Monday, December 28, 2009

The Elder Paisios Speaks to Seminarians

"If a passionate man* tries to correct an egoist, steel hits flint and fires are ignited! If he tries to correct a sensitive person, he hurts him greatly. It would be like a wild man taking a thick wire brush to clean out a little mucus from a baby's eye."

"The goal of reading is the application, in our lives, of what we read. Not to learn it by heart, but to take it to heart. Not to practice using our tongues, but to be able to receive the tongues of fire and to live the mysteries of God. If one studies a great deal in order to acquire knowledge and to teach others, without living the things he teaches, he does no more than fll his head with hot air. At most he will manage to ascend to the moon using machines. The goal of the Christian is to rise to God without machines."

(Taken from Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit).

*Passionate man: Not so much a man with a fiery temper as a man who is under the influence of his passions (among which are gluttony, lasciviousness, slothfulness, listlessness, and so on, in addition to anger).

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Late Festal Greeings and an Update

A few days late, but nonetheless: Christ is Born! Glorify Him! Christos razhdaetsya! Slavite! Christos gennatai! Doxasate!

Life at SVS has been blissfully relaxed in the sense of being able to do some increased devotional exercises and leisure reading, but one should hardly think that life here is free from activities during the break. Services, of course, leading up to the blessed feast of our Lord's Nativity in the flesh have been a preoccupation (in a good way) over the past few weeks, with nightly vespers and little compline/Nativity kanon permeating the start of each night. A beautiful SVS tradition, and a blessed way to enter into the feast.

My mother has come up from Ft. Worth to visit for the holidays; she and Audra and the girls are currently at our apartment playing with Christmas toys; I am at the apartment of another seminary family who, having gone home for the holidays, has graciously offered us a much larger space in which we all can sleep and relax. God bless the Coxes. So good to have "Gammie" up here; the girls, of course, are so excited they could explode.

Was blessed to sing "God is with Us" during the Nativity Eve Great Compline service here. This is especially so because, in my house, I am known as something of a grinch when it comes to holiday music. I will not stand for anything after Thanksgiving, and even St. Nicholas Day is far too early (though I can understand those who see this as a launching off point), but around the 20th or 21st, the Church starts singing things such as "Let us celebrate the Nativity of our Lord in anticipation" during Vespers services, so at that point I really have no defense. Out come the stockings and Tchaikovsky. The SVS Hymns of Christmas CD, however, is one that is reserved for no earlier than Christmas morning. "God is with us" is our "cue" that Christmas has come, especially since we are, almost every year without exception, either in rural Texas or rural Kentucky with family and do not have occasion to attend Orthodox Nativity services. So the blessing to intone the triumphant words of Isaiah were quite meaningful.

Celebrations around campus have not disappointed. Those seminarian families who have hung around for some or even all of the holidays (many more than I had expected would stay) have all come together on more than one occasion already to lay out a festal spread. I have had the, erm, pleasure? (let's call it that because of the hospitible nature in which it was offered) to taste a Sam Adams Fizziwig's Ale. Fizzy is right. Much more to my liking was the Oban single malt whiskey, aged 14 years, courtesy of Fr. John Ballard, a fellow Texan, while over at another family's house. The libation tasted every bit its 14 years, leaving its delightful burn on the tip of the lips and full aftertaste in the back of the throat.

Grades, thank God, came back very satisfactory.

Church History, Liturgical Music, and Old Testament: A

Liturgical Theology, Patristics, and Liturgical Practica: A-

Integrating Seminar (P/F): P

GPA so far: 3.86. Glory to God.

It has been interesting to speak with other M.Div. candidates concerning attitudes towards course grades. The old joke gets passed around quite a lot: Q: What do you call an M.Div. student with C's and D-'s? A: A priest. Given that many are not looking to move any further in their studies beyond St. Vlad's -- I myself have vascillated on the point of persuing anything further barring necessity given my desire to go into parish life as fully as God would permit -- many have something of a ho-hum attitude regarding what their actual letter grades. Just enough to get me the degree, thanks. Throughout my time as a student I've been highly driven to do well in classes, regardless of the teacher or the "payoff" later. True, I'm a nerd. I embrace it fully. But it's served as a good reminder that no one is, in all probability, going to ask me to elaborate on Origen's teaching of the relation of the Son to the Father in everyday parish life. More important is my own becoming a man of prayer who can pray as the Church leads us to pray, shut up when he needs to (which is most of the time) and speak only when and as he should. Your prayers are coveted.

Am currently reading two quite different books which are both nonetheless enjoyable: Zorro: Una Novela por Isabela Allende and Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit by Protecting Veil press (H/T to our good Ochlophobist on the latter). The introduction to Precious Vessels can be found HERE. I cannot express how marvelous it has been to "stretch my linguistic legs" again, as it were, and read a book --no, a story -- in Spanish. Ms. Allende is at her best again, with vibrant descriptive battle scenes and an intriguing beginning to Señor De La Vega's existence and his later identification with the indígenas of Mexico. Also grateful for the devotional material in Precious Vessels; the general emphasis of the book can be summed up in a short quote which it lists in the counsels of Elder Joseph the Hesychast: "No sacrifice is more fragrant in the sight of God than purity of body, which is realized through blood and great struggles." Buy this book and read it often.

We were blessed by the goodhearted folks at St. Gregory Palamas Orthodox Church who participated in the St. Nicholas Program, a Christmas charity program done for the benefit of married-with-children seminarian families. Between their requesting and filling our Christmas requests and eager grandparents concerned for their desperately poor children and grandchildren, there was much squealing coming from our house on Christmas morning. Some even came from folks other than myself. ;) Kate, as you can see, was rather fond of her new rain boots.

Today is both a landmark and a rare occasion for me. To the side of this post I have posted an icon, the hymns, and the information from regarding today's commemoration of the King and Prophet David, my heavenly patron. The Sunday after the Nativity is his commemoration, together with the Righteous Joseph the Betrothed and James, the Brother of the Lord. On years when Christmas falls on a Friday, however, it also happens to be my birthday. That this particular alignment happened to fall on the 30th anniversary of my birth, however, seems to make it all the more significant to me. I'm so thankful to God for His many blessings to me over these three decades. May He continue to show His mercy towards me in the coming time I have left.

A blessed festal period to all!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Memory Eternal

Thank you for standing up for your flock in times of need.

Thank you for living as an example of a true shepherd.

Thank for calling us to honesty and integrity as Christians.

Lord, grant rest to your servant, Job, and may his soul dwell with the blessed.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Many Years, Prayers

Send a "Many Years" to my beloved wife, Audra, who celebrates her birthday tomorrow. She can be reached at her blog, Just the Right Words (also in the sidebar).

May God also grant all us NYC Wootens many years on this, one of the two commemorations of our family patron, St. Herman of Alaska, shown to the right. His was a witness of forsaking material goods for love of the Word of God by which we truly live, and living that life amongst those who did not have it, yet wanted it when they saw the warmth of God in their "Apa." God grant us that same fidelity to His Word and the grace to live generously with all we're given. You can pray the Akathist to him HERE.

Prayers, finally, for yours truly, who will be starting finals tomorrow. I'll be signing off from the blogosphere between now and then, but your sending up a prayer or seven would be mighty appreciated.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Praying, Contra Slithers, in the Dark

My first semester's classes officially ended today. Papers turned in; here in a bit I'll start the reading for final exams next week (Prayers are coveted for this last hurdle), but since time to breathe can now be appreciated for the luxury it is--at least for an evening--I thought I'd attend the little compline service SVS has during weeknights of fasting seasons (Compline, by the way, is apparently not included in blogger's dictionary. Neither, apparently, is the possessive word, "blogger's." Or, rather, it is, but only when quotes are around it. Sigh.)

I was scheduled to read little compline this past Monday, and the quiet, somber, and quite dark service impressed me, having only been to compline services at night either at Holy Archangels or in conjunction with a service such as Canon of St. Andrew. I came back tonight, as it was the final compline service before Christmas Break.

Praying in the dark is iconic. Rather, praying in the quiet dark is iconic. There's something to be said for the fact that, in most all other confessions of Christianity, when the faithful gather to pray, the lights are on and the volume is up. Or--as was the case in some "punk rock 'praise' services" I had the misfortune to attend (twice and only twice)--if they are dark, they are noisy and violent. Tonight the chanting was purposefully subdued, quieter than usual, movement was almost non-existent. The soft, throbbing candlelight illumined the faces of the saints and their Lord, who looked at us with established souls led by the Guiding Spirit.

Father Andrew Cuneo was the priest presiding over the service tonight. The man seems to walk around with compline in his soul. To watch the man come and pick up a large, lit candle and stand, petitioning, before the new Adam and the new Eve, in the dark, took me aback. When the lights are on, when the volume is up, when the projecter screens are blaring, the illusion of stability, of strength is easier to swallow. When it's dark and quiet, you fight against blindness, you fight against sleep, you fight against cold--in short, you feel your limitations much more acutely when it's dark. Yet this man prayed. The women at the Cross prayed in a moment darker than any other. It would seem that the goal of every Christian is to press on in faithful, continued prayer, especially in the dark of our hearts, when we feel all our passions slithering around and want to recoil, want to jump, want to react somehow to stave off having to feel that slither. Yet the ability to move in calm, sovereign freedom while one's bowels slither and clench in rebellion is the onus of every Christian. I would posit that this responsibility can only be fulfilled as our Lord would have it when it is still, quiet, and dark, for this external setting is the only worthy reflection of the landscape of hearts held in a place of need of warm illumination.

Rich Mullins...

"God calls us to 'be strong' and we mistake that for a call to omnipotence. We confuse strength to endure trials with an ability to walk unfrustrated through life. We convince ourselves that if we were strong we would never fail, never tire, never hurt, never need. We being to measure strength in terms of ease of progress, equate power with success, endurability with invincibility and inevitably, when our illusions of omnipotence is shattered, we condemn ourselves for being weak.

"God has called us to be lovers and we frequently think that He meant us to be saviors. So we 'love' as long as we see 'results.' We give of ourselves as long as our investments pay off, but if the ones we love do not respond, we tend to despair and blame ourselves and even resent those we pretend to love. Because we love someone, we want them to be free of addictions, of sin, of self - and that is as it should be. But it might be that our love for them and our desire for their well-being will not make them well. And, if that is the case, their lack of response no more negates the reality of love than their quickness to respond would confirm it."

When needing to read, write, clean, pray, etc after the girls have gone to sleep, the slithers come out with suggestions of leisure and comfort. Audra was talking tonight about how in awe she was of women who could work full time, hold down family life, and be involved as matushki in parish life. When she said she didn't think she was that caliber of a lady, I said that one of the things I had to remind myself of regarding our relationship is that I cannot force her to just "tough it out" and push through fatigue; I'm her husband, not her drill instructor. Yet, the thing that we all have to face is the truth that Christ is calling us, in essence, to kick our own ass to some degree. My job, truly, is to kick my own ass the hardest to make it easier on the rest of the family.

Thus, when YouTube beckons, when Bejeweled calls, when ora et labora is challenged by our contemporary slithers, when sleep claws at our eyelids, neck and shoulders while dirty dishes yet remain in the sink, when blogging threatens to slide between you and the toddler asking you to color with her for the ninth time that day -- we are engaged in crisis. Often, if denied the slither's offer of indulgence, we may physically react, either through tension and lashing out or through escape and sybaritism.

Yet we fast to push our bodies just past the edge of comfort. We stand at attention to remind ourselves to remain diligent. We pray--in the light, yes, but also in the dark--to remind ourselves that light is now, but it's also not yet, that there is still dark to deal with. Things that slither do so in the dark, and the light on the other side of that likewise dark glass don't help much, it sometimes seems. But that light is what we've got for now, and ignoring the things that go slither in the night in order to gaze, flint-faced, at the light that illumines us with love for Other and others, is the order of the Day.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Athanasius and Wrath

In response to Rho's question in the comments in the post below, when he asked, "Where's the talk of a just God who is concerned that all sin be punished with justice, b/c sin is actually evil?"


One of the main differences between Orthodox and Reformed soteriology is a different idea of punishment. It would seem as though both Orthodox and Reformed churches suffer from unintended consequences "in the pews" (or "in the nave" in our case). While Orthodox homilies can, indeed, come away sounding like our Faith is allergic to anything even resembling divine wrath, Reformed churches often come across as making the Father's offended justice that of a violent, vindictive, bloodthirsty Tyrant.

We have to be careful with how words are translating in some biblical passages. 2 Thess. 1.8-9, for example, is often translated as "In a flame of fire, giving vengeance to them who know not God, and who obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Who shall suffer eternal punishment in destruction, from the face of the Lord..." In the Greek, (you can compare HERE), we see that the words commonly translated as "vengeance"--εκδικησιν--and "punishment"--δικην--are all related, not to penal retribution or satisfaction, but simple "righteousness" or "straightening" (δικαιοσύνη). Granted, this righteousness will be imposed on the unrighteous apart from their will, and it will be permanent (αἰώνιον), but when we say “destruction,” what will that be? What is ὄλεθρον, really? Is it done with a violent, offended connotation, the way we usually refer to “punishment”? Or is it “ruin,” as in the sense of something undergoing “de-(con)struction”? Young’s Literal Translation of v. 9 would seem to agree with the latter:
who shall suffer justice -- destruction age-during -- from the face of the Lord, and from the glory of his strength
Here we have men suffering, indeed, and eternally so, but why? Because the justice—the setting straight of what was crooked, in which what is crooked is forcibly deconstructed, or destructed—is imposed on the wicked, but not because of a god who decides he’s going to “make this hurt.” It hurts because we don’t want it, not because God wants to make us suffer.

And I would disagree strongly with your idea that sin isn’t “really… a big deal in EO thought.” I would invite you to read the two posts again, wherein I’d say it’s fairly clear that God lets not one crooked way go unstraightened, regardless of how a person wedded to his iniquity might feel about it on judgment day. Therefore, sin should hardly be seen as "barely worthy of irritation,"

As it so happens, we are studying St. Athanasius' On the Incarnation of the Word in Patristics--a reread for me, but a much needed one--and the beginning section seems to address quite well what we're discussing here, namely, the reaction of God to sin.

In Chapter 3, we see the consequences for sin. CCEL has a nice section headers above these chapters here; we see that God has made "Creation out of nothing," with "Man created above the rest, but incapable of independent perseverance. Hence the exceptional and supra-natural gift of being in God’s Image, with the promise of bliss conditionally upon his perseverance in grace."

(So, then, all of Creation's existence is grounded on nothing less than the pure will of God; if we separate ourselves from His life by our shortcoming, we begin the process of degenration--or "de(con)struction, or destruction--with the end result being less and less existence, to the point of eventual ruin, which is the concept I'm referring to as ὄλεθρον from 2 Thess 1.9).

Chapter 6: "The human race then was wasting, God’s image was being effaced, and His work ruined. Either, then, God must forego His spoken word by which man had incurred ruin; or that which had shared in the being of the Word must sink back again into destruction, in which case God’s design would be defeated. What then? was God’s goodness to suffer this? But if so, why had man been made? It could have been weakness, not goodness on God’s part."

(We thus see the first indication of something approaching God's honor being besmirched, though there is no indication here of God being "concerned" with His own reputation but rather with being faithful to His own purpose.)

Chapter 7: "On the other hand there was the consistency of God’s nature, not to be sacrificed for our profit. Were men, then, to be called upon to repent? But repentance cannot avert the execution of a law; still less can it remedy a fallen nature. We have incurred corruption and need to be restored to the Grace of God’s Image. None could renew but He Who had created. He alone could (1) recreate all, (2) suffer for all, (3) represent all to the Father."

(Indeed, God will not refrain forever from straightening the wicked (crooked) paths. The righting of all wrongs is more important, ultimately, than "happiness." The problem with Reformed views of things like this, however, is that the wrongs to be righted are not primarily ones of law, but of ontology and corruption, ending in death. We are presented to the Father as whole because for this were we created. A deathbound penitent will still die; we must not only be delivered from transgression of a law but of the mortal consequences thereof.)

Chapters 8-9: "The Word, then, visited that earth in which He was yet always present ; and saw all these evils. He takes a body of our Nature, and that of a spotless Virgin, in whose womb He makes it His own, wherein to reveal Himself, conquer death, and restore life."

The Word, since death alone could stay the plague, took a mortal body which, united with Him, should avail for all, and by partaking of His immortality stay the corruption of the Race. By being above all, He made His Flesh an offering for our souls; by being one with us all, he clothed us with immortality."

(Again, one can hardly call sin "not serious" when the Word calls such deeds evil and lead to dissolution and corruption in the grave.)

Ch 13: "Here again, was God to keep silence? to allow to false gods the worship He made us to render to Himself? A king whose subjects had revolted would, after sending letters and messages, go to them in person. How much more shall God restore in us the grace of His image. This men, themselves but copies, could not do. Hence the Word Himself must come (1) to recreate, (2) to destroy death in the Body."

(This is telling. What is God's concern? His reputation before mere created beings? On the contrary; He is concerned not with punishing us, but with restoring us. His wrath is not punitive, but corrective; He de-structs so that He can con-struct. Whether we like this or not when He imposes this upon us is another matter.)

Ch 25: "Why the Cross, of all deaths? (1) He had to bear the curse for us. (2) On it He held out His hands to unite all, Jews and Gentiles, in Himself. (3) He defeated the “Prince of the powers of the air” in His own region, clearing the way to heaven and opening for us the everlasting doors."

(This was a search and rescue, not a placating of a God who was determined to make punishment hurt because He was offended.)

In short, one can hardly say, if one pays attention to the hymns regarding God's wrath and to the explications of St. Athanasius, that God will allow for even one iota of shortfalling, of missing the mark of perfection to go without being fulfilled and brought to its plenitude of righteousness at the end of all things--and so our life is given to us through Christ in order that we might be made ready for that End and not hate the light of that day, preferring instead our own dark and crooked ways.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Our Wrathful God

I posted this as a comment at my friend Rho's blog (his post w/comments is HERE) and thought it worth posting here.

I used to overreact to the wrath talk of Calvinism by going to the opposite extreme of "God doesn't have wrath; it's just love experienced negatively" (River of Fire and all that mess). Unfortunately, I think that particular line has become something of an oversimplified approach to Orthodox soteriology--perhaps used by some a way to be different from "the West" as a way to stand out, though I know of some priests I greatly respect with whom I also differ on this point.

While Rho does well to point out where the Bible explicitly tells us that, yes, our heavenly Father does get angry with us, his children, the anger is not of the same type that continually gets trotted out by Calvinists, namely, that God is wrathful because of his offended honor or out of some desire to take vengeance on his besmirched Name. Rather, God is asking us, angrily, "What have you DONE to yourselves?! I will and must fix this, for I am good." He will fix us whether we want Him to or not, and the fixing, imposed on us by a righteous God, will be hell to those of us who don't want it, but there will be nothing we can do to stop it. The attitude of the Father, however, is one of a Father whose anger is provoked by seeing what's become of His child, not a selfish, "How could you DO this to me?! I'll teach YOU...!" type of anger.

I'd invite everyone to listen to these two talks, given by an extremely well-respected priest and former dean of my current place of studies, who I think does a masterful job of allowing the Bible to speak of the wrath it does indeed speak of, in the way of which it is meant to be spoken. They are the following:

The Wrath of God


The Wrath of God - Part 2

They show extremely well how Christ takes away the wrath spoken of in Scripture, not because He Himself "took the beating" that the vindictive, bloodthirsty "Father" needed to dish out, but because He is already fixed, and stands as the One who is fixed before the Father and can, thus, fix us so that we, too can stand before the Father.

Salvation from the wrathful righteousness of the Father, through the becoming sin for us of Him Who knew no sin. It is the gospel, Rho; you're right...but I do not think we mean what you want us to mean.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Time to Exit Eli's Road

There are many things that happen within communities that, unless one operates in certain circles or is within a certain subset of said community, one remains unaware of regarding specifics, though one may be quite aware of tension moving below the surface. My friend, Fr. Basil Biberdorf, an OCA priest who, after a recent transfer from Texas to Pennsylvania, has launched a website called The Orthodox Leader. His first post, "Time to Exit Eli's Road" is an inspiring call to accountability regarding clergy sexual misconduct. One can not say that the bruhaha within the Catholic Church has escaped one's notice, and neither can one--if one is Orthodox, or most likely even if one is not--feign surprise when instances of sexual misconduct surface in our Church. Still, it is disheartening to hear of such instances--even with no names mentioned--but it is yet encouraging to see brave members of the Body standing up to say "No More."

May God bless and preserve the brave priest Basil together with his family.