Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Christ in the Psalms--Psalm 6

O Lord, rebuke me not in Thine anger, nor chasten me in Thy wrath. Have mercy on me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled and my soul is greatly troubled; but Thou, O Lord, how long? Turn to me again, O Lord, deliver my soul; save me for Thy mercy's sake.--Psalm 6: 1-3, HTM translation

The divine wrath is not some sort of irritation; God does not become peeved or annoyed. The wrath of God is infinitely more serious than a temper tantrum. It is a deliberate resolve in response to a specific state of the human soul. In Romans, where the expression appears twelve times, the anger of God describes His activity toward the hard of heart, the unrepentant, those sinners who turn their backs and deliberately refuse His grace, and it is surely in this sense that our psalm asks to be delivered from God's wrath. It is important to make such a prayer, because hardness of heart remains a possibility for all of us to the very day we die...The taking away of sin required the shedding of Christ's blood on the Cross. This fact itself tells us how serious is this whole business of sin.--Fr. Patrick Reardon, Christ in the Psalms, Psalm 6

Monday, October 25, 2010

Christ in the Psalms--Psalm 5

But as for me, in the multitude of Thy mercy shall I go into Thy house; I shall worship toward Thy holy temple in fear of Thee.--Psalm 5:6, HTM Translation

To pray is to enter the house of God. The context for this worship, nonetheless, is still the life of struggle against evil. When the Christian rises, it is always on the battlefield.--Fr. Patrick Reardon, Christ in the Psalms, Psalm 5

For in their mouth there is no truth; their heart is vain. Their throat is an open sepulchre, with their tongues have they spoken deceitfully; judge them, O God.--Psalm 5:8-9

Sin is abhorrent to God. He not only loves justice; he also hates iniquity...When the psalmist prays for the destruction of the wicked, this is not personal sentiment, so to speak. it is a plea that God vindicate His own moral order. He hates it [sin] vehemently. Jesus on the Cross had not one word to say to the blasphemous, unrepentant thief...

The idea is abroad these days that , whereas the Old Testament God was a no-nonsense Divinity, the God of the New Testament is quite a bit more tolerant.

Such an idea would have surprised the Apostles. Romans 3:8-10, for instance, which is a melange of various psalm verses describing the evil of sin, cites a rather violent line from our present psalm with reference to evildoers: "Their throat is an open sepulcher." Indeed, the descriptions of sin in Romans 1 and 3 make a good commentary on many verses of Psalm 5.--Fr. Patrick Reardon, Christ in the Psalms, Psalm 5

The stench of our sin

Every morning at Orthros (Matins), the 6 psalms (hexapsalmoi) are prayed. Each of these psalms, according to our tradition, will be ready by our Guardian Angels as we stand before the dread judgment seat of Christ on the last day. These 6 psalms (3, 37, 62, 87, 102 and 142) convict us and yet cause to remember that is only by the mercies and compassion of God that we can be saved. In Psalm 37, we pray "My bruises are become noisome and corrupt in the face of my folly." (HTM translation) Perhaps a better translation for corrupt is foul or putrid, which conveys the sense of rotting flesh. The Greek verb here is esapesan, derived from the Greek verb sepo, hence where we get medical words as sepsis, etc.

In Christianity today, especially in more mainline, liberal christianities, there is less and less talk of sin. But even in churches where sin has not been excised from the pulpit and the teachings, there has been a great tendency to "internalize" sin. Sin is something that only affects your mind and soul, it does not have outward manifestations such as wounds or even flesh.

However, the Scriptures, particularly the Psalms, the hymnography of the Church and many of the patristic writings assert that sin does have physical consequences as spiritual consequences. In our society where privacy is given such sacrosanct status, sin is viewed as a private matter which has no or limited repercussions for society as a whole.

If only we had keen spiritual noses. Could you imagine what the world would smell like if everyone's sin did emit a particular odor? We'd probably be forced like the Roman nobility of old who, when walking down the streets, would hold a rose to their nose to cover the stench of rotting garbage thrown out from the homes, taverns and businesses onto that street. But even alone, our own sins would probably be enough to completely overwhelm us.

But some of the great saints did have a nose for sin. My fellow blogger John Sanidopoulos at MYSTAGOGY relates this tale from St. Nicolai Velimirovich:

The saints were able to discern which passion possessed a man by the kind of stench he emanated. Thus it was that St. Euthymius the Great recognized the stench of the passion of adultery in the monk Emilian of the Lavra of St. Theoctistus. Going to Matins one morning, Euthymius passed by Emilian's cell and smelled the stench of the demon of adultery. Emilian had not committed any physical sin, but had adulterous thoughts that were being forced into his heart by the demon, and the saint already sensed it by its smell.

How different our society would be if we all had such noses? I think it would make us even worse sinners since we could tell what sin someone had committed by their odor. "You smell like you robbed someone today" or "You smell as if you cheated on your wife." Perhaps we should be grateful to lack such a "gift."

Though we may casually dismiss sin as having physical consequences, we should not pretend that such doesn't happen. Someone's cancer may well or may not be due to a person's sinfulness or even holiness. Such is not for us to tell. Yet our Lord Christ tells us that His Body and Blood are for the healing of BOTH soul and body. The Eucharist has cured many from diseases thought untreatable by modern science so has fervent prayer and fasting.

But it is a sad state that as many christian confessions no longer teach that sin has physical consequences are the same ones who say that sin is no longer an issue.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Christ in the Psalms--Psalm 4

Know also that the Lord hat made wondrous His holy one; the Lord will hearken unto me when I cry unto Him.--Psalm 4, HTM translation

The Hebrew term here, translated as "godly" [i.e. holy one] is hasid(hosios in the Greek, sanctus in the Latin). That is to say, the life in Christ is the life of the "holy ones," the hasidim; it is the "hasidic" life, the life of separation from the sinful standards of the world. The adjective, hasid is used in the Hebrew Old Testament 32 times, of which 21 are found in the Book of Psalms, a proportion strongly suggesting that the prayer and praise of God are a major component of the biblical doctrine of holiness. One cannot live a worldly life and still expect to be able to pray the psalms. The Psalter has nothing to say to the worldly; it is not for the unconverted, the unrepentant. It is, rather, the prayer book of those who strive for holiness of life and the unceasing praise of God.--Fr. Patrick Reardon, Psalm 4, Christ in the Psalms

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Christ in the Psalms--Psalm 3

O Lord, why are they multiplied that afflict me? Many rise up against me...Arise, O Lord, save me, O my God, for Thou hast smitten all who without cause are mine enemies; the teeth of the sinners hast Thou broken.--Psalm 3, HTM translation.

To relinquish any one of the psalms on the excuse that its sentiments are too violent for a Christian is a clear sign that a person has given up the very battle that a Christian is summoned from his bed to fight. The psalms are prayers for those engaged in an ongoing spiritual conflict. No one else need bother opening the book.--Fr. Patrick Reardon, Psalm 3, Christ in the Psalms

Christ in the Psalms--Psalm 2

Psalm 2 commences: "Why do the heathen rage and the people imagine something vain." The "blessed man" introduced in Psalm 1, Jesus our Lord, is an affront to the wisdom of this world. The powers of this world cannot abide Him. The moral contrast described in Psalm 1 becomes the messianic conflict named in Psalm 2.--Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon, Psalm 2, Christ in the Psalms

On another note, for those of you who are music lovers, you may notice that in Handel's oratorio, Messiah, the text that is sung before the great Hallelujah chorus is from Psalm 2. Charles Jennens, the man who compiled the libretto for Handel's Messiahmust have understood the power of Psalm 2 and the need to resolve it with the majesty of the words of Revelation.

Christ in the Psalms--Psalm 1

I've undertaken reading Fr. Patrick Reardon's Christ in the Psalms. After his visit to the Omaha area a month ago and hearing the Scriptures really come alive through this man, I was inspired to read one of his books. So I picked up a copy of Christ in the Psalms. I decided that the best way to read it was not to just read it cover to cover but to focus on one psalm every day (no matter how long or how short), read the psalm, read Fr. Reardon's take on it (they are meditations of no more than 1 1/2 pages usually) and then reread the psalm. I will tell you that a whole new world of understanding and praying the psalter has been opened up to me.

As Orthodox Christians, we are privileged and blessed to have such hymnography at our fingertips each day. However, for as much as the psalms are at our ready disposal, we too easily cast them aside for prayers for church fathers (not that the prayers of the fathers of the church are bad or anything) or for nothing at all. The Psalter is the hymnbook of the church. So, let us start treating it that way.

Just who is this "blessed man" of whom the psalmist speaks? It is not man in general. In truth, it really is not simply a "human being." The underlying words, here translated as "man", are emphatically masculine...They are not the Hebrew (adam) and Greek (anthropos) nouns accurate translated as "human being." The "man" of reference here is a particular man. According to the Fathers of the Church, he is the one Mediator between God and man, the Man Jesus Christ. The Law of the Lord, which is to be our delight and meditation day and night, finds its meaning only in Him.--Psalm 1

Sunday, October 17, 2010

I need my kids baptized...just in case

I wish I could say that the vast majority of the reading I do of material on the internet is somehow useful, inspiring and educational. Sadly, probably the vast majority of things that come up in my daily course of readings from various news media are useless, depressing and vapid. And my commenting on such vapid, depressing and useless things only exposes more people to them rather than letting them be ignored. Exposing faulty and ignorant things in our society is a two edged sword. On the one hand, you can refute such ridiculousness but, on the other hand, you make such farces known given more exposure than if you had just let it perish among all of the internet hogwash out there.

I came across this story today in my readings. I'll give you the short version. A person calls his pastor at the church he irregularly attends (denomination doesn't matter) and asks the pastor if he would be available to baptize his two young children (I think they were both under 10) before they go out of town on a trip to Disney World. The man's rationale was that though this looked to be like a safe trip with little chance of anything happening to his children, it was his choice of words that really pinched a nerve with me. He said he wanted his kids baptized "...just in case."

As I said, this man was an irregular attender of his local church. I don't know what is in his heart though you can plainly see that he does have concern for his children's well-being. I don't know what the pastors decision would be after hearing this and I leave it to his judgment. But I'm troubled by this rationalization for baptizing his children.

It is true that we could die at any moment. That is why, as St. Andrew of Crete, tells us in his Great Canon which is chanted through Great Lent, our soul must not be asleep but watchful for the great day of the Lord is coming. Our journey towards theosis must be at the front of our "things to do" list every day. Repentance must not be a mere lingering thought.

But if we do these things for the "just in case" scenario then we are cheapening our Lord's call to repentance. We are even cheapening the very essence of our faith in Christ. Our Lord, before his Ascension into heaven said to His disciples to go forth and preach the Gospel to all nations baptizing them in the name of the +Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are also told that he who believes and is baptized shall be saved. Notice the juxtaposition there of belief and baptism. If there is no faith, then there can be no baptism.

Though we baptize infants who are expected to grow in the faith, they have sponsors or "godparents" who make the professions of faith for them. We hope that they then grow in the faith and generate the fruits of the Word implanted in them at their baptism. But if a parent wants to have his kids baptized because he is merely fearful of what could happen to them rather than trusting in the compassion of God, then this is profaning baptism.

Our Lord gave us the mysteries (i.e. sacraments) for us so that we can be regenerated. But there must also be faith present in the person who receives. If a person has no faith in God, how can absolution be granted him? If he has no faith, how can he be renewed in soul and in body by the power of the Eucharist? Such is why the mysteries are given only to the faithful and not to everyone.

If there is no faith present here either in the father or in his two children, baptizing them jay be a waste of time. But, for too many in our culture, the sacraments are seen more as "insurance policies" rather than as means for us to become true communicants with God and grow in theosis. There are those who baptize their children because it is part of their "culture" or "tradition" or what have you. As long as such attitudes persist in modern Christianity, then how long will it be until people don't even think they ever need baptism or the Eucharist for themselves or their kids?

If these kids are baptized, I must also say that God's mercy and compassion are beyond whatever faith we can muster in the first place so perhaps what I wrote is a moot point. Double-edged sword indeed.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Even the Saints were "only human"

I think it is very easy to forget that the great saints whom we commemorate on our Orthodox calendar, day in and day out, were human. Yes, they have been now glorified by God and crowned and they intercede for us sinners daily at Christ's dread judgment seat. They have finished the race in glory, but they started the race in a much different state. But, too often, we forget that.

Even if we are in the presence of a person who just exudes holiness, exudes the grace of God from him or her just being in the room, humbled and awed as we may be, we must never forget that even these people have "human needs" as do the rest of us. Sure, they eat, though they may eat far less. They sleep, though they may sleep much less. They pray, but pray for a lot longer and more fervently than what we can begin to imagine. A fellow blogger at MYSTAGOGY posted this wonderful story.

By Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol

Many years ago when I was at Katounakia [a rugged area in the southeast of the Athonite peninsula] I would often spend time with that great contemporary holy elder Father Ephraim [Katounakiotis], Papa Ephraim, as he was popularly called. I am not sure whether our century will give birth to another great elder like him, a man of continuous prayer who radiated the abundance of God's grace.

When a group of us visited him at his hermitage one day, he complained that he was tired of Katounakia and expressed a wish to go live at Monoxylites for awhile. That's an area near the borders of Mount Athos. It is a valley between two mountains filled with pine-tree forests, vineyards and olive groves. It is a very beautiful area with abundant running waters, an earthly paradise. He said, "I want to go there and rest. Here at Katounakia there is nothing except rocks and prayer, prayer and rocks, day in and day out. I am really tired. I need a change."

I was shocked when I heard him say that. I wondered how it was possible for a great saint like him to have a desire to change his environment, to go to Monoxylites? I could see young monks like ourselves having needs of this sort. But how is it possible that this great saint in whose life God is always present has such needs? It was then that I realized that even saints are human beings subject to the law of alterations.

I heard later that Joseph the Hesychast [d. 1959], the great elder of Papa Ephraim, expressed similar needs during his life. Elder Ephraim himself told us once that his elder underwent a period of deep sorrow and was subjected to many temptations. One day he asked his then disciple Ephraim, "Papa Ephraim, go and bring Pseudo Vasili here to amuse us." Pseudo Vasili was a layman who lived and worked near the Skete of Saint Anna. He was a simple man who was reputed for his outrageous lies. In his presence it was impossible not to roar with laughter. As in my case, Papa Ephraim was scandalized. "How is it possible," he reasoned, "that the elder has a need for a jester like Pseudo Vasili to amuse him? Why can't he do something else, like more prayer?" As you can see, even great saints occasionally have such needs by virtue of their being human.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Growth of Orthodoxy in the USA

Whitney Jones
October 6, 2010
Huffington Post

America's Eastern Orthodox parishes have grown 16 percent in the past decade, in part because of a settled immigrant community, according to new research.

Alexei Krindatch, research consultant for the Standing Conferences of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas, said the 16 percent growth in the number of Orthodox parishes is "a fairly high ratio for religious groups in the United States."

The number of Orthodox parishes has reached 2,370, and the Orthodox community in America consists of more than 1 million adherents across 20 different church bodies, according to the 2010 U.S. Orthodox Census.

The top five largest Orthodox churches in the U.S. are Greek Orthodox (476,900), Orthodox Church in America (84,900), Antiochian Orthodox (74,600), Serbian Orthodox (68,800) and Russian Orthodox (27,700).

Two of these church bodies--the Bulgarian Orthodox Eastern Diocese and the Romanian Orthodox Archdiocese--experienced a growth rate of over 100 percent. Both churches began with a small number of parishes in 2000 and are supported by a community of established Eastern European immigrants.

"It takes immigrant communities a little while to establish a religious community," Krindatch said. "They settle, then begin to think about their religious lives."

Even though the majority of Orthodox church bodies grew, some lost parishes. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, Patriarchal Parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church and Armenian Apostolic Church of America all experienced a slight decrease in the number of parishes.

The study, which was part of the national Religious Congregations and Membership Study 2010, also shows that just 27 percent of members attend Orthodox churches regularly.

Krindatch said the definition of each of the groups affected this statistic. Church "adherents" was the most inclusive category, consisting of anyone who occasionally participated in church life, while "regular attendees" are those who attend church on an almost weekly basis.

More information on the survey can be found at

I would strongly encourage you to view the powerpoint at the above website. Though it really only measures responses from GOA laity and clergy, it is still very insightful.

Acquiring the Kingdom of Heaven

Those of you who know me know that I am a Star Trek fan. No, I'm not a Trekker or a Trekkie and I can honestly say I've never been to a Star Trek convention, but I am a fan of the show, own a lot of DVDs and can quote extensively from episodes of all series except for Voyager and Enterprise which I have dubbed "too lame by Star Trek standards."

One of the species in the Star Trek universe is a race called the Ferengi. I knew I would like them from the start. They are venture capitalists, if not outright thieves, in some cases. Their soel motivation in life is the acquisition of profit. A Ferengi without profit is no Ferengi at all, we are reminded throughout the series. Their guidebook, their Bible, if you will, is the Rules of Acquisition. In place of "See Spot. See Spot Run. Run, Spot, run!" Ferengi youths are taught "See Brack. See Brack aquire. Acquire, Brack, acquire!" When you hear the verb "acquire" in this context, it starts to come off with only negative characteristics.

I was at my girlfriend's church today. The Gospel that was read was from St. Matthew, chapter 13 where Christ speaks in parables to his disciples and the multitudes of the Kingdom of Heaven. In verse 44, the Kingdom of Heaven is compared to a hidden treasure of a field which a man finds, buries it and then sells all his possessions to acquire the field and thus the treasure. In the next verse, the Kingdom of Heaven is compared to a great pearl which a merchant desires and so sells off all his possessions to acquire it.

I am very thankful that whenever I read the Scriptures or have them read to me I find new insights. One of those new insights was that, in the first case, the man doesn't simply take the treasure and run off with it. For the field in which the treasure is found is not his. So he then proceeds to give up everything he has to obtain the place where the treasure is buried and thus acquire it. The merchant who desires the Great Pearl must do the same--sell all his possessions to acquire it. Both parables, though, both speak to the necessity to give up everything you have to truly possess the Kingdom of God. It is not just given to you. It is something that you must work to obtain even to the point of ridding yourself of your very livelihood to obtain it. One question that ran through my head was, "how would both of these men live after they have sold everything to acquire the field or the pearl? They can't and won't sell the treasure and pearl which they have just painstakingly purchased for the basic means of life." And, of course, Christ's parables don't give us an answer to such a question.

When we acquire possessions in this world, we acquire something ephemeral and fleeting. How willing would any of us really be to rid ourselves of those possessions to acquire something much greater? Would we be willing to follow Christ's message of "sell everything and follow Him?"

In this life, acquiring possessions requires a lot of work. We have to find a means to make money and then spend it wisely. With the acquisition of the Kingdom, we have to, in a sense, empty ourselves in order to acquire. Another one of those Christian paradoxes! But that emptying of ourselves requires work behind it as well. It is not simply something that happens.

The spiritual life is warfare and I can think of no other profession, save for farming, where more work and resources go into than that. If we are not prepared to do battle against the evil one and our very selves to empty and rid ourselves of the passions and anything else that bind us to this world, then we can acquire nothing of truly great value, i.e. profit.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Ex tempore prayer--more meaningful?

I guess I only needed a few days to get some inspiration to write something.

One of the frequent criticisms I hear about Orthodoxy or any so-called "High Church" Christian confession, whether Roman Catholic or Lutheran or Anglican is that the people pray prayers written by other people. In other words, the prayers said during Liturgy or during the offices lack the spontaneity of true devotion and thus are somehow not as well received by God as compared to something that comes from a few seconds' thought. Ridiculous!

I've been to many church services where all the prayers were of the spontaneous variety and, honestly, they all sounded the same. Now, I do not doubt, in any way, the intentions of the persons praying them, but isn't there so much more than just to be "thankful for being in Your presence" etc.? The added over emotionalism of trying to generate tears to go with the spontaneous prayer only makes the person prayer look ridiculous. Again, I do not doubt the intentions of such people, but they will insist that God wants us to pray like that and that it will be more received than some dry prayer written by someone 300, 500, 1000 or even 2500 years ago. Some of these very same people will even refuse to say the Lord's prayer, going so far as to call it a "vain repetition" which is a gross abuse of that passage in Scripture.

Written prayers are not bad nor is their use a sign of spiritual weakness. The key is to move the prayers from the lips to the mind to the heart. Once prayer moves to the heart and the heart prays unceasingly, then it truly becomes your own. Yes, I pray prayers of St. Basil, St. John Damascene, St. John Chyrsostom, St. Ephraim, etc.. I also pray the Psalter, which is God's given prayer-book to us. I also pray the prayer that our Lord gave to us. I didn't author them but they are truly mine because I have fused them to my heart.

There is also humility in praying like this. It demonstrates that I am at a loss at what to say to God, but the words of Scripture and the Fathers of the Church are my guide to communion with God through prayer. For many years I was unable to pray. When I discovered these prayers, I finally found the words I was looking for all along and made them my own.

Ex tempore or spontaneous prayer isn't bad, but what more spiritual benefit does it impart? It doesn't give anything more. I will close with these words from an Anglican from 1649:

No man can assure me that the words of his ex tempore prayer are the words of the holy Spirit: it is not reason nor modesty to expect such immediate assistances to so little purpose, he having supplied us with abilities more then enough to expresse our desires aliundè, otherwise then by immediate dictate; But if we will take David’s Psalter, or the other Hymnes of holy Scripture, or any of the Prayers which are respersed over the Bible, we are sure enough that they are the words of Gods spirit, mediately or immediately, by way of infusion or extasie, by vision, or at least by ordinary assistance. And now then, what greater confidence can any man have for the excellency of his prayers, and the probability of their being accepted, then when he prayes his Psalter, or the Lords Prayer, or any other office which he finds consigned in Scripture? When Gods spirit stirres us up to an actuall devotion, and then we use the matter he hath described and taught, and the very words which Christ & Christs spirit, and the Apostles, and other persons, full of the Holy Ghost did use; If in the world there be any praying with the Spirit (I meane, in vocall prayer) this is it.

Jeremy Taylor, An Apology for authorized and set forms of Liturgy against the Pretence of the Spirit (1649).

Monday, October 4, 2010

Haven't written in a while

A few people have asked when I'm going to write another piece for my website. And my honest answer is "I don't know." They ask me if I have writer's bloc or some related affliction. I then reply that it is partially due to writer's bloc but has more to do with just how, over the last few weeks, after doing some reading of Scripture and other works and attending faithfully the prayer offices and Liturgy of the Church, I have become all the more acutely aware of how much I do not know and how much more wary I am of exposing my ignorance. I guess, then, it is a matter of pride.

But I often wonder about what do my readings contribute to the Church, our Lord or the saints (both capital "S" and lower-case). I am not writing this to solicit comments of support and empathy and encouragement to write. I remember that I wrote a few months ago, that if you do read my mediocrities here, please don't do it at the expense of reading the Word of God, whether in the psalter, the epistles or the Gospel.

So, for now, I have nothing more to contribute. I have nothing to say. Those of you who know me well know that I rarely am at a loss for words, but there it is. I hope to contribute at least one minor morsel of thought food a month, but I cannot make promises. Expect me when you see me.