30 August 2010

Too Much Reality

One of my favorite Orthodox blogs is A Desert Seeker, written by an internet friend, Arsenios, who is a recent convert to Orthodoxy. In one of his recent posts, "saints, demons, and the supernatural," he opines on what he sees as a deficiency with many moderns--including some modern Orthodox--specifically, an inability to believe in the reality of satan, demons, and the supernatural. Corollary with this is an inability to believe in the accounts of the saints lives the seemingly 'fantastical' elements contained therein. Part of the account Arsenios shares has to do with his growing up among animists in South America, where encounters with the more "real" and less refined conception of demons was an everyday, present reality.

Encounters with demons in this fashion, though, are not confined to animists living in the jungles of other continents. The worship and supplication of the powers of darkness happens every day right here in our own little suburban, American neighborhoods. I know, because in the years between when I left Christianity (at 13) and the years where I became convinced of it again, through Orthodoxy (sometime around 22), I was involved in (and obsessed with) demonology, ceremonial occultism, and was, in general, very messed up. Depression was a constant, ever-present part of that life; and that is not surprising. To be involved with demons, who are themselves the end result of slavery to passions, is to become a slave of passions.

Perhaps this is why there are some who see them as being, essentially, some kind of external projection of our own passionate desires; the Psalms tell us that "the gods of the nations are demons" (Psalm 95 LXX), and St. Paul tells us that the idols worshiped by the nations are nothing (1 Cor. 8:4). We can see how the case could be made for the passions (logismoi) being nothing, because they have no being; but then, there are the countless passages in the scriptures and in the hagiography that depict the demons as very real. How do we resolve this?

I think that it's not really something that we should try to divide out into an either/or. If those who claim the unreality of demons mean that in an ontological sort of way--i.e. that they have no being in themselves, being created themselves, and that in trying to live separate from the source of that being, which is God, they have come as close to un-being as is possible, and thus are tortured forever by that choice of self-will--then I wholeheartedly agree. But the same St. Paul who tells us that the idols are nothing tells us that "we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Eph 6:12). These agents of darkness are there, present, and supremely real, in the sense that they do, in fact, exist. St. Athanasius even goes so far as to say that the reason Christ had to be crucified on the Cross, lifted up into the air, was so complete the conquest of death in the aerial stronghold of the demons; if they weren't real, this seems wildly unnecessary.

I think we ignore their reality to our own peril. Not that we need to live in fear of the demons or their powers (which are powerless against the power of the Cross), but if we pretend that they are not real in order to make ourselves feel better, or somehow superior to our ancestors who took the demons reality very literally, we are deceiving ourselves, and any time we deceive ourselves we become somewhat more receptive to the prince of lies.

26 August 2010

The Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God

From the Synaxarion:

The Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God was written by the Evangelist Luke on a board from the table, at which the Saviour ate together with His All-Pure Mother and Righteous Joseph. The Mother of God, in seeing this image, exclaimed: "Henceforth shalt all generations call Me blessed. Let the grace of both My Son and Me shalt be with this icon". In the year 1131 the icon was sent from Constantinople to Rus' to holy Prince Mstislav (+ 1132, Comm. 15 April) and was installed in the Deviche monastery in Vyshgorod, the ancient appanage city of holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Princess Olga.

The son of Yurii Dolgoruky, Saint Andrei Bogoliubsky, in 1155 brought the icon to the city of Vladimir and installed it in the reknown Uspenie-Dormition cathedral built by him. And at this time the icon received its name of "the Vladimir Icon". And in the year 1395 the icon was first brought to Moscow. Thus the blessing of the Mother of God tied the spiritual bonds of Byzantium and Rus' via Kiev, Vladimir and Moscow.

The festal celebration of the Vladimir Icon of the Most Holy Mother of God occurs several times during the year (21 May, 23 June, 26 August). The most solemn celebration occurs on 26 August, the feast established in honour the Meeting of the Vladimir Icon upon its Transfer from Vladimir to Moscow. In the year 1395 the fearsome conqueror, khan Tamerlane, reached the Ryazan frontier, took the city of Elets and advancing towards Moscow he came nigh the banks of the River Don. Great Prince Vasilii Dimitrievich went with an army to Kolomna and halted at the banks of the River Oka. He prayed to the Sainted Hierarchs of Moscow and the Monk Sergei for the deliverance of the Fatherland, and he wrote to the Metropolitan of Moscow Saint Kiprian (Comm. 16 September), that the pending Dormition Fast should be devoted to zealous prayers for mercy and repentance. Clergy were sent to Vladimir, where the famed wonderworking Vladimir Icon was situated. After Divine Liturgy and a molieben on the feast of the Dormition, they clergy took the icon and in a church procession conveyed it to Moscow. Along the way, on both sides of the road and innumerable number of people prayed kneeling: "O Mother of God, save the land of Russia!" And in that selfsame hour, when the people of Moscow were meeting the Vladimir Icon on Kuchkov Field, Tamerlane was slumbering in his tent. Suddenly he saw in a dream a great mountain, at the summit of which coming towards him were the sainted hierarchs with golden staffs, and over them in a brilliant radiance shone a Majestic Woman. She commanded him to leave the domains of Russia. Awakening in fright, Tamerlane asked the meaning of the apparition. The experts answered that the Radiant Lady was the Mother of God, the great Protectress of Christians. Tamerlane then gave the order for his troops to turn around. In memory of this miraculous deliverance of the Russian Land from Tamerlane on Kuchkov Field, where the Meeting of the Vladimir Icon took place, they built the Sretensk-Meeting monastery. And on 26 August there was then established the all-Russian celebration in honour of the Meeting of the Vladimir Icon of the Most Holy Mother of God.

Very important events in Russian Church history have occurred in front of the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God: the election and elevation of Sainted Jona, Advocate of the autocephaly of the Russian Church (1448), and of Sainted Job, first Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia (1589), and of His Holiness Patriarch Saint Tikhon (1917). And the enthronement of His Holiness Pimen, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, occurred on a day of celebration in honour of the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God, on 21 May (NS 3 June) 1971.

The historical days of 21 May, 23 June and 26 August, connected with this holy icon, have become memorable days for the Russian Orthodox Church.

25 August 2010

Welcoming the Champions of Western Culture

For the past few years, I've been working away on my Master of Liberal Arts degree at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Alabama. I have to say, some of the best discussions about the fundamentals and classics of western culture that I've ever had have been had in the various classes there. One of the things that I want to do is help raise awareness that there is this program here in middle Alabama; there are precious few Great Books-based masters programs in the United States. What's more, this program is at once very committed to the great classics of western culture, has an obviously Christian foundation, and--perhaps most importantly right now for those thinking of further academic study--is extremely affordable.

To the end of advertising the MLA program, and letting people see the kind of first-rate thinking and discussion going on inside it, we are starting a new blogging community at Champions of Western Culture. The goal is to get the professors, the students, and the alumni of the program all involved in an online version of the 'great conversation.' Visitors are, of course, graciously welcomed to participate as well. In addition to this, we are providing on the site links to various internet resources that are invaluable to anyone studying classics, the western tradition, or is just looking to expand their field of knowledge to include the classical and Christian world.

There's a link to the new blog in the sidebar. Please don't hesitate to check it frequently. I have a feeling there is going to be some great stuff on there.

Sainted Minos, Patriarch of Constantinople

From the Synaxarion:

Sainted Minos, Patriarch of Constantinople (536-552), was at first a priest at Constantinople and supervisor there for the homeless-shelter, home of the holy Monk Sampson the Hospitable-to-Strangers, during the reign of Saint Justinian I (527-565). After the removal of the heretic Anthymos (535-536), the holy presbyter Minos was elevated upon the Constantinople patriarchal throne as one worthy to be bishop for his profound virtue and firm confession of Orthodoxy. His ordination was done by the Pope of Rome Agapitus (535-536) who then at the time was in Constantinople. During the time of the patriarchate of Saint Minos there occurred a miracle in Constantinople, widely known to all the city:

A certain Jewish boy went with other children to church and he communed the Holy Mysteries of Christ. At home he told his father about this. In a terrible rage he seized the child and threw him into a red-hot oven (this Jewish man was a glass-blower by trade). He said nothing to his wife. The mother for three days in tears searched for her son; loudly she called for him, and finally on the third day he emerged from the red-hot oven. With difficulty she pulled out the child, who was unharmed. The boy told her that a Most Radiant Lady had there come to him, and She cooled down the fire and brought water and food. This incident became known to Saint Minos and the emperor Justinian I. The boy and his mother received baptism, but the father of the child became obdurate and did not wish to repent, in spite of the great miracle to which he was a witness. Then the emperor handed him over for trial as a child-killer and sentenced him to death by execution. The holy Patriarch Minos ruled the Constantinople Church for 16 years. During the time of his patriarchate at Constantinople, the famous temple in honour of Saint Sophia the Wisdom of God was consecrated. The saint died peacefully in the year 552.

04 August 2010

Couple of Business Items

To all those who were members of Desert Calling or followers of the DC blog, I posted an apology and explanation of a few things today, as well as a the first post of the new (or old) direction of that blog, reflecting on the Desert Fathers.

03 August 2010

The Martyr Razhdenes

from the Synaxarion:

The Martyr Razhdenes, a Persian and worshipper of the Zoroastrian religion, was descended from an illustrious family. He was the tutor of the Persian princess Balendykhta (daughter of the Persian emperor Ormizd), who entered into marriage with the pious Georgian emperor Vakhtang the Great (446-449). Together with her, Razhdenes resettled in Georgia. Out of consideration for his high parentage, the emperor heaped his wife's tutor with favours and made him his adviser. The simple and good-natured foreigner was soon beloved by all the court and the people. When he learned about Christianity and had accepted Baptism, he then began frequently to converse with Archbishop Michael and to visit church. The heart of the saint burned with an inexpressible love for Christ. He strove to comprehend the wisdom of God, he conversed much with the pastors of the Church and with eagerness he listened to the accounts and teachings about the deeds of Christian martyrs. The desire to be united with Christ irresistibly attracted him to accept suffering for the Saviour.

A bloody war between Persia and Greece spilled over into Orthodox Georgia. The new Persian emperor Firuz (from year 456) urged Georgia to dissolve its alliance with the Greeks, despite their common bond of the Orthodox faith. Having received refusal, he marched an army against Georgia, and began a bitter war. In the words of the chronicler, the women were given over to brazen outrages, and the men -- to cruel torments and tortures. Looking upon this, Christians remained firm in the faith and, hoping on the help of God, they gave resistance to the enemy. During this time Saint Razhdenes had accepted the command over the army at the capital and its surrounding fortifications. For four months he led a stubborn struggle against the enemies of Christianity and repulsed them from the capital. The Persians decided to take revenge, having captured the zealous leader alive. All together all at once they attacked the Georgian detachment of the fortress of Armaz and Saint Razhdenes was treacherously handed over by those to whom he had bestowed high rank. They immediately took the captive to the emperor Firuz. Informed about everything, the emperor questioned Saint Razhdenes about his parentage and the reasons for renouncing his former faith and people. The martyr answered:

"It is certainly true, emperor, that I once left my own nation and its gods, which serve man and are an adornment of the universe, but I now serve the One True and Living God, Who made Heaven and earth and everything that exists, Who alone possesses immortality and dwelleth in the Light imperishable, Whom no one hath ever beheld or seeth. This is the One True God, Whom I know in Three Persons in One Existence. And one of the Persons of the Holy Trinity, the Word and Son of the Father, in the fulness of time and for our salvation, came down upon the earth, was incarnated of the Holy Virgin Mary, lived upon the earth, suffered, was nailed to the Cross, died, and on the third day after death He arose, and after forty days He ascended up to Heaven and doth sit at the right side of the Father. At the end of the world This One -- the Son of God, Jesus Christ, will come again upon the earth in glory, so as to judge the living and the dead, and then the righteous wilt shine like the sun, but the impious and those disobedient to Him He wilt bind together with the devil in eternal torment."

Knowing the courage of the saint, the emperor Firuz decided to make him worship the sun and fire not by torture, but with words of flattery.

"Let it be known to thee, emperor, -- answered the martyr, -- that I shalt not renounce my Lord Jesus Christ, Who hath created me, and I wilt not worship thy gods. Keep to thyself thy promises to me of riches and glory, which are for me neither necessary nor wanted, and for them I shalt not abandon my God, Who called me to the Light of His Son, and I shalt not exchange the eternal life promised us of Christ, for life temporal and transitory. Wherefore do not promise nor advise me, for thou wilt not force me to recant from Christ my God; I reject thy offers of honours and riches and I shalt no more listen to thee, rather than my Lord."

When they took hold of the martyr so as to begin the tortures, he again turned to the emperor:

"Thou sayest, that thou shalt give me over to tortures, and dost thou think that these torments would be more terrible than eternal agonies, knowing, that for me Christ and death -- are to my advantage."

The fire-worshippers began the terrible tortures, and then locked up the martyr in prison. After some time the emperor Firuz on the advice of serveral perfidious Georgian dignitaries sent Saint Razhdenes to Mtskheta, where his family lived. The emperor sent him safely, knowing, that the martyr would keep his given word to return to the Persians. His family entreated him to spare himself and those near him, but Saint Razhdenes answered firmly: "Nothing shall turn me away from love for my Lord Jesus Christ.”

He returned to the Persians, and emperor Firuz sent him off to the governor of Upper Kartalinia, living in the town of Tsrom. They again began with their deluded exhortations and fierce tortures. Then they cast the mutilated martyr into a fetid prison. By night the Saviour Himself appeared to him and healed his wounds. The astonished Persians then decided that it was time to execute the sentence of the emperor -- to crucify the martyr on a cross.

"Rejoice, Life-Creating Wood, by which was slain the serpent of old and to which are nailed my sins, -- cried out the martyr, seeing the instrument of his death by execution. -- And I through thee shall ascend to my Lord Jesus Christ, Who shalt grant me the help and the strength to bear to the end the lot prepared for me. Wherefore I have witnessed to truth before His enemies and like Him I shall be nailed to thee".

They stripped the holy martyr and nailed him to the cross amidst four criminals, crucified in a row. Wanting to increase his suffering, the Persians requested archers from the governor. Struck by poisoned arrows like the Martyr Sebastian, Saint Razhdenes died on the cross in the year 457. All the ground under him was covered by his holy blood. Portents appeared in the heavens: the sun was hid and there began a long eclipse, and during the night there arose a terrible storm, such that nothing could be seen right in front of oneself. Only the body of the martyr shone with an Heavenly light. The guards were seized with terror at the vicious act committed, and they fled to their quarters. Christians, hiding not far away, took down the martyr from the cross and buried him with honour, near the place where he had been crucified.

The saint's place of burial remained unknown for a long time, until the martyr himself commanded the priest who had buried him to reveal this to Vakhtang the Great. With great solemnity the relics of the Martyr Razhdenes were transferred to a Nikozeia church (near the city of Tsinvali).

The name Razhdenes signifies "shining faith". The First-Martyr of the Georgian Church -- by his death, accompanied by the appearance of the Saviour and Heavenly portents, gives firm hope for the General Resurrection at the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.