The Next Stage of the Journey to Antioch

After nearly four and a half years, it appears I must now give up my once seemingly perpetual status as an Orthodox inquirer, coming at Orthodoxy from the outside–though I suppose I can still call myself an Orthodox wannabe. For the time being.

Through the mercies of the man-befriending God, and the blessings of our priest, my family and I have become catechumens in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Orthodox Church. As it turned out, the blessing came by way of a phone call this afternoon after the Divine Liturgy. Father and Anna had been playing phone tag for something like a week and a half, so we “cornered” him after services. He said he’d give us a call this evening, but as it turned out, he rang up mid-afternoon. He spoke with Anna for several minutes, and said we should now consider ourselves catechumens. But our chrismations, and our daughters’ baptisms, will not take place at Pascha, but sometime later, perhaps Pentecost.

Readers of my blog will know that this has been a long time in coming (and newcomers can catch up here). Given that I have been on the journey to Antioch since before June 2002, I have often been asked “What’s the holdup?” or words to that effect. The simple truth is that I have all along believed my becoming Orthodox was not just an individual matter, but one that necessarily involved my whole family, which I felt–right or wrong–had been a promise given to me in the Divine Liturgy. Implausible as that seemed at first, I nonetheless held to it.

But, as I have remarked before, God knew I needed to spend some time getting to know the Orthodox Church better, and, more importantly, coming to realize that becoming Orthodox wasn’t simply a change of theology, but rather was a putting on of a new way of life. That is to say, God used my wife’s initial reluctance and her own growing interest, satisfaction and attachment to Orthodoxy, to make sure my own conversion would at last begin to move from the head to the heart, from mind to hands and feet.

As serious as I have been about Orthodoxy and my journey to it, I now find myself in a new place with regard to the Orthodox Church. There is a real and deep change that has to take place, and it is only just now dawning on me that though real changes have occurred in my mind and heart these past several years, their superficiality over against a truly Orthodox life is utterly manifest.

More to the point, I have come to realize just how little I know how to live an Orthodox life. I can pretend to talk some smack in the doctrinal game, but I am a bumbling ignoramus when it comes to being an Orthodox father and husband. I am not yet birthed, and utterly dependent upon the Church for instruction, aid, and indeed, even faith, in this Orthodox life. Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.

That said, I would appreciate your prayers for me and my family in these coming months.

The Cure for the Mind Distracted During Prayer

A holy whapping over the head by a saint.

In one of the monasteries which he had built in those parts, there was a monk who could not continue at prayers; for when the other monks knelt down to serve God, his manner was to go forth, and there with wandering mind to busy himself about some earthly and transitory things. When he had often been admonished by his Abbot for this fault without any amendment, at length he was sent to the man of God, who likewise very much rebuked him for his folly. Notwithstanding, returning to his monastery, he followed the holy man’s admonition; but, on the third day, he fell again to his old custom, and would not stay within at the time of prayer.  Word was once more sent to the man of God, by the father of the Abbey he had appointed there.

Benedict returned the answer that he would come himself, and reform what was amiss, which he did accordingly. It so fell out, that when the singing of psalms was ended, and the hour come in which the monks took themselves to prayer, the holy man perceived that the monk, who used at that time to go forth, was drawn out by the skirt of his garment by a little black boy.  On seeing this, he spoke secretly to Pompeianus, father of the Abbey, and also to Maurus saying, “Do you not see who it is, that draws this monk from his prayers?” and they answered him, that they did not. “Then let us pray to God,” he said, “that you also may behold whom this monk follows.” After two days Maurus saw him, but Pompeianus could not.

On another day, when the man of God had ended his devotions, he went out of the oratory, where he found the foresaid monk standing idle. For the blindness of his heart he struck with a little wand, and from that day forward he was so freed from all allurement of the little black boy, that he remained quietly at his prayers, as the other monks did. The old enemy was so terrified, that he dare not suggest any such thoughts again. As though by that blow, not the monk, but the devil himself had been struck.

From the fourth chapter of Bk II of St. Gregory’s dialogues.

But, seriously, it is well to invoke St. Benedict’s intercession for when we are distracted at prayer.

On Patron Saints and Saints’ Lives

The life of St Benedict is for me a very fruitful source for reflection and meditation.  (Indeed, I had the pleasure a year or so ago of reading all of St. Gregory’s Dialogues [pdf file, an online version begins here].)  It has been some time, but I used to read a chapter of his life every weekday during lunch.  I have returned to that practice this Lent, and very happy to do so.

I have heard the notion in Orthodox circles that one does not choose a patron saint, but is, rather, chosen by that saint.  That’s surely a bit of hyperbole, but it nonetheless rings true in my own experience.  I have shared before how it is, in almost identical situations, more than dozen years apart, St. Benedict and Blessed Seraphim made their respective patronages known to me.  I have their icons in my prayer corner, and invoke their prayers constantly.

When I was a Protestant, of course, saints’ lives were barely on the radar, and to the degree that they were, they were of mere historical interest, stories to tell to encourage one another in the faith.  Gosh, that Ignatios sure did die a violent death.  Hope I could die so nobly.  And even as an Episcopalian, though there was much more overt celebration of saints’ lives, it was still primarily about biography.  Any prayers offered in commemoration to the saints were offered directly to God to instill in us the same love, the same acts of service and martyrdom.  But it was primarily historical.  To be sure, we believed the saints lived in the presence of Christ.  But their lives were historical accounts which we emulated and admired and prayed to God to be like.

In other words, the saints were observed as artefacts, not engaged as persons.

If there were any more interest in saints, it was in those saints who left theological or doctrinal writings we could study.  Saints were more available to us through doctrine and the pages of a book, than they were as living beings in Abraham’s bosom.

Coming to Orthodoxy rendered a deep and abiding change.  The saints were indeed alive, and they interceded for us.  They were not museum pieces, but were united to and with us in God as living, active persons.  But more to the point, there was no division between a saint’s theology and the saints life.  Indeed, the saint’s life is theology.

And this explains another curious factor I noticed in coming to Orthodoxy: persons were more interested, it seemed to me, in the reading of saints’ lives than theology.  If I asked for books to read, I was not given St. John Damascene’s Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, or St. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, but rather was told to read the life of St. Thus-and-so (usually one I’d never heard of).  St. Herman?  Who’s that?  Okay, sure.  (Later: Wow!)

St. Seraphim of Sarov is another example.  Like St. John Cassian’s Conferences, St. Seraphim’s conversation with Motovilov is much like hagiography, not a theological treatise.  And yet what a depth of theology resides within that account!

In Orthodoxy, the saints are not merely historical pieces, but active agents involved in our common salvation, and their lives reflect a deep theology.  I encourage you to take up one of the lives of the saint, say, St. Benedict, Fr. Seraphim, St. Seraphim of Sarov, St. Ignatios, or St. Polycarp, and read them slowly and prayerfully.

Something to Keep in Mind During Lent

Though my temptation was different, the saint provides an example I would have done well to remember (from the life of St. Benedict):

On a certain day being alone, the tempter was at hand: for a little black bird, commonly called a merle or an ousel, began to fly about his face, and that so near as the holy man, if he would, might have taken it with his hand: but after he had blessed himself with the sign of the cross, the bird flew away: and forthwith the holy man was assaulted with such a terrible temptation of the flesh, as he never felt the like in all his life.

A certain woman there was which some time he had seen, the memory of which the wicked spirit put into his mind, and by the representation of her so mightily inflamed with concupiscence the soul of God’s servant, which so increased that, almost overcome with pleasure, he was of mind to have forsaken the wilderness. But, suddenly assisted with God’s grace, he came to himself; and seeing many thick briers and nettle bushes to grow hard by, off he cast his apparel, and threw himself into the midst of them, and there wallowed so long that, when he rose up, all his flesh was pitifully torn. So, by the wounds of his body, he cured the wounds of his soul, in that he turned pleasure into pain, and by the outward burning of extreme smart, quenched that fire which, being nourished before with the fuel of carnal cogitations, inwardly burned in his soul: and by this means he overcame the sin, because he made a change of the fire.

From which time forward, as himself afterward reported to his disciples, he found all temptation of pleasure so subdued, that he never felt any such thing. Many after this began to abandon the world, and to become his scholars. For being now freed from the vice of temptation, worthily and with great reason is he made a master of virtue . . . .

from the second chapter of Bk II of St. Gregory the Great’s dialogues

Lent Day 2

So, now that two days of Lent are just about done, how’s it been?

Basic. Very basic.

What I mean by that is I have learned how terribly disconnected I have become, in several ways. I have long wrestled with my ever-growing awareness that my mind is too, too often absent from my heart.  I have been learning how I seem to float along in a disembodied sort of frame of reference. My doxa is divided from my pragma. The Lenten focus on prayer, fasting and almsgiving reveals a triad of sundered connections.

Take for example the fasting. Fasting locates one’s faith within the temple of the body, wherein dwells the Holy Spirit. The focus on restricting one’s diet serves to bring the body, and with it, the passions, to one’s attention. I have been disconcerted and amazed to discover that Plato’s ugly horse of appetite controls the chariot of my living. Ours is a society rife with every conceivable and facile opportunity to indulge one’s passions. Thought, reason, the nous is bypassed altogether and the appetites are fed on a sort of autopilot. Is it eight or nine o’clock and am I about to sit down with my lovely bride to watch a crime drama? I’ll think nothing of grabbing a snack of crackers or chips.

Note that: I. Do. Not. Think.

Or take almsgiving. Our family certainly gives to our local parish. But how often do we think about the poor surrounding us?

Note again: I. Do. Not. Think.

Or prayer. Well, what else is to be said? I just am not practing prayer as I used to before our move. There have been some significant challenges related to the girls’ sleep schedule and my work schedule that have impacted this, of course. But the story is, I just fail to give to prayer the sort of thought and practice needed. By the time I remember I need to pray, I’m out the door, keys in hand, on my way to work.

I. Do. Not. Think.

Lent requires an intentionality about living that I ought to, but do not, cultivate. Wasn’t it on my very own blog that I posted, after having read and underlined in my copy of the book, the following words?

Attention to what goes on in the heart and to what comes forth from it is the chief work of a well-ordered Christian life. Through this attention the inward and the outward are brought into due relation with one another. But to this watchfulness, discernment must always be added, so that we may understand aright what passes within and what is required by outward circumstance. Attention is useless without discernment.

–Theophan the Recluse (in Igumen Chariton of Valamo, The Art of Prayer (Faber and Faber, 1966), p. 182)

But I live an inattentive life.

This then is my project for Great and Holy Lent. Beyond “successfully” attending to any of the forms and rules–and I have only been given the exhortation to do my best–the more essential matter is to pay attention.

In the words of the Lord, “What I say to you, I say to all, ‘Watch!'” (Mark 13:37)

O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden

So, there I was, minding my own business, Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion playing softly in my work background, when I heard a familiar tune.  The words, however, were rather unfamiliar . . . at first.

O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden,
Voll Schmerz und voller Hohn,
O Haupt, zu Spott gebunden
Mit einer Dornenkron,
O Haupt, sonst schön gezieret
Mit höchster Ehr und Zier,
Jetzt aber hoch schimpfieret,
Gegrüßet seist du mir!
Du edles Angesichte,
Dafür sonst schrickt und scheut
Das große Weltgerichte,
Wie bist du so bespeit;
Wie bist du so erbleichet!
Wer hat dein Augenlicht,
Dem sonst kein Licht nicht gleichet,
So schändlich zugericht’?

Of course, a little translation work makes them much more recognizable:

O head of blood and wounding,
Of pain and scorn so full,
O Head, for spite now fettered
Beneath a crown of thorns,
O head, once fair and lovely,
With highest praise adorned,
But highly now insulted,
All hail to thee, I say!
Thou countenance so noble,
At which should shrink and quail
The mighty world’s great burden,
How spat upon thou art;
How pale thou art become now!
Who hath thine eyes’ bright light,
Alike no other light once,
So shamefully abused?

Of course, I know this piece as O Sacred Head Now Wounded:

Continue reading “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden”

Tractati Leonis Magni

From this webpage, Tractati Leonis Magni, comes sermons of St. Leo the Great, Bishop of Rome. The texts are in Latin, with several of them translated into English. And the sermons are read in Latin (mp3 files), as well.

Take note of the handful of sermons on Lent. Good way to celebrate his feast day today, and to get ready for Lent.