“The more I study the history of the Orthodox Church in this country, the more I am convinced that our work here is God's work; that God himself is helping us; that when it seems as though everything we do is ready to fail, …on the contrary, it not only does not die, but grows in new strength and brilliance.” [said just before leaving the United States for Russia]
Saint Tikhon, enlightener of America

«— A Dignified and Proper Language?
—» Tomato Catch-up Part II

Tomato Catch-up

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It’s here! And I’m exhausted.

The lastest from Potterville, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, has arrived. Our party was jam-packed; afterwards, I stumbled into my flat at 2:00 am, mumbled my prayers, and fell onto the mattress.

Earlier in the week, the IP gremlins sneaked into our servers and interrupted our internet access for several days; the problem was only resolved last night sometime. Just in time for the madness.

Between shifts, I saw Hulk, the new Marvel adaptation boasting the talents of Ang Lee. I am so impressed, my initial reaction is that it has pushed Tim Burton’s Batman out of my top spot for best comic-to-film adaptation ever. That’s a big thing to say, and it hurts me to say it. I may chicken-out and decide against that judgment later.

I just received from St. Isaac of Syria Skete two new icons: St. Basil the Great, my patron, and St. Raphael, my personal favorite angel. Since I could spend myself broke on religious trinkets of all sorts in seconds, I try to avoid buying icons or anything that would encourage that tendency. But I decided that I simply could not put off these two purchases any longer. I’ve been praying to both St. Basil and my guardian angel in my morning and evening rules. Because icons are so integral to Orthodox spirituality, it has been very difficult to pray without having these icons as an aid.

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Filed under: — Basil @ 2:17 pm

«— Three Decades of the Blues
—» Tomato Catch-up

A Dignified and Proper Language?

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I’m happy to see that The Christian Activist has returned to cyberspace. Just as cool, I found an interesting feature article by Vladyka, his emminence Dmitri, Archbishop of Dallas and the Southi.e., our bishop. He discusses the state of English translations of the Byzantine rite and why they are in such a state of disrepair, plus some of the implications and results of that disrepair for the faithful.

As I am still reading this article, I have very little in the way of comment, except that I take great exception to the assumed equivalence of “archaic language” with language that is “traditional, dignified, artistic or poetic, reserved for and appropriate to worship, in other words, a religious language.” It is a gratuitous assumption, and it undermines the serious question at hand. Indeed, in the battle over language, I do not believe that anyone doubts that we should have a proper, dignified, elevated, poetic language for our services. The question is, “What exactly counts for such language?”

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Filed under: — Basil @ 3:56 pm

«— Prophet David and Saint Seraphim on Evangelism
—» A Dignified and Proper Language?

Three Decades of the Blues

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Today, I am finally old enough to be ordained a priest, according to the fourteenth canon of the Quinisext Council. Heh. A little convert humor there.

My contemplation for this auspicious day: Why can’t God just make me want whatever it is that he wants for me?

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Filed under: — Basil @ 6:26 pm

«— Up, Up, and Away!
—» Three Decades of the Blues

Prophet David and Saint Seraphim on Evangelism

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James, in contemplating this week’s national evangelization conference, asks, “My question for Basil, Simeon, Chris, Rick, Bert, Huw, Katie, Sock Monk, and Karl is what does Orthodox evangelism look like?” The conference, entitled “Rediscovering the Great Commission: Baptize All Nations,”, is sponsored by the OCA’s Department of Evangelization, of which Fr. David is a member.

I was going to contemplate the etymology of evangel-rooted words. “Evangelion” is a Greek word meaning, broadly, “good news.” The Greek word, in fact, is also translated Gospel, depending on the context. The Gospel writers are called “evangelists” in Orthodox tradition.

I also pondered an examination of Beauty’s role in many conversions to Orthodox Christian faith. This would include the famous experience, recorded in the Russian Primary Chronicle, of St. Vladimir’s emissaries in Holy Wisdom Cathedral (Agia Sophia) in Constantinople. Reporting on their experience of the Divine Liturgy, they exclaimed, “We did not know whether we were on heaven or on earth.”

As good and edifying as such contemplations might possibly be for some, and they are certainly important as part of the explanation, an exercise that I have recently undertaken prompted me to look at the question from a different, yet arguably more Orthodox, perspective. I am currently in the process of handwriting a manual prayers in a Moleskine notebook. I have not, to date, found a perfect prayerbook — i.e., a prayerbook that fits all my needs — so I am making it. Currently, I am transcribing the rule for Morning Prayers.

Today, in transcribing Psalm 50(51), “Have mercy on me, O Lord,” I noticed a phrase which might seem arrogant and overweening in the midst of a litany of confession. “Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.” (Psalm 50(51).13) In contemplating this, I have become convinced that this is the key to the Orthodox model of evangelization. As St. Seraphim of Sarov says, “Acquire the Spirit of peace, and a thousand around you will find salvation.”

Repentance is unfortunately conceived in the West as sorrow for sin. Indeed, sorrow for sin is laudable, but it is not repentance. It is compunction. Though the Fathers, especially the Desert Fathers, extol the virtue of tears, of weeping over one’s sins, none of them would extol them over repentance. In Greek, repentance is metania, a single-minded conversion, a turning to God and away from sin. Though compunction is often a result of true repentance, the two do not necessarily imply one another. This important distinction, made over and over again in the Fathers, reminds us that we must never judge a brother harshly for not appearing sorry enough for his sins, nor assume that one is repentant because he is merely sorry.

A Church full of penitents is inherently attractive. Only through repentance, turning from sin to God, do we learn how to love truly. People will want what they see: “What is different about these people? I want it!” Without repentance, pomp and circumstance is not beautiful; it is merely pompous and circumstantial. Without repentance, no teaching or doctrine will be attractive; nothing, however true, will be good news. Because repentance, this turning unto God from our selfishness, our stubborn sinfulness, is the prerequisite to an unselfish love, it is necessarily the prerequisite for evangelization.

People know fakeness when they see it. Without repentance, all evangelization is proselytism, aimed at increasing the numbers in our church. However we try to mask it, until our motives have been purified, they are still selfish and sinful.

If this is the correct way of looking at Orthodox evangelism, it explains why the Orthodox appear “passive” in evangelism. Being able to talk about your faith is important, undoubtedly. But it is not martyria, witness, by itself. Nor is it necessarily the most important part of witness. Without a truly changed life, Christ-centered life, we are merely pontificating with Yet Another Religion. Nobody needs that.

There is more to contemplate here. Although what I’ve indicated here would seem to indicate a passive evangelism, which I’ve already noted, this is not the whole story. More on that to come…

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Filed under: — Basil @ 9:40 pm

«— Good-bye, Pascha
—» Prophet David and Saint Seraphim on Evangelism

Up, Up, and Away!

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“And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven.” This verse from today’s Gospel, Luke 24.36-53, is troublesome to modern children of the Enlightenment. This nettlesome story which appears in the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles bothers those who have not been innoculated to its biblical worldview. “Up” into “heaven”? What does that mean? Is the Lord bodily in the stars? Will Voyager bump into him someday? And up? What about the direction up is special here? Retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, roundly criticized for his wholly unorthodox views, rightly points out that this language is entirely foreign to postmodern pilgrims.

Christians who have been brought up translating this ancient world picture into a more sophisticated worldview may be tempted to patronize such pilgrims, but we have grown up drinking the Kool-Aid, as it were. We know without thinking that “heaven,” though formerly thought to be “up,” has been reinterpreted to be a different state of existence &#8212 something spiritual and therefore non-material. Remember, though, not everyone is in on the jargon.

Still, the Lucan descriptions specifically say he went up. Even the most cynical of searchers have difficulty thinking of scriptural descriptions as meaning anything other than “literal fact.” Even the name of today’s commemoration is the Ascension, following the credal language of the Nicene Council, “and ascended into heaven.” Why the directional language?

If the Bible says he went up, but that description is now meaningless, what exactly does today’s commemoration mean? Archpriest Thomas Hopko notes dryly, in passing, “The Church’s celebration of the ascension, as all such festal celebrations, is not merely the remembrance of an event in Christ’s life. Indeed, the ascension itself is not to be understood as though it were simply the supernatural event of a man floating up and away into the skies.” So, did he fly away or not?

As so often happens, C. S. Lewis makes some outstandingly salient points here. He holds that it is an “historical error to hold that all, or even most, early Christians believed in the sky-palace in the same sense as we believe in the solar system.” Whether this position is true or false I leave to the archaeologist and the anthropologist. What he says next, though, is worth its weight in gold — note the anachronism creeping into my metaphorical menagerie. “We must distinguish between the core of belief and its attendant imagery.” Lewis says,

When I think of London, I always see a picture of Euston Station. But I do not believe that London is Euston Station. That is a simple case, because there the thinker knows the imagery to be false. Now let us take a more complex one. I once heard a lady tell her daughter that if you ate too many aspirin tablets you would die. ‘But why?’ asked the child. ‘If you squash them you don’t find any horrid red things inside them.’ Obviously, when this child thought of poison she not only had an attendant image of ‘horrid red things’, but she actually believed that poison was red. And this is an error. But how far does it invalidate her thinking about poison?

She’s been told that aspirin will kill her. This is not in error. She has been told, rather often, which items in her home are poisonous. This is not in error. Moreover, a visitor to her home, thinking he was about to drink some water and told by this child that it was instead poison, would do well to heed her advice. To “disredgard the warning on the ground that ‘This child has an archaic and mythological idea of poison as horrid red things’” would be a fatal error, indeed.

Lewis goes on, in the same essay, to remind us that all of our language is symbolic, and there is no way around using metaphor to describe non-physical realities that defy description.

To say that God ‘enters’ the natural order involves just as much spatial imagery as to say that He ‘comes down’; one has simply horizontal (or undefined) for vertical movement. To say that He is ‘reabsorbed’ into the Noumenal is better than to say that He ‘ascended’ into Heaven, only if the picture of something dissolving in a warm fluid, or being sucked into a throat, is less misleading than the picture of a bird, or a balloon, going up. All language, except about objects of sense, is metaphorical through and through.

So, all this talk of ascending and descending is both for the weakness of premodern man, and it is also for the weakness of modern man. It is also for the weakness of postmodern man. We continue to share the same human nature as all of our ancestors, and mystery demands symbolic containers that condescend to that weakness.

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Filed under: — Basil @ 9:44 pm

«— Necessary Confession
—» Up, Up, and Away!

Good-bye, Pascha

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When I was first becoming Orthodox, back when our parish was EOC, I met a girl whose name was Pascha. She had golden Rapunzel hair, and I don’t remember her ever without a smile. She studied journalism and wrote for the college newspaper. I was smitten, of course. This has been my usual response to beautiful women. Wouldn’t it be a beautiful thing if this new faith also holds a clue for me about true love? I guess I’ve always been a romantic, looking for silly little ironies like that, the way they happen in storybooks.

Her last name is different now. The last time I saw her, I asked how she was doing. She was about four years behind me in college, so it was a chance meeting on the street or in the cafeteria or something. She said she was about to graduate and then she was going to get married. I said, “Oh, shoot. Ah, I mean, Congratulations!” I don’t know if she took that as a compliment, which it was, or as deeply rude, which it also was.

Good-bye, Pascha.

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Filed under: — Basil @ 4:45 pm

«— We Stole How Much From You?
—» Good-bye, Pascha

Necessary Confession

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Yesterday, I made confession. As usual, it was in response to guilt over “the sin that so easily besets” (cf. Heb 12.1). This usually brings me to confession about once every four to six weeks — coincidentally, what our bishop recommends as the interval for regular communicants. This time, however, I took much more care in preparing. In the past, I have prepared for a few minutes before confession, or perhaps as long as an hour. I have never made a list. I always thought this too “meticulous,” a fault I had been warned about as a Roman Catholic.

This time, however, I prepared for most of the preceding week, even making a list and writing out what I was going to say. I did this because Fr. David likes to burn lists that people bring at the foot of the large cross that we have in our nave. He does not like for people to leave with their list of sins that they have just received forgiveness for. I was curious about the psychological effect this might have.

Yesterday’s confession was perhaps the best confession that I have ever made since becoming Orthodox. The attention paid to preparation, the depth of the sinful attitudes against God that I was willing to acknowledge, and the presence of a written reminder of the sins I had contemplated while preparing: all of these seem to me indicators of the depth and effect of my repentance. Additionally, the effect of seeing my sins literally vanish in flames at the foot of the cross heightens the feeling of being clean, which simply reflects the sacramental reality.

Gideon recently wrote about confession and his growing understanding of its necessity. Part of his understanding developed out of wrestling to understand Father’s apparently curious admonition, “If you need it before then just let me know.”

The idea of needing to make a confession is related to the idea that sin, in the ordinary course of Christian life, must be confessed in order to be forgiven. “Trivial” sins are not an immediate barrier to communion with God and the Church, but over time they harden our conscience, like cholesterol and fat in our bloodstream harden our arteries. Hardened consciences consider more and more sins trivial. Hardened consciences are more likely to commit grave sin carelessly, without thinking.

Grave sin? What is that?

Grave sins have gravity. They’re “heavy.” Fornication, adultery, theft, murder, slander. Sins that inflict wounds on others and cause scandal to the faithful. A grave sin is a break in communion, a true rift which indicates a turning of the soul against the love of God. Without repentance, that is, without turning again to receive the love of God, such a rebellious attitude is itself damnation. It is the rejection of God’s love.

These sins require the priest to impose a penance. A penance, the service books make clear, is not a punishment. In the West after Anselm, “‘Penances’ are understood, ‘not as an educative therapy provided by God in His lovingkindness for the healing of the sinner, but as a ransom which the sinner must pay.’” (Metallinos, “The Exomologetarion of St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite”) The Reformers rightly were repulsed by such an understanding of penance, and they broke with the ancient Christian practice as a result. The East, however, continued to understand penance as educational and therapeutic. Penance provides for the spiritual man what physical therapy provides for the flesh. The deeper the wound of the sin, the longer must be the therapy.

In view of our mortality, then, priests are instructed not to ever refuse to take a confession. Obviously, there are times when they may ask to postpone the confession — when the Divine Liturgy is in progress, for example. And, clearly, the faithful who find themselves having embraced such sin in their hearts, do well to repent immediately and avail themselves of the Mystery of Repentance with all due haste. You are never given the next moment; your earthly life may be extinguished before the next Saturday arrives. And though we are not permitted to despair of the salvation of someone who has died, we are nevertheless instructed that death holds judgment by God of the hearts and minds of men.

That, too, is what is meant by “if you need to,” as well as the sense of forgiveness and peace that we receive from the Mystery.

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Filed under: — Basil @ 3:00 pm