An Inward Garden

Let us not quit in old age, after so many years of working and praying, but let us plant an inward garden which cannot be taken from us. Let us plant olive trees and fig trees, a grape vineyard, roses and lilies, and even some cactuses among the rocks. Let us pull the weeds and burn them in piles, for old age is not a time of despair but of vigilance.

The Lord will guide you continually,
And satisfy your soul in drought,
And strengthen your bones;
You shall be like a watered garden,
And like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.

Isaiah 58: 11

Let us become a garden watered by God — our hearts and minds, perhaps our very bodies — renouncing disappointment and bitterness, repenting of our lingering dysfunctional habits, and offering the imperishable fruit of truth and the unfading beauty of mercy. We who are aged, who ourselves need help, can still represent the Church and contribute to others. We do this by renewing our old minds. If we develop a spiritual perspective on the relationships and events of the past, then we can feel gratitude for the journey and express Christ-like love in our remaining moments.

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

Romans 12: 2

The world demands conformity to its falsehood. Nowadays, falsehood also means to divide into irreconcilable factions, and then sin can rule in the drought and famine. Therefore, let us renew our minds into the ways of life-giving truth and mercy, such that we are built together and not separated within the same religion or scattered into the divisions of the world. Let us do this now in our old age, in whatever contact we still have with people — for we are not useless, but we grow an inward garden in this last phase of life and with the watering of God’s grace upon us.

Old age can be extremely difficult — the losses, the isolation, the deterioration, and the temptation to feel forsaken as well as to forsake. Despite these complications, let us not fail as disciples of the Christ Who was sent to save us. We might say that the elderly are the special targets of the devil — to finally conquer us at the end because we were not fully swayed in our youth or middle-age. We lived on, in trust and hope, in dedication, and our enduring faith is an offense to falsehood.


A Corner Garden at Montgeron, by Claude Monet

Let us turn to the saints who grew old, and to All Saints, for they might be the only family and friends available after our earthly contacts have all died before us. Let us maintain our sanity and flourish in our spirituality, and let us not begrudge any visitor or stranger who happens upon our garden.

O St. Symeon the God-receiver and St. Anna the Prophetess, you knew old age but you continued in prayer in the Temple. We implore you to strengthen us in truth and mercy, and unite us with you in the Kingdom of Heaven. O St. Xenia of St. Petersburg, you became an old woman, but you were fortified by unceasing prayer. We beseech you to make us worthy of our baptism, that we might know Heaven even while on earth. O St. Matrona of Moscow, though blind and crippled, you prayed with a pure heart and you healed others. We bring our troubles to you, for you hear us, and we ask you to meet us when we depart this life.

A View from the Clinic

While in the waiting area at the eye clinic, I had the opportunity to observe other patients — all of them, of course, having problems with vision and various eye diseases.

There was a middle-aged woman who was assisting her elderly mother. I imagined she had arranged her mother’s appointment and driven her to the clinic, as she was now filling out the admission forms for the old woman. The daughter, as her mother’s devoted caregiver, had merged into the role of mother to her own mother. I wondered if there was no other help for this pair, no other family or even neighbors or church contacts. They seemed so alone together, and yet accustomed to functioning within this aloneness.

There was also a married couple, gray-haired and shriveled with age, which was struggling somewhat with their mobility. The wife was helping her husband who had just come out of cataract surgery. She was devoted to him, and he was obedient to her instructions. Again, I wondered if there was no other help for them. Perhaps their middle-aged children were working 9-to-5 and trying to survive their own situations. Perhaps their neighbors were also elderly and disabled. Or perhaps nobody cared, or did not appreciate what the couple was suffering. They seemed so frail, and yet independent by necessity.

Then, there was an elderly woman sitting alone. There was nobody helping her. I imagined she was a widow, that she had outlived most of her relatives, and that her children resided in other cities. She probably had to take a taxi-cab to the clinic. She would go home alone and fend for herself — make her own lunch even though she had only one eye to see with, and then perhaps turn on the television and fall asleep in her chair. She seemed to be in her own world, as though molded into her hardships, with no choice but to accept her fate as someone who had grown older than most of the world’s population.

When I drove home, I happened to see another elderly couple, not too far from my home. The husband was assisting his wife in her wheelchair, pushing her out to the transport van which was awaiting her. I assumed she had a medical appointment and that she was unable to get in and out of a car. I have driven down that street many times, and I never saw this couple before. I therefore further assumed they were homebound — a disabled wife, and her devoted husband who was likewise homebound because of his caregiver duties. They seemed determined to do whatever necessary to stay together in their own home and avoid a nursing facility.

All of these people needed help, more help than was available to them. I sympathized with their limitations, because I am also reaching that age and I am deteriorating. I saw my future. My friends, if we are still among the able-bodied, let us try to become more aware of any elderly neighbors — bring them a meal, take out the trash can for them, get their phone number and check on them, and pray for mercy because we are all getting older.

Loving the Offender

Whenever I come across anyone’s definition of Christian love, it often seems incomplete. I therefore felt compelled to write about loving others, particularly loving those who have committed offenses against us, only to discover that my own definition was also incomplete. Perhaps that is the nature of love — many-sided in its application and according to each situation.


Two Children, by Vincent van Gogh

What really bothers me about love of neighbor, or brotherly love, is when we are admonished to love — especially regarding a victim toward an offender. Love seems like a punishment rather than a life-giving dynamic of the Christian disposition. There is little or no concern for the trauma of the victim and the need for understanding and support. Yes, only the sick need a physician, and offenders might be regarded as sick people. Yes, sometimes our wounds are further aggravated by our own sinful pride. But, that does not mean that loving is a heavy burden rather than a lifting up of our hearts to God for ourselves and for the world.

Love is not an unfairness which is imposed upon us, not the obligation of the wounded while the offender is given approval to live by his own rules, and not a blaming of the victim for the offender’s cruel words or behaviors. Love is built on our trust in Christ, in the strength of Christ, and through the divinity of Christ. As believers, we want to be Christ-like. Loving is not a punishment for having been unloved, or treated in an unloving manner, but an opportunity to imitate Christ and to feel concern for the salvation of the offender. This attitude or feat is possible only with Christ. Victims should be oriented to Christ, rather than left on their own to attempt to love from within their raw wounds.

Christ Himself is Love. It is not for us to become superhuman, but to become little Christs. In Him we have our being. Nobody should justify any abuse of individuals or any crime against society. Wrongdoing is not a legitimate form of “self-expression.” Rather, let us uphold reasonable laws and protect the vulnerable, as well as feel concern for the lost souls. Such concern will not detract from our standards, for love is not a glum resignation but a profound capacity. Such concern will only strengthen our disposition and expand the possibilities of salvation.

I am certain that the prayers of others contributed to my salvation, and I know that the practical help of others secured my daily survival and advanced my pursuit of purpose and meaning. Although I never received much help throughout my life, the help which I did receive was significant and involved sacrifice or risk on the part of the helpers. From this background, then, and in gratitude, let me, however incompletely, define love as a quest for and commitment to salvation, abundance, and unity — that for which Christ died and for whom He died.

I do not condone others’ offenses, and I deeply regret my own transgressions, but let us give glory to Christ for any soul that is saved.

Bringing Salvation

There are some passages in the Bible which encapsulate the meaning of the life in Christ, or which seem to address a personal situation or world events, or which propel us to make connections with theology and history. While doing research for something else, I found such a passage from the Epistle to Titus on my spiritual path — like a rock which had tumbled down the hillside. I found a surprise, a blessing, an increase in knowledge and understanding, and an expression of salvation.

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.

Titus 2: 11-14 [NKJV]

The above is one great sentence — like a conglomerate rock made of smaller pebbles and cemented together with sand or other material. Bringing salvation — God, the grace of God, for we can do nothing without the God Who created us and Who sent His Only-Begotten Son to save us. Yes, bringing salvation — bringing Christ in the manger and then Christ on the Cross.

The cross is in Christ, and Christ is on the cross; the cross is the image of the crucified Christ, the Son of God, and therefore the sign of the cross and even its shadow are terrible unto the demons, as the sign of Christ Himself, as the shadow of Him, crucified. Therefore it is very important to sanctify the water by immersing the cross in it, through this it becomes healing, and drives away demons.

My Life in Christ, (Part II, p. 71)
by St. John of Kronstadt

Bringing salvation — God the Father, Jesus the Savior, the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul, St. John of Kronstadt — with salvation appearing to all people, and teaching us how to live in this present age. Let us live righteously, having Christ and the saints as our examples, working out our salvation for the duration of our life on earth. As I look at this present age, at the various falsehoods and the hatred of Godliness, I am beginning to see the Holy Fools for Christ in a new light. They rejected the insanity and ungodliness of society — whether among everyday people or before political leaders — while themselves pretending to be insane in the name of utter humility. Though they avoided recognition, they were often blessed with clairvoyance and wonderworking. Yes, bringing salvation in the midst.

A Christian is — the vessel of God, the temple of God, the house of God. O, how worthy of honour is the true Christian, how zealously he ought to shun every sin, and how greatly Christians ought to respect one another!

My Life in Christ, (Part II, p. 71)
by St. John of Kronstadt

I used to think that pretending to be insane was dishonest, as well as a blockade to relationship or fellowship — because Holy Fools sometimes intentionally provoked other people. But Holy Foolishness is foremost a rejection of vanity and an expression of salvation, a renunciation of society’s expectations, in order to focus on Christ — and having the freedom and simplicity to apply that focus totally. The Holy Fools sought humility and not praise or even normal relationships, thereby opening their hearts and minds completely to the sacred. There were Holy Fools in the monasteries as well as in the streets and forests — bringing salvation, bringing Christ, through prayers and, in some instances, through recognition after their death.

I feel bright, warm, and tranquil, when I turn with my whole soul to the mental sun, the Sun of righteousness, to Christ my God. Then the ice of my heart melts, all its darkness, impurity, and corruption vanish; spiritual death flees, heavenly life begins in its stead, and nothing earthly occupies me any longer.

My Life in Christ, (Part II, p. 73)
by St. John of Kronstadt

A rock tumbled onto my path, composed of apostles and saints and centered on Christ, and it is what exists for me today, for it is the grace of God that brings it to me despite a multitude of sins and the insanity of the environment. Let heavenly life begin, and may nothing earthly darken my path or yours.

A Great Springtime

Great Lent has always seemed like a Great Springtime to me, starting with the pre-Lenten orientation on the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. My thoughts and prayers are already refreshed with an anticipation of flowers and the Resurrection — from “have mercy on me, a sinner” to “Christ is Risen.” It suits my personality — from the sober reality of repentance to the divine joy of Christ, and the joy is experienced within and throughout the sobriety. If ever I belonged in the Orthodox Church, it was the Lenten services which infused me with cohesion and healing. It seemed to welcome me, and I needed everything it had to offer.

The season of Great Lent is the time of preparation for the feast of the Resurrection of Christ. It is the living symbol of man’s entire life which is to be fulfilled in his own resurrection from the dead with Christ. It is a time of renewed devotion: of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. It is a time of repentance, and real renewal of our minds, hearts and deeds in conformity with Christ and his teachings. It is the time, most of all, of our return to the great commandments of loving God and our neighbors.

The Orthodox Faith, volume ii, Worship, (p. 75)
by Father Thomas Hopko

Although I regard myself as the first among sinners, Great Lent seems like the Great Equalizer among the various Orthodox ethnicities and the various backgrounds among converts. The Greek has sinned as well as the Russian, and the priest as well as the catechumen. This is our fallen commonality. When we rise with Christ from the dead, this is our unified Orthodoxy across languages and ethnicities. A publican is a publican, and the Risen Christ is the Risen Christ. There is no partiality as to persons, and there is no other Son of God. The focus is entirely on Christ. Even if that focus is maintained only as long as a Paschal candle is held in one’s hand, the love of God and neighbor permeates the atmosphere.

Perhaps that is the reason that I remained Orthodox throughout my life — now, in my old age, having been Orthodox longer than the younger generations who were born into the Church (and yet I will always be regarded as a convert and questioned as to my former background). Perhaps my devotion to St. Seraphim of Sarov was a lasting springtime that invigorated me — without my always being cognizant of it or fully appreciative. St. Seraphim greeted everyone with “Christ is Risen” — always, because he lived it and demonstrated it. He opened the doors of the Church to converts and reinforced the faith of Russians and others.

The White Orchard, by Vincent van Gogh

The publican and the receiving of mercy, St. Seraphim and his love of God and neighbor, and another Lent upon us — all these riches in the midst of our troubled nation and world. We are not forsaken. The days ahead will pass by, in sequence according to the Church’s wisdom, and for our advantage. Nobody can stop time’s passing. Nobody can stop us from repenting, or from entering that Great Springtime today or at any moment until the eleventh hour, or from expressing love according to our gifts and talents. Maybe, this Sunday, I will really behold the publican and begin to love others as St. Seraphim loved me and watched over me for so many years.

Deeply Rooted

St. John Chrysostom, in Homily LIV, speaks on being deeply rooted like an oak tree, or firmly riveted like a nail, to the word of God — to truth and to Christ, for Christ is truth. Chrysostom refers to a passage from the Gospel of John:

If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

John 8: 31, 32 [NKJV]

Chrysostom emphasizes the quality of endurance and seems, in this instance, to define abide as endurance or perhaps continuance. As a spiritual quality, we might say that endurance is related to patience and fortitude. That is to say, we must persevere through tribulations and always do that which is good and right.

Beloved, our condition needs much endurance; and endurance is produced when doctrines are deeply rooted. For as no wind is able by its assaults to tear up the oak, which sends down its root into the lower recesses of the earth, and is firmly clenched there; so too the soul which is nailed by the fear of God none will be able to overturn. Since to be nailed is more than to be rooted. Thus the Prophet prays, saying, “Nail my flesh by Thy fear” (Ps. Cxix. 120, LXX.); “do Thou so fix and join me, as by a nail riveted into me.” For as men of this kind are hard to be captured, so the opposite sort are a ready prey, and are easily thrown down.

Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers
Volume XIV, Homily LIV, (p. 193)
Philip Schaff, D.D., L.L.D. and Henry Wace, D.D.

We are to be securely affixed to truth which is Christ Himself and as expressed in the doctrines of the Church. If we do not know the teachings of our Church, then we will not be able to live as true Christians in but not of this world. To accept Christ, as an initial attraction, is one thing — but to continue in Christ, as a way of life and throughout our life, is another thing.

Chrysostom goes on to say:

“You shall know the truth,” that is, “shall know Me, for I am the truth. All the Jewish matters were types, but you shall know the truth from Me, and it shall free you from your sins.”

Truth, Christ Himself and His words of life, shall free us from our own impure tendencies and deeds. Truth shall uplift us from the deception of the worldly. Truth shall deliver us from the cycle of dysfunctional relationships. Truth shall protect us from the tricks of the enemy. Truth shall lead us in victory over every adversity and affliction. Truth — Christ Himself, His Body and Blood, the Bible, and the writings of holy men such as St. John Chrysostom — shall motivate us and sustain us.

If you never found your niche in life or in the establishments of the Church, then understand this: your niche is in truth, in endurance, in the roots of the oak tree. Your niche is in St. John Chrysostom, and this is viable and substantial and not a fantasy or castoff. This is deeply rooted and not “easily thrown down.” This is essential for everyone, but perhaps felt more intensely by the orphans and widows and publicans.

Turning the Pages

Let us thank God for large-print Bibles. I recently donated some of my old Bibles to a thrift store because I was struggling to read the small print — print which, perhaps ten years ago, I would have regarded as normal. In the process of re-organizing my Bibles, I began tracing my journey through various translations. For many years, the only Bible I ever knew was the KJV (King James Version) which is written in traditional English. People have either loved or hated the KJV according to their preference for traditional (thee, thou, etc.) or modern English, and not according to the accuracy of the translation itself.

When reading the KJV, I always felt I had encountered holiness — yes, the customary leather Bible, very expensive in those days — for it required attentive reading and it infused me with a love of Christ and of words and meanings. I also enjoyed Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, and I never understood why some people despised anything written in traditional English. However, in my later years, I purchased a RSV (Revised Standard Version) Bible and I had to admit that the modern English lent itself to clarification of certain passages (although the RSV is a combination of traditional and modern English). I then began turning the pages of my RSV as their golden edges faded into the discolored but soft grays of usage.

Russian Church under Snow, by Ilya Kondrashov

Out of curiosity, and as my eyes grew weary, I bought a large-print NKJV (New King James Version), in faux-leather and reasonably priced, which then served as my primary Bible because of the coherence of language and the ease of large print. It became a caring friend to me in my senior years. Somewhere, and I cannot remember exactly when or why, I also acquired copies of the NAB {New American Bible} and the TLB (The Living Bible), both of which enriched my appreciation of the teachings and the people and events of the Bible.

As the internet developed and as priests and scholars began blogging, I discovered that different individuals had different viewpoints on what was considered the best Bible for Orthodox Christians. One such individual recommended The Jerusalem Bible. I went out and bought a copy — in my desire to be faithful to the Church. However, another such person recommended the Oxford Bible (or the KJV as published by the Oxford University Press and which contains the Apocrypha).  I seemed to remember having used that Bible before and, sure enough, there was a copy of the Oxford Bible which had been sitting on my bookshelf for who knows how many years. Still another such individual recommended the KJV — and my long journey through Bible translations thereupon circled back to where it had originally begun.

Throughout most of my life, there was not really any English-language Bible designated as the official “Orthodox Bible” (although it seems many parishes used the KJV or the NKJV). There were fewer translations back then, or fewer available in the local bookstores. For the average parishioner who had a basic understanding of Orthodox doctrine, it might be safe to say that nobody was led astray by the typical Holy Bibles which were translated by non-Orthodox scholars. Throughout the rest of my life, I will probably continue with my large-print NKJV, referring to other translations only for comparison of passages which I want to explore further. Yet, the KJV will always be deeply rooted in my mind and heart when I say this prayer:

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

Matthew 6: 9-13 [KJV]

Let me add that we have the EOB (Eastern/Greek Orthodox Bible), published in 2015, which is under the authority of the Greek Orthodox Church; and we have The Orthodox Study Bible, published in 1993, 2008, 2019, which uses the NKJV for New Testament study. Even so, I came across reputable Orthodox bloggers who recommended other Bibles as mentioned above in my essay. Another related book is The Bible and Holy Fathers for Orthodox which is available through various bookstores. Also, Orthodox Christian Prayers, a prayer book published by St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press in 2019, is written in traditional English. The Jordanville Prayer Book also uses traditional English.

Another Day Is a Gift

To live another day is to receive the gift of life from God. However, it may not seem that way to some people — to those who are suffering physical or emotional pain, to those who are distressed over the nation’s political situation, to those who are busy with responsibilities from the moment they wake up, and so on. We are born into a fallen world, and yet we are members of the Body of Christ. We are to pray daily and unceasingly, to work out our salvation, and to rejoice in the day at hand.

This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.

Psalm 118: 24 [KJV]

Today is another day to draw close to God and to bring forth the fruits of repentance — within our personal circumstances, from our interior transformation, and by the grace of God Who has given us this opportunity to shine forth. For some of us, it may be precisely our suffering and distress which propel us toward a deeper spirituality — an understanding of Christ as our only fulfillment and true wholeness. This does not mean we do not act on our environment, but we act with the realization that our being is in Christ. We walk as His disciples in but not of this world.

A tragedy of life today, in terms of character defects and corrupted values, is when we allow ourselves to be defined by politics and not by the salvific and life-giving Cross of Christ. We are the Church, the People of God — not arrogantly, but humbly and gratefully because undeservedly. Our foremost responsibility is to witness of the Cross in the midst of troubles, and before our opponents and also our loved ones. This witness is becoming more difficult, and therefore more essential, in a divided nation (which is further divided even within divisions). Of course, witness was always essential…but, regarding freedom of speech and worship, we are seeing aggressive hostility.

Let us be glad that we still have potential, that we have not yet been judged, that Christ knows the sheep of His flock, and that Heaven awaits the faithful — not in presumption, but with trust in the merciful God Who has unfailingly directed our steps thus far. There are people on our path who were put there for a reason: perhaps to teach us lessons about ourselves as well as to receive (or reject) the love which only we can offer from the purity of our souls. Yes, let us be pure, and let us rejoice that such purity is attainable through repentance, through Christ. Let us not resign ourselves to the insanity and wreckage around us.

Bound in the Spirit

Apples, Pears and Grapes, by Paul Cezanne

There is a maxim or tradition that people should stay in one place rather than move around from place to place. Most notably it was Abba Moses, a desert ascetic, who advised a monk, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” While the practicality of such a feat might not entirely apply to the various situations of laypeople, the spiritual meaning translates appropriately. It has to do with devotion and fidelity, and an awareness that Christ is present everywhere and with us always.

And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.

Ephesians 1: 23 [NKJV]

There is no such thing as escapism in the spiritual life; nor is there any utopia. This is not to say that there are not valid reasons for moving to another place, but only that evasion of problems or struggles is neither faithful nor fruitful. The spiritual life involves certain trials, and there is no victory unless we face  obstacles with prayer, sobriety, and zeal. This is how the martyrs loved wholeheartedly, how the monks overcame worldliness, and how the holy fathers fought heresy. They grappled with their own environments and consequently built up the Church. In essence, they stayed in their cells — the cells of their time and which God had entrusted to them.

Now, if we move to another place, it seems there must be a goal or purpose and not a running-away from solvable problems or even from martyrdom. St. Paul traveled from place to place, but always under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

And see, now I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city…

Acts 20: 22, 23 [NKJV]

It was not St. Paul’s intention to run away from problems but, in fact, to face whatever might happen to him as he preached the Gospel. He was bound, or compelled or inspired, by the Holy Spirit to complete the tasks which God had given him. St. Paul’s cell was interior, and he established or inhabited his cell in whatever place he visited. Or, we might say, each environment became his new cell as he proceeded with prayer, sobriety, and zeal.

If we, in our modern world, move to another place, it must be within the realm of our spiritual life. Or, at least, as a matter of survival — to find work, to attend school, to be near family. Or, among some elderly and disabled, perhaps to enter a facility and receive the needed care. Even then and even there, in these different places, we must sit in our cells which will teach us everything. We will inevitably encounter challenges, and we must therefore affirm that Christ fills all things as we complete our time on earth.

Five Things I Have Learned,
Staying in My Cell

1) Prayer is always possible: and prayer means union with God, His saints, the two or three gathered together in worship, and the thousands around us.

2) There is always injustice: and some injustices will only be known by the victim, the perpetrator, and God.

3) It is best to relate to others as images of God, to find that spark in them, despite their pollution of life: for we have also polluted consciously and unconsciously.

4) If others refuse to see that spark in us, there is really nothing we can do about it: except to continue to follow Christ as we have been called forth.

5) We will all die and face the Day of Judgment: and some have had a foretaste of both Heaven and hell on this earth, which should serve as ultimate realities.

Beginning at the End

Old age is a peculiar last step. People mature differently, in stages of growth though not necessarily in any specified sequence, and according to the grace of God in the purpose of each person’s life on earth and for his or her salvation. But the natural or biological waning of life brings the beginning of a final stage of development, however long the duration of that final stage, and the approach of the end is sensed in our body and soul. It is as though the body withers away in order for the soul to blossom more abundantly and fragrantly.

In the end, or toward the very end when many relationships and activities have ceased, a new way begins. Reminiscing over the past and achieving resolution and closure, and even repentance, seem to fade away with the deteriorating body. Yes, of course, we repent. Nevertheless, the end propels us starkly before the beautiful icon which we celebrate today: The Image “Not Made by Hands.” There is Christ and only Christ. We bear the conclusion of all our previous stages of growth, including every word and deed of repentance, and we keep vigil until our inevitable last hour.

It appears that the Good Thief realized this hour unexpectedly, saw this all at once, experienced this totally, when he hung on a cross beside Christ — he who was guilty next to Him Who was innocently sacrificed, as though face to face with that icon which we venerate today. It was the end. Yet, the Kingdom was near. The thief did not try to steal but asked for and received mercy. Christ responded to him with affirmation of the Crucifixion and of the Father Who sent Him into the world to save souls.

And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when Thou comest into thy kingdom.

And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.

Luke 23: 42, 43 [KJV]

Perhaps there is nothing else to say, or that can be said, at the end point, except: Lord, remember me in Thy Kingdom. All the focus is on Christ and being with Him and in Him. All reality, all awareness, all desire — is Christ. That final stage, for those who become elderly, for those nailed on a cross, for those who ask, is beckoning us homeward. We shall hunger no more. The bread is imperishable. The depth is unfathomable. The height is unsearchable. Winter is finished and the sun illuminates the meaning of purity, mercy, and victory.

A Loveless Church

There is a sinful condition which seems especially conspicuous among some Orthodox Christians — a certain falleness of dedicated individuals and perhaps entire congregations. It is a state of lovelessness, or a derailment of one’s original enthusiasm for the true doctrine of Christ and the apostolicity of the Church, even to the point of delusion regarding the rightness of one’s falleness. It reminds me of the loveless church of Ephesus which is described in the Book of Revelation.

I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary. Nevertheless, I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place — unless you repent.

Revelation 2: 2-5 [NKJV]

When we leave our first love, who is Jesus Christ, then our relationships and achievements are not to His glory but filled with our own impure tendencies. We are like fruit which looks attractive on the outside, but the hungry do not know whether the fruit is really ripe until they taste it. Eventually, in any parish, the true disciple will detect whether there is nourishment for the soul or just an organizational development and a schedule of services. This sinful condition, or the forgetting of our first love and a consequent state of lovelessness, might be characterized by the following problems:

  1. ) A people of pride.
  2. ) A system of legalism.
  3. ) A mindset of triumphalism.
  4. ) A display of pageantry.
  5. ) A wall of ethnicity.

It reminds me also of St. Paul who warned that our achievements, or the utilization of our gifts, do not compare with the gift of love which shall not fail. In fact, without love — without Jesus Christ abiding in us and we in Him — all the other gifts are of no profit. We are nothing and we have nothing, for we forsook the very Giver of our gifts.

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.

I Corinthians 13: 1-3 [NKJV]

As St. Paul says, love rejoices in truth and seeks to benefit both the brethren and mankind. We are to glorify Jesus Christ in our interactions and works, staying centered in that which shall not pass away. A love-filled church might be characterized by the following riches:

  1. ) A people of virtue.
  2. ) A knowledge of doctrine and yet merciful.
  3. ) A life abundant in holy words and deeds.
  4. ) A liturgy of Heaven on earth.
  5. ) A harbor for all creation.

Unfortunately, there might be some people who feel more comfortable in or who are more attracted to the loveless church than the love-filled church. Hence, generational dysfunction as well as converts who convert for all the wrong reasons.  But, perhaps that is a topic for another day. For today, let the forgetful return and let the faithful continue to profit in their first love.

Peasant Woman with Child on Her Lap, by Vincent van Gogh

A View from the Bus

The interior of a city bus is a world unto itself. When I lived in Staten Island, New York, I rode the buses and subways as well as the Staten Island Ferry. With the exception of rush hour — on buses headed to the ferry terminal and filled with white commuters going to their jobs in Manhattan — many bus riders were black or Puerto Rican. As a white person riding those buses, I was often in a minority. But I never felt different in terms of our humanity, although I might have been viewed as different.

For example, I recall three incidents, during the 1990’s, which might be regarded as having a racial component. I will let you decide for yourself.

Incident #1

The first incident occurred on a bus heading for the Staten Island mall. The back seats were often the unofficial territory of black teenagers, especially on Saturdays. When I boarded the bus, all the seats were taken except one seat just inside that territory. I really wanted to sit down, and I took that little singular seat. A group of black teenage girls, who filled the back of the bus, suddenly became quiet. Then, as I casually began reading my New York Post, they continued chatting. They toned it down though, becoming less animated, like students whose desks happened to be near the teacher’s.

Out of nowhere, a red-haired white girl entered that territory and began pushing one of the black girls. An altercation broke out. The driver, a white man, pulled the bus over to the side of the road. Then he walked down the center aisle, as the white girl quickly exited via the back door which automatically closed behind her. The black girls sat down, but defended their innocence. The bus driver looked over at me. I voluntarily said, “The red-haired girl started it.” The driver returned to his seat, drove off and left the white girl at the side of the road. She angrily yelled out and pounded her fist on the side of the bus as it left without her. Justice had been served. The passengers were protected.

I do not know why the bus driver turned to me for confirmation. Maybe because I was white. Maybe because I was the only adult. Maybe because I looked like a schoolteacher at her desk. Whatever the dynamics, we all safely reached the mall for a day of shopping.

Incident #2

The second incident occurred on a bus leaving the ferry terminal and having its final destination in the housing projects —  a long trip, making all local stops. The bus was packed and there was standing room only. Fortunately, I had a seat. The only other white passengers were two teenage girls, and they were sitting together. Standing in the aisle next to them was a young black woman who was very pregnant. As the bus pressed on, one of the girls offered the pregnant woman her seat. The woman shyly and gratefully accepted. Then the three of them chatted until the two white girls exited the bus at the edge of a middle-class suburb.

I do not know why the black passengers did not assist the pregnant woman. Maybe they did not notice her. Maybe they were tired. Maybe they knew that some seats would eventually open up. I do not know if the teenage girls would have offered a seat to a pregnant white woman. Maybe their kindness was inspired precisely because of the racial and socio-economic differences. Whatever the dynamics, I exited the bus at my destination and added another grain of wheat into my storehouse of memories.

Incident #3

The third incident occurred one night after work, as I boarded the bus to go home. All the seats were taken. There was a young Puerto Rican man sitting in one seat with his feet propped up in another. We made eye contact. I was undecided whether to back down, or to challenge the young man’s right to dominate two seats. I approached him, smiled in a somewhat maternal manner, and asked if I could sit in that seat. He removed his feet, and then brushed the seat clean with his hand. I said, “Thank you.” When I got off the bus, I turned to him and said, “Thank you again.” He smiled in acknowledgement, as though having affirmed his own humanity.

I do not know why the young Puerto Rican man reacted as he did. Maybe he was a gentleman at heart but thought he had to act tough. Maybe he wanted someone to care about him enough to see beyond his feet on the seat. Maybe he hoped that a mature adult could not be intimidated. Maybe he just wanted to connect with a fellow human being in that interior world of the bus.


The people involved in the above incidents were teenagers or young adults. They were born after the Martin Luther King, Jr. era, and before the presidency of Barack Obama. And now, our society has changed overnight with both non-violent protests and violent damages to businesses, though the total outcome is yet to be fully realized or understood. I can only hold myself accountable for my own views, and open myself to discussion.

To my neighbor I say:

And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise.

Luke 6: 31 [NKJV]

To my country I say:

Let God arise,
Let His enemies be scattered;

Psalm 68: 1 [NKJV]

To the priests and pastors I say:

“…never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII,
by John Donne

If you have different views, or if you just want to add something, then let’s talk about it.

Take Courage

Santa Sophia, by John Singer Sargent

The love of Christ will sustain us, for He is risen no matter the troubles of our world today. Each of us will have reactions to the closing of churches during Holy Week, due to the Coronavirus, and to the limits regarding who may attend services. Each of us will have a personal interpretation based on our sins as well as our faith. We might conclude that we are being punished for our evils, or redirected to a greater appreciation of the Divine Liturgy and to a deeper faith — and these interpretations are possibly mixed together in a bowl of repentance and gratitude.

My personal interpretation is that Satan is always working to destroy true believers. That is to say, in our thoughts and feelings and how we might react to obstacles and disasters — how we might ingest anxiety, isolation and waiting as chronic conditions — rather than taking courage in Christ and overcoming everything that has the potential to alienate us. My own reaction was that the Church proved to be impotent, succumbing to disease, forsaking me after I had already suffered so much. Maybe I am being too honest; maybe I should save those words for Confession but not even the Sacrament of Confession is available.

Yet, the saints also struggled with the realities of their time as well as their own disposition, recognizing the subtleties of Satan who relentlessly and disgracefully attacks the followers of Christ. We see that St. John of Kronstadt reports that he was attacked daily by the enemy of mankind.

The enemy daily and violently persecutes my faith, hope and love. Thou art persecuted, my faith! Thou art persecuted, my hope! Thou art persecuted, my love! Endure, faith; endure, hope; endure, love! Take courage, faith; take courage, hope; take courage, love! God is your Defender! Do not grow weak, faith; do not grow weak, hope; do not grow weak, love!

My Life in Christ, (Part II, p. 182)
by St. John of Kronstadt

There is a continuation of the Church from Christ to St. John of Kronstadt, and from St. John to us today. Our Church has withstood diseases, wars, persecutions, and actual destruction of church buildings.  We are involved in the making of history, especially Church history, and in the development of our faith, hope and love. There have been worse times, externally. But this is our time, and we are experiencing something extraordinary and we each have to process it internally. At some point, we will worship again in a church building: and maybe it will seem new to us, or be spiritually renewed, as Christ has beckoned us to renounce our reactions and to arise as stronger disciples.

Yes, the Church will prove to be invincible in the hearts and minds of true believers. It is Satan who is impotent as we keep vigil over our thoughts and feelings. Satan could not defeat St. John of Kronstadt despite daily persecution. We are together with St. John, united across times and places, taking courage from all the saints and martyrs, not grumbling or complaining, and not losing our faith. Let us stay at home, in our domestic churches, and let us cherish and protect all life.

Two Commandments

Let me assume that we all love God — we Christians — and that we want to live according to His commandments. Let me further assume that often our love for people is overflowing, and that sometimes we are capable of loving people despite their unpleasant personalities or their corrupt activities. Now, we know that the first and second greatest commandments involve love: the love of God and the love of neighbor.

Jesus said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

Matthew 22: 37-40 [NKJV]

The giving and showing of love is a commandment, or the holy responsibility and glorious privilege of Christians. It is a mainstay of our spirituality, or rather, our spirituality derives from these two commandments. Therefore, let us question what it means to love God and neighbor, or how to go about this in purity of heart and in a way pleasing to God. Allow me to offer the following ideas for your consideration.

Loving God Means:

  • To worship God, and God only.
  • To become holy, for God is holy.
  • To glorify God in all that we say and do.
  • To find all strength and wisdom in God.
  • To rejoice in God’s mysterious ways.
  • To declare the goodness of God.
  • To give thanks to God.

It is perhaps more difficult to understand what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves, especially what is meant by love of self. I have heard people define love of self as a precondition for loving others, justifying self-love as beneficial. Some people define it as a positive use of innate narcissism. We love the other as though a copy of our own narcissistic self. These definitions seem to be therapeutic in a popular sense. There are, for example, people who destroy themselves, who have been so abused that they feel nothing but self-hatred, and who have never been loved substantially or committedly.

To love one’s neighbor as oneself, then, could mean to see the image of God in that person and to identify with that person as a fellow wayfarer on this earth. We are members of mankind, of God’s creation, and as Orthodox Christians we are also members of the Body of Christ. No member can function apart from any other member — the hand apart from the arm, or the foot apart from the leg. To love others as oneself does not necessarily imply love of oneself as such, neither malignantly nor therapeutically; but love of the other because, like oneself, the other is a member of the whole and is integral to the overall functioning as well as to the building of the Kingdom. Again, allow me to offer some ideas for your consideration.

Loving Our Neighbor Means:

  • To see ourselves in others — in our sins, needs, hardships, sorrows, potentialities, victories.
  • To feel a connection to others — in our survival, wholeness, ancestry, heritage, posterity.
  • To include others — in our prayers, conversations, holiday meals.
  • To assist others — practically, emotionally, theologically, mercifully.
  • To refrain from harming others — misjudging, misdiagnosing, misinterpreting.
  • To protect others — from all forms of violation throughout all stages of life.
  • To evangelize others — in our capacity as living icons of God and according to our gifts and talents.

Therefore, St. Seraphim of Sarov could reliably say to everyone: “My joy! Christ is risen!” This is love of neighbor as oneself. In other words, to know the risen Christ and to want our neighbor also to know. If St. Seraphim regards any one of us as his joy, looking upon us as his neighbors even from his abode in Heaven, then we have been loved. It remains for us to utilize that love and likewise to love others.

Back to Basics

Woman Hanging Up the Washing, by Camille Pissarro

I am a firm believer in getting back to basics — as a way to reinforce our foundation, in the name of simplicity, and as a stimulus for deeper study and in all humility. I have a few catechetical or introductory books on Orthodoxy, and I admire the breadth of knowledge it took to write such books — to be able to condense the details of theology, and to do so in plain language which the average person can understand. I refer to these books to double-check the accuracy of my own writings, and sometimes I go back and read one from cover to cover.

However, I have found that mere catechism  can become an intellectual comfort zone for some Christians, as opposed to a real integration of that knowledge into one’s heart and mind. The needs of other individuals cease to matter. As a former social worker, I remember one of the basic tenets of clinical work was to “start where the client is.” In other words, I evaluated the client’s particular needs: his current functioning, his background, his situation at home and on the job, his medical history, and his own goals and why he had not been able to achieve those goals thus far.

Of course, in the Church, we might say that we should “start where Christ is,” for in Him we have our true being. Yet, Christ addressed people in a personal  way. The Samaritan Woman was of a different type from the Apostle Paul, Mary was different from Martha, and Joseph the Betrothed was different from Dismas the Good Thief. These people had unique personalities and various needs, while sharing the commonality of our human condition. Hence, we should get to know people, listen to them, and not instantly apply a memorized page of catechism to the problems of their lives.

When teaching catechism or using it in conversation, when trying to relate faithfully as an Orthodox Christian in but not of this world, or when getting back to basics for one’s own fortification, let us consider the sayings of St. John Climacus as the most basic of all basics:

23. The Word of the Lord which is from God the Father is pure, and remains so eternally. But he who has not come to know God merely speculates.

24. Purity makes its disciple a theologian, who of himself grasps the dogmas of the Trinity.

25. He who loves the Lord has first loved his brother, because the second is a proof of the first.

Ladder of Divine Ascent, (p. 264)
by St. John Climacus

While not diminishing the necessity to learn the specifics of doctrine and history, it is also necessary to attain purity of heart. Theology must be understood inwardly and lived outwardly. Each individual on our path must be loved as a brother or sister and not treated as an object to be lectured at. Otherwise, our conversation or approach, even if well-intended, lacks in virtue and suffocates the abundant life in Christ. We cannot force catechism on others, as if to convince ourselves. We cannot impose the Holy Church on others, as though to compensate for our own weak faith. But we can become living examples with a loving disposition and thereby attract and teach with warmth and sensitivity.

I feel that people really do not need aggressive evangelism from us — some might respond to that, but other precious souls might never come back. People need words of encouragement and hope, or practical assistance in daily survival, or a glimpse of spiritual beauty, as well as access to the riches of doctrine and history. For that purpose, let us get back to basics — the basics of pure discipleship and letting our light shine through the pain and struggles of this world. This is proof of our love, and God is love.

A Great Hospital

In response to the Coronavirus which has spread throughout the world, there is a new slogan: “Alone Together.” It means that while we are advised to keep a distance of 6-feet from one another to avoid infection, we are nonetheless working together to survive this disease. We know that the Church has often been described as a spiritual hospital where sinners go to get well — assuming that the Church itself, its leaders and people, are spiritually viable.

Let the Church be the Church, i.e. the community of the saints. Let the world know that the Church’s mission on earth is not to accumulate wealth, or to gain political power or knowledge, or to cling to this institution or to that, but to cleanse mankind from its unclean, evil spirits, and to fill it with the spirit of saintliness. Let the Church first change her spirit and then urge the whole of mankind to change theirs.

The Agony of the Church
by the Rev. Nicholai Velimirovic, D.D. [St. Nicholai]

If the Church is a hospital, then I think I spent much of my life in the intensive care unit. Whether it was because of my own sins or the impact of others’ sins and how I reacted to it (all one and the same thing, a general dysfunction, the fallen world), it was necessary for me to recover. I know “Alone Together” as a fact of my sins and as the reality of the era in which I was baptized. I know “Alone Together” today due to the limitations of my advancing age and the complications of my environment. I know “Alone Together” because maybe this is the way God created me. Maybe this is how I was meant to work out my salvation.

The question for me now is whether or not I am viable, for I received an infusion of medicine and I am not what I was years ago, or even last week. Beyond “Alone Together,” we are one in the Church, in this Great Hospital, and Jesus Christ is the Physician of our souls. He came to save the sick, for we are the ones who need Him. He knows the exact medicine to make each one us well. I believe I have been released from the intensive care unit, though I am still in an isolation room and maybe this is where I will spend the rest of life. If it is good for me and for those around me, then I am thankful.

Amid the Coronavirus I am thankful for many things, in a renewed way, and I hope in a responsive way if only through prayer and through writing. I want to thank all the competent and dedicated healthcare professionals who are risking their own lives to help us. I want to thank all the cashiers at the supermarket who enable us to purchase food and household supplies. I want to thank all the government officials who are struggling to manage the country for the whole population.

I want to thank all the saints and angels who have guided me onto the path of righteousness.

I want to thank all my spiritual doctors and nurses on earth who have ministered unto me.

Let us pray for the infected and the unemployed. Let us be of practical help if possible.

And let us keep washing our hands and remain 6-feet apart.

Buying the Pearl

The short Parable of the Pearl of Great Price has much to teach us about seeking and finding that which is of ultimate worth. It is about a merchant dealing in pearls . Most of us are not merchants, but all of us are consumers who appreciate value and compare prices. The parable is found only in the Gospel of Matthew:

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.

Matthew 13: 45, 46 [NKJV]

Now, a merchant is someone who buys and sells, and who tries to make a profit. Ideally, a merchant does not overcharge but provides essential or coveted products to the consumer. If you desired some pearls, for example, you would want to know that the merchant was selling genuine items at reasonable prices. But if it was a rare and precious pearl, you would be willing to pay any price to own it and rejoice in it — even as the merchant was willing to sell his entire stock in order to buy the most beautiful pearl.

Shells and Pearls, by Irina Sztukowski

This parable might be organized into a sequence of steps in Christian discipleship, applicable to anyone trying to make sense out of life or to find lasting happiness. It involves the acquisition of spiritual wealth which is whole and perfect in itself and does not pass away, unlike the pleasures of the world and the distortions of the cultists. Let us consider these steps of transformation from seeker to follower of Christ:

  • Seeking: truth, love, meaning, purpose, beauty, identity, wholeness, unity.
  • Finding: the only and the all, the Divine, the Christ of God, the Kingdom of Heaven.
  • Deciding: this is what you want above everything you might already have.
  • Renouncing: impurity, misrepresentation, pretense, attachment.
  • Acquiring: sacredness, perfection, abundance, joy.
  • Becoming: holy, pleasing to God, a new creature.

When we speak of repentance of sin, we need to understand that repentance involves renunciation. The merchant sold, or renounced, his old treasures which were probably of a common or inferior variety, and even though these may have brought him a comfortable level of success. It is therefore absurd that people who join a church or who say they believe in a certain religion, nevertheless try to change the theology to accommodate their impurities and attachments. They want the pearl of great price, but they also want to hold on to some of their past pleasures and distortions.

You cannot improve or reform the perfect and divine. You cannot find fault with the pearl of great price. It is impossible. You can only seek and find, renounce former impurities, and focus on that which you have found. You cannot become a new creature if you remain attached to your old self. Life is a process or journey, but to fight the basic qualities of discipleship is to lose the fullness of your spiritual profit — a profit which is immeasurably superior to any nostalgia for past points on the journey.

Laying Down Your Life

This is one of those essays that is really more of a sketch than a complete composition: just jotting down some ponderings upon entering a new decade in the year 2020. Having walked on this earth for several decades already, this could be my last. As a result, there are some things that no longer make sense to me (certain activities, people’s opinions, useless knowledge), and there are other things that make sense only by laying down my life for Christ. That is, as a way to live as though in Heaven with Him, for He is indeed with us and for us.

We know that Christ laid down His life for us. Yet, outside of actual martyrdom, I wondered how the individual lays down his or her life for Christ and mankind — how to make sense of it and how to practice it. So, I made some notes that might serve as both rationale and guide.

It is based on:

  • Knowing Christ Who knows the Father.
  • In other words, being Christ’s disciple.
  • Because Christ is the Truth, the Way, and the Life.
  • And, He prepares a mansion in Heaven for you.
  • [John 10: 11; 13: 37]

It is expressed as:

  • Working out your salvation and yet Looking out for the other’s interests.
  • Doing nothing through selfish ambition or conceit.
  • In other words, being of one mind with Christ and the apostles.
  • Because Christ took on the form of a bondservant.
  • And, He enables you to shine a light into this world.
  • [Philippians 2: 2-4, 15]

It means to be loyal to Christ’s words which shall not pass away. These words were spoken for your benefit so that you could become like Him — even as He became like you but without sin, that you might have eternal life. It means to love different kinds of people, including the unlovable, and also those who threw stones at you. Without Christ, laying down your life for other sinners would be emotionally unbearable. With Christ, however, it is possible and it is fruitful (whether you are old like me or younger, according to God’s mysterious ways).

There are people who say “love hurts, or “give until it hurts.” Personally, I disagree. Love, or sacrificial giving, is not a sadomasochistic situation. Loving the other, even to the point of laying down your life, is a divine process emanating from a divine being — Christ Himself Who is without sin and without our tainted notions of life and love. It means to shine a pure light into all relationships and situations.

Let us listen to St. John of Kronstadt.

…even while living upon the earth we must live as if in the heavenly kingdom, dwelling there in anticipation by hope.

My Life in Christ, (Part II, p. 104)
by St. John of Kronstadt

When living as though in Heaven, you do not have to be captive to your sins or the sins of others. God became man, and therefore you can follow Him and become like Him. Sin and temptation can be encountered and renounced with the words, “Christ, I lay down my life for You.” Yes, I lay down my life for the Gospel and for the salvation of my neighbor, because it feels so immediate as I have gotten old.  Yes, I enter the twilight of my life as though it were a springtime of understanding and peace. Yes, I keep learning and growing to the very end — which gets closer every day.

Sunday of Orthodoxy

The Sunday of Orthodoxy, especially in contemporary America, might mean different things to different people. Yes, there are theological and historical meanings, truth and events woven together in the drama of Orthodox expansion and preservation, and those meanings are our foundation and inspiration. But, there are also personal victories, as members of the Body of Christ, over every obstacle and rupture in the path of the believer. In other words, there is an inward victory over falsehood in its various forms: its indoctrination beginning in childhood, its deceptive outer attractiveness, its appeal to our sympathies, and its influence on our choices in this world.

It manifests in political correctness, including the revision of American history textbooks, and it taps into our basic sentiments — the need to love and be loved, the fair treatment of all peoples, and concern for the underdog. These values have been abused and exploited by so-called experts and by fellow citizens who seek an identity in desires, divisions, and dominance. To live by truth, to assert that there are even such things as theological truth and historical accuracy, to teach and preserve these things for future generations — is to be labeled as intolerant and hateful. These labels can tempt us to conform to the world if only to prove how loving we are as Christians.


Come unto Me…

This emotional pull, this self-doubt, this confusion over what we see around us and what is really good for us, can prompt different reactions. We can join another religion that seems more attuned to current trends. We can attempt to satisfy our personal deficiencies through misguided views on lifestyle possibilities. We can adore celebrities, sports stars, and politicians as idols. We can become Orthodox fanatics, distorting the very precepts which we claim to preserve and rejecting anyone who asks a question which disturbs our authoritarianism. Such insecurity does not evangelize but alienates even those who are already baptized Orthodox.

Yet, we can attain personal victory, we can straighten our crooked paths, we can see truth and become holy by turning to our icons. In today’s visual world where technology imposes a rapid succession of images on television and in video games, we can become addicted to distractions. This is not to negate the appropriate uses of technology, but to give primary focus to the spiritual nourishment from icons which are a window into Heaven and a testament to Christ having taken on flesh. Icons can act as our conscience, gazing into us even as we gaze upon them or perhaps try to ignore them, for they can guard us from offending Heaven with error and self-gratification.  But, if we violate our conscience, if we betray truth, we can nonetheless attain victory with this Sunday of Orthodoxy and as we repent throughout this season of Great Lent.

Independent Thinking

We are meant to be rational beings, and therefore our thinking is to be formed within the mind of the Holy Church. Any vein of thought outside the understanding of the Church, or any independent thinking, must be weighed according to its compatibility with or deviance from true doctrine. It is true doctrine which is fully coherent and always life-giving, and perfectly Godly and not distorted or imagined.

For people outside the Holy Church, independent thinking can be of value if it includes exploration and questioning, observation and comparison, and a genuine quest for truth. Without such independence, the individual would conform to the status quo or follow the trends of the time, and would likewise be vulnerable to propaganda and marketing.

For example, if a man entered an Orthodox Church and observed the beauty of the liturgy, he might feel propelled to explore the religion which produced such magnificence. He might ask questions of the priest, or read a book and then compare and contrast that knowledge with other considerations. This might begin as an intellectual and experiential process but, with God’s mercy, such a person could arrive at the glorious and unchanging truths of the Church.

Something similar worked well for St. Vladimir who sought a unifying religion for the peoples of Russia in the year 988.

When we journeyed among the Bulgarians [of the Volga region], we beheld how they worship in their temple, called a mosque, while they stand ungirt. The Bulgarian bows, sits down, looks hither and thither like one possessed, and there is no happiness among them, but instead only sorrow and a dreadful stench. Their religion is not good. Then we went among the Germans, and saw them performing many ceremonies in their temples; but we beheld no glory there. Then we went on to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations…

These Truths We Hold, (pp. 20, 21)
by A Monk of St. Tikhon’s Monastery

Regarding those who are worldly, however, independent thinking often includes defiance of or departure from truth, a willful separation of oneself from meekness and unity, and an oppression of purity, wisdom, blessedness. This is irrational because it confuses and divides, corrupt because it pits mankind against the Church, and doomed because it is disobedient to God the Father Almighty.

St. John the Theologian warned us about the intrusion of various anti-Christs.

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

I John 4: 1 [NKJV]

We are able to test or discern the spirits because we, as Orthodox Christians, have true doctrine as our basis for thought, because we follow the straight path of repentance, and because we are temples of the Holy Spirit. This is something which the world alters or rejects, and which it ridicules in order to make us look like extremists. But let us enter our churches and partake of the beauty, let us study Scripture and doctrine as rational sheep, and let us be truly liberated from the captivity of falsehood and saved from the destruction of our souls.

Response as Repayment

While it is common to speak in terms of giving back to one’s community, and though such giving might be humanitarian, the concept seems not to be in alignment with Christian gratitude for one’s blessings or repayment for one’s advantages. Christ did not give back to mankind, for He owed nothing to this fallen world. He was born in a manger and died on a cross — that we might live abundantly and fruitfully. Yes, we are indebted, but let us hear what St. Mark the Ascetic says about repayment for the love of Christ:

(1) So then, my beloved son, in accordance with the assurance I gave you at the beginning of this treatise, do not be dragged down by the thievery of vice and laziness and so forget the benefits given to you by God, who loves us and deserves our adoration. Instead, set before your eyes those benefits, whether physical or spiritual, conferred on you from the moment of your birth right down to the present; meditate and reflect on them, in accordance with what was said: “Do not forget all his rewards” [Ps 103.2].

(2) Thus, your heart may be easily moved, in its zeal and love for God, to repay him, to the best of your ability, with a scrupulous life, a virtuous way of living, a godly conscience, and appropriate speech; moved, too, to dedicate your whole being to God, won over by the recollection of all these good things you have received from the good and compassionate Master. When you do this, because your heart recollects the benefits it has received, or rather the cooperative assistance given to you from above, it is spontaneously wounded, as it were, with love and longing: for God has not done such wonders for others, who are much better than you, as he in his ineffable compassion has done for you.

Counsels on the Spiritual Life, Mark the Monk, (p. 66)
Translated by Tim Vivian and Augustine Casiday

If we have received good things, benefits and rewards, then our repayment is not simply the undertaking of a service or project, but a response of our whole being regarding worship of, meditation on, and dedication to Him Who mercifully gave us much more than we deserved. We do not necessarily give back, but we respond wholeheartedly by doing His will within the life of the Church — even if hidden, even if not valued by the world, and even if it means sacrificing some things. Our indebtedness is primarily an indebtedness of love in which we regard others as more deserving than ourselves.


Wheat Fields with Cornflowers, by Vincent van Gogh

When I was in my twenties, an older woman helped me in very charitable way which involved sacrifice on her part. She continued this help for a period of two years, due to my predicament. Without her, my life would have gone in a drastically different and unfulfilling direction. I was not accustomed to being helped, but usually had to fend for myself. In fact, I was accustomed to obstacles. I was aware of this woman’s Christ-like mercy upon me, and I felt beholden. After my life stabilized, I attempted to give back to her, directly or in any form she might find acceptable. But she would not allow it and would not even accept a token of appreciation.

This very religious lady was truly humble and had given freely and cheerfully, but I felt frustrated and a little perturbed over her rejection of my offer. I felt she was going too far in her practice of the virtues. Yet, what she wanted from me was that I would respond wholeheartedly to the Christ Whom we both loved. Since I had received good things, she hoped that I would live abundantly and fruitfully in His Name — that was her repayment. She had done God’s will, fulfilled a purpose in God’s plan of salvation, and therein we were profoundly interconnected as members of the Church. It is God Who gives, whether He chooses this or that person, as the cycle of life continues and as nothing prevails against the Church.

Better to Give

According to St. Paul, it is more blessed to give than to receive. St. Paul tells us that Christ Himself said so, even though these words are not quoted of Christ in any of the four Gospels. Yet, St. Paul proceeded by revelation, and we know that all the books in the world could not contain everything Christ said and did. It is possible that some of Christ’s words and deeds were preserved orally, and maybe this is how St. Paul learned that it is better to give than to receive.

And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’

Acts 20: 35 [NKJV]

Let us focus on the Godly aspects of giving: what it means and how it works in daily life. God Himself is a giver of gifts, and He likewise loves cheerful givers. Above all, God gave His Only-Begotten Son to mankind, sending Christ into the world as the God-Man in order to redeem us from destruction and lift us into divinity.

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

John 3: 16, 17 [NKJV]

To give is to be vital. That is, Godly giving is a pouring forth of love and is truly salvific. Love reaches out in some way, expresses itself, fulfills a need, whether or not the beloved is worthy and even if he or she rejects it.

To give means that we ourselves are filled with gifts and virtues:

  • According to the image of God in which we are made.
  • In realization of our aptitudes and talents as persons, and of our toil as beneficial to others.
  • In recognition that nobody is put on our path without a reason, including the weak and poor.
  • To the glory of God, in victory of life over death, as active participants in building the Kingdom.

There is perhaps some overlapping of words and meanings: to send, to give, to bless, to feed, and to serve. God gave or sent Christ, and Christ taught and sent His disciples. Below are some possible interpretations of these terms:

  • To send means to abide in Christ, and thereby interconnect with one another.
  • To give means to cheerfully spread forth our resources and talents.
  • To bless means to bestow, enable, validate.
  • To feed means to teach, encourage, invest.
  • To serve means not to dominate, exploit, divide.

To give means to give Christ to others through our words and actions, which is perhaps the best form of evangelism. That is, to send or to give, etc., all mean to evangelize the Gospel in daily life and to save those around us. To give Christ is to affirm the goodness of life and overcome separation and deprivation, to nurture potential and renounce envy and greed, and to speak truth and expose lies and idols. Truly, such giving is blessed and joyful.

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)
by 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.

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.


St. Paul in Prison, by Rembrandt

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.

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 taken 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)
by 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)
by 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.

In Deep Winter, by Richard von Drasche Wartinberg

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.

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

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, volume iv, Spirituality, (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.


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.

Accessed from

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.