place in us some small awakening of our noetic faculty by the grace of God. By believing in the resurrection of Christ, even in our tiny, imperfect way, we have taken a baby-step forward to becoming more fully human, and toward perceiving reality not just with the eyes of flesh, but with the eyes of the soul. To the saying that “seeing is believing” we respond rather that “believing is seeing”.

And so we come to the realization that God’s allegedly “poor method” of making Himself known to mankind, through refined spiritual means rather than by crude external signs and wonders, is in reality the highest and most perfect form of self-revelation as far as our spiritual health is concerned. For by utilizing this method, God forces man to discover and begin to use his noetic faculty which, if he continues to purify it through determined repentance, can open up an entirely new dimension of perception for him. Man can see angels, the saints, the kingdom of heaven, and even God Himself through a purified and illumined heart. This condition of spiritual vision, called by the Church “theoria”, is the highest form of perception, even higher than the mind of man alone.

By the gift of the Holy Spirit, that faculty has been awakened in us. You might say it is waiting for us to discover it if we haven’t already, and begin the process of cleaning it up so that, like through a window, the light of God may begin to shine through it into our lives. As our sins are responsible for dirtying it in the first place, turning from them to the therapeutic practices of Holy Orthodoxy are the means of cleaning it once again. This is why we place such an emphasis on repentance and ascetical struggle. These things aren’t given to us as a kind of ecclesiastical “busy-work” to keep us occupied; they are the very means of our purification which will lead in turn to the illumination of the inner man and the glorification of the entire man in Christ Jesus. The lives of holy people throughout the history of the Church and right to this very day demonstrate the truth of this. Their experiences of the divine, as well as our own limited experiences, cumulatively encourage us to “be not unbelieving, but believing” and confess Jesus as our Lord and our God.

“Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed”. Blessed are you when you receive this apostolic witness and nurture it into an inner purity leading to the glory of God.
Christ is risen!

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Gnostic Protestants?

The other day I tuned to the local Christian station on my truck radio again and guess what I heard this time. A Protestant “bible teacher” (I didn’t catch his name because I was only able to listen for a few minutes) was talking about death. I listened as he said that when we die, the body goes into the grave but the “real person”, the soul, goes into the presence of God. To make sure we understood his point he emphasized further that the body is not the real person; it is only a “shell” that houses the real person. The real person is the soul, and this is what goes to God, or so this teacher claimed.

I’m not sure where exactly this fellow got his ideas about what makes up the “real person” but it certainly wasn’t from the scriptures or traditional Orthodox Christian belief. His views align much more with Gnosticism than with Christianity. The Gnostics, like the pagans before them, also viewed the soul as the prisoner of the body, ever longing to be set free to a purely spiritual existence without the corruption of evil matter to weigh it down. They too viewed the body as a shell and the soul of man as the only true person.

Orthodox Christianity historically denounced such views and held that every aspect of a man’s existence—his body, soul and spirit—together compose a complete human person. The soul is not the “higher” aspect of humanity; neither is the body the “lower” aspect. All are lovingly created by God to form a total human being, and all are fallen and are in need of redemption. This is why Christ assumed both “a reasoning soul and body” as the creed of Chalcedon insists, and not a human soul only or a human body only. Whatever is not assumed by Christ at His incarnation is not redeemed, and whatever is assumed by Him is worthy of redemption in the sight of God.

But what about St. Paul’s statement that “the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another” (Galatians 5:17NKJV); wouldn’t this indicate that the material body is at war with the Spirit? Not at all! It is the understanding of traditional Christianity that the term “flesh” as it is used here does not refer to the human body at all, but rather to all the fallen aspects of our humanity which affect both body and soul and cause them to persistently oppose the Spirit of God in His efforts to completely transform the whole human being toward perfection in Christ. Neither St. Paul nor the Church held to the view that the body itself is inherently evil or opposed in any way to the spiritual. If it were, then Christ partook of evil when He assumed our flesh at His incarnation.

Clearly, God does not despise the material aspects of His creation, but loves them equally with the immaterial aspects. Thus to describe the body as a “shell” and not a part of the “real person” is to embrace heresy, in this case Gnostic heresy that was anathematized by the Church in the very early centuries.

What disturbed me the most about hearing this guy’s teaching on this was that this particular radio station does not follow some “New Age” format, but only features Fundamentalist, Evangelical and Charismatic Protestants in its programming. Thus this Protestant teacher, very likely a pastor somewhere, is teaching Gnostic heresy and nobody seems to notice or be bothered by it. Could this be because such concepts have found a comfortable home in contemporary Christianity?

The Gnostics despised anything at all to do with the physical realm, believing it could not lead to salvation, and focused entirely on what they regarded as pure spiritual contemplation. They liked to read various scriptures and meditate on them, for this they saw as the highest spiritual action of man. Of course they entirely rejected the teaching of the Christian Church, particularly anything connected in any way to the incarnation of Christ. The sacrament of Baptism, uniting man to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, would have had no value to them. Partaking of His precious Body and life-giving Blood in Holy Communion would have seemed like cannibalism. In fact all the sacraments, which are physical means that God has blessed to impart His grace to His people, would have been rejected unless they could be “spiritualized” out of their physical aspects, and thus out of their original meaning and value. Gnostics would not have believed there could be saints on earth, men and women who had been so transformed by obedience to Christ as to become holy while yet in their physical bodies. They would not have venerated icons of these people to give glory to God. They certainly would have rejected the veneration of Mary as the “most holy and most pure Mother of our God”. All of these things—traditional elements of historic Christianity—would not fit with the Gnostic understanding of things.

Seemingly, many of these things do not fit with contemporary Christianity either. If you were to create a chart of the beliefs and practices of many contemporary Christians, with a list of Gnostic beliefs on one side and Orthodox Christian beliefs on the other for comparison, you would be shocked to see that contemporary Christians line up much more with the Gnostic side than with the Orthodox side. While technically still confessing the incarnation of Christ, many contemporary Christians zealously deny all the practical manifestations of it in the Christian life, and much prefer symbolism and “pure spiritual contemplation” over the idea that God actually uses sanctified physical means to impart His divine grace to us and to save us.

Gnostics got themselves into their fix by of course allowing themselves to be influenced by pagan thinking. But what sealed their fate was their stubborn insistence that they alone were correct, and Christ’s Church with its unbroken line of faith and practice handed down from the apostles, was incorrect. Sound familiar? Many contemporary Christians also insist that they can’t possibly be wrong in their interpretations and understandings of things, and that if the early Church disagrees with them on any matter, then it must be the Church that is wrong and not they themselves.

I expect to see things get worse before they get better, if they get better at all. Already many mainline Protestant denominations are outright repudiating the virgin birth and the incarnation of Christ and are becoming fully heretical. If Protestants wish to stem this alarming trend, they would do well to take a lesson or two from history, and return to the ancient Christian faith, still fully embodied and confessed within Eastern Orthodoxy today. I hope they will, before these things no longer matter to them.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Spiritual renewal, the “Love Boat” way

On this Bright Monday (The first day after Holy Pascha), I was driving to the grocery store with my truck radio tuned to the local Christian radio station. I was only half listening to the announcer as he was excitedly going on about an upcoming Alaskan cruise with Pastor So-and-so. The announcer described the luxurious, first-class accommodations and wonderful meals that would be available, the shopping and touring opportunities at the various stops, the spectacular scenery, together with daily bible studies with the Pastor. What really caught my attention though was when the announcer concluded, “So come join us for what will be a wonderful time of relaxation and spiritual renewal”.

I must admit that that was the first time I have ever heard the words “relaxation” and “spiritual renewal” joined together in the same sentence.

Having just completed the roughly 56 days of prayer, fasting and almsgiving encouraged by the Church as part of our Lenten discipline, including some 50 special (penitential and long!) services, and concluding with the all-night experience of Pascha, and Agape Vespers the following afternoon, I am left feeling both spiritually renewed, and exhausted! I would not call the Orthodox Lenten experience relaxing by any stretch of imagination. It is a rigorous, sustained effort involving both body and soul.

Orthodox Christians believe that there is a strong connection between the body of man, and his soul. What happens to one directly affects the other. It is not possible, let’s just say, for a man’s soul to become pure and holy by the Spirit of God if his body is continually given over to fornication and every uncleanness and debauchery. The scriptures make this quite clear.

But we must also understand that for the soul to become pure and gain the strength needed to defeat the sinful passions of the flesh, the body must also be engaged in the spiritual struggle and be disciplined and strengthened through such means as prayer and fasting, spiritual readings, prostrations, actions of charity and almsgiving, Orthodox worship and participation in the sacraments, continual self-renunciation, ongoing repentance from dead works to a living unity with God, and the many other therapeutic means available within the Ecclesia.

From its long experience with bringing full healing to humanity, the Orthodox Church understands that such asceticism or “athletic spiritual conditioning” of the body is necessary for it to join with the soul in common pursuit of the transformational life of God in man. St. Paul considered such bodily discipline essential as he wrote, “I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27, NKJV). Orthodox Christians pursue such bodily/spiritual disciplines year-round, but intensify them during certain seasons of the year, such as during Great Lent. It is difficult work, and we often grow weary, but we continue in it because we understand that the soul cannot have a share in the holiness of Christ unless the body is also brought under subjection and is made to become a fellow participant and sharer in this same holiness. This is the path to true spiritual renewal.

Now I’m not knocking cruises or those who go on them, but the amenities normally enjoyed on these vacations are not exactly designed for spiritual renewal. People eating too much, drinking too much, shopping and spending too much, engaging in idle chit-chat and so forth are the normal activities associated with cruises. Again, I’m not dumping on cruises; we all need a break now and again and a person on a cruise is not exactly compelled to engage in gluttony, drunkenness and all the rest in order to have a good time. But still, advertising a luxury cruise that will feature a few bible studies as a time of “spiritual renewal” seems to me to be a gross misunderstanding of what man really needs for such renewal to take place.

I suppose modern Protestantism has evolved such a compartmentalized view of life that it no longer sees any connection between what the body does and what the soul either gains or loses as a result. Is there such a thing as “Protestant asceticism” anymore? Many modern “Praise Centers” are designed to rival the finest movie theaters, where casually-dressed “worshippers” sit in cushy seats and are entertained by praise bands belting out lively tunes on the stage. Alternatively, in some churches you can actually sit at a coffee bar in the lobby (The First Church of St. Arbucks?) and sip a latte and munch on a muffin while watching the proceedings inside on closed-circuit big screen TVs. Everything is designed for comfort and pleasure and yes, entertainment. Under such conditions a “Love Boat Spiritual Retreat” makes perfect sense. Eat, drink and be merry, meet a sister at the Christian singles bar, go to a few bible studies, and come home a few pounds heavier and spiritually renewed. What a deal!

By contrast, Orthodox worship is a bit less…”comfortable”. There are no cushy seats and none are needed, since Orthodox worshippers stand together as “a royal priesthood” through most of the services, offering their common prayer with one voice to God. There are no praise bands and no musical instruments at all, as the choir utilizes the instrument that God designed and made, the human voice, to intone ancient hymns written by illumined and holy hymnographers centuries ago. Coffee and muffins must wait until after the Divine Liturgy, since Orthodox faithful fast for an average of 12 hours before the service so that the very first thing to touch their tongues on Sunday morning will be the precious and life-giving Body and Blood of Christ. The emphasis in Orthodox worship is on, well, worship; the worship of the Almighty and Adorable God. Comfort and lively entertainment play no role in our scheme of things.

When Orthodox Christians feel the need for a personal spiritual retreat beyond what is normally offered within the life of the parish, they typically make a pilgrimage to a monastery or convent for a few days to pray and fast and associate with the holy men or holy women who have made such things their life’s work. Do Orthodox Christians ever take a plain old vacation or even go on cruises once in awhile? Of course they do; we aren’t Stoics. But at the same time we understand—through the ancient wisdom of the Ecclesia—that trying to turn all of life, including worship and needed times of spiritual renewal, into one long, entertaining party is a grievous error based on a terrible misunderstanding of man’s innate needs. I suppose such an error is the natural result of Christianity meeting the narcissistic, pleasure-loving culture of the Baby-Boomer generation. Maybe the next generation will swing the pendulum in the other direction, who knows? I know that we are seeing many young people converting to Eastern Orthodoxy these days in their search for a more authentic Christian experience.

If you love cruises, God bless you! If I had the extra money, I might try one. If you love sipping coffee and listening to the praise band during church, God help you! There is nothing evil in what you are doing, but it just isn’t worship no matter what you choose to call it. It may be emotionally uplifting and enjoyable to you. I would probably like it too. But after the service was over, I would be left wondering, “OK, now when do we worship God?” Something is missing and real needs are going unmet. Could it be time for modern Christians to listen to their forefathers in the faith and learn from them?

I wonder what the ascetic and Christian martyr St. Paul would say about the state of things today in modern Christendom? I doubt he would be impressed.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

From another website...

So you see, I am providing a service by posting my homilies online! My thanks to the cartoonist, whoever he is...

Friday, April 14, 2006

Palm Sunday/The Triumphal Entry

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Today is the Sunday of the Triumphal Entry of our Lord into Jerusalem, also known as Palm Sunday. Great Lent 2006 is officially over, and the Church has now joined with our Lord Jesus Christ in the journey of Holy Week that will take us from before the stinking tomb of Lazarus all the way to the gloriously radiant and myrrh-scented empty tomb of our risen Savior. This journey represents what can be our own progression from death to life, from corruption to incorruption, if we so choose. The Paschal message is that we are not bound to be forever enslaved to sin and to the degrading passions which rob us of our human dignity and of life eternal. We can lay aside all manifestations of death and separation from the love of God to be united with Him in glory.

Orthodox Christians often begin Great Lent with high hopes. We might think to ourselves, this year I’m going to really pay attention to my prayers, fasting and almsgiving as the Church instructs me to; I’m going to come to all the services; I’m going to fight my besetting sins more diligently and try to make my repentance more consistent. And if we apply ourselves we can generally make some true progress in many of these areas. Yet during Lent we might also become more aware of our sinfulness than before, we may suffer some stunning setbacks, we may be laid low by some illness or difficulty, or we may have some unexpected and unpleasant conflict with another person. Due to these things, we may come to the end of Lent feeling defeated, feeling as if we have lost more ground than we have gained.

Is it any wonder therefore that the Church ends Lent and begins Holy Week with an image of death and corruption? The first image we encounter is that of poor Lazarus, rotting in his tomb, seemingly beyond all help and hope. The Church presents us with this shocking image of our own mortality caused by sin, and then like a good Mother instructs us, “Pay attention, my disheartened little children, and witness the power of your Lord”. Next we see Lazarus raised from the dead as a foretaste of the general resurrection of the faithful!

Do not be dismayed by your failures, though they may be as numberless as the stars of heaven. Take hope, and let not your heart be troubled. God is able to give life even to the lifeless, and to raise with Him even those who are pronounced dead in their trespasses and sins.

In the book “Gifts of the Desert” by Kyriacos Markides, the author recounts a conversation with Bishop Maximos in which the elder described the Church, the Ecclesia, as a hospital in which the reality of healing from the effects of sin takes place. He says, “It is indeed a hospital. As in the case of an ordinary hospital, in the Ecclesia we can meet doctors, nurses, recovering patients, sick people, and very sick people. Sometimes we can even find corpses”. “Do corpses have a chance?” one of his listeners asked. “Naturally they do,” replied Maximos. “Doesn’t the Ecclesia call Christ the Giver of Life? In whatever category we may belong within this spiritual hospital, we always have the hope and the possibility to achieve our own resurrection and the restoration of our spiritual health.”

It is very important that we never lose sight of the Church as a place of healing, and all of the Holy Traditions that comprise her life as the therapeutic cures for our suffering and disease. We can lose sight of this and fail to be healed in several different ways. Let me suggest three.

The first is that we simply never learn that we are sick, or fail to see the seriousness of our condition. By extreme inattentiveness to our souls, we can ignore or take for granted the means of our healing, and instead live out an egocentric counterfeit of Christianity. Our unhappiness with ourselves, which is natural for those who are not spiritually engaged, is soon psychologically transferred and manifested in a judgmental attitude toward others. We may criticize our family or friends for not being what we want them to be. We may become harshly critical of the priest or the parish council and insist that they are doing things wrong. We may justify our sloppy lives by insisting that others have failed us, and thus we are reduced to the role of perpetually indignant victims. You can find us on life-support in the ICU of the Ecclesia, yet we imagine that our difficulties are the fault of anyone else but ourselves.

The other way we can fail to be healed within the hospital of the Church is if we simply refuse to follow doctor’s orders. In the medical world this is called “non-compliance”; in the Ecclesia it is called “spiritual sloth”. We all struggle with this. Sloth is one of the Seven Grievous Sins and the reason why we find it so difficult to challenge ourselves in any way spiritually. We often lament that we do not pray, come to Church, read the Bible, or do the works that we feel we should do, on as regular a basis as we think we would like. But the real way that sloth is manifested is in our inability to simply challenge ourselves to any degree spiritually and develop an inner life centered on the remembrance of God.

This is to be expected, because we are broken, shattered, darkened and confused in soul. Building a habit of prayer and communion with God is difficult for all of us. Yet if we don’t make the effort to strive for something greater, in the end it cannot be said that we really wanted anything more than to succumb to our sloth. It was comfortable, we could deal with the guilt; thus we stayed there.

This can lead us to the third reason why we can fail to be healed within the Church, and that is because we simply become a corpse. We can become a corpse because of consistent, unrepentant sloth, or because of some besetting sin that we refused to resist and gave in to each and every time it was presented to us. In the end we are left immune to the Gospel, deaf to the voice of the Spirit, unmoved by conscience and manifesting all the characteristics of a dead person. Outwardly we may be alive, but inwardly we can become absolutely dead to God.

Can such a corpse live again? Yes indeed! Let us remember the story of Lazarus and the lessons it gives us. Lazarus was dead and laid to rest in his tomb, wrapped in bandages. Nevertheless, one last, impossible time his ears heard the voice of Jesus saying, “Lazarus, come forth!” Notice that Jesus did not say to those around Him, “Lazarus is alive; go in and get him”. Rather he put it upon Lazarus to hear His voice and “come forth!” This act of divine mercy awoke Lazarus from his terminal slumber and, still wrapped from head to toe in the raiment of the dead, he clumsily rolled off his slab and stumbled forth into the bright light of the living, where he was greeted by his loved ones who immediately rushed to help him.

So it is for those who are dead in the Church: one last time you may hear the voice of God calling you to repentance. If you arise and stumble out into the company of the faithful, they will strip you of the garments of death which bind you and help clothe you in the robe of life. How tragic our end will be if we ignore the many mercies of God and prefer the separation of death to the fellowship of the living in Christ, or the spiritual healing of the Ecclesia!

As we enter into Holy Week together, let us see this as an opportunity for progression in our own lives. Throughout this week, the Church will be incrementally filled with the symbols of Christ’s victory, together with the sweet smells of flowers, rose water, bay leaves and incense, and will go from darkness to bright light. May the same transformation take place in our souls as well, lifting us out of sorrow to the place of joy without measure.

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

St. Mary of Egypt

The following is my homily for the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent, April 9, 2006. I must admit to being slightly frustrated with this particular sermon as there is SO much to say about St. Mary of Egypt that simply won't fit in the 10-15 minutes I normally allow myself for preaching. Her incredible determination to devote her life to God at any cost, her superhuman struggles against temptation, the high level of theosis she obtained (which I didn't even mention in my homily) combine to shine like a beacon in our age of lukewarm and often compromised devotion to Christ. Here is the little I said about her; I hope the reader is blessed by it.

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Today is the fifth Sunday of Great Lent, the day we commemorate the penitent St. Mary of Egypt. Mary was born to a wealthy pagan family living in Alexandria, Egypt. She grew up to become a very beautiful girl, which proved to be a curse. Losing her virginity at the age of twelve, she was swept up in the lure of sensuality and soon adopted the life of a harlot.

She continued this horrible life for many years until one day she beheld a group of Christian pilgrims going to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross. She joined them, hoping to seduce some of them along the journey. Once she arrived in Jerusalem, idle curiosity drove her to go see the relic of the Holy Cross, which was displayed at the Church of the Holy Resurrection. But when she reached the doors of that Church, something unexpected happened. An invisible force repeatedly pushed her back from the doors, preventing her from going in. Pondering this strange occurrence, she suddenly realized that her own great sinfulness was preventing her from entering such a holy place. Unexpected contrition filled her heart, and seeing an icon of the Mother of God through the doors, she starting weeping and praying. During the journey there, one of the pilgrims had told her that the name of the Theotokos was also Mary. Seeing now with her own eyes this blessed icon of the Holy Virgin, sinful Mary begged Holy Mary to have mercy upon her and open unto her the doors of repentance and lead her to salvation. Suddenly, true love began to fill her heart. Not the false love of so many men she had known before, this was the true love of God, tasted through forgiveness. At that moment, Mary resolved to turn completely away from her life of sin and emulate the purity of the Mother of God. She was allowed at this point to enter the Church, and to venerate the relic of the Cross with a kiss, thus purifying lips once defiled by sin.

That night Mary was led by the Mother of God to the desert across the Jordan and stayed there for the remaining fifty years of her life. The first seventeen years were the most difficult for her, as she struggled against the temptations of the life she had so recently left behind. Memories of her sexual sins, of wine-drinking and of eating various foods, of the songs she used to sing, all haunted her and tempted her to return to her former ways. Many times she set out to return to the city, but would always stop and turn back to the desert. At times she would even drop to the ground and bite the sand in her intense struggle not to make void the grace that had been given her. She continued in this epic struggle until at last she was granted the light of Christ and was released from these temptations. The one who was once disfigured by sin was now transfigured by the love of Christ and became holy.

We might never have known about St. Mary had it not been for the elderly priest-monk, Fr. Zosimas, who was led by God to find her the year before she died. He took her communion, buried her when she reposed, and bought her story out to share with all those seeking salvation.

In the interest of brevity, I left out a great deal of her story. But we can nevertheless imagine the tremendous struggles she faced day and night in the desert as she perfected her repentance and sought the life of God. It’s the degree of those struggles and her stubborn determination to see them through that makes her the model penitent to the Orthodox Church. But can we live up to such a model, or find any way to emulate it in our own life?

It is important for us to realize that the Church calls us to imitate Mary in her repentance, not necessarily in her lifestyle. In other words, even if you are not called to forsake all and flee to the desert to find your salvation, you are still called to live a life of repentance and to engage wholeheartedly in the struggle against your own misdirected passions which stand between you and the glory of God.

Because she is a model of repentance, there are certain characteristics we see in St. Mary of Egypt that we should seek to imitate in our lives. We would benefit to gain her simplicity. When the ugliness of her sins was revealed to her by God, she did not try to deny, cover up or make excuses for them. She did not engage in sophistry to question whether her deeds truly were sinful. She did not blame her sins on others, or seek in any way to lessen her personal responsibility. No, she simply cried out for God to have mercy on her, and determined right then and there to change her life.

We could use a dose of that determination she showed as well. Our love of pleasure and comfort and easy living has rendered us weak-willed and unwilling to challenge ourselves in even the slightest way spiritually. We constantly postpone our repentance. Very few of us have resorted to biting the sand in a fierce fight to avoid sin. We give into our sins much too easily time after time, year after year, and fail to make very much progress toward holiness in our lives.

We could use some of Mary’s clarity of vision. During her first 17 years, she was often burdened by the memory of her sins and was tempted by them to return to her former manner of life. But she resisted, clearly seeing those temptations as an assault on the grace she had received, and she refused to accept them in place of the new life God had given her. Very often we fail to see temptation for what it really is. We may give little thought to the choices we make or the things we do, failing to realize that they can be separating us from God and darkening our souls. We lack clarity in the spiritual life, which our Holy Tradition can give to us if we only pay attention to it and make the effort to learn and follow it.

Often we settle for far less than a deep and meaningful repentance in our lives. We would prefer for salvation to be easy and without struggle. But no one will enter into the kingdom of heaven without mourning and tears and the violent resisting of sin and the instilling of godly repentance.

In the few days that remain of Lent, let us take these things to heart and continue to take upon ourselves the voluntary suffering of fasting, diligence in prayer, and almsgiving, as well as anything else the Lord may put upon our hearts to do. May we use this time to see our own sins and to judge them rightly before God, offering our repentance and seeking to better our way of life. And may God thus bless us to rise with Christ in glorious Pascha!

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Infant Communion, again

To my previous post on Infant Communion ("Suffer the Little Children"), Bruce posted a comment asking why the Roman Catholic Church does not generally commune infants while the Eastern Orthodox Church does. My response to this was going to be a bit too large to fit into a comment box, so I have reposted his question here along with my answer:

Father Michael, Great article. Helps me with some things. I have a question regarding this. Last year I went to my Grandson Ezra's baptism. What has bothered me was not the fact that he was baptized. It it the fact that in the aftermath of the baptism he will not receive communion. In fact I guess that the Roman Church will not commune him for years! Why do they do this? I take it that this is something they changed along the way? If so, when? Perhaps you can respond a bit regarding this on you general blog site. For many of my Protestant friends, they like to lump me together with the Roman Catholics. Although I'm sure this bigger subject would be best served for another article, it would be great if you could give a general overview of how we are different than Rome.

Hi Bruce,

Yes, the Roman Catholic custom of not communicating infants, except in emergencies, represents yet another change from the tradition of the ancient Church. A number of the early fathers, including St. Cyprian, mention the practice of giving communion to infants and young children. Yet in the West, this accepted custom gradually fell to disuse and by the time of Charlemagne was not widely practiced in Rome and its environs. It might be remembered that Charlemagne, in his bid to gain control of the empire, sought to marginalize the authority and dignity of the Eastern bishops by falsely accusing them of an assortment of heresies including—most astonishingly--of removing the philioque addition from the Creed! During his reign, the Council of Tours made official the by then predominant Eucharistic practice of the West by barring the communication of infants except in cases of near death. This more or less solidified the continuing routine of the Catholic Church to accept only its own customs as “universal” and ignoring the practices and input of the Christian East.

The contemporary justification for not communicating infants is ultimately based on the argument that there needs to be a reasonable understanding of the sacrament in the mind of the communicant for it to be valid. Interestingly, there is sufficient evidence that Catholic belief itself repudiates this assertion—Catholic infants are allowed to receive communion under extreme circumstances as previously mentioned, which would be an indicator of its perceived validity despite the apparent lack of any advanced understanding in an infant—yet the contemporary practice remains to not serve communion to the little ones under normal circumstances. The appeal to reason as the validating condition for a sacrament is of course the very heart of the Protestant argument against both infant baptism and communion, yet Rome seems to apply this selectively, with little regard for consistency with Orthodox practices or, it would seem to me, with its own.

The error of the Protestant and Roman Catholic position on this lies in making human reason the prerequisite to validate what is in essence mystery. The Christian East has always appreciated the contradictory and self-defeating nature of this practice and does not attempt “to stuff the mystery of God into the sausage skin of the human intellect” as the saying goes. By contrast, Eastern Orthodoxy seems less concerned with its communicants understanding the sacrament as it is with them partaking of it in a worthy manner; that is to say, that one continually grow in awareness of his own fallen condition and thereby continually increase in humility and true repentance with the help of God. In that respect one could say that there is little difference between children and adults, for both need to grow in self-awareness in relation to their Creator, and increase in their faith and love and in the Christian life. Here we understand that we must indeed become as little children and participate in the grace of God available through the sacraments in order to grow and mature as God intends.

Since little children are the very model for this which Christ put before us, it seems very odd indeed that any church would deny needed spiritual nourishment to these on the basis that they lack an adult’s sophisticated “understanding” of things. It would seem that such folks are putting into practice the exact opposite of what Christ commands, and misunderstand His intentions entirely.

Thanks for taking the time to read my blog and post your comment!

Fr. Michael

Sunday, April 02, 2006

St. John Climacus

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

On this Fourth Sunday of Great Lent, the Orthodox Church commemorates St. John Climacus, the author of “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” which is a book comprised of a series of short sermons on achieving perfection in the Christian life.

St. John was born in Sinai in the 6th century and was tonsured as a monk at the age of 19 or 20. At the age of 35 he left the cenobitic or communal form of monasticism to become a hermit for 40 years. It was during this time that he received the grace of continual prayer and the gift of tears. Fellow monks began to seek him out in great numbers for guidance in the spiritual life until he became so popular that he was accused of making a mockery of the eremitic lifestyle. He responded to this in humility by renewing his silence and refusing to see any visitors. After about a year of this, those who had harshly accused him repented and pleaded with him to resume his work of guiding others.

Soon after this, he was appointed the Abbot of the monastery at Mt. Sinai, built on the very spot were Moses encountered God in the Burning Bush. It is said that on the day that St. John was installed as the new Abbot, Moses himself appeared, giving commands to those who served at the holy altar!

The Ladder of Divine Ascent was written for those involved in monastic endeavors, but it truly has much to offer all Christians who seek to subdue the sinful passions and purify their love for Christ. If you look at a proper icon of The Ladder you will notice that it has 30 rungs, corresponding to the 30 chapters in the book, each one encouraging the reader to put away the love of earthly things and continue an upward climb, step by step in the acquisition of virtue, progressing toward a state of spiritual perfection in Christ.

Speaking of ladders, I have noticed over the many years that I have worked as a house painter that most people dislike these useful devices. Ascending to dizzying heights holds little appeal for many folks. While this is true enough in the physical realm, it unfortunately seems to spill over into the spiritual realm as well. There are many Christians today who would reject St. John’s Ladder with some prejudice, claiming that it represents man’s attempt to “work” his way into heaven by his own efforts. What is missing from their theology is the concept of synergy which is defined as man working together with God, uniting our will and action to His grace and energies to accomplish what man by his works alone could never do. There are many places in Scripture where we are specifically told to cooperate with God and to labor diligently and daily to eliminate sin from our lives and progress toward Christian perfection.

One such place can be found in II Peter, chapter one, in a passage that sounds remarkably like a ladder of divine ascent itself. Having just reminded his readers of our high calling in Christ and the things given to us by His divine power, the apostle continues: “Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall: for so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” [2 Peter 1:4-11]

Notice how St. Peter makes it plain that those who remain barren and unfruitful, though they were purged from their previous sins, are not guaranteed salvation as if by “faith only”. Cooperation with God in the cultivation of the Christian virtues is necessary to make our calling and election sure and for entrance into the kingdom to be granted unto us.

The subduing of our many earthly passions and the uniting of them into one focused passion for God, together with growth in virtue, is the biblical and Orthodox characterization of the true Christian life. As Orthodox Christians, we must be careful not to be “afraid of heights” in the spiritual sense, and stubbornly remain earthly while God is calling us to climb ever upward and become heavenly. We must seek to embrace what the Scriptures teach and our Holy Tradition echoes concerning the Christian life as one of divine ascent from where we are now to where God wants us to be.

In commemorating St. John Climacus and remembering his Ladder of Divine Ascent on this day, the Church is not suggesting that we are all called to live as monks. But it is reminding us that we are all called to live as Christians, and therefore to set our affection on things above, not on things on the earth.

In our heart of hearts we know whether we are learning to love the things of God or whether we still despise them, being slavishly attached to the things of this world. We know whether we are cooperating with the saving grace of God in our lives and are working together with Him, or else are resisting. While progress is often difficult to measure, we at least still know whether we are consistently making a sincere effort in good faith, or are giving in to sloth and are making excuses for a careless attitude toward our holy upward calling in Christ Jesus.

Beloved, we are designed to ascend to the heights of heaven and to share in the holiness of Christ in glory. Let us not regard the exertion that is required on our part with contempt, as if God were asking far too much. Do we shrink back when we are called to labor, as if we feel our lives should be one long vacation from spiritual struggle? If so, then we must shake that off and get back to work with strength, lest ultimately we fall into ruin. This is what this Sunday of St. John Climacus reminds us of, here in the midst of our Lenten pursuits, and I close with the Troparion written to his memory:

“Thou hast set up a holy ladder by thy words and hast shone forth as a teacher of monks; thou dost lead us, O John, from the purification that comes from discipline to the light of the Divine Vision. O righteous father, pray to Christ our God to grant us His great mercy.”

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.