Author Archives: Andrew Boyd

A Picture of the Soul; A Reflection on “The Picture of Dorian Gray”

By Nathan Jekel

If you have ever been a student, chances are you have been instructed to read a book that you had no interest in. One such book that is often assigned to students is The Picture of Dorian Gray. Though this may seem at best a waste of time and at worst a pernicious attempt to disrupt your life, I am going to suggest that in reflecting on certain themes that it raises, you may reap spiritual benefits from Oscar Wilde’s novel. By interpreting the story of Dorian Gray through the lens of our faith, we can gain insight into how indulgence of the senses harms the soul the how one can receive spiritual healing.

dorian grayThe novel takes place in London in the late 19th century, chiefly among members of the upper class. The story begins as Basil Hallward, an artist, finishes a masterful portrait of Dorian Gray, a beautiful young man whom he has recently met. When Basil’s friend, Lord Henry Wotton, sees this portrait and expresses a desire to meet Dorian. Basil is reluctant, but Lord Henry soon achieves an introduction. Lord Henry is fascinated by Dorian’s innocence and avails him of his own worldview wherein the distinction between good and evil is unimportant and the purpose of life is the pursuit of sensual pleasures. Dorian, being young and naïve, is quickly captivated by Lord Henry’s lifestyle, and we see him begin to live solely for the indulgence of his senses.

The senses are our means of receiving information from the world around us. Every good thing and every evil thing that we encounter enters us by way of our senses. St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain says this in his Handbook of Spiritual Counsel: “Life enters when [the senses] are governed well and do not partake of their usual passions. Death enters when they partake of “corpses” as do the birds of prey; …when they eat rotted food as do the flies.” If we expose our senses only to good things – e.g. nature, scripture, and the divine services – we keep our minds and souls pure and unblemished. If we allow our senses to be barraged by the evil things of this world – e.g. violence, sensuality, and idle gossip – then we become enslaved to passions and worldly lust.

Saint-Nicodemus-of-the-Holy-Mountain-Athos
As Dorian becomes thus enslaved, he begins to destroy people’s lives through his cruelty and selfishness. He notices that for every terrible act he commits, his portrait – with which Basil gifted him – undergoes a physical change. Scars appear on the painted visage and the expression becomes cold and cruel. As the years pass and Dorian blackens his soul with wicked deeds, the portrait – which Dorian hides away in his attic – becomes ever more hideous, while Dorian himself remains unnaturally young and beautiful. How relevant this is to our own lives! The things of the world appeal to our senses, but under the surface they are “corpses” and “rotted food.” Likewise, the world teaches us to care painstakingly for our outward beauty and to ignore the corruption that lies within us. Let us waste no time in denying the world and confronting ourselves. As St. Isaac the Syrian says, “This life has been given to you for repentance; do not waste it in vain pursuits.”

When Dorian finally faces the reality of his situation, he does not repent but attacks his portrait in anger and despair. Like Judas Iscariot, who, racked with guilt for his betrayal of Christ, hung himself, Dorian felt remorse for his actions but did not seek forgiveness. St. Paul says in his Second Letter to the Corinthians: “Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance… For Godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, …but the sorrow of the world produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:9-10). When we examine our souls and see our sinfulness, we pray for Godly sorrow that we might repent and be forgiven. “Are you a sinner? Do not become discouraged, and come to Church to put forward repentance” (St. John Chrysostom).

The Church’s message to sinners – let us not tell ourselves that we escape this category – is not one of condemnation, but of hope. Christ himself said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). “I do not will the death of the ungodly man. So the ungodly man should turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11). The Church gives us many opportunities to retreat from the sensuality of the world and examine our lives. By following the prescribed rules of fasting, prayer, and scripture reading; and by attending the divine services, we will begin to detach ourselves from earthly cares and instead fill our senses with “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17).

Having explored The Picture of Dorian Gray from the perspective of an Orthodox Christian, we have found that it has relevance to our own spiritual journeys. By enumerating Dorian Gray’s mistakes, we can be on guard against making similar ones in our own lives. So, whether you are a student faced with a reading assignment or anyone with an obligation to read a book, I encourage you to approach your reading with a mind that is open and yet firmly grounded in the teachings of Jesus Christ and his Church.

Volume 6, Number 1: Authors and Contributors

Fr. David Wooten is a priest in the OCA Diocese of the South. He is currently involved in reading seven books at one time, as he is wont to do.

Nathan Jekel grew up in Camp Hill, PA. He is a member of Holy Apostles Orthodox Mission in Mechanicsburg, PA and studies Mathematics Education at Penn State University, Capitol Campus. He also enjoys, reading, music and puns.

Catherine Addington is currently studying abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Her writing has appeared in “The American Conservative”, “First Things”, and “NYU Local.” She will graduate with a B.A. in Latin American Studies from New York University in May 2015. 

Fr. David L. Bozeman is rector of Saint Nektarios Mission in Waxahachie, TX. He was formally an English teacher and is currently also the father of two high-school aged boys. 

Sign-Posts or Ortho-Speak?

Sign-Posts or Ortho-Speak?

Mr Andrew Boyd

Our salvation is in and through Jesus Christ.  As we hear our Lord and Savior tell us in the Gospel of John, “I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture” (Jn 10:9). This Door, however, is not meant to be a secret known only to a select few, but to be shared with the all the nations (cf Mt 24:14). We Christians have the duty to point the way to that door, to be signs illuminating and revealing it.

signsLanguage is the most basic way that we preach the Gospel, and in our ever-changing culture, our language is becoming less effective as it blends more into the noise of trending social media topics, cable-news-led fear-mongering, and interest-group-based truthiness. Words are reduced to characters, conversations reduced to tweets and texts, and eternal truths reduced to sound-bytes.

On the opposite side of the same coin we are seeing increasing complexity and exclusivity within a group’s shared language. New terms are invented in pursuit of efficiency or because of a perceived inadequacy in past expressions, and in the culture where such a phrase exists, the fastest adopters are rewarded.  Society is constantly finding newer “politically correct” labels for people and events. Those in the medical industry have long complained that their dialect is a nonsensical slurry of three-letter acronyms. And the business world is a veritable linguistics factory, constantly churning out new ways of expressing “value-added” over and over again.

Exhausted_man_holding_headAs someone who works in corporate communications, I spend a good part of my day waging an uphill battle against “business speak,” coded phrases that mean little and make everyone feel part of a safe and special club. Phrases like “game-changing” “value-added” and “deferred success” are either lazy place-holders for original thoughts or fancy-sounding euphemisms (“deferred success” means failure). Although these expressions reach new heights in modern business parlance, such terms permeate our culture. One of the worst instances of this deliberate encrypting was the downright Orwellian “Failure to Thrive” diagnosis I once read on a hospital chart.  There is no reason to believe that tweets, texts, sound-bytes, acronyms, or clever amalgamations can  actually help us communicate more effectively. Only more exclusively.Meanwhile, so long as the speaker understands the point of the communication, it doesn’t even matter whether the message was actually received and understood.  I told them exactly what I meant. They just didn’t understand!

We Orthodox Christians fare no better. We have our own terms and our own ideas which, when taken to the extreme, serve to form our own safe and special club. Though most of us are capable of setting these phrases and ideals aside from time to time, it’s discouraging how quickly these themes surface in conversations on our faith.

Typically we share about our faith in five different ways. Each is perfectly understandable, but each one tragically misrepresents or outright ignores the centrality of our faith in Jesus Christ. Each is a lost opportunity for sharing the Gospel with another person in our lives, and it is critical that we recognize where (and how easily!) we often go astray.

1. Ooh! It’s sooooooooooo  Pretty.
We love to show off how beautiful our faith is, which is not really a bad thing, but neither is it preaching or missionary activity. Despite one account of St. Vladimir’s conversion (you know the phrase: “we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth”), few in our faith are here because it’s “pretty.” We’re here because of Christ. That’s not always a pretty thing, at least by conventional standards. Christ’s saving work on the Cross is to us the most beautiful Door towards salvation, eternal life, and the loving embrace of the Father.

history_lesson2. “Well you see, back in 1054…” 

Few are the people who want a history lecture, but this is the most common thing I hear when people start to answer any question about their faith. It’s right up there with the dreaded “We’ll we’re like the Catholics but… ( insert your difference du jour:  married Priests, leavened Eucharist. Filioque).” Our faith, our story of salvation did not start in 1054. Neither do we identify ourselves as “like those other people, sort of”. Christ is not a door to Byzantine history or sectarian identity.

3. “Is Outrage!” 

“I’m an Orthodox Christian so I find (x) to be a complete outrage”. In this equation, (x) can stand for anything from a specific social policy or politician, the current tragic situation in the Middle East, the movements of the moon in relation to the Earth (cough, calendars), the fall of Constantinople, really anything. This is a very tragic type of sharing because we use our faith to join the “look at me” culture instead of transforming culture and being in myself a sign pointing towards the Door.

4. “I’m Welsh, so of course I’m Orthodox”

We all know this one too, when we define our faith first by an ethnic culture. By doing that we but boundaries on the preaching of the Gospel that shouldn’t be there and anyone hearing or reading this kind of language is bound to react with “Well, I’m not Welsh, so I guess that’s not for me, those food/dances/music sure do look nice though.” This door reads “Welsh Only”.Blue Doors Locked

5. “Well, my Antiochian archimandrite said I should refocus my nous away from Patristic theologoumena

This is the most pernicious of all the ways we speak about our faith because not only does it rob the Gospel of its catholicity, but it makes us into gnostics. When we use these coded “Orthodox-only” phrases we, knowingly or unknowingly, tell the world that we are smarter and know more than they do, and that anyone who doesn’t know this specially coded language is on the outside. It’s reminds me always of all the questions that the Pharisees and other religious authorities tried to stump Christ with in the Gospels. Witnessing this way doesn’t just remove the sign from the Door, but dismantles it and throws away the instructions for rebuilding it (which in this extended metaphor are those very nice instructions from Ikea in multiple languages with efficient, Swedish pictures.)

These five ways are the most common types of how we speak about faith publicly, in conversation, at coffee hour, in social media, that I have encountered. They may have their value, but mostly they simply give us something to speak about besides Jesus Christ. Challenge yourself the next time you identify as Orthodox in public not to answer with anything but the good news of Jesus Christ. Take the social risk, don’t fall back on history, culture, coded language, outrage or aesthetics.

madisonI feel this challenge every day when I walk up Madison Avenue to my office. Today, will I have a genuine encounter with someone on the street? Will I preach a good word to them in language or action? Will I follow Christ’s example and step outside of social norms and comfortable religious definitions and meet a Samaritan at the well? Or will I do what I do most days, blast Byzantine chant on my iPod and complain under my breath as I push European tourists out of my way.

The choice is mine every morning.

 

 

 

Living Translations

Living Translations

Fr. David C. Rucker
OCMC Mission Specialist

 Therefore, since we have been given this ministry of loving others, because we have received unconditional love from God Himself, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. But even if our Gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake. … But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. … For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you.          — 2 Cor. 4:1-12

St-Paul-Preaching-in-AthensAs an apostle (missionary), St. Paul was learning how to live and tell The Story of who God is and who we are created to become to a new generation, in a new culture, in a new location. That, by the way, is what Christian Orthodoxy is about: Who is God? Who am I? It is Truth and Reality in all its fullness. This is why the story is called “Gospel”, which means “good news.”

But the original context of the term “gospel” was not just “good news” in some generic, mild sense. It was fantastic, anxiously-awaited, life-changing and life-saving news! When a city or kingdom was being attacked by invading enemies, the people in the path of potential destruction would be waiting to hear if their king’s army had been able to defend and defeat those threatening them. If the message came that the enemy had been defeated, that meant a village would not be burned to the ground, that mothers, daughters and wives would not be raped, that sons would not be sold into slavery, and that men would not be brutally murdered. When the “gospel” arrived by emissary with the announcement of the king’s victory, this was the best news of a life-time!

If we are not living and sharing the Christian Gospel in a way that elicits this kind of response in people ready to receive “good news,” we ought to ask ourselves some hard questions. What news are people hearing and seeing from us? Have we resorted to a prepackaged presentation of the Gospel that disregards the hearer’s language and culture?  Are we mistranslating the message either with our words or actions?

There is only one story: The never-changing Gospel

There is only one story: The never-changing Gospel

There is only one Story, the “never-changing Gospel.” The Good News is that we were meant to share in the divine Love and Communion of the Holy Trinity and that although communion is broken, it can be healed and harmony restored between us and our Creator, between us and other persons, and between us and creation. The closer any movie, book or person comes to telling or living The Story, the more it moves our hearts.

This is true for every people group in the world. All share a sense of failing to live up to the Ideal as understood in their society.  In some cultures The Story has been virtually forgotten””the people have become blinded (the Piraha people of the Amazon might be an example, but the disillusioned Protestant missionary who attempted to translate the Bible with them might be an even better example), while others have kept parts of the story alive through oral tradition, with a longing for more (for example, the Santal of India, the Karen of Burma, the Lisu of China, and the Asmat of New Guinea).

But don’t look for one single method of telling The Story (proclaiming the Gospel). The methods are as varied as the people who share and the ones who hear. After all, the Good News is not a religion, philosophy or school of thought. The Good News begins with a personal encounter and ensuing relationship with Jesus Christ, Who is unconditional Love Incarnate. If we believe Jesus is The Way and The Truth and The Life, we can expect the Gospel to be lived and shared through each one of us in unique and unrepeatable ways that are just right for our own culture, language, and time in history. Culture and language are always changing, and so we change as well. We really do have this message “in jars of clay.” Contrary to what many think, Orthodox really do believe in “change.” After all, repentance (healing) means change!

St. Paul points out a common experience which is required of each person to effectively incarnate (live and tell) the Gospel to others. Each person must be “delivered to death for Jesus’ sake”, or, as he wrote in the first letter to the Corinthians, “…I die daily…” (15:31), and to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ…” (2:20). The deep wounds of sin, death  and the devil (broken communion, fear of never becoming a Person or genuine human being, and the constant accusations of the Liar and Deceiver) which are manifested in pride, self-love, and vain glory can only be healed by a violent death of all my rights and expectations. To believe in the Christ of the New Testament means nothing less than trusting my whole life and all I have and all I love to Him. I will only discover how much I have truly done this as those things I hold most dear are threatened or taken away. And it is in the middle of that pain and suffering, actually in death itself, that I become most like Christ and experience the Incarnation in my life. Those are also the times when the Good News will be proclaimed in my ever changing culture in the clearest, most authentic ways to people whom I have grown to love. Any motive other than the love of Christ is suspect, and can be quite dangerous to myself and others (2 Cor. 4:14).

220px-Tikhon_of_MoscowWe have recently celebrated the glorification of a number of our American saints, including St. Tikhon, Enlightener of North America and Moscow (9 Oct). After nine years of serving as the hierarch in America, and having assisted in raising up new hierarchs such as Innocent and Raphael, he was transferred to become the Metropolitan of Moscow, and as such, presided over the All Russia Council (1917-1918), in which the Patriarchate of Moscow was restored, more than two hundred years after Peter the Great abolished the position in 1700. The council members knew that whomever was elected would face tremendous challenges and persecution from the Bolsheviks. Revolution and civil war seemed inevitable. Metropolitan Tikhon’s name was drawn from the lots and during the service that immediately followed the Patriarch-elect declared: “From now on, my duty shall be to take care of all the churches of Russia and to die for their sake every day. May He who has called upon me grant me His divine help and His all-powerful blessings.”

Translate Computer Key In Blue Showing Online TranslatorOur calling and the cost to live out the never changing Gospel in an authentic, culturally accurate way is no less today. You might well be the only translation of Orthodox Christianity that one of your friends or acquaintances get to see or experience this week. Will your translation be Good News to them?

Unto Ages of Ages

Unto Ages of Ages

Mr Alexander Titus

We frequently hear about the “secular” worldview, “secular humanism,” or simply “secularism,” set in contradistinction to the “religious,” “faith-based,” or, as is the typical case in the West, “Christian” worldview. However, it’s always extremely important to define our terms carefully, especially when dialoguing with those whom we disagree, lest we talk past each other. With this in mind, I actually think it’s this very word, “secular,” that can help us understand the place of the Gospel in our ever-changing world. In short, I want to suggest that the term “secular” is in reality a deeply Christian word, and one which we shouldn’t let so easily go to the media pundits.

We frequently hear about the “secular”  in contradistinction to the “religious" ...

We frequently hear about the “secular” in contradistinction to the “religious” …

Etymologically, the word “secular” derives from the classical Latin saecularis, the adjectival form of the noun saeculum, the rough equivalent of the English “age” and the Greek Î±á¼°ÏŽÎ½ (from which we also get “aeon”). Thus the formula in saecula saeculorum is the literal Latin translation of the Greek εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων, or in English, “unto the ages of ages.” The phrase, besides serving as the conclusion to the most common and recognizable Orthodox doxology (“Glory… now and ever…), finds its origins in the letters of St Paul. Unfortunately, many Biblical translators seem to believe that it is merely a poetic way of saying “forever and ever,” and render it as such in English.

While it’s certainly true that “ages of ages” has the sense of “eternity,” the more literal meaning also contains a connotation of immediacy. That is, when we glorify (“doxologize”) God using this language, we aren’t simply making a declarative statement about his “timelessness.”Rather, we are formulating, in a sense, his glory as an evangelical proclamation in our own saeculum and in every saecula. In other words, we call ourselves accountable to make God’s glory, mercy, and love known in and throughout every age. Similarly, the Gospel, as the annunciation of this glory in the world, is not only “timeless” but fundamentally “timely.”

We are the beloved disciples unashamed at the Cross in saecula

We are the beloved disciples unashamed at the Cross in saecula

Our God of course isn’t one content to “exist” in timeless eternity, but one who makes himself known in his creative activity and throughout history. So too the Gospel cannot simply “exist,” but requires the participation of human beings to become manifest at all times and in every place. I would contend, therefore, that Christians are called to be “secular” precisely in this sense: not of the world, but in the world, timely as well as timeless. We are the midwives at the Nativity in saecula, the beloved disciples unashamed at the Cross in saecula, and the Apostles sitting beneath Pentecostal tongues of fire in saecula.

Yet what could this look like in specific, concrete terms? When I was the OCF director at my home parish before I came to seminary, I tragically never thought to implement the idea which I’d like to suggest now to any young adults, and especially college students:

Many suburban and urban college campuses have a large block of public space, usually a grassy quad, which, if memory serves, is heavily populated during typical weekend evenings with people going to and from various bars, clubs, and parties. If this is the case, consider gathering together on Friday evening to organize a food and/or clothing distribution for the needy, right in the midst of this space. I hope this wouldn’t be an attempt to shame the partiers, but rather gently and humbly to show them an alternative. In this act of charity, you’re visibly taking your “party” evening, which modern “college culture” says you should take for yourself to drink and make merry, and using it solely for the service of others.

Christ identifies himself quite literally with the poor and downtrodden: “I was hungry and you did not feed me” (Mt 25.42). I don’t think this is simply a call to be “humanitarian,” but in fact is a very real and timely Gospel proclamation. Hence if we take seriously the notion that we are to make God’s glory known “unto ages of ages,” witnessing (μαρτυρώ – as in ‘martyr’) to our fellow human beings in this secular world is a good place to start. This is, after all, the only world we have.

Volume 5: Number 6 Authors and Contributors

Mr Alexander Titus is a second-year Master of Arts student at St Vladimir’s Seminary. With a background in Classics, he hopes to continue on to do doctoral studies, eventually serving the Church as a teacher, researcher, and translator. His academic interests include philosophy, systematic theology, historical East-West relations, and Greek as well as Latin patristics. Originally from Eugene, Oregon, Alexander lives with his wife, Nina, and son Edmund.

Mr Andrew Boyd is the Director of Youth, Young Adult, and Campus Ministry for the Orthodox Church in America. He is a graduate of the University of Connecticut’s School of Business and the Master’s of Divinity program at Saint Vladimir’s Seminary. He works in corporate communications in New York City and is a member of Sts. Peter and Paul Orthodox Church in Jersey City, NJ. 

Priest David C. Rucker attended Asbury College in Kentucky earning a B.A. in Education and Missions, and later an M.Div from Asbury Theological Seminary. He and his wife Mat. Rozanne have done missionary work in  Colombia, Japan and China and are currently assisting in the training of leadership for 40,000 new Orthodox Christians in over 100 new churches in Guatemala and southern Mexico. They were chrismated in the Evangelical Orthodox Church in 1995 and planted a mission parish which was received into the Orthodox Church in America in February 2002. Fr. David was ordained to the Priesthood in June of that same year. When not in Central America, the Ruckers teach and speak in parishes and conferences across the USA, for the edification of local parishes.

 

Metropolitan Tikhon responds to Wonder blog

primate-seal

His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon, offers the following reflection on the recent discussion that was generated by Fr. Robert Arida’s article,“Never-Changing Gospel; Ever-Changing Culture,” which was posted on this blog.

I

In the “About” section of the Wonder Blog, a publication of the Department of Youth, Young Adults and Campus Ministries of the Orthodox Church in America, it is stated that the purpose of the blog is “… to spur discussion, both online and off, and provide material for those engaged in campus and young adult ministry” and “… help provide a ”˜good defense’ for our faith, hope and love.” In spite of this stated purpose, many have questioned the article’s usefulness, requested to know the authority under which it was published and have even called for its removal. Others have recognized its positive contributions to the complex and difficult theme of the relationship between Gospel and culture.

In light of the ensuing lively and informative discussion, and in consultation with my brothers on the Holy Synod, I am instructing the editors of Wonder to replace the lead article in question with my present reflection.

II

As a preface to my own reflection below, I would like to offer a clarification on the question of oversight. Although the Holy Synod takes the sacred confession of the holy dogmas of the Orthodox Church with the greatest of seriousness, it is not charged in the matter of theologoumena and areas requiring pastoral discretion and economiato function as a sort of “thought police” but rather, each bishop is entrusted with leading and guiding his flock within the light of Christ, according to the commandments of the Gospel and within the norms of the holy canons and the teachings of the Holy Fathers. On occasion, the Holy Synod does issue directives and encyclicals on various timely subjects and themes that require a clear statement to the flock.

In reference to the discussion of contemporary issues related to marriage and sexuality, I would direct the reader to several documents which have been published by the Holy Synod and are available on the OCA website:

  1. Encyclical on Marriage
  2. Synodal Affirmation on Marriage, Family, Sexuality and the Sanctity of Marriage
  3. Synodal Affirmation of the Mystery of Marriage

In reference to the specific topic of homosexuality, which is presumed by many of the respondents to Fr. Robert’s article to be the primary issue of discussion, I would draw the reader’s attention to the following paragraph from the third document above:

In light of the decisions rendered on June 26, 2013 by the Supreme Court of the United States of America with regard to same-sex marriage, we, the members of the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America, reaffirm that which had been stated in June 1992, namely that marriage involves the union of one man and one woman, as divinely revealed and experienced in the sacramental life of the Church. As such, the Church does not, and can not, condone or accept marriages apart from those involving one man and one woman who seal their relationship in the all-embracing love of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Synod has also recently blessed the re-activation of the Department of Pastoral Life, which is in the process of being re-evaluated and will begin its work in the very near future. It seems that the present discussion on Gospel and culture is one that would benefit from a more in-depth analysis than can be provided on a blog. It will be my recommendation that the issues raised here be one of the first areas to be addressed by the Department of Pastoral Life and that all those who have contributed to this present discussion be invited to participate.

III

I would also like to offer some preliminary reflections on the present discussion. In a paradoxical way, our discussions on “culture” seem to take place primarily at conferences, in books and articles and on websites and blogs. All of these, while certainly part of our culture, tend to remove us spiritually from the very context that we are speaking about.

I am conscious of this because I am writing these words as I sit in Boston Children’s Hospital with my nephew Tyler, who is today recovering from a ten (10) hour surgery yesterday to correct his severe scoliosis. Tyler is 16 years old and has undergone seventeen (17) surgeries on his back over the last 7 years. Prior to that, he lived his life in a plaster cast which was necessary to correct the severe curvature of his spine and prevent the puncturing of his internal organs. By God’s grace, and the prayers of many, yesterday’s surgery, involving the removal of expandable metal rods and the permanent fusion of his vertebrae, went successfully and is hopefully the last such surgery he will have to endure.

It is in contexts such as this that we most acutely face the reality of the relationship between Gospel and Culture. When a human being either undergoes such difficulties or is charged with ministering or helping someone in such a situation, the discussion ceases to be merely academic and becomes very real and immediate. I would not want us to lose sight of the human person and his salvation in Christ when we talk about “culture” and its relationship to the Church.

This does not negate the importance of knowledge, study and reflection. Others will have more academic and historical expertise on broad topics such as “Christ and Culture.” The discussion raised in this specific blog discussion is not new. For a very concise exposition of the Church’s approach to “culture,” I would direct you to the excellent book, Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy by Hieromonk Alexios [Trader]. Although the book focuses on a specific modern therapeutic approach within the context of the patristic witness, the approach taken by the author could serve as a model for an Orthodox approach to many other disciplines.

The first chapter of that book lays out the three general approaches taken in early Christianity to the practice of medicine: (1) the Tertullian model: resistance, rejection and enmity, 2) the model of Valentinus the Gnostic: absorption, manipulation and merger and 3) the Patristic model of Clement of Alexandria: selection, integration and transfiguration. The author chooses this last model as the most legitimate and the most reflective of a patristic approach of discerning openness. I offer the final words of that first chapter for your reflection:

The remaining option is the approach seen in figures such as Saint Basil the Great and Clement of Alexandria, an approach of discerning openness that selects, incorporates, and transfigures. This approach is implicitly asymmetric and hierarchal by virtue of the ontological value of salvation in Christ in contrast with the value of temporary psychological well-being. With this approach, Christian teachings act as a filter admitting some concepts, rejecting others, and in other instances suggesting alternatives. To be successful, this patristic approach requires clarity in terms of a patristic mindset capable of placing valuable insights from cognitive therapy into their appropriate niches within a patristic worldview and system of values. This is no simple task. Immersed as we are in a scientific worldview, our thought patterns are often unwittingly guided in a direction quite different from that of the Fathers. What was for them a natural perception must often be for us a matter of deliberate and continuous choice.[1]

We do, however, have the privilege of being able to choose to be methodologically guided by the Fathers on the sojourn before us. An Orthodox Christian theological worldview can be outlined and serve as a patristic basis for evaluating the implicit philosophical worldview of cognitive therapy. Relevant pastoral advice and ascetic teachings by the Fathers can be selected and arranged in order to form a patristic context for examining discrete components of cognitive therapy. In this way, we can strive to follow along the bold patristic path of those conquerors of death into the promised land of the Church where “the mystical trumpeters of the Spirit”[2] proclaim the truth of our faith: “all things are possible to him that believeth”[3] ”” Egyptian gold can be forged into a censer by a Christian hand.

If one were to replace “cognitive therapy” with any of the other philosophies and approaches that one finds in our world, perhaps the suggested patristic approach could be used effectively, at the hands of experienced priests and laymen, so that those positive elements of the culture that can be harmonized to the eternal Gospel of Christmight be used in a way that can build the bridges necessary to reach those who do not know Christ, choose to ignore Him or reject Him altogether, much as Saint Paul invoked the unknown God in speaking to the Athenians[4].

IV

In our Orthodox context, we are very good at speaking to each other, but we are less successful when trying to speak to those “who are not my people” (Hosea 4) in order to make them disciples of Christ. We must be willing to admit that, in many ways, the earthly representatives of the Orthodox Church – bishops, priests, and lay folk – have failed to address the culture in a meaningful way. We struggle to have a united ecclesiastical voice on both the global and local levels. With rare exceptions, our voice is weak in academic, cultural and political contexts. Perhaps this is due to our own human weakness, spiritual slothfulness, and inability to communicate the truth of the Gospel to the world around us.

But perhaps we need to begin by listening more and asking ourselves if we are truly able to hear the questions that are being asked by our college students, by our relatives, by the strangers we meet on the street, by our neighbors? On a blog, where anonymity is often the rule, it is difficult to discern who is speaking. I am grateful that the clergy who have responded to Fr. Robert’s article have all identified themselves and have commented in a Christian and respectful manner. I do not know whether the other commenters represent the target audience of the blog (young adults and college students) or not. But I would encourage all of us to open our ears to their voices and questions, so that we might help them to more effectively resist the temptations of the secular world and make their own the truth of Christ and the Gospel.

In our Orthodox circles, we like to debate issues such as the proper English translation for exclamations at the Gospel: are we to “listen” to the Holy Gospel or are we to “hear” it? Rather than endlessly debating the semantics of the matter, I would suggest that, whether we are assisting a relative who has undergone surgery or responding to the pointed questions raised by our youth, we ought to pick one translation or the other and simply do it (James 1:22).


[1] Cf. Nicholas Woterstorff, Reason within the Bounds of Religion (Grand Rapids: 1984), pages 68, 76 and 108.

[2] Glory at Vespers for the Feast of the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council in plagal tone 2.

[3] Mark 9:23.

[4] Acts 17:23.

Except Through Prayer and Fasting

EXCEPT THROUGH PRAYER AND FASTING
An early lesson for the (so-called) “other authors”

Fr Richard Flom

Before Peter, James and John were apostles, and long before Peter or John ever composed their epistles, these men were the closest three disciples to our Lord Jesus Christ.  The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry also contains several passages of critical and formative lessons for these soon-to-be apostles, preachers, and evangelists. One such lesson is found in Matthew 17:14-21

In the 17th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus, along with Peter, James, and John, have come down from the mountain top where Jesus was transfigured before them. When they had came to where the other disciples and a crowd were gathered, a man came up to Jesus, knelt before him, and said: “Lord, have mercy on my son for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly…. I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.”

jesushealsAfter Jesus had cast out the demon and the crowd had dispersed, the disciples asked Jesus: “Why could we not cast it out?”

This question arises from their past experience of healing the sick and casting out demons at the instruction of Jesus recorded in Luke 9:1, “Then he called his twelve disciples together, and gave them power and authority over all devils, and to cure diseases. And he sent them to preach the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick.”

Upon their return to Jesus, recorded in Matthew 10:17, they were excited! They proclaimed: “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!”

If the disciples had previously cast out demons in the name of Jesus, why could they not cast out this demon?

Jesus explained to the disciples that because they had not spiritually prepared and strengthened themselves by prayer and fasting, they could not cast out this demon (MT 17: 21).

Prayer and fasting are two of the basic spiritual tools necessary for our Christian way of life. Prayer and fasting are necessary for us to overcome the demons in our own lives ””our passions.

What is prayer? As lungs are our body’s breath; prayer is our soul’s breath. We cannot have life, if we have no lungs; we cannot have spiritual life, if we have no prayer.

Prayer is a continuous appeal of our heart in the presence of God. It is willingly being humble before God, willingly opening our heart to Him, willingly laying our life in His hands and recognizing Him as Lord of our life and of our death ””to have complete, total trust in Him as our Lord, Master and Savior.

Prayer is not bringing before God a “laundry”list of wants, wishes and desires. Many saints have prayerhandswritten that these types of prayers are in fact themselves sin.

The Church fathers and saints have identified many tools to aid us in our growth in prayer. These tools include: the services of the Church, including Vespers, Matins, the Divine Liturgy; an Orthodox Prayer Book and the Psalter; recitation of the Jesus Prayer or short memorized prayers from the Psalms while using a prayer rope; as well as the reading and study of Holy Scripture, especially the Gospels and the Psalms.

What is fasting? Is fasting only the avoidance of animal products, dairy products, fish, wine and oil (olive) on those days the Church prescribes fasting? The saints write that if we abstain from food but not from our self-indulgent passions, fasting from food becomes sin itself. Fasting isto be adenial of self-indulgence, an abstinence from sin.

f we abstain from food but not from our self-indulgent passions, fasting from food becomes sin itself.

“…if we abstain from food but not from our self-indulgent passions, fasting from food becomes sin itself.”

“Scripture does not forbid anything which God has given us for our use; but it condemns immoderation and thoughtless behavior”(St. Maximos the Confessor, Philokalia). Fasting is to struggle against our passions in order to control our unreasonable biological desires and instincts. It is abstaining from the attractions and distractions of this world ””yes, even from our smartphones, computers, TVs and the many other forms of entertainment, etc.

By the tool of fasting, we become more transparent and more receptive in our communication with God; we become freed from a particular passion, whether it be greed, gluttony, lust, pride, etc.

Neither prayer nor fasting are an end in themselves. They are only a means of reaching out to God Who is our Life and our goal.

St. Seraphim of Sarov said: ”[…] prayer, fasting, vigil and all the other Christian practices … do not constitute the aim of our Christian life. Although … they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end, the true aim of our Christian life consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ’s sake, [they are only the] means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God.”

Our goal is God himself! Prayer and fasting are merely tools to assist us in achieving our goal.

JesusTemptedintheDesertIconPrayer and fasting are hard work; they require much effort and diligence.   But modern Christianity all too often does not consist of struggle, hard work and diligent effort. Rather, it teaches an easy, feel-good, cheap religiosity of recent creation. It is a belief in a salvation without struggle or sacrifice; a salvation without holiness or righteousness. It is a belief that one can be secular all week, except the time allotted for church on Sunday morning. It is a belief in an easy “cheap”grace without any cost.

Sergius Nilus, in 1831, wrote the following introduction to a book of the notes of a meeting between Nicholas Motovilov and Saint Seraphim: “people have forgotten the fundamental truths of Christian life and are immersed in the darkness of materialism or the exterior and routine performance of ”˜ascetic labors…’”””in secularism and false spirituality.

This is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, nor the teaching of the Holy Fathers of the Church. Nor is this your personal life experience. You have not succeeded or excelled at anything without hard work, effort and struggle. If you are an athlete, you did not reach your level of excellence, without considerable and diligent effort and work. If you are a professional, you did not reach your level of expertise without much diligent effort and work. So too is the Orthodox Way of Life ””the way of Him who is Life, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Orthodox Christian way of life is a continuous struggle toward His righteousness and His holiness! Therefore, as St. Paul wrote (Eph. 5.17): “Do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”But, (Col .3.1-5) “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. […] Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry…”

Bothers and sister in Christ Jesus, the Scriptures and Holy Fathers tell us that we are to “be holy, [because He is] holy”(Lev 11: 45; 1 Pet 1.16).

prayfasthandsThe spiritual tools to aid us in growth unto His holiness and righteousness are prayer and fasting. There is no communion with God without prayer; there is no over-coming of our passions without fasting ””not just from certain foods but from our uncontrolled passions ””our demons.

St. Theophan the Recluse wrote that “Where there is no prayer and fasting, there are the demons.” The demons, our passions, are cast out only by prayer and fasting.
Therefore, be strong in the Lord and pray without ceasing and fast.

O God, empty me of self, and make Thine abode in me! Amen.