Friday, 4 September 2015

Beautiful Bulgarian Orthodox Music

Stunningly beautiful Bulgarian Orthodox music:

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

True Prayer

When such feelings are present, our prayer is prayer. When they are absent, it is not yet prayer."
St. Theophan the recluse: The Path to Prayer

Although the above was written by an Eastern Orthodox priest in the nineteenth century (hence the reference to prostration) his words apply to every one who prays. Because what he is doing is exposing prayer that lacks heart and therefore lacks life. And everybody recognises that type of praying either in others or, God willing, in themselves.

The Gospel reading for last Sunday in the old calendar of the Church in Wales is from Luke 18:9-14. Here Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. In it the Pharisee, without emotion, reels off a list of the kind of things he has done for God. First he compares himself to others. He is not like them - "extortioners, unjust, adulterers". We all come off well when we compare ourselves with the worst. And second, he lists his religious practices which he sees as trophies of his (self)-righteousness: "I fast twice a week (and) give tithes of all that I get." His rather emotionless prayer which recounts his achievements means - as Jesus points out - that he is not really praying at all. In fact Jesus refers to it as praying ..."with himself".

By contrast we feel the emotion of the tax-collector in the few words he utters as he beats his breast over and over while exclaiming "God, be merciful to me a sinner!" He is praying from the heart and God hears his prayer because it is true and honest. And so he is the one who "went down to his house justified."

Here then is an illustration of what St. Theophan is talking about. True prayer is prayer which touches the deepest part of us - our hearts - and as the Bible tells us, that is the seat of our emotions. So when we truly express who we really are before God, then is it hard not to be emotional in our prayers. Not necessarily with weeping or wailing or stuff like that, but with a real sense of connecting and owning the words we say rather than just saying them because we either think that they are what God wants to hear or what we think we should be saying.

So next time you pray, don't just say the words, but own them. Do they really express who and what you are? Or are they the words that you think God wants to hear. In other words pray as you and not as someone else.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Prayer - from The Way of the Ascetics

Started re-reading Tito Colliander's wonderful book - and Orthodox classic - The Way of the Ascetics. Don't let the title bother you as this is not about great feats of self-denial that we see in the lives of the great Saints of the desert but something every ordinary Christian or saint can attain to.

It is written - so the dust cover tells us - "for lay persons living fully in the world" by an Eastern Orthodox layman Tito Colliander who lived most of his life in Helsinki, Finland. Here is some of his advice on prayer:

"A person who resolves to begin regular morning exercises usually does so not because he already has physical fitness but in order to get something he does not have. Once one has something he can be anxious to keep it; previous to that, he is anxious to get it.

Therefore, begin your practice without expecting anything of yourself. If you are fortunate enough to sleep in a room by yourself, you can quite literally and without trouble, follow the instructions of the prayer book:

"When you awake, before you begin the day, stand with reverence before the All Seeing God. Make the sign of the Cross and say:

"In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

"Having invoked the Holy Trinity, keep silence for a while. So that your thoughts and feelings ,at be freed from worldy cares. Then recite the following prayers without haste, and with your whole heart.

"God be merciful to me, a sinner..."

Thereafter follow the other prayers (see the Orthodox Prayer Book) with the prayer to the Holy Spirit first, then to the Holy Trinity, and not the Our Father, which precedes the whole list of morning prayers. It is better to read a few of them quietly than all of them impatiently. They rest upon the gathered experience of the Church; through them you enter a great fellowship of praying folk. You are not alone; you are a cell in the body of the Church - that is, of Christ. Through them you learn the patience that is necessary not only for the body but also for the heart and mind, for the building up of your faith."
(Way of the Ascetics page 63-64).

Monday, 17 August 2015

The Sacraments and personal salvation

The tradition of the Church and the Bible are absolutely insistent on the necessity of the Sacraments for life in the Church and the salvation of individual persons. In His dialogue with Nikodemos, Jesus pointedly said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (John 3:5). When the Apostle Philip explained the Christian faith to the Ethiopian government official, the immediate response was Baptism. The Bible tells us that Philip "told him the good news of Jesus. And as they went along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, 'See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?' And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him" (Acts 8:35-38).

So also, the Eucharist is essential for salvation. Jesus declared "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him" (John 6:53-56).

The sacramental way is at the heart of our appropriation of Christ's saving work for ourselves, according to the Bible. But, it is not magic. Personal response in faith, practice, trust, and belief are also necessary. What Protestants call "accepting Christ, and making a personal commitment" is what Orthodox call "repentance." Orthodox Christians know that they must continuously repent, because when we become members of the household of God, which is the Church, at whatever age, we still must grow in faith and obedience for the rest of our lives. Repentance is not a once in a life-time, or once in a while behavior. It is the permanent essential stance of the Christian. In the Orthodox Divine Liturgy and every service of worship, Orthodox Christians hear, "...let us commit ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God."

While Protestants focus primarily on the individual, the Orthodox Church recognizes that we are never alone and by ourselves as Christians. We live our Christian lives as members of the Body of Christ, the Church: "let us commit ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God."

Orthodox "Fullness" and Protestant "Minimalism" Evangelical Protestants, from the Orthodox perspective tend to reduce the meaning of salvation to one thing, the stating in words that one "Accepts Jesus Christ as Personal Saviour." From what has been said above, in the Orthodox perspective, there is, indeed, the essential need to believe in Christ and His saving work personally. But this is not the only thing that is needed. Focused exclusively on a juridical (forensic) reading of Romans, it is too legalistic and somewhat formalistic. What we hear is "Say these specific words and you are saved. If you don't say the words, you aren't saved." The Orthodox holds to a much broader view of salvation, based on the whole of the Bible.

The Orthodox Church teaches that God the Father, through Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit saved humanity from sin, evil and death. No Orthodox Christian teacher ever taught that we alone save ourselves. Salvation is from God as a gift to humankind (grace, " charis "). Once that is made real through Baptism through which we share in the death and resurrection of Christ, we enter into the new life as Christians. St. Paul said "We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:4).

From that point, the Bible tells us to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:12). Salvation is not an instant thing; it is a process.

The point of all this is to affirm the richness and multi-dimensional aspects of salvation. We have been saved by Christ's work of salvation; once baptized and sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ, we are in the process of being saved; when the Kingdom comes in its fullness, we shall be saved. In Orthodoxy the fullness of the Christian Faith is maintained.
(See Stanley Harakas at

Sunday, 16 August 2015


In the Orthodox Church's teaching, the whole life and work of Jesus Christ was for the salvation of all of humankind. Central to the saving work of Jesus Christ was His Incarnation. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son, was sent into the world to take on human nature (body and soul). He became thus, through His Birth of the Virgin Mary one divine/human person (in Greek "Theanthropos"). His saving work was fulfilled by means of His teaching, healing, guidance, suffering, death on the Cross and His Resurrection from the dead. All this, He did for all of humanity of all ages.

This salvation is made available to every person through the Church which Christ brought to fullness by sending the Holy Spirit upon His disciples at Pentecost. Belief in the Christ and His work and trust in God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit is essential for each of us to appropriate for ourselves the saving work of Jesus Christ. This brings us into the household of God, the Church. It is there that the fullness of the faith (Orthodoxy as true belief), and the fullness of true worship (Orthodoxy as true worship) and the fullness of true Christian living (Orthodoxy as Orthopraxia) are to be found in their wholeness.
(See: Rev Dr Stanley Harakas at

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Scripture and the Church

Often the Orthodox Church is charged with not being "Scriptural enough." That is a false charge, since every worship service of the Church is permeated through and through with the Bible. So are the writings of the Church Fathers and the Canons of the Church. The Bible is inextricably bound up with the life and tradition of the Church. I would agree, however, that Orthodox Christians need to read the Bible much more. The important thing is that the Bible be read in harmony with the Church's mind set and tradition which guarantees the fullness of the truth with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Bible itself speaks of "the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15). Conversely, the Bible is a constant guide to the Church: " All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The point is, that the Church and Scripture are inextricably interconnected.
(Stanley Harakas - see last bloo)

Scripture and Tradition

The following is an excerpt from an article on the website of St. Luke the Evangelist, Illinois by Rev. Dr. Stanley S. Harakas - Professor of Orthodox Theology, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. It is in turn taken from the Hellenic Chronicle March 6th, 1997. It deals with Scripture and Tradition:

Like Protestants, the Orthodox Church also rejects "the traditions of men." These are teachings and practices which violate the true Christian teaching and life. But how do we know what is true Christian teaching and life? We look at Holy Tradition, that is the experience, life and ethos of the whole Church in its fullness. Included in Holy Tradition, and in a place of privilege is Holy Scripture. Consequently, treating Holy Tradition as different than, or worse, contrary to Scripture is incomprehensible to the Orthodox. For Protestants to do that is to create and knock down a straw man.

Holy Tradition includes elements as far ranging as the content of missionary preaching, hymns, worship content and practices, the writings of Church Fathers, the decisions of Church Councils, practices of spiritual and moral discipline. Historically, it is impossible to extricate Holy Tradition from Scripture and Scripture from Holy Tradition.

Thousands of Christians, believed in Christ, became members of his body, the Church, lived Christian lives and often witnessed to their faith by dying for it, long before there was anything like the New Testament that we read today. Scholars know that in the first few centuries after Christ local churches usually had only a few of the twenty seven books of what we now call the New Testament. Yet, they were believers who lived the whole Christian faith. Even the New Testament witnesses to this: St. Paul wrote to already existing Churches in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Galatia, and so on.

The striking truth is that it was Holy Tradition that created the New Testament; not the other way around. When Protestants reject or minimize Holy Tradition, the consequence is that they lose the ground and historical source out of which the New Testament came into being. The tragic result, from the Orthodox perspective, is that they thus also lose the witness of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church as a guide to understanding the Scripture itself.

The end of this is the doctrine of the private interpretation of the Scriptures, supposedly under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, staunchly held by all Protestants. Yet, in Orthodox perspective, this doctrine does not seem to lead to truth, but to conflicting private and ecclesial division. Since the Reformation in the 16th century, church body after church body has come into existence. Today, there exist hundreds of Protestant sects, bodies, churches and movements, all proclaiming to preach the truth, with multitudes of conflicting doctrines, church orders and structures, worship traditions and ethical teachings. This can hardly constitute the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ.

From an Orthodox perspective, this is precisely the result of the separation by Protestants of Scripture from Holy Tradition. It is, one might say, the fundamental error of Protestantism. For, as we shall see next week, what Protestants and all Christians identify as the New Testament, is precisely the creation of the Church, not the other way around

The important point to remember about the Bible and the New Testament in particular, is that it is a product of the Church, not the other way around. In the first years of Christianity, many writings about Jesus appeared and circulated. Often attributed to Apostolic writers, these books not only were falsely titled, but they also contained false teachings. The authentic scriptural writings were recognized as such in the Church, and they alone were used in the Church's worship, preaching and teaching. Eventually, there came a need to define which were authentic and which were not. This led to the formation of the "Canon," or the list of books which were, in fact, inspired Scripture in the experience and life of the Church "Canon" is a Greek word meaning originally, a "measuring rod" or "ruler." It later took on the meaning of an "approved list or catalogue." Between 170 A.D. and 220 A.D. the four Gospels the Acts of the Apostles, the thirteen letters attributed to St. Paul were formally acknowledged as "canonical," by the Church. Within a century after that, the New Testament as we know it today was formally acknowledged as the canonical text. But it should be noted that what made the books canonical was their inspiration by the Holy Spirit and their use in the life of the Church as "inspired texts." It was the Church that acknowledged and certified them as such. Thus, the Church is the author of the New Testament Scriptures and it is Holy Tradition that is the guarantor of the Scriptures. Otherwise, what books are actually Scripture would be determined by subjective opinion.

Taking a closer look - 2

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

On the face of it there appears to be no real difference between what Anglicans and Orthodox believe here. But it all depends which wing of the Anglican Church you belong to. Personally I am an Evangelical which immediately raises the whole question of a belief in the substitutionary theory of atonement so beloved of that wing of the church and this portrays God as a judge who is full of wrath against sinful humanity and seeks to punish it for its waywardness. In steps Jesus and substitutes himself for us, taking on himself the punishment that makes us whole. The "wrath of God is satisfied" - according to a well known evangelical hymn ("In Christ Alone") - and we are free to follow Jesus and serve God.

The opening line of the Creed gives no hint of that however and introduces God as "Father" and "creator". No mention of wrath or anger only, one assumes, a love that is creative and caring. Does he get angry - yes - but at sin and the destruction it visits upon us his people and the world he lovingly created. He is angry at evil and the way it twists and deforms. His anger arises out of his love and not at odds with it. This becomes more clear later when we look at Jesus and his death on the cross.

As St. John Chrysostom reminds us:

"God loves us more than a father, mother, friend, or any else could love, and even more than we are able to love ourselves."

Taking a closer look 1

As an Anglican - currently - I am used to reciting the Nicene Creed every week in church (the Orthodox version without the offending filioque phrase). And yet I know that there are significant differences between Anglicanism and Orthodoxy. What are they? To consider them I am going to look at the Nicene Creed in an attempt to identify the places where Anglicanism and Orthodoxy diverge. But first, the Creed:

 I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, 
Maker of Heaven and Earth and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God,
the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages.
Light of light; true God of true God; begotten, not made;
of one essence with the Father, by 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.
And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate,
and suffered, and was buried.
And the third day He arose again, according to the Scriptures,
and ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father;
and He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead;
Whose Kingdom shall have no end.
And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life,
Who proceeds from the Father;
Who with the Father and the Son together
is worshipped and glorified; Who spoke by the prophets.

I believe i
n one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.
I look for the resurrection of the dead

and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Learning about Orthodoxy

The following is a three year distance learning course on the Eastern Orthodox Church. You don't have to sign up to use it (apparently) but you can listen to some of the lectures: