Saturday, September 06, 2008

Ever Virgin Mary

I’m often asked by Protestants if the phrase “ever virgin Mary” means that the Church teaches that Mary the Theotokos never had sex. If I am tired or grumpy, I just answer “yes” and prepare myself to respond to the predictable objections with off-the-shelf answers. And in most cases, this is all the inquirer wants. However, sometimes, I answer by saying “no.” Then I say that it means the Mary’s heart and mind were always pure, that she was always full of the Light, Life and Grace of God. Oh yes, and by the way, that also had a biological component: she never had sexual intercourse, but that is not what “ever virgin” means.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Passions as disease

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the passions and how they afflict us like a disease. Even when you fight against the passions, I find that I am often tricked by them. Really the only hope I have found is to call out to God (using the Jesus Prayer) when I am strongly feeling a passion. However, if someone doesn’t strongly fight the passions, then they take over his life. Some people fight bodily passions with spiritual passions, thus corrupting the heart to discipline the body. For example, someone may control his appetite out of vanity: he wants to look good more than he wants to eat. That’s the tricky part of fighting passions. It is so easy to let self esteem, pride in one’s self, to be the power that overcomes strong desires (this is often the way the world teaches people to overcome bodily passions). But in the end, pride kills love and cuts one off from God. It ends in either delusion (because one thinks he is better than he is) or in despair (because one thinks that he is worse than he “should” be–he keeps saying to himself, “I should be better than this”).

However, just like a sick man (say he is allergic to peanut butter), there are only two things he can do because he cannot help getting sick. First, he has to go to the Physician (God) to be treated and second, he has to avoid the things (peanut butter) that make him sick. It does no good to say, “I shouldn’t get sick from peanut butter.” The fact is that you do. So if someone, like an alcoholic, gets sick (can’t control himself) from drinking beer (etc.) then he has to stop drinking beer all together. In my life I have found that there are several things that I enjoy, but I just can’t do because often (not always, and so there is where a temptation lies) it results in stirring up my passions. There is no pride or self glorification in this. I am not good because I don’t do certain things. In fact, it is because I am sick that I don’t do certain things. Someone else may be able to do certain things, see certain things, participate in certain activities and not experience the arousal of passions. I rejoice that they are free. I, on the other hand, am quite sickly (spiritually speaking), so I have to be very careful–like a diabetic who continually worries about what he does or doesn’t eat, I have to continually watch out for what I let myself do, think or say; otherwise, I’ll get spiritually sick.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

America Coming to Orthodoxy

I got an e-mail today from a colleague in the world of Orthodox Christian publishing who commented that "America is not coming to Orthodoxy." It was at once a statement of realism and apparent resignation. However, I do not think his observation is correct. If by "America coming to Orthodoxy" we mean a massive conversion on a popular level--revivalist fervor, tent meetings with icons, incense and golden chalices, along with the accompanying recognition in the secular media--then certainly America is not coming to Orthodoxy. And I say thank God. I don't think the American Orthodox Church (and here I mean North American) has the administrative strength to handle a tsunami.
However, if one allows that coming to Orthodoxy begins by becoming aware that it exists and is a real option for Christians in North America, then I say America is coming to Orthodoxy. When I began teaching at a major Methodist seminary about twenty years ago, the M.Div. program required two semesters of Church history: New Testament to Reformation, and Reformation to present. In none of the one-year course of lectures was there any but the slightest reference to the Eastern Orthodox. Church history was a direct line from Paul to Augustine to Aquinas to Calvin/Luther to Wesley to whatever flavor of contemporary Christianity one preferred. Theology followed the same path. When I left this seminary five years ago, one full lecture in the history cycle was devoted to Eastern Orthodoxy, not a tsunami, but certainly an introduction that had never existed before. Similarly in theology, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Palamas had been "discovered." In New Testament, (albeit without the discernment of the Church) the importance of all first and second century Christian authors had been discovered.
When I came to Trinity Western (the largest Evangelical university in Canada), I was pleasantly surprised to find many faculty members openly discussing the role of tradition (of course it sounds better and probably draws less criticism from reactionaries if you use the Greek: paradosis). Theology faculty occasionally asked to discuss with me some of the more difficult aspects of Zizioulas (Being as Communion) or Yannaras (The Freedom of Morality). I would hear professors mention Schmemann and Tillich in the same sentence. Bishop Kalistos Ware's The Orthodox Church and The Orthodoxy Way were required texts in some courses (and often available in the general reading section).
It seems to me that America is coming to Orthodoxy. But like everything Orthodox, it takes a real long time.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

PASCHA Joy, or not

Holy Nativity is growing! We had 68 for PASCHA. It was glorious. Or was it? Why is it that two people can share what appears to be the exact same experience, but each come away with very different impressions of it? One comment I heard from a visitor was "You just keep repeating the same thing over and over again" [Christ is risen]. We certainly do! I can see how that could seem rather empty to someone for whom "Christ is risen" is just a piece of information, a datum: "O yes, it is Easter, Christ is risen, yes, so what else is going on?"
The Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom, the sermon read in every Orthodox Church at the PASCHA Liturgy, encourages everyone to come to the Feast--the ascetics and the negligent, those who kept the fast and those who disregarded the fast. God receives both the labor (for those who strove to prepare themselves through repentance during the Fast) and the intention (for those who did not but wish they had). The Feast is the same for everyone. The difference is not on God's side. God receives all who come to Him. God offers the same Feast to all. The Feast cannot be any different because the feast is God Himself. Christ is the "fatted calf" sacrificed for the Feast at the prodigal son's return.
But some do not keep the feast. Maybe they just are not hungry. Maybe, like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son, they are too distracted to feast, worrying about what is fair or not fair, what is their due versus what is due others. Maybe, like many of us, all of life has been reduced to data and feelings (passions) and the rational processes they have found useful to manipulate the data to stimulate or get relief from the feelings.
It reminds me of Jeremiah 17:2 [17:6 in Protestant Bibles]:"For he shall be like a shrub in the desert. He shall not see when good things come." This passage compares a shrub, that doesn't even notice when the rains come, to a tree with deep roots that continues to bear fruit in a drought. The difference between the two is not rain vs. drought. They both experience both. Rather, the difference is the plant itself. The shrub, dead even while it lives (c.f. 1Tim. 5:6), doesn't even notice when God showers blessings. The man who trust in the Lord, however, is a tree with root that reach down to the water. When drought comes, as it does to every life at various seasons, this man continues to bear the fruit of virtue, the fruit of the Spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Gentleness, Self Control. However, returning to the experience of PASCHA Joy, the shrub just doesn't notice much.
It's important that you do not misunderstand me. First, and most important, this in not a criterion by which we can judge others. The passage in Jeremiah goes on to say, "The heart is deep and beyond all things, and it is the man. Even so, who can know him? I the Lord, examine the heart..." (OSB Septuagint translation). Only God knows the heart, which is the man. I cannot judge another man's heart, ever. Second, the amount of Paschal Joy we experience or don't experience is only an indicator, it only suggests that all is well or that something may be amiss in our relationship with God. Learning to live in God, to walk in the Spirit, to pay attention to the inner man of the heart is a life-long process. Our experiences in prayer are important indicators, but they are only partial indicators. They are not irrelevant, but neither are they very reliable. Just like the seasons of the year, the seasons of the spiritual life are sometimes dry and sometimes rainy (except in BC where it is sometimes warm rain and sometimes cold rain). If you didn't seem to experience much Joy in PASCHA, you should examine yourself. It may be that you were a little sick in body or mind. It may be that you were disturbed by a relationship problem. It may be that you have been ignoring God. Whatever it is, look to God. Christ receives us, the last and the first, the strong and the weak, the spiritual giant and the spiritual chicken. I often remind myself when I am overwhelmed with my own weaknesses that although I am a mess, I am God's mess. Whatever we are or are not, it is good to be God's.