Communion and Community

“Bill interjected. ‘I don’t go to church to relate with others, I go to receive the sacrament. Receiving Christ feeds my prayer life, makes me feel closer to him. It helps me to keep up my devotions throughout the week.’

‘I think part of the reason you say this, Bill, is that you’re missing a crucial dimension of what the Eucharist is about,’ Father answered. ‘The liturgy is not a “me and Jesus” phenomenon. The Eucharist ushers in the kingdom of God and makes us its citizens. Here we willingly enter into a relationship with God and with each other through the command of Christ and his mediation. This transcends and supersedes every separation and division – a challenge for us all, for Christ says, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Isn’t is remarkable that we become most truly who we are by giving ourselves entirely to others! That’s the only way we can become most fully ourselves. The sacraments feed our union and make it visible in the assembly where we partake of them. Many of us still don’t understand that this worship is more than just “me and Jesus”; after all, no one can “muster up” the eucharist alone; it’s interpersonal, “we together” who are shown how expansive the mystery of Christ is. Again, it’s beyond anything we could achieve alone.’” (The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, pp 222-223)

St. Paul the Apostle and the Gospel

As our parish community celebrates its heavenly Patron, St. Paul the Apostle, here are two quotes with some thoughts about St. Paul.   First biblical scholar Peter Ellis notes that St. Paul’s faith deepened with experience.  The original Twelve Apostles didn’t like Jesus discussing his own death, but wanted to sit at His right hand in His triumph.  They learned that Christ’s death and triumph were the same event, and they were called to share in it!  So too St. Paul had his own lesson about this to learn.

“Paul’s close brush with death at Ephesus, reflected in Phil. 1:12-26 and 2 Cor. 1:8-11, had a double effect on him: it made him realize that he might not be alive for the Parousia and that following Christ meant more than sharing in his victory – it also means sharing in his sufferings and death. This latter realization was the more significant. It led Paul to a more profound conception of Christian existence and its relationship to the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. Growth in Christ meant sharing in Christ’s sufferings.” (Seven Pauline Letters, p 7)

As St. Paul himself wrote about this in Romans 6:3-11:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 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. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Scripture scholar N.T. Wright points out that St. Paul is consistent in all his thinking about the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

“According to Paul’s view of creation, the one God was responsible for the whole world and would one day put it to rights. According to his covenant theology, this God would rescue his people from pagan oppression. His messianic theology hailed Jesus as King, Lord and Savior, the one at whose name every knee would bow. His apocalyptic theology saw God unveiling his own saving justice in the death and resurrection of the Messiah. At every point, therefore, we should expect what we in fact find: that, for Paul, Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.” (Paul, p 69)

The Orthodox Church: Mystery and Miracle

“O strange Orthodox Church, so poor and so weak…maintained as if by a miracle through so many vicissitudes and struggles; Church of contrasts, so traditional and yet at the same time so free, so archaic and yet so alive, so ritualistic and yet so personally mystical; Church where the Evangelical pearl of great price is preciously safeguarded – yet often between a layer of dust….Church which has so frequently proved incapable of action – yet which knows, as does no other, how to sing the joy of Pascha!” (Father Lev Gillet in The Inner Kingdom by Bishop Kallistos Ware, p 24)

The Conscience and Humility

“The continual reprimands of the conscience are a sign of humility. The lack of these in any undertaking is (a sign) of hardness of heart: it is an indication that a person is in the habit of justifying himself, blaming his neighbor instead – or, even worse, (blaming) the wise provision of God. (Conversely), a person cannot leave the boundaries of humility unless he first see himself as being without blame, blaming instead the events and occasions which have been provided for him by God.” (Isaac of Nineveh, The Second Part: Chapters IV-XLI, p 158)

Is Yesterday Just Another Tomorrow?

I have a curiosity about certain scientific topics.  But I’m not a scientist, and so I read science mostly at a popular level, things like the magazine, DISCOVER: SCIENCE FOR THE CURIOUS.  These are not peer reviewed scientific articles, so the scientist may only pay scant attention to these articles, even if they are written by scientists for the curious.

One issue which I think is related to both theology and science is the issue of time.   Certainly at one point even scientists imagined time was a fixed value, and Western thinkers imagine time as marching on in a progression from past to present to future (if one pays attention in Orthodox liturgy and to certain writings of the Orthodox, one will note the Eastern Christians do not hold to a strictly linear understanding of time, especially once the eternal God enters into time through the incarnation!).  Albert Einstein changed the thinking on time and how time (or the experience of it) is understood as being relative to one’s position in the universe.  Einstein and many scientists think of time as being an illusion with the future being fully set with no difference between the past and the future.  This thinking is very contrary to what theists understand about the universe which is unfolding as God wills, changed by God’s will and also by human choice.   Avowed atheists hold solidly to a notion that there is no free will, no consciousness and  thus believe everything is simply an effect of past cause unfolding in mindless predetermination.

So it was interesting to read in the June Issue of Discover an article about one cosmologist, George Ellis, who disagrees with Einstein.  And though the ideas of Ellis have not garnered much support in the scientific world, still he is a scientist attempting to offer a scientific alternative to what is considered dogma for most physicists.   The article, titled Tomorrow Never Was, written by Zeeya Merali.

Ellis is troubled by the implications of Einstein’s theory, for if the past and future are no different, but everything is already set, then humans have no free will and there is no reason to hold people accountable for their behavior since all things and all actions are fixed by what came before them.   Ellis’ questions are the questions that any theist has to wrestle with.  Ellis questions Einstein because of these philosophical implications.

 “If we are just machines living out a future that has already been set, then Adolf Hitler had no choice to do other than what he did; Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, had no choice,” Ellis says. It would be meaningless to tell them they were doing something wrong, he adds. “To me, that’s an untenable view of the world that will lead to great evil because people will just stand by as evil takes place.”

Ellis’ questions about Einstein’s theory are philosophical and ethical – looking at the question as to what it means to be human, something many scientists do not think to be mere speculation but not science.  However, his questions are also based in physics, for scientists have known for a long time that general relativity and quantum mechanics are incompatible.  These problems have been demonstrated in laboratory experiments.   Those scientific problems have not led to an abandonment of Einstein’s theory by scientists, but pose a challenge to be solved.  Ellis sees the problem as perhaps a reason to rethink Einstein on the philosophical and moral levels as well as on the scientific level.

Of course having one cosmologist thinking outside the box does not mean that he is correct and the rest of the theory is wrong, any more than finding one theologian who abandons Orthodoxy in favor of a novel idea makes the new idea correct.  But Ellis’ ideas do give theists and the curious a chance to reflect on whether perhaps the universe Einstein describes in his theories is perhaps not exactly correct either.  Of course many mainstream physicists still see ideas of free will or a God as belonging to an archaic way of thinking which is no longer supported by scientific fact, mathematics or scientific theory.

As best as I can make sense of the universe and time, the universe is believed to be expanding.  Some question what the edge of the universe could mean.  Is the universe spreading into something that exists outside the universe?  Many think the universe is simply creating space as it expands – there truly is nothing beyond the universe but the universe is growing in size.  It seems to me the same concept applies to time.  The future does not exist, but time and space do exist and they do expand.   Time is expanding, creating new time, as it does so.  The future is not fixed, but the actions within the existing universe shape the future.   In their expansion, space/time are pushing the outer edges which are simultaneously creating more space and more time.  Space and time work in the same way in their expansion.

Ellis attempts to explain the evolving universe in quantum terms to show how the future is not in fact the same as the past and is not fixed.

He contends that at the front edge of his evolving block universe, the uncertain future crystallizes into the past through a sequence of microscopic quantum events. At each event, particles are forced to transform from their original uncertain quantum state — where they juggle multiple conflicting identities — and settle into one rigid identity. As adjacent particles go through this process, a wave of certainty converts the open future to the closed past.

His scientific peers think Ellis is far from proving his ideas. Ellis contends since observers in fact influence or alter events on the quantum level that shows that time is not fixed as Einstein envisioned it.  His critics object

“that vast swaths of the universe are devoid of people to observe quantum processes, which physicists traditionally say is what triggers particles to transform from their uncertain superpositions into defined states. So who or what is observing these quantum particles and forcing them to change their nature?

Ellis counters that quantum collapse can occur without a conscious observer, whenever particles collide with each other, knocking each other out of their uncertain states. This idea, called decoherence, is already gaining popularity (independently) among physicists.”

Believers of course would offer that the entire universe if always being observed by God and so quantum events can occur without human observers.  The God solution would never be acceptable to scientific materialists.

At least in the article, Ellis does not bring God into the equation but continues to try to show from science why time is real, not just an illusion, and why it matters what we do and who we are.

The Birth of St. John the Forerunner

“At the time of prayer, when a person’s mind is collected and all the sense are brought into harmony, an encounter between God and the person praying takes place. This explains why all spiritual gifts and all mystical visions have been given to the saints at the time of prayer. It was during prayer that an angel appeared to Zacharias and announced the conception of John the Baptist, it was during the prayer of the sixth hour that Peter beheld the divine vision; it was while Cornelius the Centurion prayed that an angel appeared to him.

‘When the High Priest once a year, during the dread time of prayer, entered the Holy of Holies and cast himself down upon his face,…he heard the oracles of God through an awesome and ineffable revelation. O how awesome was the mystery which was ministered in this ceremony! So also at the time of prayer were all visions and revelations made manifest to the saints. For what other time is so holy, and by its sanctity so apt for the reception of gifts, as the time of prayer, wherein a man converses with God? At this time, when we make our petitions and our supplications to God, and we speak with him, a human being forcefully gathers together all the movements and deliberations of his soul and converses with God alone, and his heart is abundantly filled with God.’  – Isaac the Syrian” (Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, p 145)

The Anti-Social and Disturbing Nature of So-called ‘News’

Maybe time for something a little lighter.  A parishioner shared with me a book to read just for the fun of it.  British humor with made up court cases and legal humor.  The humor reminds me of the humor one might find in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or in Monty Python.  One court case considered whether newspapers really had any socially redeeming value or if they corrupted the moral values of the readership.    Here is part of the argument presented:

“… the dissemination of what is called ‘news’ is always an anti-social and disturbing act; that ‘news’ consists, as to ninety per cent, of the records of human misfortune, unhappiness, and wrongdoing, as to nine per cent of personal advertisement, and as to one per cent of instructive and improving matter; that the study of the newspapers is harmful to the citizen because (a) by their insistence upon railway accidents, floods, divorces,murders, fires, successful robberies, the rates of taxation and other evils, and (b) by the prominence which they give to exceptionally good fortune, the winners of large sweepstakes, the salaries and faces of beautiful actresses, and the occasional success of what are known, it appears, as ‘outsiders’, he is led to the conclusion that industry, thrift and virtue are not worth pursuing in a world so much governed by incalculable chances; and, in general, that the conditions of mind most fostered by the news of the day are curiosity, cupidity, envy, indignation, horror and fear.”  (A.P. Herbert, UNCOMMON LAW: BEING 66 MISLEADING CASES, p 14)

This mythical court saw 1% of what was reported in the papers as being “of instructive and improving matter.”   Not sure they would find even that high of a percentage in much of the media today or in the political commentators who fill the airwaves with their opinions.  It listed the rates of taxation as among the evils which the newspaper reports.

onthemediaI find the book’s humor to be wonderful.  By focusing on the news items they do – such as the bizarre, misfortunes and beautiful actresses – they give the impression virtue is not worth pursuing in a world of random luck.   Apologies to those in the media who really make an effort to report the news, rather than to sensationalize it, who try to inform rather than inflame, who try to fairly report the business of humanity rather than the bizarreness of it.

Maintaining our Marriages

Defending marriage should mean for us helping couples learn how to strengthen the marital bond and the unity and concord between the husband and wife.  Repentance, forgiveness, humility, love, putting the other first and wisdom are all virtues needed for a marriage to prosper and for both the husband and wife to grow  in Christ.   Philip Mamalakis talking about marriage and couple’s therapy writes,

“We cannot solve our spouse’s sins, but we can learn to love our spouse.”   

Here is the context in which he makes that comment:

“Within the mystery of marriage, this call to love becomes a call to take responsibility for our own inadequacies and to confess to each other (Js. 5:16) where we have failed. This included asking each other for forgiveness for specific failings to love, shifting how couples interact with each other. In additions, for Orthodox couples, this process finds its fulfillment as couples actively participate in the sacrament of confession. If it were not for the divine mandate to love, the natural conclusion when faced with the impossible task of loving would be to abandon the process. However, the inescapable nature of a monogamous marriage provides the crucible for God’s transforming grace to work. Couples therapy can best be summed up as a process of each person taking responsibility for his or her inability to love as he or she is called to love. Therapy oriented towards pursuing perfect love results in a movement towards mutual confession. This maintains a couple within the context to love and creates a process of mutual vulnerability and intimacy in addressing the sins or restraints of each person. Rather than attacking each other, couples work towards supporting each other in the mutual struggle with each person’s own fallenness, fostering mutual vulnerability and intimacy. Couples develop coping strategies together instead of criticizing each other. Once one person takes responsibility for his problem, it can then become the couple’s problem as they learn to work together to support each other. Rather than criticizing, blaming, judging, mocking, or distancing, each person is called to love and to pray for the other in his/her struggle. By the grace of God, within the mystery of marriage, as we pursue patience and learn to pray for the sins of our spouse, we actively participate in our own transformation.

Without this orientation towards acquiring divine love within marriage therapy, the resources of contemporary psychology and couples counseling can be used to promote self-love. Identifying restraints can exacerbate the problems and sense of separation for a couple. Within the context of the journey towards acquiring perfect love, however, marriage therapy reorients a couple towards the Kingdom of God. Within this approach, the therapist shifts the conversation of a couple and situates the daily struggle of life in the context of this process of becoming Christlike, holding clients in their brokenness. We cannot solve our spouse’s sins, but we can learn to love our spouse.” (in Raising Lazarus: Integral Healing in Orthodox Christianity, edited by Stephen Muse, 226-227)

No Need to Fear the Antichrist

Christians throughout history have occasionally got onto an apocalyptic bandwagon, reading world events and deciding the end must be near.  Some of this is normative for Christians as Scriptures do contain some warnings about the end times.  World events seemed to indicate the world must be coming to an end:  The Christian Byzantine Empire thought of itself as chosen by God to live “on earth as it is in heaven.”  They were stung and stunned by the rise of Islam and its seemingly unstoppable advances against the Christian Empire.  The end of the world seemed near.  Then Byzantium fell to the Turks and many imagined the apocalypse.  But history continued on.  The Russian Empire was viewed by its Orthodox members as heaven on earth, but its Christian adherents began to fear the world’s end as the Empire teetered on the brink of destruction.  Then communism came to power and many thought it was definitely the end times, yet history kept moving on into the future. Communism fell, and time moved on.

Americans have grown increasing apocalyptic about every great or small political battle.  So many Americans lately have come to feel doom if the political party they oppose comes to power.  Every election, I hear some talking about having to leave America if “the other political party wins.”  Some see a cataclysmic end to the cosmos if the president, congress or supreme court gets anything wrong.  Fear and hatred become preached and taught by those from any end of the political spectrum.   Some feel that once again we are at the end of the world because the Supreme Court is slated to make some decision on gay marriage and gay rights.

ChernobylRecently a friend sent me a conversation from some of the Greek elders on Mount Athos regarding the end times.  The elders  were discussing the fear that was griping Europe in 1986 as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was unfolding.  Many saw it as the events described in Scripture about the world’s end and the coming of the AntiChrist.  Feeling threatened once again by world events people were convinced evil was being unleashed on earth.  This is an excerpt of a longer article in which the Elders tell us why they don’t fear the Antichrist nor the apocalypse:

One day Elder Porphyrios had told me:

“Father Athanasios (taking me by the hand tightly), I’m blind now, my eyes do not work physically because I have cancer of the pituitary gland, but I have spiritual eyes and see. Before you leave, I want you to tell me, what did Elder Aemilianos say about 666 and the Antichrist?”

This was in the days of Chernobyl. People were upset by this and went by the dozens every day, particularly to Elder Porphyrios near Athens, asking: “What will happen? Will the Antichrist come and stamp us with 666”?

The Elder asked me: “Tell me, my child, what did Elder Aemilianos say about 666 and the Antichrist?”

I told him: “He told us in a gathering a few days ago to not worry. We should be interested in having a vibrant relationship with Christ and not give much attention to the Antichrist, because then he will become the center of our lives and not Christ.”

. . .

He told me: “For us Christians, when we experience Christ there is no Antichrist. . . .

When we have Christ inside us, can the Antichrist come? Can anything opposite this enter our souls? For this reason, my child, today we do not have Christ within us and because of this we worry about the Antichrist.

When Christ is within us, everything becomes Paradise. Christ is everything, my child, and the Opposer we should not fear; this you should always tell people.

. . .

And you should tell the people to not fear the Antichrist. We are children of Christ, we are children of the Church.”

What Afflictions Avail

St. Paul writes in Romans 5:1-5 –

Having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.  And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. 

Professor Scott Cairns, reflecting also on the works of St. Nil Sorsky (d. 1508AD) waxes poetically about “What Afflictions Avail“:

“If not for sufferings, the unknowable

Providence of God would not be apprehended

as acting on the crowd. And we would be

unable to approach God with boldness,

unable to learn the Spirit’s wisdom,

or to be assured of divine love in our souls.

Prior to sufferings, the poor man prays

as to a stranger; but if, out of love, he struggles,

soon he observes a stirring change.

Before this, he held God as a taskmaster,

but now becomes God’s true friend.”

(Love’s Immensity, p 125)

St. Paul continues his thoughts in Romans 5:6-10 –

For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.

Christ did not die for the righteous, but for sinners.  Christ did not descend into Hades to save the righteous, but sinners.  Christ did not wait for us to abandon sin before dying for us.  He did not die for us to reward us for our goodness.  He did not die for us to save us from sinners, but rather died for us while WE were still sinners.  Christ died for us while we were enemies of God.  Christ died for those who are still enemies of God.  He died for those are still sinners.

This is the most amazing love of God for us.  And we are to love others as Christ loves us (John 13:34; 15:12).