Cattle Drive, Fort Worth Stockyards, April 2010

Monday, September 20, 2010

My Blog is Moving

I have decided to move my blog to my own server and domain and use WordPress to give me better moderation tools. Setting up this move has taken several days and because of that and some other tasks, I have not been able to post lately because of it. I apologize for the inconvenience that this may cause but I hope that you will create a new bookmark and follow over there.

The new site is at:

Thank you for your patience and I'll see you over there!

Friday, September 10, 2010

The "Ground Zero Mosque"

From a blog that I try to keep up with I reprint this article. There may be some of you at St. George that will not like this, but I happen to agree whole-heartedly with Fr. Zuhlsdorf on this. I don't desire to live under an Islamic rule for an instant, and so I don't respond favorably to any move that would try to promote Sharia law or Islam here. There is freedom of worship in the US, but in spite of it's name, I don't believe that Islam is peaceful or simply about submission to God. I believe it's about submission to Islam. As a Christian, that won't work for me. Prepare a cross, because I won't change my mind or heart on this one.

Ground Zero Mosque: a “Rabat”, not a “Cultural Center”

CATEGORY: The DrillThe future and our choices — Fr. John Zuhlsdorf @ 9:35 am
Some time ago, at the recommendation of the great Fr. Welzbacher of St. Paul, I read Andrew McCarthy’s The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.  It was an excellent preparation, or propaedeutic, for the controversy over the proposal to build the mosque complex at Ground Zero in Manhattan.  And, yes, I think 51 Park Place qualifies as "ground zero" in the sense that landing gear from one of the airplanes struck the building. 

As I listened and read about the "Cordoba House" proposal something about it sounded familiar.  McCarthy described how militant Islamists of the Brotherhood developed centers for young muslim men which included an athletic program component.  The nickle dropped.  (Cf. Chapter 4. "Eliminating and Destroying the Western Civilization from Within".)

Today over breakfast coffee… I saw in the New York Post an article by Amir Taheri, which you should know about. 
Amir Taheri is author of 11 books on the Middle East, Iran and Islam.

Let’s have a look with my emphases and comments.

Islam center’s eerie echo of ancient terror


Last Updated: 8:35 AM, September 10, 2010

Should there be a mosque near Ground Zero? In fact, what is pro posed is not a mosque—nor even an "Islamic cultural center."

In Islam, every structure linked to the faith and its rituals has a precise function and character. A mosque is a one-story gallery built around an atrium with a mihrab (a niche pointing to Mecca) and one, or in the case of Shiites two, minarets.

Other Islamic structures, such as harams, zawiyyahs, husseinyiahs and takiyahs, also obey strict architectural rules. Yet the building used for spreading the faith is known as Dar al-Tabligh, or House of Proselytizing.

[NB] This 13-story multifunctional structure couldn’t be any of the above.

The groups fighting for the project know this; this is why they sometimes call it an Islamic cultural center. But there is no such thing as an Islamic culture.

Islam is a religion, not a culture. Each of the 57 Muslim-majority nations has its own distinct culture—and the Bengali culture has little in common with the Nigerian. Then, too, most of those countries have their own cultural offices in the US, especially in New York.

Islam is an ingredient in dozens of cultures, not a culture on its own.

In theory, at least, the culture of American Muslims should be American. Of course, this being America, each ethnic community has its distinct cultural memories—the Iranians in Los Angeles are different from the Arabs in Dearborn.

[Start taking notes if you have to…] In fact, the proposed structure is known in Islamic history as a rabat—literally a connector. The first rabat appeared at the time of the Prophet.

The Prophet imposed his rule on parts of Arabia through a series of ghazvas, or razzias (the origin of the English word "raid"). The ghazva was designed to terrorize the infidels, convince them that their civilization was doomed and force them to submit to Islamic rule. Those who participated in the ghazva were known as the ghazis, or raiders.

After each ghazva, the Prophet ordered the creation of a rabat—or a point of contact at the heart of the infidel territory raided. The rabat consisted of an area for prayer, a section for the raiders to eat and rest and facilities to train and prepare for future razzias[The "athletic" component I alluded to earlier.] Later Muslim rulers used the tactic of ghazva to conquer territory in the Persian and Byzantine empires. After each raid, they built a rabat to prepare for the next razzia.

[NB:] It is no coincidence that Islamists routinely use the term ghazva to describe the 9/11 attacks against New York and Washington. The terrorists who carried out the attack are referred to as ghazis or shahids (martyrs).

[CONCLUSION:] Thus, building a rabat close to Ground Zero would be in accordance with a tradition started by the Prophet. To all those who believe and hope that the 9/11 ghazva would lead to the destruction of the American "Great Satan," this would be of great symbolic value.

[Shift gears.] Faced with the anger of New Yorkers, the promoters of the project have started calling it the Cordoba House, echoing President Obama’s assertion that it would be used to propagate "moderate" Islam.

The argument is that Cordoba, in southern Spain, was a city where followers of Islam, Christianity and Judaism lived together in peace and produced literature and philosophy.

In fact, Cordoba’s history is full of stories of oppression and massacre, prompted by religious fanaticism. It is true that the Muslim rulers of Cordoba didn’t force their Christian and Jewish subjects to accept Islam. However, non-Muslims could keep their faith and enjoy state protection only as dhimmis (bonded ones) by paying a poll tax in a system of religious apartheid.

If whatever peace and harmony that is supposed to have existed in Cordoba were the fruit of "Muslim rule," [NB:] thesubtext is that the United States would enjoy similar peace and harmony under Islamic rule.  [That is why "Cordoba" was chosen: to symbolize the goal of subjugation of the USA to Sharia Law.]

rabat in the heart of Manhattan would be of great symbolic value to those who want a high-profile, "in your face" projection of Islam in the infidel West.

This thirst for visibility is translated into increasingly provocative forms of hijab, notably the niqab (mask) and the burqa. The same quest mobilized hundreds of Muslims in Paris the other day to close a whole street so that they could have a Ramadan prayer in the middle of the rush hour[These open demonstrations are escalating.]

One of those taking part in the demonstration told French radio that the aim was to "show we are here." "You used to be in our capitals for centuries," he said. "Now, it is our turn to be in the heart of your cities."

Before deciding whether to support or oppose the "Cordoba" project, New Yorkers should consider what it is that they would be buying.

Sunday School

Fall is gearing up in parishes now and so is Sunday School. And this will call all of us to some decisions about how time and how we will use it. Let me address the practical first. We should all endeavor to have our children in class every Sunday of the school year. We should also be diligent about being present and on time for the Divine Liturgy every Sunday (starting time is at 10:00am).

Our teachers work very hard to teach our parish children, who are not merely the future of the parish, they are part of the parish right now. Our teachers plan and prepare before every class so that they can give the Faith to our children. It is very little to ask that our parents have the children present so that they can receive a better understanding of this precious Faith.

We must also allow the teachers to keep their children until 12:00pm, or until the class is finished, every Sunday. Parents, don't pull your children out of class because you have made other plans for your Sunday afternoon. There is nothing more important that giving the Faith to these kids. Parents, please keep your children who may have been released from peering in the windows and distracting classes that are still meeting. If we wish to have a faithful community of believers for years to come, then we must allow the teachers their classroom time and get our children to class.

But even more important than Sunday School is the Divine Liturgy. Our Lord gave us a commandment to "do this" regarding the Divine Liturgy, the Holy Eucharist. We are required to offer this Eucharist every week. There is no such command for Sunday School. All of the faithful, and this includes baptized infants, are to be present at the Liturgy every Sunday. This allows us to have all of our young boys take turns serving at the altar, and to have different people read the epistle. But folks need to be present on time for this to happen.

Now, just a little history about Sunday School because it helps to place it in its proper place. Sunday School is a pretty new program in the life of the Church. It was "invented" in the Church of England in the 1800s to teach young Welsh children of coal miners how to read. It was taken up by the Methodists and Non-conformists (other Protestants) to indoctrinate their children in their version of Christianity. The original time to have these classes was not Sunday, but Saturday and they lasted several hours. Soon among various Protestant groups it was moved to Sunday as a way to entice families to come on Sunday (since there was something specifically planned for the children).

Orthodoxy didn't know anything at all about Sunday School until it came to the United States, and then it adopted the program for itself in the early 1900s, but we now tend to think of this as part of "the Tradition." It's not. It's a local custom. There is no such thing in Russia or Greece, I'm not sure about the Middle East. The ideal would be to have a parochial school where the Faith is taught as a serious course and which children receive a grade (requiring their effort) in addition to mandatory periods of catechism. This would give us children who knew their faith but we don't do this. Historically the Church insisted that parents taught the children their faith but parents rarely speak about such things with their children any longer, so we are left with a program that is less than ideal but which we have invested as being our only answer.

So let us not waste it, if that's all we are willing to do to hand over our Faith. Make certain your children are there. Make certain they are in the Liturgy. Give them the Faith so that they can keep it all of their lives. If they say, "I don't like it," make them go anyway. Wouldn't you make them go to public school even if they didn't like it? Isn't the Faith of Christ more important?

Sunday School starts September 19th, so let's get it going full swing with everyone. Let us commit to this work so that we can give the Faith to another generation and thereby spread salvation and joy a little further.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Liturgical Books (Why I work on them)

This will probably surprise a lot of people, but there is a sense that I don't like spending so many hours typesetting and preparing liturgical books. I say this on the heels of having completed typesetting Bp. Basil's The Liturgikon for the Antiochian Archdiocese and having seen it through the printing. I have worked on other books for the Archdiocese as well.

I have also heard, through a friend who was present, that one of our bishops commented in front of a large group of my brother priests that I am not a good editor. I admit to it wholeheartedly (please forgive me your Grace). I've never claimed any expertise in that area and have always tried to find people who would proof and edit the work I've done (but unfortunately there have been very few who are willing to do this important task). I am a graphic designer. I work very hard to make liturgical books look beautiful and functional. This in itself is a worthy task.

But, as I began, I'd actually rather not have to do it. I'd rather simply focus on parish life. So why do I do it? Because it must be done. There are so many liturgical books that need to be prepared and published for parishes to be able to fully do their work and no one else seems to be stepping up to that task. The Archdiocese certainly has asked me to do that work. And I have done some other work voluntarily because of the great need.

I suppose the ultimate reason that I work so hard to produce beautiful liturgical books, is that I so deeply desire to go to the Altar of God and pray. I desire to have a book that is simple to use, so I don't have to concentrate on certain items, but be entirely free in prayer. Having said this, I am one who just before his ordination to the priesthood spent at least two hours a day for two weeks at my seminary's chapel working on my rubrics, so that I would have them down before my first liturgy. I did the same to learn the rubrics of the Western Rite as a priest--I knew them already for every other part from torchbearer to subdeacon. I'm not referring to being disciplined in ceremonial, but the freedom that comes when the rubrics are internalized and the liturgical books are designed in such a way that they don't create friction. This to me would be freedom to pray, to simply let go of everything and enter into the moment of the Sacrifice of the Altar. I also believe that this would be the greatest work that I could do for my parish--because I could then offer them in that Sacrifice like never before.

The beauty of the book is needful if only because everything associated with the worship of the beautiful God must somehow reflect something of his glory and beauty. As I typeset books, my heart tries to move to the Altar and do my work there. This is a spiritual work of love, mercy and sacrifice.

Would that I could work on other things. But there are so many books left to do before I can rest, before I can be truly free in love with Christ our Lord.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Holy Dormition

This is the great feast of the Holy Mother of God. Let us all keep it with joy, giving thanks to our good God for such a kind Mother who is always quite to hear, who is the help of Christians.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Evangelism and Parish Planting

I have long been very interested in mission work and planting parishes. But I don't think we do it very well, nor do I think that we're terribly serious about it. I have said so to several people privately (hierarchs included) but I thought it might be helpful to say it in a more public venue. I would simply say that there's a problem though, I am going to say what I believe can actually be done about it.

First of all it needs to be understood that establishing missions is a theological imperative. Every Christian is required to be involved in evangelism. Some of that activity will be honed in on one's own parish, and some of it must be for the Church at large. We can't afford to become too myopic and concentrated only on our own parish. This creates an ingrown parish that is concerned only about itself and its own desires (usually called "needs"). It's very unhealthy. The more we embrace the gospel, the more we look out beyond ourselves to others. We move to others because of love. We desire them to receive the fulness of the Faith in Christ, and so we don't simply say, "They go to church already and so we don't need to speak to them about our Faith." Wrong. Do we have the true Faith or not? If we don't, and if ours is only one of many, then I don't care to be part of it. I want the real thing, the genuine article which was established by Jesus Christ on the day of Pentecost. Nothing else will do. My suspicion is that too many parishioners don't really believe that they are members of the Church, but of a Church. Believing oneself to be part of the true Church motivates one to bring others into it because we love them and we want them to have the genuine article. This must be first in our minds.

Secondly, we need to be much wiser about planting parishes. We have been rather lazy about it for some time (this applies to more than just the Orthodox here, but we're standouts in this area). What we have done is wait until some group of nice folks gather and petition to start a parish. Or sometimes we try to see if there are some nice Middle-easterners (or Greeks, or Russians, etc.) and gather them together to start a community. The key here is that we usually wait. This is not evangelism, it's reaction as Fr. Michael Keiser correctly points out. But real evangelism costs money, and I don't mean a permanent staff in the Department of Missions and Evangelism. That doesn't cut it.

Let me share a model that I think does work and can work magnificently if we really wanted to get serious about starting parishes.

We can begin by looking at a map to see where we think there would be a potential place to start a parish. This can be done in a couple of ways. We can look at population sizes of cities that we think can support a community and which is perhaps under served, or we can look at our current demographics and then compare them to places that we don't have parishes to see if there are some common elements. These two ways are not mutually exclusive. This costs a little money. Demographics aren't free, but they can be had relatively inexpensively. We need to be cautious here though. We could easily look at ethnic groups in the demographics, but in the long run there are other far more important indicators such as values. A demographic study can also give the perceived needs and desires of a population which are important as well. It is worth remembering that the US is not homogenous and that one-size does not fit all. The Church must meet people where they really are and not where we want them to be. Knowing these desires allows us to ask if we can answer their desires and remain authentic to who we are. This calls for creativity but it can be a very worthwhile effort.

Once we intelligently and rationally have found a potential target, then we begin doing a little local investigation. There was a time that this was done through the local paper, but fewer and fewer people are reading the papers these days, so it's usefulness may not be as good now. Many of the evangelical communities will have a local focus group study done. This costs about $200-$600, and can give a great deal of information. It can find out what media is the most effective to reach one's target group, thereby saving money in the long run. Radio might be a great tool, but if no one listens to it, then why buy radio time? The same is true of all the various media. It is worth spending a little bit to find out what will be most effective and therefore most cost efficient. These focus groups also help to get a handle on the potential themes that need to be addressed.

 I cannot stress too much that a very special website must be developed for this work. It is not a website that gives all of the business end of who we are. It is not the Archdiocesan or Diocesan website that is wanted here, links can be provided to these, but that doesn't help. A central website that sets forth the vision, and ethos of what the Church is what is needed. It is an introduction, not to a lot of polemics (these should be avoided at this stage) but to a life. It should put our best foot forward in only positive terms, not defining ourself by what we are not. It should not compare us to anyone else, nor should it speak poorly of anyone else. Why should it? It should give a very simply overview of what is believed because it is not the inquirer's/catechumens classes and shouldn't try to be. It is not the place to drill down into things deeply. Leave that to the parish. This positive, evangelical website should be the public face of the mission inquiry. It should not be too difficult to create a local site that gives the local contact information with the specialized site "attached" so to speak. This site should be referenced on every card, mailer, advertisement that is produced. Let this site do a lot of the work.

Why is this so important? When a small mission is planted it is almost impossible to give the sense of what a full parish's life is like. What do the services look like? What is the music like? What sort of things can be done in areas of charity? and so forth. Small beginnings need to be able to point to the larger vision and this site can help with that to a great extent. But it is also necessary not to overburden those who are "sniffing around" with too much of the administrative side of things. This is why one should only link to the Archdiocesan pages and such as references.

Mass mailing is a very effective tool. It is known that it produces about a 2% response rate--if one has written the material to a particular focus that really exists (see the reason for demographics and focus groups?). But it may take as many as four mailings to realize that response because people might not notice the mailing until the fourth time. Let's talk about numbers a second. How many are needed to start a self-sustaining community? 25 families? 50 families? Well, that seems to be a target. Let's say you need 50 families. For a 2% response rate, one would need to mail out at least 2,500 pieces four times. But it isn't quite so simple. One may only keep about 50% of those who come to the "big event" that is planned to start the parish. This means that one needs to send out about 5,000 pieces four times. It would be easy to get the cost of such a project. It will cost some money, but the potential of establishing a functional parish makes this modest cost very much worth while.

Before doing the mailing though, one should have a basic core group of about 20-25 people to begin with. They need to know how to sing the services at a basic level and they should be taught how to greet people and get them plugged in. The skeleton of the full parish needs to be planned so that it can quickly be fleshed out. One mistake would be to create a frame that is too small for growth. One should know how Sunday School and youth ministry will be carried out for example. Will there be a Ladies' group? Choir? Chanters? Get this framework ready to build upon.

There are some resources that need to be produced to help the parish get going too. A CD of basic musical settings that can be used by the congregation needs to be made available. Too many CDs give larger choral settings that are not helpful to a small group. We need folks to record a basic traditional setting that can be learned by everyone, for the Eastern Rite the music from the congregational book would serve best, for the Western Rite the de Angelis Mass would be very effective. Missalettes or service books need to be printed and ready to hand. My mentor told me that one of the most important things that must be done by a mission is to look as large and as established as possible. People don't want to get their religion from fly-by-night groups. Publications must look professionally done. Don't skimp on the Sunday bulletins either. They must look right.

Two other things need to be available and here is where the largest cost is. We need to supply mission plants with a basic "kit" to do the services. These can be used censers (thuribles), chalices, etc. But they need to be at least loaned to the mission plants until they can purchase their own. A list can easily be drawn up and a loan kit provided for a specified time. The next item is that we need to fund the mission priest for at least two years. This means his full stipend and package. After two years, the community should be able to take it over if they have started out as I've suggested above.

Mission priests must also be our best priests, what usually happens is that we send priests who don't do well in larger parishes to them. This is wrong and it is why we should pay them. A priest in a mission must give the entire tradition to a new community. He needs to know the nuts and bolts of how parishes work (from experience) and he needs to know the music, the liturgy, the administrative details, the theology… in short, he has to give everything to the new community since are just beginning.

There is more to say, but this should get things started. I love missions and we need to do much better. God willing we can start.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

What is Wrong with Politicians?

It's pretty commonplace to despise politicians and to hate politics. That's not entirely fair. Politics is nothing but the manner in which society strives to live a civil and productive life. It will always be marked by compromises and such, but it should also have some other distinguishing characteristics. For example, it ought to have a primary philosophical outlook which stands as its spring-board to action.
There have been many different base philosophies that have served, and I would certainly say that Christians should expect the basic Christian morality and freedom should be the normative model in the U.S. Surely sharia law would be absolutely incompatible with our cultural worldview and experience. I can see no reason at all to admit of any sharia compliant laws as they are purely based upon Koranic scriptures. It's principle is fundamentally different from what was established in the Anglo-American legal framework. But there must be a foundation. I would also say that it cannot be a socialistic philosophy which robs individuals of the opportunities of freely given generosity and assistance towards others as well as denying them the opportunity of their own personal freedom to make moral choices. This is fundamental, and it is a Christian principal.
But what is broken with politicians? Why do we see such scandalous behavior amongst our elected officials, like John Kerry's tax sheltering of his boat, Charles Rangel's ethical violations, Obama's justice department failing to prosecute overt violations of voting rights perpetrated by the new black panther's? (All of which are outrageous and by no means limited to Democrats.)
To answer this we need to remember that politicians are not outside the problems that beset humanity in general--whether or not one is a believer. Social ills continue and accelerate even in these so-called "enlightened," modern and secular times because man is fallen in action, will, and intellect. He is not broken, but terribly faulted. Since this brokenness has not been healed by the secular model, neither has the attendant social deprivations.
But I would suggest that all political models (and politicians) fail because those in power tend to serve themselves. When the world was ruled by nobility, it was fine when they understood their rule at coming from God and therefore the leaders understood that they too were servants of both God and their charge. (This may well have been honored more in the breach than in the main.) We see that by the time of Henry VIII or Louis XVI things could be altogether different. Even the remarkable Magna Carta was an attempt at limiting the power of the monarch’s self indulgence. So the Monarchies tended to become constitutional monarchies and Parliaments became the effective rulers of countries. Again they took on their own sense of self-serving. The ruling classes changed to that of the merchant rather than landed nobility. The merchant is concerned with the ledger books and accounts, with profit and loss. Soon, because he is running Parliament (or Congress here in the US), things become focused on his own profit. At least the nobility had to keep some care of those who cared for his manor and tilled his fields. The political progressives or none better than the mercantile representatives. They speak of serving the great masses through programs and then it is revealed how well they have been serving their own interests all along.
It strikes me that the only correction to this is for the electorate to select individuals whose desire is actually to serve rather than to be served, who desire to live under authority rather than to wield power. As an aside, this seems also to be one of the greatest faults of the theological progressive as well.
And here we might say that the modern secular state is very much part of the problem because its propaganda promotes each individual’s satiation. It does not seek to model true service and promote service and humility. (The modeling part is not insignificant, after all how many vacations and entertainment events can one President have within a summer? I find it scandalous.) Consider television programs and movies. They all present the great assumption that the purpose of life is to fulfill one’s fantasies, desires and passions. If one is not happy, then something is wrong. Here is the contaminant that stands at the root of the failure of all political systems and the scandals within the Church. So long as one is his own  definition of rectitude, rather than a transcendent and objective Truth, then we shall only continue to spiral deeper into the morass.
This is also the view of Plato, who was not particularly a theist, for his God was not a personal being but a theoretical perfection. The myth of the cave illustrates this nicely. And, of course, in this regard perhaps the greatest flaws of modern secularism is the subjection of all values to the relativism of those in power. Indeed it works well for the powerful because they are only reaping what they desire, which is only right as they see it. Meanwhile, in this secular world, the drain is open and pulling the rest of us down into its spiraling grasp.

Why does Cincinnatus stay on his farm in our hour of need? Where is his modern day counterpart? Hurry, Cincinnatus, we are in need of you again to save us from destruction through your self-abdicating service, leadership and virtue.

[If you are unaware of who Cincinnatus was and would like to know a little bit about him, see this:]

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What are Ya Feedin' on?

Cattle Drive in Fort Worth Stockyards, April 2010
Awlright, hang on ya'll. I'm onna open up my Texas a lil' bit--which is earthy and not fit for anyone with any sort of a Puritanical strain. When I was growin' up I learned an amazing skill. My grandparents had a farm (which I lived on for a while). My granddad raised cattle and it affected me more deeply than I can say. I love their big ol' brown eyes set in their white faces (we raised polled herefords). The skill I learned had to do with feed and manure. Ya see you can tell what cattle are eating by the smell of their chips. You don't have to pick one up or bend over one of 'em. You can smell it as the breeze passes over the fresh manure.

Some of you may think that's a pretty nasty image, but it never bothered me. The smell of beef cattle just reminds me of home (the smell of dairy cattle is a different matter). If cattle are grazing in pastures, their dung smells one way and if they're being fattened up for market (being fed grain and such at the feeding pen) it smells another. It's actually sweeter if their feeding on grain or alfalfa from the barn, which we used to supplement.

There's an old Texas expression (I suppose other's use it too) that, "Your poop smells too." Usually the saying is a little more direct, but you get the point. So… how's your poop smell? Chances are it has a lot to do with what you're eatin'. If your eatin' consistently at the altar of God, digesting his Word in the Scriptures and chewing it like an ol' bull chews his cud, and dining on the sweetness of prayer then your poo probably is of the sweeter variety. If you sit at the table with gossip, self-sufficiency, judgmentalism,  believing you're fine where ya are… well, I'll bet your manure smells pretty bad.

Trouble is that its pretty darned hard to smell your own while your making it, and the same thing is true of our Christian lives. Unless we try to take time to look at our lives seriously we'll be largely unaware of the smells we leave by our sins and shortcomings until someone points it out to us. But just like raisin' cattle, the focus isn't what's in the draft, it's the feed. So ask yourself. What are you feedin' on? Are you leaving a trail the gives glory to God or one that smells to high heaven? And after you figure that out, maybe you'll need to adjust your feed.

Seven Steps through Difficult Times

Every person I have every known (and every one whom I expect to know) will have to wade through the muck and mire of life. This is often an entanglement with difficulties from outside ourselves or it may be personal crises. What I know by experience is that we all face these things with tiring frequency. We live for those lovely periods wherein everything seems balance and harmonious. They are remarkably less frequent than we would wish. It also seems to be a law that as soon as we have experienced the peak of that harmony, something will inevitably confront us and drag us back into the mire.

The melancholic personality views his life as running from disaster to disaster with brief moments of light. The sanguine personality views it just the opposite, life goes from joy to joy with the occasional period of struggle. The celtic blood that I carry in my veins tends to make me the former. You know the old rag about the Irish character, "It's bad now, and it's only going to get worse!" It was once observed to me that Daddy could be the voice of gloom.

But the real question is not about personality types, but how do we get through these times since they are universal and we'll all experience them? How do we make it through those difficult nights when we can't sleep because we can't find a resolution to the things that face us? Millions of Americans are facing these questions on a daily basis now because of the economy. I'll share a little bit about what I do--which I think is healthy--in these cases. I assume that one has already cried out to God that one is hurting and it is profitable to do this because God will give us solace, but it is not the way through the muck.

The first thing to do is ask the question what is the worst case scenario? You see, much of the time the fear and dread comes to us because of what we can't see. It is unknown and so it paralyzes us. If it is concern about your job, ask yourself then, "If I lost my job, what would happen?" Certainly one might go bankrupt and lose one's credit. One would not be able to care for one's family as one wishes and it would absolutely cause a strain on family relationships. Perhaps one looses one's house and many possessions. But there would also be things that would still be there even in the darkest moments. God would still love me--even if I was the cause of these things through grave and mortal sin. God would not turn his back on me and always stand ready for me to repent and come back to him. This realization is more important that we might think. Ultimately, we know we can be victorious and that nothing can finally hurt us. "If God is for us, who can be against us?" To know that we are unconditionally loved is the most reassuring thing we can have in times of darkness. We may be able to add that our spouses would still love us. That our children would still love us and our friends would still care for us. The most bitter darkness we could ever face is not so opaque when others bring their light to us through love.

We might ask would I starve to death? No. I would be able to find something to eat. Would I have a place to sleep? Absolutely. We would be able to find a place for our families to reside as we get back on our feet. Could we find work again? We would, but it would be different and the pay and benefits might not be the same. In other words, in the worst case scenario, things would go on. Life would continue for us even if it were uncomfortable for a time.

The second thing to do is to consider all those who have gone through trying times and come out of it. The best art, the best literature, often the most creative ideas, and sometimes even the most successful businesses have come from people who have gone through difficult times. It was as though the darkness forced them to light a fire inside their souls that finally burned brighter than the night about them. I would have about me a company of people who have suffered and become victors. They would inspire me and give me hope and courage that desperate times can be overcome.

The third thing to do is to admit where we have failed. Unless we are honest with ourselves we cannot hope to change our course. This is often uncomfortable for people, especially when they are down. But the purpose of this is not to gravel or beat one's self up about the failures. It is to admit them, to repent of them and to be aware of what they are. Often there is not sin attached to certain failures. Failures can come about when there is an aptitude or personality conflict. This failure might have been painful for many people, it may be grievous and open, but it is not necessarily culpable. The culpability may have been failure to get help or having taken on something that one constitutionally cannot fulfill. This isn't too uncommon and it creates a sense of guilt in oneself and irritation among others. The tasks may possible to complete on a talent or pragmatic level, but virtually impossible on another level. And sometimes it's impossible to understand why it my be so.

I remember my father told me that in business one should always source out tasks that one doesn't like or that one continually puts off. This was from his experience of doing his own accounting/bookkeeping for his photography studio. He would put it off until the taxes were due for the government and he would actually have to close the studio for a couple of days so he could complete his books. It didn't make sense financially because he was loosing billable hours on a task that only took up his time. It would have been cheaper for his to have hired it out in the first place.

This is the sort of thing we look for when we consider our failures. Often when we are able to face them honestly, we find that we can avoid the problems we have had to undergo. But it is worth noting that this cannot be done unless one has reached a certain amount of peace first. There must be a sense of stability and some certainty before one can see this. When one is in the midst of attacks and pressure, it can be very difficult to analyze. Hence, the first two steps are needed.

The fourth thing we must do is make some goals. If we don't know where we wish to go, then we will get nowhere at all. Within groups this can be very difficult because there must be a consensus about the goal. It is too easy for us all to be too dogmatic about both the goals and the plan (which comes later). Goals should be considered on several levels. They should be considered in practical terms, what can actually be accomplished. They should be considered in terms of the ideal too--what is my ultimate goal. Then they should be organized into bite-sized goals.

The fifth thing to do is to make some simple deliberate plans to work towards these goals. The steps we take towards the fulfilling of the short goals must be simple and practical. This is not a triathlon, it is daily life. For example, the long term goal may be to write a book. That's a big task. But one can set a goal to write three to four pages per day. That is something that one can easily accomplish. These pages add up to chapters and a whole book. Then one can begin breaking the editing of the book into small bites, until finally a finished book is produced. Deliberate little tasks are necessary, big ones can never be done.

Next, one would bring all of this to God. Why only pray now? Well, in a sense I have been praying about it all along. Or, one could say that I've been preparing to pray about it. It is impossible to go to God about problems until we see them clearly. Then we can bring this to God for his guidance and correction. Some of what we may need to bring is repentance, some of what we need is his blessing on our tasks. Some of what we need is the courage to act on what we know is right. None of this is really possible unless we have already done this work. There is also a truth that we will not be able to pray completely until we have reached a certain amount of peace and resolution in our hearts already. The cry to God of our pain is important because he helps us to rest for this process, but it must give way so that we can move forward in Christ to truly pray and work.

There are some who might object, then why pray at all? Haven't we already done all of the work? This is a misunderstanding of what prayer is, specifically petitionary prayer. We assume that we are asking God to do things for us and that that is all that's needed, that if we have already worked out a program, then there is no need to ask God to help us. Actually, what we are doing is asking God to fulfill his love and desire in us. We ask him to bless us, to be present in our tasks and to guide us. When we pray for his help, we are asking him to be with us as we struggle because we know our weakness and our inability to fulfill all that we see we need to accomplish. We are not asking for God to work magic. We are asking for his love. Our work will become far simpler when we do it with him.

Finally, we begin to work. We take our first steps towards our little goals and as we accomplish them, we thank God each time. We ask for God's help and presence as we are doing our work, lest we fall--ever mindful of our weakness and past failures. Eventually, the darkness passes and we arrive in peace again. And if we work through our difficulties in this manner, we will find that our dark times never become quite as black as they did before. We will find that our hearts begin to move naturally towards God in good times and in bad. We will know how to keep working and not to fall into magical beliefs or fantasies. In short, we will be working out our salvation in fear and trembling.

Friday, July 23, 2010

What is the Role of Culture in Christianity?

I have just written an article about culture: local, regional, and universal in the Christian context on my blog, PadreTex Born in the West. If you wish to read it, Here is the link:

Sunday, July 18, 2010

One Week Break

I won't be posting anything this week because of some commitments, but I hope to post something new next week.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A New Post on PadreTex West…

On my other blog I have written what I think is the answer for the western world, the one in which we live. Take a look and feel free to leave your comments.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Cantus mortuit

It ought to surprise no one that I try to keep up with happenings in England and within Anglicanism. For many years I didn't do that. But in recent months I have been reading and listening to the sad tale of a gangrenous infection taking it's chilling grip on the body called the Church of England. If only there had been an amputation years ago of the infected limb, perhaps there might have been a recovery with a luminous hope that would have been fulfilled in unity with either Rome or Constantinople (of course I hope for unity of these two). But the necrosis has reached the heart now, and there is nothing left for it.
   I write this for a couple of reasons. The first is a natural sadness that I feel for what was once my own mother church. It was there that I began to learn the Christian faith. It was there that I came to love the Sacraments. It was there that I came to know some of the incredible Saints of the Church. It was there that I came to love the liturgical life of the Church. So her death is particularly poignant to me. It hurts me very deeply. But this is the second time that I have experienced this because I remember seeing and feeling this when the American branch of the Church of England, the Episcopal Church, went through the same. And from the history which has unfolded here I can see years of difficulties and absurdities continuing in England. It is as though I saw one of the limbs die to this disease and now it has reached its heart. I can't help but be affected by this because it was very much part of my identity and life for so long. So this is partly personal.
   The second reason I write this is because there are people out there who need our love and concern, who are experiencing this tragedy very deeply. We need to pray for them. They are Christians that we cannot afford to ignore in their hour of hurt. We are told by our Lord that we are to feed those who are hungry, and visit those who are sick. Well, here they are. They ought not to have to go through these sufferings by themselves. Very soon, at least in England, many of them will lose their church buildings, the clergy may well lose their income… everything will seem to be very unstable. They could at least use our empathy and perhaps more.
   Thirdly, I write this because it appears to me that there are countless others--besides Anglicans--who are hurt and seeking. Their churches have left them isolated and alone. The music has changed to rock bands, and emotional owing and awing. Worship has become entirely casual and lost its experience of the transcendent God. Mores and values have shifted and things which once were called sin are now being thought of as alternative lifestyles. The Scriptures have lost their formative power in many churches because one may interpret them as one likes. People are hungry for what they know not, and it is our duty to feed them with real food.
   This means we need to eat what is healthy for us, lest we give sweets and pies to those who need meat. We need to know our faith and know it as authentic and authoritative. There can be no compromising it, for if we should do so, again we would give nothing solid to those in want. The Faith of Christ is the only answer that there is. It is the only food that will truly nourish and we must give it to all who are in need.
   Pray for the Anglicans who are in such difficulty. Look for all those who need to be fed and give them a sip from the fountain of life. It is nothing but an act of mercy and our duty.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


The topic of universality is thorny for an Orthodox. At least  it strikes me that most Orthodox find it so. We're so comfortable in our own little communities. The Turks forced the Orthodox live in their own little ethnic ghettos and forbad them to evangelize. This was of course enforced by execution. The trouble is that it seems Orthodox have become too adapted to this truncated inauthentic life. Is universality really a necessity? And what is it?
   I would say that universality is posited in the Cross itself. As St. Paul said, there is "one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all." Eph. 4:4-5 The redemptive Cross--and therefore, our entire Faith--is universal. It is for all mankind. Universality is axiomatic with the singular Christ, who is the only lover of mankind. What does this imply? Surely one of the basic premises is that the Gospel is for all and the personal possession of none. The Gospel is the possession of Christ himself and we are simply incorporated into his life, his body, his Church. We become members of the new organic Adam, not the possessors of a subjective thing.
   It is very easy to fall prey to a hidden false notion of universality too. We can easily substitute the notion of a global existence for that of universality. Merely global existence is not universality. It is too small and far too narrow. For example, we can think of corporations that have global markets and offices around the globe. Every office is an extension of the "home office" and they carry--to a very large degree--the culture of the home office. For economic structures this has proven profitable and desirable, but this is not universality. The singular corporate culture of a FedEx is not a good analog of the Christian Faith. Christianity is a radical organic incorporation into the singular body of Christ. Global corporations extend into other markets by hiring of individuals (not incorporating them organically). The corporation receives the financial rewards of this extension, while the employees receive remuneration for their work.
   I am not at all anti-free trade, or mercantilism, or capitalism. It is a financial system that works. And when it has a moral compass, it works magnificently well for all concerned. Those who take the greater risks receive the greater rewards. Those who want more security (and security can never be guaranteed) receive only what they bargain for--their wages and some benefits. That's solid.
  But Christianity is not about putting forward an enterprise wherein the "home office" reaps the majority of benefits because it risked the most. Christ not only risked, he offered himself as a living sacrifice. Then he asks us to sacrifice ourselves in his love even for our enemies. He wants us to become lovers like him. This incorporation into his life is not limited to anyone in the world. They are not required to reflect the culture of a distant office because they are incorporated personally into the very source of the Church's life.
   This gets to the heart of what I think is difficult for us to grasp sometimes in the Church. Every culture is not simply allowed to bring in a couple of items from their heritage, but if they are going to be authentically Christian, they must bring in their entire cultural heritage. Some people get very nervous about this. "But, Father, some of these things came about after the schism!" Or, "Father, some of these things just don't fit!" Well, it seems to me that we can allow God to be God. Let's give him the freedom to be God and get that burden off of ourselves. In the parable of the vinedresser, and in the parable about the wheat and tares, our Lord clearly points out that it will be him who will divide the good and the bad. And he has repeatedly done that throughout the Church's history. There has been constant pruning. We don't need to be frightened or threatened for our goal is not any sort of cultural domination, but union with Christ.
   I have said before that I can't be an Arab. It doesn't mean that I don't love the Arabic culture (I do), it doesn't mean that I don't enjoy it (I do). I simply means that it is not my own and it can never be. To reject my own culture and heritage would be to reject and dishonor my father, my grandparents, and all of my family. They shaped me and made me who I am--for better and worse. I can not be other than who I am and to pretend to be other is to lose my own identity. I would never ask that of anyone.
   But our unity is found in the one Christ and in his one Body. We have the same Faith and everything else is open to us. The Church does the same thing in all places, but she does them differently. The Divine Liturgy is done slightly differently by the Russians compared to us. The Copts do it altogether differently from us. The Latins (and our Western Rite Orthodox) do differently still. But what they are doing is the same (because of the same Lord). It is only how they do it that is different. The Church should rejoice in this incredible diversity because it the sign of Christ's own universality. It is the sign the Christ calls all to unity with him from where they are. He does not call us simply to conform, but to be incorporated.
   The Church must remember her universality and reject a simple global vision. This is actually a dogmatic issue that is supported by the Creed, the Symbol of Faith, for every time we recite the Creed we say, "I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church." Catholic is commonly translated universal. It is erroneously thought of as a simply collective term meaning "all christians". It means more than that. It is more than global. It is truly universal, reaching past time, space, and across all cultures. It must be so because Christ himself does so.
   I write this because I have often seen more of a global vision among we Orthodox. We seem pleased that we exist across the world and then we expect everyone coming to us to Hellenize, or Arabacize, or Russianize depending upon where the "home office (patriarchate)" is. This is a perversion of Christianity. We must re-embrace the universal mind again. We must be willing to risk and sacrifice ourselves in love of Christ and our neighbor. What I have been writing of late may well prove to be unpopular among some of my brethren. It may cause some friction for me--in part because I won't say these things anonymously with cowardice. Nevertheless, I believe these things come from the essential foundation of the Faith established by Christ himself. Let us all embrace that one Lord and each other.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Is God at Work Again?

I returned Saturday evening from the Parish Life Conference (for those of you who are not Antiochian Orthodox, it is our rough equivalent of a Diocesan Conference). At the clergy meeting on Wednesday evening I heard something that I wasn't sure that I had actually heard. I was startled, stunned, and paradoxically thrilled and filled with angst at the same time. His Grace was speaking about the recent National Assembly of Bishops (Orthodox) and their work. Much of this I had already heard, but had not spoken of much because I continued to hear things that are better not the discussion of large groups. After all, the questions that the bishops are discussing really stand solely within the purview of the bishops.
   On Saturday, before I left Perrysburg (the suburb of Toledo, Ohio where the event was hosted), I asked one of my brother priests who seemed to be more "in the know" than myself. He has always been much more active in these areas than myself. Following our conversation I was utterly floored. So what was it that I had heard, first on Wednesday and then reiterated on Saturday? I heard that it is thought within five years there will be only one jurisdiction of Orthodox in the United States. There will no longer be a Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, and an Antiochian Archdiocese, and an Orthodox Church in America... There will only be the Orthodox Church. But this is not simply an American concern alone. In truth it will be a world-wide action effecting Australia, Central America, South America, England, Europe and so on.
   The details will prove to be some of the great hiccups I am sure. Diocesan borders will be redrawn and restructured. There will be a singular guideline for all the priests in the country rather than seeing it vary in every jurisdiction. Admittedly there will be a period of transition that will naturally cause no little tension. What of the calendar? Will that be a source of unity, or will there be old calendar (Julian) and new calendar parishes still? Just the selection of a revised Julian calendar has caused a terrible schism within the Orthodox Church since the 1920s. Only time will be able to tell exactly what will happen, but five years is a very short time indeed.
   One of my personal difficulties, and I have to be frank about this, is that it appears that everything will be under Constantinople. There is some logic to this. After all a recent study states that 80% of the Orthodox in the United States are already in the Greek Archdiocese. If they have those numbers, then naturally they should have the lion's share of say. Of course, it is being handled with a different sense. The natural presvia (or order given clergy and local churches) is being followed. Therefore the Greeks as representing the Ecumenical Patriarch -- who anciently second only to Rome -- is given the seat of honor, followed by Antioch (since Alexandria has no churches here), and on down the line. I said I had personal difficulties with this, and I do, but I'll save those thoughts for another post.
   Having a singular jurisdiction would be a very healthy development in Orthodoxy here and elsewhere. Yet I can't help to think that this is only part of something that is much larger. We are tempted to look only at our own countries, or only at the Orthodox Church in isolation to what seems to be happening in the larger scene. When I view the scene of Christianity on the largest possible scale, I get the distinct intuition that God the Holy Spirit is incredibly active right now. Of course, God is always active, but there are moments that his activity seems more perceptible.
   Consider these things a components or signs of something profound happening:

  1. The Orthodox Church is working on getting her house in order (trying to reconcile the scandal of multiple jurisdictions in many countries).
  2. Both Moscow and Constantinople have had very positive and warm meetings with Rome.
  3. Moscow has publicly given support to Pope Benedict XIV recently in Rome, and has called for greater work together with Rome on commonly held concerns.
  4. The recent agreed statement produced at Ravena (and that which has been leaked from Cyprus) between the Orthodox and Catholics is incredible.
  5. Pope Benedict XVI issue the motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum, which gave very liberal and broad license to priests to celebrate the 1962 Latin Mass. This is a very significant item because it helps to show the Orthodox that the Catholic Church is officially holding in a line of "continuity" rather than of "disruption". Perhaps it doesn't need to be stated that this was one of the things that Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev brought up as important when he met with the Pope.
  6. Pope Benedict XVI's stunning Apostolic Constitution, Anglicanorum Coetibus, which makes it possible in the very near future for Anglicans to enter into communion with the Catholic Church whilst keeping the great treasure of their patrimony shows the genuine sense that the Holy Father has of being the pivot of unity for the universal Church. He seems quite content to allow diversity in unity and is completely unthreatened by it -- provided there is theological unity (recall again the agreements of Ravena and Cyprus here).
  7. The Western world is dying because of many spiritual and moral diseases, but perhaps more than anything else because of the loss of the organic and sacramental unity of the Church: Eastern and Western. The desire to work together would seem to be a hint that maybe we understand this.
  8. The Roman Catholic Church has a nascent recovery of some of her tradition and liturgical beauty at the moment. Although this is still small, one leading priest in this area continually reminds the faithful that this will be brought back together "brick by brick." Deo volunte!
  9. Finally there is the continual disintegration of non-historic Christianity into mere entertainment, leaving many of their faithful looking for something that is stabile, substantial, historic and real.
   Fr. John Richard Neuhaus wrote a marvelous book in the 1980s called "The Catholic Moment." It was, like so much of what he wrote, incredibly insightful. However, I think that the moment that we might be seeing is not simply a moment for the Church of Rome, but for the entire Church Catholic (East and West). I have a suspicion that Orthodox unity is being pressed forward, perhaps unconsciously, to make ready for a reunification of the Church.
   There will be many who would not be able to make a journey to unity and union. Some are liberal Roman Catholics (I'd prefer to say heterodox, or even heretical rather than liberal) who are ably represented by the likes of the Tablet, or the National Catholic Review. Some are the extreme views taken by some monastics referred to by the Archbishop of Cyprus as the Orthodox taliban. Old Calendarists would not enter into reconciliation. Perhaps the inclusion of the Orthodox would make certain of the Society of Saint Pius X refrain from unity.
   Nevertheless, I think that God might well be at work to bring us back together. The reunion would bring more joy to my heart than I could possibly express. I pray for this every day. I hope for it every hour. I dream of it every minute.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Let's get a life…

I can sometimes be a little shrill in my posts. It is a great temptation to stand in the wilderness of modern life, put on our spiritual camel hair and shout to the sky. This is certainly needed at times. After all the first word of our Lord's public ministry was, "Repent." If we are to follow our Master, then we can not avoid the necessary task of calling our people to repentance. But underneath the call to change our lives and our souls was something deeper. It was not simply a moral adjustment, it was an invitation to something far more sweeping. It was an invitation to life.
   Yesterday I felt absolutely awful. My lungs were still filled with plaster dust from working on a local Habitat for Humanity project and consequently my throat hurt and I could speak with difficulty. A burst and open blister in the palm of my right hand pained me, and the soreness of the rest of my body didn't help. And I got a stye on my right eye just to irritate me I suppose. (I would suggest to any younger reader to stop aging now before it's too late! I know a little gray hair is exotic and appealing, but don't do it! You'll regret it!) When I finished praying my final office I lay on my bed under the ceiling fan to try and get a little rest before beginning all over again today.
   In spite of my discomfort, I remember having a wonderful warmth of heart. I love life. We can easily get down or irritated about what is going on around us that is wrong, but we ought not to forget how wonderful life is, how magnificent Christian life is. The life I enjoy is not simply to breathe and eat… all of the air I breathe gets burnt, and all that I eat goes out in the draft. That sort of life is simply the mechanics that allow me to continue existing. No, real life is being able to experience God in all that we do. It is to know his intimate presence with us and in us at every moment.
   Real life allows me to see the sunrise and know that in it God is greeting me and painting a unique canvas to behold of his life. It allows me to see all creation as a gift and a love poem between Creator and creature. Real life drives all of my external sensual experiences into my heart as internal communion with God the Holy Trinity. Life is joy, because life is no longer divided into compartments and isolation. It makes all discomfort fade into little more than a little irritation because it is no longer central in our hearts.
   This is why we repent, that we might have life. Part of repentance is moving ourselves out of our hearts and building a shrine, an altar, to God there, that he might dwell in it and we might receive him there. It is union, communion. It is this inward orientation that allows us to see the truth of the Eucharistic mystery. It is this sense of life that allowed the early martyrs to sing praises to God as they were being brutally tortured to death. They had found life--not as an escape from this world--but as the complete consummation of this world, the integration of things heavenly, earthly and divine. The hearts were filled with what the universe can not contain and it is Life, and Light.
   I love Life! Lord, help me to constantly strip off this living death with which I so quickly clothe myself. Open my eyes to your never ending call to you in my heart. Allow me to see your handiwork and praise you. "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me."

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Oklahoma and Sharia Law

Last night I saw an Oklahoma congressman (for their state legislature) who has cosponsored a proposition to amend their state constitution which will prohibit their judicial system from considering precedents or components of international or sharia law. It is admittedly a preemptive strike against Muslims trying to create room for Sharia law in the United States. This is being done against the background of the imam who has written that he desires the US to become more Sharia compliant in its legal system and the sad acceptance of Sharia law in some capacity in the United Kingdom.
   I am thrilled with this Oklahoma proposition. The congressman also stated that he believes many states will have similar propositions put forward in the next few months. I trust that my native state will present such very soon as well... at least I hope so. I rather doubt that Michigan will be able to do so with the very large Muslim population in the Detroit area, but I might be surprised.
   Why is this an important issue? Well, first of all I believe that when someone immigrates to a country they must acculturate to their new country. If they don't like something there they ought to be reminded that they were not asked to come and they knew what was here.
   There is also a very important principle of law itself. The United States is a sovereign nation. She has her own laws which are based upon a very long tradition--reaching back to the Magna Carta in England in the 12th century. Our law, except for Louisiana, is English law and it incorporates English common law. This system was based on two principles. The first principle was that of ancient Rome which was the wonder of the ancient world. Roman law forms the core of all western civilizations and it is an essential component of our culture. The second component is probably more important, and that is Christianity. Our legal system developed within a Christian culture and it has Christian values. This is why Muslims don't want our system. They insist on Islamicizing everywhere they go.
   In the last few years I have personally become much more Euro-centric. It is the womb of my own culture and I would suggest that it has been no accident that western culture and society has become the dominant one throughout the world. It's music, its literature, its law are seen everywhere. I have to say honestly, that I believe it is superior. Apart from anthropologists and their views, I think it would be hard to say that our musical tradition (Mozart, Beethoven, Bach…) isn't superior to other music.
   Sharia law is an opening shot and we should not let it be rammed into the barrel. If they are unhappy about not being allowed to use a competing legal system in our sovereign nation, then they can pack their bags and get the hell out.

Friday, June 18, 2010

How Rosey it all Seems

All of the Orthodox bishops of North America met recently and the reports all seem quite rosey. I suppose I'm a bit of a curmudgeon but I have more than a suspicion that not everything is a grand as is being said in official and public statements. I'm told that Archbishop Demitrius (of the Greek Archdiocese) more than ably presided at the Assembly and actually kept to the agenda as published. I admire his ability in this.
   But it still strikes me that it is certainly early days and that a lot is left to do. The local diocesan and archdiocesan practices vary a great deal and this will need to be addressed... the list is actually a long one. But the fly in the ointment seems to be how the OCA (Orthodox Church in America--of Russian background) will be handled. I suspect that it will be a real fight on the administrative council's level which may actually cause the formation of two assemblies. Bismark was right about politics and sausage being something that is best not watched as it's made.
   Orthodox unity is an ugly business and I have to say that it causes me quite a bit of heartburn these days. Unity is one of the absolutely foundational aspects of the Church (we do proclaim after all that we believe in the "ONE, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.") For years I have had to teach my catechumens that unity must exist on three levels when it is perfect: (1) Sacramental unity, (2) Theological unity, and (3) Administrative unity. I have also been forced to admit that we have imperfect unity since we lack the complete administrative unity that the Church should possess. Administrative unity is not a tiny thing either. It is a matter of the very organizational life of the Church. The early church very quickly made canon laws that prescribed particular things to the ordering of church life. We can even say, without too much of a stretch, that the Apostolic council in Jerusalem which dealt with the issue of the Gentiles in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles issued a sort of canon law and ordered the life of the Church. We ought not to trivialize administrative unity.
   We surely have sacramental unity with each other. We also have theological unity, but here I would say that it exists more in the form of consensus rather than as an absolute, like all communities there are some clergy who appropriate this better than others. But it must be admitted that we Orthodox do generally a better job here than most. This is significant too, for it has formed the basis of our unity (along with the sacramental life of the Church) for centuries. It is one of our strengths. But organization or administrative clearness is not one of our strengths at all. One of my favorite lines is "if you don't believe in organized religion, then you need to become Orthodox because we're not organized at all!" A lot of truth there.
   Here I'm probably going to irritate or upset people, but I believe that it is true that the lack of organization is also one of the signs that we need the "other lung" of the historic Church: Rome. Rome is absolutely organized clearly. The boundaries are clearly drawn and they are well known. One might not agree with all of the particulars (I'm not sure what they might be that one would disagree with, but I'm sure some would) but bad rules are better than no rules.
   But Rome has had some troubles too, but they are different than those of the Orthodox. Rome can organize but there has developed over the past forty to fifty years a great decline in unity of belief. How else can one explain a Catholic nun allowing an abortion in a Catholic hospital? or nuns pushing for women's ordination when the pope has said it is a closed matter? or clergy like Fr. Matthew Fox, who is completely immersed in new age religion? or Catholic Universities that do not teach the official faith of the Church? The problems are there and they are real. My admiration of Pope Benedict XIV and his work to correct these things is enormous. He is a virtuous and godly man, as well as a good theologian. But I believe that Pope Benedict XIV needs us to help.
   Where the East lacks, Rome is stable; where Rome is wanting, the East is strong. I believe that we actually need each other. But it ought not be surprising nor scandalous because our Lord himself desired that the Church be one. The Church indeed needs to have both lungs so that it may breathe healthily again. The reunion of the Orthodox and Rome is also the greatest fear of Islam and of those who hate Christianity. A unified Christian Church would be powerful and strong. I pray for this daily. It is one of my greatest desires. I also believe that the only ecumenical discussions that are of any real substantive value for either us or Rome, is the one with each other.
   The new National Assembly of Orthodox bishops is a good step. It all has been described in rosey colors, but my suspicion is that real Orthodox administrative unity is ultimately going to be found with real unity with the West. It is the West's charism, not ours.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Life in the Gray Zone

Recently, I saw a poll that pointed out where people are regarding moral issues in the US. I wasn't particularly surprised but it got me thinking that about where the root of the problem is and I think I might have stumbled onto something in my reflection. Let me know what you think.
   Our trouble is that we don't really believe in God. I'm not speaking about atheists, but Christians in general. We tend to believe in a great law giver, where everything is black or white, absolutely right or absolutely wrong. That's where our minds are, but our experience is more in the gray. This leads us to great difficulties with what we perceive as an absolutist position on anything, because we tend to experience everything in a haze… life is lived in the gray zone. And we make the gray even more hazy for ourselves because we bring our emotions into it and confuse things even more.
   You see, I think we believe in "right" and "wrong" in the same way we think of criminal law. I would suggest that we don't even have a grasp of criminal law anymore because we have lost what law is an outgrowth of in Christian lands.
   Let me explain. Right, truth, life, light, glory, etc. are personal attributes of God. We usually separate them from him in an abstracted way. They can't really be done that way though. To do right is always to choose to follow Christ as best we can in all circumstances. This requires us to recognize that the world is fallen and that sometimes we don't get to choose absolutes. We have to choose the best choice available and know that it is not perfect. But in doing so we still are choosing God. We are choosing him--although he is obscured from full view. We are trying to love him in all that we do.
   We also have to recognize that our fallenness keeps us from being able to see the truth with absolute clarity. So it is that we need to receive counsel from other Christians who are mature in their faith (not just Joe in the pew over from us, but from one who is spiritually advanced with the fruits of that showing forth). We need to seek to purify our minds and hearts so that we can see God more clearly. If we can't navigate our way through moral questions, then it may not be the issue that is the problem but our perception and understanding that needs enlightening. But repentance requires a complete trust in God. It requires faith because it is throwing oneself off a cliff into God's mercy. Repentance is to fly without the nets of our own comfort. God is a consuming fire... the fire of love.
   We also need to come to understand that all of the commandments that our Lord gives us (in the Old and New Testaments and through his Body the Church) are revelations of himself. God says, "Thou shalt not steal" because he has no avarice or kleptomania in himself. God says, "Thou shalt not commit adultery" because he is faithful. He wants us to be like him in all things. "Be ye perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect." Laws are a revelation of the goodness of God and a revelation of what we are to become as well.
   If we truly loved God, we would constantly seek his face in all that we do. We would desire to move towards him at every moment and every decision. Life in the gray zone is our potential to love God or despise him without any coercion at all. We are free to move to the Kingdom of God or away from it. This is why it is gray and not so easily deciphered. It is also why it represents the most critical struggle of our lives. Honestly, very few of our decisions are good vs. evil (though the consequences always are). Mostly we have to decide between two alternative goods and choose which one is the real good. What will be our basis of choice? Will we decide this one looks good because I will enjoy it more, or will we choose the other because there are fewer obstacles placed between it and our love of God?
   In the gray zone we find out if we really believe in God or not. Most of the time, I think we believe in ourselves and our own comfort, or, being compassionate people, we choose to make others comfortable rather than point them towards holiness. But the more I consider it, the more I recognize that the gray zone is a luminous haze that reveals more than it lets on.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Essential Question: What is Truth?

While reading one of the blogs I check up on, I read a magnificent piece that describes the essential difference between the Protestant mind and the Catholic mind (we Orthodox think the same way as the Catholics here). It was written by a Roman Catholic priest, Fr. Seán Finnegan, as part of a post regarding the historical discussions between Anglicans and Roman Catholics and what has been at the root of the problem. He says, I think rightly, that it has to do with the essential definition of truth.

The most important issue that should have been examined first is the nature of truth, and how we are to arrive at it. For a Protestant, a Christian himself (or herself) reads the Bible, and, illuminated by the Holy Spirit, and helped by the witness of tradition (for some) and reason, discerns God’s truth for himself. Within this system, there has to be a fair degree of toleration of difference, because Protestants had discovered within a couple of years that two earnest Protestants are going to have two different interpretations of pretty fundamental doctrines, and if they aren’t going to end up killing each other (which some did), they are going to have to accept that there can be room for honest doubt. This, I would contend, has eventually given birth to doctrinal liberalism, though it would be a mistake to conclude from this that all Protestants are liberals, though Protestantism is particularly prone to liberalism on the one hand (for the nice people) and bigotry on the other (‘my privately held opinion is better than your privately held opinion’).
To a Catholic mind, our Lord did not come to write a book, but to found a Church through the wisdom of which, guided by the same Holy Spirit, he would continue to guide his Church into all truth. That Church would, inspired by the Holy Spirit, write a book, (the New Testament) but the Church precedes the book and therefore authoritatively interprets it (as the Bible interprets the tradition). It is the Apostles who are to be listened to as one would listen to Christ (Luke 10:16), and the Church holds that they continue to teach through tradition with scripture and through their successors.

    I think Fr. Finnegan clearly describes the foundation of the Church from the viewpoint of truth. It is also a description that we as Orthodox should "read, mark, learn and inwardly digest" as the old collect from the Second Sunday of Advent in the Book of Common Prayer used to say, because it gets to some of the great difficulties that we face as Orthodox Christians too.
    There seem to be about three different camps of Orthodox currently: (1) what we might call the "ethnic" camp [sometimes thought of as the "old guard'], (2) the middle camp [which includes converts and cradle Orthodox], and (3) the "fundamentalist" camp. There is a terrible battle occurring between the three groups that is tearing us apart. It is not a healthy place to be right now and if it is not healed, I fear that many will leave the Orthodox Church entirely. I classmate of mine in seminary wisely pointed out that, "sometimes it becomes necessary for some to leave the Church for their salvation." When there is little room for prayer, repentance and conversion of life, then one needs to find a place he can do that. If we aren't very careful, we'll see that day sooner rather than later.
    What are the battle lines? The first camp brought the Orthodox Church here from oversees. It struggled and sacrificed to plant the Church here. The vision oft times was not so clear, ranging from the vision of a real parish church to a religious social club for "our people." But this camp has always been in charge and run things. It has been generous and open to freely give the faith to those seeking it (at least in the Antiochian Archdiocese). But the Church has changed in the US now and is no longer populated by purely "ethnic" folks. About three-quarters of the clergy in our Archdiocese are converts (or "non-ethnics"). Some estimate that the number of convert laity is perhaps at least fifty percent to seventy percent. As the converts increase, as they give their money, their time, their lives to the Church, they also want to have a larger voice as well. These two groups represent the first big, and in some ways the most significant, clash going on.
   It is tremendously important because these two groups have entirely different values of propriety and rectitude. They have different senses of action as well. The great discomfort that we felt last summer largely comes from this collision of cultures. As long as both sides continue to entrench, we will have no peace and will be cast headlong into either a schism or dissolution, or both. This is the source of my great concern for the bishops' meeting that will begin in a couple of weeks. Will they strive to reinforce the "old guard" as the legitimate mind of the Church here? Will they recognize that the Holy Spirit is giving birth to a new ethnic Orthodox people that just happen to be Americans (which necessarily includes all of the groups of immigrants that have come here)? I'm not sure, but the signs are not promising.
   I have spoken to a few people who have traveled across the United States recently and visited several parishes. They have told me that the use of the "mother tongue" of the various groups is up, both liturgically and in the parish hall. Discussions have been much more stridently pro-ethnic across the board. My intuition is that this comes from some folks feeling very uneasy and threatened. Power is slipping away... and it must do so.
   The third wheel in this group is what has been characterized by the fundamentalist camp. This group has caused a lot of difficulties in our parishes across the board. There is always a tendency to legalism, but there is something else here that is at the heart of the problem I think. Fundamentalism has two sources. The first source is that many people who come into Orthodoxy have not left the Protestant notion of truth behind. They believe that they can define it themselves through a larger group of writings. Monastics become almost modern Apostles. I have had to work with some folks like this before and they are almost impossible to help. They insist that only a really pure monk can give them advise and counsel. They judge everything themselves, rather than accepting life from the Church. The Protestant mind cannot be brought into the Church if one is to be healthy.
   There is another source of fundamentalism though, and it is subtler. Many converts find it distressing to be asked, "What made you become a Greek (or Arab, or Russian, name your flavor)?" They didn't realize they were doing any such thing. After a while of having their own heritage pushed to the side, one of the choices for them is to reject a purely modern ethnicity in favor of one defined by an odd sort of fundamentalism. I don't think it works very well, because one ends up having to be some sort of fundamentalist--Greek or Russian or whatever. Either way, one loses himself.
   At the heart of the matter is the question of truth, which is why I think Fr. Finnegan's entry is so important. We must recognize that the Church comes before any of these groups. The Church itself is absolutely universal and that no ethnic group can lord it over the others. If any one group is to have the upper hand, in the long run it must be the local group, whatever that is. Otherwise the Church is nothing but a romantic enclave of what we knew "back there". (To the fundamentalist it would be a romantic enclave of what the Church is like "on Mount Athos" or 19th century Russia, or whatever their foundation is.)
   We are at a critical moment. We must pray that the Holy Spirit guides our fathers, the bishops, that they will be inspired and moved according to his will and not theirs. We must hope that the Church embraces the Universal reality with which she was created and not move to a backwards entrenchment--as comfortable as that might be to some.
   I don't know what the future will be for us. I can't even honestly say what the future will be for ME. Our salvation is all that matters. Our growth in Christ and in his Church are essential, nothing else is.