Saturday, April 26, 2014

Elder Paisios the Athnoite-The Letter of the Law

A humbling reminder

I once asked someone: "what type of warrior do you consider yourself to be? Christ's warrior or temptation's warrior? Are you aware that the evil of temptation also has its own warriors?"

A Christian must not be fanatic; he must have love for and be sensitive towards all people. Those who inconsiderately toss out comments, even if they are true, can cause harm.

I once met a theologian who was extremely pious, but who had the habit of speaking to the people around him in a very blunt manner; his method penetrated so deeply that it shook them very severely. He told me once: "during a gathering, I said such and such a thing to a lady." But the way he said it, crushed her. "Look", I said to him, "you may be tossing golden crowns studded with diamonds to other people, but the way that you throw them can smash heads, not only the sensitive ones, but the sound ones also."

Let's not stone our fellow-man in a so-called "Christian manner." the person who-in the presence of others-checks someone for having sinned (or speaks in an impassioned manner about a certain person), is not moved bu the Spirit of God; he is moved by another spirit.

The way of the Church is LOVE: it differs from the way of the legalists. The Church sees everything with tolerance and seeks to help each person, whatever he may have done, however sinful he may be. I have observed a peculiar kind of logic in certain pious people. Their piety is a good thing, and their predisposition for good is also a good thing; however, a certain spiritual discernment and amplitude is required so that their piety is not accompanied by narrow-mindedness or strong-headedness. Someone who is truly in a spiritual state must possess and exemplify spiritual discernment; otherwise he will forever remain attached to the "letter of the law", and the letter of the law can be quite deadly.

A truly humble person never behaves like a teacher, he will listen, and, whenever his opinion is requested, he responds humbly. In other words, he replies like a student. He who believes that he is capable of correcting others is filled with egotism.

A person that begins to do something with a good intention and eventually reaches an extreme point, lacks true discernment. His actions exemplify a latent type of egotism that is hidden beneath this behavior; he is unaware of it, because he does not know himself that well, which is why he goes to extremes.

Quite often, people begin with god intentions, but look where they may find themselves! This was the case with the "icon-worshippers" and the "iconoclasts" of the past: both cases were extremes! The former had reached the point of scraping off icons of Christ and placing the scrapings into the Holy Chalice in order to "improve" Holy Communion; the latter, on the other hand, burnt and totally discarded all icons. That is why the church was obliged to place the icons in higher places, out of reach, and, when the dispute was over, lowered them so that we can venerate them and thus confer the appropriate honor to the persons portrayed therein..."

+Elder Paisios The Athnoite: The Letter of the Law    

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Pascha: A Feast of Theology

The following is a reflection written by Fr. John Behr, Dean of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York. The original post can be found here. Fr. John teaches patristics at the seminary and his doctoral work focused on the issues of anthropology and asceticism in St. Irenaeus of Lyons and St. Clement of Alexandria. He has many other publications and his entire CV can be found here. His latest publication with SVS press is a book entitled Becoming Human in which Fr. John explores the various dimensions and implications of the astounding fact that Christ shows us what it is to be God by the way he dies as a human being and, in so doing, simultaneously shows us what it is to be a human being. A highly recommended read to all!


As we approach Pascha, the Feast of Feasts, it is fitting that we consider once again the nature of the banquet to which we are invited.  As we will sing at Matins on Holy Thursday, we are called to ascend, with our minds on high, to enjoy the Master’s hospitality, the banquet of immortality in the upper chamber, receiving the words of the Word.  The nourishment that we are offered is a feast of theology; the food that we will feast on is the body and blood of the Word, the one who opens the Scriptures to show how they all speak of him and provide the means for entering into communion with him.

Our chapel here at St Vladimir’s Seminary is dedicated to Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom.  Although they each have a particular day of celebration, our patronal feast celebrates them together, as the Three Great Hierarchs.  The hymnography for the feast celebrates first of all their words, their words of theology, how they spoke about God.  The feast was conceived in the eleventh century as a feast of oratory: it was a celebration of those who found the words adequate to express the Word of God.  Such theology is a sacred art – the Byzantines even called it a mysterion, a sacrament – and it is charged with divinity.  It embraces and elevates the words of men to convey Jesus Christ, the Word of God.

The Church celebrates the Three Hierarchs as great examples of those who took on this work.  Having studied at Athens and other intellectual centers of the ancient world, they used all their God-given intellectual powers for the celebration of this divine task.  If we too wish be disciples, or, more accurately, “students” of Christ, we must take on this task of theology, learning Christ and being renewed in our minds.  And there are two very important aspects of this that we always need to bear in mind.

First, that theology is not an abstract discipline or specialized profession.  It is not speculation about God himself, separated from his own revelation or what his revelation says about us.  It is not taking all the things that humans might think of as divine – omnipotence, omniscience, immortality – and then projecting them into the heavens.  This approach creates nothing better than a “super-human”, with divine attributes, perhaps, but nothing more than the best we can humanly conceive.  Rather, theology begins and ends with the contemplation of the revelation of God, as he has shown himself to be.  Anything else is not theology at all, but fantasy.  We do theology when we contemplate God’s own revelation: God, whose strength and wisdom is shown in the weakness and the folly of the cross.  Christ himself, the Word of God, demonstrates his strength and power in this all-too-human way, by dying a shameful death on the cross, in humility and servitude – trampling down death by death – showing that true lordship is service.  This one is the image of the invisible God: in Christ the fullness of divinity dwells bodily – the whole fullness, such that divinity is found nowhere else and known by no other means.

All of us, therefore, all of the people of God, must focus on the transforming power of God revealed in Christ by the power of the Spirit.  As the Great Hierarchs affirmed, we cannot know what God is in himself, but we know how he acts.  We are invited to come to a proper appreciation of the work of God in Christ by the Spirit.  We are called to understand that Jesus Christ is indeed the Word of God, whom, by the same Spirit, we must convey in our words.  To recognize him as the Word of God is not a matter of human perception, but to find the words to convey him certainly demands the application of our minds.  It requires that we raise our minds to a properly theological level, that we may be transformed by the renewal of our minds.  As Great Lent prepares us for the Feast of Feasts, so also honing our mental skills should prepare us for the feast of theology.

The second point to remember is that the theology that we celebrate is a pastoral theology.  The hymns for the Great Hierarchs proclaim that the pastoral power of their theology has overthrown the illusory words of the orators, of those who play with words, speaking on a merely human level.  Their theology is pastoral, in that it shepherds us into true life.  It invites us to understand ourselves, and the whole of creation, in the light of God revealed in Christ by the Holy Spirit.  This is not simply a matter of asking “What Would Jesus Do?”  Nor is it simply a matter of being “pastoral,” as we often hear that word used today, in the sense of ministering to others on their own terms, enabling them to feel comfortable with themselves.  Rather, it is the challenge to transfigure our own lives by allowing God’s own transforming power to be at work within us.
This means that we must confront our own brokenness and weakness, for this is how God has shown his own strength: it is only in our weakness that God’s strength is made perfect.  And we will only have the strength to do this, we can do this only if we begin with God’s own revelation, if we begin with the theology taught to us by the Great Hierarchs.  We have to abandon what we humanly think divinity is, and to let God show us who and what he is.  We must begin, therefore, with the God who confronts us on the cross, who shows his love for us in this:  the love that he embodies.  Reflect on this: that when we are confronted with divine love in action, it is in the crucified Christ.  This reality reveals two things: how alienated we are from the call that brought us into existence, yet, at the same time, how much we are loved and forgiven.  In the light of Christ, we can begin both to understand our brokenness, our emptiness without him, and also to be filled with his love.  Theology shows us that the truth about God and the truth about ourselves always go together.

So, as we approach the Feast of Feasts, let us prepare ourselves to receive this revelation of God on his own terms.  Let us prepare ourselves for the challenge that his revelation presents, so that the Resurrection will transform us and renew our minds and we will find the words appropriate to offer the Word to others.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Matushka Juliana Schmemann on Mission

Fr. Alexander and his wife Matushka Juliana

A good friend shared this quote by Matushka Juliana Schmemann and it had me thinking about the paradigm of mission the church has been preaching to the people. Unfortunately mission has been based on a backlash, a misunderstanding of Christ and the Eucharist. Mission today has been reduced to a few fallacies based on the idea that we need to break away from "old archaic" ways of doing "certain actions" within the church. To give a few examples priests think that the liturgy must be done in English and the Arabic needs to be thrown out of the church (speaking about context of countries where the main language is English) and that we must incorporate worship songs into the service. Now I am not saying an all English liturgy is bad or worship songs need to be axed. On the other hand mission needs these tools in order to baptize all nations because if we are not using the language of the land as a tool for mission then all we have done is impose our own cultural heritage in country that does not share those heritages. Mission first and foremost as Matushka Juliana stresses is based on what we have to offer to people.

We must offer Christ to all. Christ is our starting point and our goal. Christ took on our humanity in order that we might share in his body. This is the paradigm the church needs to operate on. When translating this paradigm to mission it is no different. Mission begins and ends with the person of Christ. If Christ ceases to be our starting point then the church will become nothing more than mere activities done in light of social gatherings to cater to the needs of people. When theology is false Christianity is reduced to nothing more than mere activities. Mission is rooted in theology, a theology that is lived and expressed for the life of the world. Mission rooted in theology is a dynamic expression of what it means to be a Christian. Christianity being a way of life is a life lived for others. Mission is rooted in how we treat others through our offerings to them. (The first part of the liturgy is ironically known as the offertory). We offer ourselves because Christ showed us what it means to be a human through his incarnation. Our lives being rooted in the person of Christ has become a life offered to others. The first Orthodox missionaries who came through Alaska realized the importance of preaching the faith through the culture of the natives in Alaska and individuals such as St. Innocent and St. Herman understood this and were able to adapt the faith to the natives. Sadly today many Orthodox Churches have failed in this regard to missioning to all nations.

When you walk into a church today you will find the liturgy prayed in the language of the motherland (Arabic, Russian etc.) and the vernacular is not used. Worship songs are being incorporated into the service because we think this is what it means to be Christian. This however, is all rooted in the understanding that if we copy and paste protestant songs and continue using the old languages we will appease both the younger generations and the older generations. This however is not true. In fact the opposite is true in that many youths are leaving the church and the church fails in its missionary activity. The church, in order to be a place of mission must be rooted in the people who make the body of Christ. We must figure out how to talk to the people and the culture we are brought into (in my particular example-Canada). When we figure this out we must begin to incorporate this into our liturgy and language of mission. Simply coping and pasting does not solve the issue to the problem. We must be engaged in the culture in order to find beauty which is rooted in the person of Christ. Many have asked how does this look like? Are we to incorporate rap music in our hymns? Of course not (because this again is copying and pasting) however we must study carefully the culture and once we have come up with what it means "to be a Canadian" and how to express this in the liturgy it is only then that we can truly serve those around us through the context of mission. It is only then that the following words by Matushka Juliana will resonate throughout the life of the church.  

I never stopped trying to exercise my missionary efforts while teaching or talking to or counselling my students. I wasn't bent on having them join my church, but I was trying to be contagious and to instill in them a sense of faith, of trust, of beauty, and finally of joy. 

My idea always was, and still is, to try to discover what is missing in a person's vision of life, what venue to use in order to reach people on their own ground. Whenever I feel a void, I try to fill it with hope and higher expectations from real life; not career, nor knowledge, but the poetic sacred aspect of life, so often missing from people's lives.

I insist that it is our sacred duty as those blessed with such abundant blessings from our life: our faith, our church and its services, Pascha, the beauty of nature, faithful friends, etc., to share these blessings with any and all who come into our lives, who cross our path and who dwell, if even momentarily, in our line of vision...

...Every one of us, every day has a chance to proclaim one's faith and love in deeds and works, in compassion and love, in bringing peace and being truly grateful. 

This is mission. Give unto others what we have in abundance." 

+ Matushka Julianna Schmemann, "The Joy to Serve" (Montreal: Alexander Press, 2009) 78-80. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Fr. John McGuckin-The Church of Today

At the end of January the Fr. Alexander Schmemann lecture was given this year (2014) by Fr. John McGuckin. Fr. John spoke about the Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church and the following excerpt was his conclusion to the talk. He concluded on what the church is today and tomorrow.

I believe, the future of Orthodox theology is neither Sophianism or Neo-Patristic synthesis; neither Neo-Palamism nor ressourciement, not Nouvelle theologieor even ancienne theologie for that matter; not progressivism or conservatism. The future of Orthodox theology is fidelity to the Gospel lived out in the interim as we approach the eschaton. We have always known this; and accordingly have always known that we were supposed to resist the isms and secessions, scholasticisms, denominations, and all other sorts of factions that mark off a sectarian mentality from the ecclesial spirit. Now there have been endless temptations of the Christian church in recent generations to dissect itself in ever-diminishing circles. The ecumenical movement that once shone so radiantly in the early post-war years when these Orthodox thinkers of Lossky’s time were in their prime, excited and energized, is now a squeaking ghost of itself because of that spirit of divisionism that is rife. Conservative Christians can hardly speak to progressives. But when we Orthodox are being specifically conscious about our mode of discourse today, I think we should remember that the church has always used philosophical method very eclectically to exegete the Gospel; applying a purely utilitarian principle. It can never wed itself to any method or school or system except that which Gregory the Theologian calls ‘a fisherman’s dialectic.’   

Orthodox have sometimes begun to imagine themselves as a denomination alongside other multiple churches in a pluralist world, and to speak of themselves in that way. But Orthodoxy’s role is not to be a subaltern in a post-colonial ambit: to appear quaint when we speak to some putative West, as some putative East. On the contrary, we have to hold an important line: the church is not a sect. It contains within its living body, conservatives and progressives, liberal reformists and die-hard traditionalists, not to mention saints and sinners. Within Orthodoxy those who want to ‘synthesize’ for the future, and those who want to keep everything intact as it was in the past, both have to learn the hard reality that it is only God’s eschaton that makes the correct judgement on what is right and what is wrong with the Church. The spotless Bride who contains all that is necessary for salvation in her trousseau, is ever the same (just seen in a different light) as that annoying baggage that is the Church on earth, which is comprised of an awful lot of flawed and compromised individuals trying to do their best to make their pilgrimage to the Kingdom. The Orthodox always attempt to be ever faithful to the evangelical tradition they have received and which they seek tp preserve in the canons and the writings of the dogmatic and spiritual fathers, but above all they are called to live it out, live out that is the resurrectional presence of Christ, through his Spirit, in the largely unseen holiness of the ecclesial community.

Fr. John McGuckin      

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Canons of Patriarch Gabriel Ibn Turaik

Patriarch Gabriel the 2nd was the 70th Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church. He was a deacon at the church of St. Macarius in Cairo. He was of a noble Cairene family; was an able scribe, and was well versed in reading scriptures and in their interpretation. He was known for his love of the offices, liturgies, and services of the church, and as one who delighted to visit the widows and orphans and those in prison. At the age of 47 he was elected to the see of St. Mark, and was consecrated patriarch on Feb 3rd 1131. Soon afterwards he visited the monastery of St. Macarius in the Wadi el-Natrun, and during his stay there he introduced into the prayer which is said at the elevation of the Host in the Liturgy, the addition 'without mingling and without confusion, and without alteration'. With the help of the monks of the same monastery he complied the lectionary for Holy Week, and he also arranged a special form for the consecration of the Chrism, and forbade the interment of the dead inside the churches of Cairo and Old Cairo.

Furthermore, he had Arabic versions made of the Old and New Testaments and of the liturgical books of the church, and he also compiled canons and laws of inheritance. Of these canons there are two series, the first consisting of thirty-two canon, and the second, of ten canons. It is the following canons that I am making available to all to see how the liturgical practice was done during the 12th century in the Coptic Church and to see how this practice is the 12th century carried some recension into our modern time. The canons in question are mainly concerned with regulating the duties of the various ranks of the clergy, and with their conduct in civil life. Enjoy and I hope you find these canons helpful!



It is obligatory for the priests of every church to keep their ranks, and each of them shall serve the turn which is appointed to him each day. Each of them shall serve his day, and if it shall be weekly, both shall serve a week; and it one of them be absent, the other shall take his place; if both of them be absent, then the office shall be served by him who is after them. And no one shall be absent from the church on the day of his celebration, except for an evident excuse, and none of them shall bestow his rank on his son or on a near relative without the consent of him who is present with him and who is higher than he is in the priesthood, because this raises discords and hatred but as to the gospel of the Morning Prayer and the books and the diptychs, a near relative or a son shall read them, and none but they.


The liturgy shall not be celebrated until after there have been read the Apostle, the Katholicon, and the Acts, and the Gospel proper to the day, if there are the books, and if there are not, then there shall be read all what is appointed from the lessons of these books. And the deacon shall not officiate, except that he shall read the Holy Gospel, unless a Bishop is present and desire to honour him. As regards the rest of the lessons and the Gospel of the Morning Prayer, those of the priests who are present shall assist in the reading of them, and he who does not know how to read the Gospel shall not be allowed to officiate. As regards the deacons who have not officiated until now, none of them shall officiate until he reads well; but he shall study the writings and the gospel of the Morning Prayer; and when he is skilled in reading and is proficient in what he reads, there shall be prepared for him a letter in which there shall be the signatures of a priest and of the chief of the priests, that he is already experienced in the reading of the books; and when it shall have been sent to the cell, it shall be signed, giving him the permission to officiate; and he shall take the rank in conformity with what is stated by the writings of the priests. And the deacon who officiates shall not go away until he shall have finished communicating the people, and shall have dismissed them. And the priest shall communicate him with the Despotikon, and the priest shall raise the chalice; and it is not allowed to him who officiates to raise the chalice at all, until he shall have finished communicating the people. And he who has not reached his majority shall not carry the Chalice, lest some of it be spilled, and this is a great sin; but he shall carry it who has the ability to take care of it.


Decorum is obligatory in the churches on the eves of Sundays, and of Festivals and at christenings and crownings (marriages), and abstinence from intoxicating drinks. And every priest who drinks intoxicating drink at them shall not celebrate at all on the morning of that eve.


Priests shall not at all be present at banquets or wedding feasts where there are jestings and amusements; but if a man invite them to be present with him, they must eat and drink with moderation and with psalmody, and depart in peace before there is any jesting at all. Whosoever takes a priest to his house to a banquet where there are musicians and players, and associates him (the priest) with him in his sin, is under suspension together with him (the priest).


The Liturgy shall not be celebrated until after the Altar has been covered with a cloth other than the covering which is upon it, and when the Liturgy is finished, it shall be folded up and removed, and the pieces of cloth which are upon it shall not be separated from it.


None of the priests shall go forward to read anything from the books, nor shall any of them go up to the Haikal (alter) without the sticharion (stole), and none of them shall communicate at the altar with his head covered, and likewise, none of them shall pray with a priest or read the Gospel with his head covered.


The Liturgies of the feats are reserved for the priests in every church as follows: For the archpriest and chief archdeacon in every church there shall be the liturgies which are set forth as follows: at Christmas, Epiphany, Palm Sunday, Thursday 'over the water', the feast of Easter, the third (day) of the feast of Easter, the feast of the fortieth, the day of the fiftieth, the day of the feast of the Disciples 'over the water'. For the second in rank, the eve of Christmas, except in the church of Abu Sergius (main church of the patriarch during the 12th century in old Cairo) where it is reserved for the archdeacon, the second day of Christmas, the eve of Epiphany, the second day of Epiphany, the Great Thursday 'at the liturgy', the second day following Easter, the feat of the disciples 'at the liturgy', the Great Saturday, the third day of Christmas, and the third day of Epiphany. The Gospels which are read at Easter are reserved for the chief priests according to their ranks in every church, and the six Sundays of the Fast are reserved for the chief  priests in every church according to their rank. On the rest of the days the liturgy shall be performed by those who are not of the rank of chief priests. With regard to hi who does not undertake the reading of the Gospel or who is late in attendance, he who is after him in rank shall celebrate instead of him.


The Liturgy shall not be celebrated without two candles around the altar; either two small ones or two large ones according to whichever there maybe.


If the priests of Jerusalem agree to mix with the priests of Abu Sergius each of them shall take the rank which is legally his, with love and peace during the fast etc, and then there will be no controversy. Otherwise, they shall bring him whom they have chosen to be appointed to them as priest ad Jerusalem to celebrate with them. And if they remain without a priest, then they shall not serve alone.


May God the exalted strengthen the love between them, and may peace abide with them, and may He deliver them from the Adversary Satan, and may He render my heart favourable towards them, and may He inform me of their news concerning that which is agreeable, if it so please god the Exalted; and praise be to God for ever and ever eternally!         

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

How Atheists Can Help Us

A famous quot by Nietzche that Fr. Roberto makes reference to in his text: God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
-Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125, Trans. Walter Kaufmann. 
By Fr. Roberto Ubertino

How Atheists Can Help Us

We seem to face the reality of Atheism where we feel most vulnerable: in our children. Our children so often seem to be seduced by the Atheist position. They of course are simply the easy victims of an illness that affects a considerable, growing, large number of people. A recent author, Michael Buckley, suggests that Atheism is essentially a parasite that feeds off bad religion. Atheism, he suggest, feeds off bad religion and picks apart bad religion. If that is true, then atheists do us a big favour. Atheism shows us the log in our own eyes.

Feuerbach and Nietzsche, two famous atheists of the 19th century, criticized religion as the "opiate of the people." They criticized that by focusing on the next life, people cold then be subjugated in this one. But they had a much deeper criticism, namely that we use the idea of God and religion to rationalize our own desires. For these two atheists, God did not make us in his image and likeness, but rather, we've made God in our image and likeness.

It is a great temptation that we have not always overcome by using "God" as our reason to do whatever we want and then calling this "God's will". Bernard (St) of Clairvaux called the 2nd Crusade as "God's will". We justified slavery, oppression, injustice, imprisonment, pogroms, all in the name of God. We Orthodox are not exempt. There is much for atheists to feed on. Our endless discussions on jurisdiction, our zealous acceptance to break communion with each other over minute details, the brushing under the carpet of sexual and financial abuses, our lack of interest in the poor. There is much for atheists to feed upon. Today atheism sharpens its knives through popular writers such as Hitchens and Dawkins. When it is most painful is to see that bad religion is picked upon and thorn apart by our children. Going "on the defensive" is not helpful. Promising them hell if they don't start going to church is a waste of time. Rather than being defensive, we need to find a response to what often are valid criticisms. We need to find a way to speak to these challenges with a witness that has a chance to be heard. Preaching to the choir is no longer a sufficient response of the church to the challenge that atheism levels at us.

We first need to be humble and even grateful, because the challenge atheism levels at the church is really an opportunity that is offered to us, to purify our witness of the Lord and His gospel.

Second consideration. We need to humbly and without making excuses acknowledge to our children what is true in our failure to be the authentic witness of the true faith. We have failed miserable in many ways to live the Orthodox faith.

Finally, what is most important is to understand that the response that must be given to "bad religion" is not secularism or atheism but rather what St. Paul calls a "beautiful witness of the hope that is within us". How can we recognize authenticity when it concerns the Orthodox Church? What will convince our children to recognize where is the truth? In the same way we recognize beauty and goodness! They are self-evident! The same with the true faith! It declares itself! It attracts by itself. The reverse is also true: atheism is a parasite that feeds of the believers' betrayal of the truth.

When atheism becomes aggressive like it is today, when it even becomes nasty, this is perhaps a time to examine more closely what this phenomena mirrors inside many of our religious institutions.

Christmas Fast 2013