Archive for the ‘Orthodox Beliefs’ Category

Halloween and Orthodox Christians

October 26, 2009


Pews or no pews, kneeling on Sunday, headcoverings.  You think these cause consternation and discord among our “Little T” debates?  Try raising the issue of Halloween among 10 Orthodox Christians and you’ll get 10 different opinions, each centered around the question of  ‘what commonly observed, secular American activities are appropriate for an Orthodox Christian to take part in?   

 In this past Sunday’s church bulletin, I went back and forth about what exactly to put in concerning Halloween.  Knowing the range of opinions, I did not want to print anything that was too dogmatic or based upon my own beliefs, but was a more general treatment of the Christian holiday associated with the season and which was in line with our priest’s judgment, which is pretty neutral about Halloween.  On the other hand, very strong injunctions against the practice of Halloween have been preached in recent years, and not so recently.  You’d be surprised to know that St. John of Maximovitch, who I myself revere, dealt with Halloween in his own way back in his earliest days in San Francisco.   This is not an issue the Church has considered on a level in the way abortion or same sex marriage attack key doctrinal positions.  This is a pastoral issue and as such is subject to the various interpretations of clergy.

So in order to balance these competing pastoral opinions, I found the following explanation from the Oxford Dictionary of Christian Belief, concerning the history of All Hallow’s Eve and its connections with the modern celebration of Halloween.  Make of it what you will, but it presents a more moderate counter-balance to the usual explanation of Halloween as a strictly  Celtic, pagan influenced observance, and the gateway holiday that leads a Christian straight into Satanism and damnation.    (A few minor grammar edits are mine to adapt it for length and for use in an Orthodox publication.)

The Feast of All Saints is a holy day of the Church honoring all saints, known and unknown. This is much like the American holidays of Veterans Day and Presidents Day, where many people are honored on one day.   Christians have been honoring their saints and martyrs since at least the second century AD. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, probably written near the middle of the second century, attests to this reality:

Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more pure than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, so that when being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.

Initially the calendars of saints and martyrs varied from location to location, and many times local churches honored local saints. Gradually, however, feast days became more universal. The first reference to a general feast celebrating all saints occurs in Saint Ephrem the Syrian (†AD 373).  Saint John Chrysostom (†AD 407) assigned a day to the feast, the first Sunday after Pentecost, where in the Eastern Churches the feast is celebrated to this day. In the West, this date was probably originally used, and then the feast was moved to May 13th. The current observance, November 1st, originates from the time of Pope Gregory III (†AD 741), and was likely first observed on that date  in Germany. This fact makes the connection of the All Saints Feast with the pagan festival Samhain less likely, since Samhain was an Irish pagan feast, rather than German.

The vigil of the Feast (the eve) has grown up in the English-speaking countries as a festival in itself, All Hallows Eve, or Halloween.  While many consider Halloween pagan, as far as the [Western] Church is concerned the date is simply the eve of the feast of All Saints.  Many customs of Halloween reflect the Christian belief that on the feast’s vigils we mock evil, because as Christians, it has no real power over us.  However, for some Halloween is used for evil purposes, in which many Christians dabble unknowingly.

Various customs have developed related to Halloween. In the Middle Ages, poor people in the community begged for “soul cakes,” and upon receiving these doughnuts, they would agree to pray for departed souls. This is the root of our modern day “trick-or-treat.”  The custom of masks and costumes developed to mock evil and perhaps confuse the evil spirits by dressing as one of their own. Some Christians visit cemeteries on Halloween, not to practice evil, but to commemorate departed relatives and friends, with picnics and the last flowers of the year. The day after All Saints day is called All Soul’s Day, a day to remember and offer prayers up on behalf of all of the faithful departed.

As so often happens in our “internet as fact” culture, blog readers often visit  a variety of blogs to know what to think and believe.  They can pick and chose from millions of bloggers who use their electronic soapboxes to display a clever use of words and out-of-context sources, and to broadcast their “authoritative” opinions to the world.    I say this to dissuade anyone from using my post to argue “for” or “against” Halloween.  Opinions I have – but not the ability to make these spiritual decisions for you and your family.  That said, my own family practice has been to celebrate Halloween as a fun, silly night of dress-up, child-friendly scariness and block party revelry.  I have had many talks with the kids about the various origins of Halloween customs and some of the evils that have been improperly attached to Halloween (i.e. Satanism or animal sacrifice) and what is appropriate behavior for an Orthodox Christian.  My kids being kids, always list Halloween as one of their favorite “holidays”, right up there with Christmas and Pascha.  It makes for good segway talks into the difference between having fun and celebrating the life of our Lord and Savior, and what is truly important as a Christian.   In other words, fun in moderation and with a clear understanding of boundaries.

Is this what I think everyone should do?   Heavens no!  My opinion about Halloween may be based on my own poor discernment and failure to give all areas of my life over to the Gospel.  On the other hand, as another priest friend remarked once, “Why should the devil have all the fun?”

Mission Aborted for the Rocket Man

September 16, 2009


I had a really hard time deciding which pseudo-celeb news story deserved remorseless skewering – Jessica Simpson’s Fifi dog served up as a coyote snack or Kate Gosselin’s hairstyle contribution to world peace and the cure for cancer.   Instead I had to go with Elton John’s skewering by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church over his intention to adopt a child with his “partner”, David Furnish.

The message conveyed by Fr. Georgy Gulyaev of the Donetsk Diocese couldn’t be any more clear – homosexuality is a sin and the homosexual family is a distortion of the Church’s teaching on the sanctity and biblical nature of the family. 

“The Church is strictly against same-sex marriages and the damage they cause. It’s written in Holy Scriptures that homosexual marriage and relations is a sin.

“It is a sin, it is against nature, and it represents the dead end of human development.

“People pretend to have good intentions, create semi-marriages and so-called families, and moreover they dare to adopt children. Unlike people who are blessed by God to create natural families, these are people who succumb to their passions.

“This is definitely a sin, there is no other word for it, and the church will never agree that people who have created same-sex “marriage” could also dare to adopt children.

“This applies to all, including Elton John. He is a sinner.”

The photos accompanying the news story are sure to be great sympathy generators for Elton John, and I don’t doubt he has a genuine desire to parent this child.   The parental urge is hard-wired into our human psyche by the same God who created the natural inclination for male-female relations and the nurturing of children within the male-female home.  This poor baby deserves that loving, caring, traditional family, i.e. a married man and woman.  

Sadly, there ain’t nothing anyone can say to Elton John that’s going to change his mind, and he’s sure to be backed by the righteous indignation of the Rainbow Mafia, which will not stop until traditional family values have been insinuated, legislated and bullied out of society. 

God bless the strength of the Orthodox Church to stand up for the faith and historic teachings of the Church.

The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann Post #1

June 17, 2009


I finally started reading  a book that has been recommended by so many people – The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann 1973-1983.  It’s turning out to be just as good as promised.   There are very few Orthodox Christians who aren’t familiar with Fr. Alexander’s works, such as  The Eucharist, For the Life of the World, Great Lent: A Journey to Pascha, and Of Water and the Spirit.   His Journals were published in 2000, seven years after his untimely death from lung cancer (Fr. Alexander was, unfortunately, a life-long smoker). 

From the outset, Fr. Alexander’s journal entries seem to be those of  a man completely given over to thinking and contemplation in a way that is rarely, if ever, done by your average church-going Christian.   Most of us follow the philosophy that thinking too much is probably best avoided, and if we do fall into the habit, it often devolves into obsession or fixation. 

Real contemplation isn’t just a meandering rabbit trail of thoughts and fancies.  The Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines ‘contemplation’ as “concentration on spiritual things as a form of private devotion, or a state of mystical awareness of God’s being”.   I can’t say that Father Alexander used his brilliant mind solely as a form of private devotion.  I think he was too committed publicly with his role as dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary and the demands on his time for lecturing to keep his contemplations private.  (There is some speculation in his son Serge’s introduction to The Journals, that Fr. Alexander intended even these private contemplations to be published one day.)  On the other hand, Fr. Alexander had an intense aversion to empty ritual and belief that was disassociated from a true awareness of God and his Church.  His writings reflect his profound dwelling, not simply in an awareness of God (for you can be perfectly aware of something but not in communion with it), but in the unity of man with God through the sacramental life of the Church.   Fr. Alexander wanted Orthodox Christians to get past the formulaic and see life as an integrated communion with God.

In everything that I preach, or teach or write, I want this answer to appear, hopefully to shine through.  But that answer cannot be squeezed into any system, any recipe, any defined way of life.  No rules come out of that answer.  It is simply a vision of life, and what comes from that vision is the light, the transparency, the referral of everything to the “Other,” the eschatological character of life itself and all that is in it.  The source of that eschatological light, the lifting up of all life, is the sacrament of the Eucharist…The Church has been established in this world to celebrate the Eucharist, to save man by restoring his Eucharistic being. 

                              Monday, December 17, 1973

Year of the Bible

May 22, 2009


You know American society has gotten off the track when it takes a politician to propose a government-sanctioned recognition of the Bible and it’s place in American history.  Oh wait…flashback to the good ol’ days of New Wave music, the Cold War and the Moral Majority, and you’ve got the Year of the Bible 1983.  Apparently it’s been so long since we’ve had a Year of the Bible that Americans have forgotten how important the scriptures are. 

President Ronald Reagan first thought America ought to honor it’s debt to the Good Book, and as quick as you could say “Gorbie, the bombs are on the way”, Proclamation 5018 was signed.    I was 21 at the time and you know, I don’t recall 1983 as the year America en masse became a devoutly Christian nation again.  Churchgoers still went to church; Americans who already read their Bibles were doubly grateful to God for something they already knew was special to them, and all the rest –  the atheists, Democrats, the Church-Staters, got themselves in a hot-and-bother that lasted about as long as a music video hit on MTV.   When the new year rolled around again, people were more aware of the irony that, in the midst of the Cold War and fears of nuclear holocaust, it was also the year of George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four

I don’t want to argue that appreciating the Holy Bible is unimportant, because as an Orthodox Christian I think it is the unique and God-given written tradition of the Christian faith and the written revelation of God’s salvation of mankind.   I challenge someone to show me a greater devotion to and veneration of the Bible than is found in the Orthodox Church.   Our services are primarily composed of the scriptures.  We sing them, we pray them, we hear them preached.   We venerate, we kiss, we bless ourselves with the Gospel book itself as the written icon of Christ, the Logos or Incarnate  Word of God.    The Christian faith, ergo, the Bible,  is the foundation of traditional American society and Western democracy.   But as America struggles with recession, joblessness, and heavy-handed political correctness in an increasingly secular, liberal and pluralistic society, I think the general feeling is that this is a pretty ho-hum piece of legislation.   Oh, the Right is going to push this as a return to the glory principles of God-fearing America; the Left is going to get all riled up with anti-Christian brain bashing, and the sum effect is going to be a big ‘who cares’.    Efforts like this rarely seem to make much of a difference.   We already set aside whole months for cholesterol education, camping safety, dental hygiene, gay and lesbian history, and even procrastination (December).   The only one I seem to be honoring to its fullest is Procrastination Month.

My “appreciation” of the Bible and it’s place in American society is in my freedom to attend Church, to evangelize for what I believe is the True Faith, to speak or blog about my beliefs, and criticize or comment about whomever and whatever I want.   I believe in

The Holy Scripture [as] the domain of Wisdom, Word and Spirit, of God in the Trinity: in it He clearly manifests Himself: ‘The Words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life,’ (St. John 6:63) said the Lord…In Holy Scriptures we see God face to face, and ourselves as we are. Man, know thy self through them, and walk always as in the presence of God.

                                  St. John of Kronstadt (My Life in Christ: Part 1)

The Holy Bible is more than a political tool (though funny how it gets used as one all the time).  The great early 20th Century Serbian Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich states in his Prologue From Ochrid, what the Bible clearly is and what it means for mankind:

The word of God is food for the soul. The word of God is both strength and light for the soul…. All the saints emphasized the necessity of reading the Holy Scriptures. St. Seraphim of Sarov says: ‘The soul must keep itself nourished with the word of God; because the word of God is, as St. Gregory the Theologian says, the bread of angels that feeds the soul that is hungry for God. Most of all we must read the New Testament and the Psalms. The understanding is enlightened by these. It is a very good thing to read the word of God in solitude, and to read the entire Bible with understanding. God gives a man His mercy for undertaking this exercise more than for other good deeds, and He fills him with the gift of comprehension. When a man nourishes his soul with the word of God, then he is filled with the understanding of good and evil.

 Can I suggest that instead of creating some hokey year of the Bible, why not spend the next year reading it instead


Telemarketing Confession with Soul Wow

April 13, 2009


Does this kind of marketing  really work?  It seems kinda cheesy and pandering, but hey, it seems to have been a success for the Diocese of  Brooklyn, so more power to ’em.  The story has made all the news outlets, so strange must be a good marketing technique.

I’ll agree 100% that confession is good for what ails ya.   This past Saturday  I took my grouchy 9 year old to Vespers for Palm Sunday.  He needed to go for his Great Lent confession.  Well, he pulled one major attitude through the whole service – pouting and standing as far away from me as he could possibly get, even going out to sit on the front steps of the church in protest.    After suffering through Vespers he went to confession and was amazingly transformed into the same happy-go-lucky, reflective, sweet thing he mostly is.  On the way home he  tells me, “Mom, you know, I do feel better;  I feel really perky, like I’ve been reborn”.  

Son, that’s the power of the Holy Spirit!

Twisted Marketing at Restoration Hardware

December 26, 2008

Somebody needs a good smiting and I think it ought to start with the marketing or advertising department at Restoration Hardware.


This gem of spiritual advice was in the window of the Restoration Hardware store in the Alamo Quarry shopping center.  I was driving around looking for a parking place on Monday and this caught my eye.    The sad thing is that for most of the scripturally illiterate people in this country, this ad might register something slightly familiar with them.  Kind of like a few words from a song they know they’ve heard before but just can’t remember where.  We have now come down to twisting our Lord and Saviour’s own words to sell s#$@! to people who may or may not be aware of the true significance of Christmas, aside from shopping, presents, and feasting.  It’s all about giving so you can get in on the receiving.

(My ranting rings a bit hollow I think as yours truly shoves Christmas cookies and tamales into her mouth for breakfast, and is surrounded by the detritus of wrapping paper and toy carnage.)

The original context for this bit of propaganda is the Gospel of St. Luke, Chapter 11:9-11.

So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent instead of a fish?


St. John Climacus in the Ladder of Divine Ascent spells out clearly what this passage means and why and how we petition God through our prayers.

Ask with tears, seek with obedience, knock with patience. For thus he who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him that knocketh it shall be opened…[but] all who ask and do not obtain their requests from God, are denied for one of the following reasons: because they ask at the wrong time, or because they ask unworthily and vaingloriously, or because if they received they would become conceited, or finally because they would become negligent after obtaining their request.

God knows exactly what we need even without our prayers, but it’s through prayer that we we are trying to understand His will and communicate with Him in a united, cooperative manner.  In the passage from Luke above, Jesus is speaking about our boldness before God through prayer, but that doesn’t mean you should ask Him for retro door knobs and 700 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets.   That’s the same heresy the health-and-wealth gospel preachers have been passing off for years.   Jesus doesn’t owe you anything, certainly not a new set of furniture, a new car or designer clothes.  You want stuff like that,  ask Santa Claus.

Metropolitan Jonah and Mission Statements

December 23, 2008

For you Metropolitan Jonah-philes out there, see a  new interview posted on the Religion News Service.   I kind of wish everyone would let him move on and talk about something other than his surprising election or his similarities with Barack Obama.   He’s a brilliant person and has a lot more to rehash then how he wasn’t expecting the vote, how his bags were barely unpacked, yata yata.   But it sounds like he’s hitting the ground running and really is moving on.  The next few months will be very busy.

The bishops will be meeting on December 29th for a strategic planning session, part of which will include refocusing on the mission of the OCA.  I’m a little “ehh” about the Metropolitan’s idea of summarizing this meeting into a new mission statement.    I’ve never been a fan of these wordy, lofty-goaled bits of organizational fluff.  Look, I’ve managed to function pretty well as an Orthodox Christian without once ever looking for guidance to the OCA’s existing, ho hum mission statement (and actually I never knew we had one until I just looked it up for this link).  In my opinion, these things always say a lot but mean little and once drafted their only function is to decorate letterheads and business cards.  For example, do you think anyone at this company is really reading their mission statement?

The Mission of United Tobacco Company is to function as the vital link between the best tobacco growers in the world and the best manufacturers in the world. We aim to accomplish our mission by focusing on personal service to our customers; rewarding initiative and creativity; promoting the quality of our grower group; responding to social and environmental challenges; and positively impacting our community.

If you want something more “churchy”, how about this inspiring statement from a non-denominational church somewhere in Alaska (name changed to protect the innocent and rudderless):

At Golly Gee Community Church we’re not about “having it all together” or even pretending we do. We’re just a family trying to grow together toward a God who knows us and can help us put all the pieces of this sometimes bizarre world into perspective. We may not have all the answers but we know someone who does. In fact He not only knows the answers…He made up the questions.

All I can say is wow, now that’s powerful and focused.   And no, I did not cut and paste this from a Saturday Night Live skit – this is not Sarah Palin’s Church.  These folks are seriously missing something if the best they can come up with is this ‘let’s all muddle our way together’  mantra.   At least Sarah Palin’s Wasila Bible Church isn’t messing around – they know where they’re going.  I can’t agree on the path these Christians are taking but their clearly worded Core Commitments make me believe they are not too concerned.

Some of our greatest Orthodox saints drafted their own mission statements.  I’d like to see St. Ephraim the Syrian’s words on a business card

The Church is the salt that salts the whole world, preserving it from putridity.

How about the familiar words of St. Cyprian of Carthage

No one can take God as his Father unless he takes the Church as his mother.

This one is pretty popular in Orthodox circles though I don’t know who first came up with it.

The Orthodox Church is evangelical, but not Protestant. It is orthodox, but not Jewish. It is catholic, but not Roman. It isn’t non-denominational – it is pre-denominational. It has believed, taught, preserved, defended and died for the Faith of the Apostles since the Day of Pentecost 2000 years ago.

Whatever the Synod of Bishops comes up with, I believe it will be and should be centered on the Gospels.   There can be no mission statement greater than Christ’s own words.  Not a short, sweet sound bite of scripture;  not a one sentence summary of what the Church is and isn’t.  You need the whole Gospel, and really the whole of Scripture to summarize the Church and it’s mission.   So if you want to understand the longest, most detailed mission statement  ever written, you’re going to have to come and hear the words in the place where they achieve their truest context – the Divine Liturgy of the Church.

If Children Could Vote

October 22, 2008

 My 8 year old expressed his preference for President very clearly yesterday when he brought home the social studies project below.  He’s got his mind made up, but I suspect he thinks Sen. Obama is just way cooler than some old guy (and maybe ’cause he’s been listening to my husband bash “scumbag Republicans”).  It was a good opportunity to remind him there is still one issue Orthodox Christians cannot and never will agree with Obama about – abortion. 

A tough topic to discuss with a child, but I’ve tried to teach him in a basic way what elective abortion is, why it’s wrong and what the Orthodox Church believes and teaches – simply that unborn babies are children of God from the moment of conception and we don’t kill God’s children.   He tried to give me some “but”, “but” arguments about how Sen. Obama isn’t going to actually be doing that to anyone, what ever that means in an 8 year old’s point of view (which actually sounds a lot like the reasoning some democrats use too).  I had to leave it at “abortion, is murder and it’s wrong for someone, even Sen. Obama, to believe it’s ok”. 

Abortion is the big stumbling block for conservative, pro-life Democrats.  Whether Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, Protestants or any pro-life faith group, every four years we’re left in this quandary about our faith, values, and what it means to vote in an election that doesn’t give us any options.  Do you vote for the lesser of two evils?  Do you vote for what is to your mind a candidate who is an out-of-touch war monger but is pro-life?  Or do you vote for the candidate who seems to be saying some of the things that resonate with you except for this one big issue that he may or may not really get a chance to mess with much before his term(s) is up?   In the case of my home state, Texas, I don’t think whichever candidate I vote for is going to make any difference to the state outcome.  Do I vote then on a single issue for a candidate I doubt I’d support on anything else he’d ever do during his entire presidency?  

Aaargh – I hate election years.