19 August 2007

Philogia Justiniani: "Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells"

I must say, I really enjoyed Matthew Gallatin's Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells. He comes from the same charismatic background that my family had been involved in at one time, and is an educated fellow about Protestantism in general. That makes this particular book very good for those inquiring into the faith from that background, as well as being the book that I will now loan out to evangelical/charismatic friends who ask me questions about why I became Orthodox. Also, for those who don't know, Matthew has a podcast on Ancient Faith Radio (see link in the sidebar) called "Pilgrims from Paradise." His most recent topic has been a multi-part study of the life of Abraham as a refutation of the Protestant doctrine of sola fide. Many of the point he makes in it are also addressed in Thirsting for God.

One of the most poignant things about this book, to me, was the confessional nature of it. Gallatin's sincerity is hard to ignore, and his devotion to Orthodoxy comes, literally, from a feeling of finally finding what he was looking for after years of trying to get it elsewhere. Gallatin's best moments come when he, in detail, describes why it is that Protestants are always looking to get back to that "first moment of discovering Jesus" experience--and why they never get there. His extended metaphor of the process of salvation (and, let's note, it is a process--a life-long struggle--not a one-time event) as a "dance" with God is one that comes back later in the podcast, but is a brilliant way of showing that the Eastern conception of salvation is a set of interactive movements that we make with God. This is contrasted with the Western understanding of "who God is" that comes primarily through thinking about God. As Gallatin points out, if you are in another room from the woman who you've been told about--and you love all that you know about her--until you step through the doorway and get to know her, all you really have is a mental picture. You can't really be in love with a mental picture. Gallatin rightly points out that it is precisely the participation in the Sacramental life of the Church where God meets us at the doorway, and invites us to participate in his very own life and existence. This is where salvation lies--not in thinking about God's goodness or his righteousness, but in joining ourselves to his life (which is, by definition, goodness and righteousness) in the way that he has proscribed.

In all, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells is a great read, and very instructive for those who are Orthodox, those inquiring into Orthodoxy, or for those who just want to understand what we Orthodox are so on about.

14 August 2007

A Saying from the Desert Fathers

Abba Ammonas was asked, 'What is the "narrow and hard way?" (Mt. 7.14) He replied, 'The "narrow and hard way" is this, to control your thoughts, and to strip yourself of your own will, for the sake of God. This is also the meaning of the sentence, "Lo, we have left everything and followed you." (Mt. 19.27)

11 August 2007

Romance, Dating, and Marriage

Let me just say, I am thoroughly--entirely--opposed to modern "relationships." This includes "hooking up" and "friends with benefits," but, surprising to most people, it also includes dating. That's right, I said it, I'm opposed to dating.

Now, there are (generally speaking) two schools of thought on people like me. The first, into which I imagine all my non-Orthodox readers will fall (and, I'm sure, some of the Orthodox ones), would view me to be an aberration; most of my Orthodox readers will probably say, "He must want to be a monk." Well, there's the question: do I want to be a monk? Well, no, I don't want to be a monk.

Now, you're wondering--if I don't want to be a monk, and I'm against dating, then what in the world could I possibly expect out of life?

Good question.

You will notice, I think, that I'm not opposed to marriage. Of course I am not; Marriage is a blessed Mystery of the Church--just as holy as are the Eucharist, Confession, Monastic orders, Baptism, Chrismation, and Holy Unction. If I am blessed enough to be married one day, I will be happy in that. But there are some things that I feel about modern attitudes toward marriage, and most of those feelings end in distaste. Marriage is a Mystery of the Church, a Sacrament. It is not a legal right, and it has nothing to do with civil law. If civil law chooses to recognize the union of two people that comes about through Marriage, fine; but there must be no talk of a right to marry...this is simply not the case. Just as those outside of the life of the Church cannot participate in the other sacraments, they cannot participate in Marriage either. Hence, what is typically thought of as "marriage" in modern times is, in fact, civil union. These may be conducted by whomever (from Protestant pastors to wiccan high priestess to members of the ruling bureaucracy). Civil recognition does not a marriage make.

Marriage is a state of askesis--a practice of the ascetic life of a Christian. It is not a socially-sanctioned (or Church sanctioned) license to have sex. It is a calling to deny the ego, deny the passions; no healthy marriage can be founded with two egotists living together, bound together by the sacrament. Neither does a healthy marriage have one partner's ego subsumed into the other's; that would not result in the health and salvation of both partners...in fact, it causes one person to participate in the sins of another, and so, both are condemned. A healthy marriage is founded on mutual love; there must be three persons in a marriage for it to be successful. There is a Trinitarian reason for this assertion, and this is why there can be no true Marriage outside of Christianity. As our example in the divine Godhead shows, there can only be unity through trinunity; we must be a model of the mutual-indwelling love as we see in the Holy Trinity. Therefore, any marriage must have the man, the woman, and the Holy Spirit. We are called to get outside of our own selfishness, being perfectly united in love to our spouses; we can only do this through the Holy Spirit, which is the gift of God to us. Christian Marriage, then, is the true restoration of man's condition in Eden, where God observed "it is not good for Man to be alone." Adam and Eve were united to each other through their mutual communion with God.

The question then, is, what does this have to do with dating? The answer is, everything.

Modern notions of dating and romantic relationships are, ultimately, antithetical to this understanding of marriage. The conditions of what passes for romantic involvement in contemporary society do not train people for Marriage; what they do well, however, is train people for divorce. Openness to another person necessarily entails a great deal of mutual vulnerability; when this vulnerability is violated (through the termination of a relationship), the soul is scarred. With enough scars, over time, the ability to open up and be vulnerable is lost. At this point, you can end a relationship on a whim, and it would hurt very little (or, at least, much less than it should). Is it any wonder then, with people marrying later and later in life, after years of intense relationships that have eventually deteriorated, that people approach all relationships with a certain pragmatic cynicism? I, for one, see these as precisely the conditions necessary for a gigantic divorce rate; I see the egotrip that everyone (absolutely everyone, and in our culture, to the nth degree) is on, and that pragmatic cynicism, leading to the idea that a relationship is only as good as what I am getting out of it. It is also why people (especially women, but also some men, who have been raised by Hollywood romance-comedies) have no understanding of what a healthy relationship is; they expect to be fully and totally complete with their partner. And, of course, because we're all flawed, fallen human beings, we will inevitably let each other down. When this happens, that world we've constructed around our partner is shattered, and we can't help but toss it away, because it has become worthless to us. But if that relationship was with God, through mutual communion in the Holy Spirit, the focus of the relationship would be entirely different. It would be a relationship, not just a pale imitation.

Woody Allen once observed that "Sex without love is an empty, hollow experience. But as empty, hollow experiences go, it's one of the best." Sadly, this statement almost totally encapsulates what's wrong with dating in our society. We'll settle for emptiness, for hollowness, for meaninglessness, because having something with meaning would be too much like work.

But, this is why I absolutely will not marry someone outside of the Church. This is also why I absolutely won't engage in "dating"--three dinner dates, a movie, followed by regular sex (which is the general rule of thumb, but, I suppose, some variation occurs on an individual level). Forget it, I value relationships more than that. I refuse to have something that is a pale imitation, when I know the real thing exists. If God wills it for me, he will bring it to me in his time, when I'm ready for it. Until then, the best thing I can do to find a wife is to walk as closely as I can with God--if I'm not in total communion with him, how will I know when I find the right woman?

OK, enough of this.

Glory be to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!

Pax vobsicum.

10 August 2007

Four Pieces of Spiritual Advice

These were from a letter written by Blessed Fr. Seraphim Rose:

1) Learn first of all to be at peace with the spiritual situation which has been given you, and to make the most of it. If your situation is spiritually barren, do not let this discourage you, but work all the harder at what you yourself can do for your spiritual life. It is already something very important to have access to the Sacraments and regular church services. Beyond this you should have regular morning and evening prayers with your family, and spiritual reading—all according to your strength and the possibilities afforded by your circumstances.

2) Among spiritual writings you should read especially those addressed to people living in the world, or which give the “ABC’s” of spiritual life—such as St. John of Kronstadt’s My Life in Christ, St. Nikodemos’ Unseen Warfare, the Lives of Saints in general, and Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov’s The Arena (this book, while addressed to novices, is suitable for laymen insofar as it gives in general the “ABC’s” of spiritual life as applied to modern times).

3) To help your spiritual growth and remind you of spiritual truths, it would be good to keep a journal (the hardbound “record” books sold in stationery stores are good), which would include excerpts from the writings of spiritual books which you find especially valuable or applicable to you, and perhaps comments of your own inspired by reading and reflection, including brief comments on your own shortcomings which you need to correct. St. John of Kronstadt found this especially valuable, as can be seen in his My Life in Christ.

4) Don’t criticize or judge other people—regard everyone else as an angel, justify their mistakes and weaknesses, and condemn only yourself as the worst sinner. This is step one in any kind of spiritual life.
This is great stuff. I'd comment, but that would just seem so...anticlimactic.

06 August 2007

Philogia Justiniani: "The Mountain of Silence"

There is so much to say about this book that there is absolutely no way I can say it all in a single sitting; but, I feel so strongly about Kyriacos Markides' The Mountain of Silence--and, I must say, strongly divided--that I think it justifies even such a shallow reflection as this will surely be.

First, I must say I am deeply torn over how I feel about The Mountain of Silence. On the one hand, much of it is a spiritual treasure. Dr. Markides' conversations with Fr. Maximos, an Athonite monk sent to be the Abbot of the Panagia tou Kykkou monastery on Cyprus, are a joy to read--in the sense that Fr. Maximos' reflections on the history and development of Orthodox spirituality are, and there's no other word for it, wonderful. Coming from an academically trained, Western protestant background, my understanding of monastic life is impoverished, and, understandably, a little skewed. Considering this, Fr. Maximos, and his recollections of his lessons with his teacher, Elder Paisios, have been a greatly enlightening read. I found the wisdom of the Athonite monks to be a challenge to a deeper conversion--which, I believe, St. Paul calls "the circumcision of the heart."

As I learned in catechism, asceticism is required of all Orthodox believers. The extent of the askesis, however, goes far beyond participation in the Sacrament of Confession and observation of the required periods of fasting. The division between the lay Christian of the parish and the monk is not so vast as our Western captivity wishes to make it. There is one rule of Christian faith, and it applies to monks and nuns as much as it does the rest of us living in the world; after all, as St. John Chrysostom reminds us, "The only difference between the married man and the monk is that the married man has a wife."

What, then, do those of us not in the monastery or the convent make of the ascetic practices to which we are called as Orthodox Christians? The answer to that question is the focus of what Fr. Maximos attempts to unfold to Dr. Markides over the six months that he spends with the Abbot at the Panagia monastery.

I say "attempts" because that leads me to my other opinion of the book; that is, as rich as are Fr. Maximos' teachings, it is equally painful to see how Dr. Markides--a sharp, smart man--cannot "get" what the wise Abbot is trying to tell him about the spiritual life. From this perspective, The Mountain of Silence resembles nothing half so much as a spiritual Macbeth--a high tragedy of epic proportions, played out in the life of a cradle Orthodox trained as a Western sociologist. At the risk of echoing what Frederica Mathewes-Green has to say about Markides, it seems as if, in his attempt to show the error of the prevailing materialism of Modernity, he goes toward the opposite error of Post-Modernism, and attempts to reduce the lessons of Mt. Athos to a formulaic system of spiritual exercises. He does what all post-modernists do, and confuses Meaning and Means. All of this happens, sadly, as Fr. Maximos repeatedly admonishes Markides not to do precisely that.

Instead of seeing the Orthodox spiritual tradition as the Fathers describe it (in the high patristic age, "the True philosophy"--but in our age, we might well say "the True Spiritual Enlightenment"), he engages in thinly veiled and barely contained syncretism that tries to equate the Athonite elders with the yogis and masters of Oriental religions. Also disturbing is Markides' openly acknowledged sympathies for the beliefs of Origen, which have been condemned by the Church since the Fifth Ecumenical Council. Markides objects to the anathemas placed on Origen and those who subscribe to his beliefs, because the condemnation of Origen's teachings happened over a century after his death, thus he was unable to provide a defense for himself. This smacks of post-modernist theories of "reclaiming" elements from a tradition to bring it into conformity with contemporary biases. In short, it is a dangerous game that, most likely, should not be played.

So, when I ask myself if I would recommend The Mountain of Silence, I can only say that I'm not sure it would be suitable for inquirers into the faith (and I'm terrified that this may be some people's first exposure to Orthodoxy), and catechumens should probably leave this book alone just because it may confuse them about the nature of the teachings of the Church and what is and is not acceptable in terms of theological opinion. Actually, I wish that I hadn't read it before getting some input from my Spiritual Father, just because it caused me to raise some questions that are better left for the classroom and out of the spiritual life. Separating the wheat from the chaff is definitely necessary with this one, and it requires a great deal of patience and prayer to do.

Pax vobiscum.

03 August 2007

Spiritual Advice from Douglas MacArthur?

"We are not retreating - we are advancing in another direction."

So, in my continuing thoughts on monasticism, askesis, and the ascetic struggle in the life of ordinary lay Christians (like myself), I ran across this quote. Now, I know it is supposed to be a pithy, ego-aggrandizement from one of the most ego-centric figures of the 20th century. But, I think this is, very likely, a motto for monastics.

Monks and nuns are often accused of retreating from the world. As a matter of fact, they are not retreating at all; they are advancing in another [opposite] direction. They are advancing toward union with God; is it any wonder, then, to those of us still living in the world (and, most often, those of us still of the world) look at them and see their efforts as them trying to get away from the rest of us? We forget, so easily, that their eyes are no longer on us, but have been refocused on the experience of the living God. They are advancing, in every sense. It is, rather, we who are in a negative condition--especially those of us still of the world, those of us still stuck in the mire of unredeemed passions, those of us still desperately churning in the throes of logismoi that we both love and abhor (and are, somehow, not quite willing to deny).

The monastics are there for the rest of us; their purpose is to show us an example of how to love God fully, how to unite fully to him, in the flesh.

Pray for us, holy saints, that He will save our souls! Amen.

The Feast of the Transfiguration

Troparion (Tone 7)

You were Transfigured on the Mount, O Christ God,
Revealing Your glory to Your disciples as far as they could bear it.
Let Your everlasting Light shine upon us sinners!
Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Giver of Light, glory to You!

Kontakion (Tone 7)

On the Mountain You were Transfigured, O Christ God,
And Your disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could see it;
So that when they would behold You crucified,
They would understand that Your suffering was voluntary,
And would proclaim to the world,
That You are truly the Radiance of the Father!

The Feast of Transfiguration is coming up on Monday (Aug. 6th by the Revised Julian Calendar)! Oh, this is my third favorite feast day, after Easter and Theophany. Just read the Troparion and Kontakion of the feast! How can it not excite you? How can it hammer into you that it is Christ, the Radiant and Eternal Logos of the Ever-existing Father that came, condescended to our lowliness, and assumed the form of a servant in order to hallow service. As St. Gregory the Theologian said, "That which is unassumed is not healed"--that is to say, if any part of Jesus was not also God, then our salvation is not possible; he went to sleep to hallow sleep, he wept so that our tears are blessed, he ate and drank so that even our meals are a holy act for the nourishment of our bodies at the same time that He, in His holiness, is the nourishment for our souls. The soul and the body cannot be saved individually, or one at the expense of the other. Christ has a body, and it is in his deified human flesh that he sits at the right hand of the Father.

This is the revelation of the Transfiguration--and it was this glory, the glory of the Uncreated Light of God, showing through and in his human flesh. Is it any wonder that, seeing Jesus in this way, and Moses and Elijah on either side of him, that Peter, James, and John wanted to build tabernacles for each of them on the spot? Seeing him in his majesty, the mystery of the God-man was revealed, and the assurance of our Redemption was made manifest.

01 August 2007

St. Ethelwold of Winchester

from New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia:

St. Ethelwold, Bishop of Winchester, was born there of good parentage in the early years of the tenth century; d. 1 Aug., 984. After a youth spent at the court of King Athelstan, Ethelwold placed himself underElphege the Bald, Bishop of Winchester, who gave him the tonsure and ordained him priest along with Dunstan. At Glastonbury, where he was dean under Saint Dunstan, he was a mirror of perfection. In 955 he became Abbot of Abingdon; and 29 November, 963, was consecrated Bishop of Winchester by Dunstan, with whom and Oswald of Worcester he worked zealously in combating the general corruption occasioned by the Danish inroads. At Winchester, both in the old and in his new minster (see SWITHIN, SAINT), he replaced the evil-living seculars with monks and refounded the ancient nunnery. His labours extended to Chertsey, Milton (Dorsetshire), Ely, Peterborough, and Thorney; expelling the unworthy, rebuilding and restoring; to the rebellious "terrible as a lion", to the meek "gentler than a dove". The epithets "father of monks" and "benevolent bishop" summarize Ethelwold's character as reformer and friend of Christ's poor. Though he suffered much from ill-health, his life as scholar, teacher, prelate, and royal counsellor was ever austere. He was buried in Winchester cathedral, his body being translated later by Elphege, his successor. Abingdon monastery in the twelfth century had relics of Ethelwold. He is said to have written a treatise on the circle and to have translated the "Regularis Concordia". His feast is kept on 1 August.