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Archive for March, 2004

More Thoughts on Heresy

I said in yesterday’s post that heresy is cruel because it promises that which it cannot give. It promises life, depth of vision, wisdom and insight. But because it ultimately preaches another gospel it only brings foolishnes and inconsistency, blindness, and, ultimately, if unrepented, death.

We need not go into New Testament word studies and the origin and development of the word “heresy,” important though this may be. It is true that the New Testament does not use “schism” and “heresy” in quite the same technical sense that quite quickly became the norm (second century). But the New Testament teaching, whatever the technical vocabulary, remains unchanged: heresy is “strange opinion which does not know the passion of Christ” (Ignatios) and is “another gospel than the one you received” (Paul). In short, heresy is that teaching which does not conform to the Gospel of Christ, the Gospel which has been handed down from the Apostles to the Church, preserved in the Scriptures, the Liturgies, and the Canons, and embodied in the lives and teachings of the Saints.

It matters not that proponents of heresy are well-meaning. Arius purportedly taught against Christ’s divinity so as to preserve and protect God’s Majesty and direct worship to Him alone. The intent might well have been sincere, but its effect was deadly: apart from the union of God and man in the person Jesus Christ, which is to say, apart from Christ’s divinity, there is no salvation, no union with God.
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My task here is not to comment on the present situation within ECUSA as to the formation of a new confessing network, and whether faithful should stay within the denomination or leave for other ecclesial groups.

Nor is it my task to comment on the issues which have been the most recent catalyst for these developments, as to whether or not committed monogamous homosexual relationshps are permitted by Scripture and Tradition, nor whether one or another partner in such relationships are valid candidates for ordination or consecration.

Rather, I want to focus most specifically on the comments made by Episcopal Bishop J Neil Alexander on schism and heresy:

Schism breeds schism. It always has. I hold in mind the great wisdom of the ancient church: if you have to choose between heresy and schism, choose heresy. For heresy is, in the end, just an opinion, and opinions come and go. Schism tears the fabric of the Body of Christ and it is irreparable. For those deeply committed to the Body of Christ, breaking fellowship is never a faithful option.

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So. My stepgrandfather, Wilbur Yelton, died Monday. He was 83 years old. He’d been sick for some time, and at a checkup in February, the doctors told him to put his affairs in order.

I didn’t know Wilbur all that well. He and my grandmother married four months after my wife, Anna, and I left Kansas for Illinois to continue our education. Being anywhere from nine to twelve hours’ drive away from home in the ensuing decade did not make for frequent travel home for Anna and I, and when we did come home it was to see our immediate family in Kansas and Oklahoma. My grandmother, Christine, had moved to Arkansas shortly after my grandfather, Clifton F. Healy, died, so aside from cards and letters in the mail, and some phone calls, we didn’t see Grandma and Wilbur very often.

But the funeral clued me in on some things. Wilbur was a dedicated (elder) brother in Christ, serving tirelessly at the nursing home services his church, First Baptist, conducted. But more than just wheeling residents out from their rooms to the worship service, Wilbur would also wheel them back and then sit visiting with them some time after the services were over. Wilbur tithed to the church, both in regular offerings and in his will. And time and time again, though hurt and taken advantage of by certain of his family, he forgave them, both in offense and in debt. In short, Wilbur, in true Christian fashion, was a man of God, whose deeds were not done for the praise of men, but for his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

I learned that though my grandmother is eighty-three, her young woman’s heart could still get broken. She recounted to me the days of her and Wilbur’s courtship, and that after some time they had begun to speak of marriage. Then, inexplicably, Wilbur got cold feet. Grandma hadn’t seen it coming. Of course, things worked out, and she and Wilbur talked it out and later married. At the time, Grandma was in her early seventies. Yet here she was recounting tales of romance as though she were a young woman in her twenties again.

I learned that my dad had been closer to Wilbur than I had thought. I had remained relatively untouched by any strong emotions, though saddened for Grandma and Wilbur’s family, up through most of the funeral service. At the the final viewing before heading to the gravesite, I went to the casket and committed Wilbur to God’s care, and prayed silently for the repose of his soul. But when Dad returned to his seat after his viewing, he broke briefly into sobs. That’s when I, too, briefly lost it.

I learned that when it comes time to die it’s best to do so in a small town community among family and friends. As is traditional, the church put on a funeral dinner after everyone returned from the committal. I loved that when I pastored a small church in central Illinois. And it was like coming home to be surrounded by family and church friends as we broke bread together and reminisced. There’s nothing like a church potluck to aid one’s grief.

And finally I learned that Southern Baptist ministers still preach evangelistic sermons at funerals. And I learned, surprisingly, that that did not offend me at all. After all, Wilbur’s life was one long Gospel telling.

May his memory be eternal.

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When I became a Christian I voluntarily crucified my mind, and all the crosses that I bear have been only a source of joy for me. I have lost nothing and gained everything.
–Father Seraphim Rose (Cathy Scott, Seraphim Rose: The True Story and Private Letters, p. 191)

Orthodoxy is life. If we don’t live Orthodoxy, we simply are not Orthodox, no matter what formal beliefs we hold.
–Father Seraphim Rose (Cathy Scott, Seraphim Rose: The True Story and Private Letters, p. 231)

For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ . . . (2 Cor. 10:3-5 ESV)

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I have had encounters with Father Seraphim on two occasions, now, at the Barnes and Noble in Evantson.

My first encounter was entirely by “accident.” It was 30 May last year, and I had gone to see the movie “X2: X-men United” in the early afternoon. After the movie I had had about an hour to kill till Anna left work to pick me up. I had originally decided to just cross the street and head into Borders for some coffee and to do some reading. For some reason, however, I thought I’d head to the library. But while on the way, I decided it would be too far to walk to the library and back, so Barnes and Noble happened to be on the way and I ended up stopping there and browsing. I had no desire to buy any books, nor did I even have any books in mind that I was really wanting to get. But as it happened, while browsing in the Christian section I happened upon the out of print original edition of Father Seraphim Rose’s biography, Not of This World. I was stopped in my tracks.

I should at this point tell how St. Benedict came to be my patron. While I was still in Bible college, and only just beginning my journey to historic Christianity, I happened to be on a short trip to one of our sister colleges and seminaries in Lincoln, Illinois. I’d already done some reading about St. Benedict through my then-new interest in monasticism, and had read some snippets from St. Benedict’s Rule. While in the college bookstore–a conservative evangelical bookstore, mind you–I happened to notice a copy of the Rule. I bought it without a second thought. It was, at the very least, a serendipitous moment. And although I then had no concept of what a patron saint was, I began to have an affinity of sorts with St. Benedict, his rule, and monasticism.

So, there I was last year in Barnes and Noble having an almost identical encounter, some thirteen years later. Although I had not yet considered Father Seraphim Rose my patron saint–that spot had long been held by St. Benedict–this “chance” encounter was so similar to how St. Benedict “found” me, that I took it as an indication another saint had “picked” me.

Needless to say, I purchased the book and soon thereafter began asking for the intercessions of Father Seraphim along with St. Benedict. The more I learned about Father Seraphim, the more convinced I became of his sanctity.

So, the new biography came out in the fall, and I purchased it. Shortly thereafter, I acquired Nihilism and Genesis, Creation, and Early Man, and of course I had several months before read other of Father Seraphim’s writings. Then I picked up a copy of Letters from Father Seraphim. The only remaining book that I had thought I wanted to get was Cathy Scott’s biography, Seraphim Rose: The True Story and Private Letters.

Which brings me to yesterday, and my second encounter with Father Seraphim. I had ordered the Cathy Scott book through Barnes and Noble, so this was to be a planned meeting. While I was waiting for the shuttle to take me to Loyola to teach, Barnes and Noble called. My book was in. I hot-footed it to the store, and picked up the book.

I’m not a big fan of Barnes and Noble (they crowded out the local college bookstore at Loyola, earning my continuing disrespect), but since I’ve encountered Father Seraphim there twice in less than a year, I need to remember and be grateful.

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Theology is the word of God, which is apprehended by pure, humble and spiritually regenerated souls, and not the beautiful words of the mind, which are crafted with literary art and expressed by the legal or worldly spirit. . . .

Theology that is taught like a science usually examines things historically and, consequently, things are understood externally. Since patristic ascesis and inner experience are absent, this kind of theology is full of uncertainty and questions. For with the mind one cannot grasp the Divine Energies if he does not first practice ascesis and live the Divine Energies, that the Grace of God might be energized within him.

Whoever thinks that he can come to know the mysteries of God through external scientific theory, resembles the fool who wants to see Paradise through a telescope.

Those who struggle patristically become empirical theologians through the visitation of the Grace of the Holy Spirit. All those who have an external education, in addition to the internal enlightenment of the soul, may describe the divine mysteries and interpret them correctly, as did many Holy Fathers.

If, however, one does not become spiritually related to the Holy Fathers and wants to take up translating or writing, he will wrong both the Holy Fathers and himself, as well as the people, with his spiritual cloudiness.

Neither is it right for someone to theologize using someone else’s theology, because he will resemble an impotent man who adopts others’ children, presents them as his own and pretends to be the father of a large family. The Holy Fathers took the divine word or personal experiences from their hearts: the result of spiritual battles against evil and the fire of temptations, which they confessed humbly, or, out of love, wrote down in order to help us. . . .

Those who are grateful towards God for everything and constantly attend to themselves humbly and look after God’s creatures and creation with kindness, theologize and thus become the most faithful theologians, even if illiterate. They are like the illiterate shepherds who observe the weather in the countryside, day and night, and become good meteorologists.

The Orthodox Word [2003], no. 229, pp. 86-88

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Down the left column of this blog, I have a quote from St. Theophan the Recluse’s The Path to Salvation, which gives a rule for reading. Since the print is somewhat small, I’ll copy a portion of it here:

The best time for reading the Word of God is in the morning. Lives of saints after the mid-day meal, and Holy Fathers before going to sleep. Thus you can take up a little bit each day.

I have noticed something in the last several months. It began with my reading the revised biography of Father Seraphim Rose. When I was reading his biography I was almost always eager to arise early to pray. I was often motivated to pray the Akathist to the Mother of God. I was better able to focus on humility of heart and mind (though I can’t say I ever successfully achieved it).

Similarly, as I’ve been reading the life of Elder Ambrose of Optina–he on whom Dostoyevsky based his character Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov–I have found myself more focused on prayer. In fact, I read just yesterday the following from Elder Ambrose of Optina:

When people complained to the Elder that unrelated thoughts disturb their prayer, he said: “A man rides through the market; around him is a crowd of people, conversations, noise. But he just sits on his horse–gee-up, gee-up! and little by little he passes through the whole marketplace. Let it be the same with you—no matter what the thoughts say, just keep at your business–pray!” (256-257)

And so today, as I was almost constantly distracted by wandering thoughts during morning prayers, I just kept returning to the prayer I was praying.

And yesterday my book order from Lignt -N- Life Publishing came in. Items: Hapgood’s Service Book, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov’s The Arena, and three biographies of St. John (Maximovitch) the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco (Blessed John the Wonderworker, Man of God, and the small booklet St John the Wonderworker). [By the way, The Arena was a bit too ambitious. I didn't realize it was intended for monastics, but just knew it as a spiritual classic. It will have to wait till I'm ready for it.]

I have recently been exhorted to read the contemporary Fathers, in addition to the ancient Church Fathers, because these more recent Fathers speak to a world similar to our own, putting the teachings of the Holy Fathers in language and concepts which are more graspable for us. This is also true of the lives of contemporary saints. The lives of the saints of the ancient Church are edifying, but seem so much more remote to us today. On the other hand, the lives of modern saints, being more near to us in time, exhort us with a special practicality and urgency. Lives of holiness are not merely ancient tales of other times and places, but are realities now. Father Seraphim, St John the Wonderworker, the Elder Ambrose of Optina, Elder Paisios the New of Mount Athos, all these present-day witnesses of the life of Faith proclaim to us the Gospel, call us to repentance, and show us how it is that theosis is a way of life and not “merely” a doctrine.

In my own experience, while I am edified by the earlier Fathers, especially the life of St. Benedict, and the martyrdoms of St. Ignatios of Antioch, St. Polycarp, St. Perpetua, and the life of St. Mary of Egypt, the lives of the contemporary Fathers provide me with a desire to pray and to struggle that I don’t get–or at least not in the same way–from the ancient Fathers. Just skimming over some of the pages of the books on St. John the Wonderworker, I knew clearly that I would rise early today and pray with a special clarity–even if still distracted by wandering thoughts. And that is, indeed, what happened this morning. Praise the Lord.

So, given the dark inertia I have lived in the first half of Lent, I will make sure to read from the lives of the saints daily in this second half, as I struggle with my brothers and sisters here in the desert.

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