Archive for the ‘Spiritual Life’ Category

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

November 17, 2010

Only 3 days until Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1) premiers this Friday, November 19th.   Here’s how mixed up and neglected our spiritual lives get – I’ve been more excited about the movie than I am about the approach of the Feast of the Nativity.  Would I go stand in line for hours to attend Divine Liturgy?   I’d like to think so but I don’t know if I’d be so happy about it.

Russia’s Baptized Godless

April 21, 2010

I can’t really give any perspective on this article, but taken at face value it’s a sad reflection on the state of Orthodoxy in Russia.  The effects of communism and secularism seem harder to overcome then merely opening lots of churches and adding more priests.  This news article may also have shaken the view of many  Orthodox Americans (converts primarily) who tend to romanticize the mother countries of Orthodoxy and believe they hold a more pure, more vibrant expression of the faith then America.  When you hear the words “Holy Russia” come out of someone’s mouth, you can bet it’s a zealous convert (and before anyone gets in a huff, I was a zealous convert once too!)

What these religious romantics don’t see from 4,000 miles away, is that Russia, Greece, Serbia, aren’t filled with godly peasants saying the Jesus Prayer while they work the fields.   They love the idea of virtuous, saintly poverty, but  it’s a snapshot of history long gone, or maybe never entirely true.   In either case, these happy Orthodox peasants are now 21st century peoples with all the same problems, temptations and failures that Americans think are exclusively theirs.  

I’m going to look at this article hopefully, not as some kind of doom and gloom prediction of where the Russian Church is headed.  At least someone is saying “hey, we’ve got a problem that needs fixing”.  I truly believe Russia is, at it’s very heart, a deeply, organically Orthodox country.  That flame just need some proper fanning, some careful tending.  In the meantime, American Orthodoxy can’t forget its own problems – let’s get on with our business and let the Russians do what they need to do to reclaim the title of “Holy Russia”.

She’s gonna blow…

January 26, 2010

A volcano is rarely in a constant state of eruption.  For most of the time it simmers, puffing a little smoke, tremoring slightly, for all the world appearing like a mountain with  character.  And then one day the geologic stresses build up, the magma explodes violently and there’s no going back from there.   Anger is often like that.  A cheerful veneer of Christian jovialness is suddenly unmasked by one thing, one person, that sets us off with an actual or perceived wrong, a slight on our character, an unkind word, a misunderstanding, or a deliberate attack. 

Recently, I got crosswise with a fellow parishioner over an issue that could have turned into the kind of conflict that burns bridges and ends friendships.   I was the volcano and it took just one email to unleash an  exploding caldera of anger, hurt pride and indignation.  The only rational response I acted on, thank God, was to call my priest before I hit send on the angry reply I composed.  

As a Christian what do we do with anger?  Is it OK for a Christian to exhibit anger?  Our Lord in the Gospels of  Matthew (21:12–13) and Mark (11:15–17)   displayed a fit of anger when he turned out the merchants and moneychangers from the temple, knocked over tables, and scattered their goods on the ground.  It must have been a shocking scene.    I don’t picture my Lord and Savior screaming and hollering when he did this, but the very act of driving someone away and knocking over their merchandise can’t be accomplished without a certain amount of forcefulness.   However, the difference between Christ’s anger and mine is the sin of pride.  Jesus Christ wasn’t abusive towards the money changers, but was stopping their sinful business.  His motivation was doing His Father’s will.   My motivation?  “How dare someone criticize me!”  My response?   Defend and counterattack.   

The fight against the sinful life is the true purpose of righteous anger, observed 4th century desert monastic Abba Evagrius in his work Texts on Active Life No. 15.   Righteous anger is not used against out fellow human beings, but is

…by nature designed for waging war with the demons and for struggling with every kind of sinful pleasure. Therefore angels, arousing spiritual pleasure in us and giving us to taste its blessedness, incline us to direct our anger against the demons. But the demons, enticing us towards worldly lusts, make us use anger to fight with men, which is against nature, so that the mind, thus stupefied and darkened, should become a traitor to virtues.

One thing I’ve learned about this incident is that being right is not the same as being righteous.  Even if you’re right, getting angry and lashing out is never appropriate.  You can count to ten, say the Jesus Prayer, call your priest, but do everything possible to not act out in anger.   It’s the practice of the spiritual life that cools the volcanos inside each of us, giving us the tools and the patience to resist every stress and strain, allowing us to step back from the edge when we’re  ‘ready to blow’.

The birds of the air…

January 19, 2010

Lesser Goldfinch

I’ve added a new page to this blog – The birds of the air…  It’s simply a bit of  dabbling in one of my biggest passions – bird watching.   It’s not remotely related to Orthodoxy, except in the sense that it’s an appreciation of the creatures put on this Earth by a loving God.  I’ve been an active birder since I took some ornithology classes related to my wildlife science major at Texas A & M, but it’s much more than a scientific study for me after 25 years.  And yes, Orthodoxy and science are not enemies.  I just happen to believe in the Orthodox teaching that some stuff is just a mystery.  Science is great, but don’t look for it to explain the unexplainable.

For me birding is the most immediate contact with the natural world and its animals.  Birds are everywhere around us; they are the most visible and accessible creatures, and picking up a pair of binoculars and “hunting” for them satisfies a human desire to understand and be a part of the natural world.  I’d go so far as to say that in some sense it’s also a spiritual experience, but not so far as to say ‘nature is my religion’ or ‘the outdoors is my church’.  Too many people these days substitute a worship of the creation for worship of the Creator.   Anyway, if you’re interested, check back once in a while and I’ll update the list with reports about my backyard feeders or any birding trips I’m taking. 

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.     Matthew 6:26

Up a Tree with Zacchaeus

January 14, 2010


The past few days I’ve been enjoying Fr. James Coles’ postings on his blog Schole  about Zacchaeus and his encounters with our Lord in the Gospel of Luke.   Fr. James’ writings are simple, straightforward and very applicable to our own lives, much like the meeting of Zacchaeus and Christ.  

I’ve often wondered why the Gospel writer troubled himself to actually describe the species of tree Zacchaeus was perched in.   He identifies it to species, Ficus sycomorus, the Sycamore Fig or Fig Blackberry, named for the blackberry-like shape of its leaves and fruit resembling the fig.  This is a bit confusing for us in North America  because the sycamores of the Americas are actually members of the unrelated Plane tree family, misnamed sycamores for the tree in which Zacchaeus sought to view Christ.   However, for the 1st century readers of the Gospel account, a reference to the “sycamore” was immediately known to them.  They were familiar with it as a common shade tree of the valleys and river bottoms throughout the Middle East and Egypt – a tree that was widely cultivated in Egypt before the 3rd millenium B.C., considered both sacred and an important food source and carpentry wood for the construction of coffins for mummies. 

In the Old Testament the sycamore is mentioned in several places.  During the time of King Solomon, “the king made silver common as pebbles, and cedars plentiful as the sycamores of the lowlands” (I Kgs. 10:27).  In Psalm 78:47, one of the plagues of Egypt comes “By killing their vines with hail and their sycamore trees with frost . . .”   The Prophet Amos identifies himself as a simple shepherd and tender of sycamore trees, rather than a great prophet, when he said, I was no prophet, neither did I belong to any of the brotherhoods of prophets. I was a shepherd, and looked after sycamores: but it was Yahweh who took me from herding the flock, and Yahweh who said, “Go, prophesy to My people Israel’ (Amos 7:14-15). 

So what was the purpose of identifying the tree?  And would it have made any difference if Zacchaeus had climbed a palm or olive tree?  Was it simply a matter of availability and ease?  Maybe the sycamore fig’s wide, spreading branches could have been more easily climbed by a small man like Zacchaeus, at least more easily and comfortably than a palm.  The palm achieves its significance at our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem as a banner announcing the coming King; the oil of the olive as part of His anointing and blessing.   But in Zacchaeus’ meeting with the Lord, Christ enters into Jericho as a simple traveller, hungry and tired, greeted from a fruit tree by a hospitable man, ready to offer him a place at his table.   It seems there’s something special about climbing up to Christ; about one’s willingness to look for Him and to accept whatever He asks of you. 

Please read Fr. Coles’ posts here and here for some real knowledge.    Father offers you five minutes of reading and a lifetime of spiritual application.  Don’t waste the opportunity; rush out like Zacchaeus and climb up to meet Christ! 

Fruit of the Sycamore Fig

Orthodox New Year’s Resolutions

December 30, 2009

 New Year’s Day is almost here; the start of a new calendar year and a time when we all seem to give in to the cultural imperative to renew and remake ourselves.   Are you planning on losing 5 lbs?  Taking up an exercise program?  Stop (a) smoking (b) overeating or (c) overspending?  Why do we devote so much time and effort to reach our life goals, worthwhile as they may be, and fail to put the same effort into our “eternal” life goals?   By all means lose those 5 lbs, but while you’re at it, adopt some spiritual resolutions and give them the effort that our Lord and Savior asks of us – willingly, joyfully and with the assurance that this is what truly renews our lives.

  1. Attend Vespers and/or Divine Liturgy for all major Feasts.
  2. Attend Saturday night Vespers.
  3. Read the appointed scripture readings for each day.
  4. Say your morning and evening prayers faithfully.
  5. Commit to bringing your children to church school every Sunday.
  6. Pray the Hours during the day.
  7. Practice regular tithing.
  8. Pray the Jesus Prayer daily.
  9. Memorize one scripture verse a day.
  10. Phone or send a card to a parishioner you haven’t seen in a while and let them know you miss them and ask how they’re doing.
  11.  Talk to, not at, a young person in your parish.  Befriend them; learn about their interests, their life, their goals.
  12. Make a special intention to pray for the spiritual lives of our young parishioners.
  13. Volunteer for church activities; your time is a gift to God.
  14. Learn the lives of some less well-known saints.
  15. Make a point of greeting every visitor and new comer to your parish – answer their questions, invite them to coffee hour,  make them feel at home.
  16. Say a kind word to everyone you meet.
  17. Commit yourself to arriving at church before the beginning of the Divine Liturgy.
  18. Practice secret and spontaneous acts of charity.
  19. Be an evangelist; bring a friend to church, talk openly about your faith, be a witness to the truth of Orthodoxy.
  20. Pray, pray and pray some more.

Ken Burns, The National Parks

October 2, 2009


Is anyone watching Ken Burns’ new documentary series The National Parks?  I love the style, beauty and quality of his documentaries, well, except maybe not the World War II series.  This one is different though.   It has the majesty and emotional pull that affected us in The Civil War series.  The power to fill us with pride and patriotism, and a deep feeling of ‘Americanism’.   If you’re feeling a little cynical, an hour of Ken Burns will make you feel foolish and faithless.  You’ll suddenly be saying to yourself, “Damn, I love this country.”

This show is stirring up my earliest dreams to join the National Park Service.  My plan and my college majors were in parks & recreation and natural resource conservation, but   23 years later why am I not a park ranger?  It’s a long story, but life, love and President Reagan and his trickle down economics changed the course of my dreams.  Since then I’ve had to satisfy my wilderness craving by extensive travel and obsessive birdwatching.   

Tonight is the final segment and I think that, in part, what makes The National Parks documentary so moving is the recurring theme of spirituality and reverence; that a love of the natural world brings out something pure and good in man, and moves many to a deeper communion with God.  The national parks are truly our American cathedrals.  I’ve stood in the great naves of Notre Dame and Westminster, and never felt as spiritually touched and awed as I have on the rim of the Grand Canyon or dwarfed beside the trunk of a Giant Sequoia.   I have been baptized in the spray of a Yellowstone geyser, communed from mountain streams, and been in the fellowship of other worshippers along backcountry trails and remote 4 x 4 roads.

It sounds blasphemous to say, but I believe that if I were cut off from the natural world I would die.  Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I would pine away, depressed, sad, withering, like a plant without sunlight.  But as an Orthodox Christian I know that the ultimate source of life and light is God, and I’ve come to understand the Church’s teaching on communion with God and the natural world.   We believe the present natural world is a window, reflecting the beauty and goodness of God’s original Creation, and made as a place of living communion with God.  The window though is clouded by the sin of man and the distortion of creation.   The history of the world has moved through the age of Creation and Separation, to Incarnation and Salvation.   Now is the age of Salvation, through the coming of Christ, His death and Resurrection.   As Orthodox Christians we understand this in a holistic, communal way.  Christ didn’t merely pay some tit for tat exchange of sins with his Blood.  He didn’t balance the ledger of judgment and damnation.  Instead, he sanctified and restored our humanity with His Incarnation; he defeated death by death; and He heals and restores us daily by calling us to live a sacramental life in His Church.  All of this Christ accomplished not solely for Man but for the whole of Creation that was clouded and changed by sin.  Trees, fish, water, birds; the very rocks and dirt we stand on – everything is to be transformed and restored as a means of communion with God.  

Is it no wonder that mankind finds so much spiritual life in the beauty of nature?  There is a danger, however, that such an honest love is twisted, and nature itself becomes an idol.  Theologian and nature lover, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, writing in his book, For the Life of the World, observed that

Man has loved the world, but as an end in itself and not as transparent to God … The natural dependence of man upon the world was intended to be transformed constantly into communication with God in whom is all life … When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value, because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is a ‘sacrament’ of God’s presence … The world of nature, cut off from the source of life, is a dying world.

 This is a hard truth for me to wrap my mind around.   Can’t a tree just be a tree?  An object of reverence merely for its beauty?  Isn’t the mere inspiration of awe good in itself?  Or maybe it’s impossible to just look at a winter flight of Snow Geese against the setting sun and not praise the God who created them?  

John Muir, father of the American conservation movement, was himself the son of a brutally strict, Campbellite lay preacher.  It was in Muir’s rejection of his father’s judgmental, wrathful God that he found love and his own personal salvation in the trees and mountains of the American West.   His writings reflect a universalist God, who expresses doctrines of faith in the Gospel of Nature.   It may not be strictly Orthodox, but I think it still has truths to teach us.

Rocks and waters, etc., are works of God and so are men.  We all flow from one fountain Soul.  All are expressions of one Love.  God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless  over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountainizing all.


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

Out and About in a Spiritual Wasteland

May 9, 2009


I cannot remember a Paschal season where I have been in such spiritual doldrums.  The joy of Bright Week was obscured by an overwhelming tiredness and the let down from my manic rush to attend as many services as possible and get prepared for the celebration of the Feast.  Now here it is, two-and-a-half weeks later and I still haven’t recovered my spiritual equilibrium.   There is a light that just feels like it’s been blown out and I’m floundering.  Prayer is a chore, church is a chore, writing is a chore…pretty much life is a chore right now.   

Sounds pathetic doesn’t it?

I could put it down to my busy personal life, work and family stress, health worries or a touch of depression and anxiety.  It’d be even easier to just blame the devil, but I think our spiritual life is much more complicated than that.  Yes, all those things are real problems and should be addressed.  But spiritual malaise, or by its fancy name – acedia,  has a lot of causes – some internal, some external.

St. John Cassian in the Philokalia identifies acedia among eight vices that lead monks (and laypeople) astray, including numbers five (gloominess) and six (acedia, also known as listlessness or low spirits).  I’d say I can pretty well self-diagnose myself as suffering from numbers five and six.   But it’s  kind of hard to personally admit that ones gloominess isn’t just a spiritual condition, kind of like identifying depression as a brain chemical disruption.   A medical diagnosis takes out any personal responsibility – you can’t be responsible for your body’s disfunction.  Somehow, though, when you label spiritual gloominess as a ‘vice” it takes away the victim mentality and makes you an active enabler of your own problem.  My condition isn’t all just a big post holiday let down, it’s a real spiritual flaw that requires self-examination, discipline and pro-active remedies.

St. John Cassian sees his eight vices as forming a chain, all different but linked together in their deliterious effects on the soul. 

Wherefore, in order to overcome acedia, first get the better of gloominess; in order to get rid of gloominess, anger must first be expelled; in order to quell anger, covetousness must be trampled underfoot; in order to root out covetousness, fornication must be checked; and in order to destroy fornication, you must chastise the sin of gluttony.  

Well, is that all.  So, just when I thought I’d been progressing spiritually through Great Lent, things fall apart after the celebration of Pascha.  Great.  (I know, I know, never try to gauge yourself on spiritual progress)  Is malaise or acedia  normal?  It must be more common than I think because I’m not that special spiritual-wise.  I guess when you start thinking of yourself as having  unique problems, you can go ahead and add the vices of pride and vainglory.  In any event, St. Cassian is a little thin  spelling out the methods for conquering acedia.  This definitely sounds like it requires the help of a spiritual professional – my priest.  They aren’t just there for celebrating Liturgy and giving out blessings, you know.  I think I’ll give mine a good pastoral workout this week.

Poor man – pray for him.  He’s gonna need it.

Saint Mary of Egypt

April 5, 2009


This past week on April 1st (new calendar) Saint Mary of Egypt reposed more than 1500 years ago in the desert of Palestine.  She led such an inspiring life that she is celebrated with her own Lenten Sunday today.  Most Orthodox Christians know the basics of how such a great sinner became one of the Church’s most inspiring ascetics. 

A prostitute from a young age, she had no scruples about hopping aboard a ship carrying pilgrims from Alexandria to Jerusalem in approximately 475 AD, and “working”  her way across the Mediterranean.   The pilgrims were on their way to attend the Feast of the Exaltation of the Precious Cross, and on the day of the Feast, Mary found herself drawn to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Wood of the True Cross, but she was not permitted to enter the door with the other pilgrims.  Held back by an unseen force she repeatedly tried to enter the door.   In frustration she looked up and saw an icon of the Mother of God and appealed to her for an explanation.  Whether it was the Mother of God’s reply pointing out her sinfulness or a God-inspired revelation, she suddenly became aware of the course of her sinful life and repented on the spot. 

What follows is not your average salvation story – without hesitation she immediately left for the desert to live out her life in contrition and prayer, scavenging off the land, naked and alone for 47 years.   Her skin was blackened from the sun, her clothing rotted off her body and she became skeletal on a diet of three dried loaves of bread she’d bought on the day of her flight into the desert and whatever she could find in the wasteland.  She didn’t see or speak to anyone for 47 years until the priest monk Zosimus took a retreat into the desert during the Great Fast, improbably found her, learned her story and gave her communion and a promise to return the following year.  Saint Zosimus was good to his word and returned during Great Lent in about the year 521, but only to miraculously find her dead body, which he buried with the help of a lion to dig the stony ground.   Wow!   And I think I’m doing good when I fast successfully for one week and make it to confession before mid-Lent.   Do I regret and sincerely ask forgiveness for my sins?  Are my past indiscretions reason for repentance or fond memories of wild oats sown and harvested?

It’s sad and ironic that a depressed, raging alcoholic, one of the 20th century’s defining poets, and the son of a suicidal father, should write a contemplative poem about Saint Mary of Egypt.  John Berryman (1914 – 1972) lived with a lifetime of demons and never found the peace achieved by Saint Mary.  Sad and broken, he committed suicide by jumping off a bridge.

Dream Song 47:  April Fool’s Day or Saint Mary of Egypt

-Thass a funny title, Mr Bones.
-When down she saw her feet, sweet fish, on the threshold,
she considered her fair shoulders
and all them hundreds who have them, all
the more who to her mime thickened & maled
from the supple stage,

and seeing her feet, in a visit, side by side
paused on the sill of The Tomb, she shrank: ‘No.
They are not worthy,
fondled by many’ and rushed from The Crucified
back through her followers out of the city ho
across the suburbs, plucky

to dare my desert in her late daylight
of animals and sands. She fall prone.
Only wind whistled.
And forty-seven years with our caps on,
whom God has not visited.