Monday, August 31, 2009

Happy New Year!

Today, September 1 (Revised Julian Calendar), Orthodox Christians celebrate the beginning of a new church year. Western Christians celebrate the beginning of the church year with the first Sunday of Advent which is usually in late November. As our church year closes today, our two most recent major feasts were the Dormiion of the Theotokos and the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. If the calendar is the liturgical celebration of the history of salvation then our salvtion is culminated in these two feasts. With the Dormition of the Theotokos, our resurrection from the dead is realized as the Theotokos was the first fruits of Resurrection. With the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, our Lord's incarnation was preached even in Hades which eventually would be subject to the power of the Man-God, the theanthropos.

But why do Eastern Christians celebrate the new year on September 1? According to church tradition, September 1 was the day, according to the Scriptures, when the people of Israel celebrated the feast of Blowing of the Trumpets (Lev.23:24-5; Num. 29:1-2). This is also the day when Christ began his ministry when he came to synagogue because it was his turn to read from Scripture. Handed the Book of Isaiah, he found the place and began "The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, for which cause He hath annointed Me." (Luke 4: 16-30). The beginning of our church year is marked by our Lord's teaching and ends with St. John the Forerunner going down even to Hades to prepare His way. So, happy new year everyone!

Troparion of Indiction (tone 2): O Maker of all creation, Who hast established the time and the seasons in Thine own power: Bless the crown of this year with Thy goodness, O Lord, and keep our rulers and Thy flock in peace, by the intercessions of the Theotokos, save us!

Kontakion of the Feast (tone 4): O God of all, Who hast made all the ages, O Soverign Lord, truly transcendent in essence, bestow Thy grace and blessing on the year to come; and, O Most Compassionate, in Thine infinite mercy, save all them that worship Thee, Who alone art our Master, and that with fear, O Saviour, cry to Thee: Grant unto all men a fruitful and godly year.

Reading Christ's Words

Continuing from my previous post, I was reflecting on how yesterday's Gospel reading appeared to be speaking to me directly. Now, this does not mean that my own interpretation of that particular passage is within the consensus patruum but, after I wrote that, I remembered something I saw on TV years ago. On occasion, I go over to EWTN, the Eternal Word Television Network, which is, for those of you who don't know, is a Catholic media outlet. They rebroadcast masses from their headquarters in Alabama, also bring news from the Vatican and have any number of shows dedicated to the Catholic Faith. There are some real gems there, especially when they go into the history of the Church (which, of course, is told from a Catholic viewpoint) and when they have concerts.

One day, I was watching the rebroadcast of the daily mass. It takes place in a small church and the priests rotate in and out. I usually stay tuned in to see the sermon. However, most of the priests there are uninspiring and not very gifted speakers. Now, that shouldn't disqualify a person to be a priest, though having that gift helps. But one of the priests that occasionally officiates is Fr. Angelus Shaughnessy. I really like him. I find him to be a very gifted priest as well as an excellent teacher. If I were Catholic, I would be very comfortable having him as my priest. At the very beginning of one of his sermons, he taught a good way of how to read Christ's words when he is talking to Pharisees, hypocrites, or any other member of society who was considered to be in low repute: Rather than read Pharisee, etc. read your name in its place. And the Gospel will come alive in you in ways that you have never realized before. And he was right. I tried that with any number of stories, even with yesterday's Gospel lesson of the rich man who wished to inherit eternal life but was unwilling to sell his possessions to gain it. I put my name in place of the rich man and that Gospel lesson made so much more sense.

Christ knows us each by name. But, as Ecclesiastes tell us, there's nothing new under the sun and thus, our humanity is as predictable as the sun rising in the east. Though Christ is directly addressing the Pharisees and scribes and hypocrites, etc., he is really addressing us. We are Pharisees, we are scribes, we are hypocrites, we are the faithless thief! It's very easy to read those passages with those condemnations in the Gospel or even the Prophets of the OT and think that Christ and the Prophets are talking about every other person except for us! "I'm not that bad a person." "I don't sin that much." "I am pretty good." We all use these excuses which only confirm our hypocrisy. Christ was definitely including us in those condemnations.

Try reading the Prophets and the Gospels with this trick. I honestly believe that you will find so much more meaning than you ever did before. And maybe, when next year comes around and that same old Gospel story is read which you have heard so many times, Christ will be speaking directly to you. Just a thought.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Church calendar, today's Gospel and other thoughts

There is a joke that you can set your watch by the Chruch Calendar. You know what time it is during the day based on the prayers of the hours. You know what day it is because each day has a specific commemoration whether angels, saints, John the Forerunner, etc. And you know what Sunday it is after Pentecost based on the Epistle and Gospel lessons. For the past five years, on this Sunday, which falls between mid-August and mid-September, I was able to tell that we are getting out of summer and headed towards autumn and the start of the new Church Year, which, for the Orthodox, begins on September 1.

Today's Gospel (Matthew 19: 16-24) is the all familiar story of the rich man who asks the Lord what he must do to inherit eternal life. Christ's answer that the man should sell all of his possessions was disheartening to him and that men left sorrowful. According to the biographer of St. Anthony, St. Athansius, wrote that the great saint passing by the entrance of a church heard this same Gospel and immediately sold all his possessions and retreated to the ascetic life in Egypt. So, what are we to make of this Gospel? I can only speak for myself.

I am at a crossroads in my life where there is much uncertainty and little clarity. I have managed to get my foot in a number of doors but I keep getting pushed out. This has, as you can expect, given me a lot to despair over and become depressed. Going to a confession some weeks ago, I made confession to my priest about what I was going through. And he said that perhaps what I needed to do was to lay my life's work, my career, as a sacrifice to God as Abraham did with Isaac. And only when he Abraham was prepared and truly committed to possibly losing what was most important to him (after all he and Sara had waited a very long time for a child), that it was restored to him. Similarly, Job had laid up all his possessions as a sacrifice and all he had lost was returned to him many times over. For this young man, no doubt earnestly desiring eternal salvation which only Christ can give, he was unwilling to sacrifice his possessions. This young man, like Abraham, had choice. Job had all this taken away against his will but still abided by the results. Like Job, my circumstance was dictated not by my own choice but unlike Job and like the young man, I'm not willing to offer it as a sacrifice to God. And perhaps why my career has not had any openings because I'm trying to hang onto it by my own terms. So, unlike Job and unlike Abraham, it won't be restored to me. I must be prepared to lose everything in order that it could possibly be saved.

At least that is the way I see it. I'm no theologian and I'm not very wise.

Today the Church Calendar allowed for the lesson to be read that I needed to hear, that I needed to absorb and digest. So, to those who believe that the church calendar is a fossil that needs to be disregarded or tossed out, well, it works for me.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Day of Resurrection

The Jewel of all the Orthodox Canons, the anastaseos hemera "The Day of Resurrection" by St. John Damascene sung in Greek by the monks at Valaam Monastery.

Akathist to St. John Damascene

One of the great traditions of our Orthodox Church is the singing of the Akathist Hymn during Great Lent, the composition of St. Romanos the Melodist. In that same tradition, many other Akathist hymns have been composed to various saints, our Lord and our Lady which are read or chanted in private devotions or even at church during certain seasons.

Knowing that, I have tried to find an Akathist hymn to my patron saint, St. John Damascene and have not. So, I composed my own. It's nothing like what St. Romanos wrote (but then again, few things are!) so if you'd like to read it and to make comments on it, please do so. It is on googledocs. Here's the site.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

An addendum to why I left the Lutheran Church

I have told myself many times that I should no longer concern myself with the matters of other church bodies. I am Orthodox and that should be sufficient for me. Besides, what business do I have as I am not even a member? I often say the same thing to those people who ridicule the Roman Catholic Church because they don't allow women as priests. When I ask them if they are Roman Catholic and they say "no" then I ask why that is their concern. And such should be the same with me.

Yesterday, the nation's largest "Lutheran" body voted to allow actively practicing homosexuals to serve in church positions, including that of the priesthood, as long as they were in committed, long-lasting relationships. However, this policy would be decided on by individual parishes and bishops could no longer take disciplinary actions.

This vote came as no surprise to me since the ELCA has ceased to be a Lutheran body from the time of its formation back in 1989. It is apostate. Now, there are good and faithful members of the ELCA who, for whatever reason, have decided to remain in the ELCA. Some are trying to reform the ELCA from within, but such a hope is lost and the ELCA will continue to go adrift without any spiritual anchor, namely the Word of God (I'm talking Christ, not the Bible). ELCA "scholar-theologians" thinking they know better than the consensus patruum or phrosyne patron, decided that the "spiritual" meaning of Scripture trumps an y "literal" meaning. Well, in a blog I wrote earlier this week, thanks to the inspriation of Mr. Christopher Orr who always has gems of wisdom on his page, the literal meaning of the Scritpure IS the spiritual meaning. And that has always been the rule of guiding interpretation in the Church until the Roman Catholic Church decided it was the pope who was the rule and then Martin Luther who decided that his own conscience dictated otherwise.

What has happened is that the heirs of Luther, following in his footsteps, have decreed that their own reason, their own interepretation, their own egos are far superior than to acknowledge and be obedient to the rule of faith handed down once and for all to the saints! Many are saying that Luther would be rolling over in his grave upon hearing what the ELCA has done. Maybe, but they are merely following his lead. Luther was an egoist. Everything was about him and how unworthy he was. While a monk, Luther would often go on for hours saying "Ego non sum" or "Ich bin's nicht", both of which translate to "I am nothing." Even if that seems like a selfless statement, it is anything but. The word "I" dominates Luther's writings and teachings, mostly in the negative sense. Since when did the Kingdom of God and salvtion revolve around you exclusively? Luther's guilt trips are almost the stuff of legend. I would encourage people to read Eric Ericsson's biography Young Man Luther, an invigorating and insightful psychological look to the reformer. The inevitable result of Luther's stand against the Roman Catholic Church, misguided as it was, saying that his own conscience dictated what is right set a standard which the more than 20,000 brands of Protestants use today. If I don't like a doctrine, we'll change it since I am bound by conscience.

Egoism destroys the love of God and it also destroys the human. Are all Lutherans egoists? Surely not. I would venture that I am even more of one than they. However, they are heirs to a church whose founder's dictates were based on personal preference and interpretation.

I know that there are many, within the ELCA and without, who are very happy with this decision. Let them be. But for those whose faithfulness to the Word of God has been questioned as uncaring and unloving, they have a difficult road ahead. ELCA churches, many of them, will be torn by infighting about this issue. Many members will leave. Many will reluctantly stay. But this is but another domino to fall in the great quest for apostacy.

I hope that the LCMS never goes this route, but leaders and "scholar-theologians" in their midst are still Luther's heirs; personal, egoistic interpretation rules there as well. The conciliar nature of both churches has been replaced with the democratic notions of the individual. Though Luther was a staunch opponent of democracy, because it was nothing more than pandering to the lowest elements of society, democracy, too and ironically, the tyranny of the majority, is his legacy as well.

Is the Orthodox Church immune to this? Sadly, no. It hasn't come to this extent of realization, but after what I have seen, even in my own archdiocese, it still may. Egoism is not merely a Lutheran matter; it is a sinful matter. The Orthodox may be buffeted against it for awhile, but there needs to be some deep soul-search and change.

"O, Lord, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance, granting to Thy people victory over all adversaries. And by the power of Thy Cross, preserve thine estate."--Troparion for Exaltation of the Cross, Tone 1

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

My stay at a monastery--Part II

July 14, 2009

I cannot recall the last time I woke up at 3:15 am. Actually, I had problems sleeping. I was so concerned that I would sleep through the alarm and miss the midnight office, Orthros and first hour, that I seemed to wake up every hour just to see if I was possibly late. At 3:15, I jumped out of bed, took a shower, got dressed. At about 3:40, I heard the first beats of the semintron so I walked into the church. It was so dark; only one candle was lit and this was by the Pontian Icon of the Theotokos painted by St. Luke. Even though the moon shone brightly, inside the church was complete darkness. I don’t think St. Mary’s on Pascha morning was ever this dark. The darkness compounded the experience for the light of Christ illumines all whether we see it or not. I later told Fr. Joseph about this and he responded that his spiritual father remarked that it is good to have services in the dark because many people commit sins in the dark because they think God cannot see their evil deeds so we pray in the evening to remind those individuals that if God hears our prayers then, he can surely see iniquity. I like that.One monk, a novice, is responsible for the lighting of all the candles which he does in a certain order. Even when the icon screen candles are lit, the candelabra lamps are lit, several other lamps in front of icons of certain saints, the church is still shrouded in darkness. Our prayers will make the up the rest of the light.

We began with the prayers upon awakening which I had already said, but no big deal and then moved to the Midnight Office. I have prayed the midnight office several times before and, on weekdays, Psalm 118 is prescribed in its entirety and it is a long psalm and is divided into three stases. The nice thing about Psalm 118 is that a lot of the vocabulary is repeated. Now I know the basics of this Psalm and I know the first 12 verses by heart, but whoever was reading this was reading it so softly and with such a slurred voice I couldn’t understand where he was. Again, I realize that these monks have said this psalter hundreds of times in their lives and know it by heart, but still… Anyway, we began Orthros. This was no major feast (Aquila) so there was not a lot of festal hymns. The chants were again minimalistic but very nice though, again, not much ison. Both of the appointed kathismata of the Psalter were also read (something that we have never done at St. Marys). The one thing that struck me about this Orthros was that for the first time I heard an entire canon. The first and ninth odes were chanted; the rest simply read. However, the reader was not easily understood; I did my best to understand and follow, but no luck.As we began the Ainoi (Praises), which were read, not chanted nor with any stichera, I noticed that the sun was coming up and starting to fill the church through its dome. I thought that was particularly appropriate since one of the verses of the Praises is "Praise Him, O Sun and Moon!" Following morning prayers, I went back to my room to lie down for maybe a few minutes. I didn’t have my watch on since I wanted to experience this without having to worry about time like I do at St. Mary’s. Nearly 3 hours had elapsed! That’s usually the time just for Orthros and Liturgy on a Sunday morning!

I didn’t get a chance to lie down since one of the novices fetched me for breakfast. After breakfast, Fr. Joseph said that I could visit where they made candles. The novice, whose name was Christopher, explained to me the procedures for making the candle. It is not a difficult process and I suppose that is intentional as it allows the candle maker to not only perform his job but also to be in prayer and contemplation at the same time. We started talking plainly about other things though I tried to be careful about what questions I would ask him. As he is a novice and still young (he has been a novice for three years), I did not want to create any disturbances that could be perilous to his journey. However, we just started talking about what was going on in the Orthodox world. He asked me about my background and I found out a little about his. He was dipping the candles in the wax without missing a beat. I even got to try. It’s an art, not a science. It’s also very messy work! So now I understand how all those tapers are made. Following this, I desired to back to my room and read, but Fr. Joseph soon came in and asked if I would help with a mailing that they are doing. I said that I was at a good stopping place so I went in and started folding sheets in half. I must have been doing this for a good 2.5 hours or so. I must have done 1000 or something. All the while, I was not concentrating on the work itself, but on praying the Jesus Prayer which is, for those of you who don’t know it "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner." I felt myself getting into a rhythm. Every time I would take up a sheet and fold it, I would say the prayer twice. I have tried saying the Jesus Prayer before with the aid of a prayer rope, but I think this is the first time that I have said it this consistently and this long! Now that is not to say that I can now see the uncreated light of God! I still have very far to go with that.

While I was doing this, other visitors had shown up. A Greek priest, Fr. Yanney and one of his parishioners, Adam had stopped by. I continued doing what I was doing until I had finished up everything. Afterwards, I went into the atrium where Adam was sitting and reading and I joined in until noon when Akathist was said and lunch served. Lunch was very good. Good salad, potatoes, broccoli, a kind of cheese pastry, bread, etc. While we ate, we listened to one of St. John Chrysostom’s homilies read by Fr. Maximos. After lunch, Adam and I went back to the atrium and talked there. He had just converted and was learning to chant and to learn Greek. I found out that he had studied Akkadian, cuneiform and Sumerian at Oxford University. And I thought that I studied dead languages! Fr. Michael soon joined us, saying that if he denied us his hospitality, he’d also be denying our guardian angels, whom we bring with us, hospitality as well. So we started talking about monasticism in the contemporary world and I found the whole talk very enlightening and entertaining. I also found out a few things about Bishop BASIL which I am not allowed to repeat! * Fr. Yanni and Adam then departed; I’m surprised they stayed as long as they did since they had to get to a baptism in another town and then drive 5 hours back to Pennsylvania where they are from. As soon as they left, I resumed my work that I had started earlier.

Fr. Joseph and Fr. Michael were busy entertaining Bishop MARK of the Antiochian Diocese of Toledo and the Midwest. I had met Bishop MARK once before about two years ago. I was hoping to talk with him, but his visit was a very short one and all he did was walk along the grounds and then just leave.

Fr. Gregory sat down with me for a while and we were talking about Cyprus, which is his native land. We were also talking about the Cypriot dialect of Greek, which, according to him, has more in common with the Greek of Homer than the mainland dialect today, even in its pronunciation. However, I still didn’t get a lot of what he was saying. It just confirmed that I still don’t know a lot about Greek! I then proceeded on to work some more and about 4:10, I retired to my room to take a break. I needed it as my back was really starting to hurt so I lay down. I dozed off and thank goodness the semitron rang, otherwise I would have been late or would have missed Vespers!Vespers was very short since we were not commemorating a major saint tomorrow (St. Julitta and her son Cyriacus) and I went back to the atrium to read before dinner started.

Fr. Joseph came in and he asked if I had any questions. I asked a few, but I was really unsure of what to ask since I am still taking a lot of this in. But I did tell him that I would probably come back some time and maybe spend a few more days.Dinner was quite good and we listened to the same letter of the Elder Paisios of Athos that we listened to yesterday. After dinner, we said compline. Fr. Gregory then showed me the woodworking studio where they made the stalls for the church as well as mounts for icon prints. I then decided to stretch my legs and walk down the road a little bit. I returned and now I am writing this. Same schedule as tomorrow so I’m off to bed though I really don’t feel tired. I’m sure that once I hit the pillow, I’ll be out!

Glory to God for all things!

Literal vs. spiritual

My thanks, first of all, to Chris Orr and his links over at Orrologion for giving me some food for thought on this topic.

All too often, as Christians, when we are responding to what goes on in this world, evil and not so evil, we wonder how our viewpoint, our belief, could possibly be opposed by fellow Christians. We see this in any number of hot button issues in today's secular and religious world such as abortion, gay marriage, ordination of women to the clergy, euthanasia, are heaven and hell literal, etc.. How can there be disagreement especially when it seems that Scripture seems to hold that we should unequivocally say "no" to the aforementioned issues? Usually, that's when the dictum of St. Paul is thrown out by the "yay-sayers" that "The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life." In other words, we have to look behind the actual words of Scripture and find the spiritual meaning which is not binding, but fluid and to be applied liberally without any kind of standards. Now, I seriously doubt St. Paul was a post-modernist, but in the eyes of some Christians, you'd think that St. Paul was its originator!

Such a train of thought is inherently a new hermeneutic for examining Scripture. Of course, proponents will insist that just because it is new, does not mean that it should be discarded. I will concede that there are definitely some new modes of interpretation which have been used that shed light on Scripture, both New and Old Testaments. But the problem lies with the fact that the spiritual method of examinig Scripture--or allegorical--is not the way of the Church Fathers. Now, in the eyes of Protestants, especially Lutherans and Anglicans, this should not be a problem, although they will continue to insist that their churches are the churches of the Holy Fathers, but they are only invoked when their interpretation of Scripture happens to agree with their own. But that is besides the point for now. However, if such churches claim to be the churches of the fathers, then they must know this: The spiritual meaning IS the literal meaning.

It's very easy to read the OT or the NT in an allegorical manner. For instance, we see the 3 angels given hospitality by Abraham and the transfiguration and baptism of Christ where Christ, a voice from heaven and a dove, to be allegorical representations of the Holy Trinity which we confess as the cornerstone of our understanding of God. But allegory only can go so far. Augustine and the other church fathers regard the use of allegory for understanding Scripture of the beliefs of the Church to be representative of a simple faith. And there is nothing wrong with simple faith. Children have that and Christ did say that no one should hinder the faith of a child and that they should come to him. But for those of us who deal with "extreme" theology, we cannot use allegory as a means to justify what Scripture clearly does not teach now nor ever! The literal message is the spiritual message! If the literal were thrown out for whatever reason, then John 3: 16 would cease to have meaning. Life in Christ, everlasting life, simply becomes a pipe dream then for simple (i.e. uneducated) people.

Biblical scholars, especially the ones you see on the Discover Channel or History Channel, love to tell about Biblical codes and secret messages which they alone can decipher. Gnosticism (the belief of hidden knowledge of God which is clear to some and hidden in others), apparently, is anything but dead in the Christian world (I suppose Dan Brown might claim he had something to do with that). Now, for those honest people who sincerely believe that certain social and religious hot-button issues should be given a pass, I don't believe that they are gnostics per se, but they have been duped to believe that the Scriptures do not actually say anything literal. St. Paul's dictum has been trumpeted and trumpeted again. The fact that the Holy Fathers, even Origen who was a huge proponent of allegorically reading the OT, regarded the spiritual meaning to be empty without its literal meaning.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

This is worship?

The ELCA is having their yearly convention down in New Orleans where the theme is "Jesus, Justice, Jazz." The ELCA represents one of the many reasons why Protestantism was not a viable alternative. Its idea of worship is nothing short of comical. Of course, there are exceptions in the ELCA and other Protestant, where there is some reverence and fear of God. But they are exceptions and thus in the minority. The link below just shows you where most of them are going. Go to the video section on the right and click on the seventh video, "Sanctus."

My stay at a monastery--Part I

July 13, 2009

Today, I got up much later than I wanted to. But after spending several days with the Warwicks and their kids, I felt that I needed the extra time to sleep so that I had as much energy as I could before I began my stay at the monastery of St. Gregory Palamas in Perrysville, OH.

I got underway, finally, by about 8:15. I didn’t need to stop for gas as I had filled up the night before. It was a fairly uninteresting 4.5 hour drive from Louisville. I did get to drive through the city centers of both Cincinnati and Columbus. At least, now, I can say that I have been to them. All along the way I was trying to picture what it would be like here. I’ve seen pictures, but that doesn’t even begin to capture the heart of the monastery. I arrived a little after 1:00. I had initially missed the monastery on the left hand side of the road (it’s not very big). At the same time, this place is not exactly isolated—there are homes right next door to this place and it’s not uncommon to hear cars passing by.

I wasn’t sure as to w here I should go. There is a house at the top of the hill so I got out and went to the house and rang the door bell. The door was answered by a young monk, whom I assume is a novice since he said nothing. Novices are not silent to be rude but so that they may direct their energies to the contemplative life. I was introduced to Fr. Michael who was very courteous and gracious to me. He put me in a waiting area and Fr. Joseph then came to greet me.

Fr. Joseph and I had about a twenty minute talk about this desire I have to perhaps becoming a monk. I know that this is not something to just jump into and over and over, I felt the need to clarify or to justify that I am still searching for what my life’s purpose is. He was quite patient with me and then took me around the grounds.

He first showed me the temple which is, of course, dedicated to St. Gregory Palamas, the 14th century bishop and saint who correctly affirmed the teachings of the Church that we, as created beings, cannot partake of the essence of God, but commune with Him through His energies, such as grace, compassion, mercy, love, etc. He also reaffirmed that it was through active contemplation and prayer that true communion can be reached. This was in direct contradiction to the monk Barlaam of the Roman Catholic Church, who was far more scholarly and more intellectual in his approach to God, that prayer almost became an afterthought. In my conversation with Fr. Joseph, I frequently referred to my desire for true, deep contemplative prayer which the western traditions had failed to offer me and which I cannot do by simply praying by myself, though I have tried. I think he understood.

Back to the temple, he also told me that this temple had originally been built by Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna, an Old Calendar Greek Archbishop (Old calendar churches are those that are 13 days behind the western calendar; though the Church of Greece in 1923 decided to go with the new calendar, or the one that the west uses, many felt betrayed by this such as Archbishop CHRYSOSTOMOS and others). Anyway, the Old Calendar Greeks didn’t have the financial means so this was acquired later on by Metropolitan MAXIMOS of the Metropolitanate of Pittsburgh in 1983.

The temple is not very large. It has a dome, but there is no Pantocrator icon there. Fr. Joseph explained that the old calendar Greeks didn’t insulate the temple too well so that icons or frescoes would be more susceptible to the elements. They are trying to fix that now. Fr. Joseph also pointed out to me a copy of an icon painted by St. Luke, called the Pontian Theotokos. It is a wonderworking icon. Apparently, what had happened is that when the Greek population of Turkey was forced out in 1923 by the Kemal Ataturk government, they left and forgot the icon only to come back later and reclaim it. Copies of this icon were distributed and this monastery has one. The icons all around the church are copies. There are stalls for the monks and two apses for the chanters. As this temple is dedicated to St. Gregory Palamas, it has as a secondary feast, that of the Transfiguration of our Lord on Mt. Tabor (Aug. 6) since that feast day recalls that we must make a distinction between the energies and essence of God.

Fr. Joseph then took me around to show me where two monks are buried and also this huge hole in the ground which is the beginning for preparing larger guest facilities for pilgrims and visitors. As their secondary feast is that of Holy Transfiguration, every year there is a pilgrimage here where Orthodox from areas such as Canton, Columbus and Cleveland and even Bishop MAXIMOS himself will come. This usually happens around August 8. So they want to build bigger guest facilities to house them.

Fr. Joseph then took me to an earlier attempt at a guest house which is built on stilts. It is now used as temporary storage. There are two upstairs rooms, very small and you have to take a very narrow staircase to get up there. I’ll guess they will get around to them.

We then visited the garden. Fr. Joseph tends to this. They have a whole array of tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, herbs, fruits, etc. planted here. This is used for the sustenance of the monastery. Fr. Joseph said that this garden has more than halved their grocery bill. He was going to show me the beehive but I was hesitant as I do not much care for bees. Fr. Joseph understood.

He then showed me my room in the guest house. There are two rooms each with two beds. I am the only guest here for the next few days. It’s nothing fancy but it doesn’t need to be. I put my things in and I then helped Fr. Joseph peel beats while we were talking. I also met Fr. Gregory, a monk who is here from Cyprus. Maybe I can practice my Greek with him!

Fr. Joseph didn’t have anything else for me to do so I went to my room to unpack a few things. I still was a little tired from my trip today so I laid down though I was reading this pamphlet on the life of Bishop Varnava of Serbia. Actually, he was born here in the United States but had a calling to go to Serbia at the time of World War II where he was not only tonsured a monk but also made a bishop. He resisted the Ustashe and was later tried and put into prison and hard labor by the communists. He died as a faithful servant.

I waited until it was time for 9th hour and Vespers which is 5:00. I decided to go a little early and to read some of the psalter. About 20 minutes prior to Vespers, a monk came in and started lighting the candles and then went outside to play the semitron, which is a wooden plank that is hit with certain rhythms announcing to the monks that it is time to cease your work and come to pray. As there are only six monks, this temple is not crowded. I took a place in a stall on the left side of the temple in the back so as not to disturb any of the monks. 9th hour was entirely read by a monk and a priest standing in the back of the church. I must confess that one of the monks spoke so lightly and seemed to slur his words. I couldn’t understand but as these guys pray 9th hour every day, I’m sure that they knew what was going on. At. St. Mary’s we pray 9th hour on Saturdays, but I’m still not that familiar with it.

Vespers began in the traditional way. The chanting was minimal as this was a daily Vespers and not a Great Vespers. Thus, the entrance hymn "O Gladsome Light" was said not chanted. "O Lord I Have Cried" was done antiphonally in tone 4 with the stichera provided from the Little Octoechos and the Saint of the Day, St. Aquila. The "Lord Have Mercy" was done very quick and without flourish. There was also very little ison in any of the hymns. Though I am a chanter, I was not about to start stepping in and providing one. The Greek tradition of chanting varies from the Arabic in some key ways and now was not the time to get into a jurisdictional stylistics argument. We read the sixth Kathisma of the Psalter in its entirety. This is a monastic tradition—to read selected portions of the Psalter at both Orthros (Matins) and at Vespers. Very few parish churches do this and if they do, they do it in abbreviated form as the Russian Churches do it.

The whole atmosphere was prayerful and that is precisely what I wanted. At the end of Vespers, the monks all venerate the icons and ask forgiveness of each other. I then proceeded to go back to the house where dinner was to be served. I waited in the same room when I had first arrived. When the bell rang, that announced it was time to eat. The food was blessed and we began eating. One of the monks read from the writings of the Elder Paisios of Mt. Athos. I did my best to be both attentive and to eat without looking foolish. The writings dealt with modern day heresies and particularly to 666. At the end, we rose for a blessing and said Little Compline in the hall. We then venerated the icons and asked for Fr. Joseph’s blessing. I asked if there was anything else I could do to help and he said no so now I’m in my room typing this.

Activities are to be reduced at night. Signs throughout the guest quarters ask visitors to observe the Great Silence from 8 pm to 9 am the next day. As most of these monks are sure to be in bed probably by 8, after a long day’s work, I’m sure that the last thing they want to hear is guests talking loudly in their rooms or playing music or doing anything of that sort. As I am alone, I will not be talking to anyone. I have even shut my phone off for the duration of my stay here.

I am really hopeful and prayerful that I will have a blessed time here. I want to embrace this time totally as one for spiritual retreat and renewal. I don’t know if I’ll be able to articulate what I see and observe. I don’t even know if what I see should be even recorded in this little journal. I don’t know if what will happen here will even prove to be that significant. Maybe it’s not supposed to. I am looking forward to spending the next two days here. I’m going to turn in early, well, early for me. It’s now 7:54 pm EDT. I will be up at 3:15 for the Midnight Office, Orthros and 1st Hour which start at 4:00. Now that’s early.

And it was evening and it was morning on the fourth day. And we’re still here.

Glory to God for all things.

What has become of prayer?

Prayer is, or should be, the basis of the spiritual life. We pray in Church on Sundays, maybe even at meals with the family and some of us even pray in the morning when we awake and before we go to bed. Sometimes we pray more, a lot of times less. It's hard, make no mistake about it, to pray especially to pray "unceasingly" as St. Paul exhorts us. And then, should we pray, we try to pray as little and as quickly as possible.

And what do we pray for? Most often for help or guidance or reassurance in times of trouble. Occasionally, we give thanks for the blessings that God has given to us. We pray for our friends and for our loved ones who are in pain. We pray for our political leaders, our soldiers that they be free from harm. We pray to win the lottery, we pray to get that promotion, we pray for stocks to rise and gas prices to fall. There is no limit for what we pray for, but there always seems to be an expectation that when we pray, there is going to be a response, immediately yay or nay.

Is this what prayer has become? Is this what we have turned God into? Have we likened our prayers so much to the coins that we put into a slot machine (representing God) and then hope, even pray, for a good and profitable return? Have we forgotten that when our Lord and God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane before His Passion, he prayed "not mine, but thy will be done?" Did he not also teach us that same thing in what we call the Lord's Prayer? Of course. Our prayers have become so egocentric. Prayer, asceticism, fasting, almsgiving, the mysteries are supposed to be tools with which we can turn away from our ego and partake of God.

And with the information age, it seems to get only worse. Consider this article:

Now we can just twitter God directly. Our prayers will be printed and put in the Western Wall. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with the tradition of placing petitions in the cracks of the wall, but to do this via twitter really is not praying. Our Lord, fortunately, hears our prayers no matter where we are.

We worry so much about our young leaving the church and never returning. Perhaps, if we have genuine prayer as families, that can help to stop it. But even the parents, need help and practice there, too.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Patristic Quote of the Day

But the daily prayer that Jesus himself taught (whence it is called "The Lord's Prayer") does wipe out our daily sins and when we daily say: "Forgive us our debts," and then not only add the next words but also act accordingly: "as we also forgive our debtors." But the prayer is repeated because sins are committed, but not to the end that more may be committed because it is repeated. For by this petition the Saviour's purpose was to show that however righteously we may live amid the darkness and the instability of this life, we are never free from sins, but must pray for their forgiveness and must pardon those who sin against us, in order that we also may be pardoned.--St. Augustine, De Civitate Dei XXI.27.

Patristic Prayer of the Day

O Soverign Master, God the Father Almighty, O Lord the Only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, and Thou, O Holy Spirit, one Godhead, one Power, have mercy on me, a sinner; and by the judgments which Thou knowest, save me, Thine unworthy servant; for blessed art Thou unto the ages. Amen.--Closing prayer of the Third Hour by St. Mardarius the Martyr.

Patristic Prayer of the Day

O God, who hast given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplications unto thee; and dost promise that when two or three are gathered together in Thy Name, Thou wilt grant their requests; Fulfil now, O Lord, the desires and petitions of Thy servants, as may be most expedient for them; granting us in this world knowledge of Thy truth, and in the world to come life everlasting.
--St. John Chrysostom

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Patristic Quote of the Day

St. John Damascene--Against those who decry Holy Icons

We depict Christ as our King and Lord, and do not deprive Him of His army. The saints constitute the Lord's army. Let the earthly king dismiss his army before he gives up his King and Lord. Let him put off the purple before he takes honour away from his most valiant men who have conquered their passions. For if the saints are heirs of God, and co-heirs of Christ, (Rom. 8.17) they will be also partakers of the divine glory of sovereignty. If the friends of God have had a part in the sufferings of Christ, how shall they not receive a share of His glory even on earth? "I call you not servants," our Lord says, "you are my friends." (Jn. 15.15) Should we then deprive them of the honour given to them by the Church? What audacity! What boldness of mind, to fight God and His commands! You, who refuse to worship* images, would not worship the Son of God, the Living Image of the invisible God, (Col. 1.15) and His unchanging form. I worship the image of Christ as the Incarnate God; that of Our Lady, the Mother of us all, as the Mother of God's Son; that of the saints as the friends of God. They have withstood sin unto blood, and followed Christ in shedding their blood for Him, who shed His blood for them.

*The Orthodox Church makes a distinction between the honor, veneration paid to Holy Icons and the saints versus the worship (latreia) which is due only to the Triune God. Often, the Orthodox are accused of worshipping the icons when such is not the case.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Thoughts on the Dormition

Orthodox Christians often talk a lot about icons. And why shouldn't they? Most Orthodox Christians, practicing Orthodox Christians, that is, have one or maybe several icons in their home of Christ, the Theotokos, various saints as well as scenes from Scriptures. When they go to their church, they see even more on the walls, in the dome of the Church (if they have one), on the icon screen which separates the nave from the sanctuary, during processions. In short, icons are very much a very visual representation of the Orthodox faith. For the most part, I think, a great many of other confessions of Christianity who do not actually have or use icons in their own liturgical/prayer life will not see anything wrong with them, but will limit their praise to regarding them simply as works of art. For us they are so much more.

An icon, from the Greek, means image. We depict Christ and the saints in icons not only for visual stimulation (since why shouldn't worship of God make use of all of our senses?) but icons are also how we (should) regard each and every person. We are obligated by Christ's commands to see in each and every person, even if that person wrongs us, an image of Christ Himself. After all, did not Christ say that "whatsoever you do to the least of these, my brethren, you also do unto me?" Thus, we are all living icons of our Lord and God and Saviour and Creator. And, as such, we honor icons. We do not show reverence to the wood or the paints but to that who is depicted. When dealing with our fellow men, we show respect not to their clothes, their hair, their flesh, but to the fact that the whole is created in the image of God.

Today, in the Holy Orthodox Church (new revised Julian Calendar) we observe the Dormition of the Theotokos. Catholics also celebrate this day and call it the Assumption. Some Protestant traditions, such as some Lutherans, celebrate this day as St. Mary's Day when they honor her generally. Of course, the feast itself and what it celebrates has no Scriptural basis. That is why Protestants overwhelmingly shudder at the possibility of honoring her. No Scriptural basis=no celebration. Of course, Scriptural proof or lack thereof, did not stop St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil the Great, St. Augustine, St. John Damascene and a whole host of other great thinkers and theologians of the Church, who are shared between the Eastern Church and the various western confessions, from celebrating and honoring Mary's falling asleep. Now, there are particulars which even the Catholics and Orthodox disagree on. I do not wish to go into that here because that would require much more time to write. However, I will simply say that the Orthdox do not regard Mary as having been immaculately conceived (a dogma which was first promulgated back in 1854). Mary inherited the same mortal corruption which all of us do and thus was in need of Christ's cross and resurrection as the rest of us as well and was subject to death as the rest of us are. Whether she actually sinned is another matter and will not touch that here.

Now, what does this have to do with icons? Simply this. Mary is the icon of creation, but not the creation which was corrupted by sin, but the icon of creation that has been renewed by Christ and His saving work. After all, she carried Christ in her womb, she carried the uncontainable God in her. And though, despite all of this, she died, that was not the end. She merely fell asleep. According to Holy Tradition, her tomb was opened by Christ's Apostles just as they had opened Christ's tomb three days after his Crucifixion. And just as they found Christ's tomb empty, Mary's tomb was also empty. Mary also arose from the dead, just as her son. As an icon of creation renewed, so she is also an icon of the Resurrection, the same Resurrection which we all wish to participate in. She is the first fruits of Christ's saving work. Celebrating Mary's falling asleep is a celebration of Christ's triumph over death. It is important to remember and remember well that Mary did not rise from the dead on her own. She does not have that power, only God does. But what has been given to Mary has also been given to us.

The late Protopresbyther, Fr. Alexander Schmemann once remarked that Mary is not the great exception as the Catholics describe her but the great example which we should all emulate. Her life on earth was blessed to be sure from her carrying of Christ Himself in herself, but we are called to carry Christ in ourselves. Mary is the icon of a good, true and faithful Christian with trust in God. Her hymn, the Magnificat, should also be our hymn. Her obedient response to Gabriel's announcement that she would bear the Saviour of the world, "Let it be unto me as you have said" should be our obedience to all of God's commands.

Thus, let us all honor Mary, on this day and every day, not because she saves us (For only God can do that), but because she is the icon of the saved.

In giving birth thou didst preserve virginity and in thy dormition thou didst not forsake the world, O Theotokos. For thou wast translated unto life, for thou art the mother of Life. By thine intercessions, deliver our souls from death."--Troparion of Dormition in Tone 1

Patristic Quote of the Day

'The strips of linen and the burial clothes afford the apostles a demonstration of the Theotokos' resurrection from the dead, since they remained alone in the tomb and at the 'scrutiny they were found there, even as it had been with the Master. There was no necessity for her body to delay yet a little while in the earth, as was the case with her Son and God, and so it was taken up straightway from the tomb to a super-celestial realm, from whence she flashes forth most brilliant and divine illuminations and graces, irradiating earth's region.'

St. Greogry Palamas, Archbishop of Thessaloniki

Blessed feast of Dormition to all the faithful!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

New Orthodox pearls of wisdom

When Christ remarked about how you should not judge the person with a speck of dust in his eye while you have the plank of wood in your own, he did not intend for you to take out the plank and wield it as a 2 x 4.--Anonymous.

Patristic quote of the day

In thee, O spotless Virgin, the laws of nature were suspended; for thy virginity was preserved in thy childbearing, and Life is joined with death. Thou, O Theotokos, didst remain a virgin after child-birth, and after death art still alive and dost ever deliver thy heritage.--St. Cozma the Anchorite, 9th ode of the Canon for Dormition.

Monday, August 10, 2009

New Orthodox Pearls of Thought

Taking a cue from my friend, Pr. Weedon, I hope to, on a near every day basis, provide an excerpt from our Holy Fathers, both ancient and modern.

We can never adequately sing her [Mary's] praises. Her obedience overturned the disobedience of Adam and Eve. Their disobedience brought suffering and death into the world. Her obedience brought life and joy. We can make the mistake of confusing her with God, rather than seeing her as the best humanity has ever had to offer to God, as one who shows us how to live as her Son lived. Or we can make the mistake of failing to call her blessed, but we cannot express enough love, and thanksgiving, and praise for what she has done and for what she continues to do for us. She is our Mohter, quick to hear our cries. She intercedes for us at the Throne of God. She always points us to our true home, she always draws us closer to our good and loving Father...Devotion for the Mother of God is basic to the Christianlife for how can se love Christ and not love the one who bore Him to the world?--Fr. Nicholas Alford, Pastor of St. Gregory the Great Western Rite Mission; Homily "Holy Mary: Seat of Wisdom."

Sunday, August 2, 2009

So why did you become Orthodox?--Part III: Inquiry, conversion, journey

In July of 2005, I attended my first Orthodox service, a Great Vespers at St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church. I remember that the building was primarily empty. I saw a woman chanter (later my friend, Holly Walsh) at the stand in front of the pews, but what I mainly remember was the icon screen in front of the Church. I had no idea what this was or why it was there. I just remember that this style of church architecture was nothing I had ever seen before. I was full of questions and of wonder. Later on, a person in a black robe introduced himself as Aaron Warwick. He also was a chanter. He invited me to stay afterwards and meet the priest and I said I would.

I had no idea what I was in for. I just remember the beauty of it all, the chanting, the prayers, the incense. I was particularly stricken by how much of the hymnography revolved around the psalter. You hear selections from the first kathisma of the psalter (Psalms 1-8), then the complete recitation of psalms 140, 141, 129 and 116 with hymns dedicated to the crucifixion/resurrection of Christ as well as hymns to the saint. It was constant prayer, no breaks. There was something very ancient about this mode of prayer. Of course, I was following as well as I could with the service book but not knowing what quite to expect. From my western liturgical upbringing, which, unfortunately, rarely, if ever, included the celebration of Vespers I was struggling to find things I recognized. The only thing I found was the canticle of Saint Symeon, which we in the West call the "Nunc Dimittis," "Lord now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace." The rest of it was completely new. I also was not used to having no organ play. Everything was chanted in a plainsong which I later learned was called Byzantine.

The service concluded. It was less than an hour and Aaron introduced me to Fr. Don Hock. I had a host of questions, but I remember that one of the first I asked regarded whether the Orthodox were in communion with Rome. At the time, I seemed to think that communion was Rome and fidelity to the pope was absolutely necessary. Fr. Don answered negatively, but that was not a deal breaker. For the first time, in a long time, if ever, I found a worshipping community, a church inundated with a long and living tradition of prayer, free from innovation and the emotionalism that has come to dominate western expressions of Christianity. Such was my first experience with Eastern Orthodoxy. It was not to be my last. But my days with the Lutheran Church were drawing to an abrupt halt.

Aaron made it a point to keep in touch with me and I appreciated it. He invited me to more of the services especially as the Feast of the Transfiguration was approaching. I thanked him but replied I was going to my cousin's wedding in Minnesota. I did ask what I could be reading to further my inquries and he recommended to me two books both by the same author "The Orthodox Church" and "The Orthodox Way" both by Timoty Ware, himself a convert to Orthodoxy, who later became Bishop KALLISTOS in England. I took these two books with me on my trip to Minnesota adn the more I read, the more I knew I could no longer be Lutheran. I was struck by not only the historicity of the Church, which I considered an important criterion for the true church, but also by its mysticism and its central focus on prayer. I found it striking that, unlike the Catholic Church and other western expressions of
Christianity, there was no need to dogmatize everything. It's not that the faith was left to choice or individual conscience, but that there was a strong lex orandi, lex credendi where the "law of prayer is the law of faith." In other words, the prayers are the faith and there is no need to go further than that.

I was filled with zealousness. Too much as a matter of fact. On my trip to Minnesota for my cousin's wedding, I began to find every fault I could with the Lutheran Church. My cousin was married in an ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) church and his wife was going to be a minister in the ELCA. Although the ELCA and the LCMS have many doctrinal differences, there is still a more or less settled truce which allows members to receive the eucharist in services of the other. I refused. My dad did, too, but only, and correctly, because he regards the ELCA as heretical. My mom and my sister both received and I remember that they asked why I did not. All I could was respond that I was becoming Orthodox and that my Lutheranism was behind me. Unfortunately, my desire for Orthodoxy was not tempered by humility but I became arrogant with the knowledge that I was now pursuing correct doctrine and the correct faith and that everything else should either conform to it or be shunned. I know better now.

I returned to Nebraska to begin my second year at Bellevue East, but Sundays were now different for me. Rather than trying to wake up early to get to Lamb of God Lutheran Church by 8:00 am, I now woke up at the same time and headed to St. Mary's where I first attended Orthros at 8:45 and then the Divine Liturgy at 10:00. I still continued my attendance at Saturday Vespers as well. But, I didn't know what to do. As I said earlier, Vespers was attended by only a handful of people. I found that the same was true of Orthros (Matins). Hardly anyone came to this service, but I immediately became enamored with it. It became my favorite service to go to and I learned some of the hymns and started chanting it, from my seat in the very back, with the chanters in the back. My favorite was the Evlogetaria, the Hymn of Resurrection sung every Sunday (well, most every Sunday). I loved the melody and I loved the text. I don't think I ever heard the centrality of the Gospel, the Resurrection of Christ, both God and man, which we may partake of at the end as well.
But, I still was largely in the dark as to what was going on. I didn't know anyone there and the one person I did know was at the chanter's stand.

The Liturgy began and again, I really didn't know what was going on. Though there was a book in the pew about the Liturgy, the whole essence of what was going on could not be described by the texts or the music, the various times when the sign of the cross was made or when it was appropriate to stand or sit (though I learned later that the correct posture for prayer is always to be standing). I know that I couldn't even begin to understand what was going on and that only with a lot more attendance at these Liturgies could that happen. At the end of the Liturgy, instead of people just simply leaving, they came up forward to kiss and reverence a cross that the priest held. I admit I was uncomfortable with this, not because I didn't reverence the cross (I very much did) but the idea of kissing a holy object was totally foreign to me. But I did it and it felt very natural. Fr. Don then invited me to come back for coffee hour and to set up an appointment with him to talk some more.

Over the course of the next couple of months, I regularly attended the full cycle of Vespers on Saturdays, then Orthros followed by Liturgies on Sundays. I loved being engaged in a church life that was totally devoted to worship of the One God in Trinity. Trinitarian invocations and doxologies were said or chanted a myriad of times during these services. It confused me. Also confusing was the numerous repetitions of phrases such as "Lord, have mercy" or "In the name of the Father, Son and HOly Spirit" etc.. This was clearly a more mystical approach to theology that I had never considered because it was just not part of mine growing up. Helping me through all this confusion was the continued guidance of the chanter, Aaron Warwick and his wife Gwen. The two of them were very generous towards me, frequently inviting me over to their place for dinner. I was also starting to make other friends in the parish such as Dr. Mike Kutayli, Jessica Mannion and Rachel Ream. With the exception of Dr. Mike, all these people were converts to the Orthodox faith and so it was comforting to know that I wasn't the only one in this situation.

Beginning in late October, I went to my first catechism class. The purpose of this class was to instruct those who wished to be received into the faith. These were held on Sundays after coffee hour and went for hours at a time. Whenever I went to one of these at the Lutheran church, such a class was always held to one hour. Such was not the case here. We would discuss things for hours. I meticulously took notes and read as much as I could. I also started to try pryaer in the Eastern tradition. I picked up a copy of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery Prayer book, which Aaron recommended. It was very odd and very different. The repetitions were still there and the prayers were nothing like I had ever prayed before. For so long, I had been searching out the right words with which to call upon the Lord and I had at last found them. The language was a little difficult to get around but I sensed not only the antiquity in these words but the profound theological debt. I also started to collect icons for my private devotional life.

As I started to learn and grow in the faith, I also started to become arrogant. I had found the true faith, the true church, thus, everyone needs to know and everyone needs to believe as I do and if you don't, your're wrong, plain and simple. When I went home for Christmas, I first went to Christmas Eve services at the Lutheran Church with my parents and all I could do was complain about how backward and irreverent it all seemed and said that the Orthodox faith was nothing like this. I also remember that as I went into the sanctuary, I made three metanoias, which I should not have done. One of the parishioners called this "garbage." Wow! I had no idea that showing reverence and feaer of God would ever be considered "garbage." However, on closer inspection, I realize that what I did could only have brought attention to myself, which I know I didn't want. Since Lutheranism is part of the western tradition, I should have, instead, simply knelt and made the sign of the cross. After that, I went to the OCA parish which began it's celebration at 10:00 pm. And it was magnificent. There was such great singing. I even got to witness a whole family received into the Orthodox Church. I knew that is what I would be going through soon.

I celebrated Christmas with the rest of my family and then went back to Omaha. I continued on my journey and then I entered into the great and holy fast preparing for the Lord's Pascha (what the Orthodox call Easter). FAsting was difficult for me simply because I had never done it before. I asked Fr. Don what I should do and he said that I should gradually and steadfastly practice a limited fast of maybe only two days a week. At the same time, I was always reminded that fasting was not the goal, but the means to a goal--becoming like Christ and partaking of His nature. So, I tried that and I increased my prayers for aid in this time of repentance. The thing which struck me was the massive increase of services during Great Lent. When I was Lutheran I remember that during Lent only one service would be added a week. During the first week of Great Lent, there was something every day of the first week! It was magnificent.

During the first week of Great Lent, I went to the service of Great Compline. I looked forward to the chanting of "God is with us" from Isaiah in tone 6. Later on, there was the chanting of the Great Canon by St. Andrew of Crete, a long poem composed by a sixth century saint about repentance. The words bit me and stung hard because, from these words, taken from the whole corpus of Scripture, I realized that nothing I have done could even be called repentance, but, at the same time, I should not fear because of God's great gift in the form of His only begotten Son that whatever repentance I lack, he makes it sufficient. That does not excuse me from repenting since, one of the things I learned in catechism class was that we work with God in our salvation. This was in stark contrast to Lutheranism which held that one can do nothing for his own salvation, that everything is dependent upon God, that man has nothing good in him. This is mainly an inheritance from St. Augustine who believed that man's goodness from creation was totally destroyed with the first sin of Adam. But such is not the Orthodox belief, which holds that man's goodness was blackened and made corrupt but not utterly so. Thus, there is something left within us, very small to be sure, which we can draw upon to work with God. It's not about percentages though. It's not like God does 90% of the work and I 10% or anything else. It's not about numbers, but we are called to work with God as St. Paul tells us "to work out your salvation with fear and trembling." We do have responsibility, but at the same time our weakness is perfected by God and that is why He came in the flesh to die.

As I progressed through Lent, I was growing ever more excited and more nervous. I didn't think I was doing enough. I didn't think I had prepared myself enough or had done all the right rituals. I was still in the mindset that the faith was about checklists and doing certain things that needed to be fulfilled before progressing to the next step. I was told repeatedly by Fr. Don, Aaron and Gwen that such was not the case. I tried to believe that but I still had difficulties. Aaron and Gwen decided to have some fun with this. I chose them both to be my godparents/sponsors for the Orthodox faith. So, they started telling me that I had to do all sorts of different things to prepare. One of them was that I had to wear all white for my chrismation. Of course, I didn't have anything all white so I went nuts trying to find an actual white suit. Of course, Gwen and Aaron were laughing their asses off at what I was trying to do.

As I continued to go through Lent and my catechism classes, one of the things that I had to do before Holy Week and my chrismation was make confession to Fr. Don. I was not looking forward to this at all. I remembered when I made confessions to Fr. Houser when I was a Lutheran, but I knew this would be different. This would be a complete enumeration (or as close to it as possible) of the sins of my life. I spent hours going over some Scriptures that are appointed to be read before confessing, reading questions I should ask myself, praying to not be ashamed or hold anything back. I made a complete list. It was five pages long (and I still have it!), single spaced. I made my confession, reading from this list, and my eyes welled up with tears. I knew I was a sinful being, but I had no idea that this lifetime of sins would be so much and so overwhelming. Like many people, I tend to view sin as something inevitable in human life and so you begin ignoring them. But as I knelt there, before the icon of the Transfiguration of our Lord with Fr. Don standing before me, I wept and I filled my face with tears. After so long, I realized that all of these "little sins" had amounted to, indeed, a great amount. These tiny drops of water formed a pool! I was ashamed and I was embarassed. Fr. Don said that he felt blessed to hear my confession. How can a priest possibly be blessed to hear a confession like mine?! But, after he gave me absolution, I realized that Fr. Don was a man to whom I really could tell anything. I felt comfortable with him. After absolution, he embraced me as his spiritual son and I continued on my way towards Pascha. And, for the first time in a long time, I felt clean and free. I especially felt free from the guilt I was still carrying from Sara's suicide, which I still blamed myself for.

Holy Week arrived and again the number of services increased. There was something every morning and every evening. At all of these services, the catechumens were brought up and prayed for. I needed all the prayers I could get.

I cannot go into the depth of all the services I witnessed especially on Thursday and Friday nights. I have never experienced the passion of our Lord so profoundly as I did on these days. It is such a rich tradition that one can only experience for himself what goes on.

HOly Saturday came, the day of my chrismation and reception into the Orthodox Church. I prayed the night before and the morning before the service that I would be made worthy to receive the life giving body and blood of my Lord and God and Saviour. I think I looked ridiculous, though. Still heeding Gwen and Aaron's words, I wore my charcoal suit with a white shirt and a white tie. It looked stupid, but I did so because I still believed, thanks to their influence, that I had to wear all white. Gwen and Aaron were both laughing. Typical. The service was long and it was inspiring. I was given the seal of the Holy Spirit upon my head, my eyes, my lips, my hands, my feet. Every time this was done, the word "Seal!" was shouted by the congregation. It gave me chills. It gave me a lot of chills, actually. Did I know what I was doing?

Finally the time came when I received the Eucharist. I had been without the Lord's body and blood for a long time and I was wondering what would be different. Would it taste different? Would it transform me? Would I start to glow? I'm serious about those questions. But I received it and there was no physical change, but, if anything it made me realize that this was something worth waiting and preparing for.

At the end of the Liturgy, the other catechumens and I came up to the front of the church where we were blessed again and "God grant you many years" was sung to us. I broke down in tears because I had finally come to my spiritual home. It took a long time, but I was so happy to have finally arrived.

But the journey has not ended. I still continue to grow and I still continue to stumble and fall. Being Orthodox is not a "get out of sinning free" card. I still have many temptations and passions that I wrestle with on a daily basis. Orthodoxy is a life and it is a difficult life to follow in spirit and truth. I have made more than my share of mistakes and I will continue to do so. I was told in catechism class that the Holy Fathers always viewed the Church as a hospital. Here, in the Orthodox Church, are all the tools, physicians and medicines to make one truly healed.

Glory to God for all things!