Orthodox Philokalia

Meditations of an Orthodox Scribe ~ Matt. 13:52

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.


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!



The Virtue of Gratitude

There is a subtle theme within the Scriptures and the writings of the church fathers that can easily escape the notice of Christians in the 21st century – that gratitude is a natural and necessary moral obligation. We sometimes fail to notice it because it is a disposition of the heart, and because our modern american culture has lost the sense of any and all social obligation to anyone or anything. In other words, we are blind to its value. Anyone can recognize that saying “thank you” is absolutely essential to “maintaining social graces” with those who give us gifts. There is no surer way to hurt a relationship than to fail to say “thank you.” But do we realize how essential it is to the spiritual life?

Thanksgiving is not merely a nice afterthought we could do without in our relationship to God – it is quintessential to what it means to be a Christian and a human. It benefits primarily ourselves, for without thanksgiving we easily fall prey to forgetfulness of God’s benefits bestowed on us – putting them aside in pursuit of earthly cares. In fact, this was the beginning of the sin of our ancestors – forgetfulness of God and dissatisfaction with his gifts. Hence thanksgiving – Eucharist – is the reversal of sin and the resurrection from the fall of Adam, whose children we are. What Adam failed to do was brought to fulfillment in Jesus Christ – a life of perpetual thanksgiving. And so it is in the breaking of the bread and giving thanks after Jesus’ example that the Church is made one again with Christ and God through the Holy Spirit’s work.

But it is not enough to merely attend the Eucharist and partake of Christ’s body and blood; we must also live a life full of thanksgiving, rendering God his due at all times, as best we can. For it can be all too easy to go to Church on Sunday and forget God the rest of the week. So we see that remembrance of God and gratitude for his gifts is absolutely essential to the Christian life.

But there is more. Within theology, especially in the West, a great discussion tends to take place on the relationship between Divine grace and human will, work, or effort. Some say God gives us grace first, then we respond; others say the two actions happen synergistically and simultaneously; others yet say humans make the first move, to which God responds. But all these theories about Grace and human will miss out on very significant point: Whenever we are given a gift, it is incumbent upon us to then render some token of thanks for that gift, so as to keep peace with the benefactor. Even so when God gives us gifts – which he is continually in the business of doing – we must render him as much thanks within our grasp in order to maintain peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Now, if we fail to give thanks, God will not stop giving; but we will stop remembering and be blind and ignorant to God’s goodness.

And so our words of thanks, our actions, our repentance, our remembrance of God, every good work, and, in essence, our Eucharist – none of these are a matter of merit, nor does any of them pose the question of which came first. Instead, everything is a response to God, a thank offering for all he has done for us. When we obey God we will become like him, but not to merit righteousness or earn a reward; rather we will merely have done our duty and we will only have begun to thank our Creator and Benefactor, who is praised and glorified forever. Amen.

An Original Poem – 3.15.16

O conscience, my sweet
Divine-human voice —
Primordial clarion,
Who call me back
to Paradise!
How I have longed
To hear thee,
My dear companion,
My guardian, my friend.
Come close, come near;–
I bid thee, here!
I would not hide
From thee, nor me;
From God, nor even
Behind a tree.
I would step out
Plant my shy feet
Naked, ashamed,
Running, repenting,
To our Father’s
House for just
One chance
To kiss the soil
I once called home.

Children of Light

If the day of our soul does not turn to evening and become dark, no thieves will come then to rob or slay or ruin our soul.

~ St. John Climacus

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Alpha Beta

6. One day Abba Arsenius consulted an old Egyptian monk about his own thoughts. Someone noticed this and said to him, ‘Abba Arsenius, how is it that you with such a good Latin and Greek education, ask this peasant about your thoughts?’ He replied, ‘I have indeed been taught Latin and Greek, but I do not know even the alphabet of this peasant.’

~ from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers

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Hesychia and Undistracted Prayer

31. The intellect cannot be still unless the body is still also; and the wall between them cannot be demolished without stillness and prayer.

32. The flesh with its desire is opposed to the spirit, and the spirit opposed to the flesh, and those who live in the spirit will not carry out the desire of the flesh (cf. Gal. 5:15-17).

33. There is no perfect prayer unless the intellect invokes God; and when our thought cries aloud without distraction, the Lord will listen.

34. When the intellect prays without distraction it afflicts the heart; and ‘a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise’ (Ps. 51:17).

35. Prayer is called a virtue, but in reality it is the mother of the virtues: for it gives birth to them through union with Christ.

36. Whatever we do without prayer and without hope in God turns out afterwards to be harmful and defective.

~ St. Mark the Ascetic

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Servants and Debtors

20. If ‘Christ died on our account in accordance with the Scriptures’ (Rom. 5:8; 1 Cor. 15:3), and we do not ‘live for ourselves’, but ‘for Him who died and rose’ on our account (2 Cor. 5:15), it is clear that we are debtors to Christ to serve Him till our death. How then can we regard sonship as something which is our due?

21. Christ is Master by virtue of His own essence and Master by virtue of His incarnate life. For He creates man from nothing, and through His own Blood redeems him when dead in sin; and to those who believe in Him He has given His grace.

22. When Scripture says ‘He will reward every man according to his works’ (Matt. 16:27), do not imagine that works in themselves merit either hell or the kingdom. On the contrary, Christ rewards each man according to whether his works are down with faith or without faith in Himself; and He is not a dealer bound by contract, but God our Creator and Redeemer.

23. We who have received baptism offer good works, not by way of repayment, but to preserve the purity given to us.

~ St. Mark the Ascetic

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Knowledge fulfilled in Practice

12. Even though knowledge is true, it is still not firmly established if unaccompanied by works. For everything is established by being put into practice.

13. Often our knowledge becomes darkened because we fail to put things into practice. For when we have totally neglected to practise something, our memory of it will gradually disappear.

14. For this reason Scripture urges us to acquire the knowledge of God, so that through our works we may serve Him rightly.

15. When we fulfil the commandments in our outward actions, we receive from the Lord what is appropriate; but any real benefit we gain depends on our inward intention.

16. If we want to do something but cannot, then before God, who knows our hearts, it is as if we have done it.  This is true whether the intended action is good or bad.

~ St. Mark the Ascetic

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‘Pray for me’

16. A brother said to Abba Anthony, ‘Pray for me.’ The old man said to him, ‘I will have no mercy upon you, nor will God have any, if you yourself do not make an effort and if you do not pray to God.’

~ from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers

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Delusion and the Jesus Prayer

Insanity can come from the Jesus Prayer only if people, while practising it, fail to renounce the sins and wicked habits which their conscience condemns. This causes a sharp inner conflict which robs the heart of all peace. As a result the brain grows confused and a man’s ideas become entangled and disorderly.

~ St. Theophan the Recluse

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