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No Shortcuts

I went to school in Boston, and like the rest of New England, drivers find that the road they are on does not go to where they want. Often times directions start with “You know, you can’t get there from here” because first you have to go somewhere else seemingly unrelated.

Today in Liturgy, I found myself feeling embarrassed during the Great Censing. First the deacon censes the altar, then the royal doors, followed by the icons, and then censes the people. The deacon senses the people assembled because we all are made in the image of God. Moreover, we are the small “s” saints of the Church. Yet today, I got to thinking about the big “S” Saints displayed in the iconography. They ran the race with endurance and a great many of them were perfected in martyrdom. Who am I that I should be accounted among them?

“Perfected in martyrdom” is a foreign concept to most non-Orthodox. Personally, I find myself desiring a foreign nature of martyrdom because, let’s face it, martyrdom is a high bar! Surely one would expect an easier way than martyrdom and other assorted trials of the saints.

Yet, in addition to the truth that we are created in the image of God, we are also created according to His likeness. Ever since the first days of man, we have been called to assume the likeness of God. This process requires time and obedience to the command to “Subdue the Earth.” But not long after the first issuance of that command, Satan offered a different strategy to Eve: if you eat of the fruit of this tree, then you will become like God. Granted, I am certainly not a Hebrew scholar, but I think the limitations of the English translation serve me well here. Satan offered Eve an easier way to assume God’s likeness. And she, like so many of us, took the easy way out. Satan offered Eve a shortcut.

If you are driving around in a city like Boston, trying to take a shortcut only leads you into utter geographical confusion. Similarly, we have ample testimony that taking a shortcut spiritually only undercuts God’s plans. Avoiding shortcuts is a skill that can only be perfected within persistence. May we all stand firm in Christ until He comes.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Finding the Way

Sometimes, I feel convinced that there has to be an easier way to God than the way prescribed by the Orthodox Church. Prayer, fasting, standing for long services, maintaining my struggle against the passions…these all require endurance. Within my moments of weakness, I find myself wondering, “You know, do I really have to go this way or is God big enough, good enough, graceful enough to understand that I would really rather have some things in my life that I know go against the teachings of the Church?”

To be sure, my struggle against the passions will only intensify as I continue to grow in Christ. After all, I think it’s fair to say that theosis means casting off my nature for His nature. I am not perfect, and it’s strange to think that the goal of my life is to become increasingly aware of my sinfulness so I can become even more aware of my forgiveness. Paradoxically, it is as we see the Saints enter this space, the testimony of their contemporaries bears witness to the Saint’s holiness. The witness of Holy Tradition startles me. Why when someone grows closer to Christ, do they become increasingly aware of their sinfulness as opposed to power of God present in their life? Moreover, why do I long to see the power of God present in my own life?

I recently encountered a quote from Abba Ischyrion that declares that at the Christians of the last times will “not be able to do any spiritual exploits, but those who keep the faith will be glorified in heaven more than our Fathers who raised the dead.” Far be it from me to challenge a desert father, but I wonder how Orthodox Christians today have assumed that we are the Christians of the last times. Is not part of keeping the faith believing that God will work through us? Does not the fervent prayer of a righteous person avail much? Do we not have a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us? Is not Christ present in every hour of every day? Do we expect little of God because we hope He expects little of us?

And there, in the last question, is the question I need to be asking myself. The expectations of God challenge every fiber in our being. Graciously He establishes His Church to help guide us into every good and perfect gift. The ascetic struggle demands everything that we have, everything than we are, and then still more that can only come from the power of God working within us. As Christ declares, He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Let us remember that Christ invites us along this one path that invites us to find ourselves in Him.

O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. +

So often, when people think of Liturgy, free-association leads them to repetition, meaninglessness, disengagement, and similar words with negative connotations. All of these words come into play when one considers the liturgical prayers of the Hours. Yet how do we benefit from praying liturgically?

To begin, I think it needs to be said that the liturgical prayers are the prayers of the Church. When we join in the prayer schedule of the Church, even on our own time and at our own prayer altars, we enter the same mystical realm that knows neither time nor space. For reasons completely outside of my scope of human reason, we enter into Christ Himself even though we are sinful and unworthy.

Another benefit to the Hours is that it establishes a set rhythm. Our bodies like rhythms. Maintenance of steady eating and sleeping schedules compromises an integral part of our physical health. Analogously, prayer schedules maintain our spiritual and emotional health. Consider that some of the Hours match a meal: Matins-Breakfast, Sext-Lunch, and Vespers-Dinner. Many dietitians recommend eating 5 small meals a day for weight loss; again the Hours help us with Third Hour at 0900 and Ninth Hour at 300p. Similarly, the Hours connect to our natural sleep schedule with First Hour upon rising and Compline before retiring to bed. Even for those of us who struggle with a sleep schedule because of night wakefulness can find solace in the Hours with the Midnight Service.

The Hours offer spiritual discipline that lets us interrupt our day. In some ways, the rise of an hour comes inauspiciously as the clock ticks forward. Other hours come in a more anticipated fashion. However, if we practice the prayers of the Hours, we find a great gift to connect with Christ at key times. Consider the American discipline of 600p News. Several people I know watch the news at 500p, 600p and again at 1000p. If we take 3 hours of the day connecting with the world, does it seem unrealistic that we should spend some time connecting with God? Moreover, do we really need these three points of contact, or could we substitute an office like Vespers or Compline? I know I am always tempted to read my newspaper first thing in the morning, but what benefits may be present if I interrupt my own schedule with prayer? On a last spiritual discipline note, the Hours also have practical guidance as a method of tithing one’s time.

This all is not to say that my private prayer rule is unimportant. However, I have found that praying the prayers of the Church while I go through my own dry seasons of knowing what to pray about with God helps me stay connected to my prayer life.

O Christ our God, who at all times and in every hour, in heaven and on earth, art worshipped and glorified; who art long-suffering, merciful and compassionate; who lovest the just and showest mercy upon the sinner; who callest all to salvation through the promise of blessings to come; O Lord, in this hour receive our supplications, and direct our lives according to thy commandments. Sanctify our souls, hallow our bodies, correct our thoughts, cleanse our minds; deliver us from all tribulation, evil and distress. Encompass us with thy holy Angels, that guided and guarded by them, we may attain to the unity of the faith and to the knowledge of thine unapproachable glory, for thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.

Stands a person.

I was listening to a talk today by Frederica Mathewes-Green entitled “Standing Together” that was on Ancient Faith Radio. It really made me think.

As an undergraduate, I endured some classes where 30 years ago, a professor may have opened a class with the words “Look to your left, look to your right… When you finish this class, only one of you will remain. Decide now who it’s going to be.” Today, the idea strikes me as absolutely without conscience because it presents a very distorted view of our role in community.

For one thing, it establishes an adversarial relationship among presumed equals. Instead of trying to grow with my fellow students, it becomes my job to identify ways where they cannot hack it. On another point, it limits my focus to myself. I must be the one to survive independent of what happens to others. Whatever it takes to do, I will do it. And as my final point, it changes the reasons we strive for excellence. We strive for excellence so that we survive, not as a means of helping another.

Within the Church we find a different prescription. We do everything we can to encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ. As such, we look to each other for examples. To those God has entrusted with a particular gift, we must be an example within that gifting. We cannot look to anything other than God when we decide what is acceptable. When we fall short of the glory of God (and we will), we plead that God will convict us and lead us to repentance. We cry out in the middle of the night asking God to remove our iniquities so that we may be whole. We never declare that we are done with our struggle against the passions. To do this successfully, we must be with a community committed to the same struggle. As an individual person, I must be fully committed to my struggle using the Mysteries of the Church to empower me on that path.

To be the Church

And I think that it’s fair to call this post a “Part 1” even though I have no idea how many parts there will be.

Within the walls of our local parishes we find a mystical realm. This realm connects us to all who have gone before, are going now, and will come in the future. Simply put, we gather as disciples of Christ, united in the universality of the Eucharist. Our icons remind us of those who have gone before, standing now to encourage us in our efforts.

As it is written, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” We must remember this cloud. We must remember the faithful men and women who have preceded us in the faith. We must realize that they come from every corner of the Earth. We must realize that as much as our community is local, it is truly global, compromised of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation.

In thinking about the gifts of the Church, I keep coming back to the Sign of the Cross. How can one gesture say so much?

When I make the Sign of the Cross, what does my hand say?

To begin, my first three fingers come together, joined at the tips: God is 3 in 1. My 4th and 5th fingers rest together on my palm: Christ in His two natures, God and Man, has come to earth. My hand rises to allow the Trinity to touch my head. Yes, God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and He cares for me. He calls me out because He created me in His image. Next my hand traces my mid-line, coming to rest well below my heart. I can make this part of the gesture as big as I want to. There is a constant struggle to offer myself fully to God, yet He makes Himself known in my full person. He cares for my heart and my soul. Moreover, Jesus Christ comes down to Earth in the Mystery of the Incarnation, humbling Himself to be born of a handmaiden. Tracing up to my right shoulder and my left, the Sign of the Cross is complete. In many ways, we say a number of prayers simultaneously:

  • Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
  • Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
  • By the power of Your Cross o Christ, enable me to love the Lord my God with all of my heart, mind, soul and strength.

In no way is the list above to be taken as exhaustive. I absolutely cherish the gifts of this seemingly simple gesture.

Lord I have fled unto thee teach me to do thy will for thou art my God. Taken from the Great Doxology of Matins

The Two Questions

Occasionally, we see things clearly. We can identify the source of our own strains of thought. These identifications can be useful because they empower us to shift our worldview, however microscopically.

Previously, my Christian life depended largely on advancing my understanding of the Bible. The Bible, I thought, had all of the answers. I hoped that in asking it the right questions, its secrets would be revealed. In addition to reading the Scriptures, I read book after book and listened to sermon after sermon. Each sermon, it seemed, boiled down the Scriptures into various things I could do to manifest the truths of the Bible more fully in my life. Such an experience definitely challenged the way that I live in and think about the world around me. I am most grateful.

That being said, I see that approach of being a bit myopic because it seems to imply that the entirety of God is contained within a book. In focusing exclusively on how to apply these truths within my life by seeking to do the right things, I engaged in a fabulous exercise in missing the point. By looking outwardly, I missed the realm of inner transformation. I certainly pursued inner transformation, but I found myself always advancing an agenda that distanced me from God because I thought I had to do the work myself.

It seems that there is a dance that happens between humanness and the divine. When we understand ourselves, we understand God. When we understand God, we understand ourselves. The fact that we are not God creates a gap between humanness and the divine. Moreover, the only place that humanness fully connects with the divine is found in the God-man Jesus Christ. So then the questions become: Who is God? and Who am I?

The interesting thing about answering the first question–who is God–is that it has no direct answer. Even when we consider the essence of God, we come up short in our understanding. To say God is Love means that we must simultaneously recognize that love goes beyond our every comprehension of love. Our understanding and practice of love is but a pale shadow of the Love of God.

Similarly, the second question–who am I–retains its nature of flux. I am not the same person I was 10 years ago. I’ve morphed and changed. God willing, these changes have increased my ability to reflect Christ.

Therein, the two questions give foundation of the journey of faith. Every other question seems to stem from these two.