Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Popes and Patriarchs

The book Popes and Patriarchs by Michael Whelton is an eye-opener. Kallistos Ware speaks on the same subject

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Conversion story

The following is about how Sheila Mullican became an Orthodox Christian. It is from her excellent blog 'Anam Cara'. Check it out.

"I became Orthodox because God hurled me into it. Arms flailing. Guts wrenching.

My whole life has been a chasing after God. I first knew Him in a tiny church in Appalachia. My earliest memories include flannel-graphs, brush arbors, and foot washings. As an adult, I followed Him to a mega church in the city where I played in a rock and roll band (my daddy’s words) and offered the love of Christ to those far from God.

In all of those places, God was. And I had meaningful encounters. But I craved an intimacy with Him that eluded me. Though I would have told you my hope rested entirely in the grace of God, I frantically tried to prove myself worthy of His love. I volunteered for everything, certain that if I did just a little more He would be happy with me and want to be with me.

Until I crashed and burned.

Exhausted, empty, spent, I made some awful choices and hurt people I loved. And I had the audacity to blame God for that. I told Him if He had let me know Him the way I wanted to, none of this would have happened.  And I told Him I was done chasing Him.

My counselor occasionally mentioned something about some saint he was reading about. I didn’t know anyone who talked about saints, so I was intrigued. I asked some questions, began to read some books. A friend invited me to an Orthodox women’s study group. Then, I attended my first liturgy. God was beginning to stitch up broken places in me and lead me along a path that led directly to Him, though I didn’t know it yet.

My heart began to be wed to Orthodoxy by…

Beauty. Candles, icons, incense, bells…and words; songs and prayers distilled over centuries to yield a language poetic, precise, and potent.
Sacrament. There is a keen reverence for the Holy; in the way we move in the temple, in the way we touch things that are sacred. But reverence also for the sacrament of the everyday. The trisagion prayer says that God is “everywhere present, filling all things”. I am learning to see the image of God in all places and in all people.
A Way of Being. Mostly, I find a way of just being with God. Nothing to prove. Before, I needed to understand to do. Now, I do to understand. Fasting teaches me about fasting, for instance. Prostrations make me humble. And in this being with, this obedience, I am coming to know God. Intimately. With joy.
Orthodox worship is like nothing else in my life. During the liturgy, we believe we enter the Kingdom of Heaven. It tastes like Heaven. It sounds like Heaven. The first time I left a liturgy, I noticed the fragrance of incense in my hair. I thought to myself, “I smell like God.”

God be praised.

The rising tide of liberalism

Last week, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, of the Russian Orthodox Church, visited Billy Graham to wish him a happy 96th birthday.

The Metropolitan also delivered this speech to a group of Evangelical leaders gathered in North Carolina. He spoke of the Russian Orthodox Church’s history of good relations with North American churches, but said that it will not have anything to do with churches that make fundamental compromises on Christian morality.

He said this is why Moscow broke relations with the Episcopal Church after it ordained the gay and uncelibate V. Gene Robinson as bishop.

"The Russian Orthodox Church consistently states that for her any double standards with regard to Christian ethics or any experiments with the ethical component of our faith are unacceptable.
The so-called ‘liberal theology’ clearly conflicts with the apostolic heritage. First of all, it concerns the introduction of the practice of prayer for so-called ‘same-sex couples’, even if such a prayer is not formally equated with the celebration of marriage, which in the Church’s view can be concluded only between a man and a woman.

Liberal Christians have often maintained that society needs to preserve stability. However, what stability can be preserved by ‘blessing’ a sin? The Church has always been called to proclaim the truth of Christ and condemn sin, even in defiance of the demands of the society and ‘the powers that be’.

Did Christ try to adapt His message to the standards of this world? Did He promise the apostles stability and comfort? Did he promise them that their preaching would be a success? Let us listen to what He says to the apostles, when he sends them out to preach: ‘I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; And ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles.
But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you. And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved’. (Mt. 10:16-22)
How little does this resemble the discourse of today’s liberal Christians who seek to adapt the Church to the standards of this world, to make it tolerant, not towards people, not towards sinners, but towards sin. Sin is elevated to the dignity of a norm and to this end even the words of Jesus and His apostles are rewritten and re-interpreted.

We do not at all insist that the Church should refuse to help sinners. Christians are obliged to pray for all sinners and to wish them salvation. The Church should treat any individual with pastoral responsibility regardless of his or her sexual orientation. But the Church cannot bless a vice. She cannot reform the norm of faith as sealed in the holy Gospel and the letters of the apostles."

In 2011,  Hilarion spoke to a large group of Presbyterians in Dallas. He was warmly received, and talked about how Orthodox and morally conservative Protestants can and should work together to defend our common heritage under assault from secular liberalism — even within the churches.

Many mainline Protestant churches are giving way to liberalism both in America,and here in Britain. Only yesterday the retiring Archbishop of Wales spoke again of his desire to see the Church in Wales marry gay and lesbian people, despite the fact that just a year ago the motion was thrown out of the Governing Body. Our only hope - a forlorn one - is that whoever succeeds him will resist the call.

Monday, 12 September 2016

The Nous

I have come across the term 'nous' many times in Orthodox writing especially with regards to prayer. Frederica Mathewes-Green writes very clearly about it in her wonderful book 'The Jesus Prayer'. Another helpful piece of writing on the subject is by John Romanides.

Romanides (1927 – 2001) was a prominent 20th century Orthodox Christian theologian, priest, and writer.  He was Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the Holy Cross Theological School in Brookline, MA and later Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the University of Thessaloniki, Greece. Here is what he wrote:

“The chief concern of the Orthodox Church is the healing of the human soul. The Church has always considered the soul as the part of the human being that needs healing because She has seen from Hebrew tradition, from Christ Himself, and from the Apostles that in the region of the physical heart there functions something that the Fathers called the nous. In other words, the Fathers took the traditional term nous, which means both intellect (dianoia) and speech or reason (logos), and gave it a different meaning. They used nous to refer to this noetic energy that functions in the heart of every spiritually healthy person. We do not know when this change in meaning took place, because we know that some Fathers used the same word nous to refer to reason as well as to this noetic energy that descends and functions in the region of the heart.

So from this perspective, noetic activity is an activity essential to the soul. It functions in the brain as the reason; it simultaneously functions in the heart as the nous. In other words, the same organ, the nous, prays ceaselessly in the heart and simultaneously thinks about mathematical problems, for example, or anything else in the brain.

We should point out that there is a difference in terminology between St. Paul and the Fathers. What St. Paul calls the nous is the same as what the Fathers call dianoia. When the Apostle Paul says, “I will pray with the spirit,”[1] he means what the Fathers mean when they say, “I will pray with the nous.” And when he says, “I will pray with the nous,” he means “I will pray with the intellect (dianoia).” When the Fathers use the word nous, the Apostle Paul uses the word “spirit.” When he says “I will pray with the nous, I will pray with the spirit” or when he says “I will chant with the nous, I will chant with the spirit,” and when he says “the Spirit of God bears witness to our spirit,”[2] he uses the word “spirit” to mean what the Fathers refer to as the nous. And by the word nous, he means the intellect or reason.

In his phrase, “the Spirit of God bears witness to our spirit,” St. Paul speaks about two spirits: the Spirit of God and the human spirit. By some strange turn of events, what St. Paul meant by the human spirit later reappeared during the time of St. Makarios the Egyptian with the name nous, and only the words logos and dianoia continued to refer to man”s rational ability. This is how the nous came to be identified with spirit, that is, with the heart, since according to St. Paul, the heart is the place of man’s spirit.[3]

Thus, for the Apostle Paul reasonable or logical worship takes place by means of the nous (i.e., the reason or the intellect) while noetic prayer occurs through the spirit and is spiritual prayer or prayer of the heart.[4] So when the Apostle Paul says, “I prefer to say five words with my nous in order to instruct others rather than a thousand with my tongue,”[5] he means that he prefers to say five words, in other words to speak a bit, for the instruction of others rather than pray noetically. Some monks interpret what St. Paul says here as a reference to the Prayer of Jesus, which consists of five words,[6] but at this point the Apostle is speaking here about the words he used in instructing others.[7] For how can catechism take place with noetic prayer, since noetic prayer is a person”s inward prayer, and others around him do not hear anything? Catechism, however, takes place with teaching and worship that are cogent and reasonable. We teach and speak by using the reason, which is the usual way that people communicate with each other.[8]

Those who have noetic prayer in their hearts do, however, communicate with one another. In other words, they have the ability to sit together, and communicate with each other noetically, without speaking. That is, they are able to communicate spiritually. Of course, this also occurs even when such people are far apart. They also have the gifts of clairvoyance and foreknowledge. Through clairvoyance, they can sense both other people’s sins and thoughts (logismoi), while foreknowledge enables them to see and talk about subjects, deeds, and events in the future. Such charismatic people really do exist. If you go to them for confession, they know everything that you have done in your life before you open your mouth to tell them.”

1 Corinthians 14:5, Romans 8:16.
This means that the Spirit of God speaks to our spirit. In other words, God speaks within our heart by the grace of the Holy Spirit. St. Gregory Palamas in his second discourse from “In Behalf of the Sacred Hesychasts” notes that “the heart rules over the whole human organism”. For the nous and all the thoughts (logismoi) of the soul are located there.” From the context of grace-filled prayer, it is clear that the term “heart” does not refer to the physical heart, but to the deep heart, while the term nous does not refer to the intellect (dianoia), but to the energy/activity of the heart, the noetic activity which wells forth from the essence of the nous (i.e., the heart). For this reason, St. Gregory adds that it is necessary for the hesychasts “to bring their nous back and enclose it within their body and particularly within that innermost body, within the body that we call the heart.” The term “spirit” is also identical with the terms nous and “heart.” Philokalia, vol. IV (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), p, 334.

Cf. Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos, who notes: “Man has two centers of knowing: the nous which is the appropriate organ for receiving the revelation of God that is later put into words through the reason and the reason which knows the sensible world around us.” The Person in Orthodox Tradition, trans. Effie Mavromichali (Levadia: Monastery of the Birth of the Theotokos, 1994), p. 24.

1 Corinthians 14:19.
In Greek, the Prayer of Jesus consists of exactly five words in its simplest form, which in English is translated as “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” “TRANS.

“Thus as Saint John of Damascus puts it, we are led as though up a ladder to the thinking of good thoughts”. Saint Paul also indicates this when he says: “I had rather speak five words with my nous”.” St. Peter of Damascus, “The Third Stage of Contemplation,” in Philokalia, 3, page 42 [my translation: cf. also English Philokalia, vol. XXX, p. 120] and St. Nikitas Stithatos, as cited below.

With respect to this, Venerable Nikitas Stithatos writes, “If when you pray and psalmodize you speak in a tongue to God in private you edify yourself, as Saint Paul says. ” If it is not in order to edify his flock that the shepherd seeks to be richly endowed with the grace of teaching and the knowledge of the Spirit, he lacks fervor in his quest for God”s gifts. By merely praying and psalmodizing inwardly with your tongue, that is, by praying in the soul ” you edify yourself, but your nous is unproductive [cf. I Corinthians 14:14], for you do not prophesy with the language of sacred teaching or edify God”s Church. If Paul, who of all men was the most closely united with God through prayer, would have rather spoken from his fertile nous five words in the church for the instruction of others than ten thousand words of psalmody in private with a tongue [cf., I Corinthians 14:19], surely those who have responsibility for others have strayed from the path of love if they limit the shepherd”s ministry solely to psalmody and reading.” St. Nikitas Stithatos, “On Spiritual Knowledge,” in The Philokalia, vol. 4, pp. 169-170.

From “Patristic Theology – The University Lectures of Father John Romanides”, (Thessaloniki, Greece: Uncut Mountain Press, 2008), pp. 19-23.

From the little mountain

New Course

Below is a new course introducing Eastern Orthodoxy

Friday, 9 September 2016

Christ in the poor


"He who is able to pray correctly, even if he is the poorest of all people, is essentially the richest. And he who does not have proper prayer, is the poorest of all, even if he sits on a royal throne"
St John Chrysostom

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Angel's Aisle Part 7

Angel's Aisle Part 6

Angel's Aisle Part 5

Angel's Aisle Part 4

Angel's Aisle Part 3

Angels' Aisle Part 2

Film: Angel's Aisle Part 1

Film: Archimandrite

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Compelled by love

The following short homily was given this morning at our midweek Holy Communion and focused on one of the readings from Trinity 11, Paul's second letter to the Corinthians:

"The love of Christ controls us."  (2 Corinthians 5:14)

The word "control" seems out of place here as it suggests some kind of compulsion that works against our wills. We have all heard of a controlling husband who manipulates or dominates his wife making her life a misery. The same picture arises when we read the word ‘control’ here. It suggests something happening to us against our will.

An alternative word some translators use is the word "constrain". "The love of Christ constrains us" (King James). But again that has an element of being bound in some way. A dangerous prisoner is rendered harmless by a set of constraints he wears as he is led to the courts. These limit his ability to move and restrict him. Can the love of Christ be really seen in those terms as limiting or even restricting us?

There is a third alternative. The word 'compel'. "The love of Christ compels us" (New International version). This is probably the best. We have all been caught up watching a compelling film or reading a compelling book which we have found it hard to put down. Something about it draws us in and keeps us watching or reading. We are fascinated in a positive way by the object of our attention and we give ourselves to it freely.

I think that word is closer to the meaning that Paul is trying to convey here as he talks about being caught up in the love of God for him as he has come to know that love through Jesus. And it gives us an interesting insight into how the Christian life works or should work. There should be no compulsion in religion that works without or against our will. If we do not freely love God, but are made to do so, then that contradicts the very nature of love and God himself, who is says John, love (1 John 4:8).

And yet how many people operate as Christians without an understanding of that God loves them, REALLY love them, and has demonstrated this so wonderfully in Jesus? How many see their religion as something they have to do out of fear, or habit or custom, or because they have been told to follow by parents or under pressure from relatives? The Christian faith must run on love—God’s love for us and ours for God - or it is not Christianity. It is a soulless, empty and potentially soul-destroying thing which the new atheists and others are quite right to condemn and criticise. Without love at the very centre it will not work.

Take for example worship.  How often have I heard some people describe worship as boring? So much so that for them, when they are told that in heaven we will be worshipping God all the time they are quite put off by the idea. What is going on here? What is missing? It is love. Why would you worship a God you don't love or whom you are not convinced loves you?

The same applies to evangelism which is what Paul is talking about here in our passage when he talks about his work of reconciling people to God. Why would anyone talk to another person about the love of God unless they were convinced - as Paul was - that God really loves them and that that love had changed and transformed their lives and their understanding of God?

If this is so then, how can we come to the place where we gain a better understanding of the love of God? How can we know the love of God in or hearts and loves?

St. Isaac the Syrian was a 7th century saint who lived as a hermit for part of his life until he was made bishop of Ninevah. In one of his wonderful homilies he gives this advice. He says:

"Thirst for Jesus, so that he may inebriate you with his love.” (Hom 3, B 34)

If we will seek Jesus—thirst for him, read about him, reflect on his life, pray to him, open our hearts and lives to him - then, says Isaac, he will inebriate us with his love. In other words we will become so full of his love that it will be as if we were tipsy—that time when you feel warm and light-headed but still in control. There will be a liberation in the way we feel about the Christian life and it will have a positive effect on everything we do as Christians—how we worship, pray, speak about God and see the church, his body. When we fully know this love for ourselves, then we will discover the truth of what Paul is saying here in his letter. So let i.e. allow the love of God compel you says Paul. That is true Christianity.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Where love is, God is

"Where Love Is, God Is" is a short story by Leo Tolstoy about a shoemaker named Martin Avdeitch. The story begins with a background on Martin's life. He was a fine cobbler as he did his work well and never promised to do something that he could not do. He stayed busy with his work in his basement that had only one window. Through this window he could see only the feet of people. He was still able to recognize most people by their shoes as he had worked with most of the shoes at least once. He had a wife, but she died, and all their children had died in their infancy except a three-year-old son.

After he thought about sending him off to live with his sister he decided to care for the child himself. Martin however, was not destined to have a child as his son died a few years later with a fever. In grief, he denied God, wondering how He could allow such a thing to happen to him. One day a missionary visited Martin and Martin told him of his hardships. This missionary told Martin that he should live his life for God and not deny Him because God's will is the ultimate deciding factor and as humans we cannot question that. The missionary's words sank deep into Martin. After this encounter Martin went out and bought a large print Testament.

He began to read the Bible, at first only on holidays, but as he read more and more it became daily. His life became full with peace and joy. After his day of work he would sit down with a lamp and read. One night Martin read a passage about a Pharisee had invited Jesus into his house, and in the house a woman anointed and washed Jesus' feet with her tears. Martin thought of himself as the Pharisee in that story as he was only living for himself. As Martin slept he thought he heard the voice of God telling him that He would visit him the next day.

The next morning Martin skeptically watched out his window for God. While he was searching for God he saw Stepanitch shoveling away snow. Martin invited him in for a warm drink and they talked for a while. Martin told Stepanitch about Jesus' and the Pharisee and Stepanitch was moved to tears. Stepanitch later left and thanked Martin for the food, both for the soul and body.

Martin later saw a young woman outside with a baby not properly dressed for the cold. He invited her in for some food and gave her warmer clothes and money. Martin also told her about Jesus and she thanked him and left. Then he saw a young boy stealing from an older lady. He went outside and settled their argument as he extended love and compassion towards the both of them.

That night while Martin wondered why God had not visited him three figures appeared in his home, the three people he had showed hospitality to that day. They said that when he helped them he was helping God. Martin then realized that God had indeed visited him, and he accepted Him well.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Original sin

As an Anglican and an evangelical I have been brought up to accept the doctrine of Original Sin - as formulated by St. Augustine - without submitting it to any serious scrutiny or examination. However reading what Orthodoxy teaches on the subject I have come to appreciate it's more nuanced approach. Here is what I read about the difference between 'Original' and what the Orthodox call 'Ancestral' sin:

"The term Original Sin (or first sin) is used among all Christian churches to define the doctrine surrounding Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:22, in which Adam is identified as the man whom through death came into the world. How this is interpreted is believed by many Orthodox to be a fundamental difference between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Western Churches. In contrast, modern Roman Catholic theologians would claim that the basic anthropology is actually almost identical, and that the difference is only in the explanation of what happened in the Fall. In the Orthodox Church the term ancestral sin (Gr. προπατορικό αμάρτημα) is preferred and is used to define the doctrine of man's "inclination towards sin, a heritage from the sin of our progenitors" and that this is removed through baptism. St. Gregory Palamas taught that man's image was tarnished, disfigured, as a consequence of Adam's disobedience."

A fresh approach to evangelism

I came across this quote from "An Introduction to God: Encountering the Divine in Orthodox Christianity" by Andrew Stephen Damick" which takes a really fresh approach to evangelism:

"The point at which the book finally made sense to me was when I had the opportunity to ask a new friend, an actor and musician who was in the process of being received into the Orthodox Church, what he would say to his fans, what message he would give them about Orthodoxy if he could sit down and talk to them about it. I fully expected a sort of “elevator speech” in response—a slogan or one-paragraph summary to attempt to hook them into buying into Orthodoxy. What I got instead rather surprised and even shamed me. His response was not an “elevator speech.” Instead, the first thing he said to me was that such an encounter would have to be preceded by intercession.

What would he say to his fans? He would first have to pray for them. Why? Because he was not there to explain God to them. Rather, he wanted to provide them space for an encounter. In other words, he wanted to introduce them to God. That’s what shamed me. Why? There I was, well into my second decade of being an Orthodox Christian—and a clergyman and pastor, to boot—and I had just had the core of Orthodox evangelism communicated to me by a catechumen, someone who was a beginner in the faith. I had become so convinced that I needed to explain God, to provide an introduction to the subject of God—contrary to the whole attitude of Orthodox Christian theology—but what is actually needed is an introduction to God Himself, just as you might introduce one friend to another."