Thursday, April 30, 2009

Two Teachers and a Consolation

Here follows my translation of a word by Bishop Benjamin of Saratov and Balashov (+1955) entitled "Two Teachers and a Consolation in Our Life." It serves as a good antidote to the sort of jejune and ultimately blasphemous "Prosperity Gospel" nonsense one hears far too often:
All of us, beloved brethren, know that the primary commandment our Lord left us is the commandment of love. We can express this love in an Orthodox church by offering prayer for one another. We need to make the sorrows of others our own; we must lighten the burdens of one another’s lives by a living participation in the woe of our neighbor, for in this lies the fulfillment of the commandment of love. The Lord sends us two teachers in our life: sorrow and offences; and He gives a great comforter: the Orthodox Church.

Many people consider themselves good and beautiful on the outside, but if one glances inside a person one can see so many evils and vices that it seems life is not long enough to mourn for this evil nesting in our soul and corroding it. Therefore the Lord sends us sorrows in order to make us better. David said: It is good for me that Thou hast humbled me, that I might learn Thy statutes (Ps 118:71). One needs to bear sorrows in humility and always to address God with them. The Lord hears every person who appeals for help in woe. Therefore one ought only to call upon the Lord, to weep before Him about one’s sorrows; He already knows everything and sooner or letter will send consolation. If the Lord does not answer our supplications quickly this is not because He is not paying attention to us, but simply because He is testing a person to strengthen him in patience.

Offences are our second teacher. Sending them, the Lord as it were tests us in faith and strengthens us in the warfare with evil. He Himself said: Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh (Mt 18:7). We are now surrounded on all sides by offences and must struggle with them. We hear one thing in church, but outside church hear the opposite: in church we hear the preaching of truth, love, and goodness; but outside church, a mockery of all this, we hear words that try to shake our faith. But we must be confirmed in faith, we must preserve it, hoping in God like children, in the simplicity of our hearts. Now the relations of men to women are looked upon easily, instilling frivolity and all but encouraging debauchery. But one should not take an example from such people; one needs to be chaste and to preserve one’s purity strictly, because such people violate the moral laws of life with their frivolity. The Apostle Paul writes about them: whoremongers and adulterers God will judge (Heb 13:4), for there shall no wise enter any thing that defilith into the Kingdom of Heaven (Rev 21:27).

Many are now hardened in their hearts, not recognizing their own sinfulness; their souls are cold and closed to God. Repentance exists for healing this; it revives such a withered soul, refreshing it like a grace-filled rain falling on soil scorched by hot flames. In all our sorrows and offences we must run to our great comforter, the Orthodox Church, in which Divine grace is present, restoring our virtue-deprived souls. The Lord dwells in the Church and consoles His faithful sons, according to the words of the Prophet Moses: as an eagle bears chicks on its wings, so does the Lord in the Orthodox Church care for every person. One needs only to have patience and to hope on His will; one should remember that we are still very weak, and therefore it is impossible for an unbelieving person to become believing immediately; one cannot immediately take away a person’s illness, one cannot perform miracles on him. Let us all hope in God, for the Lord will be for us the reason in our actions, the comforter in our offences and sorrows, and the guide in our life until that other life comes, in which we will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen.
Icon: Detail by Photios Kontoglou (1965), depicting the Lord looking at Peter after his denial (c.f., Lk 22:61).

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Pascha of Incorruption

I am pleased to offer my translation of the following exceptional word by the New Hieromartyr Hilarion (Troitsky), Archbishop of Verey (+1929), best known to Anglophone Orthodox as author of the classic essay Christianity or the Church?:
Listen to the triumphant hymns of the Church! Not on the day of Holy Pascha alone, but on all the great fests you will frequently hear the word “incorruption.” The entire matter of the salvation of the human race is expressed in the Church’s living theology as the gift of incorruption. This means that we lack incorruption. We are in a condition of corruption. The Synaxarion for the Holy and Great Sunday of Pascha is read only in monasteries, of course, and not even in all of them. Here is how the theological significance of the event we celebrate is defined: “It was on this day that He came down from heaven and dwelt in the womb of the Virgin. And now He has snatched the whole of humanity from the vaults of Hell and made it pass upwards to heaven and brought it to its ancient dignity of incorruption.” Two details are significant here: Pascha is placed next to the event of the Nativity of Christ, and incorruption is called the ancient dignity.

Listening to the Church’s hymns, one grows increasingly convinced of what rich treasures of ideas they are, of how important they are for an authentic Orthodox understanding of life. Our school courses on dogmatics, taught from the cathedras of seminaries and academies, stand much lower in relation to that theology that our readers and singers teach the faithful from the church kliros.

A Pascha of incorruption… The return to the ancient dignity… Our school theology speaks of some sort of juridical accounts between God and man. Sin is called primarily a crime against God, an affront to God, for which the righteousness of God must avenge the paltry offender. But the Church calls sin first of all corruption, the loss of the ancient dignity of incorruption. Here there are no juridical accounts with the Lord God. Man fell away from God, and his spiritual and corporal corruption began. Self-rule in the spiritual life led to slavery to sin and the passions. Man began to decay in seductive lusts. The soul rots, the soul decays. This sounds awful, but it is indeed the case. The process of spiritual corruption can be compared to any other kind of rotting. When any organism rots everything in it breaks down, and in time it produces poisonous and malodorous gases. The spiritual nature, damaged and contaminated by sin, will also rot in the same way. The soul loses its chastity [whole-mindedness], its integrity, and decomposes; the will within it weakens, which connects everything, and to which everything is subordinate. Constant passionate thoughts and evil deeds escape from the sinful soul. Anyone who pays close attention to his spiritual life can not but be surprised by how difficult it is to instill any good and beautiful thing in the soul, and how easily and quickly any dark and evil thing is strengthened. Do we not therefore say that something bad is living in our soul; that it is unhealthy, ill? Corruption reigns in our soul, and it is especially evident that our body is subject to corruption. Many can live without being aware of spiritual illness, they can muffle the soul’s inner moaning and cries with the noise of life. But the corruption of the body in death is irrefutable. All the colors of life pale before this corruption. The works of the ascetics about spiritual death can be rejected and perhaps even ridiculed. But try to find a nihilist who would not understand the service of burial and the graveside mourning of St John of Damascus!

Mankind has always seen the inner corruption of its spiritual nature and has always seen firsthand the destruction of the temple of the body. The realization that you are rotting spiritually and the knowledge that your body is the domain of worms – there is the lot of sinful man! Where is the joy here? What hope is there for the future? Sin is bound up with unhappiness and suffering by its very nature. A sinful consciousness and a future painted in somber, cheerless colors. The Sheol of the Jews, the kingdom of shadows in the somber Hades of the Hellenes and Romans – this is a cheerless future.

Salvation is healing. Salvation is freedom from corruption. Salvation is the return to the original goodness of incorruption, for man was created for incorruption. Man’s nature needed to be restored to health. This restoration to health was given in the Incarnation of the Son of God. “We could not have become incorrupt and immortal if the Incorrupt and Immortal One had not done so before us.” The Incorrupt and Immortal One took “my nature, held by corruption and death,” into the unity of His Person. Corrupt nature received the vaccination of incorruption, and the process of the renewal of nature began, the process of the deification of man, the formation of divine-manhood began. The sting of death was blunted. Corruption was defeated, for the antidote against the disease of corruption was given. The Pascha of incorruption brings to mind the mystery of the Incarnation. The gates of death had been impassable. All of earthly creation invariably approached these gates, hiding behind them in trepidation and horror. But now Christ is Risen! What does this mean? It means that salvation has indeed been wrought. For human nature has been united with the Divine nature in the Person of Christ, “inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.” It was not God that passed through the gates of death, it was not before God that “the bridal chamber of eternity was thrown open,” it was not for the sake of God that the stone was rolled away from the door of the grave, but for the sake of the God-Man. Our human nature passed through the mysterious gates of death along with Christ. Death reigns, but not for eternity!

Death was terrible to the human race before the death of Christ, but after Christ’s Resurrection man became terrible to death, for one of us conquered death, did not remain in the grave, and did not see corruption. Pascha was the liberation of Israel from Egypt. Our Pascha is the liberation from the slavery of death and corruption. Christ is Risen! I now know that my salvation has indeed been wrought. I know that God did indeed appear on earth. There have been great men, conquerors of the elements, conquerors of nature, but death equalized all and revealed our common nothingness. Who is this who has passed through the gates of death? He can only be God. This means that God was indeed incarnate on earth, has indeed brought the healing medicine against that which consumes me and the corruption that tortures me. The Incarnation and the Resurrection are combined into one. The Incarnation gives the meaning of the Resurrection, and the Resurrection irrefutably confirms that the Incarnation is truth and reality, and not illusion or dream.

Now death is not frightening to me, for I have seen the victory over corruption. I still see in myself a different law than the law of life, I see the law of death and corruption. I see how sin at times reigns over me. But I know that this is an unstable reign, that my position is not without hope. I can now hope for victory, for overcoming sin; I can hope for liberation from the bondage of corruption. Now I can look joyfully at the fight with sin and the passions that lies before me, for the enemy has already been defeated many times by selfless ascetics. On the heaven of the church shine like light the saints of God, who, living on earth, defeated death, attained purity and chastity [whole-mindedness], that is, incorruption, and therefore, rejoicing, went the way of all the earth. Incorruption, that is, purity and chastity [whole-mindedness], gives joy. Blessedness is not an external reward, as unfortunate mercenary Catholics philosophize. Blessedness is the inner consequence of the virtues. Virtue is the health of the soul, and a healthy man is always happier than a sick one. My sinful illness is curable – of this Christ’s Resurrection convinces me. The blessedness of heaven is open to me. Let no one cry from infirmity, for the common Kingdom has been revealed! A common joy has been revealed, for hope of incorruption has been revealed, of redemption from sinful corruption. Christ God has led us from death to life. Egypt has been left behind, Pharaoh has perished, ahead us are the promised land and the incorrupt Kingdom, where there are many mansions, where there is eternal joy! A Pascha of incorruption! Salvation of the world!

Christ is Risen!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Symposium on Science and Faith

An announcement from the official ROCOR website (I've added the hyperlinks) about an upcoming symposium in Roslindale (near Boston), MA:
On Saturday, May 9, 2009, the Rector and parishioners of Holy Epiphany Parish will hold their first of a series of symposiums on questions concerning science and faith. Three papers will be presented: “An Overview of the Problems of Science and Faith from a Pastoral Perspective,” by Priest Victor Boldewskul (Holy Epiphany Parish); “An Astronomer's Reading of the Bible and Creation Narration” by Professor Alexey Vikhlinin (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics); and “Looking for a Balance Between Faith and Science,” by Dr Vladislav Zarayskiy (PhD, Biology). Dr Sergei Mirkin (Professor, White Family Chair in Biology Tufts University) will chair the discussion. Papers will be in Russian with simultaneous English translation. The symposium will begin at 10:00 am followed by an hour lunch break around 11:30. A discussion of the papers will follow after lunch. The symposium is free of charge and is open to all who are interested. Participants will be responsible for their own lunch. For more information,contact Fr Victor (Frvictor@comcast.net) or Dr Vladislav Zarayskiy (zarayskiy@gmail.com).

Bishop Mefody on Divisions

The following is my translation of a short but very timely word by Bishop Mefody of Campanie (+1974):
How many divisions we have. Divisions in societal, personal, and even ecclesiastical life. Everyone is arguing, everyone is hostile and fighting.

But we are Christians, members of a single body: if any one of us is sick or sins, it affects us all. We need to correct this sick or sinful member of our body through common effort. For this is a member of our body. We should not reject him or cut him off, but correct him jointly, heal him. This applies to the family, to the parish, to the government, and to the Church: one body and many members; one member suffers, and the entire body suffers; one member thrives, and the entire body is free and joyful.

Therefore let us strive, brethren, to take to heart the Apostle Paul's exhortation – not even an exhortation, but a plea: Now I beseech you, brethren, he writes to the Corinthians (I Cor 1:10), by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you: but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgement.

Let us remember above all that we are Christians, servants of God, brothers and sisters in Christ; all these divisions into parties, groups, and jurisdictions do not go beyond this earth and the meaning of life is not in them. The meaning of life is in love of God and neighbor. Lord, teach us to love!

Monday, April 27, 2009

David Bradshaw for Beginners

Those of you who keep up with academic publications relevant to the study of Orthodox theology will certainly have heard of a volume entitled Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom by David Bradshaw, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kentucky. Widely hailed upon its release five years ago, it has since become the standard text on the use of Aristotle in the theological traditions of both East and West specifically, and on the philosophical divergences between Eastern and Western Christendom more generally. I'm guessing that fewer of you have actually obtained and read a copy, either because you were put off by the price of the hardcover edition (there is now a paperback version that is priced a bit more reasonably), or because you were a bit intimidated by the content. I have found the ideal solution for those who know that they should become acquainted with Dr Bradshaw's work but haven't yet read his book. Dr Bradshaw has generously posted six of his papers (as Word documents) on his homepage. The first paper in particular, "The Concept of the Divine Energies," is a something of a summary of the main ideas of his book. The truly lazy (of whom I am the first, of course) can even watch a video of Dr Bradshaw delivering that paper here (part two is here). You can also preview his book on Google Reader. Happy reading!

Illustration: Plato, Seneca, and Aristotle, medieval manuscript.

Radonitsa

Tomorrow, Tuesday of Thomas Week, is known as Radonitsa (roughly translated, the "Day of Joy") in the tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church, a day on which special prayer is offered for the repose of the faithfully departed. Here is how Radonitsa is described in the Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodion and Pentecostarion (a modern compilation):
On this day, the Tuesday of St. Thomas week, according to the order instituted by our Holy Fathers, we call to remembrance, in Paschal joy, all those who have died from the beginning of the ages in faith and in the hope of resurrection and life eternal.

Having previously celebrated the radiant feast of Christ's glorious Resurrection, the faithful commemorate the dead today with the pious intent to share the great joy of this Pascha feast with those who have departed this life in the hope of their own resurrection. This is the same blessed joy with which the dead heard our Lord announce His victory over death when He descended into Hades, thus leading forth by the hand the righteous souls of the Old Covenant into Paradise. This is the same unhoped-for joy the Holy Myrrhbearing Women experienced when discovering the empty tomb and the undisturbed grave clothes. In addition, this is the same bright joy the Holy Apostles encountered in the Upper Room where Christ appeared though the doors were closed. In short, this feast is a kindred joy, to celebrate the luminous Resurrection with our Orthodox forefathers who have fallen asleep.

There is evidence of the commemoration of the dead today in the writings of the Church Fathers. St. John Chrysostom mentions the commemoration of the dead performed on Tuesday of St. Thomas week in his "Homily on the Cemetery and the Cross."

Today, the faithful departed are remembered in Divine Liturgies, "koliva" is prepared and blessed in the churches in memory of those who have fallen asleep, and the Orthodox graves in cemeteries are blessed by the priests and visited by the faithful. On this day alms are given to the poor. Furthermore, it should be noted that due to the great spiritual joy this jubilant commemoration bears, it is called in the Slavonic tongue, "Radonitsa," or Day of Rejoicing.
There is no mention of a special commemoration of the departed on this day in either the Pentecostarion or the Typikon. Radonitsa is a specifically Slavic tradition (albeit with roots in deep antiquity) not observed by other national traditions (it's even a civil holiday in Belarus). It arose most likely because the Typikon specifically forbids the serving of memorial services from Pascha until Thomas Sunday, making Monday the first day on which the reposed may be formally commemorated. While S. V. Bulgakov mentions Radonitsa as having been celebrated on either Monday or Tuesday of Thomas Week, it is now always marked on Tuesday. (This is most likely because Monday is a fasting day in many monasteries, being the day on which the Angelic orders are commemorated weekly, which would prevent monks from partaking of the festive foods blessed). While there is no special commemoration of the departed in the liturgical services, it is cutomary for a general panikhida to be served in church and for litias for the reposed (a sort of abbreivated panikhida) to be served, accompanied by the singing of the Paschal Canon, at cemetaries and gravesites. (You haven't truly experienced the Paschal Canon until you've chanted it in a cemetary.) It is also customary to bless kutia or kolyva as well as some other special foods, to clean and decorate the graves of loved ones, and to give alms in memory of the departed. Radonitsa also begins the marriage season (marriages being forbidden during fasting periods). May the buyer beware!

For more, see S. V. Bulgakov's handy Handbook; a good explanation by Gregory Orloff of both the theological basis of this commemoration, as well as a description of folk customs, can be found here; the relevant Wiki entry is here; this article, while not written specifically for Radonitsa, provides a sort of "how to" for participation in memorial commemorations; for two brief articles on why we pray for the departed at all, see here and here; those who can read Russian will want also to consult this article for practical guidance on how to mark this day. For a sermon on Radonitsa given by Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov), go here.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

An Historical Query

Reading this account of the history of Orthodox Christianity in North America, I came across the following line about St Innocent (Veniaminov):
While in Spanish California, Veniaminov visited the Franciscan missions along the coast, conversing with the Spanish monks in Latin. In a rare gesture of ecumenical goodwill for the time, Veniaminov even built small pipe organs for at least two of the Catholic missions.
This raises the following inevitable question: Was St Innocent the first Orthodox organ donor?

Where Are Those Who Say There is No God?

St Kronid, in his remarkable first-hand account of his long struggle with severe depression and blasphemous thoughts, writes: "My only consolation and joy was, in my free minutes, to open the book of The Lives of the Saints to read about Niphont, the wonder-worker of Cyprus, who suffered similar thoughts for the course of four years." He is here referring to the following incident from the life of St Niphon (the Russians call him Niphont), Bishop of Constantia in Cyprus (commemorated December 23):
The Lord allowed a special affliction to come upon Niphon, so that tried like gold in a furnace, he might be proved worthy of divine grace. The man of God was delivered into the power of Satan, and for four years was out of his mind. Once, while keeping an all-night vigil in his room, the saint heard a sudden, frightful noise, moving from right to left. He was terrified and wondered what it might be. Immediately the devil appeared, raging and roaring and filling the blessed one with such trepidation that his thoughts bebecame utterly confused. Coming to himself a little, Niphon tried to pray and make the sign of the Cross. Seeing this, the devil screeched, "Leave off your entreaties to God, and I will put an end to my attacks!"

Niphon answered, "I will never obey you, unclean spirit. If God has given you permission to destroy me, so be it; I submit gratefully. If not, then know that you will soon be vanguished."

"You are deceived, Niphon," lauged the devil. "There is no God; have you ever seen Him?"

The wicked spirit continued raving like this for some time, but the saint repeated, "You speak like a fool, devil, for the fool hath said in his heart, there is no God." Nonetheless, although he wished to pray, Niphon could not. He could say the words, but could not concentrate on them. As a result, he became downcast and his understanding confused; he was deprived of reason and endured great anguish. Whenever he came to hismelf a little, the demon would appear and whisper, "There is no God!" To this the saint could only reply: "I may fall into fornication, I may commit murder, I am capable of any sin; but I will never renounce my Christ!"

"What are you saying? There is no Christ," the devil would snarl. "I control everything and rule over all. Who told you that there is a God or a Christ?"

"You will not decieve me, ruler of darkness! Depart, enemy of righteousness!" Niphon would shout.

The devil, however, would not go away, but continued to assail him, clouding his intellect and trying to force him to renounce God. During that period, Niphon persisted in his attempts to pray. Thus once, while he was making supplication, his mind filled with doubt as to whether God exists, he looked up and stretched out his hands to the icon of the Saviour, and sighing from the depths of his heart, cried, "O God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me? Grant me firm conviction that Thou art God and that there is none other than Thee, lest I submit to the counsel of the enemy."

With this, the face of Christ on the icon began to shine like the sun, and Niphon could smell a wondrous frangrance. Casting himself to the floor in astonishment, he exclaimed, "Forgive me, O Master, for having doubted Thee! Thou art my God, and henceforth I will believe without question that Thou alone art Lord and Creator of all things." A moment later, while still lying on the floor, he looked again at the icon and witnessed another miracle: the image of the Master moved its eyes and brows as though it were alive. Niphon cried, "Blessed is my God, and blessed is His glorious name, now and unto the ages! Amen." From that day on, the grace of God rested upon Niphon, since he had completed the four years of trial.

The saint's face was ever brigth and joyful, perplexing those who knew him before. "What does this mean?" they would ask. "For years he was gloomy, but now he is always happy." The reason he was constantly cheerful was that he no longer feared the demons; instead, he mocked them, saying, "Where are those say who there is no God?"
May the Lord, through the prayers of Saints Niphon and Kronid, have mercy on us and strengthen us!

St Kronid on Blasphemous Thoughts and Despair

The Holy New Hieromartyr Kronid (in the world Konstantin Petrovich Liubimov) was born in 1859 in the village of Levkievo, Volokolamsk uyezd, Moscow province. In 1915 Archimandrite Kronid was appointed superior of the Trinity-Sergius Lavra, remaining in that position until 1920, when it was closed by the Bolsheviks. (This detail from an icon of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia depicts the expulsion of the monks of the Lavra and the seizure of the sacred relics of St Sergius of Radonezh):


Archimandrite Kronid then lived for seventeen years in Zagorsk (known before and after the Communist period as Sergiev Posad, the town surrounding the Lavra), during which he continued to serve as de facto superior of the monastic brotherhood. Archimandrite Kronid was arrested in November 1937, by which point he had gone blind, and imprisoned in the Taganka prison in Moscow. He was tried with fifteen people, ten of whom were monks of the Lavra. Accused of “counter-revolutionary activities,” eleven were shot and four were sentenced to ten years of hard labor. To the question of how he related to the Soviet power, he replied: “I am by conviction a monarchist, a follower of the True Orthodox Church, and I recognize the existing Soviet power as a believer: it was sent to the people as a test of faith in God’s Providence.” Fr Kronid was sentenced as the “leader of a counter-revolutionary monarchical group of monks and clergy.” He was shot in Butovo and buried in a mass grave.


Archimandrite Kronid was glorified as a saint among the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia by the Moscow Patriarchate in August of 2000.

The following is my translation of a remarkable, inspiring, and courageous first-hand account by St Kronid about his battles with blasphemous thoughts and the despair that came with it:
“One evening while standing in the Church of Sts Zosima and Savvaty during the Vigil,” Archimandrite Kronid related about himself, “terrible, horrible thoughts of disbelief, doubt, and blasphemy suddenly and unexpectedly appeared in my head, like lightening. This happened so quickly and suddenly that they, like lightening, burnt me with hellfire. Then such thoughts poured like a river through my consciousness. I was dumb from fear and horror. Something indescribable and inscrutable, horrible and strange took place in my soul. These thoughts did not leave me after I went from church to my cell. These sufferings were indeed nothing of this earth, but of hell. I was deprived of food and sleep. Then days, weeks, months passed; a year, two, three, four passed, but these hellish thoughts continued to flow involuntarily, continuing to haunt me. I could find not a place of relief from the anguish and sorrow; I, the sinner, in my despair, even asked the Lord for death. This mental warfare was indescribably difficult. Imagine the state of someone in battle, when two worlds are within you: one world is bright, of faith and hope in God and the burning desire for salvation; and the other, a world of darkness, instilling only destructive and blasphemous thoughts and disbelief. This unbearable warfare visited me especially when celebrating the Divine Liturgy. Standing at God’s Altar before the Holy of Holies and pronouncing the prayer for the action of the Holy Spirit to consecrate the Holy Gifts, I was at that very same moment continuing to be overcome mentally by defiled thoughts of disbelief and doubt. Therefore my tears of repentance knew no boundaries. Even Hierodeacon Jonathan, who was concelebrating with me, seeing how bitterly I wept, considered me deranged of mind. He, of course, thought this out of ignorance. He did not know what was happening in the depth of my soul. My only consolation and joy was, in my free minutes, to open the book of The Lives of the Saints to read about Niphont, the wonder-worker of Cyprus, who suffered similar thoughts for the course of four years. Destructive thoughts attacked me with special force on the twelve great Feast Days. My nerves came undone by all this, and thoughts of despair and depression pursuit me everywhere. Losing control of myself, I was forced to hide from myself knives, forks, rope, and all other sorts of objects and weapons that could be used for suicide. I lack the words to describe everything, and the tears of horror and the suffering I endured. There were moments at night when I was unable to gain control of myself and ran out of my cell, went to the cathedral, and ran around it, sobbing, unable to wait the minute when the cathedral would be opened and I could weep out my grief and unbearable hardship at the relics of St Sergius. I now remember the words of an ascetic: ‘Seek out for yourself an Elder and director not so much of holiness, but of experience in the spiritual life.’ I was able to test this advice on myself first of all. When in my great sufferings I turned to one spiritually respected person and told him of my mental grief, he listened and said: ‘What’s wrong with you? Lord be with you, how can you give way to such thoughts?’ I left misunderstood by him, neither alive nor dead from desperate sorrow. I did not sleep all night. In the morning, as soon as I had gotten onto my feet, I went, according to my responsibilities, to painting class, and on the way I came upon the leader of the painting studio, Hieromonk Micah. Seeing me upset, he cried out with astonishment: ‘Father Kronid! What’s wrong with you? You’re unrecognizable! Your face has a special air of suffering, full of sorrows, unwittingly expressing you spiritual suffering. Speak, what’s wrong with you?’ Then I told him of all my inner sorrows and thoughts. He listened with tears in his eyes, with a special feeling of compassion and Christian love, as if he himself were enduring these pains with me. He said: ‘Relax, Father Kronid. This great warfare, this unbearable enemy, happens to many people. We are not the first. Many, very many suffer from it. I myself suffered from this warfare for seven years and reached such a state that once, going to the Dormition Cathedral for Vespers, I could not even stay there due to thoughts of disbelief and blasphemy. Running out of church, I went to the cell of my spiritual father, Hieromonk Avraamy, all the while shaking and unable to speak. The Elder asked me a few times: ‘What’s wrong with you? What’s wrong with you? Tell me.’ After many tears all I could say was: ‘Batiushka, I’m perishing!’ Then the Elder told me: ‘You are not delighting in these thoughts and are not pleased by them, are you? Why are you so intolerably alarmed? Relax! The Lord sees your spiritual martyrdom, and He will help you in all things.’ Then he read the prayer of absolution over me, blessed me, and sent me away with peace, and from that day, with God’s help, they have completely disappeared. They do sometimes appear occasionally, but I pay them no mind, and they disappear, and I calm down quickly.’ Father Micah’s words were like precious balm poured upon my soul, and from that time I have received a significant lessening of this mental warfare.”
As we know from his life, Fr Kronid not only endured this onslaught of what today we might call major depression, but left this life with the crown of martyrdom. May his holy example of patience and longsuffering serve to encourage and strengthen us all!

Holy Hieromartyr Kronid, pray to God for us!

Bishop Benjamin on Thomas Sunday

Here is my translation of a word by Bishop Benjamin of Saratov and Balashov (+1955) for Thomas Sunday entitled "The Power of Christ":
Beloved brethren, today we heard how doubt arose in one of the Apostles about whether Christ was indeed risen. The Apostle Thomas did not believe, he wavered, and the Lord assured him. He appeared when Thomas was together with the Apostles and said to him, taking Him by the hand: Reach hither thy finger, and behold My hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into My side: and be not faithless, but believing (Jn 20:27).

The doubt involuntarily arises in many of us of whether Christ can reveal Himself now in order to comfort us. For no matter how much we weep, no matter how great our sadness, Christ does not reveal Himself to our bodily eyes, and the worm of doubt gnaws at us.

One ought to respond to two questions: is there a power that the Lord God the Comforter can give us; and, if so, how can our hearts receive it? Christ gives us to understand that there is in fact such a power when he says: I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves (Mt 10:16) – and promises that the wolves will not kill His sheep. It is clear that the Lord sends them some sort of particular saving power that protects and comforts them.

To obtain this Divine power we must be sheep of the flock of which Christ is the Shepherd. As rational sheep of His flock, we must be meek and patient, we must have quietness of manner, mildness, and purity of heart, which express repentance and peace with God.

St John Chrysostom says the following about the presence of the power of God among the quiet and meek: “If a person is meek, like a sheep, and wolves fall upon him, they cannot kill him, for he has a particular Shepherd.”

If a person in our times has quietness of manner, meekness, patience, and purity of heart for the sake of Christ, then the Lord will send down upon him this Divine power, and this weak person will overcome great obstacles and pass through great barriers.

John the Theologian speaks in his Book of Revelation about a vision he had. He saw a large book sealed with seven seals, and many wept about who would open it and show them what was written therein. Someone’s voice told him: Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof (Rev 5:5). When John saw three enormous lions, to his question of who would overcome them, he heard an answer: the Lamb, Who had received the power of a lion to overcome (Rev 17:14).

Facts from throughout all of history bear true witness to the existence of the power of God in the meek. For instance, in ancient times Isaac the Patriarch (that is what righteous people were called then) was always meek and patient. As a nomad, he moved from place to place. The pagans hated him and frequently drove him away from wells and pastures. But he remained silent and obediently went to another place with his household and flocks. This occurred many times, and here is how the Lord rewarded Isaac.

Once he planted seeds of wheat on a small piece of land and had such a crop, one hundred times over, that the pagans, as the Holy Scripture says, gnashed their teeth out of envy. Thus the Lord rewarded and blessed Isaac for his meekness.

In the earlier days of Christianity, Patriarch Sophronius of Jerusalem relates the following instance. A certain pious rich man had a son. Before his death he called him to himself and said: “My son, chose which you desire: either take the riches, or I will leave you with only God’s blessing.” The quiet, meek youth did not want the riches, and decided it was better to be left with God’s blessing. The father left his entire estate to the poor and died, leaving his son without any means whatsoever. And the Lord rewarded this meek youth. A certain grandee lived in that city that had a daughter for whom he wished to find a husband. He was tormented by the question of to whom to give her, given that among the rich there are evil and dishonest people. He decided to pray, and said to his wife: “In the morning go to the Church of the All-Merciful Savior, and the first person who enters therein will be the husband of our daughter.” When the wife entered the church in the morning, she saw there a poor youth who was in the habit of praying there. She spoke with him, and he related everything to her. Then she went to her house and gave thanks to God. The grandee arranged the marriage of this youth with his daughter, making him once again rich and fortunate. Thus does the Lord comfort and bless those who have meekness and quietness of manner.

The Lord can comfort us in our difficult and sorrowful life if we apply ourselves on our side.

If we are irritable, we should not say that we will not defeat this passion – but instead we should defeat it. The rain that falls on the earth nourishes only those plants that have the power of life in them; the withered, no matter how much rain falls on them, will remain dry. If we upbraid ourselves for our irritability and pride, then the Lord will help us also.

Let us all work on this, so that the Lord will comfort us unto the ages. Amen.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Bishop Mefody on Thomas Sunday

Here is my translation of a short word by Bishop Mefody of Campanie (+1974) on Thomas Sunday:
Thomas Sunday is a day of reflection about doubts. First of all, one should not be particularly surprised by doubts or be lead by them to spiritual confusion. If doubts tempted the Lord's disciples, if the Apostle Thomas had doubts, then why should it be surprising if they appear to us? Faced with a doubt, one need not accept it like an undoubted, obvious truth. One needs to allow for the possibility of mistakes in one's thought and in one's judgment. It is best, when such tempting thoughts arise about one or another question of faith, when you are unable immediately to agree with that which the Church says about it, it is best then to put off resolving that difficult question for a certain period of time. A year or two will pass, and that which you had doubted, which had seemed unclear and contradictory, will resolve itself.

Where do these doubts come from? Often simply from misunderstanding, from our ignorance; because we try to judge and resolve questions without any schooling whatsoever. This is namely the case with questions of faith. For we would simply laugh at free thinkers in other areas, in medicine or astronomy, for instance. But we often try to interpret questions of faith and theology with great self-assurance without any schooling whatsoever, or after having read a book or two.

Another source of our doubts in faith is our sinfulness, for the Lord said that "the pure in heart shall see God'; we do not have this purity, and it follows that we do not have a clear contemplation of the Lord. Sometimes it can be seen clearly how someone, having descended morally, also departs from the Lord.

It can also happen that evil just whispers bad things to us, and this sometimes happens in the holiest minutes of our spiritual life. In such cases it is best to drive away these bad thoughts, as we would drive away an annoying mosquito, arming ourselves with the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner."

May the Lord grant us simple and pure faith. And may the Lord give us a correct attitude towards doubts.
See also a lecture given in 1987 by Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh: The Church of the Councils: The Onslaught of the Intellect and the Potential of Doubt.

Curing Unbelief with Unbelief

St Gregory the Dialogist writes:
When the doubting disciple touched the wounds in his Master's body, He cured the wounds of our unbelief. Thomas' unbelief was of more advantage to our faith than the faith of the believing disciples, because when he was led back to faith by touching Jesus, our minds were relieved of all doubt and made firm in faith.

Archbishop Averky on the Incredulity of Thomas

I am posting here my thorough revision and correction of a provisional English translation found online of Archbishop Averky's commentary on John 20:24-31, the Gospel reading for Thomas Sunday:

But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the LORD. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into His side, I will not believe. And after eight days again His disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. Then saith He to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold My hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into My side: and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My LORD and my God. Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name (Jn 20:24-31).
The Evangelist John notes that at the Lord’s first appearance to all His disciples, who were gathered together, the Apostle Thomas (called the Twin, or Didymus in Greek) was absent. As is evident from the Gospel, this Apostle’s character was distinctive in its persistence, bordering on stubbornness, which is characteristic of people of a simple but firmly formed viewpoint. Even when the Lord was going to Judea to raise Lazarus, Thomas expressed his conviction that nothing good would come of that journey: "Let us also go, that we may die with Him" (Jn 11:16). When the Lord said to His disciples in His parting discourse: "And where I go you know, and the way you know," Thomas began to contradict here, too: "Lord, we know not whither Thou goest; and how can we know the way?" (Jn 14:5).

The Teacher’s death at the cross therefore produced an especially painful, dispiriting impression on Thomas: it was as if he had stagnated in the conviction that His loss was irretrievable. His spirits were so low that he was not even with the other disciples on the day of the Resurrection: he had evidently decided that there was no purpose in being together, because everything was finished, everything had fallen apart, and now every disciple had to lead, as before, his own individual, independent life. And then, having met the other disciples, he suddenly heard from them: "We have seen the Lord." In full accord with his character, he sharply and definitively refuses to believe their words. Considering the Resurrection of his Teacher to be impossible, he declares that he would believe this only if he not only saw with his own eyes, but also felt with his own hands the nail wounds on the Lord’s hands and feet, as well as His side that had been pierced by a spear. "And thrust my hand into His side" — from these words of Thomas it is evident that the wound inflicted by a soldier on the Lord was very deep.

Eight days after the Lord’s first appearance to the ten Apostles, the Lord once again appeared, with "the doors being shut," evidently in the same house. This time Thomas was with them. Perhaps, under the influence of communication with the other disciples, his obdurate disbelief had begun to leave him, and his soul had slowly become again capable of faith. The Lord appeared to inflame this faith in him. Appearing, as in the first case, perfectly unexpectedly among His disciples and having granted them peace, the Lord turned to Thomas: "Reach hither thy finger, and behold My hands …" The Lord responds to Thomas’s doubts with the very words with which he had conditioned his belief in His Resurrection. It is clear that the Lord’s knowledge of his doubts alone should have amazed Thomas. The Lord added to this: "be not faithless, but believing," that is: you are in a decisive position: there are now only two paths before you — full faith or decisive spiritual hard-heartedness. Although in the Gospel it does not say whether Thomas in fact touched the Lord’s wounds, one can assume that he did. In any case, faith was greatly inflamed within him, and he exclaimed: "My LORD and my God!" By these words Thomas confessed not only his belief in Christ’s Resurrection, but also in His Divinity.

Nonetheless, this faith was based on sensual attestation, and therefore the Lord, for the edification of Thomas, the other Apostles, and all people of all ages, reveals the loftiest path towards faith, praising those that have attained faith not in the sensual way that Thomas had: "Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed." The Lord had previously more than once given priority to faith that is based not on miracles, but on words. The spread of the faith of Christ throughout the world would have been impossible if everyone had demanded the same confirmation of his belief as had Thomas had, or continuous miracles in general. Therefore the Lord praises those who attain faith alone through trust in the testimony by word, through trust in the teaching of Christ. This is the best path to faith.

With this narrative Saint John concludes his Gospel. Chapter twenty-one, which follows, was written by him later, after a certain period of time, as is thought, because of the rumor that he was appointed to live until the Second Coming of Christ. For the moment, Saint John concludes his narrative with the testimony that "many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book" – although Saint John had set himself the goal of supplementing the narratives of the first three Evangelists, he himself recorded not everything, far from it. At the same time, however, it is evident that he feels that what has been written is sufficient "that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name" — and that little which has been written is sufficient for the confirmation of faith in Christ’s Divinity and for salvation through this faith.
Photograph: Vladyka Laurus and Vladyka Averky.

Metropolitan Anthony on Thomas Sunday

Here follows my translation of a brief word given by Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapotvitsky) of Kiev and Galicia (+1936) on Thomas Sunday:
One can say that everyone rejoices when they hear the troparion of the Resurrection. But they sometimes grow bored when it is sung often. This hymn, however, should be endlessly joyful to people: its continual repetition about the victory over death and the devil should be an infinite source of consolation. Therefore if this joy soon passes, it passes because one’s faith is not so living and strong. People find it difficult to believe because their souls do not especially love this victory.

They say: Thomas, who had been previously ready to die for Christ, also did not believe.

No, Thomas asked for assurances not because he did not believe, but because he desired an untroubled faith, for he longed for the resurrection and understood its significance.

Before their entry into Jerusalem, having learned that there would not be any external success but, to the contrary, that the Savior awaited suffering, the disciples thought that the same death awaited them as a reward for following Him. They were overcome by horror and fear, and then Thomas said: Let us go that we might die with Him [Jn 11:16]. Thomas had a loyal heart. How many of them were troubled when they learned that there was not, and would not be, any external success! When He was to them a great miracle worker, healing them and giving them bread, they believed; but when they learned that He was ready to accept and bear the great deed [podvig] of patience and suffering for the sake of their spiritual benefit – then they all ran away, their faith weakened and, if their conscience rebuked them, they easily found an excuse in themselves: we trusted that it had been He [Lk 24:21].

People say: if we had seen Him we would not have denied Him. This is not true: the majority of those who denied Him had seen Him, and they denied Him because they did not love spiritual values, and the victory over the devil spoke but little to their hearts; they desired external success.

Cases of full denial are not many. Normally a remnant of faith remains, and this half-acknowledgment and half-faith is perhaps even worse, and such half-believers are in the majority. If they were to be excluded from so-called believing society we would see that there are but few true worshippers. Church and cross, unity in Christ, unity in the name of the feat [podvig] of love – there is the outline of our relationship towards the Lord. But half-believers do not strive to understand either one or the other – unity or Christ’s love – in the way that Christians understand it.

Half-faith has many degrees, but one thing inevitably follows from all half-belief. Those who deny know both what they have denied and to what to return. But the half-believer does not have any such clarity and grows accustomed to a life guided by sophistries, half-truth, and hints at some sort of supposed truth.
Photograph: Metropolitan Anthony on Mt Athos, 1920.

Thomas Sunday

Tomorrow is the Sunday of Antipascha, also known as Thomas Sunday, on which we commemorate the Holy Apostle Thomas' touching of the Master's side. S. V. Bulgakov writes:
This Sunday commemorates the appearance of the Lord to the Apostles after His resurrection and the touching of His wounds by the Apostle Thomas. The circumstances of these events are sung in all the stikhera and troparia of the canon on Apostle Thomas Sunday and in the stikhera of the other days of this week. The appearance of the risen Lord to the Apostle Thomas and all the eleven is selected for the first Sunday after the Paschal Sunday because the circumstances of this appearance serve as the indisputable proof of the resurrection of the Lord from the tomb, "as from the chamber, with His immaculate flesh". It assures not only believers and the amazed of the joy of all the followers of the Lord, but even the infidel pagans and the enemies of Christ the Savior - the Judeans. It assures that by the power of His Divinity Jesus Christ is risen again from the tomb, that after the resurrection He did not have an imaginary or illusory flesh in which form the bodiless spirits or inhabitants of heaven are vested when they sometimes appear to us or to the holy brethren, but the real immaculate flesh which He has assumed from the womb of the All-holy Theotokos, with which He was nailed to the cross and on which there remained wounds even after the resurrection.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Spiritual Testament of Metropolitan Philaret

CHRIST IS RISEN!

His Eminence, Metropolitan Philaret of Eastern America and New York, was the third First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. He was born Georgii Nikolaevich Voznesnsky on March 22, 1903, in Kursk. Upon seizure of power by the Bolsheviks and the onset of the civil war, the Voznesensky family fled to Harbin, Manchuria. His father, a priest, took monastic vows with the name Dimitry after the repose of his wife and was elected Archbishop of Hailar. The future Metropolitan graduated from the Russian-Chinese Polytechnic Institute in 1927 with a degree in electrical engineering. He then began classes in theology at the Saint Vladimir Institute, from which he graduated in 1931. He was tonsured with the name Philaret and ordained in December of 1931. In 1937 he was elevated to the rank of archimandrite and served in various capacities in the Diocese of Harbin. During this time, when Harbin was under Soviet occupation, he refused to take a Soviet passport. In 1962, at the onset of Chairman Mao’s “Cultural Revolution,” Archimandrite Philaret was permitted to leave Harbin. He traveled at first to the then British Crown Colony of Hong Kong and, after a short time, to Australia. On May 26, 1963, he was consecrated Bishop of Brisbane and vicar to Archbishop Sava of Sydney and Australia. In the following year, 1964, Bishop Philaret, although the most junior of the bishops, was unanimously elected the new First Hierarch. In 1974 Metropolitan Philaret presided over the Third All-Diaspora Council, held in Jordanville, NY. Metropolitan Philaret became an outspoken opponent of ecumenism, issuing a series of three “Sorrowful Epistles” between 1969 and 1975. He reposed on November 21, 1985, and was buried at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY. In 1998 his relics were discovered to be wholly incorrupt.

The following is my translation of his spiritual testament, found in his typewriter after his blessed repose:
Hold that fast which thou hast (Rev 3:11).
These words, taken from the sacred Book of the Apocalypse, have a particular significance in our time, in our greatly sorrowful, evil, temptation-filled days. They remind us of that priceless spiritual wealth that we possess, as children of the Orthodox Church.

Yes, we are rich. This spiritual wealth is that which the Holy Church possesses, and it is offered to all her faithful children. The teaching of the Faith, of our marvelous, salvific Orthodox Faith; the countless living examples of the lives of people who have lived according to the Faith, according to those lofty principles and rules that the Church offers us. Those who have attained that spiritual purity and exaltedness that is called holiness; the beauty and majesty of our Orthodox Divine services and a living participation in them through faith and prayer; the plenitude of the grace-filled spiritual life that is open to each and every one, and, crowning it all, the unity of the children of the Church in that love of which the Savior said: By this shall all men know that ye are My disciples, if ye have love one to another [Jn 13-35].

Bright Friday: The Life-Giving Spring

CHRIST IS RISEN!

Today, Bright Friday, we celebrate the consecration of the Church of the Mother of God of the Life-Giving Spring and the miracles wrought therein. Here is how S. V. Bulgakov describes today's commemoration:
On this day in Matins the stikhera of the full canon in honor the Mother of God composed by Nicephorus Callistus (14 century) in memory of the rededication of the Temple of the Theotokos, named the Life-bearing Spring, are joined to the festal stikhera and troparia of the canon.

According to the Synaxarion, the Life-bearing Spring (in the vicinity of Constantinople) was revealed to the Greek Emperor Leo the First when he was yet a simple warrior (in 450). Once as he was walking about the grove surrounding this spring, Leo met a blind man, exhausted from thirst and weariness, wandering about. Wishing to help the blind man, Leo went to find water and after a long vain search he heard a voice which pointed out the spring to him. With the water of this spring, Leo quenched the thirst and opened the sight to the blind man. Leo, after rising to the Greek throne, constructed a temple on this place in the name of All Holy Theotokos, calling his temple the Life-bearing or Life-receiving Spring. Many of the infirm received wonderful healing from this Life-giving Spring, which the Synaxarion commemorates on the present day.

In the hymns for this day the Life-bearing Spring is glorified as an ever flowing source of grace diversely manifested to the believer after powerful petition to All Holy Theotokos. Remembering in its hymns the wonderful signs of the grace of God revealed during the passage of time at the Life-bearing Spring, the Holy Church at the same time calls for its children to worthily magnify and glorify the Virgin Theotokos.
The relevant Wikipedia article relates the following sad account of the subsequent history of this church:
After he became emperor, Leo built a church dedicated to the Theotokos of the Life-giving Spring over the site where the spring was located.[2] After the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, the church was torn down by the Turks, and the stones used to build a mosque of Sultan Bayezid. Only a small chapel remained at the site of the church. Twenty-five steps led down to the site of the spring surrounded by railing. As a result of the Greek Revolution of 1821, even this little chapel was destroyed and the spring was left buried under the rubble.

In 1833 the reforming Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II gave permission for the Christians to rebuild the church. When the foundations of the original church were discovered during the course of construction, the Sultan issued a second firman permitting not only the reconstruction of the small chapel, but of a large church according to the original dimensions. Construction was completed on December 30, 1834, and the Ecumenical Patriarch, Constantine II consecrated the church on February 2, 1835.

On September 6, 1955, the church was destroyed again by Moslems during a riot. Another small chapel has been rebuilt on the site, but the church has not yet been restored to its former size. The spring still flows to this day and is considered by the faithful to have wonderworking properties.
For more on today's commemoration, see here and here. See also the service in Greek and Slavonic. Of related interest is Fr Ephrem's short paper explaining why the Greek word zoopoios should be translated as "life-giving" rather than "life-creating."

Please note that I am having trouble with my internet connection. This may result in an interruption in posting until the problem is resolved.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Bright Thursday: Rejoice in the Lord Always

CHRIST IS RISEN!

Here is my translation of a brief Paschal homily given by the much-missed Bishop Mitrophan of Boston (+2002):
Christ is Risen!

What a heavenly, luminous joy does the sound of these two words convey to every Christian soul, immortal by nature. This eternal, inexhaustible, universal joy began when the Risen Lord appeared to the Myrrbearers on the first day with the word: “Rejoice!” They ran to the Apostles with the joyful tiding: “Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!” and the Conqueror of death revealed Himself to the Apostle Peter. The tiding of Christ’s Resurrection has become the foundation of faith and the inexhaustible source of joy ever since, not only for the Apostles, but for every faithful person. For the sake of Christ’s Resurrection have not only the Apostles, but all the faithful of all times, and in our own days, forgotten and do forget their personal lives, everything earthly, and followed Him to any suffering, even to death on the cross. This is because the Resurrection of Christ is an Historical Fact.

Pascha! This Feast of feasts calls us from slavery to sin to freedom and eternal life! This is a joyful Feast, invigorating our soul, calling all to Divine joy and to rejoicing. Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice, the Apostle cries out to us. The essence of our Paschal joy is that we “celebrate the death of death, the beginning of another life eternal.”

We are all, dear brothers and sisters, Christians. Christianity is a religion of joy. Pascha is not a remembrance, it is not a dream. Pascha is reality! It was always Pascha for St Seraphim of Sarov. “My joy, Christ is Risen!” – this is how the saint greeted everyone who approached him, both in spring and summer, both in fall and winter. Why? Because he lived in Paschal joy, he firmly believed in God’s presence in the world and in the reality of the other world. Other saints, too, never tired of repeating the words of the Apostle – “rejoice always.” When they were asked how this joy could be acquired, they answered: this joy comes from a pure heart and unceasing prayer.

In the weeks preparatory to Holy Pascha, the weeks of the Great Fast, the Lord, overlooking our shortcomings in His love and mercy, called us to Himself. We, “with fear of God and faith drawing near,” “tasted the source of immortality,” and sang with great joy on the Paschal night: “a Pascha of the faithful, a Pascha that hath opened the gates of Paradise to us.” The gates are open. May every one of us enter. In order to enter, everyone needs to continue to work on themselves, for Eternal Joy, the plentitude of which is expressed in Christ’s Resurrection, is accessible to us as a result of our confirmation in Christ. How? Through unceasing spiritual vigilance and the conquering of fleshly wisdom. Amen.

Christ is Risen!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day

CHRIST IS RISEN!

Today is Earth Day, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. While I hesitate to appear churlish or to hinder anyone from reflecting on our very real duties towards creation, I would submit that Orthodox Christians have very good reason to be wary of what Earth Day represents.

It should come as no surprise that Earth Day is a product of the 1960s, having been formally established in 1970 largely through the efforts of Gaylord Nelson, Democrat Senator from Wisconsin. The ideological context in which he conceived of Earth Day is chilling: he was deeply influenced by the movement towards zero population growth, which, needless to say, placed so-called "reproductive rights" at the center of its agenda. (The organization that called itself "Zero Population Growth," founded in 1968, has since changed its name to the less threatening sounding "Population Connection" – which sounds to me rather like a PBS show for children.) It was this same Senator Nelson that called for hearings on the safety of combined oral contraceptive pills, hearings that have gone down into history as the Nelson Pill Hearings. (As an ironic side note, Senator Nelson and others were also deeply concerned about the effects of global cooling.) The word eugenics springs involuntarily to mind. How evil the irony that the promotion of Earth's health was thought to depend upon putting an end to the growth of humanity.

Then there is the inevitable connection between modern environmentalism and neo-paganism. The Earth becomes, not a gift of God's creation, but a sacred, self-subsisting, and life-giving entity in and of itself. Western civilization in general, and Christianity in particular, are more often than not assigned blame for environmental pollution. Environmentalism becomes a substitute religion (and a highly dogmatic one at that), with its own feast days. Here is how Margaret Mead – that influential but utterly fraudulent anthropologist – spoke of Earth Day in 1978 (emphasis mine):
EARTH DAY is the first holy day which transcends all national borders, yet preserves all geographical integrities, spans mountains and oceans and time belts, and yet brings people all over the world into one resonating accord, is devoted to the preservation of the harmony in nature and yet draws upon the triumphs of technology, the measurement of time, and instantaneous communication through space.

EARTH DAY draws on astronomical phenomena in a new way – which is also the most ancient way – using the vernal Equinox, the time when the Sun crosses the equator making night and day of equal length in all parts of the Earth. To this point in the annual calendar, EARTH DAY attaches no local or divisive set of symbols, no statement of the truth or superiority of one way of life over another. But the selection of the March Equinox makes planetary observance of a shared event possible, and a flag which shows the Earth as seen from space appropriate.
This is a very good reminder, incidentally, that paganism and religious and moral relativism are close cousins. Although, really, her words are disingenuous: environmentalism really is all about "the superiority of one way of life over another." It's also worth noting that – coincidence or no coincidence – Earth Day is marked annually on Lenin's birthday. I hope these few points should be sufficient to give pause for thought.

None of which is to deny that we really have done horrible things to the environment or to imply that we are not called to stewardship of creation. It strikes me as tragic that the environmental movement is almost wholly a creature of the political Left. It's quite understandable – but, I think, deeply misguided – that many conservatives would adopt a largely reactionary stance to environmental issues, denying the reality of the environmental travesty that surrounds us while applauding all the sprawl that comes with the unrestrained free market.

We Orthodox do, in fact, have an alternative to Earth Day. In 1989 the Day of Prayer for Creation was established by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and accepted by other local Orthodox Churches. Notice the words prayer and creation. It is celebrated on September 1, the first day of the liturgical year. In fact, Monk Gerasimos (+1991) of the Skete of St Anne on Mt Athos, official hymnographer of the Great Church, composed an Office for the Preservation of Creation (the Vespers from which can be read in English, translated by Fr Ephrem (Lash), here.) There is very much that could be said here, but I think it sufficient to cite one small passage from the words of the Elder Paisios of Mt Athos:
This grass is an icon; this stone is an icon; and I can kiss it, venerate it, because it is filled with God's grace.

The world is not for us to take things from, but a place where we cast off our passions and desires.
There is no doubt that we need to assist in reversing the profound violence we have done to God's creation. But our premises should be above all theological or, more specifically, Eucharistic – and not neo-pagan, relativistic, or anti-Christian. The question of how exactly this would look in terms of policy is one that I leave to others. For more, see especially Dr Elizabeth Theokritoff, "The Orthodox Church and the Environmental Movement," and Metropolitan Kallistos' essay "Through Creation to the Creator," and a large collection of similar resources here.

UPDATE: See the excellent follow-up posts at Orrologion and Logismoi.

Bright Wednesday: On the Spiritual Life

CHRIST IS RISEN!

What follows is my translation of a word for Bright Week by Bishop Mefody of Campanie (+1974):
The Great Fast reveals our sores.

There are personal sores and the sores of many. Among them one notices impoverishment of faith, spiritual dryness, insipidity. This is a serious and dangerous condition in our spiritual lives. Its cause is, to a large degree, our own carelessness.

Imagine a garden deprived of sunlight, that is not watered or cared for. You know that nothing will grow in it, that it will wither and die.

Imagine someone who refuses food: he will fall ill of exhaustion and die.

The same thing happens with our spiritual condition. We do not nourish ourselves spiritually: we do not pray, or we pray poorly; we either read the Gospel poorly, or we do not read it at all; we go to church rarely; we do not read spiritual books and do not attend spiritual talks. In a word, we do not nourish ourselves spiritually. Therefore we become spiritually depleted, grow weak, and die.

Now that Great Lent has given us spiritual encouragement, we need to try not to lose this, we need to work at least a little bit for our own spiritual nourishment. If we could only accustom ourselves to praying daily, just as we eat daily; if we could only accustom ourselves to read at least a few verses of Holy Scripture daily, just as we read the paper daily. If only we could not be lazy in going to church, and contemplate the spiritual life at least a little bit, striving to implement it. Then there would probably be less spiritual dryness and emptiness.

Another circumstance in our spiritual lives, apart from spiritual nourishment, is sin. Sin is a murk that separates us from the Lord, darkening our spiritual life. Moreover, sin is the root of the evil we cast into the world. This evil often bears horrible fruit even in our personal lives. Sin sometimes appears attractive, almost like a good. In such cases we especially need to be guided by the clear indications of the Word of God and the instructions of our spiritual fathers.

A serious attitude towards life demands of us a more serious and responsible attitude towards our personal spiritual lives.

Having been found worthy of meeting the joyful Feast of Pascha, let us not shy away from our responsibility for our own personal spiritual lives. And may the words “thou shalt not,” according to God’s commandments, protect us from sin.

Only then will there be less spiritual darkness and all personal and general evil.