Thursday, July 27, 2006

Are you there?

As I labor without respite way down in The Abandoned Mind, wielding pick and shovel with blistered hands, sending up tiny thimblefuls of raw thoughts to the surface for others to process, I find my only reward to be the comments tossed back down the shaft by the occasional reader. These might be “Hey, this hole is a menace; somebody should fill it in!” or “Doofus, you misspelled ‘Mine’!” Fortunately, most of the comments are more engaging and at times, downright fun.

Perhaps you’ve been following “the digs” down here, but have been reluctant to enter into the discussions for one reason or another. Well, here is a chance for you to post a quick comment and simply say “Howdy!” to let me know you’re up there. I think they call it “delurking”. At any rate it would be great to hear from you!

And now, back to the Mind…

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Living Scriptures, once again

I decided to rework my original post into a homily format. It contains much of the same material as before, but is somewhat revised. I thank my readers for their comments and input!

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

In last week’s homily, I made brief mention of the saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church as “living scriptures” whose lives manifest God’s self-revelation to us in flesh and blood rather than paper and ink. I thought perhaps I should speak further on this topic, since it may represent a rather new concept to some of us, particularly those just coming into Orthodoxy.

We must begin on something of a sad note, lamenting the fact that the saints of the Church are almost entirely ignored by contemporary Christendom. Christians will spend a great deal of time reading from the Old Testament about the ancient saints of Israel, and love these stories, even naming their children after many of those people. This is a very human characteristic; we naturally look up to our heroes in the faith and desire to learn from them and emulate the best qualities of their lives. Yet very oddly these same believers are almost entirely unaware of the saints of the Church era and virtually never read about their lives. From this response, one would think that God has been left entirely without a people to bear witness to Him for the last 2000 years!

How could there exist such a gap in the minds of people? How is it that folks who teach the stories of David or King Solomon in Sunday School so often neglect telling their children about St. Ignatius of Antioch, Mother Mary of Egypt, or St. Seraphim of Sarov? The answer can only be that these saints represent a church tradition that is completely foreign to the mindset of contemporary believers, despite its spanning the entire history of the Church era.

Since most of us originally came to Christ within the Evangelical paradigm, we know from experience that the true history of the Church and her saints is largely ignored. The early Reformers knew very little about Eastern Orthodoxy, since Rome had divided from the other Patriarchates centuries before, and had continued to evolve its own peculiar and divisive doctrines ever since. It was these abuses that the Reformers were rightly objecting to, just as the Eastern Orthodox Church had also done in its time. One would think that the opportunity for cooperation between the Orthodox and the Reformers would have been great, but it didn’t work out that way. Seeking some tool of leverage to use in their arguments against the Roman Catholic church, instead of turning to the Eastern Church which had stayed true to the apostolic tradition without corruption, the Reformers turned instead to the scriptures and, at least at first, Christian Patristics. The early Reformers were not all a bunch of bible-waving, bomb-throwers. Their use of Patristics to demonstrate how the Roman church had changed was quite valid.

However, such regard for Christians of an earlier age was not to last. The more that “Sola Scriptura” emerged as the dominant factor in shaping Protestant thought, the more divided it became and the greater the distance grew between it and the early Christianity it had once respected. Today, Evangelicals almost entirely ignore the historic Church and its teachings, which makes them something of a living contradiction as one friend of mine observed: the best of their theology they derive from a church tradition they no longer accept, and the more they adhere to their own foundational principle of “Sola Scriptura” the more fragmented and isolated they become.

In contrast with this, the saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church demonstrate a remarkable unity of faith and doctrine regardless of era, as well as providing us with a well-formed and clear vision of God that is consistent from generation to generation. How is this even possible? Ultimately it is made possible by the fact that the saints had so purified themselves through their many struggles, that God was able to clearly inscribe His image upon their very humanity. When we look at the saints, what do we see except the life of God formed in them? And when we see that, what do we want except that same life formed in us. Thus the saints truly are “living scriptures” revealing God, and drawing others to Him.

When you think about it, how did the New Testament scriptures originate? The apostles who wrote the epistles didn’t fall into some sort of hypnotic trance and “spirit write” them, unaware of what they were doing. These were men in whom the image of God had also been formed, and who each wrote from their own personal experience of God. Because each of their experiences of God were genuine, what they wrote matched up in essential content, revealing that one true God behind them. The scriptures were inspired—literally “God-breathed”—because it was the life of God that was within the men who wrote them.

In trying to get away from such an obvious synergy between God and the writers of the New Testament in order to remove the “taint” of man’s involvement, today’s Evangelicals have a notion that God simply “came upon” the apostles and virtually forced them to write these words. The scriptures weren’t “God-breathed” by a gentle breath; it was more like a violent hurricane, bending everything in its path! And why would God do this? So that we today would have the perfect word of God, the bible, untouched by human influence, armed with which we can announce our independence from the Church and the witness of all her saints throughout time.

But here’s the problem. The image of God is not found in a book, but in man himself. It is man whom God created to bear His divine image and reveal that to all creation. It is man who the Word of God Himself became and also dwelt among, so that the greatest and ultimate “Living Scripture” might be seen and men might unite with Him in His Body, the Church. The “Word of God” is not a book; He is the Son of God incarnate, revealing God in flesh and blood, and offering man precious union with Him that we might also become living reflections of the true God.

Because of this glorious incarnation of the Word of God, men can also become the words of God, reformed in His image and demonstrating truth to a dark and fallen world. This is why the lives of the saints in Eastern Orthodoxy are “living scriptures” for us to study and learn from and emulate, and why there is such great consistency in what they reveal to us of God from generation to generation. It is this great inheritance that so many have abandoned, but we hope will one day reclaim. The Christian saints should mean every bit as much to us today as the saints of Israel, and (wouldn’t you think?) even far more, since they each had Christ formed in them. It is simply not right that they are ignored.

If by some miracle there is to be any recovery of traditional Christianity by Evangelicals today, it will never happen through yet more bible study. They have so twisted the meaning of the scriptures as to no longer see the Church and her beliefs so plainly revealed there. Recovery will only happen when they rediscover the lives and teachings of the saints, and find that these wonderful people they have so long ignored were indeed shining beacons of a faith strange yet somehow familiar, whose lives truly revealed God in ways rarely seen today.

Neither can we Orthodox believers afford to neglect so bright a light as our saints. We also need to make a habit of reading their lives and thus be even further drawn to God by their example. May God so help us and guide us.

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

Monday, July 24, 2006

Living Scriptures

In a previous post, I referred to the historical saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church as “living scriptures” whose lives manifest God’s self-revelation to us in flesh and blood rather than paper and ink. While I believe this to be a valid claim, I realize that it may not land well with many contemporary Evangelical/Charismatic believers.

One reason for this is that people of such traditions generally ignore Christian history. They spend a great deal of time reading about the ancient saints of Israel, and uphold them even to the point of naming their own children after them. This is of course a very human characteristic; we naturally look up to our heroes in the faith and desire to learn from them and emulate the best qualities of their lives. Yet very oddly these same believers are almost entirely ignorant of the saints of the Church era and know very little to nothing about their lives. From this response, one would think that God has been left entirely without a people to bear witness to Him for the last 2000 years!

Evangelical/Charismatic believers, over the short period of their existence, have systematically reduced the role and meaning of the Church until they have evolved an essentially “churchless Christianity”. In their myopic view there remains no remnant of apostolic teaching outside of the bible as they interpret it, no liturgical tradition, no creeds or canons of any authority or contemporary significance, no witness to God in the lives of any saints, and no sacraments except in symbol only. Even the Church itself is redefined to become nothing more than an invisible roster of all true believers, regardless of affiliation or denomination. One might ask how such a definition could possibly be biblical when no such denominations existed at the time that the NT scriptures were written, but even that historical detail is ignored.

All of this has been engineered to leave the bible as the (alleged) sole source of faith and doctrine for the modern believer. But without any of the above mentioned God-ordained elements to constrain them or provide a context for their understanding of the bible, they are conveniently left with nothing but their own opinions to guide them in their interpretations of scripture. What this gets down to is that the individual has been installed as the sole authority in determining what the bible says. The Reformation did nothing to remove the blight of papal infallibility; it simply cast down one pope and elevated a million more to his throne, granting each the “ultimate authority” to define doctrine. As my new friend Abuian has noted, this makes the Evangelical/Charismatic movement a living contradiction, as the best parts of their theology they have inherited from a tradition they no longer accept, yet the more they adhere to their own foundational belief in “Sola Scriptura” the more fragmented and marginalized they become.

In this modern wasteland of human opinion and division, the lives of the saints of Eastern Orthodoxy provide a welcome relief. In contrast with the confusion of opinion within contemporary Christendom, they demonstrate a remarkable unity of belief and confession regardless of era, as well as providing us with a single, clear vision of God consistent from generation to generation. How is this even possible? Ultimately this was made possible by the fact that the saints had so purified their lives that God was able to inscribe Himself upon their hearts. Is this not what we see in the lives of the apostles who wrote the NT scriptures in the first place? St. Paul, St. Peter and the others did not fall into some sort of trance and “spirit write” their epistles; they each wrote from their own experience of God, and since their experiences were genuine, their writings matched up in essential meaning and revelation.

In the lives of the saints we see this very same thing. These men and women of the Church era so purified themselves from all human ego and opinion that they became living parchments, free of stain, upon which God could draw His own image and grant a revelation of Himself to the world. This is perhaps the component that Evangelicals and Charismatics have forgotten in their efforts to enshrine the bible as God’s ultimate self-revelation. It is man himself who is made to bear the image of God and to reveal that to the world. In most men that image is largely obscured by the agitation of sin and confusion. But in the lives of the saints, the waters are stilled and the reflection of God can more clearly be seen. In this respect the saints truly have become living scriptures, revealing God to the rest of us.

The Evangelical and Charismatic movement is largely based on the precept that the bible is God’s sole and final revelation to man. Imagine, all there is to know about the uncontainable and indescribable God found in one book! Perhaps because of this, those folks indoctrinated in this view feel free to ignore all the evidence to the contrary found in the life and history of the Church. Or is the other way around? Could it be that because they have ignored the 2000-year history of the Church and the witness of the life of God revealed in His saints, that they are left with the strange opinion that one book contains it all?

I am deeply struck at how a supposedly Christian people could so blithely ignore the true history of the Church, and even rewrite that history in their minds until the Church itself simply fades away, together with the testimony of all the saints over that time. No wonder they are so fascinated with the OT scriptures and saints! While responding to the human desire for a sense of connection with those who have gone before, the Evangelicals and Charismatics apparently believe that the OT saints were the last faithful people on the face of the planet and everything which happened since Christ founded His Church is tainted and irrelevant. Surely any thoughtful person could see the error of this view. Yet the life of the Church and the image of God written on His NT saints continues to be ignored by so many today. This is a very sad situation and the exact opposite of what is needed to restore some light of revelation in these dark last days.

May God have mercy on us!

Spiritual Formation

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

When you look through the gospels at the three-year relationship between our Lord Jesus Christ and His twelve hand-picked disciples, you cannot help but be struck by what a truly astonishing relationship it was.

First of all, these men were blessed to walk with God! Could there be any more amazing human experience than to spend every day of an entire three year period living with the Creator and Maker of all? They traveled with Him, ate and drank with Him, prayed with Him, listened to His teachings and stories, and slept under the same roof with Him every night. They came to know Him better than anyone, save His own Mother.

At the same time, the gospels reveal another dimension of their relationship with our Lord. Despite the great advantage of their intimate affiliation with Jesus, these men frequently misunderstood His mission, misinterpreted many of His teachings, and often failed to grasp the things He repeatedly taught them. It wasn’t until Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon them with power, that they slowly began to connect the dots and understand many of the things they had witnessed during the preceding three years, and the time and effort they had expended during that discipleship finally began to bear fruit in their lives.

Of course Pentecost was just the beginning. For the rest of their lives the apostles would continue to undergo the process of spiritual formation and would in time become very different, much more enlightened men from what they were even at Pentecost. By the end of their lives, they would truly be transformed.

What this illustrates is the simple reality that spiritual formation takes time. This is an important lesson for us to learn and remember, for we live in an impatient culture that demands immediate gratification in all things. What we want we must have now and if we have to wait for anything, it is an unbearable torment. It’s tragic but no surprise really that this cultural impatience is even found in our contemporary religions. Popular Christianity has reduced salvation to an instant experience, and makes a bad situation worse by instructing its new converts that once having received salvation, they are immediately “spiritually illumined” to read and interpret the scriptures of the Church “as the Spirit leads them” with no regard for the established beliefs of that same Church or how the Holy Spirit Himself has consistently led it through the ages. This fits very well with the American ideal of fierce independence and self-reliance, together with our desire for everything in life to be quick and easy. But what has it led to? Ignorance, delusion, and error are rampant, and fragmentation and division between Christians is the rule.

Imagine if our Lord, instead of investing three years disciplining, instructing, and correcting the apostles, had simply handed out bibles to them on the first day and said, “Go start My Church”. Do you think the result would have been anything other than doctrinal disagreement, quarreling, and twelve separate churches all calling themselves Christian? There is no way on earth our Lord would have allowed such a thing, yet among divided Christians today it passes for the norm.

Traditional Christianity recognizes that there is still a need for discipleship and a period of spiritual formation measured in years, even lifetimes, rather than in moments. It doesn’t accommodate itself to our preference for instant gratification or our desire to be our own, independent spiritual guides. In fact, it rather strenuously objects to these fallen impulses.

It also recognizes that human beings require a lengthy period of purification preceding true spiritual illumination. Our reasoning souls have been darkened by a lifetime of enslavement to the flesh; we are driven by ego and many fallen passions. Such things do not simply evaporate the instant we believe in Jesus. Once again, it takes time and communion with Christ in His Church to bring correction and healing to us and allow true spiritual formation to take place.

One of the things that can be seen in Eastern Orthodoxy is a great consistency of faith and confession in the lives of the saints throughout its entire twenty centuries of existence. This stands in sharp contrast with the division and confusion of contemporary Christendom. Having been purified by the therapeutic askesis of the Church, the saints all came to the same essential knowledge of God, despite vast differences in language and culture and era. The essential vision of God has remained the same in all the saints of the Orthodox Church because it was not ultimately based upon human opinion or personal interpretation of the scriptures, but upon the direct enlightening of God’s self-revelation to those who were pure enough to perceive it. In a very real sense, the saints became “living scriptures” written in flesh and blood rather than paper and ink, revealing God to us through their lives. When men today reduce the entire self-revelation of the uncontainable and indescribable God down to a single book—even that greatest of all books, the bible—and then attempt to interpret it by a human reason not yet made pure, it does not matter if they claim to have the Holy Spirit guiding them, the results will inevitably be what we see in the world around us: many different gods and many different confessions, and not what we see in the life of the Orthodox Church: one God, consistently known and confessed.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”. Of the three-part nature of the Orthodox life—purification, illumination, and deification—the only part that we have anything to do with at all is the first one, purification. We cannot illumine ourselves, we cannot deify ourselves, but we can purify ourselves with the help of God. Through careful obedience to the ascetic disciplines of the Church, fueled by our desire to draw ever nearer to Christ, we can slowly gain the purity of life and heart that allows God to begin to reveal Himself to us. There are no shortcuts to this process. Book knowledge and study, though important, do not take the place of divine illumination. Neither is there any way to live in sin and spiritual sloth and come to the true knowledge of God.

Just like the apostles and all the saints, we must devote ourselves to a lifelong experience of following Christ, of being discipled by Him in His Church, of being corrected by Him, at times of being rebuked by Him, always being nurtured by Him, that over time we may come to the knowledge of Him and the vision of God. For “this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” This is true salvation; not an “instant status” bestowed by a single decision for Christ, but a complete transformation which is the result of a lifetime of choosing for Jesus.

Let us join with all the saints before us in pursuing this life of purifying discipleship with patience, that together with them, we may also receive the blessing of transformation and of knowing God unto life eternal.

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

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Orthodox Evangelism

Several odd echoes were heard bouncing around the eroding walls of The Abandoned Mind last week that seemed to converge into a single thought pertaining to Orthodox evangelism. Ideas which seem simply brilliant in that poorly-illumined environment are frequently revealed as mere smoldering wicks when brought out into the harsh light of day. Thus I present this offering to you who dwell above ground to determine if its nature is more of light or of smoke.

The first echo was heard as I was putting the finishing touches on a new paper entitled “Askesis in the Ordinary Orthodox Life” which is intended for people new to our faith as an introduction to the simple asceticism of prayer, fasting, almsgiving and works of charity, the study of Scripture and of Orthodox spiritual writings, the continuous remembrance of God, and the general metanoia (repentance) of the Orthodox Christian life. Although infinitely less intense than monastic asceticism, even in the relatively toned-down form commonly practiced at the parish level, the disciplines of Orthodox askesis seem very difficult to Christians used to an entirely different system of spiritual pursuit mostly centered on Bible study alone. This paper was written to explain the importance of askesis and why it often seems to be such a difficult way of life to us.

To put it simply, Orthodox askesis seems hard because it reveals to us (surprise!) that we are truly fallen human beings after all. If we try to keep even a minimal daily rule of prayer we quickly find ourselves stymied by a strange and deeply-rooted resistance to it. Our excuse is that we can’t find the time to pray or have too much else to do, but on the inside we know that the real reason we don’t pray is simply because we don’t want to. One of the causes (as well as a continuing consequence) of the fall is that man craves complete autonomy from God. Oh, we want God to save us from hell or to bless us from heaven with good health and prosperity, but beyond that we would really much prefer to be our own gods and live without dependence upon any other. Infecting our darkened hearts is an idolatrous and shameful self-reliance that rankles at the idea of offering praise and thanksgiving to the almighty and adorable God such as is fitting for mere creatures like us to give. Like the Serpent before us, we want independence from God and we indeed want to be above God. It is hard for people with such ambitions to humbly prostrate themselves before the true God in prayer. On the plus side, the chances are that we would never become aware of this impulse in us unless we were given a rule of prayer to struggle with in the first place.

We learn similar terrible truths about ourselves when we try to fast. The Genesis story tells us that Adam fell from grace by breaking his simple fast. Turning aside from dependence upon God, he looked to the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil to give him something immediately that he did not have the patience to wait upon God to receive. He wanted his “eyes to be opened” and to “become like God,” not through God’s process of spiritual illumination and theosis, but through a quick and earthly means which “seemed good” to his rational mind. He said “no” to God and “yes” to this food as the means to obtain what he wanted. Orthodox spirituality recognizes that this damning tendency still resides in us, and not just regarding food only, but also in all the other earthly things that we turn to expecting to receive from them a satisfaction and contentment greater than that which God gives. By imposing upon us a regular and regulated fasting, the askesis of Orthodox spirituality challenges us to say “no” to food and to learn to say “yes” once again to God. By learning to say no to food and control our bodily appetites, we also learn to say no to the many other bodily sins and passions which might otherwise overcome us. This is why the Desert Fathers taught us that the greatest weapon against the temptation of fornication is diligent fasting from food. At first blush we may not see the connection between the two, but again it gets down to the idea that if we are so easily overcome by the simple lust for a cheeseburger on a fast day, how will we ever learn to control the far greater lustful temptations of the more devastating sins of the flesh? We fallen human beings need to learn to care for our souls and strengthen them by disciplining our bodies and denying them that which they blindly and foolishly crave.

The second echo came as the result of a conversation with a new inquirer into Orthodoxy who commented to me how startled he was to discover how difficult the askesis of Orthodoxy is. Although he had been a Protestant believer for many years, and would truthfully be considered a “mature Christian” in that environment, he found the askesis of Orthodoxy very humbling by virtue of the fact that it introduces a struggle seemingly way out of proportion to the simple demands it makes. He was finding it difficult to keep the basic rule of prayer and the very simple fast I had prescribed for him to begin with. He therefore wondered if he was “cut out” for life as an Orthodox Christian because of this. I don’t know a single experienced Orthodox Christian who wouldn’t be sympathetic to these feelings! I explained that he was simply making the basic discovery that we have all made, namely that we are surely forgiven by God, but still fallen in our humanity. Orthodox askesis comprises the essential elements of the long and often painful road back to a life directed not by fleshly passions and cravings for comfort and pleasure, but by the Spirit of God and the fruits that obedience to Him brings into our lives, such as self-control, patience, and godliness.

The third echo reverberating off the walls of The Abandoned Mind was the reminder to me that both Evangelical and Charismatic Christians have largely abandoned physical disciplines and elevated Bible reading to the status of being the primary and all-in-one sacrament and tool of spiritual growth. Among such folks, spirituality is often foolishly gauged on the basis of how many Bible verses a person has memorized and can seamlessly insert into a conversation, as well as his overall proficiency in utilizing selected verses to proof-text his chosen theological views. A knowledgeable and persuasive man is therefore perceived to be a spiritually mature man more often than not. In that context, purity of belief is seen as being more important than purity of life, for we are all sinners after all, and no one is perfect (“Christians are not perfect, just forgiven” is the bumper-sticker expression of this popular concept). Thus not only are the evangelical/charismatic camps heavily weighted toward a strictly cerebral approach to God, but they also view the ancient Christian disciplines of traditional prayers, fasting, almsgiving, and etc. that make up Orthodox askesis with suspicion, on the basis that they seem to detract from the all-important business of attending to the mind alone and filling it with postmodern Protestant dogma.

So what does all this have to do with Orthodox evangelism? Simply put, I have my doubts that Orthodoxy is poised to become “the next great religious movement” of America. By virtue of their unprecedented prosperity, Americans have become soft and flabby, and lovers of pleasure, comfort, and convenience. Evangelicalism and its offshoot, the Charismatic movement, have made great inroads into the American culture, not because they represent truth, but in large part because they have made Christianity “convenient” for so many Americans.

In the early centuries of the faith, Christianity was not presented as a set of beliefs but as a way of life. Seen as the fulfillment of Judaism and incorporating its core practices, Christianity soon spread beyond that environment and ethos to the pagan worlds outside. This required there to be extensive catechisms, often lasting for three years, to introduce pagan converts to the mindset and lifestyle of the Christian faith. It wasn’t simply a matter of presenting folks with “The Four Spiritual Laws” and leading them to accept Jesus. They needed to be taught how to live out a genuine metanoia leading to spiritual illumination and growth in the likeness of God in Christ. Christian practice centered on the liturgical worship and sacramental life of the Church which, existing prior to the advent of Zwingli in the 16th century, had not yet been explained away as purely symbolic and cerebral. In short, Christianity was a real commitment to a real way of life, and not just a set of principles that one intellectually accepted in order to “get saved”.

Eastern Orthodoxy remains a serious commitment, and our catechisms still often last at least a year or more, largely to undo the effects of Western rationalism which was responsible for leading the later Reformers away from belief in the “mystery” of the Church and its sacraments toward the resulting exaltation of “reason” and sensible religion, and of course the cheap grace mentality of contemporary Christendom. Orthodoxy, while remaining a truly universal faith, is still not everyone’s cup of tea. Persons wedded to their modern doctrinal systems, and wielding their Bibles to declare their complete independence and autonomy from the historic Christian Church, will not likely be attracted to it. We fallen humans like to be self-reliant, remember, and in the minds of many the Bible grants them that exact desire. Also, Americans who simply want a convenient religion that does not make too many demands on them will never find Orthodoxy appealing.

In considering these things, I wonder if Orthodoxy should not be thought of as just another option on the American religious scene, another choice as it were, but rather as a calling from God. While that may sound dreadfully pretentious to some, to those who have entered into the Orthodox life and its narrow and difficult way of askesis, there may appear to be an inkling of truth to the claim. Surely no one would choose to voluntarily lay down his life, take up his own cross daily, and follow Christ on a path of constant self-denial and a kind of “living martyrdom” unless he were called to that by God. There are so many easier, or more “self-affirming,” or frankly entertaining forms of Christianity to choose from. Churches today are practically scrambling over themselves in the effort to become “seeker-sensitive” and offer folks the religion that they want. Walk into any Christian bookstore and you will find infinite shelves of self-help books putting a Christian spin on the nation’s desire for self-fulfillment, or as it is expressed in the religious jargon, the “abundant life”. Where are the books on metanoia, on the voluntary self-cancellation inherent in the traditional Christian way, leading to exaltation by God? Good luck on finding those, as this is not what is appealing to the majority of American Christians.

And so, if indeed Orthodoxy is a calling, in order for Orthodox evangelism to be effective it requires that we Orthodox believers ourselves fulfill that calling to live our faith to the maximum of our ability. What good is there in asking others to embrace a lifestyle that we ourselves live only marginally? We cannot afford to offer the insipid counsel to “look upon the message, not the messenger” in our dealings with others. Orthodoxy is an incarnational faith; it must be fleshed out and lived, otherwise it is simply another cerebral exercise with no merit, and an unnecessarily complex one at that!

Yes, the Orthodox way is difficult. But that is because we are truly fallen and thus for us, the way leading to destruction is far easier than the way leading to God. Though difficult, Orthodoxy is also the way of true joy, for it actually and literally delivers people from the tyranny of sin and forms the holiness of God within them. Orthodoxy does not try to shortcut the process to joy by ignoring our sins and simply “praising Jesus”. It recognizes that our Lord indeed taught, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”. The difficult struggle to defeat our sins causes much mourning along the way. But it leads to the true joy of victory over them and unhindered communion with God.

This is the life that God has called us to, and perhaps will call many others to as well. Let us do our best to see our life as a calling and fulfill it, not only for our sakes, but for the sake of any others whom God may call into communion with Himself through the ancient and holy way of His Orthodox Church.

There you have it! I will leave you who dwell in the land of bright sun and blue sky to decide whether this thought is more of light or of smoke, while I return to my labors deep within The Abandoned Mind.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Placing of the Venerable Robe of the Most Holy Theotokos at Blachernae

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

Today is the Feast of the Placing of the Venerable Robe of the Most Holy Theotokos at Blachernae. During the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Leo the Great (457-474), the brothers Galbius and Candidus, associates of the emperor, set out from Constantinople to Palestine to venerate the holy places. In a small settlement near Nazareth they stayed in the home of a certain old Christian woman of Jewish descent. In her house they noticed a room where many lamps were lit, incense burned, and sick people were gathered, praying. When they asked her what the room contained, the pious woman reluctantly divulged that a very precious relic was in her possession: the Robe of the Mother of God, which had performed many miracles and healings. Before Her Dormition, Mary bequeathed her Robe to a pious Jewish maiden, an ancestor of the old woman, as a gift. Thus, the Robe of the Mother of God was preserved and handed down in this family from generation to generation.

The jeweled chest, containing the sacred Robe, was transferred to Constantinople. At Blachernae, near the seacoast, a new church in honor of the Mother of God was constructed. On June 2, 458 St. Gennadius transferred the sacred Robe into the new church with appropriate solemnity, placing it within a new reliquary.

On several occasions the Most Holy Theotokos protected the city to which she had given her Robe against invasions by foreign enemies. Then on June 18, 860 the worst attack of all came upon the city by a fleet of Russia ships numbering more that 200. Day and night they laid waste to the coastline. The Patriarch Photius called upon his flock to repent of their sins in tears and petition the Mother of God for protection. As the danger increased, the decision was made to save the holy relics within the church, and thus after serving an all-night vigil, the Robe of the Theotokos was removed and carried around the walls of the city in procession. From there it was brought to Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and placed within the cathedral. The Mother of God was pleased to protect the city, and the Russians broke off their attack and soon returned home.

On July 2nd the Robe of the Theotokos was returned to the church at Blachernae and placed within its reliquary once again. The Patriarch Photius dedicated that day as an annual Feast to the Theotokos, and this is what we celebrate today.

Feasts dedicated to the Mother of God are often the most challenging to those of us from an evangelical background. We were taught to see such things as somehow taking glory away from Christ, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. In Isaiah 42, God declared, “I am the Lord; that is My name, and My glory I will not give to another”. Yet in John 17 our Lord declared something so radically different, you would almost think that He was establishing a New Covenant! He declared, “And now, O Father, glorify Thou Me with Thine own self with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was…And the glory which Thou gavest Me I have given them [meaning, those who follow Him]; that they may be one even as We are one.”

As our Lord reveals this passage, God is now pleased to share His glory with those who follow Christ. Our Lord has done more than to simply forgive the sins of a fallen race; He has joined Himself to that race through His Incarnation in order to lift it up to spectacular, unimaginable heights. The glorified and God-filled humanity of Jesus becomes the conduit through which we receive the uncreated life of God, and become sharers in His divine glory. He does this without diminishing His own glory in any way. It is a remarkable act of humility and condescension for God to share His glory with us creatures, yet He does so joyously and without regret. Is the sun envious when it sees its own light reflected back from the moon? Neither does God become jealous when His glory shines forth from the saints and sheds His beautiful light upon the earth. This is all part of His good and perfect plan.

That God sanctifies not only the souls of His holy ones, not only their bodies, but sometimes even the garments that they wore is not only further testimony of His unimaginable power, but gives us a sneak peek into the fact that He is at work to redeem and sanctify ALL of creation, and will one day fill everything with His holiness!

This sanctification of matter itself, central to God’s plan of redemption, is often an essential element missing from contemporary Christian teaching, and the reason why so many people struggle with the idea of holy people or holy relics. Limited by a rationalistic approach to Christianity, many people write off the reports of miracle-working relics as fables, or worse, as tales designed by a cunning Church hierarchy to increase its power over the ignorant and superstitious. I think it is tragic that so many Christians today, who really should have a better understanding of the power of God, are as skeptical as any disbeliever over its many manifestations.

However, if one makes a pilgrimage to holy Mt. Athos, he is exposed to an entirely different reality than what is normally experienced in the spiritually dull environment of the world in which we live. There, expectations are raised, vision is made clearer, ceaseless prayer is offered, holiness is pursued, and the entire peninsula has become a point of intersection between heaven and earth as a result. Every monastery there is home to one or more miracle-working icons or relics of the saints. Stories of visitations by the Mother of God abound, and evidence of her presence and her all-powerful prayers is found everywhere. Diseases are cured, torments are lifted, broken people are made whole, and love reigns. The whole place just seems to burst with life to a degree that makes the world outside seem quite dead by comparison.

We may live in that outside world of lowered spiritual expectations and darker vision, but that does not mean that we must be overcome by such things ourselves. Whereas Athos provides a culture that heightens spiritual awareness, our world provides a culture that dulls that and wears it down. Yet our faith need not dissolve like a sandcastle by the shore. Feasts like today’s, which remind us of the awesome power of God—that He can make even the garment of a holy person holy itself and work His good will and salvation through such ordinary things—can raise our level of spiritual sensitivity tremendously. Let the hardened skeptics call us fools if they wish; what is that to us? We are not seeking the face of Christ in a potato chip or the Virgin Mary in a mildew stain. We are simply praising the grace and power of God where it can legitimately be found, in full accordance with our Orthodox Christian theology. If anything, we need more sensitivity toward God and less toward what others may think of us as a result.

So let us keep this Feast with joy, praising God for His divine power through which He has given unto us all things pertaining to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who has called us to glory and virtue together with all His saints.

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