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. Peter repented with deep sorrow, and that’s the kind of man he became. 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.

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Alone in Prayer

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

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

St. Paul in Prison, by Rembrandt

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

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

From Wilderness to Tomb

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

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

Twelve Points Plus

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

Twelve Points I Am For

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

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

Twelve Points I Am Against

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

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

The Creed: The Symbol of Faith

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

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

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

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

(official Orthodox Church in America translation)

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

A Quotation from Job

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

Job 42: 5-6 [NKJV]

We Are One, in Christ

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

Galatians 3: 26-28 [NKJV]

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

Head of an Apostle Looking Upward, by Albrecht Durer

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

You shall have no other gods before Me.

Exodus 20: 3 [NKJV]

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

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

Then to Dust

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theirs, but Mine

Young Girls at the Piano, by Pierre-August Renoir

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Shall Rise

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pascal Sermon of St. John Chrysostom

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

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

Images and Lights

Portrait of Camille Rouen, by Vincent van Gogh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books, Words, Meanings

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas as Responsiveness

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

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

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

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

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

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