A Faithful Writer

Writing is true life, real life, if we as Christians write to glorify God and build up His Kingdom. It is a life of faith, even as we write faithfully about the Faith, for we learn even as we write and that which we write is of service to anyone who cares to read it — Christian or not, faithful or not, and even after we die and must give an account of our finished and perhaps unfinished works.

St. John of Kronstadt, who cautioned against novels and the theater as frivolous distraction, was nonetheless himself a writer. He wrote an extensive diary which contains : “Moments of spiritual serenity and contemplation, of reverent feeling, of earnest self-amendment, and of peace in God.” If we read his contribution to spirituality, the book known as My Life in Christ, not only do we learn about the Church but we get to know St. John — his love of God, his time and place, his priesthood, his unique self as created and blessed by God and his written work in obedience to God.

Yes, a faithful life, true and real, with the gift of written language as expression and testament, authentic in experience while understood rightly according to the ways of God, and given forth in service to neighbor and enemy alike. Let us listen to St. John of Kronstadt.

There is, my brethren, a true, real life, and there is a false, imaginary life. To live in order to eat, drink, dress, walk; to enrich ourselves in general, to live for earthly pleasures or cares, as well as to spend time in intriguing and underhand dealings; to think ourselves competent judges of everything and everybody is — the imaginary life; whilst to live in order to please God and serve our neighbors, to pray for the salvation of their souls and to help them in the work of their salvation in every way, is to lead the true life. The first life is continual spiritual death, the second — the uninterrupted life of the spirit.

My Life in Christ, Part II, p. 12
St. John of Kronstadt

Autumn, Path through the Woods, by Camille Pissarro

Truly, an uninterrupted life of the spirit, as the words and sentences flow, as one composition follows another for as long as God sees fit for us and for the sake of others, and perhaps a certain phase or style of writing until it has reached a level of completion of thought or purpose, and then life continuing uninterrupted in a different form of service. We are not slaves to writing — for it is a process — and we do not idolize our own works — for they are intended to please God. Moments of spirituality are given expression, and the expression itself becomes a moment of spirituality in the life of the reader — for God has connected us. We are connected to St. John of Kronstadt, and he to us, for we have our being in the God Who created us and mercifully united us in the Church.

To be a faithful writer is to stand before God and to be merciful to others. Let us give words that heal and strengthen, that unite across times and places, that promote salvation and interrupt spiritual death. Let us offer our words as an act of responsive and nurturing hospitality, under the guidance of God, not from tainted imaginings about self and world but from purity of heart, and of one accord with the mind of the Church. Our words will outlive us, and therefore may they be life-giving to those who remain on earth. We can say, not in judgment but in appreciation, that St. John of Kronstadt gave life and inspiration to the generations which came after him. Sometimes, I feel that I could spend the remainder of my days reading and re-reading My Life in Christ and never write another word of my own.

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True Colors or Maybe Not

We sometimes speak of people as having shown their true colors. Generally, we mean they proved what kind of person they really were or how they really felt about things. Most often, it denotes a personal flaw which had not been apparent before, such as cowardice, unfaithfulness, criminality, betrayal, greed, or just having a different viewpoint. It is usually a one-time thing, and based on that one incident we change our entire perception of that person — for the worse.

Let us look at someone from the Bible who showed his true colors or maybe not. St. Peter said to Christ, “Lord, I am ready to go with You, both to prison and to death” (Luke 22: 33). However, only a little later, after Christ was arrested, Peter denied having ever known Christ (Luke 22: 54-62). I guess Peter showed his true colors, right? He was never really a disciple, never really loved Christ, and cared only about himself, right? Wrong, because Peter repented with deep sorrow. He fulfilled his potential as a great apostle of the Church, because Christ was not quick to reject him no matter how horrendous the moment of weakness.

The concept of true colors seems like a justification to condemn someone or an excuse to end the friendship, as well as an opportunity to reinforce one’s own worldview. The example of St. Peter shows that people can grow and develop, they can repent, and they can bear fruit for the Kingdom. Of course, people do show patterns of behavior, as opposed to instances, and some traits are deeply ingrained. Do not marry an abusive person and expect to change them, do not repeat a dysfunctional pattern and expect to get different results, and do not normalize the intolerable because others refuse to repent of it.

However, let us not overreact to a friend’s faults as they endeavor to work out their salvation, for we ourselves have known both defeat and victory. Our true colors will not be completely evident until the end of our life, and even then we have the example of the good thief on the cross who repented at the last minute. Let repentance be our basic and true color, and maybe people will perceive this and maybe not, but let us find comfort in the Christ who saved St. Peter and Who will do the same for us.

Alone in Prayer

There were occasions when Christ was alone, such as during the temptation in the wilderness, while praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, and in the tomb until it was discovered empty by the Myrrhbearing Women. Although Christ’s burial is a part of our Holy Week celebrations, the other instances are not designated with specific feast days.

In the wilderness, the angels ministered to Christ. In the Garden, He desired human company but the disciples slept and an angel strengthened Him. In His tomb, dead by crucifixion, we do not know the dynamics, but two angels appeared to Mary Magdalene and told her Christ is Risen.

St. Paul in Prison, by Rembrandt

Therefore, if we follow Christ completely, experiences of aloneness are a possibility whether for moments, days, or throughout our life. This does not necessarily mean disunity among the brethren. Nobody can make a decision for us to continue with Christ when tempted or suffering, or to turn instead to the satisfactions of worldliness or even the evils of Satan. We have to make that decision for ourselves. In this, then, in our faithfulness to Christ, we are unified with one another in the Church.

In order to clarify this type of solitude, I sketched out some ideas for consideration.

From Wilderness to Tomb

  • Temptation in the wilderness: to discern between good and evil and to make a choice for one or the other.
  • Prayer in Gethsemane: to be faithful despite lack of human support in times of need, and to obey the will of God as primary under all circumstances.
  • Drops of sweat like blood: the horror of our sins, the price of redemption.
  • The night: vigilance, trust, humility and fidelity through all agony and sorrow.
  • The cup: acceptance of sacrifice and the cross as the way of salvation.
  • The tomb: a stone will eventually be placed upon our lifetime of fruitfulness or bareness.

Of course, we cannot pretend to suffer as intensely as Christ suffered, for Christ took on all the sins of mankind though He Himself was innocent of sin. However, life presents us with situations which we must conquer, sometimes alone with God and apart from family or friends, and toward salvation of self and others. We must be able to say Christ is Risen with our words and deeds and, in the end, with the whole summation of our life.

Twelve Points Plus

If I had to affirm my Orthodox Christian fidelity and lifestyle, I would propose the following points:

Twelve Points I Am For

1) I honor the Nicene Creed as an exact statement of belief.
2) I acknowledge that only the Orthodox Church is without theological error.
3) I regard the Divine Liturgy as sublime in beauty and rich in truth.
4) I cherish the Holy Bible and Holy Tradition as vital and fundamental.
5) I defer to the teachings of the holy fathers and elders as a whole.
6) I uphold the saints and martyrs as holy examples of living the Faith.
7) I accept holy icons as proper to Christ having taking on flesh.
8) I recognize a battle between good and evil, and the Cross of Christ conquers.
9) I attempt to treat all people as made in the image of God.
10) I endeavor to practice unceasing prayer as a way to abide in Christ.
11) I desire to say and do all things to the glory of the Father.
12) I value mercy as intrinsic to Orthodoxy.

Plus, I would add a list of points which I denounce as not belonging to Orthodoxy:

Twelve Points I Am Against

1) No woman should be expected to accept abuse as God’s will for her.
2) No racial or ethnic prejudices should be tolerated.
3) No sick or disabled Orthodox person should be left without assistance.
4) No mentally disturbed Orthodox person should be left without counseling or referral.
5) No language should be regarded as holy in and of itself.
6) No opinion or distortion should be put forth as truth or judgment.
7) No person should engage in unethical financial or business transactions.
8) No person should be required to obey that which goes against God and Church.
9) No person should be bound to any cultural tradition which is not focused on Christ.
10) No person should be discouraged from entering monastic life if God has called him or her.
11) No person should be idolized in a cult-like manner.
12) No person should alter Orthodoxy to make it more attuned with the world or other religions.

If any reader is not familiar with the Nicene Creed, it is as follows:

The Creed: The Symbol of Faith

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. Light of light; true God of true God; begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by Whom all things were made; Who for us men and for our salvation came down from Heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man. And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried. And the third day He arose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; Whose Kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father; Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; Who spoke by the prophets.

In one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.

(official Orthodox Church in America translation)

In conclusion, I will offer a passage from the Bible which I use as an orientation to reality and spirituality:

A Quotation from Job

I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear,
But now my eye sees You.
Therefore I abhor myself,
And repent in dust and ashes.

Job 42: 5-6 [NKJV]

We Are One, in Christ

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither female nor male; for you are all one in Christ.

Galatians 3: 26-28 [NKJV]

There are no class divisions, no artificial categories, and no biases in the Church. There is structure and order, and there are gifts and talents; but there is neither Russian nor Greek, neither farmer nor chef, neither newcomer nor olden. We are all members of the Body of Christ, which is the Church, and each one of us functions together with the other members. Yes, we are all one in Christ, and this prohibits any vainglorious superiority of one group over the other.

Head of an Apostle Looking Upward, by Albrecht Durer

Some consider religion to be inseparable from culture, or from the various expressions of national and familial traditions. Americans who convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, therefore, are thought to naturally align with the culture in which they were received into the Church or develop a personal preference for one of the traditionally Orthodox cultures (such as Greek rather than Romanian, Serbian, Bulgarian, etc.). This is probably true to some extent, whether because of lack of options or because of an appreciation of a particular culture’s contributions to the Church. However, if nationalism and culture become enmeshed with religion such that (A) cultural shortcomings are nonetheless given religious validity, or (B) a culture regards itself as holier than other populations within the Church, then divisions and biases ensue and the culture becomes cultic in perspective and practices. In other words, people lust after their own traditions and language, and sometimes the American converts desire this status just as much as those who were born into these situations. Some people are drawn to that which they can idealize, romanticize, and idolize.

You shall have no other gods before Me.

Exodus 20: 3 [NKJV]

There must also be a possibility of the desert in religion, or recognition of the desert-dweller as a type, or acceptance of the person who simply does not fit with the Slavic or Mediterranean peoples of Orthodoxy. For example, St. Anthony the Great came from a specific background, but it is not apparent that he continued any cultural expressions as a necessity in his solitary life of prayer. He renounced everything, even the good things — which seems to prove that cultural expressions are an aid or an enrichment, but never a prerequisite for sitting at the feet of Christ and learning of Him.

Perhaps the desert saints need to be given more emphasis today. Not that we are capable of emulating their lifestyles, but that we need to clarify what is essential, what is connected, what is enrichment, what is dispensable, what is mistaken, and what is intolerable. If we were all desert-dwellers in attitude, then we might more plainly be one in Christ because there would be no distortions and no basis for any divisions. The focus would be on theology and liturgy, on the Cross as life-giving, and on one another as members of the same Church. However, if we truly value a specific culture, if we find it helpful, then let us offer that culture as an act of hospitality and not as an insistence on one’s own version of rightness.

Then to Dust

The concept of dust to dust, or the end of things as we know them, used to cause me a certain distress. The thought of losing the various works of art, the classic books, the beautiful cathedrals, the great things created by man, seemed like an annihilation of that which I held as treasures and consumed as nourishment. Yet, I have voluntarily returned some of these things to dust. Perhaps this involves a natural progression of age and trying to keep life manageable, and simultaneously a more direct focus on or perception of Christ Himself.

Last month, I cleaned out and organized my tool shed which contains most of my library. I have done this several times before, over the years. This time, I was stunned at the number of books I discarded, books which I had cared for and which had been important to my understanding of life. It took me three days. Then, I did the same with my DVD’s and old VHS tapes, getting rid of some which contained inappropriate scenes and others which no longer interested me. Again, I have done this before. But what now remains on the shelves seems personally vital, or at least practical for research.

Dust to dust, therefore, is not a loss. It is a matter of being finished. Or, a matter of renunciation of that which is unsuitable to the home as domestic church. (Or, a matter of the end of time.) My dust might even be recycled into someone else’s treasure or nourishment, for I took those books, many a bagful, to a local thrift shop. Someone will buy them and perhaps cherish them, and the thrift store will continue its purpose of offering dust as treasures even as I cast treasures into dust.

It could be argued that I wasted time reading certain books and watching movies. However, life is a journey and we drink milk before we eat solid food. Now, I will admit that some of those books were worthless to begin with, the products of book publishing as greed and writing as vainglorious. I was overly influenced by the culture around me to regard them as enlightening and to spend my hard-earned money on them. Those books I tossed into the garbage, for I did not want to be responsible for tempting or misleading a prospective student of life. Those books have become permanent dust.

Nothing is ever really lost in the spiritual life, not even that which is renounced, not if we use everything as preparation for the next stage of growth or to separate the wheat from the chaff. I no longer go to movies and seldom to bookstores. I am not up to date with the latest music. I think this is partly due to lack of time and energy, as well as to renunciation of that which I regard as dust even without having read or heard it.  Maybe that is a little presumptuous of me, but I do not feel that I am missing out on anything. I still have other treasures and abundant nourishment.

Someday, I myself will go back to dust, the breath of life having left me. Whatever things I leave behind, it will be for others to determine what to cherish, utilize, or dump. My hope is that those very things, whether by their worthiness or by my renunciation, will have guided me to an acceptable end. For, even now, I feel both finished and invigorated, perhaps freed, and with a better sense of discernment and stability amid temptations and falsehoods. Only truth will endure. Only mercy can uplift.

Theirs, but Mine

Young Girls at the Piano, by Pierre-August Renoir

Participation is a great concern among some Eastern Orthodox. It regards the Divine Liturgy, specifically a preference for congregational singing and a desire for an open-style iconostasis. My discussion today will center on what it means to participate in communal worship — whether to sing or not to sing.

Participation is preceded by, or rather has at its very core, an interior disposition of spirituality — of heartfelt prayer, of repentance and humility, of hope and trust. This disposition has various outward expressions, according to the gifts and talents of individuals and within the structure of the liturgy. Perhaps not everyone has the gift of sacred singing, just as not everyone is called to paint icons or to become a priest. But everyone is a member of the body, whether standing in the congregation or singing in the choir or serving in the altar.

I regard the choir as my voice, the congregation’s voice, because we are all one in Christ. The choir sings for the whole Church, not excluding anyone but enabling auditory participation in worship. The Divine Liturgy appeals to the senses, to the mind and heart, to meaningful structure and orderliness. If everyone is singing, then there is no longer auditory beauty — because the focus is on the use of the voice for singing and not on the skill of listening to the voice. Listening is not passive, not non-participatory, but the use of our ears in the same manner as we use our eyes when we look at icons.

The Church through the temple and Divine service, acts upon the entire man, educates him wholly; acts upon his sight, hearing, smelling, feeling, taste, imagination, mind, and will, by the splendor of the icons and of the whole temple, by the ringing of bells, by the singing of the choir, by the fragrances of the incense, the kissing of the gospel, of the cross and the holy icons, by the prosphoras, the singing, and sweet sound of the readings of the Scriptures.

My Life in Christ, p. 143
St. John of Kronstadt

Participation can be inward, hidden, still and quiet, and yet within a dynamic liturgical course. There are valid criticisms which can be made of certain people and situations in the Orthodox Church, some of which is obvious to visitors — but choirs are not a wrong, not a deviation or disadvantage, and should not be purged from existence. If people regard choirs as having replaced ancient congregational singing, and if they want to re-establish something which they regard as pure, then they must seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They must be careful to discern what belongs to Church Tradition, what has legitimately developed in different cultures throughout history, and whether their expectations are formed by Orthodoxy or other attachments.

We Shall Rise

Last night I thought I would never write again, because it seemed like life was over and I was surely going to die. I felt too sinful and too tired to write even one more word, and I began to fear that I had used up all the mercy and patience which God could possibly have shown any human being. Maybe I was already dead, because I lay in bed and the weight of my own body reflected the burden of my decades of sins — like a shipwreck, like a mudslide, like the smog over the city.

Do not forsake me. Then, the impossible. Mercy triumphs.

…thus I am like that impotent man who lay for thirty-eight years upon his bed, and came many times to the pool of Bethesda, which made well whosoever first stepped in after the troubling of the water by an Angel, “but always another stepped down before him.” And when I, having become impotent through my sins, make an effort and come to myself, with the intention of immersing myself in God and of changing for the better, another steppeth into my heart before me, sin and the Devil forestall me in my own house, in my own pool of Bethesda, and do not allow me to reach the Source of living waters, the Lord — do not allow me to immerse myself in the cleansing pool of faith, humility, heart-felt contrition and tears. Who will heal me then? Jesus Christ alone. When He sees my sincere and firm desire to be healed of my spiritual infirmity, when He hears my fervent prayer, then He will say to me: “Take up thy bed and walk,” and I shall rise from the bed of spiritual infirmity and walk; that is, by His grace I shall easily vanquish all my passions and fulfil every virtue.

My Life in Christ, p. 182
St. John of Kronstadt

Yes, take up my bed and walk. I can see and I can walk, spiritually if not physically, for the old self disintegrates with all its desperate goals and wrong reasons, because Christ Himself is the only truth and the only way and the only healing.

If any have labored long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in nowise be deprived thereof. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; he gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.

The Pascal Sermon of St. John Chrysostom

Yes, draw near and fear nothing. I am thankful to be an Orthodox Christian, to receive the Body and Blood, to accept all the history of the Church and appreciate all the contributions of the saints. There is no other way I could have managed except to rely on mercy, to be tardy but to draw near anyway, for the alternative is to be dead already. That is, to be deprived and to carry the burdens.

So, let everyone arise from all afflictions, and let us one day truly rise to the Risen Christ.

Images and Lights

Portrait of Camille Rouen, by Vincent van Gogh

If humans are made in the image of God, then such images are all around us throughout our life. Some of these images are saturated with evil while others more accurately reflect God’s love and mercy. People carry God’s image whether or not they believe in Him or belong to any church or religion. To be made in the image of God has to be true of all humans regardless of their beliefs, personalities, or circumstances. Thus, people are living at various levels of defilement or purity, depending on their misuse of free will, their faithfulness to God’s word, or their adherence to the ways of God imprinted on their heart (since they are made in His image).

It would seem that, even in bleak or abusive environments, there would be someone to shine a light into the life of an unhappy child or teenager, someone in whom the image of God radiates in a viable way. It would seem that this image would somehow register within the young person’s soul, such that his life would become more bearable or hopeful. Even if the young person was not able to fathom such an encounter or relationship cognitively, and perhaps might never understand it until later in adulthood, it would nonetheless have a healing or stabilizing impact.

In literate societies, perhaps historical figures or fictional characters might impart a vision of life beyond the confines of bleakness or abuse. If a youngster can read, he can access a wider world of nourishment and different ways of problem-solving. He can dream of growing up to be like his heroes and, even if he never achieves their status, the dream might be enough to grant him safe passage through adolescence. We might say that the light of God radiates through the dead and as well as through fictional characters created by writers who were created by God.

Recently, a young man shot and killed 22 people, most of whom were teenagers, at the high school which he used to attend. There have been numerous explanations for his behavior, as well as various suggestions for prevention of these incidents in the future. It is reported that the young man was mentally ill and heard voices telling him to commit the shootings. Generally, such people are regarded as psychotic, and their auditory hallucinations are a product of their own mind. However, while not refuting psychosis as a diagnosis or condition, let us consider the possibility that the shooter really heard those voices.

If we are made in the image of God, then let us question what it is that prompts one image to murder other images, or to take away that which was God-given. We know, as Christians, that we are involved in spiritual warfare with Satan and demons. This much is not psychotic. This much is biblical. We might say, then, that all murder is diabolical (murder, not self-defense). Maybe, just maybe, Satan actually spoke to that young man who was apparently already troubled and maladjusted. Without making accusation or passing judgment, maybe the blessing of a shining light did not seem as satisfying as the immediacy and infamy of evil actions.

If the above has any possibility, then the basic solution to school shootings is a genuine spirituality. It would mean to have a right understanding of God and Church, of interconnection with one another, of belonging to something larger than oneself. Moreover, if social media and video games have replaced the knowledge and comfort of books, and if such technology can be used to tempt and destabilize young people in a way that books never could, then it is essential and urgent that all adults serve as conscientious images of God and light a way through and beyond technology.

Maybe our young people themselves will demand that adults be both spiritual and competent, that we listen to them when they try to express themselves, and that we respond to them in a mature manner when they seek help. If it is a battle between good and evil, then we have a decision to make regarding to be for or against the God Who created us in His image and entrusted us with life.

Books, Words, Meanings

This is embarrassing, but I own books which I have never read. Some of those unread books have been on the shelf for many years. No, I am not a hoarder, nor a procrastinator. It is just that I have collected books since I was a child, finding help in them and regarding the authors as friends who felt what I felt, who had searched for and found what I was still searching for, and who were always there for me.  I related to them, to their descriptions and insight, even if they were written in another century and in a faraway place, and even if my classmates did not think the library was equal to the playground.

Books consist of words, and the words have meanings. Books can be read as consumerism, such as often happens in higher education, or they can be integrated into the heart and mind with understanding and relationship. Yes, there is a relationship with books.  I feel that I have a relationship with my whole library and with each book in particular, even the ones which I have yet to read. They are a part of my home, along with all my other things such as appliances and furniture. They enable me to function, to get things done, to express thoughts and feelings, and to study and ponder. Moreover, they inspire me to do my own writing.

We connect with the meanings of the words in books, with the person who experienced life in that way and who shared whatever he or she had to give — and they try to give us their best despite their personal flaws. I think Charles Dickens did that, even as Pip grew up and I had the opportunity to grow with him.  Robert Frost did that, and occasionally I still contemplate the path not taken.  St. John of Kronstadt did that, even as he shines a guiding light on the path which I took. Yes, those are relationships open to anyone who reads those books in any place and at any time. The experiences are valid and the truths are eternal.

When books are read as consumerism, then the reader becomes a walking-talking publication, lacking helpful application and incapable of relationship. The words no longer have meanings because they are dissociated from the flow of life and love. Sometimes, the words become harmful because they are loosed from human involvement, detached from the author and imposed on the listener, reducing knowledge to technicalities and mutating nourishment into judgment. Words, and the understanding of the meanings of words, are not sterile; not existing in a vacuum, not separated from our being or from God Who gave us the gift of language. We communicate non-verbally as well, but written words fill our libraries and bookstores and then we often speak about or from what we have read.

Maybe I should not be embarrassed over the books I bought and never read. Maybe I will read them next year as circumstances direct me to acquire greater depth and breadth, and greater vision and hope during my remaining days on earth. Or maybe I should guard against consuming those books just because they are there, just because I already bought them, just because I tenderly stored them all these years. Then again, maybe I need to recapture some of the enthusiasm and vitality of my youthful days, and maybe those books are the key.

Christmas as Responsiveness

People want to be heard and understood. Some are not especially competing for attention or striving for dominance as ends, but searching for true responsiveness to their needs and for a path through the travails of life. The birth of Christ into this world was and continues to be a divine response to each individual and to mankind as a whole. More than a parent or sibling, more than a friend, more than a psychotherapist, it is Christ Who fathoms our innermost being and Who responds with guidance and healing…and oneness. From His humble birth to His sacrificial death, Christ spent His earthly life in compassionate responsiveness to the lost.

Christ is one of the Holy Trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — the Son of God Who became the Son of man, the son of the Virgin Mary who gave Him birth in human form. When He was crucified, no greater love had any man, for He laid down His life for our specific sins and for the totality of sin. When He was born, no greater love had any man, for He opened a true path and is Himself the Way to all fulfillment and holiness. This is not to diminish the significance of family and friends or other teachers and helpers, but only to clarify and affirm that all goodness comes through Christ and He is Himself our Life. His responsiveness is more than we could ever have imagined and more than we deserve.

The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, by Duccio di Buoninsegna

When Christ was born, revealed as an infant in swaddling clothes, He elicited a response from us. Most people respond favorably to babies — to their innocence, helplessness, and cuteness. Babies do not care what race we are, how much money we have, or what language we speak because they are pre-verbal anyway. They only want us to be responsive to them — to their physical and emotional needs, and to their spiritual connection with the God Who made life possible and Who entrusted us to one another in His Name. Our repentance is our response to Christ. Mercy toward one another is our response to life. He Who condescended to us and sacrificed for us thereby responds to our fallen state and continues to respond to our prayers and worship. We are understood and heard in a most intimate and complete manner.

In America, we celebrate Christmas above Easter, emphasizing the birth of Christ rather than His resurrection, as a nationwide and cultural unity of giving to others (even if exploited by commercialization). That is, until recent years. Now, even the secular recognition of Christmas — the feelings of goodwill and charity, the decorations in public places, and saying “Merry Christmas” to everyone — is vanishing from our national consciousness while relativism and pseudo-diversity are imposed by objectors and instigators. The response, or reaction, to the infant Christ is to kill Him. The feelings are fear and dread of being exposed as fraudulent and phony, selfish and covetous, sick and dysfunctional. Yes, innocence is felt as threatening to worldly manipulations and to the primacy of the fallen self.

Let us be responsive to Him Who first responded to us, to Christ Who knows our heart like none other, to the Son of God born in flesh like our flesh but Who never sinned, to the God-Man Who gathers us together, to the infant in the manger Who is either loved or hated by those whom He came to serve, and to the gift of life more abundant.

Holier Than Thou

When Christians become fixated on outward behaviors which are not necessarily biblically or theologically rooted, and thereby feel superior to other Christians, we often refer to such people as holier than thou. Such fixations are basically prideful and judgmental, or perhaps stem from a lack of education in the Christian virtues. Nonetheless, it is contrary to taking up the Cross, as such conduct is centered in self rather than in Christ. The worldly can also exhibit holier-than-thou behaviors by distorting the Bible to glorify the self with its impure desires.

Let us look closer at these two categories of holier than thou, more especially for the purpose of understanding true holiness than for analyzing unholy tendencies.

Religious Holier Than Thou

  • Definition: a form of non-participation expressed as disallowance or taboo, such that the morally superior are set apart from other Christians who do not conform to the manmade specifications.
  • Involves: self-inflation, false security, condemnation of others.
  • Consequence: man above other men.

Worldly Holier Than Thou

  • Definition: a form of willfulness expressed as a preference for impurities, such that the Church must be altered or rejected in order to posit the self as morally superior and the only authority.
  • Involves: self-inflation, deviance, corruption of others.
  • Consequence: man above Creator.

An example of religious holier-than-thou is the absolute prohibition of Halloween. Some Christians regard Halloween as a secular yet adaptable festivity, while others regard it as demonic. Some will provide church-based activities on Halloween: perhaps holier than thou or perhaps just to keep the kids within appropriate guidelines and supervision. The issue is whether there is a condemnation of those who participate in secular Halloween. It is as though this were a pivotal point between true Christians and the hypocrites, as though anyone who hands out candy is automatically aligned with evil, and as though the whole person should be scorned even if he or she follows Christ in other significant ways.

Another example is the viewpoint that all modern art is totally decadent. Some of these Christians may never have seen any modern art beyond the typical Picasso reproduction, but there is a blanket rejection of the style and a condemnation of anyone who might appreciate some pieces of modern art. Again, the situation or object, in this case a certain period of art, is symbolically used to distinguish the true Christian from the hypocrite, the pure from the repulsive, and the chosen from the incorrigible.  In a complicated society containing both temptation and enrichment, prohibition offers a comfort zone of simulated security and superiority.

Worldly holier-than-thou attitudes and behaviors seem to be more prevalent and varied, and perhaps more confusing because they are often disguised as enlightened and beneficial. Generally, it is a matter of making wrong look right, and right look wrong. This process centers on political correctness and lifestyle choices. Traditional values are regarded as offensive. In some instances, the agenda is to overthrow Christian doctrine in favor of cultural relativism and personal preferences, or in favor of new and post-modern approaches to self-discovery.

Some examples are so-called reproductive rights, ethical pornography, flexible monogamous marriage, the normalizing of abnormal mental conditions, and the elimination of Christian holidays from government buildings, schools, hospitals, airports, and public squares. Those who continue to adhere to biblical and theological roots are branded as haters and deserving of punishment and riddance. It is no longer a matter of loving the sinner and hating the sin, but of justifying the sin and teaching it to the next generation. This can only be done by making the Church look outdated and oppressive.

In these difficult times, may God help us to live in purity of heart, to discern the spirits, and not succumb to any inward tendencies or outward pressures.

Giving Yourself Up

There are probably various reasons as to why people do not trust in God but trust in themselves or in the world. I suspect some people are defiant and want what they want, some are greedy and want more and more, some are envious and want what you have, and some are spiritually hollow and live in a constant state of want no matter how much they accumulate. Then, there are some people who are traumatized from past betrayals and who fear to trust anyone ever again — including God.

Wheat Field with Cypresses (July version), by Vincent van Gogh

St. John of Kronstadt wrote about trusting in God, giving oneself up to Him, rather than focusing on the acquisition of wealth and finding happiness in the things money can buy. I divided the following quotation into paragraphs to make it easier to read.

Give yourself up entirely to God’s providence, to the Lord’s Will, and do not grieve at losing anything material, nor in general at the loss of visible things; do not rejoice at gain, but let your only and constant joy be to win the Lord Himself. Trust entirely in Him: He knows how to lead you safely through this present life, and to bring you to Himself — into His eternal Kingdom.

From want of trust in God’s providence many and great afflictions proceed: despondency, murmurings, envy, avarice, love of money or the passion for amassing money and property in general, so that it may last for many years, in order to eat, drink, sleep and enjoy; from want of trust in God’s providence proceed in particular afflictions such as arise, for instance: from some loss of income through our own oversight, from the loss of objects, specially valuable and necessary, as well as immoderate joy at recovering some objects, or at receiving some large income or gain, or some profitable place or employment.

We, as Christians, as “fellow citizens with the Saints and of the household of God: (Ephesians 2: 19), ought to commit all our life, together with all its sorrows, sickness, griefs, joys, scarcities and abundance unto Christ our God.

St. John of Kronstadt
My Life in Christ, pp. 251, 252

In general, as a lifestyle or emphasis, amassing money and possessions is contrary to trusting in God. That is, trusting in oneself and focusing on the ways of the world rather than turning to the God Who created us. We might say that we find happiness in whatever it is that we trust in — except that trust in self and world is misapplied and temporal, and therefore ultimately disappointing and even ruinous. St. John connects lack of trust in God to various forms of distress and affliction — I think not as a punishment from God but as the natural progression of that which is prone to instability and deterioration.

St. John reminds us that we belong to the household of God with all the saints. It follows, then, to give ourselves up to God, to do His will which can only benefit us, and to commit any needs or abundance into the service of Christ in Whom we live and have our being. Thus, whatever our financial status, whatever our health, whatever the betrayals of the past, we are restored and fulfilled only in Christ Who is worthy of trust and Who offers us the Eternal Kingdom. There is nothing else to want and no other true happiness.

A Labor of Love

We sometimes speak of a labor of love, usually in terms of a personal characteristic or a category of work, and without awareness of the biblical validation of the concept.

Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God our Father…

I Thessalonians 1: 3 [KJV]

For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister.

Hebrews 6: 10 [KJV]

Generally, we think of a labor of love as something for which we do not get paid. Or, as something which is labor-intensive — we get paid very little compared to the number of hours we put into it. Some jobs are that way, such as teaching, nursing, and social work. Some forms of self-support are also that way, such as handicrafts and various arts. At the opposite end, there are some jobs that pay far above the required knowledge and skills, such as professional sports and the entertainment industry.  Earnings, therefore, are often based on society’s values and desires and not on the hours of labor or the results of that labor.

Let us, then, seek to understand a labor of love as a spiritual quality, as something we do for God and for the upbuilding of the Kingdom. The Apostle Paul tells us that God accepts, actually never forgets, any labor which is done in His Name and for his people. We might say that any work should be a labor of love inasmuch as what we do, whether paid or unpaid or underpaid, whether on our earthly jobs or directly for the Church, should be to the glory of God.

Christ Himself acknowledged a difference between working for material things, perhaps even for mere survival, and working for that which is eternal.

“Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed.”

John 6: 27 [KJV]

Some people work only for money, whether in a survival mode or in the pursuit of wealth for its own sake and for the purpose of obtaining things of fleeting satisfaction. Of course, we need money and we have to work for it. But our labor, in order to be fruitful for the Kingdom, must be invested with love and without compartmentalizing our lives into what is spiritual and what is mundane.

A teacher, for example, must be a teacher because God has called him or her to express the Faith in that way — to shape young minds in an academic and ethical manner and to serve as an example of Christian virtues. Moreover, the teacher who is a Christian, or rather the Christian who is a teacher, must also labor for everlasting life which is attained only through Christ. All facets of living, on and off the job, must be in alignment with whatever promotes everlasting life.

A labor of love is rewarded beyond money, for it is rewarded by the God Who sees and hears everything we do and say. This is not Pollyannaish, nor is this to justify or overlook the hardships of a low-paying job, but it is to focus on the truths of the Gospel and the righteousness of God. We do not conduct ourselves according to the impure standards of the world, but according to whatever is good, right, and true. This might mean having to steer the course of our lives through unfair systems, to cope with lack of friendships among peers, and to manage financially within a simple lifestyle.

Until the End

Even if you are the most empathic person, you cannot thoroughly understand the travails of old age until you arrive there yourself. Old age involves the passing of time or, rather, the approaching of the end of time, which is truly difficult to comprehend when you are young or middle-aged. Time brings emotional losses and physical deterioration, whether it seems to happen overnight or it gradually becomes the bulk of one’s life. Yet, spiritually, we continue forward through the remainder of our years and even achieve victory over our losses and in the face of deterioration.

O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.

I Corinthians 15: 55-58 [KJV]

For many years, my favorite Bible passage was Philippians 4:8, “…whatsoever things are true…think on these things.” It gave me permission to consider all sources of truth, goodness, virtue, and to denounce any preferences for fanaticism, supremacy, trendiness. However, the passage from First Corinthians propels us beyond permission or authorization. It gives us encouragement or reassurance, telling us to be abundant in our pursuits — for victory is ours. That is, when we say and do everything for Christ and in Christ.

When you get old, time and labor are measured by the days and deeds of yesteryear. There is fatigue — not like the satisfying expenditure of energy in one’s youth — but a general slowing-down that says you cannot go on much longer and the end is near. There is a tendency to look back on the history of one’s own life, at those decades of survival in the world as well as dedication to Christ, and to try and make sense of it as a whole. Because, it all led to this present moment of reflection, to this instant in old age, and there is the sudden realization that one is called to be unmovable in faith and abundant in spirituality nonetheless — and to go forward to total victory.

The labor of the past was not in vain, not if it was done in purity of heart, according to the will of God, for the sake of the Kingdom, to the benefit of Church and mankind, and in Christ. Even if our labor failed in any of these dimensions, repentance and transformation of the whole is still possible — this I believe, for healing is life-giving and boundless, and there is victory over all nuances of sin and every trace of decay and death.

Starry Night Over the Rhone, by Vincent van Gogh

Yes, you have to enter old age, and maybe that is the great blessing of old age, to really see the contrast between death and life. That is, death as anti-life and anti-Christ, death as ruthlessly against revelation and hope, death as jealously hateful of purity and abundance — and life as merciful resurrection into the eternal truth and love of Christ.

Faith in Others

One of my psychotherapy patients, years ago, who was a recovering alcoholic, complained to me that his wife had no faith in him. She was not supportive of his efforts to stay sober, and generally treated him as though he were a little boy with grubby hands. His remark surprised me for two reasons. First, his desire for his wife’s faith in him actually seemed more like a demand. His sobriety, after all, was his responsibility. I wondered if he was setting up his next relapse, with the excuse that his wife drove him to it. Second, I thought people should have faith only in God, and that faith in another person was idolization or maybe infatuation.

It was only after I entered my senior years that I found myself in situations where those of the younger generation seemed to need or want me to have faith in them. That is, a trust or confidence in their abilities, perception or insight into their potential, and even a sort of blessing upon their existence and their value or purpose. Such faith was actually the core of the relationship, a basic dynamic between the old and the young, a contrast between life gone by and life yet to be lived, something beyond being supportive, and a matter of affirming and nourishing the reality of goodness and fruitfulness.

Some people are not tainted or cynical in that way, not hardened. Nowadays, or over the past few years, those are the people I seem to encounter.  In other words, the ones who are open to love, who have room in their life for love and for more love, and who relate to me as an older person — as though I were always this old. They do not demand, but seem to hope for or anticipate validation by someone who has survived that which is still ahead of them. I am slowly learning that they are images of the God in Whom I have faith and therefore that faith must be shared in them.

The following is a quotation from Fr. Thomas Hopko who puts forth that faith in God is very much connected to faith in people.

The foundation of all Christian virtue and life is faith. Faith is the natural possession of all men who are wise and virtuous. For if a person lacks faith in man’s ability to know, to do good and to find meaning in life; if he does not believe that this is possible, profitable and worthy of man’s efforts, then nothing wise or virtuous can be achieved. The striking characteristic of all prophets of doom, apostles of despair and preachers of absurdity is the absence of faith in man’s capabilities for goodness and truth, and the absence of faith in the meaning and value of life. It is also an absence of faith in God.

The Orthodox Faith, Vol. IV, Spirituality, 1976 (p. 58)

People are to be valued, and not because they are worthy or perfect, but because God has given us certain capabilities — even if latent or grubby in the unfortunate, even if already fairly accomplished in the advantaged, and we have to take our place in humanity and fulfill goodness and truth in our own lives and nourish it in the lives of others. If we have faith in God, then let us invest that faith in those precious souls who look to us to verify and endorse life and love. If they perceive the image of God in us, despite our flaws, then let us respect His image in them and interact in faith.

For Everyone

I have tried over and over to analyze it, hoping to figure out the viewpoint of someone who would say such a thing. But, after sorting through my thoughts and feelings, and having re-stabilized myself, I decided to bypass the analysis and simply refute the following statement:

The Orthodox Church is not for you.

A member of the Orthodox Church said that to me. And, I have a response:

The Orthodox Church is for everyone.

Christ died for everyone. If the Orthodox Church is the True Church, then, in fact, there is no other place for people. Otherwise, the disqualified must go to the Roman Catholic or Protestant churches. That, in turn, is the same as saying there are legitimate alternatives to pure and total truth. Now, I personally love some aspects of Catholicism and Protestantism, and I love the people, but it is only the Orthodox Church which offers the one and complete body of Christianity.

Little Russia, by Ora Coltman [a view of St. Theodosius Orthodox Church, Cleveland]

As an antidote, I found a very different remark from Metropolitan JOSEPH of  the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

THOUGHTS FROM METROPOLITAN JOSEPH ON EVANGELISM

A preacher doesn’t need to have all the knowledge of this world, but to be faithful and honest in what he is saying. The most eloquent homily we can give to the faithful is this: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I love you and I pray for you.’

If you desire to grow in your relationship with God, fall on your knees in repentance, then stand up and get to work. We have much to do.

Whereas the ancient city of Antioch was a place where many races coexisted in peace, so we build the new Antioch here in America, embracing all who desire to find the Way to God.

If we do not have Christian love, if we have no long-term vision of evangelization and education, if we cannot see our parish’s calling to minister to the spiritually sick and suffering, then we will be slaves to petty arguments and pride.

URL: http://antiochian.org/missions

If I may humbly add to the above, I would say that “petty arguments and pride” might also include puritanical protectionism or separatism. My disturbing experience showed me that, even in this new evangelistic era, there is still a certain bias as to who is regarded as acceptable.  Yet, I consider myself Orthodox and I am trying to do my part, by writing this essay, to affirm “embracing all who desire to find the Way to God.“

If you have ever been viewed as disqualified, then know that you are not destined for hell just because of one person’s opinion. The Orthodox Church is not for you sounds like a judgment, probably based on a distorted or fragmented perception of Orthodoxy as well as a failure to see the image of God in you. Ultimately, however, you can use this unfortunate experience as an opportunity to suffer for Christ, to increase your understanding of theology, and to deepen your faith.

It is the Day of Resurrection, so let us be radiant for the festival, and let us embrace one another. Let us speak, brothers and sisters, also to those who hate us, and in the Resurrection let us forgive everything, and so let us cry:

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

Paschal Chant

A Christian Response

A Christian Response to Extremist Ideologies and Terrorist Attacks

1) To pray for the world, to be a people of right worship, and to turn to God first in all situations and for all things.

2) To see the image of God in all people, to love but not facilitate enemies, to desire the welfare and salvation of all races and cultures, and to affirm the Church and protect civilization.

3) To be lights shining in the darkness, to be examples of true religion, to be a culture of life, to prohibit and prevent actions which are destructive or deadly to human life, and to refute falsehood wherever we find it.

4) To maintain our religious beliefs and civilized values with absolutely no resignation to terrorism as inevitable or as something that unites us and makes us strong.

5) To love children, to prioritize the protection of children from terrorist violence as well as from extremist brainwashing, pornography, kidnappings, and slavery.

6) To hold elected officials accountable by voting, sending letters and e-mails, and through social media.

7) To define current multicultural tolerance as oppressive to a free society, subversive to democracy, and as anti-Christianity, anti-Western civilization, and anti-American.

8) To become aware of multiculturalism instruction and tendencies in the public school system, to read our children’s textbooks and monitor their homework, and to voice any concerns to teachers and principals.

9) To align with other cultures and religions which uphold values similar to ours.

10) To find ways to support the families and loved ones of terrorist victims and to support first-responders.

11) To report any suspicious person or activity to authorities — if you see something, say something.

12) To denounce those who misinterpret the Bible to support submission to immoral leadership or inhumane policies, or who misinterpret the Psalms to justify personal vengeance.

Children as Targets

The title of this essay could have been, “The Vulnerable and Innocent as Targets of the Self-Righteous and Envious.” It has always seemed to me that terrorists are essentially self-righteous at the core of their character and as a basis for social cohesion. They are good and right and you are bad and wrong and therefore you are offensive and must be dominated or annihilated. That is their sense of logic. Intimately woven into pervasive self-righteousness is an envy of anyone with real accomplishments, particularly people and nations which do not share in their extremist value system.

We might say that the quality of innocence is also offensive to the radical agenda. Children are to be brainwashed and forced to continue the ideology into the next generation. That is to say, their children. Our children, however, are to be killed in order to terrorize and demoralize us into non-resistance if not total submission. The targets of terrorist violence have always been weak or vulnerable, but to target young people is utilitarian at a depraved level. The youngest person killed in Manchester, U.K., was an eight-year old girl. Just a little girl who had gone to a concert with her mother and sister, not knowing how offensive her favorite music was to the self-righteous and envious. Twelve of those killed were under the age of sixteen.

If the targeting of children continues, there will be woe many times over. There will be funeral after funeral. Families will be forever altered. Classmates will be devastated. Commentators will continue to analyze an extremist culture which simply does not think or act in normal ways. Let us hope that a strategy  will be developed to end terrorism — hope, and hold our elected officials accountable. Let us pray that all children, theirs and ours, will be spared from brainwashing, violence and slaughter. We must protect childhood according to humanitarian standards. We must not passively accept a world in which the killing of children is the new and inevitable normal, and in which multiculturalism makes excuses for terrorists and protects their so-called rights.

Unworthy Servants

People were meant to work, to do something, to focus their energy into fruitfulness. Even prayer is an activity inasmuch as it involves a concentration of one’s vitality into worship and intercession. Yet, the Bible tells us that, despite our efforts and achievements, we are unworthy servants. We have only done what God has called us to do and enabled us to do.

The verse related to this is from Luke 17: 10.

So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ [RSV]

So with you: when you have done all you have been told to do, say, “We are merely servants: we have done no more than our duty.” [The Jerusalem Bible-1966]

So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all these things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do. [KJV]

In an effort to understand this verse, I jotted down some ideas and notes.

  • We are undeserving of tribute or awards, for we only did the work we were called to do. Our work is vital, but it does  not make us special or any better than others who are also working. Everyone works according to their gifts and talents, and according to the claim of God upon their life.
  • We are undeserving to do His work, even though we have been called to do it. That is, called forth from our falleness and into His love and unity. Rather than coveting acclamation, our attitude should be one of thanksgiving for the chance to share in and to be a vital member of the whole.
  • Our work should be inspired by love of God, Church, and mankind. A servant does what he is paid to do, and a slave does what he is forced to do. A disciple of Christ does what he is called to do, and this work or activity is in itself a source of happiness and fulfillment.
  • Our work does not make us superior. We cannot do anything without God and we are dependent upon Him no matter how much we accomplish. We are unworthy in a sense of self-idolatry, letting others put us on a pedestal, judging those who seem to have done less, and resting on our laurels.
  • “Our Lord showed his disciples their need of deep humility. The Lord has such a property right in every creature, as no man can have in another; he cannot be in debt to them for their services, nor do they deserve any return from him.” Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary, p. 965.
  • With faith as a grain of mustard seed, we could move mountains.

The word unworthy is not a description of our work or service, but of the status of Christians who have only done what we were supposed to do. Nonetheless, God has deemed us worthy though unworthy to do His work. But to expect exaltation would be presumptuous on our part. The strange thing is not that we are unworthy, but that God has given us something to do and thereby filled our lives with purpose, meaning, direction and completion. He has entrusted us to serve the Church and build up the Kingdom.

Our performance of these duties is not in the detached manner of a paid servant or an abused slave, but we are involved and invested as His children and heirs. It is astounding that God allows us to work, and that with a little faith we could move mountains; and it is shocking that we react with pride rather than humility. God does not owe us anything, and we are not doing Him a favor by believing in Him. We answer God’s calling because life has no significance outside Him, and we do whatever glorifies Him because He alone is worthy and because in this we find our only true happiness.

The Little Country Maid, by Camille Pissarro

Taking Up the Cross

To deny oneself and to take up one’s cross is essential to following Christ in true discipleship.

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done.”

Matthew 16: 24-27 [RSV]

Taking up the cross might involve conditions such as: being misjudged by the world, coping with social exclusion, relinquishing some goals and plans, not insisting on certain ideas or opinions, not resting on past achievements, not coveting what others have, and perhaps actually suffering persecution from schoolmates, colleagues, or the government. In other words, “…not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26: 39). One’s decisions and actions must be in alignment with the Church and in cooperation with the will of God.

This is not a glamorization or self-infliction of suffering for its own sake, but a loving imitation and witnessing of Christ under all circumstances — particularly expressed in the forgiveness of those who trespass against us. It is to be in the world but not of the world — and this has many ramifications which are often unavoidable, beyond our control, and even to be expected. Everything is grist in the process of denying, taking up, and following.

To deny oneself is to reject all forms of self-centeredness such as: self-gratification, self-indulgence, self-justification, self-promotion, self-infatuation, and perhaps likewise any neurotic self-judgment — leaving all judgment to God. It does  not mean to deny the distinctive self that we were created to be or called to be, or the image of God in which we are made. Denial of self pertains to the renunciation of our fallen and corrupted state of self-centeredness. We deny, renounce, and triumph over impurity through Christ. In this sense, self-denial is an affirmation of holiness.

The genuine self is realized by taking up the cross and following Christ — by becoming Christ-like, by living a life pleasing to God, by forgiving others and enduring to the end. The cross is not oppressive or gruesome, but life-giving and victorious. For some people, it may involve sacrificing some of the good things in life in order to more fully embrace the ways of God — but what we have given up will be replenished a hundredfold (Mark 10: 31).

Perhaps the most emotionally disturbing and mentally confusing thing is to carry the cross among one’s own kind: within one’s own church or religion, or inside one’s circle of friends. Perhaps the most spiritually unbalancing thing is to carry the cross before religious authorities and experts. Yet, Christ did all of the above and in the extreme, relying  on God the Father to direct and sustain Him. The saints and martyrs were sometimes criticized, falsely accused, and banished by other Christians — by bishops, priests, monks, as well as by civil authorities and pagans. If we really follow Christ, then we enter into a divine journey of total trust and unceasing prayer as we fulfill God’s purpose in all kinds of places and at all times — and, for each one of us, these will be the most spiritual places and times.

Bearing the Marks

Some people think St. Paul ruined Christianity. Anyway, I have come across postmodernists who view Paul’s epistles as inconsistent with Christ’s teachings, and they conveniently omit that part of the Bible from their beliefs. But then, Paul seems always to have had certain challenges to his apostleship, even to the point of defending himself in frustration.

Henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.

Galatians 6: 17 [RSV]

Paul literally bore marks on His body, for he suffered physical harm as he performed his evangelistic duties. There are persecuted Christians today who likewise bear the marks of Christ on their bodies, as well as suffering damages to their homes and churches. Even in America, there are instances of church arson and shootings, mainly in the southern states. Most of us are more likely to suffer mental and emotional abuses from colleagues or classmates.

However, there are possibly other ways in which we can bear the marks of Christ, conscientiously or proactively. That is, there are ways in which we can demonstrate His love and be recognized as His followers in our everyday relationships and encounters and also in our goals and efforts. To elaborate on this, I am going to connect Paul’s statement with three verses from the Gospels [RSV].

But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion on him and bound up his wounds…

Luke 10: 33-34

By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

John 13: 35

Bear fruit that befits repentance…

Matthew 3: 8

St. Paul, by El Greco

There are positive behavioral and social marks of a Christian. These marks — actions and interactions, labor and productivity, purification and transformation — should be the everyday stuff of life along with prayer, reading the Bible, and worshipping in Church. This is how other people, Christians and non-Christians, experience the image of God in us. People may or may not be impressed with domes on church buildings or with three-barred crosses, for these are symbols and not marks. The symbols are important because Christ died on a cross, but He died with marks on His body — the marks of His faithful ministry on earth which was even unto death.

If we do not have compassion like the Good Samaritan as a basic disposition, if we are not emotionally and practically attending to the wounds of the suffering, if we do not express or show love for one another in some way, if our repentance is not manifested in positive changes or outcomes, then, like the postmodernist, we are picking and choosing which parts of religion we want to uphold and which parts to discard.

St. Paul regarded himself as the first among sinners, and yet he loved Christ and was not timid in his expressions of love or in his evangelistic commitment. There was no false humility. To bear the marks of Christ makes us like Him, and like Paul who was like Him. It sets us on an affirmative course, claimed and branded by the message of Christ and not by the deceits of the world.

Creative Christians

Having devoted the past few years to serious writing, I have come to the conclusion that all creative writing is therapeutic. As writers , we seem to draw more from our troubled soul than from a pure heart — or perhaps from a combination of the two as we constantly endeavor to follow Christ through our trials and tribulations. This does not mean that such writing is not within the will of God, but only that the purpose of Christian creative writing — expression, elucidation, evangelization — seems also to include the psychological and spiritual healing of the one who writes.

This is perhaps within God’s plan for us. As we write, we heal ourselves. Rather, God is active in us, transforming emotional wounds and fulfilling a quest for knowledge. Maybe it would not be too outlandish to say that such creativity reflects the concept that we are temples of God or of the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 3: 16, 6: 19). We try to write, sing, or paint from within that temple.

Christ Himself was a storyteller, using parables as a means of teaching the ways of God. This would seem to validate Christian creativity for the purpose of building the Kingdom. Different people have different gifts, and sometimes people have intersecting gifts. One might be both priest and musician, or both mother and artist, or both carpenter and poet. Let us not limit the infusing of the Holy Spirit just because we feel more comfortable with manmade rules and regulations, stereotypes and conventions, and prejudices and misconceptions.

Moreover, Christian creativity is not the same as worldly entertainment. Creative writing has the same purpose and vision as a sermon or homily, but it is put forth in a different form. For example, there are snowflakes and autumn leaves, but nobody would mistake a snowflake for a leaf even though both are true expressions of nature. Each has its place within the whole. There are sunrises and sunsets, yet there is uniqueness of arrangement even within the same basic elements or features. In other words, there is no deviation but only unlimited wonders in God’s created order.

Getting back to the soul of the writer, writing from a background of or in a current state of troubles does not nullify the content of the writing. Even though the creative process itself may be a medicine for the writer, that does not mean the writer does not have something essential to say or that the finished work is not a manifestation of Christian fruitfulness. The creative process is one of purification — it involves labor, commitment, sacrifice, and honesty with self and God. It is almost like the sacrament of confession, or perhaps the opposite of confession because we have poured out the best that we had to offer at that moment – in that poem or essay, in that song or painting, and then we move on to the next composition for as long as God calls us to serve Him in this way.

A Starting Point

Agony in the Garden, by Albrecht Durer

Upon perusing some Orthodox Church websites, I notice there is an emphasis nowadays on outreach to the non-Orthodox in the community. In fact, I came across one such website in which this evangelistic approach represented its main content, and there was no nourishment for or connection with the already converted and baptized. Nonetheless, I am pleased to encounter this approach because there was a time when those who were attracted to Orthodoxy were regarded as unfit outsiders who might contaminate the purity of the Faith.

This new evangelism often focuses on this major point: the Orthodox Church is the original and historical Church which Jesus Christ founded. Specifically, it is the historical timeline, showing the early Church and the splitting off of the Catholic and the Protestant churches, that seems to be the proof or the crux of the matter — or that which might attract a Pentecostal or Anglican or Roman Catholic to the Orthodox Church. This is possibly effective. I once knew someone who became Orthodox precisely because of the historicity issue — for my friend believed in God but was unaware of the line of events from the early Church to the present-day Orthodox Church.

Personally, I am not convinced by the timeline, even though it is true. The Church, original and historical and current, is the Body of Christ — the Son of God, the Savior of mankind Who laid down His life for us, the Good Shepherd Who gathers His sheep throughout the ages, the Light of the World Who has overcome evil and calls us out of darkness, and the Risen Lord Who offers us eternal life. Now, if someone already knew all that or had been raised in those basic beliefs, then the facts of the timeline might be the convincing point of conversion to Orthodoxy. That is, the continuity and authenticity of the Faith which has not undergone alteration since Jesus Christ (or since Pentecost).

Among converts to Orthodoxy, perhaps a starting point is necessary for an expansion to all facets of the Church: prayer, worship, icons, the Nicene Creed, the concept of theosis, the daily commemoration of saints, the monastic tradition, etc. Anyway, it prompted me to think back to my own starting point which had nothing to do with any timeline — at least, not on the surface, not as a focus, not as a reason or motivation to commit to a religion.

My introduction to Orthodoxy, which I did not recognize as an introduction at the time, occurred upon reading a biography of St. Seraphim of Sarov. It was the life of this saint that opened a desire within me for (a) relationship and oneness, (b) the life of prayer, especially the Jesus Prayer, and (c) the salvation of my soul. I do not remember if things happened in that order, or if everything happened at once, but that was my starting point. At that time, it was my impression that the Orthodox Church existed in Russia in the distant past but was not a viable Faith at present.

Yet, my attraction to the life and religion of St. Seraphim remained strong. One day, out of curiosity, I looked up Orthodox Church in the yellow pages of the telephone directory (since there were no computers or internet in those days). To my surprise and reprieve, a timeline was mercifully drawn from St. Seraphim to my eventual baptism, for there was an Orthodox Church not too far from my home. For me, the convincing point was a human example, or rather a saintly example, who especially embodied certain facets of the Church which I found attractive, or rather life-giving. Most churches are named after saints, and may those saints guide all visitors and newcomers into the True Light of the World as they set foot into an Orthodox Church edifice.

First among Sinners

It is impossible for the Church to teach untruth. But, it is possible for truths to be misunderstood or misapplied even by followers of Christ. We might wonder, then, how truth is misconstrued or why it is believed in a distorted form within the Holy Church. Well, indeed, we are all sinners, and first among sinners — which is what the Church teaches but which seems often assumed in an impossibly literal translation. Let’s review what the Apostle Paul said about himself — yes, let us try to understand why this holy man viewed himself as first among sinners, as given in I Timothy 1: 15.

This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. [KJV]

This is a faithful and trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance and approval, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost. [AMP]

How true it is, and how I long that everyone should know it, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — and I was the greatest of them all. [TLB]

Now, if Paul is to be believed, or if the New Testament is to be regarded as truth, then Paul is the first, chief, foremost and greatest sinner. Therefore, if I regard myself as first among sinners, then I have defied the truth of Scripture or I have put Paul in second place after myself. The only way I could put Paul in a different position would be to view sinners on a continuum. That is, Paul was the greatest sinner until I was born and then I lived a more sinful life and became first among sinners. Of course, this is absurd. It would be a futile exercise to compare and contrast all sinners throughout the ages.

Another problem with a literal application is that we cannot all be the first among sinners. It goes against the very definition of first. First means first, not second or third. Moreover, the score cannot be tied among sinners: with all of mankind in first place, or every human being as foremost, or each man and each woman as chief. Personally, I do not regard myself as worse than Hitler or tied with Hitler, and this is how we get distracted from true meaning — to be literally the first among sinners is irrational.

We either have to let Paul remain the first and let everyone else fall someplace behind him in terms of severity or quantity of sins, or we have to interpret a valid meaning. The quest would be not to diminish Paul’s repentance and evangelism, not to alter the truth of Scripture, but to discern what is beneath the surface so that we may take our place before God and accept responsibility for self among humankind.

It would seem that Paul put himself forth as an example and that he was called by God to show that even the most sinful can be saved — even someone who had persecuted Christians through unbelief and ignorance — even that kind of person, specifically and foremost Paul because of his horrendous actions, can receive the mercy of God and not only be forgiven but become an instrument of truth and love. In this sense, historically and spiritually, Paul is indeed the first among sinners — for to say otherwise would be to deny his calling — as well as a holy servant of Jesus Christ and the Church. To be first among sinners, therefore, is to glorify God.

If Paul’s words are faithful and worthy, then let us attempt to apply them to ourselves. If I am the first among sinners, then there must be a basis in reality for this conclusion, position, or condition. In other words, to regard myself as first is not a technique to acquire humility, not something I blindly accept despite the evidence of the atrocities of Hitler, and not something imposed upon me by an authority figure who does not know my mind and heart. It is only the reality and the facts of my life — my specific, particular, God-given life — that can show me that I have failed in ways that only I could have done because only I can live my own life and make my own choices whether for or against Jesus Christ.

These failures might be small or large, common or outrageous, few or many. The significance, however, is that I betrayed Christ and persecuted the Church within the dynamics of my life and my time and place. I did what nobody else could do, because nobody can live another person’s life for them. I am therefore first among sinners, and I therefore repent inasmuch as I have awareness of my own sins, and I likewise trust that God will mercifully accept me as His servant and use me in some way to contribute to the building up of the Church. And perhaps this is how the Apostle Paul serves as our example.

It is reality and self-knowledge that produces genuine humility, makes us publicans and not Pharisees, and renders us prodigal sons and daughters — each according to the variables in his or her own environment and through the “perfect patience” of Jesus Christ. To be first among sinners is not condemnation but salvation if we look to the Cross and begin to fathom the unfathomable love of Christ. Then, I can say, humbly and realistically, that I am the first among sinners. The Church, then, consists of firsts among sinners who are being transformed and deified at every point of their development individually and as a whole unit.

God Willing

During the swearing-in of the new President and Vice-president of the United States on January 20, 2017, the Oath of Office concluded with “So help me God” and was administered with hand on the Holy Bible. Below is the text of the Oath of the Office of President:

I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. So help me God.

It seems that “So help me God” is optional. In other words, those who swear any oath of public office can invoke God’s help or not. That makes room for atheists or other objectors to the format. Invoking God’s help might also assume His judgment for false promise or dereliction of duty. The current “So help me God” is apparently an abbreviation of an earlier version:

So may God help me at the judgment day if I speak true, but if I speak false, then may He withdraw His help from me.

The solemn and formal “So help me God” is somewhat similar to the more familiar “God willing.” When we form a goal or begin a project, or simply organize our chores for the day, we often say “God willing.” It expresses our desire to do as God wills and our hope that what we plan to do is, indeed, within His holy will for us.

Houses at Chatou, by Maurice de Vlaminck

Houses at Chatou, by Maurice de Vlaminck

We choose whether to live, conscientiously, with or without the help of God (for God helps and protects us even when we are not aware of it, though we should not presume or abuse His mercy). Some people are so grandiose that they never turn to God in recognition of need, and perhaps other people are so mired in corruption that they think God will turn away from them. So, they rely on their own manipulations or sheer determination to get things done.

Still another similar expression is the now commonplace “I love you.” These words used to be said privately and rather emotionally, reserved for spouses, family, and perhaps close friends. Some people never said or heard “I love you,” whether love was expressed in other ways or whether there was no love. Nowadays, “I love you” is said as a substitute for “bye-bye” or “see ya later” as we leave the home or end a telephone conversation. Even the President (the 45th and his predecessor) says “I love you” in speeches to his constituents. “I love you,” followed by “I love you, too,” has almost become obligatory.

Finally, let look at how the Apostle Paul expressed commitment, inclusion, and love:

Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love undying.

Ephesians 6: 23-24 [RSV]

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen.

1 Corinthians 16: 23-24 [RSV]

Language changes over time, as does cultural acceptance and expectation of certain expressions. Even the Bible undergoes constant revision. Perhaps especially for those of us who are older, some words and phrases appeal to us and some grate against our sense of etiquette or represent a deterioration of civility (particularly vulgar expressions which are now regarded as normal). Yet, the words, or the meanings, of the Apostle Paul are timeless and unchanging because they come from God and not from man. If our love is undying, no matter how we express it, then that is the main thing.

Strength, Courage, Love

We tend to preserve and explain the truths of religion, which is certainly essential, but this approach sometimes degenerates into harsh scolding of the faithful or haughty condemnation of the unfaithful. However, some people simply need a word of encouragement to practice the basic truths they already know, truths which are perhaps tested daily in the environment. The Apostle Paul, who was capable of teaching truth as well as confronting inappropriate behaviors, seemed to realize the importance of also offering support to believers.

Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.

1 Corinthians 16: 13-14 [RSV]

Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong. Let all things be done with charity.

1 Corinthians 16: 13-14 [KJV]

The qualities emphasized by Paul are faith, vigilance, strength, courage and love. Therefore, if someone is not fully practicing the truths of the Church, it might not be due to lack of knowledge but lack of support amid the stresses of everyday life. Sometimes, we need someone to commiserate with us and reinforce our identity and lifestyle as Christians. We need someone to make an investment in us — of time and love, getting to know us and keeping us on the straight path, and just being available to us when we are in need.

In this instance, Paul is not telling us to be humble or forgiving, but to be strong and courageous. We can only guess how many times the devil has had his way with Christians because we were not watchful in prayer, not strong in our beliefs and knowledge, not courageous in the world or among other religions, and not acting like true men and women created in the image of God. We can only surmise how satisfying it is to the devil that we do not encourage one another in daily life, but we gossip about a brother or sister who is deteriorating and we passively consent to the evil overwhelming him or her.

This essay is not meant to be a scolding but an observation as well as a report from personal experience, having lived on both sides of the issue — the one without support as well as the one who failed to give support. If you need a word of encouragement today, then perhaps these two short sentences of the Apostle Paul will guide you now and serve you throughout the days ahead. Be strong in Christ Who is our very strength even in our weaknesses, and through Whom we can accomplish all things and overcome all obstacles. And, if you have the maturity and spiritual capacity, insofar as God directs, try to uplift the suffering and do not cause further harm.

How We Process Life

Everyone has a perspective on life, whether toward the self-centered or the philosophical. This is how we try to make sense of things, both in the moment and in retrospect. We grapple with reality and try to interpret it so that we can grow or, at least, survive. Anyone who understands defense mechanisms (denial, projection, rationalization, etc.), knows that some people misinterpret reality because the truth, about oneself or about the world, is just too painful or inconvenient to acknowledge. Many of us probably use a combination of defense mechanisms and healthy coping skills, according to our level of stability and maturity.

Flowering Apple Tree, by Piet Mondrian

Flowering Apple Tree, by Piet Mondrian

My own tendency is to process things psychologically and sociologically. That is, in an attempt to resolve mental confusion and emotional pain as well as to have good relationships with people and to navigate society’s systems. I also have some tendency to look at life historically, appreciating my predecessors while viewing the world’s drama throughout the centuries. For me, it’s all about inward cohesion and outward connection to mankind. This undoubtedly influenced my career choices in psychotherapy and teaching. In fact, my first job was in a restaurant which definitely involved relating to people — feeding them and trying to make them happy whether they were sitting alone with a book or chatting with their friends.

As I have gotten older, I find myself processing life materially and bodily. Each morning, I assess my wellbeing  and my resources — if I have the wherewithal to run errands, or if I have the energy to clean house, or if I have enough food so that I can postpone going to the supermarket, or if I just want to sit in my chair and knit. But I try to accomplish two or three household tasks per day or else things get out of control by the end of the month.

Old age means that I have to be flexible and sometimes change my plans because of how I feel. This morning, for example, I had planned to go to a flea market but I just did not feel like it — as though something was holding me back. I usually obey that strange feeling, as a sort of premonition or intuition about myself or about the conditions which exist outside my kitchen door, or as an invisible protection over my wellbeing, and I look for other ways to use my day productively.

Ultimately, we have to process life spiritually. However, spiritual concepts can be misinterpreted or misapplied, or used very much like defense mechanisms. Turning the other cheek, for example, can be used as an excuse for not solving personal problems or not addressing global situations. The real message of Jesus Christ is distorted and no longer matters. What matters is relief for the individual and denial of life’s difficulties, while giving the appearance of holiness if not superiority. Unfortunately, religion has always been plagued with individuals and groups who are insistent if not aggressive in their distortions. They give religion a bad name.

One of my spiritual perspectives is derived from All Saints Sunday as celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is a day, specifically the first Sunday after Pentecost, when all saints, and therefore all types of saints, throughout time are given recognition and devotion. It is a day of inclusion and wholeness, a day to process the glory of the Kingdom and to behold ultimate victory and union.  With God’s mercy, we shall also be among the saints in a place or state where there is no longer suffering or sorrow — and likewise no defense mechanisms or distortions.

I was baptized on the eve of All Saints Sunday, after the Vespers service. That was many years ago, before I had ever really encountered divisions and separations which were unnecessary and avoidable, misunderstandings and ruptures in places where one would not expect it, and sins and lunacy which oozed out of myself and others even as we tried to worship God and respect the Church. One might assume that a perspective of All Saints was of comfort to me under those circumstances, but I never fully realized the concept or had the capacity to reap the benefits of such a wonderful gift. I did not process life according to All Saints in those days, but painfully hobbled from crisis to crisis in the events of my life and environment. There were moments when I was very aware of my distraction and neglect, and this only added to my torment.

Yet, God is merciful even to late-bloomers. And who can say with certainty that God did not arrange my baptism such that the fruits would not be harvested until the end of my life. Who can tell me that a perspective of All Saints is diminished just because of slick roads and potholes? Who can stop me from getting up each morning and assessing my wellbeing and resources according to the reality of the help and blessings of All Saints? The connection is at hand, especially marked on the first Sunday after Pentecost, and for everyone — annually and on any given day, which means Heaven welcomes us and nobody on earth can stop us from repenting. Perhaps the Sunday of All Saints shows us our only true vitality and unity — which is in Christ, and overriding any earthly dynamics which appear contrary on the surface.

No Other

As a writer, I have only recently noticed that I have, at various points in my life, tried to write the ending to my own life or to the chapters of my life. I used to think if this happened or if that happened, then it would be a logical solution to the problems I was experiencing or a fitting completion of that phase of my journey. Somehow, I thought that God thought the way that I thought, or that my wishes were within His care for me and an appropriate recompense for my sufferings. I was always bewildered when life did not turn out according to the novel that I seemed to be writing about myself and in my own head.

However, life is not fiction, although fiction might resemble life. If we confuse the two, even with good intentions or heartfelt longings, it is because we do not discern that God’s ways are mysterious and because we cannot foresee His sacred ending to our life or the conclusion of any of its phases. We form plans and goals, make choices and decisions, and yet we are not in total control of life itself. There are unexpected obstacles as well as opportunities. There are complications within some situations such that love cannot be expressed in a way which is personally satisfying, but our love becomes sacrificial or even anonymous.

There is no other way to love except within the way of Christ, for Christ Himself is the Way. It is discipleship in Christ which must always direct everything we say and do as well as our reactions to dissatisfaction, loss, defeat, alteration, waste, hardship, failure, want and need. His life is our life, and our non-fictional components might be the very keys to living in Him. There is no other completely accessible love except the love of Christ, for His love resists factors such as finances, health, location, politics, education, status, race and ethnicity. Christ is immune to the limitations and impurities of our earthly striving and preconceptions.

This is a hard lesson to learn, for we crave something more concrete — something, perhaps, that does not require faith. But without faith, life has no ultimate significance. Without faith, we would start writing our own novels or engage in the partial giving and taking of love, for such is the way of the world — perhaps not totally insignificant, but also not glorious and not untainted by the seeking and expressing of certain unmet wishes which can only be met or overcome through Christ Himself. Let us listen to the Apostle Paul.

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

2 Corinthians 4: 16-18 [RSV]

Indeed, some of our dissatisfaction and complications are temporary and outward, confined to this earth whether for a few days or many years. Meanwhile, inwardly, we can develop the ability to love purely and everlastingly, and become pleasing to God. It is unseen, hidden in Christ, and yet expressed through prayer and charity. I am not saying that love cannot or should not be reciprocal, but even reciprocal love must be centered in Christ and those individuals must be called into those relationships or situations. When love is not reciprocal — because of individual shortcomings or complicated circumstances — we are called nonetheless to love with Christ-like love and to let Him write the ending to our life.

Unconquerable Sunday

There is much in religion that serves as a blockade to true spirituality, and yet, Sunday after Sunday — each Sunday a Day of the Resurrection of Christ — people go to church, or perhaps they climb a sycamore tree in order to see Christ despite the blockades of deviation or simply being unwelcome inside the church doors. Even so, yes, the desire is to see Christ — Himself, risen, in others, transformed, in oneself, abiding, and to know that all the blockades have been conquered, including one’s own blindness which may have burdened a neighbor. Today, on Pascha, the Feast of Feasts, we all see the True Light that enlightens the world. So, yes, let me say “Christ is Risen” to the church-goers and the true worshippers, to those in the sycamore trees, to those who were once blind but now they see, to those whom I love and whom I failed to love, and to the whole universe — because it is an indisputable and invincible truth that He is Risen.

The Resurrection of Christ, by Jacopo Tintoretto

The Resurrection of Christ, by Jacopo Tintoretto

Lazarus Saturday

The only religious tradition I follow, other than decorating the interior of my home for Christmas, is a day of housecleaning on Lazarus Saturday. This is a custom that I learned long ago within a community of Eastern Orthodox Christians, and I have maintained it ever since in my private life. I did not know how the custom developed or even what it signified, but it became a habit into which I put my own purpose. Lazarus Saturday and Holy Thursday are my favorite Lenten celebrations, as one precedes the other in sequence, and as both prepare me for and introduce me to the Resurrection of Christ in all its meaning for the struggles of mankind.

This year, it seemed like the whole of Lent was a long Lazarus Saturday, for there was a lot of cleaning and organizing to do — including a task which did not exist during my younger Lazarus Saturdays, and that was the deleting and organizing of files and folders on my computers (because the personal computer had yet to be invented). I rejuvenated two laptops for daily use, got rid of an obsolete one, and bought a new one with updated features. Setting up a new computer — the way that I like it — is an enormous task.

Perhaps my attraction to the Lazarus Saturday tradition is that it gives me permission to be Martha and to attend to the practicalities of running a household as well as to plan future writing projects. It is a protected day for bringing order to my home and mind, so as not to be preoccupied during Holy Week. It enables me to make the transition from Martha to Mary, to come forth from my dark cavern of blindness, and to awake on Palm Sunday in anticipation of total victory over the tribulations of this world.

Today, April 23, 2016, Lazarus Saturday coincides with the Feast of St. George. I always notice things like that — the intersecting or overlapping of events, the spiritual connecting of persons in life’s drama, the various meanings that can be gleaned for direction on the journey. Help is available; triumph is near and is already here. Christ is mingling with His people, preparing each individual to behold His trampling down of death and His rising with love for mankind so that all can worship Him eternally. Therefore, Lazarus had to be brought back to life, and St. George could become a martyr and Victory-bearer, and even a writer can delete and organize files and folders on her computer and write an essay on this marvelous day.

Grow Old, but Not Alone

People talk about growing old together, and what a beautiful commitment and comforting expectation! Regarding marital partners, however, it assumes that there will be no divorce and that one will not die years ahead of the other. As you approach your sixties and seventies, you might find yourself growing old with a brother or sister, or with your dog, or perhaps with your new friends at the assisted-living facility. Robert Browning wrote a poem about growing old, and I will quote the first and last stanzas.

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in his hand
Who saith, “A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!”

So, take, and use thy work:
Amend what flaws may lurk,
What strain o’ the stuff, what warpings past the aim!
My times be in thy hand!
Perfect the cup as planned!
Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same!

Rabbi Ben Ezra, by Robert Browning

Life as we know it on this earth will end, whether we grow old together or alone. In fact, it is not a tragedy if there is nobody to grow old with us. The crux of old age is to trust God during the last phase of life, to be not afraid of the future or of death, and to finish our remaining years in repentance and fruitfulness according to His will. This is also true of youth, except that the aged are much closer to completion and judgment. The Apostle Paul offers a similar kind of promise in terms of earthly time, or perhaps transcendence of time, and heavenly eternity:

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.

Hebrews 13: 8 [RSV]

If Christ is the only faithful companion we have — because others died before us, or betrayed us, or drifted away in leaky rowboats sure to sink — then we can find solace, yea our very breath and being, in His unwavering and unchanging love for us. Let us grow old with Christ Who offers salvation in the broadest sense of the word. He saves us from the total condition of sin, including isolation and loneliness in our senior years. There is no greater friend than the One Who lays down His life for us, searches for us, and prepares a place for us in the Kingdom of Heaven.

So grow old, because you have no choice. Grow old, and use it as an opportunity to renounce the past while fulfilling everything you were meant to be. Grow old, for you are to glorify the God Who brought you to this point and continues to guide you forward and upward. Grow old, but not alone, not without nourishment, not into oblivion, not dependent on anyone for happiness except Christ and yet not ungrateful for whatever blessings He mercifully sends you in your last days. Grow old, like a poem that only increases in meaning each time it is read.

Twilight, by Hale Woodruff

Twilight, by Hale Woodruff

Rejoice, Even If in Retrospect

How many times have I heard that we Christians are to rejoice when persecuted because our reward will be great in Heaven? Numerous times. I have always believed it, perhaps did not really understand the connection between suffering and reward (why it had to be that way), but never fully lived my life according to my belief. In between my morning and evening prayers, the day sometimes proceeded in a discordant direction.

Even if I had experienced a state of true rejoicing, I am not sure that I would have known how to express it. If rejoicing means to be excited and animated — then, no, I have never felt that way. If rejoicing means to be contemplative and hidden in Christ — then, yes, I have had my moments. Perhaps rejoicing is not one-dimensional, but is expressed in various ways according to personality and temperament as well as talents and gifts. If rejoicing is expressed through the cycle of Church feasts, then there is a poetic and orderly quality to rejoicing. Perhaps liturgical music instills within us a state of rejoicing which we would find difficult to acquire or appropriately express without participation within that structure.

When treated badly for my religious beliefs, it was never my response to give thanks or to glorify God for it. I felt the emotional pain. Sometimes, I was overpowered by the stress and did not cope well. Yet, God never forsook me. God knew what He was getting when He got me, and He made the commitment anyway — this is something I have concluded after many years of struggles. I cannot accept that God brought me this far only to condemn me, now, in my old age, because of my storehouse of mistakes. It is my belief, or rather the evidence of my entire life, that rejoicing coincides with my senior years and in retrospection on God’s outpouring of guidance and forgiveness throughout everything.

If it is possible to rejoice in hindsight, to give thanks for all that happened in the past because of the way it turned out in the present, to glorify God for His untold patience and astounding fidelity, then it is never too late for any of us. It might have been more holy to rejoice in the here and now, without knowing how things would eventually fit together, and I regret that I did not have that depth of trust during past crises. However, I think it is also a matter of developing certain instincts and reactions as Christians: to turn to God first in everything, and not to internalize the attitudes and habits of an environment which actively opposes us (and sometimes other Christians are included in that environment).

Whatever God does with the remainder of my life, His decision will be just. But the value system of the world no longer rules my emotions, and my old storehouse has been burnt to the ground. All is ashes. And all is possibility. To rejoice in retrospect is to rejoice in the present, because we reached this point, each of us, and we have a God Who knows us and keeps us. If we are to give thanks for everything, then everything means everything — up to this day and in this day.

Not Evil, but Sources

It has been a lifelong aspiration of mine to understand suffering. Sometimes I feel that I have had more than my share of physical and emotional pain, and other times I feel that I have only lightly brushed against the misery of this world. Yet, to some extent or in some instances, suffering might be intensely personal and it might require interpretation. St. John Chrysostom distinguishes between suffering which results from evil and sin and suffering which results from disaster and disease.

There is then evil, which is really evil; fornication, adultery, covetousness, and the countless dreadful things, which are worthy of the utmost reproach and punishment. Again there is evil, which rather is not evil, but is called so, famine, pestilence, death, disease, and others of a like kind. For these would not be evils. On this account I said they are called so only. Why then? Because, were they evils, they would not have become the sources of good to us, chastening our pride, goading our sloth, and leading us on to zeal, making us more attentive.

That Demons Do Not Govern the World
by St. John Chrysostom

Suffering can become a source of good if we look at it in that way and learn something from it. I am not saying that we should be masochistic, or that we should not try to alleviate or prevent suffering. But if some suffering is unavoidable, and if it can be used as a means to draw closer to God, then indeed all things can work to our benefit. The suffering of illness, for example, is something that we have little or no control over, depending on the diagnosis and the availability of medication and treatment. When we are ill, we are going to suffer whether for 24 hours, or several days, or the rest of our life.

Still Life with Lemons on a Plate, by Vincent van Gogh

Still Life with Lemons on a Plate, by Vincent van Gogh

Illness can be used as a source of spiritual growth, if we learn certain lessons from it — perhaps humility and trust, compassion for others who are also suffering, and the hope of Heaven. I think what has held me back in understanding my own tribulations is that I did not want to associate God with pain or cruelty. However, God does not view pain (or time) the way we mortals do, and it is impossible for God to be cruel. In fact, if we really wanted to reduce our suffering, we could stop inflicting pain on ourselves and others by not committing the evils which are really evil — “the countless dreadful things” which we do every day.

Suffering, as a source, is for a purpose and we must not let anyone rob us of the resultant benefits. The worldly condemn God for allowing suffering. Their goal is to destabilize our faith in the God Who teaches, guides, purifies and heals in mysterious ways which do not appear obvious on the surface. I remember a conversation with a friend whom I thought was a friend, but who then regarded me with utter contempt after I shared my assessment of an episode of misfortune in my life. Her reaction left me feeling ashamed, ridiculous, and both childish and fanatic. That kind of emotional suffering, dreadful, felt worse than my actual misfortune and was totally devoid of benefit. How dare the worldly try to undermine legitimate suffering with dreadful suffering!

Loving God for Who He Is

The title of this essay might seem self-evident: loving God for Who He is, because nobody would suggest loving God for who He is not. That, however, is not the issue. Those who object to loving God for Who He is, object to the concept itself. It is thought to be in conflict with theosis, or union with God and partaking of God’s divine nature. “In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him” (1 John 2: 9). God reveals Himself to us and allows us to know Him through these revelations, Christ being the highest revelation. The Son of God became flesh that we might become deified.

Yet, we are commanded to love God, and the way in which we love God is to keep all His commandments. The commandments of God are not just orders or instructions, but a statement on how to live and love, and on what it means to be created in God’s image. “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him” (John 14: 21). That means, then, that we are to love God. However, we must question (perhaps in the manner of the Apostle Thomas) Who this God is and why He should be loved foremost for Who He is.

We Love God for Who He Is:

  • Because He is. “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3: 4).
  • Because He is perfect and holy in every way, at all times, toward all people.
  • Because we are His creation and made in His image.
  • Because we have no life or love outside of Him.
  • Because we are meant to worship Him and in this we find our true and only happiness.

In other words, God is to be loved for His essence, whether or not we fully understand Him and even if, in our frailty, we disagree with His actions or doubt His providential care. It is not necessary for us to understand all things, nor is it appropriate for us to demand answers and results. In fact, not to love God for Who He is, is to misunderstand Him, to be under mistaken notions or false teachings, or to be delusional regarding our own status and capabilities. Misunderstanding is different from not fully understanding. The former is not based in truth, while the latter produces humility and awe.

It is challenging to distinguish between Who God is and what He does, because what He does is an expression or manifestation of Who He is. God provides for us and equips us to survive in this world as well as to enjoy life. He gives us access to food and housing, education and jobs, health and wellbeing, mountains and rivers, books and computers. However, in alignment with loving God for Who He is, we are to seek His kingdom and His righteousness above all else. “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6: 33). Of course, we love God for taking care of us, but we are not to love the things He created or provided more than we love the Creator and Almighty God.

Moreover, we must also love God, or learn to expand our idea of love, during times of trouble and sorrow. If God is love, and if we are made in His image, then we are to love Him and mankind even when His provision seems to be lacking. God’s love is still there, although we might not recognize it according to what the world has told us about life and love. Nonetheless, the progression of life often consists of coping with various difficulties, complications, obstacles, hardships, and deprivation. “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16: 33). It might be precisely during times of trouble and sorrow, when we are stripped of distractions and perhaps incapacitated to meet all our responsibilities, that we perceive God for Who He is in essence.

[NOTE: Bible quotations are from the NKJV.]

God of the Color Wheel

The theme for this essay has lingered in my mind for the past month. It is one of those themes that seemed like a good idea at the time, but it never grew arms and legs, never said “Look at me,” and never really made my unconscious conscious (a Freudian term regarding repressed memories and the purpose of psychotherapy). Today’s topic takes me back to the 7th grade, back to the beginning of that long adolescent trudge through what was — in those days and for many girls — a wasteland of American education. That, however, is not the theme of my essay but only the cradle in which God gently rocked me, preparing me for adulthood while inside the boundaries of junior high school requirements.

For one of my electives, I took a beginning art class in “Color and Design,” a typical course and a basic foundation for any kind of art. It was there that I encountered a manifestation of God in an overcrowded school district that put us on half-day sessions. Although I was not cognitively aware of it at the time, there was a presence that gave me a sense of wellbeing and direction. It was the color wheel. The teacher had a large chart of the color wheel posted on a wall. It stayed there forever, throughout 7th, 8th, and 9th grade art courses, all conducted in that same classroom year after year, radiating its own eternity amid the struggles of adolescence and the turmoil of the outside world.

colorwheel

The color wheel displays the root colors of all existent colors on this earth. It is an organizational wonder from which creativity blossoms forth. There are three primary colors — red, yellow, blue. Then there are secondary and tertiary colors which are derived from the primary colors. There are classifications of cool colors and warm colors, and also complementary colors. It was visually nourishing, mentally manageable, and spiritually secured to a God Who made such a marvel possible. Even in that wasteland, God was able to tenderly guide a girl in a manner that would touch her soul and prompt her to search for purpose and meaning — at her own level of development thus far and within her own environment however unlikely a setting.

Yes, I believed in the God of the color wheel. No, I am not talking about any pagan figment, but the God of the color wheel Who is also the God of the universe. I am talking about the God Who created color with schematic relationships and with application for creative expression, the God Who can work through sorrow and find a way to keep a young teenager near Him, the God Who stayed with me into my old age and allowed me to appreciate His glory in retrospection on a theme. It was this God Who inspired me to mix colors and to understand tinting and shading, to paint flowers and birds as well as sailboats on the ocean. It was this God Who allowed me to access art books and discover life beyond junior high school, to view the great paintings of the Annunciation and the Crucifixion, and to meet Ecce Homo. Yes, to behold the man, the Christ of God.

A Nurturing Christianity

There is an odd behavior which I have seen among many religious people, and it accomplishes something contrary to what is allegedly intended: it is a refusal to give you affirmation in order to make you humble. As if anyone could make someone else humble. If only it were so easy. But, they refuse to validate your character qualities or to acknowledge that you did excellent work. In other words, it overrules anything within the realm of approval, support, and encouragement. The consequence of withholding affirmation, however, is not humility but discouragement and alienation.

Without honest appraisal of our character and our work, we cannot get our bearings. The withholding of affirmation and, even worse, a stern attitude, creates a sense of failure and doom both inwardly and outwardly. We are already buffeted by the world. That which comes forth from the Church should proceed with discernment as to what kind of spiritual medicine to apply to each unique person. I am not suggesting that we flatter people, but that we relate with a certain sensitivity and that we nurture rather than deprive.

As an example, let us turn to St. John Chrysostom who wrote words of churchly encouragement to St. Olympias.

And now I am exceedingly glad and delighted to hear, not only that you have been released from you infirmity, but above all that you bear the things which befall you so bravely, calling them all but an idle tale; and, which is indeed a greater matter, that you have applied this name even to your bodily infirmity, which is an evidence of a robust spirit, rich in the fruit of courage. For not only to bear misfortunes bravely but to be actually insensible to them, to overlook them, and with such little exertion to wreath your brows with the garland prize of patience, neither laboring nor toiling, neither feeling distress nor causing it to others, but as it were leaping and dancing for joy all the while, this is indeed a proof of the most finished philosophy.

Therefore I rejoice, and leap for joy, I am in a flutter of delight, I am insensible to my present loneliness, and the other troubles which surround me, being cheered, and brightened, and not a little proud on account of your greatness of soul, and the repeated victories which you have won, and this, not only for your own sake, but also for the sake of that large and populous city, where you are like a tower, a haven, and a wall of defence, speaking in the eloquent voice of example, and through your sufferings instructing either sex to strip readily for these contests, and descend into the lists with all courage, and cheerfully bear the toils which such contests involve. And the wonder is that without thrusting yourself into the forum, or occupying the public centres of the city, but sitting all the while in a small house and confined chamber you serve and anoint the combatants for the contest…

Letters to Olympias
by St. John Chrysostom

St. John Chrysostom describes St. Olympias as having “greatness of soul” for the way in which she endured her sufferings and set an example for others. He did not withhold his validation, or even his admiration, but strengthened her development with nurturing words and sentiments. Lest we are tempted to think that St. John Chrysostom was partial toward St. Olympias, let us look at what he wrote to a group of catechumens.

How delightful and lovable is our band of young brethren! for brethren I call you, even now before you have been brought forth, and before your birth I welcome this relationship with you: For I know, I know clearly, to how great an honour you are about to be led, and to how great a dignity; and those who are about to receive dignity, all are wont to honour, even before the dignity is conferred, laying up for themselves beforehand by their attention good will for the future.

Instructions to Catechumens
by St. John Chrysostom

These catechumens — people seeking baptism into the Church — were not regarded with suspicion — as though only a weirdo would be attracted to truth, beauty, purity — but they were valued and welcomed. St. John Chrysostom did not try to manipulate them, as though he could bring them out of any supposed or potential vanity and into humility by deliberately denying them affirmation of their status or validation of their pursuit of genuine spirituality. On the contrary, he energized them with sound direction. Really, it is as though he could not contain his joy at the prospect of their salvation.

This is not to go against any monastic tradition of self-abnegation. However, monasticism is a voluntary choice (or rather a calling or vocation) and not something that other people impose upon you supposedly for your own good. If I think back to the times in my life when I felt humbled, it was (A) upon my own realization that I had made a mistake, or (B) upon someone having given me a chance or done something nice for me. To see oneself from every angle or to be the recipient of kindness is truly humbling.

To Arrive at Truth

If Christianity is built on truth, then it might seem that the validity of Christ and the Church could be recognized externally, on the surface, with an open and inquiring mind. That is, through an accurate assessment of reality — the way things are and always have been, at least from the beginning of the creation of earth or from the birth of Christ. There is, for example, a concise account of creation, Christ, and the Church in the Epistle to the Colossians:

He is the image of the unseen God
and the first-born of all creation,
for in him were created
all things in heaven and on earth:
everything visible and everything invisible,
Thrones, Dominions, Sovereignties, Powers —
all things were created through him and for him.

Before anything was created, he existed,
and he holds all things in unity.
Now the Church is his body,
he is its head.

As he is the Beginning,
he was first to be born from the dead,
so that he should be first in every way;
because God wanted all perfection
to be found in him
and all things to be reconciled through him and for him,
everything in heaven and everything on earth,
when he made peace
by his death on the cross.

Colossians 1: 15-20 [The Jerusalem Bible-1966]

If the passage from Colossians were read conscientiously, there would seem to be no further need for evangelism. Everyone would have access to the correct explanation of life. Seekers of truth would be satisfied upon encountering Chapter 1 of Colossians. Yet, this obviously is not the way mankind has proceeded since Christ was born in Bethlehem or since the availability of the New Testament.

The quest for truth leads to Christ Himself, Who is, in fact, our only ultimate fulfillment. Many of us, however, are motivated by our mental confusion and emotional suffering — and we are not capable of total objectivity or pure love in this state of obscurity and agitation, and perhaps with a tendency to be reactive (or over-reactive). We pursue meaning and wholeness, although our vision of possibilities ranges from slightly discolored to severely distorted. Yet, the solution withstands — the Person of Christ and the Body of the Church — as written by St. Paul to the Colossians.

viewasylum

View of the Asylum and Chapel of Saint-Remy, by Vincent van Gogh

St. Paul could deliver such beautiful words because he was illuminated by God. That is, truth is revealed. Perhaps we proceed via personal struggle, but to arrive at truth is to receive divine grace. We are reconciled in Christ and, while our confusion and pain might be resolved or lifted, our growth in spirituality continues as we acquire all holiness in Christ. Truth, divine truth, ultimate truth, involves more than an evaluation of a text or a comparative study of systems or versions. It involves all the faculties with which mankind has been endowed, the whole self, including the soul. Truth is a Person. Truth is something, or rather Someone, to be united with.

A Freedom to Write

Freedom involves responsibility. When translated into the arts, this sense of responsibility means to express truth about life and the world in our own unique style. Particularly, if we are Christian, then any personal or spiritual awareness of life and the world must align with the teachings of the Holy Church in order to further interpret or develop truth. Regarding written expression, this would apply not only to theological works but also to creative writing. As writers, we do not alter Scripture: neither adding anything new to it nor subtracting anything from it. If any view of life and the world diverges from Scripture and true theology, then that writer is uninformed or mistaken, perhaps mentally imbalanced, or a false teacher.

A priest of the Orthodox Church, Fr. George Mastrantonis, describes this process as follows:

In the Orthodox Church, the harmonious interpretation of the Revealed Word is necessary to present the faithful with a united, sound conviction. This does not mean that individuals, both clergy and laity, lack freedom to express their own spiritual insights, but the validity of these insights depends upon acceptance by other Fathers of the Church, without which it is wisest to keep silent and avoid being in opposition. Thus, the theologian of the Orthodox Church has the freedom to present the same truths of the Scriptures in a new expression in order to contend with contemporary ideals and challenges of society.

[…] The Church leaves teachers and thinkers of theology free to constantly study and present the existing truths of the revealed Word to cope with human needs and circumstances. Orthodox theologians are free to further study various subjects in greater depths, achieving a greater perspective from which to interpret the truths of the Church for the steadfastness of the faithful. These findings of the theologians are not new truths, but the same truths interpreted with greater simplicity and clarity. The gradual unfolding of a revealed truth is the result of devoted research and profound clarity in faith and practice which should not be isolated from the entire body of revealed truths. This freedom of inquiry in the Orthodox Church characterizes its nature of “authority with freedom.”

The Fundamental Teachings of the Orthodox Church
by Rev. George Mastrantonis
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

Theology is genuine in content and also responsive to the times, and not oppressive or abusive in an ultra-authoritarian sense. That is, if we distinguish between proper authority and the authoritarian or cultic personality — the latter including the constricted doctrinaire as well as the ethnic supremacist. If we utilize our freedom within the loving arms of the Holy Church, and if we express our spiritual discernment of life and the world with humility and clarity, then we fulfill our calling to share with our contemporaries while remaining connected to the fathers who came before us — who also shared their explanations of the sacred. We confess, creatively through our written words, the Faith which we hold to be true and as we have encountered its activity in our personal lives.

Hate vs. Opinion vs. Truth

Hate speech certainly is not within a Christian way of life and should not be sanctioned by any civilized society. However, the accusation of hate speech, when unfounded or misdiagnosed, is also detrimental to debate and problem-solving. What some regard as hate speech may only be an opinion or idea, and what some regard as an opinion may actually be truth or fact. Moreover, what might seem like hate speech on the surface may be a symptom of underlying anxiety, fear, anger, distrust, and a feeling of helplessness.

If we turn to a standard dictionary, we could give our terms some basic definitions.

  • Hate: a strong aversion, an intense dislike, a prejudice.
  • Opinion: a view or judgment, an estimation of the worth of something, advice from an expert.
  • Truth: that which is in accordance with fact or reality; genuine, real, accurate, exact, actual, aligned.

Hate speech is more severe than hateful feelings, because not all people who hate engage in hateful speech or activities. What makes hate speech especially dangerous is that it is designed to intimidate and threaten, and to instigate listeners to take action against others based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or other characteristics. Hate speech can also be used to silence opposing opinions or to stifle truth.

View of Saintes Maries with Cemetery, by Vincent van Gogh

View of Saintes Maries with Cemetery, by Vincent van Gogh

Although hate speech is to be taken seriously, let us not overlook the insidious and powerful influence of old-fashioned propaganda and indoctrination. Hate speech is out there: loud and bombastic;  but propaganda and indoctrination are in here: getting into our government and schools like vapor seeping under the doors or smoke obscuring the windows, poisoning citizens and children.

  • Indoctrination: teaching people to accept a set of beliefs uncritically.
  • Propaganda: using biased or deceptive information to support a political cause or platform.

That which is true does not have to be forced, although it might be hated. That which is false has to undermine and eliminate truth and then take the place of truth. However, we cannot solve problems by becoming symptomatic or by developing a lung capacity to inhale noxious fumes. It also does not help to make accusations without first discerning the differences among hate, opinion, and truth.

Throughout history, certain groups have been singled out as targets of hate, such as Jews and African Americans. Whether or not that is currently happening to any group in America or Europe is still questionable, because the political and social dynamics are different. Some say we are facing an apocalyptic war: maybe that is just hate speech and fear-mongering, or maybe it is a problematic truth.

Extra Love

One of my best friends during my middle-age, who happened to be a talented writer of detective stories, used to describe some people as having “extra love.” It was an apt but unusual coining of words, and I have always remembered it. What she meant was that some people are capable of loving others in large numbers or loving those who seem difficult to love. I think my friend was especially keen at recognizing this style of love, because she herself had often been used as a disposable object. When someone was nice to her, it was one of those exceptional beings who had extra love to give.

People with extra love are uncommon but they are distributed among us. It may be a teacher who nurtures each student’s potential, or a doctor who heals not only with medicine but with loving-kindness, or a husband and wife who gratefully adopt unwanted children. I clearly remember two tour guides, from my long-ago vacations, who showed extra love to mere sightseers on a typical tour bus. These guides passionately loved their country, and they wanted each visitor to see and understand both its attractiveness and complexities. We were not just another herd of tourists, but respected guests to be honored with knowledge as well as a genuine relationship with a caring person.

However, let me question if extra love is Christ-like love or pure love. On the one hand, extra love is all-inclusive yet specifically directed. It stems from the particular interests of the lover who is perhaps a bit obsessed or whose sense of self is a tad skewed. Extra love might be viewed as a personality trait, or as something along the lines of conviction and responsibility. On the other hand, extra love is beyond natural bonds and mutual reciprocity, specifically channeled yet extensive in its reach and profound in its depth. Those who have received it would not be the same without it. In other words, it is transformative and inspirational and, as such, belongs to the realm of purity and rebirth.

No Christian Jihad

This is not an anti-war statement, but only an attempt to show that there can be no such thing as violent Christian jihad (that is, jihad in the manner of violent or extremist Islamic jihad). I am going to assemble some thoughts, or propositions, around the incident in which one of the disciples (identified as Peter in John 18: 10) drew his sword and cut off the ear of an opponent. This incident occurred after Christ had prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane and just after the betrayal of Judas.

And when those who were about him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” And one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this.” And he touched his ear and healed him.

Luke 22: 49-51 [RSV]

Bust of the Apostle Peter, by Sir Anthony Van Dyck

Bust of the Apostle Peter, by Sir Anthony Van Dyck

The usual interpretation is that the disciple acted on his own and according to the flesh, rather than in obedience to Christ (or perhaps the disciple misunderstood the purpose of the sword). The lesson is that we should seek God’s guidance before we do something, as well as defer to God for the vindication of any wrongs. The incident also shows that Christ loved His enemies, because He healed the man who had been struck. This is appropriate to the teachings of Christianity.

However, I want to propose a meaning specific to the influx of terrorism as we have experienced it in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Looking at the incident within the narrow confines of terrorist jihad, it would appear that there can never be jihad in the Church or in true religion. Again, let me emphasize that I am removing the incident from any Christian justification for war or self-defense, and looking at it strictly from a perspective of religious conversion and establishment. Christ did not permit the use of violence on behalf of His ministry or in security of His person.

To believe in and to follow Christ must always be voluntary, coming from the heart and mind of the individual. It is not the goal of the Church to dominate, but to save and to unify. Christ Himself restored the man whose ear had been cut off, perhaps symbolically assuring that he had two good ears to hear the message of salvation. The man, an actual slave of a high priest, encountered holiness in Christ. Those who are ignorant of or in disagreement with the Church are not forced into submission, but are given opportunities to follow the Way, the Truth, and the Life. It might be construed that it was jihadistic to cut off the man’s ear in the name of religion (and I am separating this from self-defense).

Christ Carrying the Cross, by Sir Anthony Van Dyck

Christ Carrying the Cross, by Sir Anthony Van Dyck

Yet, Christ is Pantocrator, or Ruler of All or Just Judge. This would seem to imply domination. But the Lordship of Christ is a matter of truth, reality and fact, whether or not all people perceive or accept Christ as Lord and Master. Truth does not dominate, but it enlightens or illuminates. Christ is a King Who forgives, heals, reconciles, and gives life more abundantly. However, to refuse this opportunity is to incur certain consequences — not as a matter of force from the King, but as the inevitable and self-inflicted result of the misuse of free will and the preference for falsehood. In other words: the love of the ways of the flesh over the love of the ways of the spirit.

Let me further propose that the Apostle Peter especially demonstrated that fleshly ways, which would include fanaticism and violence, are ineffective for the purpose of true religion. While Christ prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, the apostles slept. They were not able to keep watch. Soon after Peter had cut off the ear of the slave, he denied Christ three times. He was not able to maintain his conviction. It was not jihad or any of the ways of the flesh that accomplished Christianity, but only the Crucifixion of Christ on the Cross. Hence, Peter could indeed become the rock of the Church through the sacrifice of Christ. The Church, therefore, is not a matter of ideological supremacy enforced by coercion or brutality, but it is the Body of Christ which mercifully beckons mankind to repentance.

God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

John 4: 24 [RSV]

Suffering with the Terrorized

It would be irresponsible, perhaps cowardly, not to address the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, France. I have not intentionally avoided it, but simply did not know what else to add to what was already being said by others, or how to put into words what the images on television showed so vividly in homes around the world. Nonetheless, we have seen these images before. We have heard the commentary before. We have coped with our grief, felt the patriotism, joined together in humanitarianism, and gone back to normal life — several times before.

Yet, the problem gets worse. The attacks are more frequent, more widespread, and more difficult to describe when the words have already been used over and over. No place is safe. Not a shopping mall, not a restaurant or museum, not a concert hall or stadium, not any place where everyday people — moms and dads, teachers and students, old men and women, local employees and tourists — conduct their everyday activities. Step out your door today, and you might not return home.

Why are some politicians only just now beginning to take this seriously? They say they underestimated the threat of ISIS. But I say they were in denial because it suited their ideology and hubris. Their personal agenda matters more than your life. This is a dreadful combination: terrorism across the continents and government incompetence in the homeland. I am stopping short of naming names because we all know the names. I have named names before. I just cannot help looking at the sins of politicians. I weighed the facts inasmuch as I had access to information and I told the truth insofar as I am capable of perceiving reality.

Especially since September 11, 2001, we have suffered. That is, those of us who allowed ourselves to feel that suffering and did not tumble down into defense mechanisms or outright lies regarding terrorism. We have suffered directly, and we have suffered with others who were directly affected. Since the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, I have felt uneasy. Go ahead and call me a kook, but I felt instinctively that we were living on borrowed time and that it was only a sign of things to come. If it could happen once, it could happen again. The logic is easy.

Given my age, there seems to be nothing more I can do to counteract terrorism. I have written about it before, and there is nothing else for me to say. I voted for presidential candidates and they lost. I went back to life as normal, and still Paris was attacked on November 13, 2015. There is perhaps only one thing I can do, and that is to conscientiously suffer with the terrorized. I am not going back to normal this time, but becoming more empathic and spiritual. I refuse to passively view the horrific images as commonplace, refuse to stop caring, refuse to forsake civilization, refuse to stop looking squarely at the era in which I am living, and refuse to be ungrateful for the past 22 years of life since the 1993 attack (almost the total lifetime of Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year old American college student killed in the Paris attack).

Until I am also killed in an unsafe place or die of natural causes, I will pray for our suffering country and world, for the suffering survivors of terrorism, and for the suffering families of the victims. It is not over.

[NOTE: To read my past essays on terrorism, go to my old blog, “Wave of Consciousness,” and read the section on Terrorism.]

Tuesday and Other Days

Bergere rentrant des moutons, by Camille Pissarro

Bergere rentrant des moutons, by Camille Pissarro

One of the peculiarities of retirement is the disorientation to worldly time. Since I no longer go to my job, where I saw certain patients on certain days and at certain times, I tend to forget what day it is. I might wake up and think it is Thursday, but really it is Wednesday. I seem to get ahead of myself. In my way of thinking, however, that means I gained an extra day that week. It poses no problem except that I have, on occasion, forgotten to take out the garbage can. My garbage is picked up every Tuesday and Friday. I need that twice-per-week pick-up because here in the desert the garbage starts to stink when the summer temperature averages 120 degrees.

But maybe it is time itself, rather than my age and unemployment status, which is peculiar. I mean, the way we organize time on a calendar and how we schedule tasks and celebrate events. As an Orthodox Christian, I was taught that each day begins in the evening, around 6:00 pm., with Vespers. So, Monday evening is actually already Tuesday. I was taught to celebrate the Church New Year on September 1st instead of the civil New Year on January 1st. I was also taught to celebrate my Name Day (the feast of the saint whose name I bear in baptism) instead of my birthday. This was part of my orientation to a spiritually structured life. Yet, it put me in a minority of Orthodox who lived according to Churchly time instead of or in addition to worldly time. In fact, I cannot recall anyone who celebrated their Name Day rather than their birthday.

There is also another arrangement of time within the Orthodox daily prayers. Each day is marked by a commemoration of a saint or the life of Christ. Monday is devoted to the angels. Tuesday to St. John the Baptist. Wednesday and Friday to the Crucifixion. I have two Orthodox prayer books and they differ slightly for Thursday and Saturday. Thursday is devoted to St. Nicholas, and also to the Apostles and the Last Supper. Saturday to the departed, and also to the tomb of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and All Saints. Sunday seems to be marked by general thanksgiving and supplication to God. I do not know when this categorization of days began, but I would say it had to be after the lifetime of St. Nicholas (or else he was included at a later date into the Thursday category).

Since I never inquired about anyone’s personal prayer life, I do not know how many people observe the daily commemorations. I can, however, tell you about the time I ordered an icon of St. John the Baptist from a priest-monk. He hurried the shipment of the icon so that it would arrive on Tuesday, the day devoted to St. John the Baptist, so that it would be in my home on the commemoration day. In all fairness, I must backtrack and say that I used to know a handful of nuns who celebrated their Name Days and not their birthdays. Maybe this kind of orientation to time and Church is more monastically suited.

Truthfully, I have mixed feelings about the cycle of daily commemorations. On the one hand, it seems to border on legalism. On the other hand, it orients the individual to a Churchly perception of time and unchanging truths. Tuesday might be my garbage pick-up day, and that is necessary to my daily survival. Tuesday might be the day you attend a staff meeting on your job, or go to the supermarket and do your weekly food shopping, or have lunch with your mother-in-law, and all those things matter. But if Tuesday is primarily the day when we say a special prayer to St. John the Baptist, then we have anchored ourselves in the communion of saints and in the life of Christ. If we recognize the Church New Year, then we have begun another year of discipleship with both continuation and renewal. If we celebrate our Name Day, by giving something to others rather than receiving gifts, then we have honored the saint who constantly watches over us. If we begin the day with the setting of the sun, when we are most tired, then we have invigorated and sanctified the night with holiness.

I am not trying to tell anyone how to live their life, and I have never been an example to be followed. Moreover, I use a variety of prayer and meditation books, including non-Orthodox. I am not concerned with correctness as an attitude. I am just sharing some of what I was taught, many years ago, about structuring life within an Orthodox context. The advantage for me now is that I still have access to a flow of time and a routine of procedures and observances. And it does not require my remembering what day it is, but just putting a bookmark in my Orthodox prayer book.

When You Love the Sinner

In real life there is often no boundary between hating the sin and loving the sinner. That is, the sin is not acknowledged, or it is redefined as not a sin, and repentance is therefore not expected. This has become increasingly evident among some Christians who have a family member, friend, or co-worker who is homosexual. Christians are inundated with a delegitimization of Church teachings: you can’t tell people who to love, it’s a private matter, love is love. Since Christians love or at least have a natural attachment to their child or sibling who is homosexual, it is tempting to align with political progressivism in order to avoid conflict.

But is love always true? Aren’t some kinds of love unhealthy, distorted, or imaginary? However, let’s bypass the arguments for homosexual love. Let’s focus instead on our own obedience. As Christians we love God. And if we love God we will adhere to the teachings of the Bible (properly understood) and of the Church. Only God can join together two people in marriage, and it is impossible that God would join together two homosexuals in a same-sex marriage. Accordingly, it would be mistaken for Christians to attend a same-sex wedding.

Back in the 1990’s, I met a priest who said that we are not living in the last times but in the next-to-the-last times. He said this is the age of philadelphia or brotherly love, meaning homosexuality. Whether or not this priest was correct in his interpretation of times, his assessment of an era of homosexuality seems to have proved itself over the past 20 years. So much so, that Christians, even the elect if possible, are fooled into adjusting Church precepts to fit their own tendencies or to preserve family bonds and workplace rapport.

I have known only a few homosexuals, and I have found them to be just like everyone else except in their sexual orientation (and in their unwillingness to cease homosexual behavior). Therefore, I am not underestimating how emotionally painful it would be to differ with a loved one or part with them on religious grounds. Just recently, I heard a news report which purported the main reason Christianity is waning in America is the non-acceptance of homosexuality. However, when you love the sinner, you must light the way forward to redemption and true happiness. It is the homosexual who needs to change his or her understanding of life and love, not the Christian.

Suffering with Christ

If you are a Christian, you are going to suffer. And if you do good, you are going to suffer. That is really saying the same thing twice, because Christians are called to do good. Suffering is extremely difficult to understand, especially mental or emotional suffering. Yet, we are going to suffer whether we do good or evil, but it is better to do good since that kind of suffering is rewarded by God (1 Peter 3: 8-17). Christ suffered because of and died for mankind, in order to save us and to offer us eternal life. His suffering was not only of bodily torture on the Cross, but of anguish within His entire being due to His awareness of mankind’s ongoing evil.

Crucifixion, by Albrecht Durer

Crucifixion, by Albrecht Durer

We might say that Christ was a victim, and that would describe reality on the surface. However, the suffering of Christ was sacrificial. It was voluntary and in obedience to the Father’s divine plan of salvation. As Christians, we often suffer psychologically because of our values and standards. That is, we are rejected socially and even targeted for mental abuse by other people: perhaps at school or in the workplace, and perhaps by relatives and other Christians who are themselves unstable. We are victims. The question is whether we are victims on the surface (which is real victimization and not denied) or if our suffering is also sacrificial.

The martyrs suffered sacrificially. They gave their lives in support of Christian beliefs and in refusal to denounce Christ. The saints, too, suffered sacrificially in that they endured the impact of others’ sinful behavior and did not retaliate, but lived as role-models and witnesses of the Faith. Endurance is not the same as cowardice or passivity. Endurance means to exercise patience, to continue living in holiness, to say and do everything to the glory of God, and to leave all vindication to God Who alone knows the heart of each person. The saints suffered with Christ and for Christ, and therefore were united with Him.

The difference, then, between suffering abuse and suffering sacrificially is whether or not the suffering is endured in the Name of Christ. This distinction is essential because Christians are often advised to remain in abusive relationships or situations, without regard for the specific dynamics or the calling of God upon the individuals involved. However, to seek help is not to betray Christ but to uphold the image of God in oneself and others. To intervene is not to obstruct God’s plan, but to reinforce the Church by raising up both the abused and the abuser who are living in a state contrary to Church sacraments and morals.

We are going to suffer, but we might say that not all suffering is equal. Not all suffering is productive. Abusive relationships, for example, are detrimental not only to the victim but to the abuser and the whole family. This is not sacrificial suffering, not a consequence of Christian beliefs, not an endurance of others’ behavior in the hope of their growth and salvation and in the Name of Christ, but rather the perpetuation of depravity and destruction. To suffer with Christ is to be aware of the falleness around us, and to sacrifice ourselves through prayer, assistance, and endurance — all of which are ways of doing good.

[NOTE: Some of the content of this essay was inspired by (1) “Greek Orthodox Clergy Perspectives on Domestic Violence,” by Fr. Athanasios Demos, (2) The Jeremiah Study Bible, by Dr. David Jeremiah, (3) Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible,(4) The Orthodox Faith, Vol. IV, Spirituality, by Fr. Thomas Hopko.]

Unless Someone

Getting back to the paralytic who lay by the Pool of Bethesda, there is another possible connection of meaning in The Book of Acts. It concerns the Apostle Philip who assisted the Ethiopian eunuch in understanding his reading of the Prophet Isaiah.

But an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert road.

And he rose and went. And behold, and Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of the Candace the queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of all her treasure had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.

And the spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

Acts 8: 26-29 [RSV]

This is what the paralytic and the Ethiopian have in common: they did not have to ask for help (and perhaps there was really nobody to be asked). Somebody was there for them eventually. Philip became aware of the Ethiopian and showed an interest in is salvation. Philip inquired about his comprehension of Scripture and responded to the need. When nobody was there to lift the paralytic into the healing water, Christ Himself intervened and responded to the need. These are the qualities which Christ and the Apostle Philip have in common: to assist, share, give, teach, intervene and support.

This means that in the Church there can be no religious separatism, no esoteric spirituality, and no ethnic supremacy. Each individual is important (if I may use that word) to the Body of Christ no matter his history or his current circumstances. Both the paralytic and the Ethiopian were seeking something, but were unable on their own to achieve the goals of wholeness (forgiveness and healing through love and mercy) and illumination (revelation or understanding of truth). Both were incomplete or inadequate, but were fulfilled or shown the way by a Christ-like person or by Christ Himself.

Let’s compare the question-and-answer interactions, first between Christ and the paralytic and next between Philip and the Ethiopian.

Q — “Do you want to be made well?”
A — “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool…

Q — “Do you understand what you are reading?”
A — “How can I, unless some one guides me?”

In both instances, there is insufficiency in and of oneself, and help is needed — someone is needed. This is true of everyone and of all life. Unless Christ taught the disciples, unless the apostles evangelized the world, unless the Church fathers fought heresy, unless our parents fed and clothed us, unless there were scholarships and student loans, unless someone lifted us out of sorrow, unless someone saw our potential, unless someone obeyed the will of God — how else could we rejoice?

The account of the Ethiopian is in Chapter 8 in The Book of Acts, and in Chapter 9 we hear of Saul who is converted directly by Christ. Herein we have examples of how people are evangelized or assisted: either by a Christ-like person or by Christ Himself. The paralytic wanted help, but remained powerless to attain his quest. The Ethiopian was trying to manage, but was nonetheless perplexed. Both were alone. And Saul felt no need for help and had been persecuting the very One Who was now reaching out to him. Moreover, in all three instances — the paralytic, the Ethiopian, and Saul — help was provided in accordance with obedience and mercy.

[NOTE: For other essays on this topic, see Blaming the Victim and Eyes, Legs, Heart.]

Imitating Christ

Composition, 1916, by Piet Mondrian

Composition, 1916, by Piet Mondrian


There are two stumbling blocks (two which I will discuss briefly today) to our theological terminology and our daily spirituality: (A) whether or not we are to imitate Christ, and (B) whether or not we have a relationship with God. The two troublesome terms for some Eastern Orthodox are imitate and relationship, for these are often associated with Roman Catholicism and Protestantism respectively. In the attempt to discern whether these concepts are appropriate to Orthodox thought, we must set aside any phobia of or overreaction to other religions in order to develop right definitions or justifiable rejection.

The term imitate is only sprinkled within Orthodox theological writings, but it’s there. It could be questioned if the translators of patristic works were unknowingly influenced by Catholicism, or if imitate was used as a synonym for abide in or in communion with, or if the translation is indeed accurate. However, if Fr. Thomas Hopko is considered an authoritative educator, then it must be noted that he used imitate in The Orthodox Faith series which provides a basic understanding of Orthodoxy for the average reader.

…to foster imitation of his [a saint’s] virtues in the lives of the hearers and readers.

Thus, among creatures, man alone is empowered to imitate God and to participate in His life. Man has the competence and ability to become a Son of God, mirroring the eternal Son, reflecting the divine nature because he is inspired by the Holy Spirit as is no other creature.

The Orthodox Faith, Vol. I, Doctrine (pp. 27, 43)
1976 Revised Edition

Through the perfect sacrifice of Christ, the believers receive forgiveness of sins and are “made perfect,” being led and disciplined by God Himself Who gives His Holy Spirit that through their sufferings in imitation of Christ, His people “may share in His holiness.”

The first letter of St. Peter is a passionate plea to all of “God’s People” to be strong in their sufferings in imitation of Christ and together with Him…

The third letter of St. John is addressed to a certain Gaius praising him for the “truth of life” and urging him not to “imitate evil but imitate good.”

The Orthodox Faith, Vol. III, Bible and Church History (pp. 50, 54, 59)
1973 Edition

Let it also be noted that the Antiochians use this term in “Nine Ways of Being a Credit to Your Church and Parish.” This is an old document but seems still in effect.

Give evidence of the Power of Christ by your Orthodox Christian Life.
Let the imitation of Christ be your guide.

Word Magazine, March 1960, (p. 10)

In Hopko’s work, imitate and participate are connected as qualities or processes, and are perhaps equivalent or complementary. Man is empowered to imitate and participate, and perhaps empowerment refers to grace or theosis. With that in mind, and borrowing from a few more of Hopko’s phrases, to imitate Christ could mean:

  • To follow Christ
  • To be like Christ
  • To witness of Christ
  • To be in conformity with Christ
  • To share in the holiness of Christ
  • To rely upon the presence of Christ
  • To stand firm in Christ
  • To affirm the Faith
  • To live the message of the Gospel
  • To keep the commandments
  • To be fruitful
  • To choose abundant life
  • To be in perpetual growth
  • To be obedient to God

In the Bible there are several instances of imitate in The New Testament Epistles in the RSV: 1 Corinthians 4: 16, 1 Corinthians 11: 1, Ephesians 5: 1, Philippians 3: 17, 1 Thessalonians 1: 6, 2 Thessalonians 3: 7, Hebrews 6: 12, Hebrews 13: 7, and 3 John 11. The NKJV also uses imitate in 1 Corinthians 4: 16, 1 Corinthians 11: 1, Ephesians 5: 1, and Hebrews 6: 12. In the other instances, the NKJV uses follow. The KJV uses follow in each instance.

If we are to follow Christ, and even to take the Apostle Paul as a model or pattern (because Paul follows Christ as his pattern), then it would seem that imitate is a synonym for follow and does not challenge the concept of theosis (deification or divinization, or partaking of divine grace). We might further say that to imitate or to follow Christ means to submit to His teachings.

It would also seem that the imitation of Christ is not some sort of baby step toward theosis, or something for beginners who have yet to grasp the meaning of theosis or to advance to that stage. Moreover, it would not be the case that the imitation of Christ is outward and therefore inferior, as opposed to grace which is inward and renews man into the image of God. Imitation is outward only inasmuch as it is behavioral. That is, our actions and deeds. But our conduct is based in and is an expression of our inward beliefs. Even if we removed imitation from our terminology, we would still have to understand terms such as follow and take as a pattern.

A Relationship with God

Now, the term relationship is disowned by some Eastern Orthodox who prefer to say that we are in communion with one another as well as with God and the saints. The Protestants emphasize a personal relationship with God, and this has perhaps monopolized the meaning of the word. Let’s look at two instances in the Bible for possible clarification:

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Matthew 3: 17 [RSV]

‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’

Matthew 25: 40 [RSV]

To be pleased with someone would seem to imply a relationship. And, likewise, to do something for or to someone means to have contact or to have an impact, to have communication, and to influence, inspire, and help. In other words, we have interactions with one another and these interactions form us into relationships. Again, this is not in conflict with the concept of in communion with, and it might be a hypercorrection when the use one term necessarily rules out any proper use of the other.

Father to son is a relationship. Brother to brother is a relationship. Doctor to patient, teacher to student, boss to employee are relationships. We relate to one another within certain roles, and we are all in communion with one another in the Holy Church. We might say that to do the will of God puts us in relationship with Him, or that the Ten Commandments create a relationship. (Hopko speaks of “God’s covenant relationship with His People,” Vol. III, Bible and Church History, p. 7.)

Conclusion

To be human means to have diverse yet coordinated capacities: biological, psychological, social, spiritual. This is not to compartmentalize life, and certainly not to separate spirituality into a distinct or optional category. This is just to say that we see and hear, we read and study, we attend staff meetings and conferences, we say our prayers, we lend a helping hand, we make decisions and solve problems, we write poems and play the piano, we go to lunch with a friend, and we have personalities and emotions. Maybe we imitate Christ even as we are being transformed and deified, and precisely because of that ongoing process. And maybe our relationships facilitate our functioning in society even as we are all one in Christ.

A Father from Rome

There is a certain quality which permeates the way Pope Francis presents himself before the public. This Pope seems foremost a father figure to the multitudes. Anyway, that was his manner of speech and his style of interaction during the recent visit to America, a visit which coincided with the World Meeting of Families 2015. The Pope focused on the alienated and the poor, the handicapped and the elderly, criminals and victims, and dignitaries and babies. The Pope did not relate to intellectuals, or align himself with a political agenda, or directly evangelize Roman Catholicism, or cry out in the wilderness for repentance. The only class of people whom he confronted was the irresponsibly wealthy, including those who live by blood-money.

Reportedly, when Pope Francis was bishop and archbishop in Argentina and known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he later felt that he had been too authoritarian in those duties. Perhaps that past strictness, in combination with old age and the impending end of his life on this earth, explains, in part, his charitably broad approach to a breadth of problems (although he did emphasize dialogue). Regarding illegal immigration, his outreach broke through legitimate lawfulness and national sovereignty. He presented himself as an all-inclusive bridge-builder, and not forgiving of but rather elevating illegal immigration to a global right (which is different from comprehensive reform because this still resides within a government’s legislative powers).

Whatever their national status, adults often still need a father, or a father figure or a spiritual father. In America, where cultural decadence has taken a drastic toll on the nuclear family, some people apparently yearn for fatherly acceptance or approval. And, it seems that Pope Francis intends to fulfill that need for others and perhaps his own need or capacity to be father. When the Pope was elected, a colleague told him not to forget the poor. In response to that, the Pope chose the name Francis and he is the first Pope ever to carry that name. St. Francis of Assisi loved Lady Poverty. He is the patron saint of ecology in the Roman Catholic tradition. St. Francis preached to the birds, and regarded the sun and the moon as his brother and sister.

Among members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, some condemn St. Francis as a heretic and reject the stigmata, while some view St. Seraphim of Sarov as the Orthodox version of St. Francis. St. Seraphim was a priest and monk, and a spiritual father to countless. He greeted everyone with “My joy. Christ is Risen,” bowing down before them. He was also a friend to the animals, sharing his food with the birds and bears. If Pope Francis aspires to this type of service, or if God has called him especially to the role of an all-embracing father, then those who felt blessed by him in America are spiritually connected to his message and ultimately to Christianity (more specifically to Roman Catholic doctrine). To live globally, then, has to mean to live sacredly as God’s people. Otherwise, the Pope’s message disintegrates into rhetoric or perhaps hides ulterior motives (like President Obama’s hope and change movement), or becomes potentially dangerous (like Obama’s apology tour).

This is an opportunity for illegal immigrants, whom the Pope supported and actually praised, to strengthen their family life and thereby improve society by upholding authentic spiritual values and principles. That means no spousal infidelity, no wife-beating, no premarital sex, no abortions, no child abuse, no alcohol and drug abuse, no homosexuality, no cheating and lying, and no shouting and cursing in the home. If there is such conduct, then it has to stop. Everyone is to live by the Golden Rule (as per Pope Francis) which is only properly understood within a Christian context and applied from a Christian perspective. In other words, the Golden Rule is not the same as moral relativism. Moreover, some people are going to need professional help in order to renounce or to recover from destructive behaviors. That probably means intervention by family members who are higher functioning or generally balanced, as well as involvement by their parish priest.

In a more proactive sense, the Golden Rule implies the practice of the Christian virtues. If Pope Francis can inspire acquisition of the Christian virtues, as well as worship of the Triune God, then that has the potential to transform families and restore society. Even if Pope Francis never accomplishes anything else, he will have contributed to the stabilization of mankind as a father figure to the multitudes. Pope Francis repeatedly asked everyone to pray for him. Indeed, I will humbly pray for him, that his love may be truly Christ-like and that everyone who felt uplifted by him will maintain that fervor and live according to the Gospel.

To Live Again

St. Leo the Great said, “For it is a sign, not of a modest, but an ungrateful mind, to keep silence on the kindnesses of God….” I have taken that statement slightly out of context, but I think the sentiment is applicable to all people who believe in God and who therefore praise Him in some way. St. Leo seems to affirm talking and writing about God — about His kindnesses. For those who live in turbulence and for those who have grown old and look back, I think it is especially important to perceive those kindnesses. We can become embittered due to our hardships and suffering, or we can become softened as we detect the divine thread of kindnesses that held everything together and enabled us to survive.

Impression Sunrise, by Claude Monet

Impression Sunrise, by Claude Monet

Old age is distinctive in that the bulk of our life is behind us. There is a tendency to reminisce, and to appraise and synthesize in either a destructive or productive way. If we focus on the turbulence — and some people have been stricken much worse than others — then we become disgruntled, ungrateful, and we do not praise God. If we discern the kindnesses and the grace, as well as realize our own personal failures in the mix, then we can humbly and thankfully praise God for the remainder of our life. We might say that old age is a test or an opportunity, a decision to go the way of Judas or the way of Job. And if we go the way of Judas we really betray all our misery and forfeit its healing.

Having entered the state of senior citizenship, I find myself retracing the gone-by years and living them again in retrospect — as a journey through already-lived time but with a new vision of different angles and facets, of hidden caves and unreachable mountain tops, of roads not taken and negative consequences not inflicted. Upon reading St. Leo, I feel inspired and strengthened not to keep silent but to write reverentially. And not just to live life over again but to live again in the present, as fully alive and not shackled to mere survival — but to use that survival as a passageway to understanding, fulfillment, gratitude, and expression.