Friday, March 26, 2010

What's Going On

Dear Blog Friends,
I'm writing this on my new i-Mac. There's a story here--get a cup of coffee.
I got a call last week from John Maddex, CEO of Conciliar Media Ministries asking me to edit a new on-line magazine along the lines of AGAIN and Handmaiden. However, this new on-line magazine is not just a print magazine that is read on-line, rather it is a completely interactive experience compatible with several different platforms: computers, phones, i-Pad, Kindle, etc. Needless to say, I've got a huge learning curve in front of me. Through the generosity of several friends I have been able to purchase an I-Mac (almost all publishing and design is done on Macs) to replace my six-year old PC and the necessary software to create and publish magazines.
All of this took place Wednesday through Friday last week. Sunday afternoon, I was off to Holy Transfiguration Hermitage for a few days of quiet. It was a blessed three days. Please pray for Fr. Gregory, his stomach is a mess. He can eat very little (one cup of rice, a (very) few stewed vegetables and a little bit of pealed apple once a day--that's it, and even this immediately causes him to have diarrhoea). He is in constant pain. And in spite of this, as usual, Fr. Gregory was full of joy and words of life and encouragement. And as usual, he both encouraged me, challenged me and made me feel loved, valuable and safe in God's care. None of the problems went away. I am no more confident nor certain about anything (except God's great love and care for his wandering creatures).
We spoke quite a bit about guardian angels. Fr. Gregory is particularly close to and aware of his guardian angel. He said that at baptism, everyone is given a guardian angel. Then he said that those who have not received the Grace and Seal of Holy Baptism and Chrismation have two guardian angels. They need them more, and because of God's great love, he grants them. May God grant me to love all mankind so as to give more to those who need more.
I came back from the retreat Wednesday and quickly got caught up again in the Conciliar Media project. Right now I am on the Mac learning curve. I start the Adobe Photoshop learning curve this afternoon. Then I've got to learn the basics of Adobe Illustrator before Wednesday night of Bright week (April 7) when I begin the Adobe InDesign course at UFV. Lord Have Mercy!
Bonnie says she hasn't seen me happier in a long time. It's funny. I'm happy when I have to learn stuff.
Of course the down side of this is my inner life does not get much attention. Actually, Fr. Gregory talked to me a little about this too. He gently rebuked me for separating myself into spiritual and other parts. I must take Christ in my heart into Adobe software training. My mind must stay in my heart--full of peace--even while my mind is solving problems and learning, memorizing and exploring new worlds. I still get up early (not too early) and say my prayers, but then I get to work, bringing my prayers with me.
On another front, we have taken the house off the market. Bonnie is rejoicing exceedingly. The garden is in and peas are growing, tomatoes are started in the house, and we are already eating lettuce. The ducks love her and follow her around the yard. This year we have a mating pair of Northern Shovel Nose ducks along with a mating pair of Call ducks that we picked up from our neighbour's green house (they use call ducks in greenhouses to eat slugs and miscellaneous bugs). This is in addition to a pair of Canadian Geese (which the dogs are trained to chase off the lawn--but not the ducks [smart dogs, eh?]), and about four other species of water fowl not counting the ever present Mallards.
This Lent has been a tough one for me. I haven't blogged much mostly because I have had nothing to say. It seems like I have gone through a season in which my heart has been full, but my head empty (some may ask, only a season?). Holy Nativity has to be out of the Barn by the end of April. We may have things set up to move into the old St. Nicholas Church building, but it is by no means a done deal. Much of my energy over the past couple of month has been caught up in trying to figure out where we are going to move and, more importantly, how to keep my mind in my heart even when I have no idea where Holy Nativity will worship on May 2.
O yes (O Canada!), I forgot to mention, Bonnie and I became Canadian citizens two weeks ago. We do not lose our U.S. citizenship, but we are Canadians now too. We love our new home and our new country and we hope to spend the rest of our lives at Holy Nativity. I want to send one of our altar boys to seminary and have him come back and take over the parish with me as the old emeritus priest sitting on the side. That's my dream.
Wow, when you look at it all, there has been quite a bit going on (lots of other little stuff too that I haven't mentioned like helping out some friends with writing projects, plumbing, painting, and loving and leading the blessed faithful of Holy Nativity.
I thank God that He has given me such a life. By your prayers, I may just make it to the end in one piece (and in one peace).
Fr. Michael

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Feeling of Prayer

The scripture tells us that the blood of Able cried out to God from the ground. St. Paul in Hebrews 12:24 tells us that the Blood of Jesus speaks better than the blood of Able. Following this same line, St. Gregroy Palamas says that when we fast the members of our body suffer and this very suffering is prayer: prayer that is added to our prayer. That is, fasting increases our prayer because our weak and suffering body is also crying out to God with our mind.

So when you hear the tummy growl or feel a little pinch of hunger, understand that it is the feeling of your body praying. Your body is praying with you, adding to your prayers, like the blood of Able crying out to God.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

St. Gregory Palamas on the Cross

Such is the word of the cross. It was and is, therefore, a great and truly divine mystery.... On the face of it, anyone who lowers and humbles himself in all respects seems to be bringing dishonour on himself, anyone who flees carnal pleasures appears to be causing himself toil and grief, and anyone who gives away his possessions looks as though he is making himself poor. But by the power of God this poverty, grief and dishonour give birth to inexhaustible riches, inexpressible delight and eternal glory, both in this world and in the world to come. Paul ranks those who do not believe this, and [who] prove by their actions [that they don’t believe this], with the lost, or with the Greeks. “We preach,” he says, “Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block,” because they do not believe in the saving passion, “and unto the Greeks foolishness,” as they value transitory things above all else because of their complete disbelief in God’s promises, “but unto them that are called, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:23). St. Gregory Palamas (+1359) On the Precious and Life-Giving Cross

Monday, March 01, 2010

Salvation is of the Body: The Intercession of the Saints

It is very difficult for many converts to Holy Orthodoxy to pray to the saints. For them, it seems, it is a matter of efficiency. They often think: “Why go through an intermediary when you can go straight to the top?” I call this sort of thinking a corporate model of heaven. In a corporation, intermediaries are often seen as obstacles keeping us from the decision makers at the top of the corporate structure. A salesman is always thinking of ways to get past the secretary to the boss. A worker on the assembly line knows from experience that a complaint will die if it must pass through all of the “proper” channels before it reaches the manager, and so he waits outside the washroom to have a word directly with the manager as she walks back to her office. But the Kingdom of Heaven is not a corporation.

The Kingdom of heaven is a family, a family that functions as one body. The hand cannot say to the foot, “I have no need of you” (c.f. 1 Corinthians 12:21). This is because the foot relies on the hand just as much as the hand relies on the foot. Without hands, it is pretty hard to put on socks and shoes, and without feet it is pretty hard to get from one place to another. The feet do not say to the hands, “No thank you, I have asked the head to put on my socks today.” This is ridiculous because it is the head that energizes and enables the hands to do its work. It is through the hands that the head puts the socks on the feet.

Now the Church, according to St. Paul, is a many membered body. That is, the one body of the Church is made up of many persons (members). One of those persons is Christ, who is the head. The rest of the body of the Church is made up of billions of other people who, like a hand and a foot, depend on each other. It is the head that decides which parts will administer its care to the rest of the body. The care, nourishment, and very life that come from the head flows through some parts of the body to others. Moreover, because in the Kingdom of Heaven these “parts” are human persons, each “part” participates in and actually influences what the Head is distributing to the body.

Here’s a simple illustration. Suppose I (a foot) needed ten dollars. God might prompt you (a hand) to give me ten dollars. But this raises a question, who gave me the ten dollars? You? God? Yes! The grace of God flowed through you, but not as through a tube; for you also expressed compassion and generosity. Again back to the image of a body. Can the hand give without the instruction of the head or the head without the cooperation of the hand? Let’s take this illustration a step further. Suppose I needed ten dollars and I have prayed and asked God to meet my need. I have also asked a few of my friends who might have ten dollars they can spare. Does asking my friends negate my prayer to God? Or, perhaps, in asking my friends, I recognize that God has distributed his gifts among the body and that the way God normally grants his gifts is through the gracious, god-like actions of the members of his body. This is God’s dispensation, God’s economy. Grace-filled action is neither all God’s doing nor all the doing of the particular human person through whom the Grace-filled action comes. It is a synergy.

The experience of the Church over the ages has taught us that petition is not merely a matter of asking God for what we need, but also a matter of asking one another. But not just asking anyone. Gifts and graces differ. Moreover, and this is huge, Christian maturity and growth in divine Grace differs tremendously. Just because people have ten dollars to spare, doesn’t mean that they have grown in compassion and generosity to the point that they recognize that their money is not their own, but a trust given to them by God to be distributed as the body needs it. A person who has the spiritual gift of showing mercy, for example, may be so caught up in the pains and cares of her own heart that she just can’t hear the cries of another. A pastor may have many years of training yet to go before he is ready to give anyone advice.

This is part of the reason why the Church recognizes saints. In a sense, every Christian is a saint. “Saint” means “holy one.” So, in as much as every Christian participates in the holiness of Christ, all Christians are saints. However, not every Christian actualizes this holiness. The Church calls saints those whose lives and/or teachings have manifested a high degree of actualized holiness. These, the church calls saints not only so that their lives may be emulated and their teachings respected. These are called saints so that we may pray to them, that we may ask them to help us, that we may look to them for the Grace of God which God in his economy has distributed to the body for the body.

Some Orthodox Christians like to make a distinction between “praying to God” and “asking the saints to pray to God for us.” I think this is a false distinction, for one of the definitions of “pray” is “ask.” However, a distinction that I find a little more useful is that of “ask” as opposed to “intercede.” So we might say that we ask/pray for the saints to intercede for us. But even this can create a problem if, instead of seeing the Kingdom of Heaven as a family that functions as one body, we see it as a business, as a corporation. The saints don’t just send our prayer up the chain of command for us, only to have God at the top grant or not grant our request. Rather, the saints intercede for us both in the sense that they carry with us our petitions to God, and also in the sense that they participate in distributing the gifts of God’s Grace. For example, God often performs miracles through the intercession of saints, so that it is possible to say, “St. Nektarios healed me,” which is the same thing as saying, “God healed me.” It’s a body, it’s a family. St. Nektarios is doing what God is doing.