Sunday, February 28, 2021

Letter 3 to my children: The Orthodox Mind

 

Next, I want to share with you what I learned about the nature of the Orthodox mind and how it differs from our normal western way of thinking. It is this Orthodox mind that will allow you to know God and become united with Him. Being brought up Orthodox you already have elements of this. But being immersed in a western society you have mostly another way of thinking.


For me it took a long time to begin to develop an Orthodox mind. I am still working on it. I was not brought up in this way of thinking.  My parents were not Orthodox, but they took me to the United Methodist Church as a child regularity, about like you attended the Orthodox Church in your childhood. The church building was totally different from an Orthodox Church. It was devoid of decoration. The focal point was the pulpit and the sermon was the main event. It was like a large lecture hall. Communion was only offered periodically and was only symbolic where a tray of small glasses of grape juice was passed around just like a collection plate. As I look back, it was assumed that our highest power was our rational mind and it was through our intellect that we came to know God. There was no emphasis on the active role of the Holy Spirit. That’s why the emphasis was on the pulpit and the Sunday sermon. There was also an emphasis on social projects for the poor and disadvantaged. This communicated that if you did good works like this God would favor you. It wasn’t until I became Orthodx through marriage that I had even an inkling what might be an Orthodox way of thought. My first experiences were mind blowing. I didn’t know what to think the first time I sat through a Divine Liturgy in an Orthodox Church. It was so different. I remember when Kathy would go with me to church at “my” church when we were dating, she would say, “I don’t feel like I have been to church.” At that time I didn’t understand what she was saying.


Our Western outlook emphasizes rational thought and questions things that can’t be explained. By the use of this self-endowed power of intellect we believe we can become become independent, self-sufficient, successful in a career, a good parent and Christian all by our own efforts. Independence and self-sufficiency were emphasized when I was growing up. God was rarely mentioned. I learned that my opinions are as valid as any others and I was the determiner of what was true. Truth in matters of faith was relative. Because of this, I had difficulty accepting the idea of a higher truth, an absolute Truth. By thinking truth was relative then my idea of faith was as valid as another’s idea of faith. I was taught by my Methodist pastor, that all religions lead to a common goal. It didn’t make ant difference, only that some paths may be shorter. I was also taught that we can’t know God except through Scripture. It was mostly up to me individually to make my own interpretation of Scripture. This reliance on self-direction through my intellectual powers I know now is a falsehood. I have learned by experience that what we can know through our intellect is only part of reality. My rational mind is important but it is not the highest power that I have. I have a soul and a higher mind.  When I was conceived I was given a soul. In a sacramental Orthodox baptism we become a holy temple and God lives within us. For Orthodox, baptism is the work of the Holy Spirit, it’s mystical and transformative. For many Christians, like Baptist, it’s only an ordinance. They seem to ignore the transforming role of the Holy Spirit. Needless to say, to become truly Orthodox I had to learn a new way of thinking.


The Greek word for this idea of a way of thinking is “phronema”. Some call it a world view. We will uncover what is the Orthodox “phronema” and eventually learn how one develops it. Remember, that for me, this took a long time and I am still working on it.


When discussing Christianity, the Western churches use much the same terminology as the Orthodox Church, but their meaning is often quite different. (Like the difference in Holy Communion or baptism mentioned earlier.) We will get one meaning with the normal rational outlook and another with a more mystical or spiritual one. It is not rational to think that the Holy Spirit can change bread and wine into the actual Body and Blood of Christ. But this is an absolute truth for a true Orthodox Christian.


Roman Catholics have the most in common with Orthodox Christians, but they think they understand Orthodox thinking and practice when they really don’t. Why? Because they have a different way of thinking, a different “phronema”. For Orthodox, logical definitions and arguments are not important to understanding things about God, while they are essential to a Western Christian mind. For Catholics almost everything is given an explanation. Like it was for me, it is difficult for them to “think Orthodox.” I will try to help you understand how to “think Orthodox.”


The Orthodox faith involves an integration of faith, thought, and the way of life that the Apostles learned from Jesus. They were simple fishermen who learned from their direct relationship with Christ. They were not philosophers. They did not have a book to study about nature of Christ. Of course they knew the Psalms and stories from the Old Testament with its many miracles and divine interventions. Remember, Jesus did not use logical arguments or written guides to teach them. He told them stories, parables, and performed miracles and showed them by how he lived in unity with His divine will. Even they had difficulty understanding what He was teaching them until after His Resurrection. They witnessed Him crucified and resurrected and then appearing to them after His death when He could teach them the deep mysteries. Some of them recorded what they observed which has become what we call the New Testament Gospels. What they were taught, and how they worshiped and lived has been passed on in the Orthodox Church unchanged over generations, in different languages and cultures. You will not find all of this written in the New Testament. This way of life involves being always aware of the heavenly kingdom where Christ is king, the multitudes of angels, and saints who have been taken up to heaven to serve Him and glorify Him. With this vision of divine reality we are moved by love to follow the way of life Christ taught. It embraces miracles based on the reality of higher powers, and the work of the Holy Spirit in the sacraments of the Church. We accept that God is everywhere, in all things and all places, supporting the created world. It accepts the reality of a Creator that established the natural order we have gradually begun to understand in part through scientific study. It views God’s  powers as unlimited. It sees God as three persons, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit but yet one God.


My view of God changed as I developed this Orthodox phronema. Our way of thinking does determine how we view God. For Orthodox there is room for ambiguity, uncertainty, paradox and mystery. We are asked to seek a knowledge greater than that available to us through our intellectual powers. Orthodox resist and avoid definitions, reject legalistic thinking, or any way of thinking that seems to box in God with earthly terms. There is aways something more than what we experience through our senses that we can only access though our soul and it’s higher powers. 


We cannot limit our understanding to what is written in Scripture as I was taught in the Methodist Church to analyze intellectually. In addition to the mysteries hidden in the words, there is much more that the Apostles were taught than what they could write down. This is what is known as Holy Tradition. This is another dimension of the Orthodox mind.


Everything is interconnected. We cannot discuss Scripture without referring to Tradition, the writings of the fathers, and the practices that have passed down through the Church unchanged. We are taught to suspend our intellectual study and let the words speak to our heart. What we don't understand we don't critique, but hope for a future reading when the meaning will be revealed to us. Our liturgical life is filled with ancient hymns that point us to truth. There are many ways available to point us to this greater reality. To understand Scripture we need to make sure our view is consistent with Tradition and what the early Church fathers taught, not just our own clever thoughts. When there appears to be more than one truth it’s not which one is correct but that they all are true. The conflict is held as a mystery. To fully understand, we need to be lifted to a higher state. The Church fathers were holy men who had a direct experience of God. Because of this they have a deep understanding of the meaning of Scripture. It is therefore important to listen to what they teach. In understanding Scripture we also need to include the whole, everything that is written, not just a selected piece. 


In this Orthodox mind we need to embrace Heaven as real. We need to see the Holy Spirit as God in action. We need to value the sacramental life in the church, because the  sacraments all involve the work of God through the Holy Spirit. Part of this Orthodox mind accepts ambiguity, uncertainty and above all mystery. In thinking about God we must learn to be humble and accept that we are limited in nature. We must hold a vision of another spiritual world and hold this entire structure in our consciousness. 


When I was in the process of becoming truly Orthodox, I was led by the writings of Saint Theophan the Recluse in  the book, The Path to Salvation. There was a section that I came back to over and over again because it was hard for me to understand this expanded view. He summarized it this way:

“God is One worshiped in Trinity. The Creator and Upholder of all things, or as the Apostle says, the Head of all things (cf. Eph. 1:10) in our Lord Jesus Christ through te Holy Spirit, active in the Holy Church, which, having perfected the faithful, transports them to another world. This world will continue until the fullness of time, or the end of time, when, at the resurrection and judgment all will receive according to their deeds—some will descend into hell, while others will dwell in paradise, and God will be all in all (cf. 1 Cor. 15:28).”

With humility we can be lifted to a state where we understand these mysteries. I remind you again, this does not happen for most of us overnight or even in a year. Once we accept that there is a higher way of thinking then we will want to strive to develop it in ourselves.


I leave you with a question. Can you see any differences in the Orthodox way of thinking from your normal way of thinking? What is the kind of thinking you are taught in our schools and how does it differ from this “Orthodox mind’? How do you deal with paradox and ambiguity in matters of faith? How do you understand miracles?


We will continue our discussion of the Orthodox phronema and how to gain it in the next letter.


More reading; Eugenia Constantinos, PhD is the author of a book titled Orthodox Thinking; understanding and Acquiring the Orthodox Christian Name.


Sunday, February 21, 2021

Letter 2 to my children - Belief


The first step in a healing spiritual life in the Church is a clear understanding of the truths revealed to us in the Gospels. We address this by examining the Creed. I learned the Creed early on, even memorized it. I later discovered that the way I was reciting it was mostly of an act of obligation and was done without any deep feeling or much understanding. It was something everyone did in Church. 

Why does it deserve deeper attention? In it we find the essence of the nature of God and our purpose in life as recorded in Holy Scripture. It is a document created by the whole Church and affirmed in the first two ecumenical councils in the 4th century where it was agreed to never allow it to be changed. For Orthodox Christians it has never changed, but some ambiguities have been clarified in later councils. The creed sets the boundaries about what we must believe about God to be a Christian without taking away any of the mystery of the spiritual realm. Now it’s time for you to examine it.


In essence it tells us that God is the creator of all. Out of love and His desire for us to be reconciled with Him, He sent his Son who took on flesh from the Virgin Mary. The Christ did not come to write a book or give us a set of rules, but to show us a way of life so we could become united with Him in eternal life. In it we see His love and His humility, all key attributes for eternal life. He was fully Human while remaining fully God so He could transform our human nature to become divine, to become like Him. Not only do we have His miraculous birth from a virgin, God becoming man, but His unjust and voluntary suffering and Crucifixion, followed by His Resurrection and then His assenting into heaven. This shows us our path to Paradise. By following Him we too can be resurrected and have the hope for eternal life in Paradise, His Kingdom. All this is not just philosophical or made up story, but a historical reality. He revealed Himself to us and the Gospel writers recorded what they experienced.


As you study the Creed, it’s important to identify areas where you have doubts about the nature of God. Having doubts is normal as the events of His incarnate life, Crucifixion, His Resurrection and Ascension, all defy rational explanation. I had many doubts for many years. To develop a true faith these doubts it was important to expose them, bring them to my awareness, and chose to seek an understanding. Exposing them and discussing them you will in time be able to overcome them. It’s all a process of building a true faith. We all have doubts. We must realize that we have inherited many assumptions from our parents and the society that we have been brought up in that are often counter to our faith. As these assumptions are uncovered, you will be able to chose to change them, rather than having them hidden and secretly blocking you from knowing God.


Here is the Creed. Examine it carefully and identify issues that arise for you and share them with me.


The Creed

I believe in one God, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages; Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not created, of one essence with the Father through Whom all things were made. Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man. He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried; And He rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father; And He will come again with glory to judge the living and dead. His kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Creator of life, Who proceeds from the Father, Who together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke through the prophets.

In one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come.

Amen.



Sunday, February 14, 2021

Letter for my children Letter 1 - Introduction and a Confession.

 

Letter for my children - Letter 1

Introduction and a Confession.

This is the first of a series of letters I am planning to send you about our faith. I send these with love. I hope you will engage with me in a dialog.


I begin with a confession.

When I was much younger God was not central in my life. I was Orthodox in name only. I did not go to church regularly, I did not fast nor have periodic confession with a priest. I did always have a sense that there was some higher power but it was one that remained a distant mystery. At time I wondered if there was a God and if there was a way to know Him. I was brought up in the United Methodist church where the emphasis was on social activities. I don’t remember having any serious spiritual guidance. My pastor only told me there were many paths without explaining any of them. I did search for spiritual knowledge. I investigated Buddhism and various form of Hinduism. I learned passage meditation from and Indian guru. All the while I kept my minimal contact with the Orthodox Church. 

 

I did not realize the answer to me seeking was right under my nose in the Orthodox Church. I Orthodoxy inherited by marriage. Mom’s family had a faith that was a solid foundation for how they lived. For them Church and life activities were all integrated. At the time of marriage I had the idea that there were many paths and it really didn’t matter. So becoming Orthodox was not a major choice. At that time, the idea of needing God to guide me was suppressed.  I felt self-sufficient and assumed I would live forever. As a result my faith was weak. Because of this low spiritual condition, I now do not feel I  was capable of fulfilling my duty as a father to give my children the right instruction and encouragement for their faith development. 


It wasn’t until I was about 50 years old that the reality of being mortal raised questions about the purpose of life. Going to church periodically I was subconsciously being influenced by the Orthodox way of thinking. About 50 most people begin pondering on the purpose of life. They begin to realize the this life will not last forever. Those who are fortunate learn that this life is only a preparation for the eternal life to come. It was at this time that I learned by experience that God was truly Jesus Christ and it was by surrender to the way of life taught by the Church one could come to know Him. I learned that this idea that you can know God and be united with him is a central truth held by the Orthodox faith. Is fundamental in the Orthodox way of thinking. One is awakened to this reality and then with faith, coupled with a detachment fro self-centered passions that guide our worldly life, one discovers the true path to be united with God. I discovered I had a sick soul that required healing. To my joy I discovered that this was the purpose of the Church Christ established, the Orthodox Church. How lucky I was brought into through marriage.


The moment I realized that the Church was God’s way to know and be united with Him, I sought out spiritual guidance through a priest and began to follow the way of life given to us by Christ through the Church. This was not an intellectual process of knowing the right doctrine but a gradual development of a way of thinking where the mystical nature of our being came to the forefront. It did not require giving up my worldly duties, but allowed something greater than my worldly mind to work on my soul in a loving way. I began to know my soul as distinct from my brain. 


Studying the history of the Church, I found that the Orthodox Church has preserved this wholistic, mystical, and integral way of thinking that passed on through the Apostles unchanged. You can feel it even when you enter an Orthodox Church. All the icons communicate a heavenly message. The smell of incense, the singing of the hymns and intoning of the prayers lift you up from the normal daily experience. You sense that there is something sacred that lives here. 


The Orthodox mind is one that is quite different from the dominate way of thinking of our modern western society. It was totally different from the religion taught in the Methodist Church. It’s very difficult to explain, but i discovered that as you begin to follow the way of the Church you begin to discover it and are gradually transformed. The difference become unmistakably clear. We do begin with a similar belief in the truth found in the Gospels and summarized in the Creed we recite in our services.


In these letters I want to start a dialog. I know you are good children and grandchildren and have good values. You have the seeds of an Orthodox mind even though it may not yet be fully developed. I am very proud of all of you. I want you to know what I have learned.


Developing this higher way of thinking, knowing we can know God, and accepting that the Church is the place where we will be developed and healed spiritually is the aim of these series of letters. They describe a way that is more than becoming a good person, but is about a life centered on Christ coupled with a desire to be united with Him with love, now and after our earthly life ends. We call this Theosis.

I only wish I was able to share this with you earlier, but as the Lord tells us, it’s never too late.


Please reply to this email to ask questions or offer comments. I will respond to all your comments. In another week I will send another letter and the dialog will continue. Please remember my own deviant path and don’t let me make you feel feel defensive. I only wish I had discovered what I know now earlier as I would have been a better person to deal with all the trails and tribulations of this life and be closer to God and more hopeful of eternal life with Him. 


Accept this dialog with the love of a proud father and grandfather.


I look forward to seeing your questions. I know you will have some.

Monday, December 21, 2020

The Jesus Prayer



Try to change the world by protesting or change ourselves by repentance/

 The Prophet Samuel was one of the holiest prophets of the Old Testament.  But what I find most interesting is that Samuel grew to be a holy prophet while living in the midst of a very corrupt religious and political context.  Samuel’s holy mother, Hannah, was barren.  But God heard her prayer after many years and much humiliation.  God gave her a son,  and at the age of three, Hannah gave her son to God.  She brought him to the priest of the Tabernacle in Shiloh.  This was before there was a Temple, and the Ark of God’s Presence was kept in a tent (Tabernacle) that moved from place to place depending on the tribal warfare of the day.  

However, the priest, Eli, and his sons were very corrupt.  And here I find several interesting things to ponder.  First, despite the corruption and poor parenting of the priest Eli, and the outrageously sinful and even predatory behaviour of his sons, God still spoke through Eli.  And Hannah and her husband, Elkanah, still prayed at the Tabernacle and offered their sacrificial gifts there, despite the obvious corruption of the priest and his family.

I must confess that this is a profound mystery to me: not only that God allows very sinful people to function in positions of hierarchy to which very holy people submit; but what is even more mysterious to me is that God’s Grace still functions through these very broken people in positions of spiritual authority, not, I think, because of their position, but because of the holiness and purity of heart of those who come to them.  While Hannah was praying at the Tabernacle for a child with anguish of soul, all that the priest Eli could think looking at her was that she was drunk.  When she protested that she was not drunk but was in anguish of soul and praying, Eli says dismissively, “may God grant your prayer.”  And God does!  God hears and answers righteous Hannah’s prayer through the sinful priest.

This is a deep mystery, but it is a mystery that gives me hope.  It gives me hope that even as I am a sinful and broken priest, God may still use me to help those who earnestly seek God.  It also gives me hope that even if my bishop or confessor were sinful or deficient in one way or another, God would still look at the anguish of my heart and hear my prayer.  But there is a mystery here that is even more profound than these, a mystery that may show us the way to grow in Christ in the “crooked and perverse generation” that we find ourselves living in today.  

With complete faith in God and a heart full of thanksgiving, Hannah gives her one child, the gift of God to her, back to God.  However, the only way for her to do this is to bring little Samuel to the corrupt priest Eli to be raised at the Tabernacle along with Eli’s corrupt and predatory sons.  Now if you ask anyone—If you ask me!—this is not good parenting.  And yet, doesn’t God do something very similar with most of His children, with you and me?

Look at the world we find ourselves in.  We are mentored by media that exploits and seduces us for its own profit, political leaders whom we know are lying, businesses that we know are cheating us and an educational system piloted by women, men and “others” who want to obliterate basic human nature.  It seems we find ourselves, like young prophet Samuel, being raised in a corrupt and predatory culture.  Yet nevertheless, like the prophet Samuel, we too can grow into very holy people, people who can learn to listen for God even as we are surrounded by innumerable sins and evil influences.  

How did Samuel do it?  Or rather, how did God save Samuel in such an evil and wicked context?  And how can we too be saved in such a broken world?  St. Paul gives some advice to the Philippians on this very thing.  He says, “Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.”

Keep in mind that the ancient pagan world of the Philippians was very corrupt, even by today’s corrupt standards.  Most of the people, the very people St. Paul is writing to, were slaves.  They couldn’t just change their world, they couldn’t just flee to the wilderness or find some less wicked place to live.  They were stuck where they were and had to become holy there, “in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.”

Actually, many of us today find ourselves in situations that are somewhat similar.  We have to work for a living and we have little choice about the policies that are imposed on us or who we work with or how the companies we work for may be exploiting us or destroying the world.  Sure, we could quit, but quit and do what?  If we could afford to buy a farm, we could run off to the country, but farming is very technical work and if you don’t know what you are doing you can fail miserably at it.  Also, and this is something that we have to think deeply about, no matter where we go, there we are.  My inner struggles, perhaps exacerbated in the city, are still with me in the country.  I still have to struggle.

The advice St. Paul gives the Philippians, however, is not to run away (in fact he actually tells slaves not to run away).  Rather, he advises them to do all things without complaining and disputing.  Now by “all things”, he does not mean that we are to knowingly or intentionally sin.  Rather, he is saying that when we do our jobs, when we do whatever it is we do, we are to do it without complaining and disputing.  And if we don’t complain and dispute, at work, at home, at church and on the internet, then, St. Paul tells us, we will become blameless and harmless.  Thus we will be children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.  

We really have to let that sink in.  “In the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.”  He does not say, “you will shine like lights standing outside of the crooked and perverse generation.”  Like the Prophet Samuel, it is in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation or culture or context or company or family or even a corrupt church that we “shine as lights in the world.”  

This is indeed a hard word for us to hear.  

I think 500 years of Protestant influence on western culture has made St. Paul’s advice and the example of Prophet Samuel very offensive to us.  We don’t really believe that God saves in the midst of the furnace, as He saved the three Holy Children in Babylon.  We think that it is our job, our calling from God, to put out the fire, to stamp out evil, to make the world a better place.  We don’t believe that it is God’s will for our righteous souls to be tormented day and night by seeing and hearing of the wicked deeds of those who live around us—even though this is exactly what St. Peter commends about Righteous Lot and gives as an example in his second epistle.  We don’t believe that “the Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptations and to reserve the unjust under punishment for the day of judgment”  Rather, we think it’s our job to right wrong and to fix what is broken, or to escape from the sinful world.  

And so the counsel of the Scriptures and the Holy Fathers of the Church makes no sense to us.  It even offends us.  Consequently, we make no progress.  We fight and crusade against the evil around us, but we secretly indulge in our lusts and anger making no progress whatsoever in peace and stillness of soul.  We flee one sinful context and find that we bring our sinful passions to whatever new context we flee to.  We burn out (or become hypocrites) trying to heal others without healing ourselves.  It’s like we grind the gears of our soul trying to fight or escape the wickedness of others, but make no movement at all in acquiring peace in the transformation of our own souls.

We have to become like the child Samuel if we want to be saved.  The child Samuel saw the wickedness, but did not participate in it.  The child Samuel knew he could not change others, but he also knew the One for whom nothing is impossible.  The child Samuel prayed, obeyed, and waited.  And then one day, God spoke to him.  Then one day God changed his world: the wickedness of the wicked caught up with them and the fruit of their wicked lives came upon them.  Samuel remained pure.  Samuel remained quiet.  Samuel shone as a light in a corrupt and perverse generation.  

We too can shine as a light, St. Paul tells us, if we will do everything without complaining and disputing.  Or, we can do things the Protestant way: we can protest.  We can argue and fight and try to change others.  Instead of waiting for God to judge, we can demand what is right, now.  But then we will not be transformed by Grace, then we will not shine as lights.  I think the brightness of one little light will do more to bring salvation to the world than a thousand voices trying to fix it.

At least that’s what I think.

By ARCHPRIEST MICHAEL GILLIS | 21 DECEMBER 2020

Source: https://www.pravmir.com/how-not-to-change-a-corrupt-world/

Thursday, December 17, 2020

 Every man of himself is so insignificant and helpless that he receives everything necessary to support his existence, not from himself, but from without; he himself is nothing. And as his body is supported by air, food, and drink, so his soul is supported by prayer, by reading God’s Word, and by the communion of the Holy Mysteries,.

Righteous John, Wonderworker of Kronstadt

My Life in Christ p.94


From Orthodox Quote of the Day


Ten points for an Orthodox Life

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

How we heal our brother

Βy quiet and gentle love we approach and heal the being of man. We never harp on to someone about his weaknesses and failings. We speak only well of others. While we see their faults, we keep silent and simply love. For when we behave towards a harsh and callous person as he “deserves,” we only make him worse. When, on the other hand, we treat him with consideration and love, we are able to make him better. A Christian does not detest anyone. What does he do? He only loves. He loves even his enemies. When St. Stephen the Protomartyr was being stoned, he gave no thought to the physical pain, but rather how to forgive his torturers. That is why he said: “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” It is astounding to contemplate how far the love of a believer can go. This is a distinctive love, which brings you freedom and calmness. It enables the Light of the Resurrection to spring forth within you; it opens unto you spiritual horizons, causing you to participate in heavenly things while still on earth. 

Bishop Makarios of Christoupolis, “O Lord and Master of my life...”


Source:  https://orthodoxgladness.blogspot.com/2020/12/how-we-heal-our-brother.html