Just do it

5 November OS 2017 – Saturday of the Seventh Week of St. Luke; Ss. Galaction and Episteme, Martyrs 

In today’s Gospel (Luke 9:1-6), we see the Lord gathering and sending out His Holy Apostles to preach, heal, and cast out demons:

Then he called his twelve disciples together, and gave them power and authority over all devils, and to cure diseases. And he sent them to preach the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick. And he said unto them, Take nothing for your journey, neither staves, nor scrip, neither bread, neither money; neither have two coats apiece. And whatsoever house ye enter into, there abide, and thence depart. And whosoever will not receive you, when ye go out of that city, shake off the very dust from your feet for a testimony against them. And they departed, and went through the towns, preaching the gospel, and healing everywhere.

St. Theophan the Recluse encourages us by reminding us that this very same apostolic preaching is with us, alive and active, to this very day:

“And He sent them to preach the Kingdom of God (Luke 9:2).” Then, it was only throughout Palestine, but later they were sent throughout the whole world. The preaching which was begun then has not ceased to this day. Every day we hear what has been handed down by the Holy Apostles and the Lord Himself as if they were before us, and the power which acted in them acts to this day in the Church of God. The Lord has not deprived any believers of anything: those who are the most recent have everything the first ones had. Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 246-247

We all know that this is true, but generally we do not feel it to be true in our daily lives.   How do we cure this, how do we once again experience the lively, life-giving joy of Faith we had when we were first converting to the Faith or, in the case of those baptized as infants, when we were first coming to an adult awareness of the power of our Faith and experiencing its power?   We know from past experience that, if only we can have this lively awareness, life is 100% better: no problem seems too great, because we know that the Risen Lord Jesus is walking with us, that the Holy Virgin and our saint and our guardian angel and all the hosts of heaven are with us. Life is bright on the inside even when not on the outside.   But we often fail in this awareness and think about life as if our worldly problems were all that there is, and our Faith is something abstract.

I would like to suggest three activities to help us receive the grace of a lively awareness and happiness that we, no different from the early Christians, have the power of the Apostolic Faith within us:

  1. Gratitude:   We must frequently, daily, force ourselves to glorify the Lord for all that He has done for us. When feeling far from God, we should get down on our knees before the holy icons and start recounting all that He has done for us, from the Creation of the world through all the history of the Old and New Testaments, the Lives of the Saints, and then our own life and all the good things He has given us, and above all the infinite gift of being in His Holy Church.   The fog will lift, and we will “taste and see how good the Lord is.”
  1. Daily Scripture Reading: All right, I have said this a million times, but it is still true. Read your daily Scriptures!   Every day throughout the year Holy Church prescribes two Scripture readings from the New Testament or, during the weekdays of Great Lent, three readings from the Old Testament.   Get a calendar with readings listed for every day (hard copy or online), get out your Bible or New Testament (or, if you are really “with it” liturgically, your Apostolos and Evangelion!), and read. Read standing before the icons, read aloud and slowly, and let the divinely inspired words sink into your ears, your mind, and your heart. They are living and active, and they will act! “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).” Day by day, the Holy Apostles will preach once again to us, as they did 2,000 years ago. The same truth and the same power are present.
  1. Confession and Holy Communion: Usually we do not feel the Lord’s presence because of our sins. It is really that simple.   We have the solution: to confess our sins, receive His forgiveness, and partake of His Precious Body and Blood. What could be simpler? What could be better?   As they say: “Just do it.”

God is with us.



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Memento mori

5 November OS 2016 – Friday of the Seventh Week of St. Luke; Holy Martyrs Galaction and Episteme

Today’s Gospel reading is Luke 12:2-12.

The Lord said to His disciples: There is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known. Therefore whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops. And I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God? But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows. Also I say unto you, Whosoever shall confess me before men, him shall the Son of man also confess before the angels of God: But he that denieth me before men shall be denied before the angels of God. And whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but unto him that blasphemeth against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven. And when they bring you unto the synagogues, and unto magistrates, and powers, take ye no thought how or what thing ye shall answer, or what ye shall say: For the Holy Ghost shall teach you in the same hour what ye ought to say.

 St. Theophan the Recluse, commenting on the Lord’s words concerning whom we should fear, says this:

…The greatest fear we have is of death. But the Lord says that the fear of God should exceed the fear of death. When circumstances come together in such a way that it is necessary either to lose one’s life or to act against what is suggested by the fear of God, it is better to die rather than to go against the fear of God. For if you go against the fear of God, then after your bodily death, which is in any case inevitable, you will meet another death which is immeasurable worse than all of the mot terrible bodily death. If we always bore this in mind, the fear of God would not weaken in us, and we would perform no deeds contrary to the fear of God… – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 246

Death, heaven, hell, and God’s judgment are not popular topics today.   Everyone is obsessed with this world, with remaining in it as long as possible, and making it as comfortable as possible.   They have forgotten that this is a fool’s errand: No matter what you do to avoid it, death will some day overtake you. The real question is not how to avoid death but how to prepare for the inevitable.   Since death is the one thing we know, without a doubt, that is going to happen to us, using this life to prepare for it is the most realistic approach to life.

The Lord tells us, today, what is the basis for a life that prepares us for death: to fear God.   The fear of God means not an animal fear, agitating us to run away from God, to hide from Him, because He is going to do something bad to us. It is rather a reverent fear, a deeply-felt desire never to do anything displeasing to Him, never to disobey His holy will, coupled with a lively apprehension that we can, indeed, lose ourselves for all eternity, that we can, indeed, inherit eternal torment after death.

Each day we need to remind ourselves, “I will die for certain!” and ask the Lord, “O Lord, this day enable me to live according to Thy holy will!”


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To be rather than to seem

2 November OS 2017: Wednesday of the Seventh Week of St. Luke; Ss. Acyndinus, Pegasius, Aphthonius, Elpidephorus, and Anempodistus of Persia, Martyrs.

The daily Gospel reading for the Divine Liturgy this morning is Luke 11: 42-46 –

The Lord said, Woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye love the uppermost seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are as graves which appear not, and the men that walk over them are not aware of them. Then answered one of the lawyers, and said unto him, Master, thus saying thou reproachest us also. And he said, Woe unto you also, ye lawyers! for ye lade men with burdens grievous to be borne, and ye yourselves touch not the burdens with one of your fingers.

St. Theophan the Recluse’s commentary bears careful reading in its entirety. As usual, he shows himself a master of the intricacies of spiritual psychology:

The Lord begins to reproach His contemporaries by saying that they pass over judgment and the love of God. The drying up of righteousness and love is the root of all disharmony, both in society and in every person. It comes from the predominance of self-love or egoism. When egoism inhabits the heart an entire horde of passions settles therein. [This horde] strikes out against righteousness and love, which require selflessness; while the passions generated from it chase away all other virtues. The person becomes, by his heart’s disposition, unfit for anything that is truly good. He can still tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, but he does not find within himself the courage to do anything more substantial. This does not mean that his outward behavior is disgraceful. No, it is adorned in every way with decency, but on the inside he is as a grave which appears not, and the men that walk over it are not aware of it. The beginning of self-correction is the beginning of the appearance of selflessness in the heart, after which righteousness and love are restored. Then, one after the other, all other virtues begin coming to life. Then the person becomes comely in the eyes of God because of his heart’s disposition, although on the outside he may sometimes seem unattractive to other people. But the judgment of man is not the important thing: the important thing is for God’s judgment not to be against us. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 244-245

This is a lot to take in. I would like to offer a few thoughts inspired by the saint’s insights:

Egoism gives rise to all the other passions, destroys love and justice inside of people, and this destroys society. So the only path back to love and justice in society is for Orthodox people to overcome their egoism and subdue their passions.

You can be full of these disgusting passions and seem like a very nice person on the outside. This hypocritical life is what makes up our modern worldly society at its best. When all the masks fall off, then the “law of the jungle” ensues and social life becomes an insane, chaotic war of “all against all.” This is what we are seeing today.

If you are an Orthodox Christian, your responsibility is awesome, because you have the grace and the tools to overcome all this by starting with yourself.

The first step is self-correction, as laid out in the teachings of the Scriptures and the Holy Fathers: Reprove yourself, humble yourself, realize in your being, in constant thoughts, feelings, and actions (not just words) that you are not the center of the universe. This means humbling the body through fasting and prostrations, and humbling your mind by submitting to the Gospel reasoning and giving up worldly reasoning. You have to be ruthless with yourself, examine your thoughts, words, and deed, and confess frequently, living from one Holy Communion to the next in fear and trembling, looking forward to death and God’s judgment.

When you start doing this, you may go from seeming like a “nice person” to seeming strange, perhaps even unpleasant. The other “nice people” may not understand you any more, because you will be going from the realm of phony love, which does not speak truth and pretends to accept everything, to real love, which is sometimes a “harsh and dreadful thing,” in the words of Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima. Real love hurts.

But always remember: The only thing that matters at the end of the day is God’s judgment.

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A resurrected life

31 October OS 2017 – Monday of the 7th Week of St. Luke;  Holy Apostles Stachys, Amplias, Urban, Narcissus, Apelles, and Aristobulus of the Seventy

The reading from the Holy Gospel today is Luke 11: 29 -33.

At that time, when the people were gathered thick together, Jesus began to say, This is an evil generation: they seek a sign; and there shall no sign be given it, but the sign of Jonas the prophet. For as Jonas was a sign unto the Ninevites, so shall also the Son of man be to this generation. The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with the men of this generation, and condemn them: for she came from the utmost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and, behold, a greater than Solomon is here.  The men of Nineveh shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here. No man, when he hath lighted a candle, putteth it in a secret place, neither under a bushel, but on a candlestick, that they which come in may see the light.

What is the sign of Jonas?   Christ Himself explains, in Matthew 12:40, “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” The sign of Jonas is the Resurrection of Christ. Just yesterday, Sunday, we celebrated the Resurrection once again, as we do week after week, Sunday after Sunday, and year after year, Pascha after Pascha. If only we understood more deeply what this means, if only we had a lively appreciation of the reality that the Resurrection is the foundation of our lives!

Today people are fearful, but we have nothing to fear, for Christ has conquered sin, the devil, death, and hell.

Today people worship nothingness – they are spinning out of control into suicidal darkness; they have made a pact with death. We worship Christ, the Life-giver and Light-giver. Rather than spinning out of control, we are centered and stable on Him.

Today people are in despair, because they believe they have nothing to look forward to. We live in hope, for Christ having risen once will die no more – death has no power over Him. And our life, being hid with Christ in God, is indestructible – death has no power over us, but rather will be the gateway to an eternal and imperishable life.

We all believe this, but we often – perhaps usually – do not feel it.  We feel, instead, as do the sad inhabitants of this world who live outside the realm of grace, that we are slaves of “the system”- i.e., the society created by fallen man –  oppressed by the grim necessity of purely material life.  Of course, this is an illusion, for our baptism, our death and resurrection with the Lord, has freed us from all necessity, and we are truly free. We do not take advantage of our freedom, however, when we go on loving our sins and passions.

Yesterday, we celebrated the Resurrection of Christ.  Perhaps we even received His Body and Blood, the Fountain of Immortality.   Yet even so soon as this morning, perhaps, or even yesterday after we left Church, we scattered the grace we received through distraction, and the working week now begins with gloom instead of joy.   If only Orthodox Christians went forth to their work in this world shining with the light of Resurrection we receive on our beautiful Sundays!   We would indeed become what Our Lord commands us to be:  a light to the world.

Some practical ways to avoid losing our Sunday-Resurrectional grace are needed.  Here are some ideas:

  1.  First and foremost, we should struggle to prepare more often for the great Mystery of Holy Communion.  There are those who do not prepare but they go to Communion all the time – they are in great danger, committing the sin of audacity, and the priests who facilitate this are in even greater danger.  They are in a kind of plani (deception), thinking like modern non-Orthodox people, with a make-believe “frequent communion” mode that is not much different from the mentality of the Vatican II “Catholics,” Episcopalians, etc.   They think that just by going to Communion all the time they automatically have become like the early Christians, and yet they have some kind of unspoken “dispensation” to live the way that modern, worldly people do. On the other hand, there is the majority of us (I speak here of us “Old Calendarists” and other traditional Orthodox people), who respect the Holy Mystery the way our forefathers did.  We know that the week before we commune, we must fast more strictly, not watch TV, not smoke, not go out with our friends, go to Vespers and have Holy Confession on the eve of communing, go to Church early and attend Matins, etc., but …we only prepare and commune once or twice a year!  This is not as bad as the sacrilege of unprepared communion, but it still deprives us of the grace of true Christian life, and so, is the result really much different?   Yes, we do not insult the grace, but we lose the grace. We are not like St. Mary of Egypt and other great ascetics, who could preserve the grace of their communion for a long time without regular sacramental communion.  We need regular Holy Communion, because otherwise the demons get an open door and separate our inner lives and our family lives from Christ. We must face this.  Let us all try to prepare and receive Holy Communion at least once every forty days. This would increase our reception of the Holy Mystery from once or twice to nine times per year, which would beautifully transfigure our family lives and our parish life in a marvelous way, not because of the “arithmetic” (“more is better”) but because our lives would become the way Orthodox lives should be, constantly vigilant; our souls would be in a constant state of struggle against the sins and passions, and our faces would be alight with the light of the Resurrection.  We would truly live as the Body of Christ, receiving infinite power from the Body and Blood of Christ.  To be what we should be, we must receive what we are.  We must have His Blood flowing through our veins.

2.  After we receive Holy Communion or the antidoron on Sundays, let us try to stay recollected and quiet.  I know this is difficult, because in our circumstances, we usually see our fellow parishioners only on Sunday and feast days, and we naturally want to chat, catch up on their news, etc.  We need this, because we don’t live in villages or ethnic neighborhoods any more, and we have to have the human connection.  Even monks in hesychastic sketes converse on feast days and show a human interest in their brothers.  But a.  Let us keep our conversation on a high level, not gossiping and so forth, but saying that which encourages and edifies our brother, and b. When we go home, instead of TV or Internet, let us stay quiet and recollected, taking a walk outside in God’s creation, reading spiritual books or at least good secular books, doing quiet, “old fashioned” Sunday things with our family.  Or, if we look at the Internet, we should find good Orthodox chants, sermons, or lectures (there are a lot out there!), or healthy cultural and historical items, not the latest about politics or Hollywood scandals.

3.  As we go to work on Monday morning, let us make an explicit prayer to Our Savior, that we not be consumed by the worries  of this world, but maintain that which we have received on His Day.

May the grace of the Resurrection shine forth in us!

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Why be Orthodox?

25 October OS 2017 – Tuesday of the 6th Week of St. Luke, Holy Martyrs Marcian and Martyrius 

Two years ago, I offered these thoughts on the daily Gospel for the 6th Tuesday of St. Luke: 

The reading from the Holy Gospel today is Luke 11: 1-10.

At that time, it came to pass, that, as he was praying in a certain place, when he ceased, one of his disciples said unto him, Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples. And he said unto them, When ye pray, say, Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so in earth. Give us day by day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil. And he said unto them, Which of you shall have a friend, and shall go unto him at midnight, and say unto him, Friend, lend me three loaves; For a friend of mine in his journey is come to me, and I have nothing to set before him? And he from within shall answer and say, Trouble me not: the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give thee. I say unto you, Though he will not rise and give him, because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him as many as he needeth. And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.

St. Theophan the Recluse, in discussing the Lord’s teaching on prayer, addresses the need to pray from the heart:

…We must concern ourselves about only one thing: that when we stand at prayer, at home or in church, we have true prayer in our soul: a true turning and lifting up of our mind and heart to God. Let everyone do this as he is able. …do not mutter the prayers like a wound-up machine that plays songs. No matter how long you stand like that, and mumble the prayers, you have no prayer, when your mind is wandering and your heart is full of empty feelings. But if you stand at prayer and are accustomed to it, what does it cost you to draw your mind and heart there as well? Draw them there, even if they have become stubborn.   Then true prayer will form and will attract God’s mercy, and God’s promise, “Ask, and it shall be given you,” will be fulfilled. Often it is not given because there is no petition, only a posture of petitioning. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 237-238

Here St. Theophan assumes that the reader is already someone who has the habit of regular prayer.   He is most certainly not saying, “Only pray when you feel like it,” which is the perverse meaning people give this command to pray from the heart. Not only must we force ourselves to pray when we do not feel like it, but when we are forcing our bodies to stand up and our lips to move, we also must force the mind to pay attention.   When the Lord sees our repeated efforts to pray with attention, He will give feeling to the heart, in due season.

Why are we Orthodox, or why should someone become Orthodox?   There are a number of reasons, of course: It is demonstrably the visible One, True Church; the Orthodox Church has not changed the original teachings of Christ and the Apostles; the Orthodox Church has the most complete, most theologically rich, most beautiful, organically continuous and unadulterated system of Christian public worship; etc.   Another way, however, of looking at it is this: Only in the Orthodox Church can we find both the grace and the correct instruction to enable us to enter into an un-deluded and authentic interior life. The institution of the Church, the dogmas of the Church, the public worship of the Church – God has given us all this to enable us to choose “the one thing needful,” an authentic life lived with God in the inner man, in the soul.

This is the subtlest but strongest argument for Orthodoxy: Orthodoxy enables us to be friends with the Lord, as Adam and Eve were in Paradise.   In order to experience this, however, one has to do Orthodoxy, one has to engage in some kind of interior struggle, or Orthodoxy increasingly will make no sense, until one finally gives up and lapses into a purely nominal identification (the case with most “ethnic” Orthodox) or leaves the Church altogether (the case with fallen away, one-time enthusiastic adult converts), or remains active in Church life in a purely superficial sense, consumed by ecclesiastical politics, social connections among families in the ethnic community, parish social and fundraising events, and intra-parish squabbles. The danger of the last option is that such a person usually imagines that he is actually practicing the Faith and goes to the grave having abandoned the path to salvation without even noticing it.

The reality is that what goes on inside of us is bigger than what goes on outside of us. One human heart in which God dwells by His uncreated energies is larger than the entire physical universe.  Our real life is inside of us. This is where the issues of life, the main battles of life, are fought. Most people, sadly, surrender without firing a shot, because they do not even know where the battlefield is, or that there is a war going on.

God knows better than we what obstacles we face to attain a focused interior state. He knows better than we what an idiotically distracted way of life the “advanced” societies of the 21st century thrust upon their inmates.   He does not demand that we attain a high spiritual state before we die; He does, however, demand that we get on the road to a high spiritual state and keep going, or at least not wander into other paths. He wants us to get on the ladder of divine ascent and stay on it, even if it means climbing with painful slowness or just hanging on to the lowest rung.

Let us, then, renew our resolve to set aside time every day to be alone with our Creator and Redeemer, and to struggle for regularity and attention in prayer.

monk weeping sketch

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Acquiring real faith

22 October OS, 2017 A.D. – Saturday of the Fifth Week of St. Luke; St. Averkios, Equal-to-the-Apostles 

On the fifth Saturday of Luke in 2015, I offered these thoughts on today’s Gospel: 

 The reading from the Holy Gospel today is Luke 7: 1-10.

At that time, Jesus entered into Capernaum. And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear unto him, was sick, and ready to die. And when he heard of Jesus, he sent unto him the elders of the Jews, beseeching him that he would come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they besought him instantly, saying, That he was worthy for whom he should do this: For he loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue. Then Jesus went with them. And when he was now not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying unto him, Lord, trouble not thyself: for I am not worthy that thou shouldest enter under my roof: Wherefore neither thought I myself worthy to come unto thee: but say in a word, and my servant shall be healed.  For I also am a man set under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. When Jesus heard these things, he marvelled at him, and turned him about, and said unto the people that followed him, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And they that were sent, returning to the house, found the servant whole that had been sick.

What prevents us from having the great faith of the centurion? Here is a man who was a pagan, not a member of the Church of the Old or the New Testaments, and he had sufficient faith in the Lord Jesus that he believed that all He had to do was to speak and the servant would be healed. We the baptized, the people of the New Israel the Church, who belong to Christ through being purchased by His own blood, should we not have such complete and lively faith?

One reason we do not have such faith is that we do not ask for it!   Here is Christ, the Giver of all good gifts, waiting to give us spiritual gifts – the gift of prayer, the gift of courage in temptations, the gift of peace in the midst of troubles, and so forth – but usually we confine ourselves to asking Him to give us outward things, or we do not ask for anything at all.

Why do we not ask? This is related to a deeper reason that we lack faith: Secretly or unconsciously we have a mechanistic and deterministic view of the universe, in which things just happen according to impersonal laws or material circumstances, and we are just “stuck.” Our faith is a comforting thought system, not a lived reality.  We are all closet materialists to some degree, not in our stated philosophy of life but in our hearts.

When do people usually come to real faith? The disagreeable truth is that we come to deep, profound faith, real trust in God, when something so terrible happens, or when so many little bad things happen, that our life feels out of control, and we are forced to turn to God as the last resort…or despair.   Sadly, many people today choose despair.   They call it realism, but, as Soren Kierkegaard said, one characteristic of despair is precisely that it does not know that it is despair.

Let us not wait for the “big wake-up call” but rather wake ourselves up, make earnest prostrations, and beg on our knees for absolute Faith in the One Who made us and redeemed us. Let us ask for new eyes to see the universe and this earth and the lives of the people around us and our own lives as being a tiny, ever so manageable, ever so un-frightening world where the Infinite One works His will for our salvation in the blink of an eye prior to taking us into eternity.   Now that is realism.

Glory to Thee, O Lord! Glory to Thee!

God creates the heavens mosaic

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True love for God and neighbor

19 October OS 2017 – Wednesday of the 5th Week of St. Luke; Holy Prophet Joel, Holy Martyr Varus, Holy Righteous Father John of Kronstadt 

On the Wednesday of the 5th Week of St. Luke in 2015, I offered these thoughts on the daily Gospel: 

The reading today from the Holy Gospel is Luke 9:44-50.

Let these sayings sink down into your ears: for the Son of man shall be delivered into the hands of men. But they understood not this saying, and it was hid from them, that they perceived it not: and they feared to ask him of that saying. Then there arose a reasoning among them, which of them should be greatest. And Jesus, perceiving the thought of their heart, took a child, and set him by him, And said unto them, Whosoever shall receive this child in my name receiveth me: and whosoever shall receive me receiveth him that sent me: for he that is least among you all, the same shall be great. And John answered and said, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name; and we forbad him, because he followeth not with us. And Jesus said unto him, Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us.

In commenting on this passage, St. Theophan the Recluse chooses to write about the words, “…whosoever shall receive me receiveth him that sent me…”

…whosoever does not confess the Lord does not honor God, because he does not confess the God Who is the true God. The true God does not exist without the Son, Who is co-eternal and co-unoriginate. Therefore, once you cease to confess the Son, you no longer confess the true God. Only God will discern what your confession is worth; but since God is revealed to us as the true God, apart from this revelation one cannot have the true God.  Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 233

The God Whom Abraham worshipped is the same Holy Trinity Whom Christ revealed and Whom the Church confesses.   There is no other God.

Yet today many “experts,” including supposedly Orthodox bishops and theologians, tell us, “Christians, Jews, and Moslems all worship the same God, the God of Abraham.”  This, however, is not true, and for a Christian to repeat this assertion is an act of apostasy, for by saying this he denies the only true God – not only the God of Christians but of all men and all the universe – the Holy Trinity.

How do people who consider themselves Christians fall into this way of thinking?   When one examines this question, one usually discovers two reasons, an intellectual error and a spiritual problem.

Many (most?) Christians today, including nominally Orthodox Christians, have false assumptions they are not aware of, assumptions they have breathed in with the pestilential air of the times, to borrow an apt expression from the late Fr. Seraphim Rose. These assumptions include the idea that God is just out there somewhere, that no one really knows more about Him than anyone else, and most human beings are basically good people who sort of grope their way to some understanding of God based on their cultural background and do their best to worship Him in whatever way possible.  Everyone needs to do what “works for him,” i.e., what provides psychological comfort and social belonging. Theology is a hobby for priests and professors, and dogmas are really just opinions of one faction or another; all that matters is to be a “good person” who has some kind of religion.

The spiritual problem twinned with this intellectual error is the lack of heartfelt love for Christ and love for the salvation of one’s neighbor.   If someone understands Who Christ is and what He suffered for us, the blasphemy that “all religions lead to God” horrifies him; he cannot remain indifferent. Intellectual indifferentism, then, is the twin of spiritual indifference, the lack of zeal and ultimately the lack of charity. True charity must involve charity towards God, first of all, and how can one love God if one denies that which He has plainly revealed about Himself? True charity towards one’s neighbor, love of neighbor, means, above all, desiring his salvation. But there is no salvation apart from Christ.

The odd thing is that people claim that their indifferentism is a manifestation of love, when in fact it is the opposite: it is a manifestation of the most fundamental indifference to the true good of one’s neighbor. Let us pray for our hearts to be filled with the burning love of Christ Crucified for us, which must be the mark of a true Christian, so that our prayers will be more effectual for the enlightenment and salvation of our neighbor.

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Quiet witness

18 October OS 2017 – Tuesday of the 5th Week of St. Luke; Holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke

On this day in 2015, I penned these thoughts about the daily Gospel reading: 

In today’s Gospel, the Lord calls upon us to confess Him before men:

The Lord said to His disciples: If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it. For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, or be cast away? For whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words, of him shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he shall come in his own glory, and in his Father’s, and of the holy angels. But I tell you of a truth, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the kingdom of God. Luke 9: 23-27

If we desire to follow Christ, we have to take up our cross – daily, as St. Luke records the Lord saying – and follow Him. Part of this daily cross is not to be ashamed of Jesus Christ and His Gospel before other people, which is actually a tall order, because we are very prone to cringing before the opinion of society – we want others to like us, or at least we want to avoid conflict with them.   But if we are to be true Christians, conflict is inevitable, for the world is at war with God.

St. Theophan the Recluse laments over the fact that no one talked about God or salvation in the fashionable Russian society of his day:

Do not be ashamed to confess the Lord Jesus Christ as the Incarnate Son of God, Who redeemed us through His death on the Cross, Who through His Resurrection and Ascension opened for us the entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven. If you are ashamed, then He will be ashamed of you “…when He shall come in His own glory, and in His Father’s, and of the holy angels.” Now it has become fashionable in society not to talk at all about the Lord and about salvation, whereas in the beginning these precious subjects were all that people talked about. One’s talk more readily flows from the place where the heart abides. Can it really be that people’s hearts abide less with the Lord? Judging from the talk, this must be the case. Some do not know Him at all, and others are cold toward Him. Fearing encounters with such people, even those who are warm toward the Lord do not direct conversation toward Him, and the priesthood is silent. These days, discussion about the Lord and Savior and about our main concern – salvation – is excluded from the range of conversation acceptable in society. “What?” you say, “Is that really all we’re supposed to talk about? Why only about that?” It is possible to talk about anything, but it must be done in a way that is underscored by the spirit of Christ. Then it would be possible to guess whether the speaker is a Christian or pagan. Now, however, it is impossible to guess what they are, either by their talk or by their writings. Look through all the periodicals – what don’t they write about? But no one wants to make Christian conversation. Strange times! Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 231-232

In our own experience in American life, of course, we do meet people who want to “talk religion,” but usually their ideas are so inadequate, strange, or even blasphemous that it is painful to talk with them; we feel that we are casting our pearls before swine. What to do?   I think that what is left to us is the constant struggle for prayer, so that we are ready to say a good word in season when the occasion arises.   If we always are abiding in the Lord, then the people in front of us will, as St. Theophan says, be able to discern that we are Christians, and they will respond to us accordingly. It may be that people with a genuine thirsting spirit, with the fear of God, will cross our path, and that we must be ready to respond to them. May God grant!

If in our inevitable run-ins with unbelievers and freethinkers, someone says a blatant untruth about God, about the Christian faith, we simply have to say, “That is not true.” We do not have to engage in argument, but simply confess our faith: “I believe in the Holy Trinity, in Christ, in the Orthodox Faith, and in everything the Church teaches.” If they want you to explain, and you do not feel up to the task, give them your priest’s email address or telephone number.   If they are serious, they will contact him.   When they see that you are serious, they will respect you for sticking to your guns.

The important thing is not to be skilled apologists but to be courageous confessors. This takes few words but much faith, with peace of heart. The world is going its way: let it go!   We must go our way. This thought should give us peace in the midst of the turmoil and spiritual barrenness of contemporary life.

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Orthodox Survival Course, Class 6

Orthodox Survival Course

St. Irene Orthodox Church

Rochester Hills, Michigan


Pre-Class 6 – Corrigenda, a Clarification, and an Amplification

As we go along, when I notice mistakes or lack of clarity in earlier notes or recordings, or something glossed over that I would like to expand on a bit, I will try to correct mistakes and clear things up.

In the Class 2 recording, I mistakenly said that the English historian Christopher Dawson was a “theologian.” He is not, not even in the modern sense. I actually meant to say “historian,” and “theologian” was a slip of the tongue. By the way, Dawson’s work is an excellent example, perhaps the best written in English in modern times, of “meta-history.” But his outlook is Roman Catholic, not Orthodox, and therefore you have to take that into account when reading him.

In the Class 3 recording, I called the quote from St. John Cassian’s Conference of Abba Moses one of the “locus classici.” Well, first of all, it’s either a locus classicus or one of the loci classici, to get the grammar straight. What this term signifies is a place in the literature of a topic where you find a key statement that makes a point or reveals a truth or some information that thereafter defined the consensus understanding of the topic at hand or marks a great turning point of some kind or that is considered permanently authoritative.

Last week I mentioned that the Parthenon became a Christian church for many centuries, but then went on to say the the Church did not use the pagan temples for churches, but rather chose the basilica form. In general, that is true, but there exceptions, and the Parthenon is perhaps the most striking. It is true, however, that the foundations or fragments of pagan temples were often used in new Christian constructions.

One of our quotes last week was from Pitirim Sorokin, who talked about “ideational” art, the category into which he would put all truly sacred art, such as Byzantine art. This category is part of an entire scheme for understanding history and cultures developed by Sorokin, a Russian emigre who founded the sociology department at Harvard University in the 1930’s. I hope to spend more time on his thought later on in our course, as a tool for understanding the course of our civilization in relation to the West’s departure from Orthodoxy.

One thing I want to clarify in advance is our use of Wikipedia sites in tonight’s class. Of course, I do not advocate Wikipedia as an authoritative or complete source by which to study a subject. It was just a handy place to go to start our exploration of photographs of some of the artefacts and buildings I wanted to talk about. Naturally, if you want to learn more, you need to do more research, but you could start with the links provided in the Wikipedia article. For example, the article on Hosios Loukas gives a link to another collection of photos of the art in the church.

Class 6 – The Church of the Romans: Topic 3, Sacred Art – B. Examples

Introduction – Last week we discussed the history and the principles of true Orthodox sacred art. This week, we shall look at examples. Before going on, however, let us briefly review the characteristics of this sacred art.

The Characteristics of Genuine Christian Sacred Art

Recall our first class, on the Early Church, whose character we described as eschatological, otherworldly, martyric, and ascetical. The insights we discussed in our later two classes, regarding the Church’s true spiritual school and true theological method lead us in the same direction, which is to conclude that a genuine sacred art must lead the believer into purification of the senses, cleansing from the passions, and pure prayer in this life, and thus to the Heavenly Kingdom in the next life, which Kingdom he will already have experienced through mysteriological and prayerful communion with God. It is anagogical – Its purpose is not to “celebrate the world,” but to lead the soul upwards to union with God.

This anagogical function necessitates that true sacred art must be hierarchical and hieratic. The forms and images here below are part of a great hierarchy of forms which extend downward from the heavenly archetypes to their earthly representations, as explained by St. Dionysios. This art is hieratic, that is, priestly, in that it has a specific priestly function, which is to offer to the believer the sacred mystery and then transform the believer so that he may offer his heart – himself – as a spiritual sacrifice to the Father Who reigns at the height of this cosmic and super-cosmic hierarchy, He Who sacrificed the Lamb of God before the ages for us.

The techniques of this art, in all of its media, must therefore produce a certain transparency, for its function is not to call attention to itself but to lead up, beyond itself, to that which is truly real. It is also an art that is anonymous, both because the artist is working as a member of a community, not on his own, and because he is performing his work as an act of worship to God, not for personal aggrandizement.

Tonight we will look at good examples of Orthodox sacred art from the first millennium, which exhibit some or all of these characteristics.

The Art of the Early Church – Recall that last week we pointed out that the art of the Church of the first three centuries was very simple and undeveloped, due in some part to the Faith’s frequently illegal status inhibiting the building of churches and the elaborate development of outward forms. Christian art in this period was either purely symbolic (e.g., the fish anagram) or consisted of childlike paintings of Scriptural scenes and images. There are, however, a few instances of Late Antique Christian sculpture.

Let’s start with the Wikipedia article (where else?), which actually has some excellent images of illustrative examples from the catacombs in Rome: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_Christian_art_and_architecture. This article takes us also into the 4th and 5th centuries, and therefore the first great basilicas, illustrated here by St. Sabina in Rome.

The Church of Dura Europos in Syria is a remarkably complete example of the early house-church type. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dura-Europos. Providentially, the frescoes were removed carefully and are now on exhibit at Yale University. The village itself, the site of numerous, extremely valuable architectural sites, was destroyed recently by ISIS.

Early Christian sculpture usually took the form of bas relief, usually executed on sarcophagi. Completely three-dimensional sculpture was very rare. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_Christian_sarcophagi

Art historians, though they agree with church historians that the Early Church period, in most respects, ended with the Peace of the Church at the beginning of the fourth century, consider the period of Early Christian/Late Antique art to extend in places as late as the seventh century, because it took that long for the transition from one form to another to take place. This Late Antique art, though not strictly speaking sacred in character, already has the character of formality and serenity that suited it very well to taking on the characteristics of sacred art we delineate above.

Late Antique Portraiture – The Fayum Portraits

There is one surviving trove of Late Antique portraiture, the famous Fayum mummy portraits from Egypt, which date from the late 1st through the 3rd century. Remember that Egypt had been Hellenized for three centuries, and part of the Roman Empire for one century, before this time. This art is almost certainly representative of Greco-Roman portraiture at this period. The depictions are realistic but, again, formal and serene. There is liveliness and warmth in the depth of the faces, but no violent emotion or any pathological disturbance. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fayum_mummy_portraits

It is easy to see how this school of art lent itself to being transformed by the Church into a school providing the tools for a truly sacred iconography.

The Basilica – Recall that, when choosing a form for its church architecture, the Church chose not the pagan temple but the basilica, a large, rectangular building used originally for public gatherings. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilica . Let’s look at the outline of a basilica as shown in the article, and photographs of Santa Sabina, a basilica in Rome that has retained its original form to a remarkable degree.   

Two Microcosms Illustrating our Subject: Ravenna and Mount Sinai

There are two simply wonderful places that are microcosms of early Christian architecture and art, living “visual aids” to our study of this wonderful subject: The larger is the city of Ravenna, where one finds a large number of sacred buildings from the fifth and sixth centuries. The other is the Monastery of St. Catherine (or more anciently, of the Burning Bush and the Transfiguration) at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Both places offer examples of the basilica form of church architecture, and both contain iconography – mosaics at Mt. Sinai and Ravenna, and three famous panel icons at Mt. Sinai – which illustrate beautifully the transitional period when Late Antique Art became Byzantine art.

Ravenna also offers the earliest great example of the round or octagonal church – San Vitale, which by a few years predates Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. (That is, the earliest great example built from scratch as a church. The Pantheon in Rome is several centuries older but not designed as a church, for originally it was a pagan temple. It is completely round, not a dome set on a cross, as are Hagia Sophia and San Vitale). San Vitale is not nearly the achievement that Hagia Sophia was, but both its architecture and especially its extant mosaics are enormously important in our understanding of early Byzantine art.

One exercise that will help you to see the transition from Late Antique to early Byzantine art is to look carefully at the decoration of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, which dates from the fifth century, and then look carefully at the mosaics from San Vitale and Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, which date from the sixth century, and the great apse mosaic of the Transfiguration at Mt. Sinai, also from the sixth century.



Fully Developed Byzantine Art

There are two extant ensembles of high Byzantine art in Greece, the catholicon of Hosios Loukas monastery in Boetia (10th century), and the church at Daphne near Athens (11th century), which illustrate the full development of Byzantine art after the restoration of the icons following the end of of iconoclasm in 843. Notice that by this time all of the naturalistic elements of Late Antique art have been highly spiritualized, and the elements of hierarchy and hieraticism are developed to the highest degree:



Sacred Art after the Schism

Later we will be looking at Byzantine art in the later middle ages, at the time when the Latins have already separated from the Church, to contrast it to the newfangled style of religious art in the West, which marks a transition from the truly sacred art of the Church in the strict sense to the humanistic art of the Renaissance. 

You can listen to a podcast recording of this class at   



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The saving pain of loving the Truth

13 October OS 2017 – Thursday of the Twentieth Week after Pentecost/4th Week of St. Luke;  Holy Martyrs Carpus and Companions 

In 2015, I penned these thoughts on today’s Gospel: 

 In today’s Gospel, Herod exhibits the vain curiosity of those who want to “talk religion” but do not want to live according to the demands of truth:

At that time: Herod the tetrarch heard of all that was done by him: and he was perplexed, because that it was said of some, that John was risen from the dead; And of some, that Elias had appeared; and of others, that one of the old prophets was risen again. And Herod said, John have I beheaded: but who is this, of whom I hear such things? And he desired to see him. And the apostles, when they were returned, told him all that they had done. And he took them, and went aside privately into a desert place belonging to the city called Bethsaida. And the people, when they knew it, followed him: and he received them, and spake unto them of the kingdom of God, and healed them that had need of healing. – Luke 9: 7-11

St. Theophan the Recluse comments on the mindset of Herod:

Hearing about the works of Christ the Savior, Herod said, “John have I beheaded; but Who is this?” And he desired to see Him. He desired to see Him and sought an opportunity for this, but was not made worthy, because he sought not unto faith and salvation, but out of empty curiosity. Inquisitiveness is the tickling of the mind. Truth is not dear to inquisitiveness, but news is, especially sensational news. That is why it is not satisfied with the truth itself, but seeks something extraordinary in it. When it has contrived something extraordinary, it stops there and attracts other people to it.   Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 227

There is a great difference between the desire for truth and empty curiosity. The desire for truth is a profound longing planted in the soul by God, and it is inseparable from the longing for justice, for the good, for doing God’s will: I seek the truth because knowing truth is a moral imperative, because remaining ignorant of truth is a sin, is displeasing to God, is a socio-pathological state which hurts my neighbor, is a destruction of my soul and my eternal destiny.   Knowing truth is what God made my mind for: it is pleasing to Him and enables me to love Him and love my neighbor as well as to attain my earthly purpose and my eternal happiness.

Pilate’s retort to Truth Incarnate when He stood before him – “What is truth?” (i.e., one cannot know the truth, truth is relative) – excuses the speaker from the task of being human.   Judas knew Who Christ was and betrayed Him. Pilate does not even get around to betraying Christ, because he does not even bother to find out Who He is.   Judas goes out with a bang, Pilate with a whimper – the result is the same.

Today everyone excuses his own and everyone else’s ignorance: no one is going to hell because, well, “He does not know any better.”   Everyone has forgotten that there is such a thing as culpable ignorance, the guilty ignorance chosen by the man who does not care to find the truth, or, having an inkling of the truth, does not want to follow it up.   The same person may be like Herod in today’s reading – he may actually enjoy “talking religion.” This usually entails his pontificating about things he knows very little about, concluding that all truth claims have more or less the same value, and that he has the moral and intellectual high ground because he is a relativist.   A sorry spectacle: A person who has made himself stupid on purpose in order to avoid the pain of intellectual, spiritual, and moral struggle. He prides himself on having a permanently open mind, but the problem with having an always-open mind is like that of having an always-open mouth: unless you close it on something, you will starve.

How can we flee the vain curiosity we see in Herod and attain the love of the truth we see in the saints?   Here are three steps we can take:

Pray earnestly for the love of the truth, for ourselves and others.   We should weep over the indifference to truth we see everywhere, for the vacuity and idiocy of 99% of contemporary thought, speech, and writing.   We need to become interior martyrs for truth, with constant suffering over the darkness of men’s minds.   We should hurt over it. We need to pray for this grace.

We need to stop being information junkies. Remember: information is not truth; it’s just stuff. Today’s information technology has enabled an entire way of life based on distraction, which is fatal to coherent thought, much less accurate rational and intuitive philosophy and theology, and therefore our first step has to lie in radically disciplining our use of the Internet.  Look at it this way: “Alright, my work may require x amount of time on the Internet. Beyond that, I will be on it x amount of time at y time of day.   I will use it to find things I need or talk to people I need to talk to, but I will not live in it.   The real world is the visible world around me and the invisible world of the soul. I will choose to spend my time in the real world whenever possible.”     The Internet is not the real world; at best it simulates the real world, and the accuracy of the simulation is questionable. It is a tool we use, not an alternate universe to move into because we do not like the world we live in.

We need to spend time reading books. I know that this sounds radical, perhaps even subversive, but I highly recommend it. Pick one good book of Orthodox spiritual reading and another good book about something real – serious history or literature or science, etc. – and put in x hours (or minutes…just get started!) reading them.

At one point in their lives, both Herod and Pilate had Truth Incarnate standing before them, and they could not see, because they did not care. Let us care to the point where it hurts and cry out to the Lord to enlighten our darkness.

Christ traditio legis S. Lorenzo 

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