Monday, February 27, 2017

The Language of Unworthiness

In his first epistle to Timothy, Paul wrote “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am first” (1 Timothy 1:15).  The last part of Paul’s words is familiar to us Orthodox, since it forms part of our pre-communion approach to the Chalice, when we pray, “I believe, O Lord, and I confess that You are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am first”.  It is a powerful utterance, one which repays further reflection.
            It is sometimes forgotten that the word “sinner” (hamartolos in the Greek) was used to describe a particular and terrible class of people.  It did not describe everyone, but only those who had clearly, notoriously, and scandalously lost their moral compass.  Normal people were not hamartoloi, and St. Paul explicitly says that the Jews, who retained their moral compass by virtue of having their Law, were “not sinners from among the Gentiles” (Galatians 2:15).  Gentiles might have been hamartoloi, since they famously indulged in homosexuality, fornication, slaughter of the unborn and exposure and abandonment of the newborn, and every form of idolatry, but those who were Jews by nature and from birth were not such sinners.  Indeed, many people in Israel were righteous and not hamartoloi:  Zachariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptizer, were not such sinners, but were “both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord” (Luke 1:6).  Simeon, who received the infant Christ in the Temple, was also similarly “righteous and devout” (Luke 2:25).  Some, of course, were sinners, such as the woman (probably a prostitute) who burst into a Pharisee’s house when Jesus was dining there and anointed His feet with perfume and her tears (Luke 7:37), but most people were not.  The term “sinner” described a certain social status, one resulting from decisions to live in open shame and contempt for all moral law.
            That was, of course, precisely St. Paul’s point in his first letter to Timothy, quoted above.  Obviously Christ came into the world to save everyone, including righteous and devout persons like Zachariah, Elizabeth, and Simeon.  But He also came into the world to save sinners—to save pornographers, child molesters, serial killers, and war criminals.  Paul’s point was that no one, however horrible their past and however sinful their deeds, was beyond saving, for Christ shed His blood for the forgiveness of everyone, including sinners.  A person need only repent and come to Jesus to find mercy and new life as part of His Church.  Paul considered himself to be living proof of this.  He was the first among sinners, the worst of them all, for he had persecuted the Church of God.  He had raged against Christ’s people, blaspheming the Lord, denouncing His saints, and hounding them to death wherever he could find them.  Such was his great guilt that Paul considered that he was scarcely worthy to carry the glorious title of “apostle” (1 Corinthians 15:9), but even he found mercy from the Lord.  Clearly, Paul declared, if Christ could save him, He could save anyone.
When we look in the New Testament and in the liturgical language of the Church, we see two different kinds of vocabulary.  We see a vocabulary of sanctity, stressing the holiness of the Christian.  The Christians were “saints” (1 Corinthians 1:2, Ephesians 1:1, Philippians 1:1, Colossians 1:2).  Once they were no people at all, but now through baptism they were the people of God (1 Peter 2:10); they were now a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9).  They were called to be “blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15).  They would walk with Christ in white, for they were worthy (Revelation 3:4).  This language is preserved in the Liturgy, for St. Basil’s anaphora describes the faithful as “His own chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation”, having been “cleansed in water and sanctified with the Holy Spirit”.  At every Liturgy the priest invites the communicants to the Chalice with the words, “the holy things for the holy!”—i.e. the holy gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood for His holy people, cleansed by baptism and living their faith.  This is the language of sanctity, which expresses our sacramental status as the baptized people of God.  It describes the tremendous change which Christ has worked in us, and looks at this transformation not with self-satisfaction, but with wonder.  The language is the result of looking back over our shoulder to see how far Christ has brought us, and how different He has made us from the world around us.
But there is another kind of language also, the language of unworthiness and humility.  This vocabulary looks not to our outer sacramental status, but to the inner state of the heart with its struggle for sanctification and its constant war against temptation and darkness.  This interiority looks not back at the world from which we have been rescued, but ahead to the Lord and the finish line which await us.   It sees not how far we have come, but how far we have yet to go, and recognizes the magnitude of the struggle before we reach our final goal.  The flesh and the Spirit constantly strive against one another in the heart of every man, as the fleshly lusts war against the soul (1 Peter 2:11).  In the midst of this war we recognize only too well our own sins, our brokenness, our fallen and vulnerable state, and with St. Paul cry out that nothing good dwells within us, in our flesh (Romans 7:18).  We confess ourselves unprofitable servants, the first among sinners.  Such confessions are not false modesty, but only clarity of mind, precision of discernment, and the willingness to receive the verdict of our conscience when it smites us for our sins.
We need both vocabularies to achieve spiritual balance, recognizing the greatness of our sacramental status and our calling and also the weakness of our mortal flesh in striving to live up to our exalted status.  Naturally the language of unworthiness prevails in our liturgical life, for it is the language of humility, and without humility no progress can be made in our spiritual journey.  We are indeed saints, the holy people of God, His royal priesthood, saved and cleansed and washed and sanctified.  We are also unprofitable servants, debtors to His mercy, liable at any time to fall headlong, ever dependent upon His Spirit to hold us up.
In my pre-Orthodox Christian life I have lived among those who did not balance and treasure both vocabularies.  As a Pentecostal charismatic, the language of sanctity and privilege was the only vocabulary allowed.  We were saints, and were told “How to Live Like a King’s Kid” (an actual book title), encouraged to believe that we were entitled to health, victory, and wealth, and could somehow lay hold of immunity to suffering, poverty, and the common lot of man.  Refusing the traditional vocabulary of unworthiness fostered a spirituality of entitlement and pride, and fostered delusion and illusion, and resulting in a loss of interiority and humility.  Through such lack of balance, many fell away entirely, some fell into a kind of prelest or presumption, and most remained trapped in a state of spiritual adolescence.  The cost of avoiding the language of unworthiness and humility was very high indeed.

That is why Orthodoxy retains both vocabularies, balancing an appreciation of our glorious sacramental status with our interior brokenness and the necessity for struggle.  We are indeed called to be saints, as the priest reminds us every Liturgy.  But we are also the first among sinners.  This is the paradox, and in this paradox we find safety and salvation.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Priest and the Parish Council

Parish Councils are like personal computers in a number of ways.  The initials for both are P.C.; neither existed before very modern times, and we can scarcely imagine life in the church here in the West without them.
            It is sobering and somewhat instructive to learn that in the early church parish councils didn’t exist.  Well, actually they did, but they consisted of the local council of presbyters.  In the first several centuries, the local pastor was the bishop, who presided over and was the focal point of unity for all the churches in the city or village.  The bishop was the one whose confession of faith determined the faith his flock, and he was the one who accordingly presided at every baptism that took place in the city or village.  Accordingly they saw their bishop every Sunday; he was the one who personally excommunicated anyone needing excommunication and he was the one who welcomed them back and restored them to Eucharistic communion when they repented, laying his hands upon them and praying for their absolution. 
But he did not make the pastoral or administrative decisions:  those were made by his local council of presbyters.  Thus, for example, if the church had a candidate for reader or subdeacon, the decision to ordain or not to ordain was made by the presbyteral council, not by the bishop.  Obviously the bishop had a fair bit of moral clout, and his own opinion and wishes usually carried the day.  But the power of administrative and pastoral decision lay with his council, not solely with him.  (How things have changed.  If you want to see the canons mandating the change, you can’t.  There aren’t any.)  The presbyters were not elected each year for a term of office as present-day parish council members are.  They were chosen and then ordained by the bishop for life.  If all of the congregation couldn’t fit into one place and required a second meeting place, this second “overflow” congregation was presided over by one of the presbyters. But the bishop still remained the pastor for all the Christians in the same village.
That was then, this is now.  Today the bishop usually lives and liturgizes at a tremendous distance from most of the congregations over which he has pastoral charge, and his presbyteral council is correspondingly scattered over a large area.  The presbyters no longer serve together each Sunday at the same Liturgy, but serve in their own little congregations, often in great isolation one from another.  The bishop’s oversight, of necessity, is minimal.
But not, however, the oversight of the secular government.  In the West, churches are registered in that clergy are licenced by the State to perform and register marriages and (in Canada anyway) receive little official slips of paper after burying the dead.  Money given to the church is eligible for tax-deductible receipts, so that in church we render both to God and to Caesar. 
Part of the regulation of churches (again, in Canada anyway) involves their registration as Charitable Societies (hence those tax receipts), and that includes the legal necessity of having Annual General Meetings of the membership, having a Constitution and By-laws and periodic meetings of the Board of Directors—a.k.a. the Parish Council.  The Church of the first centuries had no AGMs, no Constitution or By-laws, no tax receipt eligibility—and no Parish Council.  They didn’t need them, for the Church kept itself as far from government supervision (i.e. from persecution) as it could manage, and the bishop and the presbyters made all the decisions, including the financial ones.
Given the scattering of the so-called “local church” over a wide area and the resultant scattering of the presbyters from each other, the help from the Parish Council becomes a matter of necessity even apart from the watchful eye of Caesar.  Bluntly put, there is no way a single parish priest could take care of the multitude of concerns affecting his congregation, and help from other members of the flock has become indispensible.  The healthy functioning of these Parish Councils and their healthy relationship with the priest are matters crucial to the health of the parish. 
As any priest who has been at his job for longer than several months can tell you, such healthy function cannot always be presumed.  I remember one dear priest who discovered that something needed to be done or purchased in his parish, and he said to another person in the parish, “Just do it.  I’ll fight with the Parish Council later.”  Sometimes the Parish Council consists of people intent on running the parish and treating the priest like a paid employee whose only job is to serve Liturgy and do what he is told.  Sometimes it is the priest who is the bully, and who tyrannizes and abuses the people under him, including his long-suffering Parish Council.  Sometimes Parish Councils become old boys’ clubs (or old girls’ clubs) with its members clinging to power and office like big fishes in little ponds and refusing to allow “younger blood” (i.e. anyone else) to be elected to office.  Sometimes it is the bishop who makes life interesting.  I remember one situation (not in my jurisdiction!) where the bishop demanded that each parish contribute a set amount to his central fund.  One parish demurred and the bishop put the squeeze on the parish priest to make the parish cough up the money.  Said priest found himself in a tight spot, canonically responsible to his bishop but in fact financial responsible and dependent upon his Parish Council.  Where’s voluntary euthanasia when you need it?
A good description for the functioning of priest and Parish Council can sometimes be found where least expected—in the jurisdictional by-laws.  Thus The Statute of the Orthodox Church in America (1991 edition) reads in part:  “At the head of the parish is its Rector.  According to the teachings of the Church, he is the spiritual father and teacher of his flock and the celebrant of the liturgical worship …No activities in the parish can be initiated without his knowledge, approval, and blessing; neither should he do anything pertaining to the parish without the knowledge of his parishioners and parish organs elected by them, so that always and everywhere there may be unity, mutual trust, cooperation, and love.”  Note the mutuality between priest and Parish Council (the “parish organs”):  no activities can be initiated with his knowledge, nor may he initiate them without the knowledge of the Council. 
Given this mutuality, one may ask the question, “Who is in charge then?”  The answer:  Christ is.  Christ’s love and life are manifested through the joint unity of priest and Parish Council.  It is too easy for power struggles to arise, with a kind of administrative tug of war between priest and council.  In this wretched mess, which side gets to have its way?  And which side has to back down?  When it is about power, one might imagine that one side wins and the other side loses, but in fact in this situation everyone loses, for the Church is not about power but about Christ.  The aim of priest and Parish Council is to discover and discern Christ’s will in any given situation and then to do it.  I remember one day in the early years of our own parish.  We had a decision to make about money at an AGM, and the congregation was split down the middle about what to do.  I refused to allow the vote to be taken (so much for Roberts’ Rules of Order) and asked them to pray about it during the coming week.  They did, and at the later meeting someone made a suggestion for breaking the deadlock which passed unanimously.  The point is it is not about power:  it is about discerning God’s will together, and this discernment is made jointly by priest and Parish Council.
This means that the priest should come to the Parish Council realizing that priesthood is not about power but about love, service, and washing the feet of his people.  If he doesn’t understand this he should take off the cassock and get another job.  The people of the Parish Council should regard their task as a ministry for Christ, for which they will be judged at the Last Day, and part of this ministry involves supporting and loving their priest.  Like the dry and dusty Statute said:  unity, mutual trust, cooperation, and love.  Mutual love between priest and Parish Council are essential if the parish is to function properly.  

I would end with two final questions for council members and priest respectively.  For Parish Council members:  do you understand that your priest is your papa, and that supporting him in prayer, word, and deed, is your top priority?  And for the priest:  are you willing to lay down your life for your sheep as all good shepherds are willing to do?  These questions are not simply rhetorical.  They will be asked and an answer demanded before the dread judgment seat of Christ.   I would also like to add a quick addendum here, giving thanks to God for my own Parish Council.  They are indescribably wonderful, and a gift from God.

Friday, February 17, 2017

“The Doors! The Doors!”

          I sometimes think we Orthodox have a problem with modernity—by which I don’t mean that we should begin ordaining women to the priesthood or marrying homosexuals (those two thoroughly modern issues) or otherwise throwing the Scriptures into the dustbin.  Rather I mean that we seem not to be as good as we might be at coping with the demise of Byzantium.  For example, we still continue to use the term “Constantinople” when every map and travel agent in the world has used the term “Istanbul” for some time now.  And we glory in titles such as “the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East”, despite the fact that the term “the East” refers not to a direction of the compass, but to one of the original major administrative divisions of the Roman Empire, divisions which have long since lost any real significance.  We need to face the fact of Byzantium’s demise along with all its many consequences.
            One of those consequences is the sad recognition that the world is no longer Christian as it once was.  In the early Church, everyone was all too keenly aware that the world was not Christian and a hard line was drawn between the Church and the World, separating those inside from those outside with a kind of ruthless clarity.  Take for example the agape meal celebrated in the third century.  The document now known as The Apostolic Tradition gives directions for how that supper meal should be ordered.  (The details of authorship need not detain us here; regardless of who wrote it, it clearly reflects the common Christian mind of its time.)  At that meal, the faithful received a fragment of the blessed bread from the bishop’s hand before taking their own meal.  “But to the catechumens let exorcised bread be given…A catechumen shall not sit at table at the Lord’s supper [i.e. the agape meal].”  Note:  not only were the catechumens excluded from the Eucharist; they could not even sit at the same table as the faithful at the agape meal and share the non-eucharistic bread.  In the Eucharistic service, they were allowed to be present for the reading of the Scriptures and for the instruction (just as any visitor was allowed), but were dismissed with prayer immediately afterward.  They were excluded from the corporate intercessions which the faithful offered for the world and its needs, and from the corporate exchange of the Kiss of Peace, because (quoting The Apostolic Tradition again) “their kiss is not yet holy”.  The whole world lay under the power of the Evil One (1 John 5:19) and those in the world were tainted and unclean—a taint and uncleanness that only Christian baptism could wipe away.  That is why the catechumens were rigorously excluded from all Christian rites and functions and could only passively hear the Scriptures and receive the prayers of the faithful. 
            Clearly things have changed, and if a Christian from the early third century could be brought back to life and brought forward in time to our own century, he or she would be shocked at what we do and allow.  And the multiple shocks received at our Liturgy would begin early.  The ancient Christian might wonder a bit why the service began without the celebrant greeting everyone (as done in his day), but he would be floored when the Great Litany began with outsiders, visitors, and catechumens present.  For the prayers and intercessions of the Church could only be offered by the baptized, the royal priesthood, the communicant faithful.  In the words of Gregory Dix (old words now, but still true), “The Church is the Body of Christ and prays ‘in the name of Jesus’, i.e. in His Person.  The Spirit of adoption whereby the church cries to God in Christ’s Name, ‘Abba, Father’ with the certainty of being heard Himself makes intercession with her in her prayers.  Those who have not yet put on Christ by baptism cannot join in offering that prevailing prayer” (from his The Shape of the Liturgy).   The ancient Christian would be shocked that the line between the World and the Kingdom had somehow be erased, and that the saving boundaries and walls of the Church had apparently been torn down.  What were unbaptized outsiders doing here during the time of the Church’s intercessory prayer?  How could they offer that prayer if they were not yet part of Christ’s body?
            So what happened and caused the change, allowing the intercessory prayers to be offered at that place in the service?  In a word, Byzantium happened.  Increasingly from the fourth century onward, the line between the Church and the World came to be blurred, as more and more people in society claimed membership in the Church.  By the time the thing was in full swing, it was difficult to find unbaptized people anywhere.  There were Jewish enclaves of course, and heretical groups, but pretty everyone else in society was considered at least in theory to be in the Church as well.  This resulted in a general lowering of the spiritual temperature, about which clergy were already complaining in Chrysostom’s day.  But canonically speaking the old dividing line between the Church and the World was hard to find.  This being so, no one batted an eye at praying the Great Litany before the catechumens had been dismissed later on in the service.  The whole idea of the catechumenate had become anachronistic anyway.  One could pray the intercessions of the faithful before the catechumens were dismissed because the latter no longer existed.  (Why one would continue praying for and dismissing non-existent people is another question, and a good one.)  The Liturgy which allowed everyone in society to be present throughout was the Liturgy of Byzantium, a Liturgy which assumed that everyone present was a part of the Church.
            We need to acknowledge that Byzantium is gone, and that in the words of the old song, “It’s Istanbul, not Constantinople”.  More importantly, we need to acknowledge that many if not most of the people in the world around us in North America are not Christians.  Some might object to regarding nice secular people as tainted or unclean (in the same way as third century Christians regarded the non-Christians surrounding them), but this objection simply reveals how far we are from the mindset of the early Church.  The cry of “The Doors! The Doors!” was originally a diaconal call to the doorkeeper to guard the doors against secular intrusion, and served as a kind of verbal dividing line between the Church and the World.  In Byzantium it eventually came to have the same anachronistic meaninglessness as the prayer for and dismissal of the by-then non-existent catechumens, since the assembled church no longer needed protection against hostile intrusion.  Perhaps the retention today in the Liturgy of that ancient cry may yet prove providential.  The line between the Church and the World, blurred in the heyday of Byzantium, has once again come to the fore.
            The fine liturgical details resulting from this acknowledgment are less important than the acknowledgment itself.  The World is once again a place of sin, rebellion, and spiritual danger in a way that it was not when Christendom and Byzantium were still standing.  Becoming Orthodox must be seen as a renunciation of this World with its perverted values and as an entrance into a completely different moral universe.  Christians are fundamentally different from the society around them, and this difference must be insisted upon canonically (i.e. by excommunicating blatantly worldly behaviour) and possibly expressed liturgically as well.  It is no good pretending that western society around us is Christian and that we may therefore follow its norms.  Through God’s grace and baptism, we are different from the society in which we now live.  We need to realize that we belong no longer to the World, but to the Kingdom of God, and to close the spiritual doors to worldliness.  Byzantium is long gone, and once again we live as exiles and aliens in the world around us.  Let us hearken to the ancient diaconal cry, and set our faces away from the World and toward the coming Kingdom.  In words of a very old prayer, “Let grace come, and let the world pass away”—even the world which flies the national flags we so often see around us.  Our ultimate allegiance lies elsewhere.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

What’s Wrong with Suicide?

Eventually every pastor will be faced with the question of what to do about the theological issue of suicide, either because he will be asked to preside at the funeral of someone who has taken his or her own life, or because he will be asked to offer prayer for their repose.  What is the proper response, both theologically and pastorally?  May one legitimately preside at the funeral of a suicide or offer a memorial service (such as a Panikhida) for their repose?  What are we to think about their final eternal destiny?
            It is no good pretending that the weight of Christian history does not offer a dark view of the matter.  The classic view, at least in the West, was expressed well by G.K. Chesterton (d. 1936).  In his book Orthodoxy, he wrote comparing the martyr to the suicide in the following words: “A suicide is obviously the opposite of a martyr.  A martyr is a man who cares so much for something outside him, that he forgets his own personal life.   A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything.  One wants something to begin: the other wants everything to end…The suicide is ignoble because he has not this link with being: he is a mere destroyer; spiritually he destroys the universe…One man [the martyr] flung away his life; he was so good that his dry bones could heal cities in pestilence.  Another man flung away life; he was so bad that his bones would pollute his brethren’s”.
            Ouch.  Well, no one ever accused GKC of mincing words.  And putting aside the intensity of his prose, he does express the attitude of the church of his day which steadfastly refused to bury a suicide in consecrated ground.  And this attitude was well understood for some time before Chesterton put pen to paper.  Even Shakespeare’s Hamlet knew that “the Everlasting has fixed His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter”.
            Given this negative view of suicide and the presumption that a suicide would be eternally lost, we may still ask the question “What’s so wrong with suicide?”  Obviously suicide is always a tragedy and always to be avoided, but why did our forefathers feel that those committing the act were to be reprobated in this way?  Please note here that I am discussing active suicide, the act wherein a person takes his own life or arranges for another to take his life, not the issue of what is sometime called “passive euthanasia”, wherein a person allows himself to be “unplugged” from life-support machines in a hospital and let death take its course.  That is also an important issue, but it is not the one I am discussing here.
            I think it is important to examine the question of motivation when assessing the relative morality of any act.  That is, one must look at the question of why a person commits suicide, and what he or she hopes to accomplish in others by the act.  In some cases the motivation is to inflict hurt and pain upon others.  That person wants to kill himself so that those finding the body afterward will be filled with shock, trauma, and terrible lasting anguish.  The subtext of the suicide note reads, “You’ll be sorry for what you’ve done to me!”  This act of suicide is not simply aimed at extinguishing one’s own life, but more importantly uses this self-destruction as a way of inflicting grief upon the survivors.  It is as much an act of aggression as of self-harm.  In this scenario, if the suicide’s body were not discovered, the act of suicide would have no point.  The man killing himself does not want to simply die, but to reach out beyond the grave and hurt others.  If he simply vanished by (for example) throwing himself off a ship into the sea leaving his surviving family to believe he was still alive somewhere in the world, the act of suicide would have no point, for the whole purpose of the act was to inflict pain upon those discovering that he had killed himself.
            Given this motivation, one can readily see why some might be so opposed to the act, and why it opined that the dead man’s chances for eternal bliss were so slim.  But not all suicides (or, as I suspect, actually very few suicides) spring from this motivation.  Of the people I knew who killed themselves, their primary motivation was not to inflict guilt or pain upon those surviving, but simply to make their own interior pain stop.  This is the way it is, I am told, with those who kill themselves when they are clinically depressed.  They do not want to die; they just feel that they cannot go on living in such pain, and suicide seems to them to be the only way to make the pain go away.  Such people deserve our sympathy and our prayers—including our corporate liturgical prayers.  It may be that some liturgical tweaking could be done with the prayers normally used at Christian burials expressing the ambiguous and tragic nature of the situation and accentuating the mercy of God.  That would be for bishops to decide and to bless.  But it seems to me that clergy should be allowed to preside at such funerals, and to offer the comfort of the Church’s intercession for the dead.  Indeed, the bishops of the North American Church (SCOBA) have a decade ago have issued a pastoral letter tending in this direction.  In the case of suicide, as with so many other things, motivation is everything.