Thursday, March 31, 2011

St. John Climacus

St. John Climacus, also known as St. John of the Ladder, is a sixth century monastic best known for his work "The Ladder of Divine Ascent."  He is commemorated the 4th Sunday of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church.

Very little is known about St. John's life prior to becoming a monastic.  He was tonsured as a monk at Sinai, and remained so until the death of Abba Martyrius, who tonsured him, after which he lived a solitary life of prayer, fasting and repentance before finally returning as the Abbot of the monastery.

As someone from the Western Christian tradition, who is still encumbered by notions of merit and works and a desire to ensure that God is not "robbed" of His glory in salvation by my own claiming of the same, St. John is an interesting figure, and his work is more interesting still.  It is easy for me to look at a work called "The Ladder of Divine Ascent" and determine that St. John is teaching that I must do this, that or the other in order to work my way to God so that God will find me worthy of saving.  Indeed, an initial careless glance at the icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent would seem to confirm this view.

In the icon, Monks are depicted at various places on the ladder, climbing up to Jesus with the angels praying for them, but with some monks being dragged off by demons, and one falling into the mouth of a dragon.  The dragon symbolizes hell.  Christ is seen at the top of a ladder, blessing the monk at the top of the ladder.  St. John is seen at the lower right, standing in front of a monastery.  The icon is intended to mirror Jacob's ladder.

However, as I have learned, there are several things that should be remembered about this work and particularly the icon which depicts the Ladder.  First, "The Ladder of Divine Ascent" is meant for monastics.  This in no way inhibits its use for those of us who are not monastics, but context is important.  St. John's work is meant first and foremost as a guide for monastics to achieve theosis.  Its ascetical discipline is not to be undertaken lightly.  Second, the Ladder is not intended to depict ultimate salvation or damnation as most Protestants might understand it.  Put another way, the Ladder does not intend to say that those at the top get into heaven, and those at the bottom will go to hell, so you'd better climb higher while you still can.  Rather, monks at all stages of the ladder are being dragged off by demons.  The purpose of this depiction is to demonstrate that no matter how spiritually developed one is, demons will attack and tempt.  Even the most holy are in danger of attack from the accuser.

Third, the Ladder is intended to serve as an image of theosis, the Orthodox idea that we are to grow in Christ, through the Sacramental life, prayer, fasting and almsgiving, to become closer and closer to God.  This is most often expressed among Orthodox as "we become by grace what He is by nature."  Protestants typically separate this out from "justification" and refer to it as "sanctification," and it might help to look at the icon in that light.  In the depiction at left, the ladder goes at a 45 degree angle for the first portion of the ascent, and then nearly straight up for the second portion, indicating the farther along one is in their spiritual journey, the more difficult the ascent becomes (this depiction also has the beautiful imagery of showing the angels helping the monks along the way).  But while the Ladder in either depiction involves human effort, synergia, it is also intended to depict God's effort helping us along the way.  The angels praying and assisting the monks make this clear, as does the depiction of Christ blessing the monks from heaven.  This squares with St. Paul's instruction to the Corinthians that we are Theou synergoi -- "co-workers with God."  Fourth, it is important to remember that while the icon itself depicts a ladder ascending to heaven, the book is often described as an "ascent" which is actually a descent into humility.  Meaning that far from the Western idea of merits earning us heaven, those at the top of the ladder would be best understood according to St. John's writing as being the most humble, self-emptying and lacking in any understanding of their own worth or merit.  As St. John wrote in "The Ladder":
A man who takes pride in natural abilities - I mean cleverness, the ability to learn, skill in reading, good diction, quick grasp, and all such skills as we possess without having to work for them -- this man, I say, will never receive the blessings of heaven, since the man who is unfaithful in little is unfaithful and vainglorious in much. And there are men who wear out their bodies to no purpose in the pursuit of total dispassion, heavenly treasures, miracle working, and prophetic ability, and the poor fools do not realize that humility, not hard work, is the mother of such things. The man who seeks a reward from God in return for his labors builds on uncertainty, whereas the man who considers himself a debtor will receive sudden and unexpected riches.
....and again....
While it is disgraceful to be puffed up over the adornments of others, it is sheer lunacy to imagine that one has deserved the gifts of God. You may be proud only of the achievements you had before the time of your birth. But anything after that, indeed the birth itself, is a gift from God. You may claim only those virtues in you that are there independently of your mind, for your mind was bestowed on you by God. And you may claim only those victories you achieved independently of the body, for the body too is not yours but a work of God.
As we continue our journey through Great Lent, we remember St. John Climacus this Sunday. 

Dweller of the desert and angel in the body,
You were shown to be a wonder-worker, our God-bearing Father John.
You received heavenly gifts through fasting, vigil, and prayer:
Healing the sick and the souls of those drawn to you by faith.
Glory to Him who gave you strength!
Glory to Him who granted you a crown!
Glory to Him who through you grants healing to all!
 -- Troparion for the Sunday of St. John Climacus

Monday, March 28, 2011

Orthodoxy, different, but still the same....

I've blogged about this before, but it always strikes me when I visit another Orthodox parish that in all of the differences between Orthodox jurisdictions, there is an utter sameness that predominates.  Yesterday evening, I attended St. John the Wonderworker, an OCA parish in Atlanta, for a Vespers service.  As with this post detailing my visit to St. Paul Greek Orthodox Church, a Greek parish in Savannah, the differences were immediately apparent.  The piety was somewhat "stronger" than in our home parish -- most of the ladies had their heads covered (several in our parish do this, but the majority at St. John wore a headcovering of some sort), almost everyone was very reverent when venerating icons, with the minimal level of piety displayed being a series of three metanias, and (a first for me!) there were no pews in the parish except a couple of benches around the perimeter of the nave.  The tones were distinctly Russian (which is to say, more "western" sounding than I am used to). 

And yet, as with the Divine Liturgy at St. Paul, I was never lost.  I never had to wonder what was going on in the service.  I never had to guess what came next.  The words to some of the hymnody and prayers were slightly different, more modern.  But the essence of the hymns and prayers were the same.

At some point after our conversion, I quit waiting for the other shoe to drop.  I've seen scandals rock not only our archdiocese but the OCA as well since we came on board.  I've seen criticism of various positions taken by various Church leaders.  I've seen some of the ugly side of Orthodoxy (which is no different than the ugly side of any tradition, honestly).  But the one thing I don't have to worry about in Orthodoxy is the rank liturgical wonkery that is present in other traditions.  Maybe I'm still working off of too small a sample size, but I've visited a handful of Orthodox parishes separated by hundreds of miles and across three different jurisdictions at this point.  It's all the same.  It's all Orthodox.  And rather than having to look for a parish that maintains the traditional forms and ancient faith, I expect any Orthodox parish I enter to do that.  I expect it because that's what the Orthodox do, and that's who we are.  Rather than being merely disappointed, I would be stunned if I found anything other than a solid, liturgical service at any Orthodox Church anywhere.

The liturgical offices are the one constant in the Orthodox Christian Church.  They have maintained our faith through oppression, martyrdom and tyranny.  And they maintain my children today in a way low church Protestantism never could.  The Church in its collective wisdom has held this same faith together in the same way for nearly 2000 years.  It is a great comfort that our Church takes that responsibility very seriously.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Kontakion for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Precous and Life Giving Cross

You who were lifted upon the Cross of Your own will, O Christ our God, bestow Your compassions upon the commonwealth that bears Your Name. By Your power, gladden our faithful rulers, giving them victory over their adversaries. May your alliance be for them a weapon for peace, an invincible standard.

-- Kontakion for the Feast of the Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Good stuff from my friend Anastasia.....

A poem on happy clappy postmodern worship practices.....

Why are People Forsaking Church in Droves?

One reason for people’s churchly severance
Is, they miss good old-fashioned reverence,
Which doesn’t fit well at services
With balloons and whirling dervishes.

To fix your soul you must face what’s wrong,
Which is hard to do to a happy-clappy song.
You won’t even see where you’re not so great
If all you do is celebrate, celebrate.

Celebrations will draw them for the short run,
For people love playing and music and fun.
But you need ever more to keep getting those highs,
Inevitably you crash, and what’s left but sighs?

Entertainment grows wearisome, feelings go flat,
You have to give people much more than that.
Sentiment sours and pleasures aren’t joys,
And church-going folk are not all girls and boys.

Adults want substance and not just feeling,
But wisdom and truth and meaning and healing
In short, they’re searching for things profound
That have little to do with clowning around.

Fun is for picnics, church camps, and youth meets,
Ditto, dancing and movies and magical feats.
In church, theoretically, God is right here;
If so, then with love, awe, and reverence draw near.

If not, there’s your trouble; go back to square one.
You’ve but ethics to offer, and feelings and fun,
And people will seek the deep Mystery elsewhere,
Or give up and pretend they no longer care.

The secret attraction is Himself, Jesus Christ,
By Whom, more than anything, folks are enticed.
Dearer than all else, all our Hope, all our Heart,
With decorum receive Him, before more depart!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

St. Gregory Palamas

Let us continue in oneness of mind, bound together by peace one towards the other, and abstaining from that rage which delivers bodies and souls unto destruction. I beseech you brethren, if anyone has a complaint against another, let us forgive one another as Christ forgave us, that we may be always peaceful, not only in God's churches but at home and in the market place, and with one mind and one mouth glorify our Father in heaven. Apart from this evil catalog of deadly passions associated with pleasure and pain, there are others, which are neither painless nor pleasant, but have their origin in a coming together of opposites. They include sarcasm, flattery, deceit and hypocrisy. 

Do you see how subtly misleading and treacherous this world is, with how many evils it encompasses us, and by how many means it separates us from God? It makes us subject to countless passions and removes us in a variety of ways from Him Who is above all passion. That is why the Lord Himself said, "The whole world lieth in wickedness" (cf. 1 John 5: 19), and called the devil the prince of this world (John 12:31), because he is the ruler of the darkness of this age. Do not imagine that the evil one holds sway over heaven and earth and all Creation in between, and is given the name of prince of this world on that account - perish the thought! This is not the world that lies in wickedness. Only He Who has measured heaven with a span, according to the Prophet, and held the earth in a measure (cf. Isa. 40: 12), is the Creator of all. However, the misuse of Creation, the impassioned abuse of our free will, the world of unrighteousness, evil desire and pride, as the beloved disciple of Christ says, are not of the Father (cf. 1 John 2: 16). This is the world that is subject to wickedness, because of our misuse and mismanagement. It is over this world that Satan rules, over the many passions we have listed, which are brought about by our sin-loving will with the evil one's cooperation, and unless we free ourselves from this evil inclination, we shall make him our own absolute master. 

-- St. Gregory Palamas - Homily 33

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Father Alexander Schmemann on the Eucharistic Gifts

"[T]he purpose of the Church and of her sacraments is not to "sacralize" portions and elements of matter and by making them sacred or holy to oppose them to the profane ones.  Instead her purpose is to make man's life communion with God, knowledge of God, ascension toward God's Kingdom; the Eucharistic Gifts are the means of that communion, the food of that new life, but they are not an end in themselves.  For the Kingdom of God is "not food and drink but joy and peace in the Holy Spirit."

-- from "Great Lent:  Journey to Pascha"

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Triumph of Orthodoxy

As the prophets beheld, as the Apostles have taught, the Church has received... as the teachers have dogmatized, the Universe has agreed,... as Grace has shown forth, Truth has revealed, falsehood has been dissolved, Wisdom has presented, Christ Awarded,...thus we declare,...thus we assert,...thus we preach Christ our true God, and honor as Saints in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, in churches, in Holy Icons; on the one hand worshipping and reverencing Christ as God and Lord; and on the other hand honoring as true servants of the same Lord of all and accordingly offering them veneration.

This is the Faith of the Apostles, this is the Faith of the Fathers, this is the Faith of the Orthodox, this is the Faith which has established the Universe.

-- Confession of faith of the Day of Orthodoxy

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Prayer to the Theotokos

Spotless, undefiled, immaculate, unstained, pure Virgin, Lady, and Bride of God, by your wondrous conception you united God the Word with human beings and joined the fallen nature of our race to heavenly things. You are the only, hope of the hopeless, and the help of those oppressed. You are the ready protection of those who flee to you and the refuge of all Christians. Do not spurn me an accused sinner, though I have made myself completely useless by my shameful thoughts, words, and deeds and through indolence have become a slave to the pleasures of life. But as the Mother of God who loves all people, mercifully have compassion upon me a sinner and a prodigal and receive my prayer though it be offered to you by unclean lips. Entreat your Son and our Lord and Master, using your boldness as a mother, so that he may open to me the loving mercy of his goodness, overlook my numberless transgressions, turn me to repentance, and make me an acceptable doer of his commandments.

Always be near me, for you are merciful, compassionate, and loving. Be my ardent help and protection in this present life, defending me from the assaults of adversaries, and lead me to salvation. At the hour of my death, care for my miserable soul and drive the dark faces of evil spirits far from it. On the awesome day of judgment, save me from eternal punishment and make me an inheritor of the ineffable glory of your Son, our God. May this be my lot, my Lady, all holy Theotokos, through your intercession and help, by the grace and love of your only begotten Son, our Lord and God and Savior Jesus to whom belong all glory, honor, and worship with his eternal Father, and his all holy, righteous, and life giving Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.

-- From Little Compline with Akathist to the Theotokos

Friday, March 11, 2011

Father Alexander Schmemann on Christian Love

"Christian love is sometimes the opposite of 'social activism' with which one so often identifies Christianity today.  To a 'social activist' the object of love is not 'person' but man, an abstract unit of a not less abstract 'humanity.'  But for Christianity, man is 'lovable' because he is person.  There person is reduced to man; here man is seen only as person.  The 'social activist' has no interest for the personal, and easily sacrifices it to the 'common interest.'  Christianity may seem to be, and in some ways actually is, rather sceptical about that abstract 'humanity,' but it commits a mortal sin against itself each time it gives up its concern and love for the person.  Social activism is always futuristic in its approach; it always acts in the name of justice, order, happiness to come, to be achieved.  Christianity cares little about that problematic future but puts the whole emphasis on the now -- the only decisive time for love.  The two attitudes are not mutually exclusive, but they must not be confused.  Christians, to be sure, have responsibilities toward 'this world' and they must fulfill them.  This is the area of 'social activism' which belongs entirely to 'this world.'  Christian love, however, aims beyond 'this world.'  It is itself a ray, a manifestation of the Kingdom of God; it transcends and overcomes all limitations, all 'conditions' of this world because its motivation as well as its goals and consummation is in God.  And we know that even in this world, which 'lies in evil,' the only lasting and transforming victories are those of love.  To remind man of this personal love and vocation to fill the sinful world with this love -- this is the true mission of the Church."

-- from "Great Lent:  Journey to Pascha"

Saturday, March 5, 2011

I have seen the Christian Church....

.....and it DOESN'T look like this.....

The Supreme Court was right -- they have a right to express their views.  They may even have a right to do it near funerals, though in my heart I don't want to accept that.  But they do not have a right to co-opt Christ and His Church.  Their view of Christ and His Church should be spoken against and soundly refuted by every Christian who values decency, honor and love. 

I could write for 20 pages on what is wrong with their view of Christ, but the simplest explanation is this:  God doesn't hate.  Not in the sense these people mean it.  Hate is an anthropomorphism, something we apply to our understanding of God.  But even when we experience God's presence in ways that frighten and chastise us, God loves us.  Each and every one of us.  We may place ourselves outside that love, but that doesn't change Who God is nor does it say anything about Who God is.  It says something about who WE are.  If I condemn others for their sins and judge them as these people do, what of MY sin?  If "those people" are condemned, what am I?  This is Pharisaical self-righteousness in its ugliest form, and at its most logical end.

The "pastor" and "parishioners" of Westboro "Baptist" "Church" (quotes added to make a point, let the reader understand) should work on that plank in their own eye before they decide to remove the specks from the eyes of others.  I won't judge them -- Christ will do that.  I do know that on that day, Christ will not ask them how many "fags" they condemned, but whether they have fed Him, clothed Him, visited Him in prison and taken him in.   He will ask whether they did this for Him by doing it for the least of these, His brethren.  I pray the people in the pictures above will one day learn to see Christ in their neighbor rather than Satan.  For just as God doesn't hate, neither will hate bring anyone into the Church.  Only love can do that.

Kyrie Eleison.  Come quickly, Lord.