Orthodox Form, Orthodox Substance

[Note: This is a response to a comment from my Orthodox brother, Gabe, on my “How to Not be Very Orthodox” video.  I thought I’d make a post for it so the discussion might continue here–if anyone wishes to do so.]


Well, brother, one of the dangers of satire is that the point will be missed for the form.

My criticism–which I had hoped to have been clear–was not on whether or not there were legitimate criticisms of the items mentioned, but, rather, that in a large swath of the overall criticisms there was a rather large failure: to focus on externals.

Even Fr Seraphim–who, you rightly point out, would insist on the highest quality of publication output–was quite willing to encourage convert efforts at publishing, including efforts which would appeal to Protestants, just so long as those things retained the savor of Orthodoxy.  Indeed, Fr Ambrose (ne Fr Alexey) was brought quite to task for writing a favorable article on the Shroud of Turin–especially because he used “Roman Catholic” terminology.  And while Fr Seraphim did regret some of the terminology, he did not criticize the effort or the article.  The same sort of thing happened when Fr Ambrose printed an article on evolution–after all, what did that have to do with Orthodoxy?  But Fr Seraphim rightly knew that this was an important cultural and spiritual matter, and did not balk at all at such an article.

In other words, much, though not all, of the criticisms focus on easy (and easily distorted) external matters.  Very little is focusing on the more difficult internal matters, what Blessed Seraphim would call the “savor of Orthodoxy.”

If we look at externals, yes, of course, we could say that Fr Ambrose’s newspaper is much different in form than, say, Again magazine.  But can we really say that it does not have the savor of Orthodoxy?

Furthermore, Fr Seraphim himself would agree that American Orthodoxy has to seek its own incarnated form.  For decades it has been kept in its ethnic forms–and nothing wrong with that–but because of it, it hasn’t had a chance to permeate the American culture.  We are only now beginning to see some of the efforts at that–and there are light years to go.

So what if a bunch of crazy evangelism minded former Protestants are leading the way and using Moody Bible and pop evangelical forms to infiltrate the culture?  Are we so fearful of the paper thin weakness of our Orthodox Faith that we think the forms will overwhelm its divine substance?

I, for one, am not. 

Yes, we should be constantly mindful, but I have no fear that the Orthodox Faith we hold will correct the forms with which it is being communicated.  After all, the conversion of a nation has to start somewhere.  I somehow don’t think the Rus’ were instantly conformed to Orthodox forms upon the nation’s conversion.  Yet, somehow, they became Orthodox and Orthodoxy molded the forms of their culture and not the other way ’round.


Thoughts on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ

This comes perhaps four years late. But such a tardiness is not without design. I have been quite resistant to viewing The Passion, to some degree from “purist” notions. Not purist in the sense of the silly spats among Orthodox as to whether such a bloody portrayal of the Passion was in keeping with “true” Orthodoxy. Rather purist in the sense of what images I wanted my mind to hold of Jesus’ suffering and death. I wanted such images to be those of the icons and the Church’s hymns. And so, having watched The Passion once after Pascha 2004, I did not watch it again.

I cannot speak as to whether such intentions have been fulfilled, but I do think it accurate to say, I did not as fully appreciate the movie in the early summer of 2004 as I appreciated it this past Friday (when I watched it again for the first time since then), and, unless I am mistaken, as I will further and perhaps more deeply appreciate it in the future. I suspect that such a greater and more understanding engagement with it is due in no small measure to the fact that I have come through more of life in the past four years, including the birth of our second daughter, more Liturgies and worship, more Holy Weeks, and, if I may, more sorrows.

Continue reading “Thoughts on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ

The Mystery of the Will of God

I have had Bp Joseph’s words on my mind since I posted them:

The sensations of the heart [i.e., the conscious and perceptible experience of God] assume that someone is under spiritual supervision and has undergone substantial purification. Most of us do not acheive this kind of purification except through intense involuntary suffering. So if you want to experience God in your heart, you must be willing to experience suffering. No saint was ever formed without pain and suffering.

It is not, I do not think, a false humility to assert that I do not know what it means to suffer. Perhaps I am overly cynical about such matters due to our hyper-therapeutic age wherein all pain and sorrow is to be done away with or narcotized. Perhaps it is my descent from a line of stoic, pragmatic Kansas farmers, which gives rise to the dry, deadpan humor that approaches all injuries with the remedy, “Rub some dirt on it.” I will admit to knowing something of sorrow, but I think this is no great claim.

Because I do not know what it means to suffer, if I may take His Grace’s words on their face, I do not know, at least not very much, what it is to have the conscious and perceptible experience of God. And because I do not know what it means to suffer, and thus to have a conscious and perceptible experience of God, suffering and the will of God is one great mystery to me.
I have taken some pains over that last sentence. Though redundant and obvious, please note the juxtapositions.

I am struck by what Bp Joseph says regarding the nature of this suffering: it is “intense involuntary suffering.” Intense. Involuntary. It is a from-the-cross, or excruciating, pain. And it is unwanted and unwelcome.

Continue reading “The Mystery of the Will of God”

More Orthodox Than Thou (A Protestant Convert to Orthodoxy Rant)

At the risk of engaging the passions–not a good thing to do at any time, let alone Great and Holy Lent–I want to take on this notion going around the Protestant-convert-to-Orthodoxy blogosphere in which Protestant converts to Orthodoxy are criticizing fellow Protestant converts to Orthodoxy about things such converts are doing that just aren’t Orthodox enough. Oh, and by the way, I’m a Protestant convert to Orthodoxy. The ironies abound.

My rant, er, post, is occasioned by, but not limited to, the recent criticisms of the Orthodox Study Bible. But we might as well bring in the criticisms of Ancient Faith Radio, Conciliar Press, and other Orthodox entities fueled by a lot of Protestant convert energies. I am, quite frankly, reeeeeaaaaallllyyy tired of the crap, er debate. I suppose I should expect such crap, er, debates, during Great and Holy Lent since this is the time of year when we Protestant converts to Orthodoxy lose our ever-lovin’ minds and succumb to our inner Protestant critical spirit.

You Protestant converts to Orthodoxy remember those days, right? When we tried to determine whether some other Protestant evangelifundamentaneoorthodox was “really” saved? You know: “when you asked Jesus into your heart, did you really, really mean it, or did you hold a little bit back?” Or when we judged people in terms of their music style. “Oh, that church isn’t very evangelistic or mission-minded. They’re still using outdated hymns.” Or when we judged fellow Christians’ maturity as to whether they were serious Bible readers (i.e., used a wooden English translation like the NASB), or were still “milk-drinkers” (i.e., used a free paraphrase like “The Message”). Or, worse–whether they used one of those heretical gender-equivalent translations.

Oh, the good ol’ days.

But I guesss the good ol’ days are still with us Protestant converts to Orthodoxy, because we’ve simply baptized our critical spirits with our newly acquired Orthodoxy and continue to criticize our fellow (former) Protestant brothers and sisters over form instead of substance. I wonder whether those critics of these “too Protestant” endeavors of the OSB, AFR and Conciliar Press have been Orthodox long enough to really ascertain if the alleged “Protestant forms” of these works are, in fact, prohibitive of substantial Orthodoxy. Forgive me for my impertinence, but I’ve been taught that the substance of Orthodoxy is prayer, fasting, almsgiving, worship at the Liturgy, confession and participation in the Sacraments. But I’ve been taught this by a priest and other clergy who are Protestant converts to Orthodoxy, so maybe I’m imbibing too much Protestant form and not enough Orthodox substance.

And by the way, can my fellow Protestant converts to Orthodoxy please point out to me just when and where this Golden Age of Orthodox Ethos actually existed? It can’t be nineteenth century Russia, because all the icons are too three-dimensional and “Roman.” It can’t be the Byzantine Empire because of all those heretical Emperors manipulating Church Councils and promulgating iconoclasm and monophysitism. It can’t be any of those smaller so-called “Orthodox countries” because surely they were filled with caesoropapism? And goodness knows it has never been North America!

So, maybe this Golden Age of Orthodox Ethos is one of those Protestant convert to Orthodoxy myths. Sort of like the Protestant myth that the founding fathers of America were all evangelical Christians and intended America to be a Christian nation (oops! erastianism!).


Can I ask all my fellow Protestant converts to Orthodoxy who are spending inordinate amounts of online time criticizing other Protextant converts to Orthodoxy to stow it? None of us have been Orthodox long enough to be allowed to have an Orthodox opinion about anything. (I’m sure there’s an Ecumenical Council somewhere that has a canon for just this sort of thing.) Shut up and pray is probably good advice for us all.

Happy Lent, everyone.

Prayer, the Psalter, and Theologizing

O Heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things, Treasury of good things and Giver of life, come and dwell in us and cleanse us from every stain and save our souls, O Gracious Lord.

The Orthodox begin the hours of prayer with this prayer. It is a prayer to the Holy Spirit and a reminder of the ubiquity of God. It grounds us in that ubiquity, humbling us with an acknowledgement of our sins, and implores our salvation. It is, as all prayer can be, an opportunity to that pre-reflective experience of God, that union with the Father in the Person of the Son.

The reflection on our experience is a normal and natural movement, which, at its best, results in theology. That theology also becomes part of our experience, and in a complex of interweaving shapes and is shaped by our continuing experience. The dangers here are obvious. A misstep, a false conclusion in theologizing can result in a distortion of our experience, and result in further distortion of our theology. So goes heresy and apostasy.

But a misstep in the reflective movement which results in a flawed theology can still be corrected by further experience. The intellective dissonance can be tamed and quieted by the centered heart. This prayer to the Holy Spirit is one aspect of that means of correction. So, too, is suffering.

If there is a body of raw experience set forth in prayer, it must be the Psalter. In the Psalter are the divinely inspired and shaped prayers of God’s people as they struggle through betrayal and suffering, as they rejoice in praise and thanksgiving, and in all their experiences between. When we go to the Psalter, the workshop of our prayers, we find there prayers for our every need and occasion. We find there the raw experiences that match our own.

Do not mistake. I do not mean to assert that the Psalter contains no theologizing, no reflection on experience. No such assertion could be further from the truth (cf. by way of example, Psalm 72 [73 in the Hebrew]). But I do mean to assert that the Psalms are a great treasure house of the pre-reflective experiences of the psalmists. There are recorded the unadorned experiences of God’s people. To clarify further, I do not mean to assert that there is anything untoward about theologizing. It is, as I said, natural and normal. It’s what God’s people do. And they often do it in prayer.

But there is something about the movement of reflection that can tend to distance God from oneself. It does not have to do so; one can experience God in such reflection. Yet oftentimes in the reflective movement God moves from a Triune Person of relation to an object of consideration, a concept.

It is, I think, particularly in the activity of prayer, that distancing that we want to avoid. We want God. We pray the Holy Spirit to come and abide in us, to cleanse us and to save us. If we move him away from us, at however near a remove, however conceptual, we are, it seems to me, frustrating our own ends.

This is, as is readily evident, one of my chief problems in my own prayers: keeping God in front of me, and not the idea of God. And I am not sure how such a problem is to be overcome. Or rather, I can only think of one way, and when one is struggling that way is unpleasant at best and excruciating at worst.

This one method by which I think it may be possible to overcome the inappropriate conceptualizing of God is to simply immerse oneself in the present moment, without dilution or excuse. To stand there and embrace God. In many moments, this is quite easy. One has consumed Holy Communion, and it is not difficult at all to hold within one’s heart that warming fire, to cup, as it were, in one’s heart the liquid light. Or one is praying the Jesus Prayer and feels gathered into oneself all one’s loves, the spouse working in the kitchen, the little ones slumbering deep and peacefully in their beds, indeed, all the persons one knows and all creation, gathering all these together within oneself and presenting them to the Lord and calling down endless Kyries upon them. These are the easy moments.

But there are other moments where one’s sight is little else but darkness. One prays to become all light, but finds not even a spark. One has no sense of the Holy Trinity, reaching out a hand which appears to grasp at nothing at all. One cannot see the father waiting with open arms for the prodigal. One feels the blows of betrayal, fear, devastation, the loss of all loves, and the acid of false words. One’s entire instinct is to assume that God is not there, maybe even cannot be there and one is tensed spiritually, even perhaps physically, to run, wild, fast and anxious. And yet, one has lost the polestar and cannot run to anywhere. This is, I think, though I cannot tell for sure, a mercy, this blindness and disorientation. It keeps one in that one spot. And, if the prayers are true, and I must somehow find a way to hold that they are, then it is in that one spot that the Treasury of good things and giver of life meets us. It is there that we may be cleansed of our sins and unbelief. It is there that we may be saved.

We must (may I state it as a necessity?), I think, grab the raw energies of our present moments and hold them fast, however painful, however uncontrollable, however devastating. We must not worry ourselves, I do not think, about our theologies and our understandings of these moments. There will be time to reflect, if the Lord grants it and a measure of rest. But for the moment, for this mean time, we must not run, but stand still. And wait.

The Struggle of Silence

O God, my praise do not pass over in silence; for the mouth of the sinner and the mouth of the deceitful man are opened against me. They have spoken against me with a deceitful tongue, and with words of hatred have they encompassed me, and they have warred against me without a cause. In return for my love, they have falsely accused me; but as for me, I gave myself to prayer. And they repaid me evil for good, and hatred for my love. Set Thou a sinner over him, and let the devil stand at his right hand. When he is judged, let him go forth condemned, and let his prayer become sin. Let his days be few, and his bishopric let another take. (Psalm 108 [109])

This psalm, of course, is applied Christologically by the Apostles in Acts 1 when they are selecting a replacement for Judas, who, we are told went and fell headlong and burst open, his bowels spilling out. It is not surprising, I do not think, that the Apostles would see in this psalm a Christological center, given the subject matter of the psalm and the act of betrayal for which Judas himself would forever be known.

This is an imprecatory psalm, which gives modern Christians bunches of fits. This is due, of course, to the modern inability to see the Psalter through the lenses of Christ, to see at its heart Jesus. Utterly scandalized with the psalmist’s call to smite the Edomites, modern Christians and exegetes fail to see that the Edomites are the passions within us which war against the Spirit and the grace of God. They fail to see the connection between “let his bishopric another take” and St. Paul’s “I beat my body and make it my slave.”

But those concerns aside, I am struck by the opening verse of this psalm: “O God, my praise do not pass over in silence.” If there is one thing our world, including and especially our Christian world, cannot abide, it is silence. The endless human yammering that goes on in our world is endemic and psychotic. We have twenty-four hour radio and television stations and programs. We carry our iPods and mp3 players. Our vision is bombarded by tens of thousands of images. Visual and audio pollution is rife. Humankind cannot stand too much silence.

And, if we take this psalm as a cue, it is even more difficult when one feels oneself wrongly accused. The human instinct is one of defense and self-justification. We fear loss: of reputation, of friends, of family. We seek to control the consequences, and so we instinctively rise to fill the void left in the wake of such slanders. If we do not, then . . . ?

But one of the problems with the imprecatory psalms, for those of us who are barely disciples of Christ, is that rather than assist us in fighting the passions, they give rise in us to them. Like the psalmist we may well wish imprecations on our enemies. And, from a perspective rooted in justice, that may well be reasonable.

Yet, especially as we get closer to Holy Week, I am mindful of a different sort of response. That of Christ. “As a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” He answered not a word. He remained silent. And it did not save him from the injustice of false accusations, torture, and death. He was silent.

I dare not universalize this silence, of course. After all, different times and occasions, different vocations from God, may call forth different obediences. But I also know there is something here for me. A deeper trail that runs beneath and through the psalm above. That is to say, it may well be that we can best fight the sinful passions within us, by remaining silent.

Such a silence is a sort of death. Indeed, such a silence may not forestall further injustices and loss. And if this is what God wills, then this is somehow his mercy and his goodness to us. Such a silence cannot but call for an increase in faith. And so we call out, “I do believe, help my unbelief.”

Lord have mercy. Lady pray for me.

The Table in the Wilderness

And they spake against God, and they said, Cannot God prepare a table in the wilderness? (Psalm 77:19 [78:18])

Psalm 77 recounts the murmuring of the Israelites, tired of the provision of God in the manna and the water from the rock, how they tested God. They demanded of God a table for their appetites and passions. God did, indeed, provide them their table, and with it the consequences of their sin as they were consumed by that which they consumed.

God help me, I do not find it that difficult to understand the Israelites here. Even if one retains his certainty that he is following God’s lead, that he is enacting the will of God, the wilderness is an unfriendly place. Stripped of even the most basic of comforts, devoid of even the most rudimentary of routines, conscious that this long way ’round to the Promised Land is God’s correction and discipline, why would one not murmur? Why would one not find it nearly impossible not to give voice to the longing for the dreams and delicacies once known and still hoped for?

And yet . . . . There before them every morning as the dew evaporated was tangible evidence of God’s love and care. That water gushing from the rock was a visible and liquid demonstration of unfathomable mercy. There is a point in time in which one, by choice, directs one’s attention and will from God’s mercy and love to one’s own desires and passions. It is at this point that one loses the horizon and spirals down into oneself and into self-bondage.

But we ought be careful not to give the implication that God will not provide us that wilderness table. Psalm 22 (23 in the Hebrew) is used in the pre-Communion prayers of the Orthodox. As in the King James, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” And in the Septuagint, David is given to declare how excellent is that cup which fills him. The table, of course, is the Holy Eucharist in which Christ gives us himself in his Body and Blood.

In this Great and Holy Lent, I find myself in a wilderness given to me at a time and in a manner I would never have chosen, and still find myself rebelling against. I have to somehow find the wherewithal to believe that this is for my correction and healing. But like the Israelites, I grumble against the table spread for me. I still cling to the dreams I had as recently as two months ago. But they are just dreams. And even two months ago, those dreams ceased to be possible. It just took some time for the truth and my consciousness to come to grips with that. I am quite literally wandering, displaced, sundered from those closest to me. Each day is a conscious effort to arise, to pray, and to cast myself on God’s mercies. Which is to say, to offer myself at the foot of the Cross.

Truth be told, I have not yet found a way to do that. Or, at least, I may kneel, only to arise again, only to then force myself again to the ground–in this endless cyclical struggle to die to self.

It is unbearably hard to do. Injustice has been done, and I cry for justice. And yet, O God help me, how can I cry for justice when I have been given such mercy by the only One who loves mankind?

Tonight we will celebrate the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy. And I will be brought once again to this table spread for me in this bitter and frightening wilderness. And there, beneath the witness tree which transfixes the world and around which the universe revolves, I will beg of God to give me of himself, and try, as best I might, to give him myself. If I can do that, may our Lady intercede for me, then perhaps I can again know that cup which fills me, how excellent it is. It is at that table that the blind can see and where the weary rest.

Lord have mercy. Hear my prayer and make speed to save me.