Friday, March 14, 2008

St. Ephrem the Syrian: Meditate on the Passion of Christ

Our Father among the saints, St. Ephrem the Syrian

Every year around this time, someone opines that meditation on the death of Christ is vile, heterodox, post-Schism, a macabre obsession with "gore." They take particular offense at the Stations of the Cross, although they seem to regard any consideration of Our Lord's suffering as part of the non-Orthodox approach to Christianity. As with so much of their railing approach to theology, though, this assertion contrasts sharply with the approach taken by many Orthodox saints. This homily by St. Ephrem the Syrian is particularly illustrative of the patristic exhortation to meditate on the Passion of Christ (especially during penitential seasons):
The sons of perdition and the children of darkness
went out in the darkness
to arrest the sun
who had the power to consume them in an instant.

But the Master, knowing their effrontery
and the force of their anger,
with gentleness, by his own authority,
gave himself up into the hands of the ungodly.

And lawless men, having bound the most pure Master,
mocked the one who had bound the strong one with unbreakable bonds,
and set us free from the bonds of sins.

They plaited a crown of their own thorns,
the fruit borne by the vine of the Jews.

In mockery they called him ‘King’.
The lawless spat in the face of the most pure,
at whose glance all the Powers of heaven
and the ranks of Angels quake with fear.

See, once again grief and tears grip hold of my heart,
as I contemplate the Master enduring outrage and insults,
scourgings, spitting from slaves, and blows...

Let us fear, my brethren
and not simply listen.
The Saviour endured all these things for us...

You that are longed for and loved by Christ,
draw near, with compunction and longing for the Saviour.

Come, let us learn what took place today in Sion, David’s city.

The longed-for and chosen offspring of Abraham, what did they do today?

They gave up to death the most pure Master on this day.

Christ our Saviour was unjustly hanged on the tree of the Cross
through lawless hands.

Come, let us all wash our bodies with tears and groans,
because our Lord, the King of glory, for us ungodly people
was given up to death...

Let us always be fearful,
keeping before our eyes
the Saviour’s sufferings.

Let us always keep in mind his sufferings,
because it was for us he suffered, the dispassionate Master;
for us he was crucified, the only sinless One.

What return can we make for all this, brethren?

Let us be attentive to ourselves and not despise his sufferings.

Draw near all of you, children of the Church,
bought with the precious and holy blood of the most pure Master.

Come, let us meditate on his sufferings with tears,
thinking on fear, meditating with trembling,
saying to ourselves,
‘Christ our Saviour for us the impious was given over to death’.

Learn well, brother, what it is you hear:
God who is without sin, Son of the Most High,
for you was given up.

Open your heart, learn in details His sufferings and say to yourself:
God who is without sin
today was given up,
today was mocked,
today was abused,
today was struck,
today was scourged,
today wore a crown of thorns,
today was crucified,
he, the heavenly Lamb.

Your heart will tremble, your soul will shudder.
Shed tears everyday by this meditation on the Master's sufferings.
Tears become sweet (for) the soul is enlightened that always meditates on Christ's sufferings.

Always meditating thus, shedding tears every day,
giving thanks to the Master for the sufferings that he suffered for you,
so that in the day of his Coming your tears may become your boast and exaltation before the judgment seat.

Endure as you meditate on the loving Master’s sufferings,
endure temptations, give thanks from your soul.

Blessed is the one who has before his eyes
the heavenly Master and his sufferings,
and has crucified himself from all the passions
and earthly deeds,
who has become an imitator
of his own Master.

This is understanding,
this is the attitude
of servants who love God,
when they become ever
imitators of their Master
by good works.

Shameless man, do you watch
the most pure Master
hanging on the Cross,
while you pass the time
that you have to live on earth
in pleasure and laughter?

Don’t you know, miserable wretch,
that the crucified Lord
will demand an account
of all your disdainful deeds,
for which, when you hear of them, you show no concern,
and as you take your pleasure
you laugh
and enjoy yourself with indifference?

The day will come,
that fearful day,
for you to weep unceasingly
and cry out in the fire
from your pains,
and there will be no one at all
to answer
and have mercy on your soul.

St. Ephrem the Syrian, "On the Passion."

Read it all here.

(Wow, even "Archbishop Gregory" of Buena Vista knows about this text.)

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

How Orthodox Saints Assessed Western Spirituality

Those who have encountered a certain kind of polemical Orthodox (or the yet-more polemical Pseudodox) know it takes but little for them to rail against Western paraliturgical devotions — the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, etc., in any form — and indeed the sum total of the post-1054 West with pronounced asperity. It appears it is as easy as asking if anything occurred after the all-important date of 1054 A.D. If so, like an overzealous Orthodox version of Seinfeld's "Soup Nazi," they scream, "No grace for you!"

Of course, squeezing an unrepresentative, ill-informed reading of Orthodoxy through a hyper-polemical framework necessarily creates distortions, not only of charity, but of fact. Many do not realize, in their actions, they are also condemning a number Orthodox saints and holy fathers (and mothers). His Grace Bp. HILARION (Alfeyev), the Russian Orthodox bishop of Vienna and Austria for the Moscow Patriarchate, presented a more balanced portrait of how Eastern Orthodox saints dealt with post-Schism Western spirituality in his excellent paper, "The Patristic Heritage and Modernity."

The opinion of St Ignatius Brianchaninov that all works by Catholic mystics after the Great Schism have been written in a state of spiritual “drunkenness” and delusion is well known. Since Bishop Ignatius has been canonized, some value his opinion as “patristic”. Yet we also know a different approach by other — equally canonized — church writers with a somewhat less cautious and categorical attitude towards Catholic spirituality. [31] Some Orthodox Fathers are known for the direct influence Catholic spirituality exercised upon them. St Dimitri of Rostov was under this influence for his entire life: his homilies as well as other works, including the Reading Compendium of Saint’s lives, based primarily on Latin sources, [32] have a distinctly “Westernizing” character; St Dimitri’s library held books by Bonaventure, Thomas a Kempis, Peter Canisius and other Catholic authors, and in his spirituality such elements as the devotion of the passions of Christ, the five wounds of Christ and the heart of Christ may be traced.[33] The influence of Catholic spirituality on St Tikhon of Zadonsk [34] can equally be sensed.

How can such different approaches towards Catholic spirituality and mysticism between St Ignatius on the one side, and St Dimitri of Rostov and St Tikhon of Zadonsk on the other, be explained? It seems to me that much is accounted for by the differences between the contexts in which each of them lived. St Ignatius lived at the time of Tsar Nicolas the First (second quarter of the 19th century), when a systematic struggle with Western mysticism was underway. The time of Alexander I (first quarter of the 19th century) had witnessed a nearly unanimous passion for “inner Christianity” among high society, the Russian aristocracy devoured the works of Thomas a Kempis, Francis de Sales and Fenelon, noblemen en masse joined Masonic lodges and the Jesuits opened their schools in many towns and villages; and a healthy reaction against these Western influences had set in during the reign of Tsar Nicholas. The same period witnessed the beginnings of the so-called “patristic revival”: the systematic work of translating and studying the Fathers of the church, something of no small significance for the gradual liberation of Russian theology from its “Western captivity”. As a child of his times, St Ignatius could not remain entirely a stranger to these processes.

St Dimitri and St Tikhon, however, lived in an altogether different historical context. Contrary to St Ignatius (who had never studied theology in an ecclesiastical school), both were graduates of Latin schools which had shaped their thought; both had been reading Western authors all their lives. The inevitable influence of the Catholic spirituality which St Dimitri and St Tikhon experienced in the 18th century did not, however, undermine their deep rootedness in the Orthodox tradition.

Of course, everything must not be reduced to context, to someone’s historical period, church-political circumstances or education. Differences between church writers’ taste, views or attitudes towards the same phenomenon can, and may, appear without being conditioned by education or the “spirit of the day”. St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain , who translated the work of a Latin Theatine monk, Invisible Warfare, into Greek, had not been educated in a Latin school and was by no means influenced by Catholic mysticism. (The book is known in English as Unseen Warfare. - BJ.) The same can be said about K.P. Pobedonostsev, who translated Thomas a Kempis’s Imitation of Christ into Russian. All the same, both considered it profitable to familiarize Orthodox readers with certain works of Catholic authors (be it in a slightly adapted form, and brought into closer agreement with the Orthodox context).

The contextual method may help in studying Catholic mysticism itself as well. Not infrequently, Orthodox readers are shocked by recipes in books of Western Renaissance mystics prescribing the use of the human imagination to visualize the passions of Christ, or other events of the gospel. It is correct to point out that traditional Orthodox mysticism demands control of the imagination, and warns about the dangers of imaginative representations in prayer. But in considering Western Renaissance mysticism, the cultural specificity of the times cannot be ignored: mediaeval theocentric culture was being replaced by a totally different, anthropocentric culture where imagination was given a near-central role. The task facing spiritual teachers of the time, then, was not to force people to renounce their imagination altogether, but to teach them how to direct their imagination towards matters from which spiritual benefit could be gained, in particular towards the events of sacred history. It is evident that, were the criterion of Byzantine ascetic literature to be applied to such mysticism, it would not meet its requirements. But, to repeat John Meyendorff’s question, is the Byzantine criterion the only just criterion according to which non-Byzantine phenomena are to be judged, or are other approaches possible? I shall state once again my belief that the universal Orthodox tradition is wider than Byzantinism, that not all that lies outside is either heresy or spiritual delusion. Otherwise not only Western mystics should be declared to have fallen in spiritual delusion, but also Dimitri of Rostov, Tikhon of Zadonsk and many other pious Russian ascetics of the period of the “Western captivity” (that is, the 17th and 18th centuries) when access to the works of the Eastern Fathers was extremely difficult.

Please do not attempt to find in my words any effort to “justify” Catholic mysticism. I am by no means an “Eastern admirer of Western spirituality” and have no personal sympathy whatsoever for Catholic mysticism, since I have been raised on totally different examples: the writings of the Fathers of the Eastern church, in particular Greek and Syriac. I have not mentioned Catholic mysticism in order to debate its content, but to present and illustrate a method that, in my view, should be applied to any phenomena whatsoever, be in within or without the framework of the Eastern Orthodox tradition.


[31] Let me remark in passing that that question to which degree the personal holiness of a church author, as well as his official canonization, may be considered a warranty for the infallibility of their theological views deserves detailed research. Does the canonization of a person who has been magnified for the holiness of his life or his suffering for the sake of Christ automatically imply the elevation of all their writings to the rank of patristic writings? This question has become particularly pressing with the canonization of many Russian new martyrs and confessors who have left behind a literary heritage.

[32] Cf. Fr Georges Florovsky, Ways of Russian Theology, p.82.

[33] Cf. Hieromonk John (Kologrivov), Essays on the History of Russian Sanctity, Brussels , 1961, pp.296-302 (in Russian).

[34] Cf. Florovsky, Ways of Russian Theology, op. cit., p.157.

One could note, St. Dimitri of Rostov also prayed the Rosary, said a Hail Mary at every hour, and "had a great devotion to the 'Joys and Sorrows' of the Most Holy Virgin Mary." (This last, some note, was long included in ROCOR's Jordanville Prayer Book as "The Tale of the Five Prayers.") Many Orthodox of both rites are familiar with his Menologion (lives of the saints).

Without laying down any clear-cut (and overly simplistic) course of action, Bp. HILARION's work notes that "the universal Orthodox tradition is wider than Byzantinism." His more balanced view of the post-Schism West should serve as a corrective to those who confuse Orthodoxy with Byzantinism (whether they consider themselves Eastern or Western Rite) and an eloquent rejoinder to those who accuse the Russian Orthodox Church of "an inability to face the challenges of the modern world."

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A Spiritual Exam for Ash Wednesday

As those in the Western Rite set about on Ash Wednesday, I thought I'd pass along a helpful diagnostic to guide our penitence. Fr. George Morelli, a member of the Western Rite Commission, has written a Lenten reflection. A trained psychologist, Fr. Morelli states that the two virtues of humility and purity of heart may be used as a spiritual version of the "Mental Status Exam."
What does purity of heart have to do with humility? Everything! Consider the words of St. Isaac of Syria quoted by Allchin (1989): "No one has understanding if he is not humble, and he who lacks humility lacks understanding."
Read it all here.


Two Prayers for Our Enemies

In keeping with our promise, here are two (well, really three) prayers for our enemies. First, the Byzantine "Prayers for our Enemies":

Thou who didst pray for them that crucifed thee, O Lord, Lover of the souls of men, and who didst command thy servants to pray for their enemies, forgive those who hate and maltreat us, and turn our lives from all harm and evil to brotherly love and good works: for this we humbly bring our prayer, that with one accord and one heart we may glorify thee Who alone lovest mankind.


As thy first martyr Stephen prayed to thee for his murderers, O Lord, so we fall before thee and pray: forgive all who hate and maltreat us and let not one of them perish because of us, but all be saved by thy grace, O God the all-bountiful.

And from the Western tradition, here's one bit from a portion of Evening Prayer of the "Forms of Prayer to be Used in Families," which the Holy Synod of Russia decreed needed no changes on doctrinal grounds (although I would recommend adding invocation of the saints and angels to the prayers, even in the short forms):

Accept, O Lord, our intercessions for all mankind. Let the light of thy Gospel shine upon all nations; and may as many as have received it, live as becomes it. Be gracious unto thy Church; and grant that every member of the same, in his vocation and ministry, may serve thee faithfully. Bless all in authority over us; and so rule their hearts and strengthen their hands, that they may punish wickedness and vice, and maintain thy true religion and virtue. Send down thy blessings, temporal and spiritual, upon all our relations, friends, and neighbours. Reward all who have done us good, and pardon all those who have done or wish us evil, and give them repentance and better minds. Be merciful to all who are in any trouble; and do thou, the God of pity, administer to them according to their several necessities; for his sake who went about doing good, thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
Grant it, O Lord, grant it.

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Lenten Disruptions, Version 2.0

It seems nearly every year during Lent, the media revive some long-discredited rumor to discourage Christians: the "tomb of Jesus," the Gospel of Judas, The Da Vinci Code, etc. For some reason, canonical Orthodox always seem to pick fights with each other about contraception during Lent. And it seems as though nearly every year since I started this blog, during Lent (or, more tellingly, around Holy Week) someone issues some allegation against me that I'm supposed to waste time and energy combating, rather than working out my own salvation.

Right on cue, I understand from someone privy that a new round of rumors about me has been posted on a number of vagante haunts. I gather these include a number of false allegations. Some of you may know better than I the details of who posted what where, and when; I doubt it would be spiritually beneficial for me to learn. But before I could end the discussion of this unfortunate topic, I gathered the chief allegation claims that I made a number of telephone calls, over the course of two years, to His Grace Bishop GABRIEL of ROCOR to pass on negative information about some vagante or other.

At the risk of dignifying the charge, let me simply respond: I have never been in touch with Vl. GABRIEL by telephone, telegram, mail, FAX, e-mail, personal audience, telegraph, hologram, or courier pigeon. I have never communicated with Bp. GABRIEL of ROCOR in any way, shape, fashion, or form at any time in my life. Indeed, I'm sure Bishop GABRIEL would be the first to say so.

Again, I don't know the specifics of who posted what when, or where. I do not wish to hear the specifics about this or other rumors; indeed, I did not wish to hear the substance of this falsehood. I do not intend to spend a moment reacting to such people. I do intend to forgive whomever was involved, pray for their well-being, for their enlightenment — and for their malice to end. And then, I hope to set about trying to have an effectual Lent.

I know others have also been hurt by a recent number of anti-WRO onslaughts. There's no point in getting angry or upset over their mean-spirited falsehoods or rushing to their blogs and boards to duke it out with them. (Ya think you're going to get an even playing field?) I can't imagine what Adversary-al Accuser would want us to do so and thus rob us of all the joys of Lent. But I — and I hope you, dear reader — won't fall for it. I would guess this is not the first falsehood these individuals (whoever they are) have posted, and that their history and behavior exposes them for what they are, anyway.

In reality, there is absolutely no profit in trying to talk with those with a Pseudodox axe-to-grind. As Ari Adams has noted about discussions with vagantes:
it gets old and soul-wearying...[Our assailants will] twist any answer given into whatever mockery they choose to advance their selves...

Personally - I get tired of the pretend friendships, people claiming: "I'm for traditional Western rite Orthodoxy", "I'm for Church Unity", etc. All the while they back-bite and slander those holy WRITE clergy actually labouring in the field, then have the gall to call it 'parochial differences' or claim our Western rite clergy are 'liars'. Frankly - I'm scandalised. I'm not interested in the kind of 'Orthodoxy' these critics (whether they consider themselves pro or anti Western rite) are selling - and I'm tired of them expecting us at every challenge (new blog, yahoo board, recent rumor, or forum posting) to come out and battle them for the 'heart and soul' of the Western rite and Orthodoxy....
So true, particularly since most of the "challenges" are not new, they are often simply means to spread falsehoods about canonical Orthodox clergy/laity/jurisdictions, and most of these people are outside Orthodoxy themselves. Ari rightly notes that Western Orthodox:
have enough battle in our own 'cells': fighting our own sin, a culture that is increasingly hostile, and the pain, misery and poverty of humanity around us. We don't need 'cocked up' wars with opponents who want to blab on and on about liturgical minutiae but don't seem to know a single thing about Christian friendship, overcoming doubt about God and the Church.
Please join me in not focusing on these things, not allowing such misbehavior to replace the new birth of Easter with a stillborn Lent. Let's get into church and pray. Most of all, let's not allow their actions to blind us to the real task at hand: repenting of our own sins, growing in Christ's image and likeness, and in so doing seeing thousands around us being saved.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

He's Comin' to America

St. Tikhon (Bellavin)'s Relics to Visit America this year.

St. Tikhon’s relics will be brought to the U.S.A. and Canada in autumn for Orthodox flock abroad to venerate. Earlier Metropolitan Laurus addressed such request to Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia and the Foundation’s administration.
As bishop of the United States, St. Tikhon asked the Holy Synod of Russia about forming a Western Rite using an Orthodox form of the Book of Common Prayer. His inquiry garnered a positive response. St. Tikhon is patron saint of the Antiochian Western Rite Vicariate. Ora pro nobis!

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