Thursday, March 20, 2014

May Metropolitan PHILIP'S Memory Be Eternal

Metropolitan PHILIP, Antiochian Archbishop of North America (1931-2014)
Yesterday evening, the faithful of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America were saddened to hear of the death of their spiritual father, Metropolitan PHILIP, Archbishop of North America and Canada, Metropolitan of New York and Northeast U.S.A.  More than a week earlier, His Eminence experienced a mild heart attack after which he went down to Florida for some tests and rest and recovery.  What seemed to be another hurdle that His Eminence would overcome as he has so many was not to be. He reposed yesterday evening after many parishes in the Antiochian Archdiocese here in America were celebrating or concluding the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified.

This is a huge loss, not only for the Antiochian jurisdiction but for Orthodoxy in America.  I never met the man, but I know plenty of people who knew the man from a variety of encounters.  There was never one characterization of him; indeed, he was a man of different temperaments.  He could be gracious and fun loving one moment and then the opposite the next.  This change in his approach to people also made him a controversial figure at times.  Those moments of controversy though should in no way diminish all the good work he did for the Antiochians in America and for all the Orthodox in America.  I've also been told that if you ever got to meet and speak with him, if only for a few moments, you were always made to feel like the most important person in the world to him.

I don't know a lot of specifics, but from what I have read and what I have been told is that the organization of Christians from the Middle East in this country, before his arrival, was a mess.  There were competing hierarchies of bishops; there was a shortage of priests and thus many people drifted away (many becoming Episcopalian); there was a mess.  He straightened all that out.  He healed the rift between competing Arab churches and brought discipline.  He organized the current Antiochian jurisdiction here in North America and made it not only strong for the cradle Arab Orthodox but also a beacon for seekers and inquirers to be received into the one true faith.  No other Orthodox jurisdiction in America has been friendlier to converts than the Antiochian and that is largely because of him.  In fact, the other jurisdictions have had to play catchup.  Though an Arab, he demanded the use of English in parishes, either for the entirety or for the substantial majority of services.  This was at a time when many jurisdictions used very little English, if any.  This, too, helped with the influx of converts.  His reception of several thousand members of the EOC (Evangelical Orthodox Church) still has major implications today.  He expanded the publishing arm of the church to provide service texts for many who simply had no access beforehand. He developed the Antiochian Village to serve as a convention center for retreats.  He has created the first Antiochian monastery, a woman's monastery dedicated to St. Thecla, the Martyr.  So many other accomplishments could be listed which I simply don't know about.

He made jurisdictional unity here in America a priority although he often said some controversial statements that were not well received by bishops of other mother churches like the Ecumenical Patriarchate.    In those statements, he was probably right.  History will probably vindicate him in that regard.

But he also did some things that to many laity, including myself, smacked of power grabs and favoritism:  His demotion of his bishops in the Dioceses in North America to mere auxiliary rank which would not even allow them to be recognized during the Ektenias at Divine Liturgies; his persuading of the Patriarch, IGNATIOS IV (eternal memory!) to cement this change in the form of a Synodal decree; his removal of Bishop MARK from the Diocese of the Midwest;  his unequivocal support for the priests (mainly Arab priests) in Bishop MARK's diocese when they were clearly acting disobediently; His handling of the whole Bishop DMITRI affair; His disciplining of priests who wore the cassock outside of the church.  His Eminence was also no big fan of monasteries and it was only a few years ago that he created a woman's monastery with an abbess that was attached to the Antiochian Village.  We should be honest about the character of the whole man, but I believe that the good he did for the sake of Orthodoxy cannot be impugned even with knowledge of these actions.

The Antiochian jurisdiction is more than any one man.  It will go on, but there is no question that Metropolitan PHILIP, while he lived, was the glue and heart.  A new Archbishop will have to be appointed. It will be interesting to see whom is selected, but now is not  the time for that.  We are in the season of Great Lent and as we (should) cling to God more in this holy season through fasting and prayer, we need to do so even more right now.  Pray that our sins be forgiven and that the faithful of North America be given a chief shepherd to guide them to even better days.

Christ is Risen!  Memory eternal!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

From the Spritual Psalter of St. Ephraim the Syrian

If He [i.e. Christ] is not God and man then, indeed, our salvation is false, and false are the pronouncements of the prophets.--A Spiritual Psalter, Third Kathisma, Third stasis # 23

These words conclude Ephraim's long set of rhetorical questions about Christ being both God and Man.  They follow the pattern "If he were not flesh...then who [insert phrase reflecting his divinity]."  At this time of year, Orthodox are, unfairly, criticized for their hymnography which overwhelmingly tackles the theme of Christ's incarnation.  Why all the focus on His incarnation and not on his Crucifixion and Death and Resurrection?  Firstly, that's a stupid question because Orthodoxy hymnography, just like Orthodox theology is never just centered on one thing, but it is all-encompassing and holistic.  The Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection of Christ all have their place in the Lenten cycle of Divine Liturgy and the other offices, but without keeping the Incarnation on the forefront of our lips and minds and souls, then Christ's work on those three days becomes merely a legal matter.

On another note, if you have not read the Spiritual Psalter of St. Ephraim the Syrian, then I strongly suggest you get one and incorporate it into your Lenten reading/prayer life.  The words of this great Christian poet and psalmist (even when translated into such an unpoetic language as English) will condemn you for what you are, a sinner, and yet remind you fervently about the Hope we have in Christ. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Worship can (and probably should) hurt you (physically)

In today's world of commercial church shopping, would-be church goers and even people who have been at a church for a long time want a place where they will "get the most out of a service" which translates, usually, to "what feels good" or "how much I learned."  Either way, many (if not most) Christian worship services have become mainly mere mental exercises, whether for the emotions or for the reason center of the brain.  In of itself, that is not bad.  The brain/mind/soul/psyche/nous need to be active participants in the worship service, but what about the rest of the body?  Have Christians today become gnostic even in their worship of God?

The Gnostics were the original Christian dualists.  Everything was assigned in one category alongside a diametric opposite:  Good vs. evil, created vs. uncreated, light vs. dark, spirit vs. mind, body vs. soul, hunger vs. satiety, etc.  Now, this type of dualist thought even pervades the Johannine universe of Christianity (read his Gospel and his letters), but it doesn't come close to the extreme application of the Gnostics.  The Gnostics believed that anything created or of the world was evil.  Only things of the spirit of the mind were valuable and were of the true God.  The Gnostic Christians went so far as to say that the act of creation can only be the act of an evil god and thus there were two Gods--one of the Old Testament and one of the New Testament.  In order to draw closer to the true god, one needed to gain "gnosis" or knowledge and that could only be achieved by a severe detachment to the things of the world which lead to harsh asceticism and privation.  Now, the Church, in contrast, has always correctly understood that asceticism and privation are useful disciplines for the body to be a participant in the spiritual life.  Thus, the lenten discipline of fasting is to let the body in on repentance.

In Greek, the word μετανοια is translated as repentance.  It literally means "a change of the nous" which is another word that his hard to translate.  St. John Damascene says the nous is the eye or the heart of the soul, maybe even the power of the soul.  It is through the nous that we communicate with God from the depth of our very self.  But, again, we Christians, especially Orthodox Christians, are not gnostics.  Repentance and communion with God involve the totality of the person, flesh and spirit alike.  In fact, it is  only because we have flesh that we can repent.  The angels who rebelled against God in the beginning cannot repent and thus are forever outside the forgiveness that God offers.  So, if our bodies should be let in on repentance, shouldn't they also be let in for the worship of God?

The obvious answer to that question is yes, but, let's face it, most people don't.  Worship has become an almost exclusively mental activity. What about the rest of the body?  

This is the season of Great Lent.  During this time, Christians, especially Orthodox Christians, take more time out of their already busy lives to immerse themselves into the liturgical life of the Church.  During the first week of Lent, Orthodox Christians are treated to Great Compline (for some, this may be the only time their parish celebrates Great Compline).  It is a long evening prayer service, with many readings from the psalter, prayers and hymns of penance and repentance.  Most of these prayers and hymns are accompanied by not only the sign of the Cross, but also bows and/or full prostations to the ground sometimes one right after the other.  For those not used to it, even for those in good physical shape, it can be a rigorous workout (I sometimes call the experience "The Great Compline Workout').  And sometimes, you can hurt, especially your knees. 

Have many of us ever considered that worship should be physically engaging to the point of feeling stiffness or soreness in muscles and bones?  My back is not in the best shape but I was really feeling it last week.  I should add that I am not advocating that people who have bodily injuries should ignore their doctor's advice and throw themselves fully into the workout. 

Worship should leave us aching...aching for God.  The soul and mind are fed and are prepared for nourishment with the readings, the hymns and the prayers.  Then, the nourishment in the form of the Eucharist is given.  We also should prepare our bodies by bowing, making the sign of the Cross, kneeling, prostrations to the ground and even standing.  The body then is also nourished by the Eucharist which, we pray, is for the feeding of both body and soul.

In many Christian confessions, rubrics have changed so as to eliminate bodily participation in worship or severely limit it.  That will only make the body lethargic.  Pews have helped this along so much.  Worship is about comfort.  There are some churches which advertise themselves by promoting the comfort of their seats!  If the body is a non-participant in worship and repentance, then we do not truly worship nor repent.  For some this will be difficult, physically.  For others, there are physical obstacles in the way, notably pews.

There is an old hymn called "Stand up, stand up for Jesus."  The writer of that hymn, I guess, was not speaking metaphorically, but literally.  Stand up for Jesus, bow to Jesus, kneel to Jesus.  Love and worship  the Lord and repent in soul AND body.