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Archive for December, 2007

Sofie’s First Christmas Pageant

Sofie, as my blogreaders know, began this school term to attend the Preschool at the Guardian Angel Center for Child Development (a ministry of St John the Baptist Orthodox Church). It is a great gift and blessing to us that she has been able so to do (and with the added benefit, her ancient philosophy professor father notes, of learning Greek).

Well, her first Christmas pageant was this week. We had memorized her lines (“The cave is heaven / The Virgin is the throne / The small manger is the place where Christ was born’)–she had them down cold. But . . .

Poor Sofie had a case of stagefright. This strikes me as so odd, because she is a fling-herself-headfirst kind of girl, who is always seemingly fearless. But there it is. We think she might have done better, but apparently one of her classmates in front of her started crying before they mounted the stage. And that was all it took for Sofie to set her will against going onstage and simultaneously to weep tiny tears. Poor thing. Anna went up and finally coaxed her at the final song to go up and sing with her classmates (Anna discreetly stood off stage left, unseen by us, but known by Sofie). Delaina and I were justly proud and waved like a crazy, insane parent and sibling. We were shameless.

It was a wonderful occasion and I bless God several times a week that Sofie has an Orthodox school to go to. God grant the school, the teachers, the administrators and the parish priests many years!

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On Sorrow and Joy

In a comment to a previous post, one Jonathon commented, in part:

I think the message his [St. Gregory of Nyssa's] poetry conveys is that while the joy and hope of Christ should and can be very much a part of our life “here below,” it is not the only experience we should expect (being, as St. Gregory reminds us, a sort of divinized dirt with all the dificult contradictions and tensions that introduces). Orthodox saints, even ones as exalted in their theology (in the truest sense of the word) as St. Gregory, can get moody and existential and traverse dark nights- a comfort to the rest of us, I think.

To which I replied:

Yes, sorrow is most definitely a part of the Christian life in this mortal existence. But I was not contrasting sorrow and joy, so much as contrasting fear and joy.

It does not seem to me that sorrow and joy are mutually exclusive. It does, however, seem to me that fear and joy are.

Given recent events in my realm of experience, I want to expand a bit more on those thoughts.

Joy and sorrow are not incompatible: one may be both sorrowful and joyful. Think, for example, of Christ, who endured the Cross for the joy set before him (Hebrews 12.2), who, while ministering in the flesh on this earth, rejoiced at Satan’s fall, who, in the same breath, spoke of the death of his friend, Lazarus, and rejoiced, for the sake of his Apostles, that he had not been present to heal Lazarus from his deadly illness. The kinsman of the Lord, the Apostles James, exhorts us to count it all joy when we fall into various trials (James 1.2). Our Lord himself blessed those who mourn. And so it goes.

But our world is atrophied in the “muscles” of its interior world. It lacks the proper development of soul to enjoy a polychromatic experience. The world teaches us only varying shades of one emotion: satisfaction, or its lack in degree. To experience full joy and full sorrow simultaneously is beyond the scope and capacity of anything the world can offer.

But for the Christian, and, more particularly, for the Orthodox Christian, we are given the tools for the development of soul such that we can at one and the same time experience the fullness of sorrow and the fullness of joy. Great Lent is often referred to as the time of charmolype, of gracious (or joyful) sorrow. And even joyful hymns (such as the Vesperal hymn, “O Gladsome Light”) carry the undertone of plaintive chant. We are given to regular fasting and feasting. We confess our sins, often with tears, and are simultaneously told of the Lord’s forgiveness and mercy. We strive for the constant memory of God as we labor to pray unceasingly. As Orthodox we do not fear or shun sorrow, as does the rest of the world, narcotizing itself against anything difficult or harsh, knowing that sorrow contains blessing, even if only partially realized in this mortal sphere.

Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, “Rejoice.”

We have much to offer the world. If the world truly believed that satisfaction was the summum bonum of all existence, it wouldn’t drug itself with so many perishing things. The world mistrusts the false gospel of unmitigated joy, while it chases after the narcotizing of its pain. It longs for the joy we have, the joyful sorrow, because it knows, in those dark and silent moments of utter honesty with itself, that there is no joy without sorrow in this world. It knows, too, that the hybrid is the more sweet for the bitterness, and yet more sweet, too, for its reality.

Lord have mercy, we cry. And smile through our tears.

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A new post from Fr Al, the Pontificator.

[H/T: Fr Stephen]

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Epistle to the Muslims by Bruce S. Thornton

This – - A Common Word between Us and You (pdf file)

Gave rise to this – - Loving God and Neighbor Together (pdf file)

Which caused this – -Epistle to the Muslims by Bruce S. Thornton:

The response opens on a familiar self-loathing note, in the therapeutic style that has convinced jihadists that Christianity in the West is an empty shell, a mere lifestyle choice. Noting that Muslim and Christian “relations have sometimes been tense, even characterized by outright hostility,” the letter professes “that in the past (e.g. in the Crusades) and in the present (e.g. in excesses of the ‘war on terror’) many Christians have been guilty of sinning against our Muslim neighbors,” and so “we ask forgiveness of the All-Merciful One and of the Muslim community around the world.”

The groveling self-abasement of this language, particularly its begging forgiveness of Allah, is matched only by its remarkable historical ignorance. “Outright hostility” has indeed existed between Muslims and Christians, for the simple reason that for 13 centuries Islam grew and spread by war, plunder, rapine, and enslavement throughout the Christian Middle East. Allah’s armies destroyed regions that were culturally Christian for centuries, variously slaughtering, enslaving, and converting their inhabitants, or allowing them to live as oppressed dhimmi, their lives and property dependent on a temporary “truce” that Muslim overlords could abrogate at any time.

And let’s not forget the seven-century-long Islamic occupation of Spain, the centuries of raids into southern Italy and southern France, the near-sack of Rome in 846, the occupation of Sicily and Greece, the four-century-long occupation of the Balkans, the destruction of Constantinople, the two sieges of Vienna, the kidnapping of Christian youths to serve as janissaries from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries, the continual raiding of the northern Mediterranean littoral for slaves from 1500 to 1800, and the current jihadist terrorist attacks against the West.

These historical crimes dwarf those committed during the few centuries of the Crusades, which, for all of their excesses and mixed motives, were fought to liberate from Muslim hegemony the lands that had been Christian for six and a half centuries before Islam burst forth from the Arabian Peninsula. Many contemporary Christians betray their moral and spiritual incoherence when they demonize the Crusades but excuse, as justified “liberation,” the numerous Arab assaults on Israel’s “occupation” of lands to which the Jews have a 3,000-year-old connection.

Those who fail to remember history . . .

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The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Gabe has two posts up that are being linked in the Ortho-blogosphere: Problems in Contemporary Orthodox Theology? and Problems with Contemporary Orthodox Experientialism. They are well worth your read. Also worth your read are Perry’s comments. Though I’m afraid that this is two sets of Orthodox folk talking past one another, to some degree.

One thing to keep in mind, it seems to me, is that Gabe is criticizing (rightly in my view), one sort of experientialism (as a means of Ortho-evangelism), and Perry & Co. are criticizing an attack on another sort of experientialism (which tends to run anti-Palamite). Both are correct.

Gabe’s beef, if I understand him correctly, is with the sort of easy evangelical experientialism that evangelical converts to Orthodoxy can tend (Gabe would say do tend) to drag into their newfound Orthodox faith and “baptize” it with Palamite appeals. This tendency, if I am right in supposing it exists, is really quite natural. After all, either these evangelical converts do not know any other way of engaging God (because it’s the only way they have left out on the far flung branches of schism) or they come from a heavy-handed system wherein faith is little more than rigid intellectual adherence to a system of doctrine and finding that experience is, after all, a means of knowing God, go to too far an extreme.

Perry’s beef is that Orthodox in America do not, either because they do not have the wherewithal or the cojones, bring out the fatal flaws that exist in extra-Orthodox theology (usually revolving around absolute, or definitional, divine simplicity–as exemplified in the filioque). He rightly rails against an aberrant scholasticism while he brings out an advocacy of a robust Palamite experientialism (if I may so use such an -ism).

I touch on this because I believe it is important to see the distinctions in both gentlemen’s critiques. Gabe is rightly standing against a certain Protestantizing of Orthodoxy which imports, rather uncritically, Protestant modes of thought and experience, baptizes them with Orthodox terminology and then turns around and “sells” this to potential Protestant converts. Perry is rightly standing against a certain ecumenism of the Rodney King sort that, to justify its own existence, must raise the specter of an Orthodox sectarian fundamentalism. Neither of them are, I do not believe, criticizing the other directly.

Unless of course, I wholly misunderstand both.

For my part, I resonate deeply with both brothers’ criticisms. With Gabe I tire of this sort of easy Ortho-evangelicalism which is only inches deep. I admire what many of these evangelical converts are attempting to do, but I cringe at the temerity of recent converts taking on whole swaths of Orthodoxy as though the experience of their recent conversion makes them experts on anything Orthodox. They are experts on their own experience, but that’s not the same sort of expertise.

But with Perry I am disgusted with the too ready willingness of certain Orthodox to engage in the easy ecumenism of nominalism, as though use of the same words is adherence to the same content of the Faith. And I tire, too, of those Orthodox who paint their brothers into a form of mindless fundamentalism simply because they are willing to speak the truth: the Pope is in schism with the Church and the filioque leads to unChristian theology.

I value both these brothers’ critiques and commend them to you.

For my part, these men reinforce the narrow straits which we evangelical converts to Orthodoxy in the West (or the U.S. in any case) must navigate, on either side the devil of ecumenism and the deep blue sea of shamanistic experientialism. Which is all the more reason for most of us converts to do very little speaking, a whole bunch of listening (to the Fathers and their present day heirs), and even more and more praying in the Liturgy and in our personal devotions.

And then to shut up some more and just live out our Orthodox faith. We’ll let our more esteemed brethren remind us of our dangers and we’ll walk with humility and circumspection.

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Sofie and the Joseph Dream

Sofie goes to a Greek Orthodox preschool, and quite properly they are doing a lot of discussion about the coming Feast of the Lord’s Nativity. Well, as I was getting ready this morning, Sofie wanted to tell me about her dream.

It seems that an alligator was going to get her, and she was scared. But Joseph, Jesus’ foster father, grabbed her and saved her from the alligator. Then Joseph took her in to Mary and baby Jesus’ bedroom, and put her in bed with Mary.

The end.

(Daddy collapses in giddy joy.)

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On Fear and Joy

And Father Seraphim continued: “When the Spirit of God comes down to man and overshadows him with the fullness of His inspiration, then the human soul overflows with unspeakable joy, for the Spirit of God fills with joy whatever He touches. This is that joy of which the Lord speaks in His Gospel: A woman when she is in travail has sorrow, because her hour is come; but when she is delivered of the child, she remembers no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world. In the world you will be sorrowful; but when I see you again, your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you (Jn. 16:21-22). Yet however comforting may be this joy which you now feel in your heart, it is nothing in comparison with that of which the Lord Himself by the mouth of His Apostle said that that joy eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man what God has prepared for them that love Him (I Cor. 2:9). Foretastes of that joy are given to us now, and if they fill our souls with such sweetness, well-being and happiness, what shall we say of that joy which has been prepared in heaven for those who weep here on earth? And you, my son, have wept enough in your life on earth; yet see with what joy the Lord consoles you even in this life! Now it is up to us, my son, to add labours to labours in order to go from strength to strength (Ps. 83:7), and to come to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13), so that the words of the Lord may be fulfilled in us: But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall grow wings like eagles; and they shall run and not be weary (Is. 40:31); they will go from strength to strength, and the God of gods will appear to them in the Sion (Ps. 83:8) of realization and heavenly visions. Only then will our present joy (which now visits us little and briefly) appear in all its fullness, and no one will take it from us, for we shall be filled to overflowing with inexplicable heavenly delights.–St Seraphim’s Conversation with Nicholas Motovilov

If one compares Orthodoxy with other forms of Christianity, one is frequently taken with the manifest dearth of, what one might call after St. John of the Cross, the “dark night of the soul.” It is true that there are a few accounts of Orthodox saints who have experienced this sort of spiritual phenomenon (indeed, the only examples that presently come to my mind are not canonized saints, but Fr Gerasim of Spruce Island, a friend of St Herman’s Monastery in Platina, and Lynette (Katherine) Hoppe [mp3 link].). But, for the most part, the Orthodox experience is one of light (e.g., the uncreated light of Tabor) and of joy. Indeed, the quality of the darkness of the uncreated light about which such luminaries as St. Gregory of Nyssa and Pseudo-Dionysius write seems, to me, different than that of St. John of the Cross or St. Teresa of Avila. Perhaps it is the Orthodox emphasis on the Resurrection and deification. That said, I’m not qualified to speak authoritatively on this matter.

Nonetheless, I think it is true, that the Christian experience is, at its core, whatever its attendant phases, one of ineffable joy. This has been infiltrating my conscious awareness in these last days as, without bidding, I have thought of the life of St. Seraphim of Sarov. I think the paragraph from his conversation with Motovilov is emblematic of the Orthodox life of joy.

I have been confronting several areas of personal fears of late. I don’t mean that to sound overly melodramatic. These are mere phantoms of the mind, spiritual delusions, which, for various reasons, have lodged in my thinking. When I encounter stresses to these particular areas, my reaction is one of fear and anxiety. This is not, it seems to me, a very Christian form of response. This is not to say there is no place for fear in the Christian life (though again, this is something about which I have no authority to speak), but, rather, it is to say, that it is dawning on me that the areas in particular in which I react with fear to certain stresses are things about which such fears are wholly misplaced.

The fears are misplaced because they have crowded out the very thing that is to form the core of the Christian life: faith in Christ. I can do the mental experiment: replace faith in Christ at the center of these anxious areas and all of them are qualitatively changed. More to the point, my present day and this very moment is changed. I do not have perfect love, of course, but Christ does. And if I embrace his perfect love for his Church (and for me) in just these fields of worry, I find that the fear is, indeed, cast out.  “All these things will be added to you as well.”

This realization has, to a degree, brought me back to my first days after my chrismation, when the experience of God was so objectively real and heart-warming. This joy is strengthening, too. I find myself better able to confront these passions against which we fight. It is as though once one illusion falls, so, too, fall the illusions which surround our passions and by which they ensnare our wills. These soulish disciplines enacted by the body do not seem drudgery, but, indeed, life-giving and light.

What a blessed realization this is. Perhaps the myrrh streaming from St. Nicholas’ relics not only completed the healing process of my body, but brought to me a further spiritual healing as well.

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Myrrh-Streaming St Nicholas

stnicholas1.jpgYesterday, our parish celebrated St Nicholas’ feast day with an “in-person” visit from the saint and a distribution of stockings for the children. Sofie, our older daughter, was all about it. She was very eager to go up and speak to “St Nicholas,” and, having asked my permission, went and spoke to him. This was twice in four days that St Nicholas had visited her. We, of course, celebrated the saint’s feast day on Thursday morning with “gold” (gold-foiled-covered chocolate) coins in both daughters’ shoes. A cross and icon from Holy Dormition Monastery, and a gift of a Golden-book read-along CD and book.

With our family being sick, we were unable to go to the prayer services on Wednesday. So the girls kissed St Nicholas’ icon good night. (It’s a postcard that we’ve affixed to the wall next to our other icons.) And I prayed the akathist prayers to St Nicholas. I hated to miss such a wonderful occasion (our beloved deacon informed me that it was a joy-filled service), but sickness has just ravaged our family for the past couple of weeks, and has kept us from the Eucharist and from Vespers. Even so, we were not to be without the benefits of St Nicholas’ prayers.

Our priest and his wife had travelled to Bari several weeks ago and brought back myrrh which streams from the relics of St Nicholas. On Sunday, all present, Orthodox or not, were invited to come forward after the Liturgy and be anointed with the myrrh from St Nicholas’ bones. With Sofie and Delaina, I went forward with the prayer that St Nicholas’ intercessions would bring us healing from our physical ailments.

With great joy I am happy to share that I am as well as I’ve been for a couple of weeks. I’ve only a trace of the sniffles, and have much energy and joy.

St Nicholas, pray for us.

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Michael W Smith: Agnus Dei

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