Sunday, May 31, 2009


Dear Friends of St. George Taybeh,
Greetings from the Holy Land!  
Just a little note to wish you a blessed and wonderful day and also to tell you, today, I had the great honor and pleasure to be at the 103rd Graduation of the Friends School in Ramallah where the Friends Girls School and the Friends Boys School were founded by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) over a hundred years ago and still continue to strive as leading schools for excellence in education.
Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, the founder and director of Sabeel, the ecumenical grassroots liberation theological institute in Jerusalem was the guest speaker for the graduating class of ninety-two students.  
All three of my children attended the Friends Schools but today I saw my nephew, Canaan Nadim Khoury, receive his high school diploma and will be part of the Harvard University class of 2013.  We suffer to make it from the village to the city to attend school because of the illegal settlements all around us but today was truly a rewarding day.  In spite of the insanity of the brutal occupation to have military checkpoints within Palestinian occupied areas, we are still trying to be normal people.

In Christ, maria

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Worship in the secular age

Fr. Paul Verghese

Let me open the subject by painting two pictures of worship services I have seen during this year in two different parts of the world, under totally different circumstances.

I shall begin with what happened just ten days ago in Olinda, in the Northeast province of Brazil in a Roman Catholic Church. Olinda is perhaps the oldest Catholic community in Latin America, and the Benedictine Abbey Church where I went for a Sunday evening mass bore eloquent testimony to a bygone era of baroque triumphalism. The statuary was musty and repellent to a sensitive eastern mind, while the tarnished bronze and gold altar bespoke of neglect and decadence as well as of a loud and ugly Spanish splendour that had faded away.

The service, however, was in stark contrast with the setting. The altar had been placed down in the nave, and a handsome young Benedictine monk in shirt sleeves was flittering to and fro in the chancel getting things ready for the mass as the worshippers waited on their benches, chattering informally, some young lovers holding their beloveds in their arms; lots of teenagers and young people happily gossipping away or chewing gum; a few older and more traditional looking Catholics with rosaries in their hands. The Catholic priest did the first part of the mass up to the Gospel and sermon in his shirt sleeves and preached a sermon on the Good Samaritan- a very good secular sermon, substituting the priest by a Catholic bishop, the Levite by a Protestant pastor, and the Good Samaritan by a city prostitute who took the victim of a car accident to the nearest hospital in a taxi. He made it clear that he was by no means suggesting that it was better to be a city prostitute than a Catholic bishop, but simply that in this particular instance the prostitute was more Christian than the bishop. After this the priest invited a German Lutheran girl of about 20 to talk to the Church about her experiences in Brazil. The girl was clad in dirty red pants and a red striped T-shirt which had obviously not been washed for many weeks. I had noticed this girl coming to Church with a lit cigarette in her mouth, which she had carefully put out before entering, depositing the butt in her purse for later use. She spoke about how the churches had failed to do anything about the real problems of humanity and were insincere and hypocritical. She suggested that the word God should not be used at all since it was much misunderstood. After she finished, the priest vested himself, said mass, and half of those present took communion, while a group of youngsters played some mellow rhythm music on the guitar. What was left in the chalice and paten was given to some teenagers to consume at the altar, and they did so with obvious relish, looking at each other and giggling. There was a song about peace and then the benediction.

The two American Episcopalian friends who were with me were thrilled to their bones, and regretted that their own church could not do anything of the kind. This was truly worship in a secular age, which spoke to the needs of people.

The second experience I want to talk about happened in the Pechora monastery in northwestern Russia last April, during Lent. This monastery is also a silent witness of a bygone age in the history of the Russian Church, an age when Church and State were even more closely linked than in Portuguese Brazil. The gold in the chapels was well maintained and far from tarnished or faded. The icons and frescoes still shone with an inner spiritual vitality which seemed to be quite independent of the iconographer's technique of mixing paints. The monks were old and infirm, not very au courant with the passing clouds of ideology or fashion in the outside world. They faithfully did their manual labour in the monastery gardens, said their offices in the chapels, reverently laid incense in their golden censers and visited the rows of underground tombs of Russia's heroes and saints- all exactly as it had gone on for three or nine centuries in the past. There were some Russian tourists present, and from their clothes and attitudes, one would think that they were completely secular, drawn to this inaccessible monastery only by a historical or archaeological interest. They did not quite know how to make the sign of the Cross, but that did not seem to prevent them from reverent participation in what to many secular people in the west must have appeared sheer superstition and meaningless ritualism.

I must now make a confession to you. I was carried away by the vespers at the Pechora monastery and I had a deep sense of communion with God, with the Saints and with the Russian orthodox people in that ritual, which had no apparent relevance to our secular age, or to the problems confronted by Soviet Russia today. I must also confess that I felt I was a mere spectator at the service in Brazil, with absolutely no sense of participation, though I tried to sing the Portuguese hymns and say the Lord's Prayer in the Mass. Perhaps that confession is enough for some of you to stop listening to me. If so, I shall not be offended. Perhaps my mind and spirit are sick, and I need to be healed and restored to a renewed technological-secular consciousness.

But let me just make a series of simple statements which reveal my own difficulties with this ideology the "Secular" which has marked the ecumenical scene during the past 20 years and is today being quietly superseded.

1. The expression "secular age" is literally a tautology, like saying a "bovine cow" or an "ecclesiastical church" -for seculum means age or time - world. "Secular age" thus means "temporal time". My Latin is not very good, but it would, translated into Latin, read something like Saeculum Saeculi, and if we parody the response to the Gloria Patri, would sound like a good response to Gloria tibi homine. I will accept the terminology of "Secular age" as a working idea, but not as a concept which can stand philosophical or linguistic justification.

2. That leads me to my second point namely that the Secular ethos of our world today is characterized by two mutually related factors -(a) the eclipse of God and (b) the autonomy of man.

It is important to note that it is the eclipse of God that makes possible the autonomy of man. The eclipse can be interpreted in at least three different ways.

One way has been to talk of the death of God, as an "event which took place in our life time" from which even humanity is to draw the conclusion that man is on his own, and that he must take the responsibility to shape and control reality. This way was first proposed in recent history by Frederich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre and a few so-called theologians .

A second way, which is still a life option for many theologians of the West, is the way proposed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Here the proclamation is that God wants man to live as if God did not exist -etsi Deus non darehor. The eclipse of God is thus something willed by God Himself in order to make humanity wake up from its passivity and inaction so that it can assume responsibility for the world and do what is needed. Here the demand is for a "church for others" in a "world come of age", practising a religionless Christianity, a secular gospel lived out in the secular world.

The third and more profound interpretation of the eclipse of God has come from the great Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber. Buber advances two reasons for the eclipse of God which I shall interpret in my own language. The first is an event in the consciousness of man- namely that he has now reached a stage beyond self-awareness. He is now conscious of his consciousness. He knows that he thinks, as for example, Descartes beginning his philosophy with the thought about the fact that he is thinking, and deriving the certainty of his existence from that fact. Now this consciousness of consciousness or thought bending back on itself rises up as a cloud between us and the other about whom I am conscious. In prayer, for example, the consciousness of the fact that I am praying, rises up as a cloud between me and God, and my awareness of myself in prayer shuts out the presence of God and thus makes prayer impossible. The eclipse of God is thus experienced most deeply in the inability to pray. Prayer does not get through. Like modern thought it turns upon itself and feeds upon itself.

A second reason for the eclipse of God, in this way of thinking, is that technology has developed an objectifying tendency on the part of man towards all reality, or in Buber's language, the tendency to turn every "Thou" into an "it". What was only personally addressed before has now become an object to manipulate and exploit, as we do with nature today. If God could have been caught in the web of our science, our technology would be there to objectify Him also and enslave Him in order to exploit Him for our own purposes. When God refuses to be caught by our objectifying consciousness, we deny His existence. It is thus the objectifying consciousness which is so central to science and technology that induced the eclipse of God.

3. This leads me to my third point. If the Secular age is one characterized by the eclipse of God, and if it is the eclipse of God that is behind the assertion of the autonomy of man, then the most characteristic feature of the Secular age is the eclipse of God, and we have to evaluate this phenomenon as objectively as we can. I believe that the idea of the death of God is valid and an explanation for the eclipse of God only in the sense that what has died is not God, but only our idea of God. This idea of God, on deeper analysis, turns out to be an idol that has been created by theologians, especially in the West. In that sense the death of this idol is a matter for rejoicing, especially for Christians whose relation to God is not through ideas, but rather through the act of worship and prayer in which God remains a subject and not an object, one who can be addressed, loved and adored, but who cannot be described or conceptualised or comprehended

While I have some sympathy thus with the idea of the death of God, interpreted in this special sense of the death of an idea or of an idol, I have no such sympathy for the second or Bonhoefferian type of interpretation of the eclipse of God. Let me briefly indicate my main difficulty with Bonhoeffer's central demand that God wants us to live ''as if God did not exist". Bonhoeffer fully affirms the reality of God, but wants us to cease being passive and to assume full responsibility for the world, ''as if God did not exist" -etsi Deus non darehor. I can understand the circumstances in which he developed this strange idea in the context of a demonic Third Reich in Nazi Germany. The pietistic majority in the Lutheran Church was too prone to take a literalistic view of the Lutheran idea of two kingdoms and to maintain faith or religion as a purely internal matter in one's consciousness, whereas in all "secular" matters one was simply to give un-questioning obedience to the regime in power, which had, after all, according to St. Paul in Romans 13, been "ordained by God". Neither was it enough, according to Bonhoeffer, simply to maintain the purity of one's faith by confessing only the Lordship of Jesus Christ as Earth had done in re-fusing to confess Hitler as Lord. It was necessary to accept responsibility for changing the situation and not merely to keep your religion in your heart or to profess it by word of mouth. When Bonhoeffer spoke about religionless Christianity in a secular age, he was rejecting the religion of the Pietists and the Barthians, and was asking for a faith that resulted not in piety or in words, but in action.

Where Bonhoeffer went wrong, it seems to me, was in suggesting that God wants us to live as if God did not exist. For if we are to live as if God did not exist, clearly we cannot pray or worship, since so to do would be to live as if God did exist. Bonhoeffer of course said some things about the diplina arcani or the hidden life of prayer, but he was basically mistaken about the place of prayer and worship in the life of the Christian. The Orthodox believe that personal prayer and community worship, rather than theology or proclamation, are the true modes of not only affirming the being of God, but also of confessing and acknowledging the fact that we are not our own, that we are not autonomous, that we have our being from God can only be addressed in prayer and worship.

To live as if God did not exist would therefore be to live without prayer and worship, and to live that way is truly to perish in the lack of the knowledge of God. It is for this reason that the outdated monks of Pechora monastery were more directly relevant to our own existence than the apparently relevant worship of the Abbey Church in Olinda.

4. Here we come to the fourth point. The "Secular Age" is a natural consequence of a God-objectifying theology, and the right way to prevent this happening to our own Orthodox Churches is to renew worship in such a way that it becomes the authentic means of addressing the transcendent God through the incarnate Christ in the Holy Spirit, and of experiencing our union with the transcendent God. Theology has to remain a handmaid of worship, love and service, but not the object or even the mode of expression of faith. The Spirit of Scholasticism with its tendency to objectify God and to analyse Him had already involved and pervaded our own Orthodox Churches quite some few centuries ago, partly due to our struggle with the Latins and with the Protestants. We need today to pull back from this scholastic tendency in our theology to make theology ancillary to worship and mission, rather than the central pre-occupation of the Church. This is particularly urgent because the very ecumenical movement may expose us to the temptation of expressing the difference between us, the Eastern tradition and those of the Western tradition in purely dogmatic or theological terms. We may be tempted to defend dogma, just because it is being attacked by Western theologians ever since Harnack, despite Barth's attempts to reinstate dogma.

5. Fifthly, I would like to say that we of the Eastern tradition have to learn something from this phenomenon of a secular faith and a secular theology. Our tradition is just as much in danger as was Western theology some centuries ago, of carving out a certain realm of life as the proper field of "religion" and regarding the rest as "secular", of no concern to the Church. This danger calls for three definite reforms in our own Church tradition.

First, our prayer and worship have to become more deeply saturated with a genuine and authentic concern for the life of humanity, especially of the poor and the oppressed. This does not mean developing new and "relevant" forms of experimental worship; but it does mean a thorough revision of all our litanies and intercessory prayers used in the Eucharistic liturgy and in daily offices, as well as in personal or family prayer. The litanies and intercessory prayers that we now use are sadly dated in the past, and we need to create new prayers related to the current situation of our Churches and of the people around us. This calls for a certain boldness in liturgical innovation, which is sure to be strongly resisted and opposed by our own people, but unless this is done we would not truly be fulfilling the role of the Christian Church as the Body of Him who is the Priest of Creation, even Jesus Christ the perpetual Intercessor for the world.

Secondly, the same concern for suffering humanity- and that includes the desperate poor and the lonely rich, the struggling revolutionaries and the callous upper classes - should be expressed also in our preaching, which should always strive to relate the lessons from the Scriptures to the lives of the people around us. A new programme of intensive training of the priests for the understanding of the Bible and for its authentic interpretation has to be envisaged by the Eastern Churches. We are still deplorably weak at this point, and there should be an attempt in which all the seminaries and theological faculties of the Orthodox world can cooperate to make Biblical preaching once again relevant as it was in the days of St. John Chrysostom and the Cappadocian Fathers.

Third, the Orthodox Churches have also been hit by the malaise that has befallen almost all Christian Churches - what I call our middle-class isolation for the masses of people. The people who are most active in the local Church, priest and laity -are usually out of touch with the people of lower socio-economic levels. This phenomenon fundamentally distorts the true character of the Church where the rich and the poor, the Greek and the Russian, the Syrian and the American all belong to the same and only Body of Christ. A special effort has to be made, to interpret the poor and the dispossessed first in the Eucharistic assembly inside the Church building, and also in a life of genuine compassion and sharing in the daily life of the Christian community as a whole. If any one member of the Church suffers, the whole body suffers. This reality must be manifested in the life of the Church which must become a genuine commune, with authentic mutual aid and support. Here is an area where the young are in a better position to pioneer in bringing the healing and comforting presence of the Church to the aid of the poor, the depressed, the oppressed, the lonely, the sick, the bereaved, etc. Women too, it seems to me, have a special role in this ministry of diakonia, without which intercessory prayer in a secular age becomes meaningless and hypocritical.

6. Sixth, it is a matter of rejoicing that the reaction against traditional forms of worship are not half as acute or wide-spread in the Eastern Church as it is in the Western Churches. We can take comfort in the fact that Eastern worship, which follows the authentic tradition of the Church, is a time-tested and basically healthy form. We do not need the gimmicks of experimental worship to pander to the sensation-seeking and the bored. But the fact that we need much less liturgical reform than the West should not lead us to the conclusion that we need none at all.

I want to mention here a few reforms which seem to be totally and urgently necessary.

a. Regular Communion

I would place as the first reform necessary the restoration of regular communion by all members of the Church except those that have been ex-communicated. I do not doubt that participation in the Divine Liturgy without participation in the Eucharistic Communion has its own value for the Christian, and does help him to be open to God through the Scriptures and through the prayers and the drama of the liturgy. This is why the Tradition insists that even ex-communicated Christians should attend the liturgy without taking communion. But is it not ironic that the majority of Christians should act like ex-communicated Christians every Sunday? What good reasons are there for our believing people not being encouraged to enter into full bodily, sacramental communion with our Lord Jesus Christ and with the saints and the deported and with each other every Sunday? Is that not our true reality? Is that not the reality we have to live in the Resurrection and therefore today? I hope again that the youth of the Orthodox Churches would show the way for the rest of the Church. We need of course to help our bishops and priests see the need for such regular communion. Perhaps it may be possible to start with regular group communion of some young people once every month with the preparation and then move on to regularly weekly communion. Just as Protestant youth is clamouring for indiscriminate inter-communion, which I think is justified among Protestants, our Orthodox youth must show the way forward by practising regularly communion with adequate preparation.

b. Re-examination of Confession

Many of the Orthodox Churches seem to insist on auricular Confession and Absolution before Communion. We need to have a historical-theological study of the origins of this practice. Clearly this was not the case in the early centuries when everyone took communion every Sunday. The general confession and general absolution were regarded as adequate in those days. Special auricular confession was used very rarely, and then only in the case of graver sins like apostasy, murder and adultery. My own limited knowledge of the tradition has convinced me that the practice of regular auricular confession came into the Orthodox Churches only around the 12th century or later as a result of Latin influence. But I am not arguing for the abolition of auricular confession. I am convinced that this is a pastoral necessity for believers living in a sinful world to have the possibility of a periodic personal confession to a priest of the Church and receiving personal absolution. But this should not be made obligatory every time before receiving communion. What is even more important is to give proper training to our priests to hear confession in a way that is genuinely helpful to the believer. Today quite often confession is perfunctory and therefore a parody of true confession. Spiritual counselling is related to personal confession, but such counselling can be done independently of auricular confession and absolution and can be done in the home or in the study by a competent priest, or even by unordained but spiritually mature and psychologically trained laymen. This whole matter of spiritual counselling and auricular confession should be thoroughly studied by the Orthodox Churches together and new patterns evolved to make them really serve the purpose of spiritual growth for all believers. This is vital to the renewal of worship and renewal of the life of the Church.

c. Congregational Participation

I am a great believer in the magnificent contribution that well-trained choirs can make to the spiritual beauty and orderliness of Eastern worship. But I do not think that the choir has any right to usurp completely the role of the congregation in responding to the prayers of the priest and the deacon in the liturgy. The Lord's Prayer, the Creed, the hymns and the responses should be said by the whole congregation and the role of the choir must be to lead the congregation in these responses, prayers and hymns, and not to replace them. The congregation is the worshipping community and they should not be reduced to the level of mere spectators. I feel that this needs proper examination and the formulation of necessary reforms by the authorities of the Church.

d. The Language of Worship

I do believe that the normal language of the people should be the language used in worship. I think this has always been the practice of the Eastern Churches. Problems are raised for immigrant communities where the older generation places more emphasis on ethnic identity, while the younger members ask for the possibility of more understanding participation. I think the principle of using the normal language of the people should be strongly emphasized, and I doubt the validity of the ethnic identity in the Christian Church. I would however be in favour of retaining certain expressions in the traditional liturgical language of the particular Church, because our ordinary language is inadequate to express our deeper emotions, and certain old expressions for praising God like Halleluyah, Amen, Kyrie Eleison and even the Gloria and its response can still be used in an ancient language to bring more emotional depth into our prayers. But the basic principle should be the use of the ordinary language, without total elimination of some of the expressions in the ancient liturgical language. There are moments in the worship of God when intelligibility has to give place to a kind of speaking in tongues - in ardent exaltation in an unusual language which speaks to more than the mind.

e. Preparation of the Congregation for Worship

Our most significant form of religious education may be in enabling believers to understand the true meaning of worship, especially of the Eucharist and the other sacramental mysteries of the Church. The structure, the symbolism and the theology of eucharistic worship have to be taught again and again to our people, and we have to train them to participate much more consciously and actively in the worship of the Church. Our people have to be taught why they worship and that worship is an act of the whole Church and not just the priest and the choir. They should not be tempted to evaluate the worship of the Church by the measure of what they get out of it. They have to be trained to see that worship is the great saving act which results from the Incarnation, and therefore to engage in it with joy and readiness, not looking for selfish personal benefits or private edification. A more intelligent rationale for worship and a more profound theology of worship have to be taught to our people, than what they now have. Here is also the place to teach them the relation between worship and daily life.

f. Architecture and Symbolic Art in the Church

Our Churches are beginning to be led astray by certain contemporary trends in Church art and architecture, where modernity becomes a higher priority than symbolic meaning, and functional utility more than the spiritual atmosphere. The church building is the presence of heaven on earth, an earthly experience in time of the kingdom that transcends time and space. The space inside the Church should therefore be so organised as to transcend ordinary space. The art and the symbolism must certainly point beyond the ordinary concerns of functional utility. The altar must remain a place of mystery into which priests and deacons enter only with fear and trembling and not in the casual manner in which many priests and laymen enter it today. If we become too casual in the Church, we will soon lose all our sense of the transcendent and be reduced to the secular. This applies to the vestments, the iconostasis, and paintings inside the Church, all of which must be conducive to experiencing the sense of the transcendent.


The Secular Age, however tautological an expression that might be, is a reality--a dangerous reality. The eclipse of God is about the worst thing that can happen to man. It is only by the grace of God that there happen to be some redeeming features in the fact of this secular age. Orthodox Churches have to become aware of both the peril and the opportunity in the crisis. Both the dangerous and the positive aspects call for two related reactions on the part of the Orthodox Church.

The danger lies in the fact that the secular world is a world separated from God. All that is separated from God must perish, for there is no being that can have any being apart or separated from Him who is the source and ground of all being. The world is in peril of being destroyed, for the wrath of God destroys everything that is evil. This means that we in the Orthodox Churches have a special role to play. It is perhaps a role for a creative minority in the Orthodox Church. We are to become like Abraham praying for Sodom and Gomorrah: "Lord if there be 50, nay 10, nay 5 righteous men in these cities, destroy them not, O Lord". The role of the Church, the Body of Him who is the Priest of Creation is to continue incessantly in prayer for our world. Thus alone the Church becomes the saving link between God and the world, even when the world does not recognize God. It is not theology that links God and the world, but the life of the Church united in prayer with the Great Intercessor, who became part of our world in order to link it to God.

The task of vicarious worship and priestly intercession is being increasingly neglected by our secularised western Christian brethren. As in Pechora, there are Catholic monks in Carthusian and Trappist monasteries who continue to engage in this ministry of intercession. But in general, Catholic monasticism is in danger of becoming a secular activistic group, while our own monks are not adequately sensitive to the needs and problems of the world of today. The one thing which can revitalize our worship is to have a new kind of monastic movement, fully at home in the modern world and in the world of the great mystery of worship and prayer. I do not think the way to renewal of worship in our Churches is either through a new theology or more active participation in social and political questions, but by developing a genuine, God-centred, loving, vicarious interiority of the Spirit through the disciplined community of worship, work, study and service. Such monastic communities must spring out of the new situations in the secular world -- whether in America, Greece, Russia, the Middle East or India. Now I personally wish I could leave aside my globe-trotting and my administrative and other activism, and become a part of such a genuinely eucharistic praying, loving community!

The positive aspect of the secular crisis is that the Orthodox are called upon to re-interpret, re-appropriate and re-live their own Christian heritage in the context of a world that poses new questions to us in the new social setting in which God has placed us. We must not be bullied to inertia by the admiration and praise that we hear from the non-Orthodox or even from the Orthodox about the superiority of our worship forms.

We must also listen to the criticisms leveled against us by our fellow-Christians of the West. These are mainly three:

I. First about our ethnic insularity. The Church cannot belong to anyone nation, whether that nation be Hebrew or Greek, Slavic or Indian. The Church is a Sacrament of the unity of all mankind, of all nations, and peoples, and unless we break open the ethnic barriers, our worship will remain inadequate as a witness to the Kingdom of God in time and space. Here I expect our youth to show us the way in overcoming our petty parochialism, so that a genuinely multi-ethnic Church becomes formed, especially in America and the Middle East, but also in Greece and Russia.

II. The second criticism was recently phrased by a sympathetic Protestant friend who said: "The Orthodox are in communion with each other, but how they hate each other, after having given the embrace of love and taken communion together!" This is a terrible insult to our worship, and unless we do something to overcome this mutual hatred between our Churches, our worship in a secular age would become a parody of true Christian worship. Here again Orthodox youth must break through and show us the way. How my heart grieves to see the great Orthodox Church divided by human pettiness, personality cult and power-seeking!

III. The third criticism is about our insensitivity and lack of concern about the problems of the world in which we live. We may be justified in accusing our western brethren of activism and lack of interiority. But are we not in danger today of having neither time nor interiority nor any love for mankind? The Antonine monks of the ancient Egyptian desert were men who burned with genuine love for mankind and linked that love to the love of God in true prayer. We should stop boasting about the quality of our worship and realize with horror that often what draws us to our Churches is sheer ethnic pride without the love of God or the love of man. The great vocation of the Orthodox Church today is to demonstrate a new way of authentically relating the two poles of the Christian life, the love of God and the love of man. We are not equipped to do that now. We have to learn prayer again. We have to be released from our personal, group, and ethnic egoism through a deeper experience of the love of God in faith and worship. And we must develop a new awareness of and sensitivity to the fears and aspirations of mankind, identifying ourselves with the victims of misery and oppression of injustice and inhumanity. This love of God and this love for the whole of mankind must be intensely relived, in order that the Church may be purged of the heresy of divisive struggles for power and be purified to fulfill its ministry of being the Priest of Creation and its Good Shepherd who cares for it, nourishes it, and dies for it.


Thursday, May 28, 2009

To serve not be served

by Paulos Mar Gregorios

"Then the mother of the Sons of Zebedee approached him along with her two sons, doing reverence to him and asking something from him.
Jesus asked her: "What do you want? " She says to him: "Please say that these two sons of mine will be seated one on your right hand and the other on your left hand, in your kingdom."
Jesus responding said to them: "You do not realize what you are asking for. Are you capable of drinking the cup which I am about to drink?" They answer: "We are able."
Jesus says to them: "Of course you will drink my cup; but to be seated at my right and my left — that is not for me to grant; it is reserved for those for whom my Father has prepared those places."
The ten other apostles were quite annoyed with the two brothers. So Jesus called all of them to him and said: "You know that the rulers of the nations like to lord it over the people and their leaders like to show off their power over other people. It should not be so with your people. But whoever wants to be great amongst you, let that person be a servant of the others. And if one wants to be the chief, let that person be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but on the contrary to serve and to give his life as the price of redemption for many others."
Matt. 20:20-28 (free but faithful translation)

The context of the sons of Zebedee episode is in Matthew 20:17-19, and the parable which precedes is of the house-holder who paid the same wages to those who worked all day from sunrise to sunset, to others who came to work at 9.00 a.m., to yet others who were hired at noon, to some who started at 3 p.m. and even to those who worked only for one hour from 5 p.m. (Matt. 20:1-16). It ends with the curiously unjust principle that God can do with God's kingdom what God likes. The implication is that God's justice does not follow the principles we usually attribute to our concept of justice.

The parable of the kingdom ends with two statements difficult to exegete:
Friend, I am not unjust to you. Our contract was for one denarius. Take what is yours by contract and go. But it is my will that I will give to these last ones the same one denarius I give you. Am I not free to give what I want to give out of my own? Are you jealous about my being good to these people? Thus the last will be first and the first will be last (20:13b-16).

It is important to remember this. God's justice follows principles quite different from ours.

It is also important that after having narrated this parable, so offensive to our sense of justice, Jesus was about to "go up" to Jerusalem for the great act of diakonia — that of laying down his life for others. Jesus calls the Twelve aside by themselves and discloses to them:
Look, we are going up to Jerusalem. There the Son of Man will he betrayed and handed over to the high priests and law professors; they will condemn him to death, and will again betray and hand him over lo the gentiles, to be mocked, to be whipped and finally to be crucified; on the third day he will be resurrected (Matt. 20:18-19),
Then comes the mother of John and James to plead for special privileges of power, authority and glory for her two sons. She has accepted the requirement that the way to the kingdom was through the cross, at least for the Son of Man, the Messiah. She believed that the Lord Jesus would rise from the dead to rule over Israel. She and her sons were prepared to pay the price, that of drinking the Messiah's cup of suffering with him. She and they accept the Messiah as the crucified and risen Lord. And one of them, John, is the beloved disciple, a special favorite of our Lord's. But she was being fair to her two sons, that both of them should have positions of special privilege, honor and power. She does not want to show any favoritism to one of her sons, as Jesus did. In fact Jesus did something quite special for that one son, the "disciple whom he loved"; Jesus at the cross practically took him away from his own mother and handed him over to Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary in turn to John (John 19:25-27). John took Mary to his own house (19:27), where she must have lived with John's mother.

It was for this special son and his brother that their mother asked for special privileges. More or less legitimate, isn't it? At least fairly reasonable. Now, the reaction of the ten other apostles also seems eminently reasonable: "We all know that this young man, John, is a special favorite of the Master. We wouldn't quite be up to questioning the Master about it. Maybe he wants to groom John to be his successor! Who knows? Anyway they had no business
dragging their mother into it; and asking for two special positions — that is too much. What do those guys think the rest of us are — mere suckers? We too have worked hard, faced much, suffered opposition, left our family mid friends to follow the Master, haven't we?"

So went the discussion among the Ten.

It is in this ambience of power-seeking, ambition and jealousy in which all the Twelve are caught up that Jesus drops the bomb: "The Son of Man came to serve, not to be served."

We need to look at the leadership of the churches and the ecumenical movement to see whether we are really much better than the apostles. "We are all Christians (we say), committed and all that. We could all have made better careers if we had gone into secular jobs and vocations. We have made considerable sacrifice to come and serve the church or the ecumenical movement. We are not struggling for power, mind you. All we are asking for is a little recognition."

Nothing has been so divisive of the churches as the ambitions, the jealousies, the power struggles among Christian workers and leaders. Quite unconsciously we fall a prey to that perennial temptation of humanity in the world, the desire for power and position, for worldly glory and honor. And so long as that is our basic orientation, the church cannot be united. There can be neither true unity nor genuine community so long as each thinks of his or her own power and position. Humble diakonia is in fact a central principle of the unity of the church.

Matthew 27:55 tells us that the mother of the sons of Zebedee was one of the people who used their own money to serve Jesus. See Luke 8:1-3, where we are told that these women were serving Jesus as well as the needy out of their own wealth.

The mother of Zebedee was thus already engaged in diakonia when she asked Jesus for the special favor of positions of power and glory. Is that temptation still not with us — that in our very serving we seek power and position?

The missionaries of a previous generation were in that situation. They served the people of the mission field sincerely, and in so far as they did that they had a social position, power and prestige which they would not have when they went back to their own people.

The new missionaries of the interchurch aid empire are in a worse situation. Some of them are stationed among the people whom they serve, but most are only periodic visitors. And they are welcomed so warmly and specially by the people who locally handle their hand-cuts. In return for their diakonia they get to sit on the right hand and on the left hand of the powers that be. And if they are not properly received and feted by project-holders, the projects may suffer. There is something radically wrong with that sort of diakonia.

Let me enumerate four necessary conditions of authentic diakonia. Later I hope to show how Jesus Christ is the true deacon, the server, the Son of Man who came to serve and not to be served. I hope the word study will make it clear that the model for Jesus' messianic ministry itself was the four oracles in Second Isaiah about the Suffering Servant, the 'ebed-Yahweh. The four necessary conditions of an authentic Christian diakonia are the following:

a) the willingness to suffer with those whom one serves and to give of oneself;

b) humility as opposed to superiority about oneself, and respect as opposed to condescension towards those to be served;

c) not using diakonia as an occasion for domination, privilege and rank;

d) willingness to identify with the served to the point of laying down one's life for their sake.

a) Authentic diakonia should involve more than the giving of money or goods or services, more than the "sharing" of resources and personnel. It demands taking upon oneself the suffering of others. It demands laying aside the sense of self-sufficiency of the server, in order to feel and take on the sense of helplessness and need experienced by the served. The foreign missionaries of an earlier generation were better placed in this regard than the new interchurch aid and donor agency missionaries. The latter do not live among the people they serve, and only from a distance feel the pinch of the need of the poor. Their representatives in the field — those who handle "projects" and "programs" — are usually much better paid than routine church workers, serve out of their abundance and live lives far removed from that of the poor whom they are to serve.

We need a diaconic structure based in the people of the local church, rather than in the donor agencies or the project-holder networks they have created in their "field". Only then will the church in the locality be able to exercise its diakonia function, hugely financed from the resources of the local church people, mill largely involving the local Christians themselves suffering with and serving the poor.

The present money-and-project based interchurch aid should thus become more marginal, in order to permit the local church lo exercise its diakonia of suffering with people and giving of oneself.

b) Attitudes are all-important in authentic diakonia. The server must respect the served. If diakonia comes out of attitudes of superiority it generates the most unpleasant and unhealthy reactions from the served. If service makes them feel inferior and dependent, such service cannot be regarded as Christian, for instead of mediating the healing love of Christ, it simply generates resentment and negative feelings of wounded pride. Christian service has no right to anticipate feelings of gratitude or ties of obligation and dependence. The present attitudes create resentment in other cultures, for they force them to sell their dignity for the sake of paltry sums of money that people desperately grab.

c) Diakonia is today often used as a means of domination by creating relations of dependence. Interchurch aid does not quite do what international aid does — namely use aid to capture markets and to exploit people in such a way that many times more than the aid flows back to the aid-giving economy through unjust trade relations. But interchurch aid is used in much the same way as international aid to create "spheres of influence" mid areas of economic, political and cultural domination and dependence. This is particularly true of bilateral interchurch aid, but ecumenical aid is not much different, in so far as it represents aid from a sector of the Western Consortium which dominates and exploits two-third world economies.

d) Willingness to lay down one's life for the sake of those served seems to be an acid test of authentic Christian diakonia. Al present this seems an extremely remote possibility in the context of international interchurch diakonia. It makes much more sense in the context of the service of a local church to the people around or the people of that nation. Diakonia involves (he element of confronting the oppressors of the people whom one wants to serve. This can hardly be done by international interchurch aid, but can be done more effectively by the churches in a locality mutually supporting and reinforcing each other in the struggle against injustice. At this point outside aid can at times be very counter-productive.

If Christ our Lord is the model for authentic diakonia, as we shall see later, then a diakonia which involves no cost to oneself, beyond "sharing money or personnel", can hardly be authentic.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Christ and whose culture?

SEVERAL HUNDRED PEOPLE stand on the grass waiting to enter the auditorium for the opening service of a Christian conference. People are holding bold, pre-printed signs (Teach for America, Evangelicals for Social Action, New York Theological Seminary) for the processional.

Meanwhile Richard Twiss has found a piece of scrap paper, because he doesn’t have a sign. He writes something with a ballpoint pen, then shows it to the four friends he’s standing with who are, like him, Native American evangelical theologians involved in ministry.

The others smile. The sign says: “Fighting Terrorism since 1492.”

It’s a cry for justice. It’s a serious reaction to the pain their communities continue to feel. It’s a reaction to all the other streams of “justice work” around them. It’s subversively funny. And it’s ballpoint pen on scrap paper, so it seems characteristic in another way: As they process in behind the sign over Twiss’ head, nobody in the auditorium can read what it says.

“It’s a problem of being heard,” says Randy Woodley, one of the theologians. “I feel like 500 years ago, maybe God did bring the white [people] over. But it was supposed to be something mutual, where we learned from each other. Instead the white [people] conquered, helped out by their understanding of Christianity. Five hundred years later, we ask ourselves, now are people ready to listen?”


Richard Twiss, 54, is tall, with olive skin, long black hair, and a curved bone necklace. His friends jokingly call him “Hollywood” because “he looks how the movies think we should look.”

He’s a member of the Rosebud Lakota Sioux tribe and lives in Vancouver, Washington. He wrote One Church, Many Tribes and founded the ministry Wiconi International. Recently he was finishing his doctor of missiology dissertation, hosting guests from Pakistan at his home, and leaving the next day to lead the Wiconi Family Camp and Powwow for 250 people, which includes Native Christian worship and traditional dance and song. His sense of humor is evident from our first meeting when he introduces himself: “My [Native] name is Humping Dog.”

It’s actually Taoyate Obnajin, “He Stands With His People.” But since his mystical encounter with Jesus and conversion in his early 20s, Twiss has not always found it easy to stand with his people. When he first started following Jesus, he felt forced to choose between being a Christian (“cut my hair and reject my Native American culture and spirituality to join the white evangelical church”) or a Native American.

But now he is part of a group of Native American evangelical theologians who reject this either/or as a false choice. In 2000, he and seven colleagues formed the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (NAIITS) to nurture theology and ministry that is “clearly evangelical yet fully contextual in its approach.”

An opportunity opened with Asbury Theological Seminary’s invitation for four NAIITS members to enroll in its Ph.D. program with full scholarships. That led to 10 more doctoral students and eight master’s students in different theology programs. In eight years NAIITS’ informal membership has grown to dozens of individuals and about a dozen institutions, including seminaries across the continent from different denominations and theological perspectives. They now publish an academic journal, organize symposiums, mentor graduate students, and train Native Christian leaders.

Randy Woodley (Keetoowah Cherokee Indian legal descendent), another NAIITS founder, is finishing his Ph.D. at Asbury Seminary and teaching at George Fox Seminary in Oregon. He traces the roots of this movement to the 1980s, when a few evangelicals started integrating more of their culture into their practical and church ministries—burning cedar during worship services, starting a sweat lodge, using eagle feathers in prayer, and supporting sobriety powwows. (Native American Catholic and mainline Protestants have a longer history of theological and liturgical work to maintain the integrity of their indigenous beliefs and practices alongside their Christian ones. Such efforts have multiplied since the 1960s.)

Twiss and his colleagues are nourishing this movement with academic work that is also personal: How does one follow Jesus in the context of one’s culture—religious, ceremonial, and ritualistic? And how do people do this in a way that represents a biblically informed faith?

“My doctoral research is around the U.S. and Canada,” says Twiss, “looking for men and women who are [answering these questions]. And to tell that story as an encouragement to future generations of Native Christ followers: You don’t have to give up your ways to follow Jesus.”

At the same time, NAIITS doesn’t want its work to be solely about Native Americans.

“We don’t want to create a new college or seminary, which can lead to intellectual ghettoization,” says Terry LeBlanc (Mi’Kmaq/Acadian), national ministries director of My People International and chair of NAIITS. “Our students need to participate with the broader body of Christ. We have contributions to make to that body.”

Historically, Christianity was often forced on Native Americans. Those who converted were not invited either to develop their own Christian theology or to join the wider church’s theological conversation. In the face of so much negative history, these theologians are dedicated to their cultural heritage, devoted to their faith, and committed to contributing to the wider North American church. It’s a movement of grace—humbling to those in the dominant culture open to its implications.

Confession of a New American Dream

Native American “theologies” is more accurate than “theology,” because of course there is not a singular viewpoint. (Some Native Christians criticize Twiss and his colleagues as syncretistic.) These theologies tend to center around common themes of community-based spirituality instead of individualism; holistic approaches to life and nature instead of a dualistic separation of spirit from body; and the practice of faith in response to the gospel rather than emphasizing only right belief.

At Twiss’ Living Waters Family Camp and Powwow, Native dances are understood as cultural expressions of biblical prayers. The traditional burning of sweet grass, cedar, or sage is integrated into worship. In a traditional water ceremony, people pass a copper bucket of water and each takes out a cupful—symbolizing gratefulness to the Creator for all life’s provisions. They’re living out of their faith in Jesus, trying to integrate uncompromised faith with who God created their people to be.

That part is for their community. But they’re also concerned about the broader church and society.

At one session during the conference, I was in the balcony with Twiss. The presentations included occasional comments about historical abuse of land rights. Each time Twiss offered a loud “Amen!” Frankly, each “Amen” was a little uncomfortable for me as a middle-class white guy. There’s a sense of complicity in this history of brutal exploitation and broken covenants that many of us in the dominant culture inherit and benefit from, but didn’t choose.

The version of our country’s history many of us learned growing up wasn’t honest; it glossed over chapters that include much to be ashamed of in terms of how Europeans treated indigenous people. Effects of those sins ripple through to the present, as attested by social, economic, and health statistics in the Native population. Solutions aren’t simple and the truth doesn’t always set us free, but the truth is always a good step.

“We should always be asking not just how are we oppressed, but also how are we set to be complicit in other people’s oppression?” says Andrea Smith (Cherokee), assistant professor of American culture and women’s studies at the University of Michigan and a Southern Baptist involved in women’s rights and anti-violence movements. “Therefore it no longer becomes a shaming act to say, ‘Hey, we’re not perfect, and we don’t have our act together all the time.’ Instead we can be leaders in saying, ‘We’re not perfect and neither are you, but here’s what we’re trying to do to work on things.’”

NAIITS seeks to ensure that 50 percent of presenters at its symposiums are non-Native Americans and that they include a mix of theoreticians and ministry practitioners. The symposiums are held around the continent. (In Canada, it should be noted, the term “First Nations” is used when referring to indigenous peoples; many in the U.S. also now prefer this to “Native American.”) NAIITS is also involved with aboriginal movements around the world.

The organization offers opportunities for people in the dominant culture to move beyond defensiveness or ignoring the problems to a readiness to learn together, even if 500 years late.

“It wasn’t until a few years ago that I met Native brothers and sisters and began listening to their theology,” says author and activist Brian McLaren. “But I’ve come to see American history in a very different light, along with my duties as an American citizen and as a Christian. Obviously, I’ve come to care about justice for Native peoples more than ever, but I’ve also seen the Bible more for what it is—writings from a tribal people who suffered oppression by their aggressive neighbors and who found in God one who loves each small tribe as much as each powerful nation.”

Hope and Dancing

Ray Aldred (Cree Nation), another founder of NAIITS, co-chairs the Aboriginal Task Force of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and is working on a Ph.D. at the London School of Theology. He confesses that, when he’s most discouraged, he thinks, “For hundreds of years now there’s been all kinds of abuse, yet somehow this [Native Christian] theology did develop. Our hope really rests on the Creator. The Creator put us here. Now I don’t know if we [as Native peoples] will always be here. Sometimes when I have really low expectations, I think maybe we’re a dying people, but we could die well.” Aldred concludes, “And you can still be hopeful because of Christ, because we’re on our way to the resurrection.”

Woodley finds hope in the progress that can be made person by person: “What if just this one person gets it [the history, the pain, the desire for new ways forward together]? Who knows what influence that person will have? But even if they get it just between themselves and one other Native person, life is a lot better now for two people.”

“I think it will probably be my children’s children who will get to realize some of our dreams,” says Twiss.

“I’m not depressed at all,” says Smith, “because I think we’re just getting started. There’s so much we haven’t done yet.”

THE CONFERENCE that began with a processional and Twiss scrap-paper sign closed with an evening worship service. Many people and cultures were integrated. Early in the service, Twiss, Woodley, Aldred, LeBlanc, and Roger Boyer II (Mississauga First Nation) sat around a drum in the front of the chapel—a towering, European-style cathedral of stone and stained glass—and sang a “grass dance” song.

Woodley introduced the song as one that traditionally would be accompanied by young men dancing to trample down the high prairie grass to make a place for the community to camp. Its drumbeats, call-and-response singing, and punctuating shrieks were passionate and insistent. I wasn’t the only one close to tears as they were clearing a space for the dance to be joined—inviting people of all descents to continue seeking Jesus together on the land of their fathers and mothers.

Kent Annan is co-director of Beyond Borders Florida (www.BeyondBorders, a nonprofit focused on education in Haiti, and author of the forthcoming book, Following Jesus Through the Eye of the Needle (InterVarsity Press, Decem­ber 2009).

To Learn More

One Church, Many Tribes
by Richard Twiss

Living in Color
by Randy Woodley

Native Americans and the Christian Right
by Andrea Smith

Black Elk Speaks
by Nicholas Black Elk
(as told through John G. Neihardt)

North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (click on NAIITS)

World Christian Gathering of Indigenous People


Indigenous theologians discuss Christianity from a Native perspective

In this video Rev Richard Twiss, Terry Leblanc and Raymond Aldred, Ph.D. talk about the revival of indigenous theology in North America. The listener should remember that Orthodox through history has moved into more and more countries on the back of that country's culture. All we have to do is look at various icons of the Mother of God and how culture has effected her clothing.

Photini: Light and Living Water

By Suzanne

When I was chrismated on Pentecost 2007, I took on the name of my patron saint. I chose Photina, the Latin version of the name Photini (Russian: Sveltana), the Samaritan Woman at the well in John 4:5-42. I really wish I could describe what happened to my heart when I read her story, and what continues to happen the more I learn about her. For personal reasons, she is very important to me and I feel as if we have a connection that I continue to be amazed by.For example, when I went to my Godmother to inform her of my patron saint choice, I excitedly told her I had chosen Photina. She was pleasantly surprised, as she informed me that Photini was her patron saint as well. That was something I had not been aware of at the time, and was a beautiful way to know that this was the right saint for me. Saint Photini was also baptized and rechristened as “Photini” on Pentecost, the same day that I was chrismated. I was originally supposed to be Chrismated around Pascha, but due to situations beyond my control I had to wait - I don’t think it was a coincidence anymore. Perhaps I did not chose her, but she chose me.

Photina was an exile from the Samaritan community, forced to live among strangers, and lead by what all accounts the Bible refers to as “a sinful life”, meaning that among things, she was of initimate knowledge of at least six men in the community (John 4:18). Her story plays out as follows: During the hottest time of the day, Photina (Biblically known as the Samaritan Woman) goes to the well to gather water. She had to go at the hottest time of the day, when very few people would venture to the well, to avoid the harassment and judgement of other women who had the daily chore of gathering the day’s water.

At that time, Jesus approaches her and requests a drink of water. Jesus is alone, as his disciples have gone to buy food. Now, just imagine this scene - here is the Son of God, the Christ - but still a man - approaching a well-known loose woman in a public place. It is just the two of them. Anyone seeing them would be scandalized, and in fact his disciples are surprised on their return to find him talking with her. But let’s go back to that conversation that Jesus and Photina had at that well.

Jesus approaches Photina, and asks her for water. Instead of obeying Jesus, Photina shoots a question back at Jesus: “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (John 4:9). Pretty gutsy! Jesus speaks to Photina thusly, saying, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” Photina asks for this living water, and in doing so, Jesus reveals his divinity to her. The love of God, through his son Jesus Christ, was so powerful that Photina abandons her water jug at the well on the spot, and runs into town to spread the word. In doing so, the other Samaritan exiles in the town come to Jesus, and in the final passage of John 4:42, it says “They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”

This amazing Samaritan woman was baptized by the disciples on Pentecost, officially taking on the name Photini, meaning “the enlightened one.” Following her baptism, Photini dedicated her life to preaching the word of God. It became an entire family affair; Photini’s gift of ministry was passed on to her seven children - five daughers (Anatoli, Photo, Photes, Paraskevi, and Kyriaki) and her two sons, Victor (later named Photinos) and Joseph. Through her preaching, she and her family brought innumerable people to life in Christ. Following the imprisonment and torture of her son Victor (who refused to participate in anti-Christian military measures) Photina decided to preach directly to the vehemently anti-Christian Emperor Nero.

Though Nero was impressed with Photina’s eloquence and passion, he still disliked the fact that she was a Christian. Photina and her family were imprisoned and tortured for two years before she was received into the Lord’s hands. Through it all, her faith in her beloved Christ Jesus did not waver. Photina may have met Jesus by drawing well water, but because of his gift of living water she was able to make an incredible contribution to the growth of Christianity.

Photini’s life of love for Christ, her love for her family, her martyrdom and her message have made her Equal-to-the-Apostles in Orthodoxy, and we celebrate her on both February 26th and March 30th on the Orthodox calendar.

I don’t know about you, but every time I read her story I am filled with such admiration, love, and inspiration. Photini not only had the gift of preaching, bringing her message to thousands, but she had the honor of speaking to our Lord Jesus Christ - looking at his face, hearing his voice, perhaps even touching his hand, his arm, his robe…if ONLY I could have been Photini back then!

I look at my life - a 27 year old woman convert, living in this materialistic, hedonistic world, trying to do the best I can. I’ve been an outcast myself. And believe me - converting to Orthodox Christianity doesn’t exactly make you MORE popular in our society, let me tell you. It couldn’t have been that popular in Photini’s time either; with Nero’s army running around imprisoning and killing Christians, her unflailing loyalty and determination to preach his love is something we have to understand didn’t just make her unpopular among many social circles, but also put her and her entire family at risk! That’s some powerful love for God!

Photini is an amazing inspiration. To me, she is one of the most glorious women in our church history. I’m thankful every single day that she is my patron saint and that I get to revere her icon in my home. It’s my daily reminder that while at first I thought that I chose her… God works within us in ways we may not always understand, and perhaps she actually chose me.

Thou wast illumined by the Holy Spirit and refreshed by the streams of Christ the Saviour. Having drunk the Water of Salvation thou didst give copiously to the thirsty. O holy Great Martyr Photini, Equal-to-the Apostles, entreat Christ our God that our souls may be saved.


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Christ And The One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church

The first Orthodox Faith Seminar of 2008 was conducted at St Gregorios Orthodox Cathedral in Bellwood, IL on January 12, 2008. the guest speaker for the topic of Christ and the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church was Mr. Tenny Thomas, Director of FOCUS for the American Diocese of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church. We can listen to Mr. Thomas' talk in this video.


Remember your instructors, who have spoken
the word of God to you; whose faith follow,
considering the end of their life… Be not led
away with various and strange doctrines.
Hebrews 13:7, 9

NEVER HAS THERE BEEN such an age of false teachers as this pitiful 20th century, so rich in material gadgets and so poor in mind and soul. Every conceivable opinion, even the most absurd, even those hitherto rejected by the universal consent of all civilized peoples—now has its platform and its own "teacher." A few of these teachers come with demonstration or promise of "spiritual power" and false miracles, as do some occultists and "charismatics;" but most of the contemporary teachers offer no more than a weak concoction of undigested ideas which they received "out of the air," is it were, or from some modern self-appointed "wise man" (or woman) who knows more than all the ancients merely by living in our "enlightened" modern times. As a result, philosophy has a thousand schools, and "Christianity" a thousand sects. Where is the truth to be found in all this, if indeed it is to be found at all in our most misguided times?

In only one place is there to be found the fount of true teaching, coming from God Himself, not diminished over the centuries but ever fresh, being one and the same in all those who truly teach it, leading those who follow it to eternal salvation. This place is the Orthodox Church of Christ, the fount is the grace of the All-Holy Spirit, and the true teachers of the Divine doctrine that issues forth from this fount are the Holy Fathers of the Orthodox Church.

Alas! How few Orthodox Christians know this, and know enough to drink from this fount! How many contemporary hierarchs lead their flocks, not on the true pastures of the soul, the Holy Fathers, but along the ruinous paths of modern wise men who promise something "new" and strive only to make Christians forget the true teaching of the Holy Fathers, a teaching which—it is quite true—is entirely out of harmony with the false ideas which govern modern times.

The Orthodox teaching of the Holy Fathers is not something of one age, whether "ancient" or "modern." It has been transmitted in unbroken succession from the time of Christ and His Apostles to the present day, and there has never been a time when it was necessary to discover a "lost" patristic teaching. Even when many Orthodox Christians have neglected this teaching (as is the case, for example, in our own day), its true representatives were still handing it down to those who hungered to receive it. There have been great patristic ages, such as the dazzling epoch of the fourth century, and there have been periods of decline in patristic awareness among Orthodox Christians; but there has been no period since the very foundation of Christ's Church on earth when the patristic tradition was not guiding the Church; there has been no century without Holy Fathers of its own. St. Nicetas Stethatos, disciple and biographer of St. Simeon the New Theologian, has written; "It has been granted by God that from generation to generation there should not cease the preparation by the Holy Spirit of His prophets and friends for the order of His Church."

Most instructive it is for us, the last Christians, to take guidance and inspiration from the Holy Fathers of our own and recent times, those who lived in condition similar to our own and yet kept undamaged and unchanged the same ever-fresh teaching, which is not for one time or race, but for all times to the end of the world, and for the whole race of Orthodox Christians.

Before looking at two of the recent Holy Fathers, however, let us make clear that for us, Orthodox Christians, the study of the Holy Fathers is not an idle academic exercise. Much of what passes for a "patristic revival" in our times is scarcely more than a plaything of heterodox scholars and their "Orthodox" imitators, not one of whom has ever "discovered" a patristic truth for which he was ready to sacrifice his life. Such "patrology" is only rationalist scholarship which happens to take patristic teaching for its subject, without ever understanding that the genuine teaching of the Holy Fathers contains the truths which our spiritual life or death depends. Such pseudo-patristic scholars spend their time proving that "pseudo-Macarius" was a Messalian heretic, without understanding or practicing the pure Orthodox teaching of the true St. Macarius the Great; that "pseudo-Dionysius" was a calculated forger of books whose mystical and spiritual depths are totally beyond his accusers; that the thoroughly Christian and monastic life of Sts. Barlaam and Joasaph, handed down by St. John Damascene, is nothing but a "retelling of the Buddha story;" and a hundred similar fables manufactured by "experts" for a gullible public which has no idea of the agnostic atmosphere in which such "discoveries" are made. Where there are serious scholarly questions concerning some patristic texts (which, of course, there are), they will certainly not be resolved by referring them to such "experts, who are total strangers to the true patristic tradition, and only make their living at its expense.

When "Orthodox" scholars pick up the teaching of these pseudo-patristic scholars or make their own researches in the same rationalistic spirit, the outcome can be tragic; for such scholars are taken by many to be "spokesmen for Orthodoxy," and their rationalistic pronouncements to be part of an "authentically patristic" outlook, thus deceiving many Orthodox Christians. Father Alexander Schmemann, for example, while pretending to set himself free from the "Western captivity" which, in his ignorance of the true patristic tradition of recent centuries (which is to be found more in the monasteries than in the academies), he fancies to have completely dominated Orthodox theology in modern times, has himself become the captive of Protestant rationalistic ideas concerning liturgical theology, as has been well pointed out by Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky, a genuine patristic theologian of today.
[1] Unfortunately, such a clear unmasking has yet to be made of the pseudo-scholar of Russian Saints and Holy Fathers, G. P. Fedotov, who imagines that St. Sergius "was the first Russian saint who can be termed a mystic" (thereby ignoring the four centuries of equally "mystical" Russian Fathers who preceded him), looks pointlessly for "originality" in the "literary work" of St. Nilus of Sora (thus showing that he does not even understand the meaning of tradition in Orthodoxy), slanders the great Orthodox Saint, Tikhon of Zadonsk, as "the son of the Western Baroque rather than the heir of Eastern spirituality,"[2] and with great artificiality tries to make St. Seraphim (who is actually so stunningly in the patristic tradition that he is scarcely to be distinguished from the great Fathers of the Egyptian desert) into some "uniquely Russian" phenomenon who was "the first known representative of this class of spiritual elders (startsi) in Russia," whose "approach to the world is unprecedented in the Eastern tradition," and who was "the forerunner of the new form of spirituality which should succeed merely ascetical monasticism."[3]

Lamentably, the consequences of such pseudo-scholarship often appear in real life; gullible souls who take these false conclusions for genuine begin to work for a "liturgical revival" on Protestant foundations, transform St. Seraphim (ignoring his "inconvenient" teachings regarding heretics, which he shares with the whole patristic tradition) into a Hindu yogin or a "charismatic," and in general approach the Holy Fathers just as do most contemporary scholars—without reverence and awe, as though they were on the same level, as an exercise is esotericism or as some kind of intellectual game, instead of as a guide to true life and salvation.

NOT SO ARE TRUE Orthodox scholars; not so is the true Orthodox patristic tradition, where the genuine, unchanging teaching of true Christianity is handed down in unbroken succession both orally and by the written and printed word, from spiritual father to spiritual son, from teacher to disciple.In the 20th century one Orthodox hierarch stands out especially for his patristic orientation—Archbishop Theophanes of Poltava († 1943, February 19), one of the founders of the free Russian Church Outside of Russia, and perhaps the chief architect of her uncompromising and traditionalist ideology. In the years when he was vice-chairman of the Synod of Bishops of this Church (1920's), he was widely acknowledged as the most patristically-minded of all the Russian theologians abroad. In the 1930's he retired into total seclusion to become a second Theophanes the Recluse; and since then he has been, sadly, very largely forgotten. Fortunately, his memory has been sacredly kept by his disciples and followers, and in recent months one of his leading disciples, Archbishop Averky of Holy Trinity Monastery at Jordanville, New York, has published his biography together with a number of his sermons.
[4] In these sermons may be clearly seen the hierarch's awe and reverence before the Holy Fathers, his discipleship toward them, and his surpassing humility which will be content only when he is transmitting nothing of his own but only the ideas and the very words of the Holy Fathers. Thus, in a sermon on Pentecost Sunday he says: "The teaching of the Holy Trinity is the pinnacle of Christian theology. Therefore I do not presume to set forth this teaching in my own words, but I set it forth in the words of the holy and God-bearing theologians and great Fathers of the Church: Athanasius the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and Basil the Great. Mine only are the lips, but theirs the words and thoughts. They present the Divine meal, and I am only the servant of their Divine banquet."

In another sermon, Archbishop Theophanes gives the reasons for his self-effacement before the Holy Fathers—a characteristic so typical of the great transmitters of patristic teaching, even great theologians in their own right such as Archbishop Theophanes, but which is so glaringly misinterpreted by worldly scholars as a "lack of originality." In his sermon on the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, given in 1928 in Varna, Bulgaria, he offers to the faithful "a word on the significance of the Holy Fathers and Teachers of the Church for us Christians. In what does their greatness consist, and on what does their special significance for us depend? The Church, brethren, is the house of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth (I Timothy 3:15). Christian truth is preserved in the Church in Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition; but it requires a correct preservation and a correct interpretation. The significance of the Holy Fathers is to be found precisely in this: that they are the most capable preservers and interpreters of this truth by virtue of the sanctity of their lives, their profound knowledge of the word of God, and the abundance of the grace of the Holy Spirit which dwells in them." The rest of this sermon is composed of nothing but quotes from the Holy Fathers themselves (Sts. Athanasius the Great, Basil the Great, Simeon the New Theologian, Nicetas Stethatos) to support this view.

The final Holy Father whom Archbishop Theophanes quotes, at great length, in his sermon, is one close to him in time, a predecessor of his in the transmission of the authentic patristic tradition in Russia—Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov. He has a double significance for us today: not only is he a Holy Father of almost our own times, but also his search for truth is very similar to that of sincere truth-seekers today, and he thus shows us how it is possible for the "enlightened modern man" to enter once again the pure atmosphere of patristic—that is, true Orthodox Christian—ideas and ways of thinking. It is extremely inspiring for us to read, in the words of Bishop Ignatius himself, how a military engineer burst the bonds of "modern knowledge" and entered the patristic tradition, which he received, in addition to books, directly from a disciple of St. Paisius Velichkovsky, and handed down to our own day.

"When I was still a student," Archbishop Theophanes quotes Bishop Ignatius,
[5] "there were no enjoyments or distractions for me! The world presented nothing enticing for me. My mind was entirely immersed in the sciences, and at the same time I was burning with the desire to find out where was the true faith, where was the true teaching of it, foreign to errors both dogmatic and moral.

"At the same time there was already presented to my gaze the boundaries of human knowledge in the highest, fully developed sciences. Coming to these boundaries, I asked of the sciences: 'What do you give that a man may call his own? Man is eternal, and what is his own should be eternal. Show me this eternal possession, this true wealth, which I might take with me beyond the grave! Up to now I see only knowledge which ends with the earth, which cannot exist after the separation of the soul from the body.'"

The searching youth inquired in turn of mathematics, physics, chemistry, philosophy, showing his profound knowledge of them; then of geography, geodesy, languages, literature; but he finds that they are all of the earth. In answer to all his agonized questioning he received the same reply similar searches receive in our even more "enlightened" 20th century: "The sciences were silent."

Then, "for a satisfactory answer, a truly necessary and living answer, I turned to faith. But where are you hidden, O true and holy Faith? I could not recognize you in fanaticism {Papism}which was not sealed with the Gospel meekness; it breathed passion and high-mindedness! I could not recognize you in the arbitrary teaching {Protestantism} which separated from the Church, making up its own new system, vainly and pridefully proclaiming the discovery of a new, true Christian faith, after a lapse of eighteen centuries from the Incarnation of God the Word! Oh! In what a heavy perplexity my soul was! How frightfully it was weighed down! What waves of doubt rose up against it, arising from distrust of myself, from distrust of everything that was clamoring, crying out around me because of my lack of knowledge, my ignorance of the truth.

"And I began often, with tears, to implore God that He might not give me over as a sacrifice to error, but that He might show me the right path on which I should direct towards Him my invisible journey of mind and heart. And, O wonder! Suddenly a thought stood before me… My heart went out to it as to The embrace of a friend. This thought inspired me to study faith in the sources—in the writings of the Holy Fathers! 'Their holiness,' the thought said to me, 'vouches for their trustworthiness: choose them for your guides.' I obeyed. I found means of obtaining the works of the holy pleasers of God, and in eagerness I began to read them, investigate them deeply. Having read some, I would take up and read others, read them, re-read them, study them. What was it that above all else struck me in the works of the Fathers of the Orthodox Church? It was their harmony, their wondrous, magnificent harmony. Eighteen centuries, through their lips, testified to a single unanimous teaching, a Divine teaching!

"When on a clear autumn night I gaze at the clear sky, sown with numberless stars, so diverse in size yet shedding a single light, then I say to myself: such are the writings of the Fathers! When on a summer day I gaze at the vast sea, covered with a multitude of diverse vessels with their unfurled sails like white swans' wings, vessels racing under a single wind to a single goal, to a single harbor, I say to myself: such are the writings of the Fathers! When I hear a harmonious, many-voiced choir, in which diverse voices in elegant harmony sing a single Divine song, then I say to myself: such are the writings of the Fathers!

"And what teaching do I find in them? I find a teaching repeated by all the Fathers, namely, that the only path to salvation is the unwavering following of the instructions of the Holy Fathers. 'Have you seen,' they say, 'anyone deceived by false teaching, perishing from an incorrect choice of ascetic labors?—then know that he followed himself, his own understanding, his own opinions, and not the teaching of the Fathers' (Abba Dorotheus, Fifth Instruction), out of which is composed the dogmatic and moral tradition of the Church. With this tradition as a priceless possession, the Church nourishes her children.

This thought was sent by God, from Whom is every good gift, from Whom a good through is the beginning of every good thing… This thought was for me the first harbor in the land of truth. Here my soul found rest from the waves and winds. This thought became the foundation stone for the spiritual building of my soul This thought became my guiding star. It began constantly to illumine for me the very difficult and much-suffering, narrow, invisible path of the mind and heart toward God. I looked at the religious world with this thought, and I saw: the cause of all errors consists in ignorance, in forgetfulness, in the absence of this thought.

"The reading of the Fathers clearly convinced me that salvation in the bosom of the Orthodox Russian Church was undoubted, something of which the religions of Western Europe are deprived, since they have not preserved whole either the dogmatic or the moral teaching of the Church of Christ from her beginning. It revealed to me what Christ has done for mankind, in what consists the fall of man, why a Redeemer was necessary, in what consists the salvation procured by the Redeemer. It inculcated in me that one must develop, sense, see salvation in oneself, without which faith in Christ is dead, and Christianity is a word and a name without being put into effect! It instructed me to look upon eternity as eternity, before which a thousand years of earthly life is nothing, let alone our life which is measured by some half a century. It instructed me that earthly life must lead to preparation for eternity… It showed me that all earthly occupations, enjoyments, honor, pre-eminence—are empty toys, with which grown-up children play and in which they lose the blessedness of eternity… All this the Holy Fathers set forth with complete celerity in their sacredly splendid writings.'

Archbishop Theophanes concludes his patristic exhortation with this appeal: "Brethren, let this good thought {the taking of the Holy Fathers as our guide} be your guiding star also in the days of your earthly pilgrimage on the waves of the sea of life!"

The truth of this appeal, as of the inspired words of Bishop Ignatius, has not dimmed in the decades since they were uttered. The world has gone for on the path of apostasy from Christian Truth, and it becomes ever more clear that there is no alternative to this path save that of following the uncompromising path of truth which the Holy Fathers have handed down to us.

Yet we must go to the Holy Fathers not merely to "learn about them;" if we do no more than this we are in no better state than the idle disputants of the dead academies of this perishing modern civilization, even when these academies are "Orthodox" and the learned theologians in them neatly define and explain all about "sanctity" and "spirituality" and "theosis," but have not the experience needed to speak straight to the heart of thirsting souls and wound them into desiring the path of spiritual struggle, nor the knowledge to detect the fatal error of the academic "theologians" who speak of God with cigarette or wineglass in hand, nor the courage to accuse the apostate "canonical" hierarchs of their betrayal of Christ. We must go to the Holy Fathers, rather, in order to become their disciples, to receive the teaching of true life, the soul's salvation, even while knowing that by doing this we shall lose the favor of this world and become outcasts from it. If we do this we shall find the way out of the confused swamp of modern thought, which is based precisely upon abandonment of the sacred teaching of the Fathers. We shall find that the Holy Fathers are most "contemporary" in that they speak directly to the struggle of the Orthodox Christian today, giving answers to the crucial questions of life and death which mere academic scholarship is usually afraid even to ask—and when it does ask them, gives a harmless answer which "explains" these questions to those who are merely curious about them, but are not thirsting for answers. We shall find true guidance from the Fathers, learning humility and distrust of our own vain worldly wisdom, which we have sucked in with the air of the pestilential times, by means of trusting those who have pleased God and not the world. We shall find in them true fathers, so lacking in our own day when the love of many has grown cold (Matthew 24:12)—fathers whose only aim is to lead us their children to God and His Heavenly Kingdom, where we shall walk and converse with these angelic men in unutterable joy forever.

There is no problem of our own confused times which cannot find its solution by a careful and reverent reading of the Holy Fathers: whether the problem of the sects and heresies that abound today, or the schisms and "jurisdictions;" whether the pretense of spiritual life put forth by the charismatic revival," or the subtle temptations of modern comfort and conveniences; whether complex philosophical questions such as "evolution," or the straightforward moral questions of abortion, euthanasia, and "birth control;" whether the refined apostasy of "Sergianism," which offers a church organization in place of the Body of Christ, or the crudeness of the "renovationism," which begins by "revising the calendar" and ends in "Eastern-rite Protestantism." In all these questions the Holy Fathers, and our living Fathers who follow them, are our only sure guide.

Bishop Ignatius and other recent Fathers have indicated for us last Christians which Holy Fathers are the most important for us to read, and in what order. May this be an inspiration to us all to place the patristic teaching as the foundation stone of the building of our own souls, unto the inheritance of everlasting life! Amen.

[1] "The Liturgical Theology of Fr. A. Schmemann," in The Orthodox Word, 1970, No. 6, Pp. 260-280.
[2] A thesis thoroughly refuted by Nadejda Gorodetsky in Saint Tikhon Zadonsky, Inspirer of Dostoyevsky, SPCK, London, 1951.
[3] See Fedotov's introductions to the writings of these Saints in A Treasury of Russian Spirituality, Sheed & Ward, New York, 1948.
[4] A brief life of him in English may be read in The Orthodox Word, 1969, No. 5.
[5] From Volume I of Bishop Ignatius' Collected Works in Russian, pp. 396-401.


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