Orthodox Philokalia

Meditations of an Orthodox Scribe ~ Matt. 13:52

Harmonious Unity of Love

5. Love alone harmoniously joins all created things with God and with each other.

~ St. Thalassios the Libyan

From “On Love, Self-Control and Life in accordance with the Intellect” written for Paul the Presbyter, First Century

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Thoughts Unworthy of Love

2. An intellect that has acquired spiritual love does not have thoughts unworthy of this love about anyone.

~ St. Thalassios the Libyan

From “On Love, Self-Control and Life in accordance with the Intellect” written for Paul the Presbyter, First Century

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Longing for God

  1. An all-embracing and intense longing for God binds those who experience it both to God and to one another.

~ St. Thalassios the Libyan

From “On Love, Self-Control and Life in accordance with the Intellect” written for Paul the Presbyter, First Century

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Freedom from Passions

93. If you want to be free of all the passions, practise self-control, love and prayer.

~ St. Thalassios the Libyan

From “On Love, Self-Control and Life in accordance with the Intellect” written for Paul the Presbyter, First Century

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Remedies for Anger and Sorrow

Love of being dishonored is a cure for anger. And the singing of hymns, the display of compassion, and poverty are quenchers of sorrow.

~ St. John Climacus

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Baptism: a Meditation on Anecdotes.

As a matter of disclosure, before I became Orthodox by chrismation and communion, I had been born and raised in The Wesleyan Church, in fact I was baptized the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit by a Wesleyan Pastor, and since the age of 14 I was a full covenant member of The Wesleyan Church. Aside from the fact that The Wesleyan Church allows the baptism of infants, its baptismal practice is essentially believer’s baptism after the manner of Baptist churches.

With regard to my own baptism, I remember taking traditional baptismal vows according to the Anglican/Roman tradition. What stands out to me about my own baptism is that as I look back, I realize that my own baptism marks for me the point at which I felt like I was truly a Christian. I no longer felt the need to ask Jesus into my heart again and again to no apparent avail or change in my life. I did, in fact, until I was baptized fear for my salvation and “prayed the sinners prayer” somewhere between 5-10 times as a child, just to be sure I wouldn’t go to hell. But it never seemed to make much of a difference. While I cannot distinctly remember how I felt after being baptized, what stands out to me is I felt that I was a Christian.

Now we genuinely admit that for The Wesleyan Church, as for a great number of other Protestant denominations, baptism is not believed to have any material or spiritual power or efficacy for the baptized. It is taught and promoted as a means of testimony whereby faithful profess their faith. This is not 100% wrong, because even in the early church and today when one is baptized one must make profession of faith and say the Creed. But we would presently hold as Orthodox have for centuries that Baptism is the “bath of regeneration” (Titus 3:5), and the pledge of a good conscience towards God. It is primarily the action of God whereby we are buried with Christ into his death, and raised to new life unto his resurrection.

A number of years ago, before I was Orthodox but while I was already persuaded of Baptismal regeneration, I noticed something very unique, inspiring and promising. I noticed that baptismal candidates prior to their baptisms, while professing their faith ad libitum, tend to use language about baptism as if they are expecting God to do something in them and for them and to them through being baptized – whether it be forgiveness of sins, new birth, or salvation in general – I’ve witnessed and heard a great number of people profess faith in baptism’s power at the hands of ministers who deny its power. It is to the chagrin and shame of Christian ministers that their baptismal candidates believe in baptism more than they do. In other words, Christian denominations are attempting to maintain through (erroneous) doctrine, that baptism is only an outward sign and has no inner power. But those coming to baptism tend to believe differently.

Now, I cannot quote or cite actual examples. But I would encourage those who might witness Protestant baptisms to listen closely to what the candidates say about baptism directly prior to it. Time and time again, I’ve heard people humbly, powerfully and innocently confess one baptism for the remission of sins in the midst of traditions that deny this tenet of faith.

The Greatness of Baptism

Great is the baptism that lies before you: the ransom of captives, the forgiveness of sins, the death of sin, the regeneration of the soul, the garment of light, the holy perpetual seal, a chariot to heaven, the delight of paradise, a welcome into the kingdom, the gift of adoption.

~ St. Cyril of Jerusalem

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A Brief Apologetic for Orthodoxy in Light of Recent Negative Publicity

Quite recently Hank Hanegraaff, The Bible Answer Man, joined the Orthodox Church on Palm Sunday just a few weeks ago.

To be quite honest I had never heard of Hank before, but I was grateful to learn that someone else had found their home within Orthodoxy. I’m not one to put too much stock in the importance or publicity of well-renowned folks joining my religious group; much less would I tout any popular conversions as even good publicity – something which the past few weeks have proved to the contrary. Since his ‘conversion’ to the Orthodox Church, Hank Hanegraaff has been accused by folks online for “leaving the Christian faith,” and other such nonsense.

In particular, Ed Stetzer wrote a piece in Christianity Today commenting on the phenomenon of Evangelicals converting to Orthodoxy. And more recently in Pulpit and Pen, Jeff Maples made a poor attempt at polemicizing the Orthodox Church after he visited our Easter/Pascha service. I am not ambitious enough to here go line by line, point by point and mount a defense against these posts. However, I do want to say something in response, so I would like to offer the following points as humble observations:

  1. Hank Hanegraaff has himself said that he has not really changed or altered his faith in joining Orthodoxy. While it may be true that Orthodox Ecclesiology differs greatly from that of Evangelicalism, it is true that many Evangelicals join the Orthodox Church because they find it proclaiming the same faith that they themselves have believed, and that the ancient church has preached for 2,000 years. For many, it is described as a coming home precisely because faithful folks feel and believe they have arrived at the living, historical source of the faith they already have.
  2. I can sympathize with folks who think Orthodoxy to be a strange cult. For people who are used to white-washed walls and austere sanctuaries, Orthodoxy can be a striking contrast in worship style.But I would like to make a simple observation in this regard: The more austere, white-washed sanctuary is a product of the Protestant Reformation. We have archaeological evidence that ancient house churches and synagogues were covered with frescoes as early as the mid-third century. So what really is strange and new is Protestant worship (though not totally without connection to ancient worship, nor without merit), not ancient, liturgical Orthodox worship.
  3. The piece in Pulpit and Pen is really very sad. The author makes a long list of poor bullet points with unfounded accusations against the Orthodox Church. It seems clear to me that this person has no sense of a historical perspective, and is very myopic.
  4. For my fourth and last point I merely want to comment and elaborate on my first point: Orthodoxy is not a new religion, it is not an outdated religion. It is the faith once-for-all delivered to the saints. It may be true that Orthodoxy has its own unique liturgical character, but that is to its own credit, not demerit. People joining Orthodoxy are looking for a theological, liturgical and ecclesiastical home, somewhere they can grow deeply in Christ, and become the best versions of themselves – selfless, God-centered creatures grounded in humility and pouring forth love. So it is really offensive, and quite sad, when people say things like “they have left the Christian faith.” Friends, the Christian faith is deep and wide, and it takes a lot of hard work to actually leave it. What I myself have found to be true is a timeless faith and a liturgical mystery whereby I encounter the living God, the burning coal from the altar, and wings by which my soul might fly upward to the Holy, Holy, Holy.

Anger

19. The same abba said, ‘A man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God.’

~ Abba Agathon

from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers

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How I almost didn’t become Orthodox – Or, How St. Augustine saved my faith from perdition – My Journey to Orthodoxy, Part 1

According to my TimeHop, today marks the sixth anniversary of this Facebook photo of my reception into the catechumenate of the Orthodox Church. In the Orthodox Church, (which is the ancient church of the Eastern Roman Empire and also of the Slavic peoples), one must first join the ranks of those being instructed in the faith – catechumens – before one is eligible to be baptized or chrismated.

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Chrismation, or anointing with holy chrism, is the sacrament that follows baptism and is widely used to receive Christians of other churches who have been baptized with the Trinitarian formula. Whereas baptism is one’s personal Easter Triduum, chrismation is one’s personal Pentecost, in which the baptized person receives the grace of the Holy Spirit. I was chrismated on Pentecost of 2011, but not before at least 5-6 months of being a catechumen and not a few years of being an inquirer into the Orthodox Faith.

Whereas in some ways it might make the most sense to start describing my journey from the very beginning, I would rather today tell you about how I nearly lost my faith in Orthodoxy right before I was scheduled to be received by chrismation on Easter, 2011.

I was proceeding along my period of instruction as a catechumen fairly steadily, with very few bumps in the road. I was reading the prescribed reading, attending catechism classes with my priest, and diligently attending the services of the church (as I had been for over one year by then). As it was not uncommon for me to pick up some extra reading from the church library, I did so innocently, and I had chosen to read two books, the first being Introduction to Liturgical Theology, which is the published dissertation of Fr. Alexander Schmemann.

Now the copy I had in my hands had as its great disadvantage a complete absence of footnotes. Can you imagine reading a dissertation without citations? I found Fr. Schmemann making many unsubstantiated assertions in this study about certain steadfast features of Orthodox liturgical worship. In particular, at one point he attempted to make the case that once the church reached the peace of Constantine, it became common for bishops to be followed with incense and candlelight, in imitation of the Roman court. For reasons still unbeknownst to me, at the time this assertion was more than a harmless historical argument; it shook my faith and caused me to doubt the cultural relevance of Orthodoxy. The thought entered my mind, “If incense and candlelight were somehow culturally relevant to the people of the Roman empire at the time, then perhaps Orthodoxy has immortalized a temporary, cultural practice. Does that mean the church should attempt to make sense culturally wherever it finds itself?”

It might strike one as very odd that, as someone converting to the ancient Christian faith in Orthodoxy, I was concerned momentarily about cultural relevance. To be completely honest I don’t really know what came over me. I had been attending liturgical churches for a number of years, so one would think I would not be scandalized by the presence of Roman or Constantinopolitan customs within the church. For whatever reason, at that moment I was caught off guard, and began to doubt whether Orthodoxy was relevant in its timeless enshrinement of an ancient cultus.

Before I tell you how I overcame this doubt, I will now briefly give a pushback to my doubts. The use of incense in public worship did not begin with the Romans, nor did it cease after the falls of Rome and Constantinople. In reality many religions worldwide utilize incense in worship, and perhaps more significantly incense was common in the worship of the Jewish Temple – as also was the use of lamp stands. We know from historical accounts and archaeology that even before the peace of Constantine, Christian worship that took place in large houses was thoroughly liturgical (see The Eucharistic Liturgy in Ancient House Churches here). So it would seem that public privilege was not to blame for all liturgical inventions and reforms. Indeed, we have little evidence that Christian house worship was ever sitting in a circle and singing Kum-Ba-Yah.

The other book I was reading at the time when I encountered my doubt, was Beyond East and West: Problems in Liturgical Understanding. By now I can scarcely remember the theme of this book, except to say that I think it was a collection of essays and published articles by Robert Taft, who is a Jesuit well-versed in the history of the liturgy, especially the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. In the book, he makes the assertion that at the same time that church feasts began to increase, public reception of holy communion became less and less frequent. In other words, more liturgies were being celebrated, but fewer people were taking communion. Perhaps you can see a common theme to the things that gave me doubt: variation, innovation or change in liturgical practice over time.

Now it is really no secret that the church’s liturgy has changed over time, though by and large it has retained the same skeletal structure. However it is somewhat commonplace for many within Orthodoxy to represent the Church and even its history of faith as a monolith. Historically, and at times intellectually this becomes extremely problematic, and even borders on being fundamentalist (in which the Christian faith is a game of Jenga, and any variation or alteration causes the whole edifice to crumble). While the Orthodox Church may not agree with John Henry Newman’s concept of the development of doctrine, it is not at the same time necessary to imagine that diversity and development are altogether foreign to the life of the church.

As many of you probably know, at least in the past century the clergy of the church have encouraged the people to take communion frequently. It is no longer the case that the churches who celebrate communion most frequently actually partake less frequently. This is true for both East and West. So really, the practice of infrequent communion is much less of a problem than it used to be. And if one is to be completely honest, the liturgical history of the church is common to all Christianity, even if some protestants forsook more formal types of liturgy after the reformation. In reality the church’s liturgical life is an unbroken chain (even if one admits of variance) from the time of the apostles and their successors, up to the present.

And now for the joyous resolution to my short story. It was not intellectual arguments that eased my conscience to be firm in my decision to join the Orthodox Church. Rather, it was because I set down those books about the history of the liturgy, and read St. Augustine of Hippo.

Much to my own chagrin, St. Augustine does not hold the same status in contemporary Orthodoxy as he does in the West. There are not a few scholars or pseudo-scholars who look askance at St. Augustine and find seminal within his writings all the future doctrinal problems with Catholicism. I’ve even heard a renowned Orthodox priest whom I greatly respect call Augustine’s De Trinitate a bad book (!).

Here I will not go into detail concerning the East’s contradiction with Augustine, nor will I make a solid attempt to defend his orthodoxy. I merely want to give him credit where credit is due; for if I had not had the boldness to “take and read” St. Augustine, I might not be Orthodox today. In a time of grave doubt I read St. Augustine, whom some Orthodox discount and despise, and instead of doctrinal problems what I encountered was the writings of a man who was just as much a child of the Church as he was its Father and Teacher.  To me, it seemed that St. Augustine was more Orthodox than many people gave him credit for, and his authority in teaching the catholic faith restored my belief in those things that are essential for any catholic Christian. As I read St. Augustine I remembered that I wanted to become Orthodox because they keep the main thing the main thing.

And so, after a brief postponement of my chrismation (I was originally scheduled to be received on Great and Holy Saturday 2011), I was chrismated on the day of Pentecost 2011. I received remission of my sins committed after baptism, was imbued with the Holy Spirit, and received Jesus Christ in the Eucharist with the rest of the Orthodox Faithful.

Glory to God for all things!