First among sinners

imageIt was another typical day at work. I stood behind the counter, leaning over to look at the people around me. Attractive co-eds, not so attractive co-eds. Annoying people, snarky Muslims, snarkier professors. Ignorant evangelicals, ethnocentric Orthodox. Atheists. People with a generally poor attitude. And me. A judgmental, lazy, lustful, selfish, unworthy sinner. My food was too good for them. My food wasn’t good enough for them. I was too white, too old, too…

Sinful.

To my right, on the east wall, I kept two icons; St. Euphrosynos and the Port Arthur icon of The Theotokos. I looked at them, crossed myself, and cursed myself, begging help a dozen times a day. Anything to deliver me from myself, to save these people from me, lest my lechery and hate rub off on them.

Save them, Lord, save me.

I was not at all surprised when I was fired. Thank God. They’re safe. Now, what next? How do I save the world from myself, from the antithesis of St. Seraphim I see myself as? Simple, I don’t. God does. Now, if only I could begin to trust in that belief. “Lord I believe. Help my unbelief!”

Now, let’s make this abundantly clear, I’m an Ortho-newb. I was chrismated on Pentecost of 2013, after a year-long catechumenate. To say that I am in my spiritual infancy would be an understatement. God willing, some day I may get a clue. That being said, I DO know a thing or two about sin. Actually, I know a lot about it. I’ve been doing it for a long time, and I’m good at it. I’m sinning right now. So, when asked to tackle the subject for the blog, you could imagine my surprise, and dismay. What could I possibly have to bring to the table? According to a few people, quite a bit.

It’s easy to beat yourself up over sin. For an ego driven fun lover like me, it can even be a thrill. In Orthodoxy, “holier than thou” takes on a whole new dimension, as we constantly are encouraged to acknowledge —and by God’s grace, receive forgiveness for—our sins. “I am a greater sinner!”, “no, no! I, my friend, am the greater sinner, because…” And so on. But what happens when we step back from the ego flagellation, and give ourselves a deep, thorough look?

In 12 step programs, they call it a “moral inventory”. Call it what you will. It’s in the little red prayer book, the one in your back pocket. It’s called “Preparation for Confession”. So, we take a look. We begin to see where our faults lie. Do I really need to give a list here? Each of us knows what they can be. The question is, “we’ve  gone to confession, received absolution, taken the precious life giving Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and now, here we are, being schmucks again. What gives?” Well, the answer is simple, and you’ve probably heard it numerous times.

Try again.

Every day we wake up and say our prayers, drink our coffee, and commence to sin. But that’s never the plan. No, the plan is usually to live a day free of sin, to try, with God’s help, to overcome our sinful nature, and hopefully, spread it around a little bit. But we fall short. So, what do we do, wallow in it? No, brothers and sisters, we revel in it! It’s another chance for grace, another beginning. We look at the icon, we make the sign of the cross, we shoot an arrow into the heavens, and, by God, we try again! Will we always be this way? God knows. Will we always be found ready, repentant, and on guard? God knows. Can we, a generation coming down, taught by the world we were born into to give in, give up, and live completely for self, have any hope of true repentance? Well?

God willing.

Because, chances are, if you’re reading this, you are already two steps ahead of me—a sinner, and chief among them.

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To Ponder: ἐντός (entos)

image“ For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” – Mat. 18:20

“Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”

Luke 17:20-21 from the RSV

“Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”

Luke 17:21 from KJV

Why the different translation? The Greek word in question here is ἐντός (entos). It can mean “in the midst of you” or “within you”. Or perhaps it means both? Perhaps Christ is referring to both the Church and our bodies – our bodies being the temples of God (1Corinthians).

Since someone has always said it better, I will quote Bishop Alexander’s lecture on the Corpus Dionysius given October 3rd, 2001 at Marquette University.

“The Liber Graduum, whose author is confronted by certain ascetics living away “off on the Mountain” and disdaining the liturgy and sacraments, offers [a] coördination between, as he puts it, the “three churches”: the heavenly church, the earthly church of sacraments and clergy, and the “little church” of the heart. It is the middle term, he insists, the earthly church, which enables the Christian “to find himself in the Church of the heart and [thence] in the Church on high”….
Ephrem Syrus’ Hymns on Paradise, offer a striking set of parallels between: (1) the Paradise Mountain; (2) Sinai; (3) the Jerusalem Temple; (4) the Christian Church; and (5) the human being. On the peak of the Paradise Mountain enthroned on the Tree of Life, on the summit of Sinai, within the holy of holies of the Temple, on the altar of the Church, and in the innermost chambers of the human spirit we find Christ. Ephrem also, on at least one occasion, refers to Christ’s presence as the Shekinta, i.e., he deploys the same word (in its Syriac form) as the Shekinah of the Rabbis, who in their turn use it to mean the radiant manifestation of God, the divine Glory abiding in Israel. For Ephrem … this radiance and splendor of God in Christ abides in the Church and in the Christian. It is the secret within the complementary sanctuaries of the Church and the heart.”
– DIONYSIUS AREOPAGITA: A CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM? Fr. Alexander Golitzin

Let us mystically represent the Cherubim and sing the Thrice Holy Hymn. Holy Holy Holy Lord of Sabaoth.

– שְׁמוּאֶל

To Ponder: We not only see God, but now we can KNOW Him.

image‘Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him … He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself … When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”’ –  Luke 24:13-16,25-27,30-32

Note the Liturgical character of this narrative. First the Scriptures are expounded then the breaking of the bread – the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Jesus Christ is our high priest.

‘Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people … And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abi′hu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel … they beheld God, and ate and drank.’ – Exodus 24:7a,8-10a,11b

We not only see God, but now we can KNOW Him. We know him in the Eucharist – in the breaking of the bread.

To Ponder:

imagepon·der
ˈpändər/
verb
1. think about (something) carefully
synonyms: think about, contemplate, consider, reflect on, mull over, meditate on, muse on, ruminate on, chew over,

As some of you know we have a recurring format called To Ponder. The idea behind To Ponder is to present a verse of Scripture and or Sacred writing and ruminate on it in light of other verses or quotes. Our goal is to inspire, to provide food for thought. And what better food is there then the Word present beneath and within Holy Scripture. The psalmist tells us in Psalm 1:2 But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.

Origen of Alexandria was once told by a Jewish rabbi that each verse of Scripture is a locked door and beneath each door is a key. That key belongs to another door. Origen replied “The key of David is in the hands of the Divine Word, which became flesh, and now the Scriptures which had been closed until His Coming are opened by that key.”

This photograph will be the cover for each To Ponder. Please let us know what you think.

Living with Childhood Apraxia of Speech

photo (3)Glory to God for all things!
As some of you may remember, my son has Childhood Apraxia of Speech (CAS), a neurological disorder that affects his ability to speak. Essentially, the brain has trouble coordinating with the muscles in his mouth to form sounds, much less words. I wrote a little about this back in May (http://tinyurl.com/n577v65

). It was very much rushed and at the time hard for me to write. So this update will be more thought out, less emotional.

We had some inclinations that S. had speech problems when he was two. He made very few sounds; just stuck to the ones he knew: Mama, bye, hi. Those may have been his only words. He grunted a lot, more than a toddler should, I imagine. My wife and I constantly felt like we were failing him; was there something we were doing wrong? Everybody kept telling us that he would come around, that sometimes it just took longer, that their sons didn’t start talking until they were three years old. We even had a Melkite family tell us a story about a young boy who was around at least three different languages in the house, and that he didn’t start talking until he was four. Granted, when he did start talking, it was in full sentences, in the languages to the people who spoke that language. We only speak English in my household, so I knew that was not to be the case. Everybody had great intentions, and really, what do you say to somebody in this situation? God bless them all!

Anyways, my wife started researching S’s speech problems on the internet and eventually came across CAS. Pretty much, a light bulb went off. ‘This is what S has!’ we said to each other. It would take us a while to get S tested through the local school system, and even then, with such limited vocal skills, no formal diagnosis could be given. Rather we were told he had Suspected CAS. Either way, I felt relief, in a sense. At least it wasn’t something we were doing or weren’t doing. With this in hand, we told our families, close friends, and our priest.

Our priest is a wonderful man. He called me soon after he got my email to him and said he wanted to come over to the house and pray for S. A couple of days had gone by before Father came over, and we were given time to acclimate to our situation. When Father did arrive, he said a small healing service for S. and anointed him with oil. Afterwards, Father surprised me; he started asking all sorts of questions. Apparently, he had taken the time to read five articles online that he had found about CAS. Like I said, a wonderful man.

We found a speech therapist that we were seeing for a while and are now currently seeing a wonderful therapist at the local Rite Care Clinic. At times, my wife was taking him to therapy four times a week. S. has gone from being able to say three words at the beginning of the year to saying full sentences and even his name!

If you have taken the time to read the linked post I wrote in May, then you know about my feelings towards St. John Maximovitch and his not wanting to be a bishop due to his own speech impediment. He also is of great importance to my priest and our whole parish. I even informed my wife that I decided Archbishop John is the patron saint for our family. I have been blessed to have been given a small relic of his, and of course I have holy oil from his reliquary. I have also come into possession of a rather beautiful icon of him, painted by hand by a lady from my church. All of these Holy items have a special place in my heart, yes, because they are holy, but also because I have been blessed to have them from the love others.

Now, this has been no cake walk, that is for sure. I am not the most patient man, and I am tested every day because of the CAS. There are still times, almost every day, that I have no idea what S. is saying to me. He can go on and on, but the pronunciation is not there, the words are not there, my patience is not there. Will my son ever be able to talk “normally?” I can honestly say that I do not know. I know from networking CAS groups, that he is not affected to the extent that some children are. Maybe when he is 18, there will be no sign left that he is afflicted with this disorder, but again, I do not know. But, I believe whole heartedly, that without the intercession of Archbishop John, and the prayers offered by my priest, family and friends, along with extensive therapy, S. would still not know how to say his name, or be able to tell my wife and me a story. Or even the best thing of all to ever come out of his mouth, ‘I love you.’

It is the small things like this that have helped me to pray, ‘Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.’ I am sure that this is a common feeling shared by parents of children with disabilities, or illnesses. And as much sadness and tears I experience because of CAS, I can honestly say, that even though I hate it, almost all the time, that I would not ask for it to “just go away.” This is a burden that my family must carry, but it is burden I feel brings us closer to God, and that through Him, ‘I can do all things.’

30th Anniversary of the Repose of Fr. Schmemann

1513201_690005781039477_1523525934_nToday we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the repose of Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann. This short meditation will not be about his life. It will not try to expound on the man’s legacy or attempt to contextualize his importance within the Orthodox Church. In honor of Fr. Alexander, let us instead speak of Liturgy and the Eucharist – the center of Christian Life and Worship

In his book For the Life of the World Fr. Alexander writes, “The liturgy of the Eucharist is best understood as a journey or procession. It is the journey of the Church into the dimension of the Kingdom… [Our] entrance into the presence of Christ is an entrance into a fourth dimension which allows us to see the ultimate reality of life. It is not an escape from the world, rather it is the arrival at a vantage point from which we can see more deeply into the reality of the world.”

The Divine Liturgy opens with the words “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit!” In the Eucharist we enter into the Kingdom of Heaven – the perfect Kingdom – made present here on earth in the Church by the presence of the crucified and risen Christ.

We are formed by entrance into the Kingdom to be temples of God celebrating the Heavenly Liturgy in the holy place of the heart. In eating the Body and Blood of Christ the new Adam, offered up in Thanksgiving on behalf of all and for all, we become truly human. The life of the true human, the redeemed human, is to give praise and thanks to God. In the words of Fr. Alexander, “The only real fall of man is his non-eucharistic life in a non-eucharistic world.” (ibid)

The Divine Liturgy is a synergy between the three churches – the three kingdoms. The paradigm – the Kingdom of Heaven, the Church – the community of the faithful, and the person – the temple and alter of God. Brothers and sisters, it is not enough to ponder on this. We must gather as church and enter into the kingdom. Let us offer praise and thanksgiving – the Liturgy.

Ponder the words of John the Evangelist in the context of our meditation and see how the scriptures may be illumined through the Liturgy:

“And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more; but ye see me: because I live, ye shall live also. At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you.” John 14:16-20

– שְׁמוּאֵל

St. Herman of Alaska, the Quiet Unassuming Monk

564605_681391328567589_1405001796_nWhen I think of St. Herman I am reminded of the winter I spent on Spruce Island as a teen. I stayed some of the time in the abbot’s barabara (a sod hut) as his cell attendant. It was cozy and safe. Very early in the mornings, we would walk to midnight office and matins. We followed the cycle of services and did manual labor. I like to imagine, that just as St. Herman did, we stayed closely connected to the Earth.

Monk Herman was not a priest, not a vigorous travelling missionary like St. Innocent. He wrote no great works on theology or ‘spiritual life’. So, what is it about this quiet unassuming monk that impacts us? I would say his silence – his simple small life – is a model for all Christian life.

Once asked how he coped with the boredom of solitude, he replied: “No, I’m not alone there! There is God, and God is everywhere! There are holy angels! How can one be bored with them? With whom is it more pleasant and better to converse, angels or people? Angels, of course!”

Monk Herman was also a champion of the rights of the native peoples oppressed by the Russian traders and government; constantly interceding for his fellow man, and caring for the many orphans. He is remembered locally as a great hero of the people. This simple unassuming monk was showing us in his own way, how to fulfill the commandments of the Lord.

I will end with his words: “And I, a sinner, have tried to love God for more than forty years, and I cannot say that I perfectly love Him,” but he later added, “at least let us make a vow to ourselves, that from this day, from this hour, from this very moment, we shall strive above all else to love God and to fulfill His Holy Will!”

– שְׁמוּאֵל