Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday Morning Outpouring

          What do you expect will happen at Liturgy on a Sunday morning?  Why do you rouse yourself from your comfy bed, pile into the car (possibly with sleepy and unruly kids), drive to church, and stand there for an hour or so?  What do you hope to experience?
            For some, the gain comes in terms of ethnic identity and a sense of belonging to one’s ancestral people—especially in the Liturgy is conducted in a language not now understood.  Even though the meaning is not grasped, still one enjoys the music, the icons, the entire atmosphere of holy transcendence, and comes away feeling a greater cultural connection with one’s past.  For others, one comes to Liturgy to satisfy one’s spiritual needs, and to find an oasis of prayer and peace.  One enjoys (or perhaps merely endures) the homily.  One may receive Holy Communion, and draw near to God, receiving strength through the sacrament.  Obviously, people’s motivations and expectations are complex and layered, and people may come with both of these motivations, or with other ones.
            It is instructive to read in the earliest extant sermon how one preacher characterized the Sunday morning experience.  The preacher was St. Clement of Rome, and his “sermon” was his letter to the Corinthians, written in the late first or early second century, and known to scholars as “1 Clement”.  Clement wrote to the Corinthians as a concerned neighbour from Rome, rebuking them for unjustly ousting presbyters from their office in a kind of ecclesiastical palace coup.  In the opening part of his letter, he contrasts their present lamentable condition with their former laudable one.  He writes, “You were all distinguished by humility…Content with the provision which God had made for you, and carefully attending to His words, you were inwardly filled with His doctrine, and His sufferings were before your eyes.  Thus a profound and abundant peace was given to you all, and you had an insatiable desire for doing good…”   
This is, I suggest, a picture of their Sunday morning worship:  they came to Liturgy in humility and with spiritual hunger; they all carefully attended to God’s words in the Scripture readings and in the sermon, and all partook of the Eucharist, after the Anaphora had been said wherein “His sufferings were before their eyes”.  Then Clement added the words:  “…while a full outpouring of the Holy Spirit was upon you all”.   It was during their time of Sunday worship that the Holy Spirit was abundantly poured out upon them.  Clement writes as if this outpouring were the crown and goal of their worship.  I think Clement was right.  St. Seraphim of Sarov, writing much later, would have agreed.  He said that the whole goal of the Christian life was acquisition of the Holy Spirit, and if it is the goal of the Christian life, then surely it is also the goal of attendance at the Eucharist, for the Eucharist is the sacramental source of our Christian life.
            We Orthodox are more Pentecostal than we may have thought.  Ever since Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia wrote his classic The Orthodox Church in 1963 (he was Timothy Ware back then), we have known that the Church was “a continued Pentecost”.  It is this aspect of our traditional faith that we need to recover once more, especially if our church-going seems to be a chore.  We do not merely go to Liturgy to light candles, or listen to three-point sermons, or even to receive our individual Holy Communion.  We go because all these things are parts of a spiritual outpouring which gives us life, and binds us into one.  It is at the Liturgy that a full outpouring of the Holy Spirit is abundantly and freely available.  All we need to do is to come with expectation, and open up our hearts to that outpouring.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Legacy of Robin Williams: Seize the Day

 Like millions of others, I was stunned to learn of the tragic death of Robin Williams, who took his own life after a long and unsuccessful struggle with depression.  My own children grew up watching and rejoicing in Robin’s many movies, such as “Good Morning, Viet Nam”, “Good Will Hunting”, and “Mrs. Doubtfire”.  I will not attempt here to list his many professional accomplishments.  That lengthy and happy task I leave to others better equipped than I, though I will suggest that we will not soon his like again.  Here I would like to focus on the legacy he has left us.
            That legacy may be summed up in two words:  carpe diem, seize the day.  In a now particularly bittersweet scene from his film “Dead Poets Society”, Williams plays Mr. Keating, an English teacher at a prestigious boys’ prep school.  He wants the boys to be inspired by poetry, to think for themselves, to avoid the snares of rigid formalism which pressed upon them all around.  On the first day of classes, he troops his boys from his classroom into the school’s main hall.  He has them read the poetic lines, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may; Old Time is still a-flying; And this same flower that smiles today, Tomorrow will be dying.”  The Latin for this sentiment, he tells them, is carpe diem, seize the day.  Why?  “Because we are food for worms, lads,” he tells them.  “Because believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room will one day stop breathing, turn cold, and die.”  He then bids them look closely at the display cases containing old photos of students from years long past, and to hear what these now long-dead students are whispering to them.  Carpecarpecarpe diem!  Seize the days, boys.  Make your lives extraordinary.”
            The same message sounded from another of Robin’s films, “Hook”.  Here he plays Peter Banning, a father of two young children who has forgotten that he is also Peter Pan.  It is a tale of redemption, since Peter Banning has abandoned his inner child and become a driven executive whose obsession with work is costing him the love of his wife and his two young children.  His sojourn in Neverland becomes a journey of salvation, as he rediscovers his true self and saves his children from Captain Hook.  The final scene is now also poignantly bittersweet:  it shows the reborn Peter Banning standing at an open window, surrounded by his loving family.  An aged Wendy murmurs ruefully, “So your adventures are over.”  “Oh no,” he replies.  “To live—to live would be an awfully big adventure.”  The movie ends with his childhood friend Tootles, having been sprinkled with fairy dust, flying with joy into the sky.  And Tootles’ words as he flew through the open window?  “Seize the day!”
            This counsel not only comes to us through the joyful art of Robin Williams.  It also comes through the exhortations of the Gospel.  “Behold,” says St. Paul, “now is the acceptable time.  Behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).  We must seize the day, and use each one of its hours to glorify the Lord and walk in His will.  We believers shouldn’t need Mr. Keating to remind us that one day we will turn cold and die and stand before the dread judgment seat of Christ.  We who are called to be saints do not need to belong to the Dead Poet Society to learn that we should use the time given us by God to make our lives extraordinary.  And we who follow the Lord to the cross and beyond surely don’t need Peter Pan to teach us that life is an awfully big adventure.  The Church never ceases to remind us of these truths and to impress them upon our hearts.
            But not everyone enjoys the advantage of listening to the Gospel call to become extraordinary.  Some may never enter the doors of the Church to hear its summons to the adventure that is Christian discipleship.  But they might sit in a movie theatre or before a television screen and watch the art of Robin Williams.  They might be moved to seize the day and reach out to try to become something more than mere masses of dying mediocrity.  It might just be the first step to making their lives extraordinary, and maybe even the first steps back to our extraordinary Lord.
            One final thing:  as we remember with gratitude the art of Robin Williams, let us spare a moment to remember his soul also.  It seems that at the end, he was not able to take his own advice, and to continue the awfully big adventure.  All the more reason to commend him to God, the lover of mankind.  O Captain, my Captain, divine Judge of the souls of all men, have mercy upon him, and upon us all.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Blessed Father Herman of Alaska: the Significance of the Saint

          In 1970, when our church first received its autocephaly from the Russian Church, it immediately did two things.  First, it changed its name from the somewhat unwieldy “the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of America” to the snappier and now more accurate “the Orthodox Church in America”.  Secondly, it canonized Herman of Alaska.  This latter task was then ours to do:  the rule says that whichever church possesses the relics of a saint is the church charged with the task and privilege of canonization.  Thus, for example, although St. Tikhon was the ruling bishop of the American diocese, he died on Russian soil and therefore the Russian church which retains his relics was the church which got to canonize him, regardless of any connection St. Tikhon might have had with the American church.  Bishop Tikhon may have had a special love for his American children and left his heart in San Francisco, but he left his relics in Moscow, and whoever retains the relics, retains the joyful task of canonization.  Thus in like manner, after 1970 the Blessed Father Herman of Alaska was ours to canonize.
            It is significant that the first saint of North America was a simple missionary, one who continued to embrace humility all the days of his life, even to the point of shunning ordination.  He lived and died as a simple missionary to this land, and it is as a missionary that he points the way forward for us today.  For we Orthodox in North America are very different than our Orthodox older brothers in other lands.
            Take Russia, for example.  Orthodoxy was planted there before Russia was Russia, and before the words “Russia” or “Ukraine” had any national meaning.  In 988, it was simply the land of the Rus, and the land’s nationhood post-dated the planting of the Orthodox church there.  Orthodoxy thus grew up with the nation, and became part of the country’s DNA.  The Orthodox Church is thus now firmly ensconced in Russia, to the point where it is hard to imagine that country without also seeing it standing under the three-barred cross of Orthodoxy.
            Or take Greece, for another example.  The Gospel was planted in Hellenistic soil long before those living on the soil became the nation of Greece.  When Paul brought the Church there, he found Macedonia in the north and Achaia in the south; the unified country of Greece came much much later.  Even in Byzantine times the term “Greek” did not mean “inhabitants of the former Macedonia and Achaia” but rather “pagan”.  Once again we see the Church predating the nation so that the nation evolves and grows up with ecclesiastical blood flowing through its veins.  The Church is thus ensconced in Greece as it is in Russia, and it is not surprising if its bishops swagger just a bit.  After all this time, they are somewhat entitled.
            It is otherwise here in North America.  Here the nations of America and Canada have existed before Herman and the other missionaries ever arrived.  And, praise-worthy evangelistic enthusiasm notwithstanding, it seems unlikely that Orthodoxy will ever convert North America in the way that it once converted  those in the land of the Rus or those in Macedonia and Achaia.  Orthodoxy became ensconced there; it will not become similarly ensconced here, so that our bishops should not plan on swaggering culturally here anytime soon.  We will never be the ones in charge, as we are in Russia and Greece.  We will remain missionaries.
            The example of St. Herman of Alaska reveals that this is perfectly fine.  Becoming ensconced or culturally dominant is not our goal; faithful proclamation of the Gospel is.  Obviously we have to aim at converting absolutely everyone, since God loves absolutely everyone.  But our evangelistic zeal should not blind us to the real situation.  The reality is that the cultural tide is now flowing against us, and in a few generations America will not be a Christian country in any sense that St. Herman (or St. Paul) would recognize.  Indeed, in Canada this has already happened.  Radical secularization continues apace throughout the continent, and the Land of the Free seems determined to become the Land of the Secular.  And in this land, missionaries will be needed.  Perhaps it is providential therefore that the first saint of the land was just such a missionary.  We need the example of the simple missionary Herman of Alaska now more than ever.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Christian Weddings: the Prince on the White Horse

          In our parish of St. Herman’s in Langley, B.C., there are many young people, and so I have the privilege of presiding at many weddings.  At these happy events, the brides are all beautiful, and the grooms are all handsome, and all of those present rejoice in their unions.  But when I look up and see the happy couple standing before me, I do not see a young man and a young woman.   I see Christ and His Church.
            I suppose that is because I have been reading St. Paul.  In his lengthy discussion of the relationship between husband and wife in his letter to the Ephesians, after quoting the original Scriptural justification for such marriage from the creation stories of Genesis, Paul then writes, “This mystery is great, but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32).  That is, the original account of the divine institution of the marriage union of Adam and Eve contains a truth only accessible to those who have been initiated into such things—the Christians—and they know that it ultimately refers to Christ and His Church. 
            This insight, proclaimed Scripturally by St. Paul, has informed Christian piety and poetry ever since.  Before I ever became Orthodox, I came across this connection in a song composed and sung by a Jesus People band called “The Second Chapter of Acts”.  The wrote a song called “The Prince Song”, and introduced it once at a concert by saying that the old romance of the princess waiting for her prince to come on a white horse was fulfilled in Christ.  This song is our song, for we, as the body of Christ, are all part of His bride, and we wait for our Prince to come on white horse.  The romantic heart in this case has not been deceived, for our Prince will indeed come on a white horse:  St. John wrote, “Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse!  He who sat upon it is called faithful and true, and in righteousness He judges and wages war.  His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on His head are many crowns, and He has a name inscribed which no one knows but Himself.  He is clad in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which He is called is ‘The Word of God” (Rev. 19:11-13).  It is of course St. John’s apocalyptic description of Christ’s Second Coming, when He will return to earth to take us for His bride.  “Let us rejoice,” says the multitude of heaven, “and exult and give Him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His Bride has made herself ready” (Rev. 19:7).
            This insight should inform every Christian marriage.  Every groom being crowned for his bride images Christ, and every bride being crowned for her husband images His Church.  This poetry and typology will exact its cost in their marriage soon enough.  When young people are in love, it is easy enough to imagine that feelings of loving euphoria will carry them along forever, and they will effortlessly be kind and considerate to each other in their married life.  Alas, it is not so.  Sin rears its ugly head soon enough, and the newly-married find that the original youthful feelings of romantic love are insufficient to carry the day.  To overcome sin, bride and groom must both put to death that which is earthly in them (Colossians 3:5), and be kind to each other even in the teeth of feelings which urge them to act otherwise.  The bride must remember that she images the Church, and must submit to her new husband’s leadership, serving him as the Church serves Christ.  The groom must remember that he images the Lord, and must die to himself in order to serve his wife, even as Christ died to serve and sanctify His Church.  The honeymoon ends, and the real work of marriage begins.  The crowns of marriage turn out to be crowns of martyrdom.
            In those difficult times, they must remember Christ and His Church.  When the wife annoys the husband and cuts him and hurts him, he must remember that she is his bride, and Christ’s church.  When the husband lets down his wife, and cuts her and hurts her, she must recall that he is an image of the Lord, and they must both strive to act toward each other as Christ and His Church act toward each other.  It is hard.  It is, as St. Paul said, a great mystery.  But the romantic image of the Prince on His white horse does not betray.   Instead, this image points to a lasting reality.  For all Christian married couples, it is the only way forward.