Thursday, December 28, 2006

mark the date

The specifics of the reunification ceremony between ROCOR and Moscow have been released. In less than five months, it will be official!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

leave me hanging

We're back from Pittsburgh. It was good to see family, and the trip went largely without incident, but I can't say I'm entirely happy with my experience of the holiday. I knew, of course, that I wouldn't be attending an Orthodox service throughout. I also knew that I was planning to be lenient with fasting. We haven't discussed Orthodoxy with my aunt & uncle or grandfather, and we did not plan to do so on this visit. (They're very loosely Christian--at least, that would be their professed affiliation, but none of them attends church with any regularity or exhibits much personal devotion.) I knew it would be difficult to explain my fasting to them, and since we were there to observe the holiday, I figured I would just go along with whatever happened. If I had the opportunity, I would fast to one degree or another. So, for instance, Friday morning I ate dry toast for breakfast. Most other meals, we all ate together, and there was little opportunity to avoid meat or dairy, at least not without drawing attention to the fact. I tried to watch how much I ate, but that was about the extent of it. Since my grandfather was there only on Saturday, we ate our Christmas dinner then and exchanged gifts. Essentially, that was the holiday in our observance this year, so I considered it the formal end of my Nativity Fast.

It was disappointing that the holiday itself got lost in the shuffle. By that point, we were on our second day of leftovers. Ian opened his stocking stuffers in the morning. Otherwise, we just hung around and watched TV throughout the morning. In the afternoon, Julie and I caught a movie. Ian didn't get much of a nap and freaked out at bedtime. He was way too goofy and wouldn't cooperate when we told him to undress. I ended up forcing him into his pajamas, which then created a new battle of wills, as he wanted to undo everything and do it himself. Too late for that. Finally, Mommy left the room, which gave him something new to lament. He was still pretty torn up when I finally got him to quiet down and prayed over him. He went to sleep after that and seemed better in the morning. It was time to go home, though, and get things back to normal. ("Normal"--on top of her morning sickness, which has been running pretty much 24/7, Julie came down with a cold on Christmas that only got worse yesterday--I still don't know how she managed to catch it, since no one else in the house was sick.)

At least we did get to a Christmas Eve service of some type. My aunt, who at times has gone to church with more regularity, wanted to go somewhere for Christmas. Originally, she wanted to check out a big, new church that was just built around the corner from them, but when she sent us the URL for their Web site I discovered that they were charismatic. There's a section that explains stuff you'll see in the service--speaking in tongues, falling to the ground, etc. She didn't want to go there after we mentioned it, but she found another church not too far away. It's very much in the same tradition as Bethany, where we've attended since our second year in MD. The singing is led by a praise band, the preaching is topical, oriented toward the lifestyle of white-collar, white-bread Americans; they're big on visual aids, but utterly iconoclastic--this one didn't even have a cross on the wall. They had decorated the auditorium for Christmas--or at least for winter holidays. There was fake snow all over the place, a bunch of evergreen trees with lights, and a big snowman front-and-center-stage. Off in the corner, there was a tiny manger scene--a vestige of some distant, less aural tradition, for which I should be thankful. The singing was a mixture of popular praise songs and traditional Christmas carols.

The sermon was a fairly standard evangelistic message. (Any good, Evangelical Christmas Eve service should target the heathens who show up on this day and no other.) I don't want to sound too cynical here. I really do think, in general, that God uses Evangelical Christianity in important ways. More specifically, the service seems to have had a positive impact on my aunt, and when the invitation was given at the end, the pastor indicated that several people had raised their hands. (For those unfamiliar with the format, it's typical of much Evangelical preaching to end with an invitation where everyone is told to bow their heads and close their eyes, not just to show reverence, but for privacy. The preacher leads a "sinner's prayer" and asks those who prayed along for the first time to raise their hands. This is the kinder, gentler approach that has widely replaced the old "altar call," where those making first-time professions are supposed to come forward. Some churches do both--raising the hands first, then an optional altar call for those brave enough to come. It's common practice for the preacher to acknowledge the hands that are raised, which signals to the individual that they can put their hand back down and also registers for the rest of the group how much positive response there was.)

When I was in college, I used to work in evangelistic outreach--talking to people on the street and going door-to-door. The philosophy is that, while it may not be the ideal way to do evangelism, it may reach some people who otherwise would never hear the gospel. It's an accepted fact that few will respond and even fewer will make a genuine, lasting commitment. Measures are taken to follow up, but there's a lot of disappointment. There are some parallels with evangelistic preaching. The audience is presumably more disposed to listen (since they came in the first place), but there is still a strong tendency for people to respond in the emotion of the moment but never really show any lasting commitment. I say this not to downplay the possibility that some real life change began that night, but even many Evangelical churches accept that such momentary decisions might not be real. For this reason (and others), some churches almost never give a public invitation (even the "raise your hand" kind). They might extend the opportunity for people to talk with someone if they have questions about what they heard, but that's about it. Room is left for the individual to reflect and choose on their own whether they really want what's being offered.

So I do hope and pray that those who raised their hands were sincere and made a real decision about following Christ. More than that, I hope that they have people in their lives who can be a continuing influence on them. Salvation in any case is a process, and it would be a shame to see real desire die without the nurture of a faithful community. There may be a lot more to Christianity than Evangelicalism has to offer, but everyone has to start somewhere. It's a constant call to come further in and further up.

At any rate, we both felt like Christmas was lacking something this year and decided that we'll probably stay home next time. As for me, I'm looking forward to Theophany. I guess I'll just have to be old-fashioned and lump the two back in together :-)

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

St. Ignatius vs. Evangelicals

Today is the commemoration of Ignatius of Antioch, which provoked me to go back and read some of his letters. Ignatius was bishop of Antioch around the beginning of the second century. In fact, he was martyred so early in the century, that for all practical purposes he can be called a first-century Christian. He's one of several known as Apostolic Fathers--the generation of Church leaders immediately following the Apostles themselves. He was a disciple of John and barely outlived his master. Short of Scripture itself, this is about as close as we get to the beginnings of Christianity. I'm sure I must have read at least part of his letters sometime in college or seminary, but I wasn't particularly interested at the time. I'm noticing some interesting things in them now:
  • He clearly assumes a governing structure of one bishop in the church of each city over several presbyters. (The English word "priest," incidentally, is derived from Greek "presbyter," and apart from Protestant tradition translates the same. Protestants prefer the term "elder.")
  • He articulates a sacramental or salvific view of the eucharist (communion), calling it "the medicine of immortality," an "antidote to prevent us from dying," causing our eternal life.
  • He advises complete spiritual submission to the bishop and speaks of him as the representative of Christ (and the presbyters in the place of the apostles). For him, the bishop is the center and source of unity for the Church. Indeed, without the bishop and presbyters, there is no Church.
  • He hints at the salvific nature of the Church by indicating that not only heresy is to be avoided, but schisms in general, and that anyone who follows schismatics out of the Church is in danger for his soul.
  • He warns against heretics who (among other things) deny that the eucharist is the body and blood of Christ.
  • He invalidates communion or baptism that is not performed by the bishop or his agent.
And that's to say nothing of the intense devotion to the Virgin Mary that appears in the so-called "spurious epistles." (I make no judgment one way or the other about their authenticity.)

I find these points interesting, because they highlight the historical problem for Evangelicalism and Protestantism in general. These are elements with which Evangelicals I know would take issue, and in so doing they would have to say that a disciple of the Apostle John himself--not just any disciple, but one entrusted with oversight of the Church at Antioch--departed significantly from the true, biblical model of the Church and its ordinances. I don't think most Evangelicals quite realize the seriousness of the charges they must bring. It's easy enough to feel comfortable with some vague idea that over centuries of gradual deterioration and corruption the Church turned into Roman Catholicism and subsequently needed to be reformed in a big way. But the evidence of St. Ignatius's letters points to a Church situation so dramatically different from what many Evangelicals would expect, that they're faced with a difficult choice. Either admit that the Church rapidly plunged into serious error from the first generation after the Apostles, or re-think the picture of early Christianity that has become popular.

Personally, I think the latter is the better option. (Of course, I would.) When faced with this kind of conflict, doesn't it make more sense to re-think our interpretation of Scripture (which admittedly provides very little explicit support for the Evangelical model) than to suppose such a radical departure in such a short time?

Monday, December 18, 2006

my son, the deacon

The other day Ian broke one of Julie's Christmas decorations--a snowman hanger that we had on one of the dining room door handles. Apparently he thought it looked enough like a censer to walk around swinging it until the wire broke. When that attempt was foiled, he found a box of dinosaur puzzles with a string handle and resumed censing.

I'm also pleased to report that he seems to be adjusting to the new routine of attending different churches. Last week was the first time we got a ride to Holy Cross, and although I went over the day's agenda with him several times that morning before we left, and he seemed OK with it at the time, when it came to walking out the door, he started freaking out about parting from Mommy. He'd calmed down by the time we got to where Julie was dropping us off, but the goodbye was still pretty tearful. Fortunately, he regained composure before we got to the door, and he was fine the rest of the morning. (It's a typical pattern, reminiscent of King David, who mourned in agony and fasted and prayed while his son was dying, and stopped once he was gone.) This week, he took things much better. He wasn't exactly excited about the hand-off, but he didn't cry, and he went under his own power. I don't know if the hope of seeing kids dressed as animals for the Christmas pageant helped.

As for me, I had my first rejection this morning from a homeless person. I normally give only to those who are actually asking--holding a sign, asking out loud, or whatever. I suppose it's possible that I jumped to conclusions about this guy. More likely, he didn't want to be seen taking anything on a bus, since I'm sure they're not supposed to panhandle there. In any case, I'm glad I at least made the offer. There are a lot of times when I feel like I ought to do something and fear keeps me from acting. I thought this was going to be another of those occasions, but at the last minute I worked up enough courage. I ended up thanking God that I had the chance to feel rejected. Once I got over the initial shock, it felt a whole lot better than regret over having done nothing. I know it sounds ridiculous, but that's just how far I have to go. I'll take what I can get, but I have so much more growing to do. God, be merciful to me a sinner!

That's probably going to do it for me until after (Western) Christmas. We're heading out of town to spend the holiday with family. (One of these years I'll get to a Christmas service at Holy Cross!) I expect my next time in Church will be Theophany. In the spirit of anticipation, I'll say it now: Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Hail Mary, ordinary?

I really don't intend to respond to every message in the Christmas series at my wife's church, but I guess so far it's shaping up that way. Perhaps it's inevitable that I would have something to say about a message on Mary, regardless of which Evangelical is giving it. I want to say first of all that I think there's a lot of good in the message--Mary is significant for her response to the annunciation, she herself was all about pointing others to her Son, indeed she would have been embarrassed by the kind of attention given to her since then, and what made her response unique had to do with her unique spiritual preparation. All are excellent points, and all would be affirmed by the Tradition of the Church. (I suppose that might surprise a lot of Evangelicals.) I also appreciate his application point, that young people should be encouraged to emulate Mary in their own walk with God.

On the other hand (there's always another hand, isn't there?), I do take some serious issue with his overstated argument about how ordinary Mary was, and the resulting failure to make some important connections. I guess I would sum up my challenge with this question: Was it coincidence that God chose someone with such a unique spiritual life? You see, he acknowledges a uniqueness, when he brings up the question he and the other staff discussed earlier in the week--how could Mary have had that kind of faith in response to the angel's message? When you think about the implications--the life it would mean for her, for her son--how could she trust God so completely? Their answer was that it was her connection to Scripture. Her song exhibits an exceptional degree of both knowledge and internalization of the Old Testament, particularly for a girl in that culture. He says that she must have had amazing parents and an amazing local rabbi, to have gained such intimate knowledge of Scripture. He even refers to the tradition that her parents were named Joachim and Anna and says he'd like to meet them someday.

But Tradition could also tell him that Mary was devoted to God as a child, that as with Samuel in the Old Testament, Mary was born in answer to prayer and was dedicated to service in the temple. She grew up surrounded by the liturgy of Israel. She developed a strong walk with God and chose a life of virginity, but because there was no place for adult women to serve as virgins in the temple, and because her parents had already died, she was betrothed to the elder kinsman Joseph. Tradition could also remind him that God chooses people when they are adequately prepared for the task at hand. Yes, Mary is important for the way she responded, but her response did not take God by surprise. He did not luck out with the choice. Her life to that point had been her preparation, and God was in that process as much as he was in the miraculous event of her virginal conception.

It seems to me that more than our image of Mary suffers when we go out of our way to make her seem ordinary--when we think that her longings consisted of things like being pretty, or getting a puppy for Christmas, or finding a husband. This is not to say that she had no ordinary human interests, but what is there about her that would lead us to think she was so distracted by the mundane concerns of ordinary teenagers (particularly ordinary teenagers today, who usually get to delay even the normal responsibilities of adult life much longer than their ancient counterparts)? How do we look at her extraordinary intimacy with God and with Scripture, her extraordinary faith, to accept in a moment such a profound message for her life, and conclude that she must have been like any other young woman her age? Don't we believe that intimacy with God makes a difference in our priorities, in our longings? Do we imagine that with such preparation in her life, there was nothing visibly different about her until this one, pivotal moment?

I would submit that such a view lowers our expectations of what God can do in each of our lives. It is symptomatic of a deficient respect for the saints in general. Is any greater evidence needed of why saints are important in our worship and spiritual growth? Without seriously grasping their success, we have no reason to expect that we could ever be seriously different from our fallen selves. Sure, there might be improvements here and there, but a truly successful spiritual life? That is little more than a nice idea. Without saints, we idolize ordinariness. Much like the historian who says miracles in the Bible must not have happened, because we don't normally observe such things, or the biologist who says creation must not have happened, because we see only these ongoing processes around us, the principle of ordinariness starts from what we observe here and now, and explains away anything that doesn't conform. We see a bunch of ordinary people around us, so that must be all there is. It's all there ever has been, and all there ever will be--so don't expect too much. The alternative works the other way around--look to the saints who have gone before. Countless people have lived radical lives for God. If you don't see any around you, get on your knees and repent. It's possible, it's what he wants for us, and it's the only life worth pursuing.

Friday, December 08, 2006

humbugs of the world unite!

An interesting little article in Christianity Today highlights the return of "Christmas" among retailers this year. (Frankly, I hadn't noticed a difference, but maybe that's because I still have to do my shopping.) Perhaps more interesting are the last couple of paragraphs:

Those who engage in combat to remind others of "the reason for the season" would do well to remember that the Christmas season as such has only existed for about a century and a half. The 1,500-year-old Christian season that precedes December 25 is Advent, a time of fasting, penitence, and somber waiting. Protestants who eschew Advent because of an association with Rome have precedent for doing so. But the Reformers, Puritans, colonial Baptists, and others who gave rise to modern evangelicalism either passed Christmas Day with a simple worship service, or strongly opposed such a "popish" observance.

But please, the next time you're in Wal-Mart and the clerk wishes you "Merry Christmas," don't get an angry look in your eye, poke your finger into the clerk's chest, and say, "It's Advent! Christmas isn't until December 25!" That would be really annoying.
I'm reminded of a book I read (can't recall the title) a couple of years ago, about the history of Christmas celebration. It highlighted the way in which commercialism went hand-in-hand with the shift to the family-centered holiday that we know today. Back in the days of serfs and lords, the season was a time to celebrate the harvest and enjoy the newly-brewed alcohol and newly-slaughtered meat. Agricultural life naturally slowed down in the winter, so people had more free time, and it was part of a good lord's responsibility to his underlings to give them a chance to share in what they'd produced. In the wake of the industrial revolution and associated urbanization, the system broke down. Nameless, faceless employees still saw job prospects suffer in the winter months, but their relationship to the wealthy had become more detached. In place of the more congenial celebrations of an earlier time, roving bands would barge into the rich neighborhoods, demanding handouts. (Sort of like trick-or-treating for adults, but louder and scarier.) Needless to say, the upper classes weren't happy with these new holiday traditions.

The book goes on to explain how the season was re-shaped into a more friendly, less class-conscious occasion. It looks at literary evidence, like Dickens's A Christmas Carol, where the lead poor guy and the lead rich guy (who didn't start life that way) are both white-collar. The closest Scrooge comes to the truly indigent is when he is solicited for a charitable donation by noblemen, who are themselves even richer than he is. And this marks one of the shifts, as the idea of the well-off giving charitably moves from the arena of direct contact to that of giving to an organization. Another shift in giving patterns focused the giving on parents to children--still paternalistic, but it redirected the exchange to a more socially palatable setting. This is where commercialism came into play, because obviously children already had ready access to their parents' kitchens. Now, it had to be about the novelty of the gifts they would buy for them. The book also looks at "The Night before Christmas" (I don't think that was the actual name of the poem--"A Visit from St. Nicholas," maybe?), which replaces the night-time visit of obnoxious workers with that of a cute little elf (notice that at this stage, he was little and non-threatening), who gives gifts instead of taking from those he visits. Now everyone could be on the receiving end of the Christmas spirit (consumption, not giving). And of course, he quickly became a commercial icon.

Anyway, the shift took Christmas celebration from something more akin to Mardi Gras, and made it about charitable donations, family, and of course shopping. I thought it was a very interesting take on the season, and I think it highlights the complexity involved. Can we de-commercialize Christmas and still keep it a prominent holiday in our society? And if so, what kind would it be? Back to something like its raucous ancestor? One thing the book notes is that there's always been some kind of religious observance involved, but it tends to exist on the fringes. It's not what really gets people going, and if that's all there was, it wouldn't be much of a holiday in the scope of society as a whole. Is it possible to redeem Christmas without taking it apart? Do we want it purified as a churchly event, if that means it becomes irrelevant to the rest of society?

In a sense, the questions run along the lines of New Calendar vs. Old Calendar. When you boil it down, the only thing that's significantly gained (in my opinion) by following the New Calendar is the opportunity to celebrate Christmas with everyone else around us. Assuming, of course, that that is a gain. Which do we prefer? keeping Nativity separate from the "corrupt" holiday that Christmas has become (and taking advantage of post-Christmas sales to boot), or engaging with our culture, to sanctify the holiday where it stands (perhaps in the same way that we got Dec 25 in the first place, as an existing holiday that was suitably close to Theophany)? I'm not sure I have a good answer.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

children sitting in the market

I came across some interesting remarks in Bl. Theophylact the other day. He writes regarding Matt 11:
16-17. But whereunto shall I liken this generation? It is like unto children sitting in the market, and calling unto their fellows, and saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented. It is the malcontent nature of the Jews that He is speaking of here. For as they were cantankerous, neither John's asceticism nor Christ's simplicity pleased them. they were like foolish little children who are never satisfied--whether one cries for them or plays the pipe for them, they are not pleased.

18-19. For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil. The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a drunkard, a friend of publicans and sinners. He compares John's way of life to mourning, for John showed great severity both in words and deeds, and His own life on earth He compares to piping, that is, to the sound of the flute. For the Lord was most gracious and pleasing, condescending to all that He might win all, bringing the good tidings of the kingdom, and He was not severe in appearance as was John. But Wisdom is justified by her children. . . . For I, on My part, have done everything, yet you, by your refusal to believe, prove that I Who omitted nothing am justified.
What interests me here is how the idea can extend (cautiously) to the response I've seen in some Evangelicals when confronted with Orthodox theology. Now, I want to say up front that I'm not trying to equate any Evangelical's response to Orthodoxy with the response of the Jews to Jesus. There is at least a quantitative difference, if not a qualitative one. But I do think there is an analogy that's worth teasing out. The response I've sometimes seen is this. When faced with Orthodoxy's emphasis on a changed life, judgment according to our deeds, etc., they say it is too legalistic and demands of humans what they can never do--to earn salvation by their own efforts. On the other hand, when faced with the suggestion that a person who was never Christian, never part of the Church, perhaps explicitly disavowed Christianity in life, could get to the judgment, stand before Christ, truly know him for the first time, respond with love, and be allowed into heaven, they say it smacks of universalism and leaves things too wide open.

It seems to me that there's some kind of correlation between these divergent responses and those outlined here. John showed a life of severity and asceticism--the need for radical repentance before God's judgment. The Jews looked at him and saw a demon-possessed man. Jesus showed a life of condescension and radical fellowship--loving everyone who came to him, regardless of their background. The Jews called him a glutton and friend of sinners. With our human perception, we might look at the situation and say, they were sensible, balanced people who realized moderation is necessary in all things. They didn't take up with extremists, whether wild-eyed lunatics of the desert or lax, liberal, touchy-feely reformers. And in so doing, we would get the whole situation backward. The truth was not to be found in the safe, middle ground. It was in the living tension between radical asceticism and radical love. Like so many other things about God, we can't be reductionist on this issue. We have to accept the mystery of the apparent contradiction. Sure, one extreme or the other by itself is imbalanced. That's precisely why we need both.

Now let's come back to the Evangelical response to Orthodoxy. A sensible, balanced human might say, extreme legalism is not good, nor is extreme openness to let everyone come in, and search for something in the middle. But in this case, as in the other, the outcome would be wrong. It is the tension between the two poles that leads us to the truth that otherwise eludes our grasp. Orthodoxy is not too legalistic, although if it spoke only of works it would be. Neither is it too loosey-goosey, although if it spoke only of love and welcome it would be. The two apparent extremes actually complement each other. Radical obedience is expected, but only when a loving God has already opened his arms wide to receive those who love him. He redeems them so that they can change into the people they were meant to be. Radical welcome is extended, but only to those who have lived in love toward Christ, whether they knew who he was or not, and who respond accordingly when they meet him face to face.

This might seem like a harsh indictment, to associate Evangelicals (at least, those who respond to Orthodoxy in this way) with what Jesus says here. And when I first noticed it, I was hesitant to follow up on the correlation for fear of going too far. I think it's safe enough, though, if you keep reading into Bl. Theophylact's remarks on chap. 12:
31-32. Wherefore I say unto you, Every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this age, nor in the age to come. . . . When the Jews saw the Lord eating and drinking, associating with publicans and harlots, and doing all the other things He did as the Son of Man, then they slandered Him as a glutton and drunkard; yet for this they deserve forgiveness, and not even repentance will be required. For they were understandably scandalized. But when they saw Him working miracles and were slandering and blaspheming the Holy Spirit, saying that it was something demonic, how will this sin be forgiven them, unless they repent? So, then, know that he who blasphemes the Son of Man, seeing Him living as a man, and says that He is a friend of harlots, a glutton, and a drunkard because of those things which Christ does, such a man will not have to give an answer for this, even if he does not repent. For he is forgiven, as he did not realize that this was God concealed. But he who blasphemes the Holy Spirit, that is, the spiritual deeds of Christ, and calls them demonic, unless he repents, he will not be forgiven. For he does not have a reasonable excuse to slander, as does the man who sees Christ with harlots and publicans and then slanders.
So their reaction in chap. 11 was bad, but it was understandable, and they will be forgiven, even without repentance. In the same way, I take comfort that Evangelicals who find Orthodox theology scandalous on this point will also be forgiven their failure to grasp what it all really means. There may be other things that are more obvious, for which they must give an account, but their objection here is understandable. That doesn't make it any less real an obstacle, of course, and we who accept Orthodox teaching should do what we can to help them understand the truth. We're maximalist on obedience anyway. We don't ask what is the least we can do to get into heaven, and neither should we be satisfied with knowing that a particular mistaken idea isn't quite so bad, because it will be forgiven.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Daniel needs a few more beasts

There's a cool visual representation of Middle East ruling powers throughout history. It stops short of the current era of U. S. colonialism, but perhaps it is too early to draw the borders on that one. I suppose it doesn't have that much to do with Orthodoxy, except of course that it generally shows what happened with the territories of the ancient patriarchates.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Zechariah and Gabriel

This morning I went with my wife to the evangelical church. The pastor was starting his Christmas series of sermons, called My Christmas Prayer! which will cover passages from Luke's nativity narrative, with a focus on God answering prayer. (It's subtitled The Christmas Story by Dr. Luke, which I suppose gives the Evangelist some credibility in our modern, expert-focused culture, but leaves him safely in the realm of academia without any troublesome notion of personal holiness, as in Saint.) This first segment comes from the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, where God supernaturally provides them with a son. The preacher understood Gabriel's reference to Zechariah's prayer in the way that I have always heard it (and thought about it myself)--that he and Elizabeth had spent decades praying for a son, and finally God was answering them. (And poor Zechariah just wasn't ready for an answer after so long with no response, which led him to respond skeptically and end up mute for the next nine months.) After coming home, I decided to read Bl. Theophylact on this passage and found a somewhat different take: "Surely Zacharias was not praying for a son. Was he not praying for the sins of the people?"

Theophylact's "surely" comes from the traditional understanding that this was in fact the Day of Atonement, and what would have been foremost on Zechariah's mind as he offered in the temple was not his own desire for a son, but the sins of the people. Even putting that thought aside, if one should question whether it was necessarily the Day of Atonement, he was in fact serving in the temple, and something important was going on, because everyone was outside praying while this was going on. That much is clearly stated in the text. What kind of priest would have been thinking about his own personal needs under such circumstances, rather than those of his people? Furthermore, when you stop and think about it, if Zechariah and Elizabeth were clearly past childbearing age, it's unlikely that they would have been praying regularly for a son even then. Being righteous people, they would have accepted that God had chosen not to give them children and moved on with their priorities.

So, Theophylact goes on to give two possible readings of what's going on here. Either way, the answered prayer is the prayer about the sins of the people. One option is that John will be an answer to that prayer, because he will call the people to repentance and prepare the way for the one who will take away those sins. The other is that Elizabeth's pregnancy and the child to come are a confirmation that God has in fact heard Zechariah's prayer. Either way, the birth is not the object of the prayer, but the unexpected means of its fulfillment or the confirming sign that it will be answered. This makes a great deal of sense to me. It reinforces the notion that God answers prayer in surprising ways, but it turns the emphasis to prayer for bigger, deeper spiritual issues, particular when offered for the sake of others, rather than prayer for our own desires. And God answers the prayer by providing what Zechariah and his wife couldn't even bring themselves to hope for. How cool is that?

Another interesting reading from Bl. Theophylact comes in v. 20, where he understands siopon to mean "deaf" rather than "mute." He doesn't seem to address any question here over what the word might mean. It is the participle form of a verb meaning "to be silent," and is usually translated "mute," which makes what follows ("and unable to speak") redundant. If it means here "to be in silence," i.e., unable to hear, the two afflictions are different but complementary. Perhaps it is only the desire to avoid redundancy that led to this interpretation, but it would also explain why they signal to Zechariah rather than ask him vocally what to name John. I've understood it as a misunderstanding--that because he couldn't talk, they assumed he couldn't hear--but it would fit quite nicely if he was in fact struck deaf and mute. And Theophylact's point is well taken, that it was a fitting response, that "for not giving heed, he was chastened with deafness; and for speaking back, he was chastened with muteness."

I find it a particularly interesting interpretation, in light of the fact that he finishes out his days of service in the temple. When I was at the Society of Biblical Literature conference, I attended a session on deafness in the Bible, in which one of the presenters argued that it was possible for a priest of Israel to serve while deaf. He looked at the priestly literature (mostly Leviticus, with some other material from the books of Moses) and found that while for instance blindness would disqualify a man from being a priest, deafness would not. He also noted that the rituals performed in the sanctuary were for the most part done without any need to speak, even to the point of including several hand gestures, which may suggest that they had a whole system worked out to maintain a "holy silence." It would fit that Zechariah was able to finish his service, even if he was deaf and mute.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

the Bible? sure, I've read that . . .

I finally got Bl. Theophylact's The Explanation of the New Testament (well, the volumes on Matthew, Mark, and Luke, anyway, which is all that's been published so far in English). I read The Arena a while back, in which Bishop Ignaty hammers his monastic readers on the need to spend time in the Gospels. Honestly, if you're not careful, you can easily come away from a lot of these exhortations with the impression that all Orthodox spiritual fathers want from their children is for them to be more Evangelical--read your Bible more, pray from the heart, don't get so caught up in ritual, etc.

In a sense, it probably is true--everything has its tendencies, and often strengths go hand-in-hand with corresponding weaknesses. So yes, there are areas where Evangelicals probably have a leg up on a lot of Orthodox. As my wife says, Orthodox worship may look more reverent, but isn't it also easier to mask when the people don't actually feel more reverent? Well, yes it is. Viewed positively, you can also play the behaviorist and say that doing it whether you feel it right now or not is a good way to help your feelings catch up. But the negative point is still valid. (On the other hand, the same thing can apply to Evangelicalism--how many times have I found myself singing out, singing well--by all appearances "in to" the worship--but not paying attention to a single word of the lyrics?) But the problem with Evangelicalism is never that it gets everything wrong; it gets quite a bit right. The problem with Evangelicalism is its minimalism--how it jettisoned so much that was good along with the bad that it found in Catholicism. And it can be seen that Evangelicals returning to Orthodoxy bring with them some strengths that the Church needs. But they're strengths that only become useful when they're "baptized" into the Church. Anyway, enough of this tangent.

The point is that reading Bishop Ignaty and St. Theophan the Recluse, both harping on the need to read Scripture, got me thinking that I should be spending more time with it myself. I've always had Scripture, so when I came to Orthodoxy, there was all this other stuff to read, and I got distracted from what's most important. Plus, I had learned not to trust my own understanding of Scripture, so I was hesitant to get back into it until I'd had a chance to learn from the Church. Anyway, it was an overreaction on my part, I'm sure, so after reading The Arena I decided to take a break from the library and spend time in the Gospels. I figured I'd focus my attention on Matthew, Mark, and Luke, since John is supposed to be for those who are already in communion. I started with good intentions, and for a while I stuck it out, but I still felt like something was missing. Bishop Ignaty had stressed reading Theophylact along with the Gospels, and I'd noted at the time that there was an English translation available, but I was too cheap to rush out and buy it.

Finally, I got my first installment of Christmas money (from the in-laws, since we saw them for Thanksgiving but won't for Christmas) and ordered the three volumes, which--lucky for me--cover exactly the material I wanted to read anyway. They arrived a couple of days ago, and I started on Matthew. I'm having a hard time putting it down. I especially like the format, which reproduces the whole text of the Gospel throughout the commentary. That way, I don't have to bounce back and forth between two volumes while I read.

Anyway, no profound insights to share just yet. It's enough for now to record my excitement at diving back into Scripture, this time in dialog with the Church as I go. More to follow, I'm sure.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

a few steps with the Theotokos

Well, I didn't exactly get to enter the holy of holies, but I did get a foot inside the door last night. Finally, after 2.5 years of "exploring" Orthodoxy, I am officially learning how to be Orthodox :-) It's kind of weird how it happens--there's no real ceremony to initiate you into the catechumenate. One DL you're just another person standing there in the congregation, the next you're going up to the front when they pray for the catechumens after the Liturgy of the Word. And until you actually convert, that's really all there is. I suppose it would feel differently if I literally had spent the last 2.5 years in the narthex and suddenly got to come into the nave for the first half of the service. But it still feels pretty good. I'm glad to have the Church praying for me, and I'm glad to be in actual fact what I've been in spirit for quite some time. I'm also glad Julie could be there with me. She said it didn't end up being as emotional an experience as she was expecting. I'm not even going to try to guess why that was, but I'll take it.

Perhaps the strangest part of the evening was when Fr. Gregory welcomed me at the end of the service during announcements. In my experience, he seems to mis-speak at some point during the announcements pretty consistently. (Sorry, Father--maybe it's just coincidence that I'm there whenever it happens.) In this case, he welcomed me to the diaconate instead of the catechumenate. Of course, there was quite a reaction from the group, and he corrected himself, but it does make one think. My dad was asked to be a deacon in the church I grew up in, before anyone realized that he wasn't a member yet, because he hadn't been baptized yet. Of course, being a deacon in that context is quite different from in the Orthodox Church, but it's still an interesting echo.

I should say that I took to heart the advice I received about thinking and praying before last night, about whether or not this was the right thing to do and the right time to do it. I won't say I got any clear sign like a voice from heaven or anything, but I did have one interesting experience over the weekend. The Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion joint annual meeting was in Washington this year, so I naturally had to go. My first day there was Saturday, and of course I made my way down to the book vendors at the earliest opportunity. I spent a couple of hours wandering through, looking over the offerings, checking discounts, trying to make a mental list of what I wanted to buy. It had been three years since the last time I attended, which was before I even started to think about Orthodoxy. This time the experience was unlike any time before.

As I walked around this huge convention hall (and when I say it took a couple of hours, that was only because I simply cruised by many of the booths with little more than a glance), filled with resources on the study of Bible and religion, all I could think of was the general emptiness. Sure, there was some good material there, but overwhelmingly, it was all dead, meaningless, wasteful. The selection hadn't changed, but I had, and I felt lost amid the noise and flash. Then I came to the small booth for St. Vladimir's Seminary Press--as far as I could tell, the one truly Orthodox publisher represented there--and when I walked in, it was relief. It's hard to explain. I'm sure the experience could be dissected into its perfectly reasonable, perfectly natural components, none of which carries any particular significance. I'm interested in Orthodoxy right now, so that's naturally the material that would interest me. St. Vladimir's is not as popular as many of the other publishers, so it wasn't so crowded or noisy. The list could go on. But what I felt that day was something much more profound. From the cacophony of this Western, post-Christian marketplace, I entered a little sanctuary where my soul could find peace. It summed up in a few minutes what my life has been for the past few years--wandering the maze of Western religion, with its pop culture, its heady academics, its buffet of beliefs and idiosyncratic readings, and finally coming to rest in this unassuming little place called Orthodoxy. Yes, on one level it looks like more of the same--it has its books, its choices, its marketing, and a booth much like any other--but Christ is there in a presence beyond words, and he brings rest and certainty and meaning.

The sessions of the conference were kind of a mixed bag. I went to some that were very good--some surprisingly so--and some that were more of the same meaningless braying. One that I found particularly interesting was on defining the canon of Scripture--basically, a collection of presenters who either have no particular respect for the Bible or seem downright angry with it (like the one who literally spat the word "Bible" throughout her talk), making their case that the books that got in really aren't that different from the books that didn't. (Current scholarship seems to be mostly about stating the obvious. Scholars gave up decades ago on the veracity of Scripture and any notion that its books were written by their attributed authors. Now they need a generation of prophets to tell them that a word like "pseudepigraphic" (falsely named) is no longer useful to distinguish a book like 1 Enoch from, say, Deuteronomy, which everyone knows wasn't written by Moses either.) Again, the arguments weren't especially new or noteworthy, but my reaction was. At various points in my journey I might have followed the speakers in their thinking, or got angry with them for their assault against Scripture. This time, I thought their agendas silly, but I didn't feel threatened by them. Theories will come and go, but the Church will always have the Bible and trust it as God's Word.

Anyway, by the time I left the conference, I was glad to be cutting it short so I could get to Holy Cross for evening DL and my entrance to the catechumenate. In fact, I left a little earlier than I needed to. There are more important things in life.

I had a good time after the service--good conversation, good food (I think I agree that Lenten chocolate cake is better than regular, but for that very reason I'm going to make sure we don't have any around the house), and a blessing from Father to top it all off. I knew I had to get some sleep when I climbed into bed around 11:15--3:45 comes early, after all--but my heart wasn't in it. The excitement was still high, and I didn't really want the evening to end. No service inside this morning, but I'm sitting here on the doorstep thinking about the Theotokos, who got to live in the Temple.
My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God. For the sparrow hath found herself a house, and the turtledove a nest for herself where she may lay her young, Even Thine altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Blessed are they that dwell in Thy house; unto ages of ages shall they praise Thee.

Friday, November 17, 2006

weighing the positives and negatives

A good suggestion I received yesterday was to spend some time thinking and praying about the positive and negative effects that entering the catechumenate at this point will have on my relationship with Julie, particularly in light of my responsibilities as husband and father. Here's a first crack at putting down some thoughts on the issue.


I make no claim to perfect certainty about what it means in our context for a husband to love his wife. I have spent a great deal of time considering this issue over the past couple of years, specifically asking myself if it could mean that I should lay aside my desire to become Orthodox for Julie's sake. I remain unconvinced that this is the best understanding, although I am not sure I have a convincing alternative either.

Obviously, the most involved NT passage with regard to the husband's responsibility is Eph 5:22-33. In my view, however, it is important to look at the charge to the wife side-by-side with that to the husband, so that a balanced perspective is obtained. Further, there are some significant differences to be found in other passages that address the husband's obligation, which might affect the final picture.

I think it's safe to say that there is a fundamental assumption in the NT about the husband's role as spiritual leader in the home, particularly when both partners are believers. 1 Cor 14:35, for instance, instructs wives to ask their questions about the content of the church service after they get home. Now, I'm not going to get into the issue here, of how the rule about silence in the church should be applied today. I bring up this passage only to exemplify the assumed relationship.

It goes even further, when passages like the one in Ephesians and 1 Pet 3:1-7 treat submission on the part of the wife as a social norm, like children submitting to parents or slaves to masters. On the other hand, this submission does have to be qualified to some degree. Despite Paul's apparently unqualified language in Ephesians 5 ("in everything"), it does not seem like she is being asked to violate her own convictions. For instance, if her husband is an unbeliever or idolater, and wants her to be the same, Luke 14:26 sets a comprehensive standard of resistance. Also, Paul's instructions in 1 Cor 7:12-16 and Peter's instructions to wives assume that the believing partner's faith is non-negotiable. Let the unbelieving spouse stay if they will, but live your faith in the relationship to sanctify the home. Now, where does one draw the line of conscience? What if her husband wants to switch to a heretical sect? What about another denomination in our setting today? What about political convictions? Drawing the line may not be easy, but admitting that there must be a line somewhere is important.

There are two basic standards in Ephesians for how a husband should love his wife--that of Christ's love for the Church, and that of the husband's love for his own body. The standard of Christ's love relates to his sacrifice for the Church, but it continues into the purpose of that sacrifice--to sanctify and cleanse her, so she may be holy and blameless. He gives everything that is necessary, even to his own death, so that she can be made holy. The standard of the husband's love for his own body has to do with his natural care for the body--feeding it, clothing it, etc. So the husband is to provide his wife with what she needs for life and salvation, even if it means dying to make that happen.

Other passages explicate the husband's love somewhat differently. Col 3:18-19 sets up an opposition between love and bitterness. It seems strange as a general principle, but perhaps the focus is specifically on situations where the wife does not follow or submit. Rather than reacting bitterly, the husband should just continue to love. In 1 Peter, love is described in terms of honor, respect, and consideration--recognizing that the wife is an equal in Christ but dealing gently with her as though she's weak. I'm not sure the intent here is to say that she actually is weaker than the husband in any particular way, but simply to guide how he should deal with her.

So, to sum up, the husband should lead and the wife should submit. But in leading, he should love by sacrificing for her life and salvation, providing for her needs, treating her with honor, respect, and gentleness, and without bitterness. And there does not seem to be any expectation that she should follow him in direct opposition to her convictions about Christ. It is mostly about conduct within the marriage. In that light, it seems likely that the husband is also expected to reserve his core convictions--that sacrificing himself for his wife's sake will not normally mean violating his walk with Christ. In fact, if the goal of self-sacrifice is her sanctification, and if he is supposed to be the spiritual leader, it could be argued that laying aside his convictions is the last thing he should do.


How will proceeding with the catechumenate alone and at this point affect our relationship and my biblical role as husband?

On the positive side, it will certainly help to prevent bitterness on my part. I respect Julie's right to make her own choice about Orthodoxy, and I can be patient with whatever personal issues she needs to work through so that analysis can happen. I trust God to work in the long term, to bring unity and oneness of mind in our relationship. What is more challenging, however, is to resist blaming her for my own exclusion. If she showed any sign of moving toward Orthodoxy, I would be more encouraged about waiting for her to catch up and doing what I could to help along the process. As it is, we're both pretty firm in our convictions at this point, and if anything we've moved further apart in our thinking over the couple of years that this has been going on. With no reasonable prospect in sight of coming to agreement, waiting for that to happen looks like an increasingly bleak option.

Julie feels the tension on this point as well and has already expressed her sense of relief at discovering that it was possible for me to move on without her. However much I have tried not to blame or pressure her, it was still an easy connection to make, that I obviously wanted to head in the direction of Orthodoxy, and her opposition was preventing my progress. She no longer needs to feel like she has to choose between my spiritual growth and hers.

Taking this step also establishes consistency in my spiritual example to my family and to others. As much as I talk about a sacramental outlook and matching external form with internal reality, I've spent the past two years working on my own through a process of spiritual growth, formally outside the Church, and excluded from the sacraments. I won't be able to participate in the sacraments until I actually convert, which could be quite a while longer yet, but now I will be on the Church's prescribed path toward that end. I will be in some sense formally part of the Church and a part of its prayer life, as catechumens are regularly prayed for in the public services. Moving forward thus clarifies the message I'm sending in my spiritual growth. More tangibly, it will also further my growth, as I progress under the guidance of a spiritual father and eventually come into the sacramental life of the Church, where the grace of the Spirit is experienced more fully.

In a related vein, the further I progress into Orthodoxy and the stronger my attachment becomes, the more comfortable I can be with my interaction outside the Church. Right now, all I have is what I do personally. I'm still very much on my own in this process, and that tends to focus my attention on the stuff I do to make myself more Orthodox. As I become more integrated into the Orthodox Church and more established in my organic connection to the Church, the emphasis can shift from doing to being. None of this is to say that right now it should be so much about doing, or that later the doing will go away. My point is simply that it gets easier to rest in my identity as Orthodox, once I'm really in. Perhaps it's the difference between holding onto a rope in the water alongside the boat and actually being in the boat. You keep up, and you get to your destination, whichever way you do it. But when you're in the boat, it's much easier to focus outward on other things. In that sense, I will be in a better position to minister to my family as I progress in my own walk.

On the negative side, the actual service in which I become a catechumen will probably be a difficult experience for Julie. She wants to be there, and I'm grateful for that, but it will be hard. I don't know how lasting the pain of the moment will be. I'm glad in this respect that she'll have a friend coming along for extra support.

Taking this tangible step also constitutes a rather concrete acknowledgement of things we have already accepted, at least mentally--that I want to be Orthodox, while she does not, and that we're not likely to reach any kind of unity on this issue anytime soon. It's not exactly a point of no return, but it does make the whole thing seem a bit more real, and that will probably cause some pain.

It could be argued that becoming a catechumen will also mean more time in Orthodox services, classes, and other activities, which will generally translate into more time apart and particularly more occasions when we go to church separately. On the other hand, my attendance has been increasing gradually over the past couple of years anyway, and it's unlikely that I would attend less if I didn't become a catechumen. (On the contrary, as I discussed above, I would probably feel more internal pressure to attend regularly to make up for my tentative position.) Even though the discussion about starting the catechumenate specifically precipitated a renewed effort to attend more regularly, it was about time for another transition anyway. It's been roughly a year since I adopted a strategy of attending special services, so I would have a chance to experience the different liturgical events on the Orthodox calendar. Now that I've been through the cycle, I would be looking for something with greater consistency anyway.

Even so, the fact of becoming a catechumen and its coinciding with increased attendance could generate a real or perceived distancing from my family, or more particularly from Julie. (Because Ian often attends services with me, I actually end up spending more time alone with him than I would otherwise.) I do need to guard against any real distancing that might result. I need to be more sensitive to ways that I can be there for Julie and that we can interact more closely in what we do share. I should also look for ways to focus my spiritual growth particularly on how Orthodoxy teaches me to be a better father, husband, spiritual leader in the home, etc.


Clearly, there are real positive and negative effects involved in this decision, but on the whole I see the positives as more substantial, particularly if I am cautious about how I handle the negatives.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

savages or saints?

The following passage is quoted in Orthodox Alaska (Michael Oleksa, p. 171) from the autobiography of Rev. S. Hall Young, a Presbyterian minister who was influential on U. S. educational policy in Alaska in the late 19th c., after purchase of the territory from Russia:
I realized . . . that the task of making an English-speaking race of these Natives was much easier than the task of of making a civilized and Christian language out of the Native languages. We should let the old tongues with their superstitions and sin die--the sooner the better--and replace these languages with that of Christian civilization, and compel the Natives in our schools to speak English and English only.
Now, it should be kept in mind that by this point Orthodoxy had been planted and growing among the Aleuts for roughly 100 years. They had comprised the majority of the Christian population even before the Russians left, and after the U. S. took possession of Alaska, the Orthodox Church was kept going by almost exclusively indigenous clergy.

To suggest that any language was incapable of conveying Christian ideas would have been chauvinistic enough; to make this assertion about a language and culture that over the course of a century had so fully embraced Orthodox Christianity that it has ever since been treated as part of their native tradition is downright laughable.

Of course, this crowd probably didn't consider Orthodoxy to be a real form of Christianity anyway. They may have been English-speaking Protestants, but they seemed to differ little from the gang of Spanish Catholics who put to death St. Peter the Aleut a half-century earlier for refusing to convert. I don't want to give the impression that all Protestant missionaries are this culturally insensitive (any more than I would want to say all Catholic priests are murderous oppressors), but it is interesting to see the consistent tensions generated by Western attitudes. In this case, the plights of Orthodox Christianity and Native American culture run together, suggesting that in the end it really does come down to the West vs. everyone else.

Holy Martyr Peter, pray for us!

Friday, November 10, 2006

dark machine of superstition

In a recorded talk I was listening to by Fr. Hopko, he spoke highly of the writings of Karl Stern, a Jewish-converted-to-Catholic psychologist. I decided to see what I could find by him in the library and ran across (among other things) his autobiography, The Pillar of Fire. I've been puttering at it lately, mostly when I'm riding the bus and it's not convenient to use my computer, or when I can't muster enough energy to do anything else. I'm really enjoying the book so far. One passage in particular just jumped out at me. After explaining his lengthy morning prayer routine, he goes on:
I kept strict dietary laws, as much as I could in a household as impious as that of my parents. I kept even my own set of china and cutlery, and soon I was surrounded by a cloud of ascetic detachment like a yogi. At dinner after having eaten I would remain at the table and, with a black skullcap, say the long benediction which follows every main meal. They all tried to get up before that, or to look away. They behaved very much like a family of which one member has gone insane. . . . It was as if I had turned on some dark machine of superstition upstairs in my room every morning (55-56).
A couple of pages later Stern comes to the conclusion of this phase in his life:
As far as my stab at [Jewish] Orthodoxy was concerned, I very soon yielded to the pressure brought upon me by my family. I have a strong suspicion that I used it as an excuse to discontinue Morning Prayer, Afternoon Prayer, Evening Prayer, and the sacrifices involved in the dietary and the Sabbath laws. I had an alibi: it created too much friction and unrest in the family (58).
I can certainly sympathize. Although in my case the problem is not an irreligious family but one of different religious persuasion, I still feel there's some question as to my sanity and little doubt about my "dark machine of superstition." I've also felt the pressure to discontinue various practices for family's sake, and have in fact done so at different points in my journey. Indeed, it was the realization that this pressure would continually exist that led me in search of a community that would share my ascetic struggle. In Orthodox Christianity I've found a good deal more than that, but I needed at least that for starters. As I prepare to enter the second-longest fast season of the year (and perhaps the most taxing, because there is so much outside pressure to eat), I need to know that I'm not doing this alone.

Monday, November 06, 2006

let me introduce myself

Until I found the right time to tell my parents about my interest in Orthodoxy, I wanted to be discrete here about my specific identity. There were enough clues, I suppose, for anyone who knew me to put things together. I was mostly just trying to avoid them accidentally stumbling across the blog and finding out that way, rather than hearing it from me first. Now that we've had an initial conversation about it, I'm ready to change my practice. I'm not planning to post my home address or anything--just not explicitly hiding who I am.

If you've been reading for a little while, you already know that my son's name is Ian (hence, abuian, which if Ian were a common name in Arabic would identify me as Ian's father). My wife's name is Julie, so now I can fill in the gap from a comment back in July about her pseudo-name saint. She and St. Julia of Carthage were both born into Christian families, both were valued by their employers as hard workers, both are unwavering from the faith in which they've been raised, and both have a heart for the lost.

As for me, my name is Trevor. I've alluded before to the possible connection with a group of martyrs. I was referring to the martyrs of Trier, which is a shortened name based on the Celtic tribe of Trever. Not that I have much clue of whether there were any remaining Treveri living in Trier by the time of their martyrdom, but if there were, then we could call it the feast of the Treveran martyrs, which is about as close as I would get to a name day with my given name.

As my profile now indicates, I live in Columbia, MD, which is a bit closer to Baltimore than to Washington. I've alluded on various occasions to three parishes that I've visited more than once each. The closest geographically is St. Matthew's OCA parish in Columbia, which right now meets about 10 min. (on foot) from where I live. They're building further south, however, so it won't be long before I'd need to drive to get there. Right now they meet only on Sundays, which has prevented me from getting there much. The other two parishes are both about 25 min. away (by car)--to the south, Holy Apostles ROCOR parish in Beltsville (Fr. George), and to the north, Holy Cross Antiochian parish in Linthicum (Fr. Gregory). My language in referring to them will now be somewhat more natural.

I suppose some of you might be wondering how the talk with my parents went. It was civil, without a lot of emotions openly expressed. They listened a lot and offered some responses. No disowning, no forbidding us from visiting, etc. All in all, I'd have to say it went about as well as I could have hoped. We still have a lot to talk about, but at least things are out there. Thanks to any who prayed.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

parents a-plenty

Yay! I have Godparents. And it was a two-fer. I thought I was just getting a Godfather, but apparently it's a package deal. Thanks, Jim and Laura! I appreciate your prayers on my behalf.

Speaking of prayers, tonight we plan to talk with my real parents about Orthodoxy for the first time. I mentioned earlier that we didn't get a chance when we saw them in person a couple of months ago. Now that there's some definite movement coming, it seems unavoidable that we talk with them by whatever means necessary. I really don't know how this is going to go, so any prayers are welcome.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Holy New Martyr Peter, pray for me!

We have a date! Lord willing, I'm to become an official catechumen during the liturgy of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple (Nov 21, but this will be an evening liturgy, Nov 20). We'd looked at another possibility, but this one is a bit later, which will hopefully allow time for the elders at our Evangelical church to come back with their thoughts on our situation. (My wife wants that to happen before I enter the catechumenate.) More importantly, it's in the evening, which will make it easier for her to have a friend come along for moral support. The intention was to do it around the beginning of the Nativity Fast. I like this particular timing because I'll be entering the catechumenate (and in keeping with the metaphor of my blog title, finally entering the temple) on the day that the Theotokos entered the temple in Jerusalem to begin her life of service to God.

Of course, now this means I'll have to work more earnestly on picking a name saint. Five months ago (to the day, actually) I posted about my struggles with picking a saint. I can't say I've gained much clarity since then. One thing that has seemed to come out is that, after trying on the Archangel Michael for several months, I'm not feeling a very intimate connection. On the other hand, I recently observed with particular devotion the feast of Martyr Peter the Aleut, and I continue to find myself drawn in that direction. It's hard to explain fully the connection that I feel. Some of the specifics:

  1. He's relatively obscure. I'm not sure what that does for me, but I like about him that there's really only one story--that of his torture and death.
  2. He's North American born and raised, and martyred in the territory of the continental U. S. No other saint right now fits these criteria. There are only two saints who were martyred on North American soil, and only two saints born in North America (not the same two). I guess, because I don't feel much cultural connection with my own heritage, and I've never been outside North America, it's particularly meaningful to me to have a distinctively American saint.
  3. He's Aleutian. To my knowledge, I don't have a drop of American Indian or Native Alaskan blood in me, but if it's going to be an American-born saint, I like the idea of him being indigenous. I'm saddened by our past (and present) exploitation of the native peoples on this continent, and it somehow seems right to me to venerate an American saint from that group. I have a rather complicated relationship with this country, and this seems like the kind of saint who can help me love my continent at least. He also inspires me to a more intimate connection with the land--even though we come from quite different regions, I'm impressed with the way Christianity took root in this very North American people.
  4. Sort of related to the previous connection, he was martyred by Catholic missionaries. I'll say to start out that this doesn't inspire in me a hatred for Catholics. But it does speak to both the "Western" chauvinism that infused colonial efforts and the tendency in "Western" Christianity to discount the authenticity of the "Eastern" faith. (I'm using quotes here, because in this case the Orthodox are coming from the West and Catholics are coming from the East.) I would say this tendency applies just as much to Protestantism, whatever one might say about whether Protestants would have martyred Peter for refusing to convert. I suspect I'm always going to have to deal with my fellow Euro-Americans questioning the legitimacy of my Orthodox faith, and it will be good to have a saint who understands so intimately that struggle.
  5. Finally, I just like his simple courage and conviction. For the past several years leading up to my discovery of Orthodoxy, I was so uncertain about what I believed. Not only that, I was so intellectual that I could always shroud my uncertainty in an air of academic mystery. I don't know anything about Peter's intellectual life, but his testimony is one of pure, confident faith. There's no indication that he tried to persuade his captors that he was right, or that he gave any momentous speeches. He just responded with the most straightforward and heartfelt answer anyone could muster in such a situation--I am a Christian. He never wavered from that conviction, whatever means they tried to convince him. I can only hope that one day I would respond the same way.
So there it is. I'm not 100% certain of the choice yet, but if I had to pick right now, that's the direction I'd go. And I must say, I'm already feeling a connection, in just the short time I've been praying with him. As for the other element, of picking a Godfather, I'll hopefully have some news on that shortly.

A final thought: Am I going to change the title of my blog? After all, I won't be on the doorstep anymore. Even in the ancient church, a catechumen was allowed inside. But then, he was also sent back out and the doors were closed behind him, before the liturgy of the faithful. So I think it's still a fitting title. I'll be out here on the doorstep often enough, at least for a while yet.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

full steam ahead?

I worry sometimes that I'm rushing things too much. That might sound odd coming from someone who's been exploring Orthodoxy for two and a half years and just on the verge of becoming a catechumen. Nevertheless, it's how I feel. For some time I hoped that my wife and I could take this journey together. I knew I had a head-start, so I was willing to wait. I saw the wisdom in the various priests who wanted to give her more time. But it never really turned into anything productive. We talked, which mostly consisted of me trying to explain what Orthodoxy taught about a certain issue, and her disagreeing with everything. She would end up frustrated, because she didn't know how to respond to what I was saying and felt pressured to accept it; I would end up frustrated, because I never seemed to be able to communicate to her either the content of Orthodox teaching or my feelings about Evangelicalism.

Eventually we started to conclude that neither of us was going to budge, and the only solution might be to accept that something different was going on in each of us. Although mentally we both seemed to accept this idea, it was not easy to embrace emotionally. We've gone to church together for more than ten years of marriage, four years of dating, and even before that, we got to know each other in church youth group. It certainly felt to me like a "lesser evil" type of solution. Ideally, we should be on the same page with these things. We should be in agreement on how we're going to worship in the home, what we're going to teach our kids, and where we're going to go to church. Honestly, church was one of the few areas of interest that we consistently had in common. To let that go feels like it can never be anything more than settling. I think my wife takes it even harder. I don't fully understand why. I could chalk it up to her being a more emotional person, but that doesn't seem adequate. Obviously, part of the picture is that she has all the reason to feel cheated. Neither of us planned on this, but all she's contributed to the gap is staying where she was. I'm the one who has gone off and found something else.

So, I continued to wait. I didn't change much right away about my involvement and tried to give her time to adjust to the idea. But at the same time, I kept pecking away at Fr. Gregory to accept what we already had--that if I was going to do this at all, it would have to be without her. While he dragged his feet, I took my time with Orthodoxy. I visited occasional services here and there but made no real attempt to go regularly. Not that I didn't want to go more often--it was just easier that way. I had the excuses--not wanting to take too much time away from my wife, not having a car of my own. And since I couldn't find a way to solve our struggles on these issues, it seemed like the next best option was to mitigate their effects. If Orthodoxy remained a part-time occupation, we could still share what we had in our Evangelical church.

But how much do we really share? Sure, we both go there most Sundays. Our outlooks are very different, however. She chafes to do more, be more involved; I find myself wishing I were somewhere else. I've tried to explain to her that it's not about leaving the Evangelical church. I love the people there, and there are still things I value about the services. If I could do both, I would. But to a great extent, I can't. Attending Sunday morning worship there means skipping Orthodox divine liturgy. I could try to do a mixture--one week here, one week there--but how much is to be gained by not being well connected in either place? (I'm willing to do it, however. Getting to Orthodox DL every other week would be a significant improvement.) It's not healthy for me, and I'm not sure it's healthy for her either. It's just a holding pattern. We keep doing what we're in the habit of doing and try not to disturb it any more than necessary.

So when I finally got the green light from Fr. Gregory, it does feel like suddenly things went into high gear. In reality, it was a long time in coming. The buildup was quite gradual, but because I had to hold it inside, feeding off of hope that one day I could finally move forward, it has tended to come out as an explosion. And maybe I am rushing too much. If I could wait this long, why not give a few more weeks for our elders to come back with their input? Why not give my wife some time to work through her personal issues? I guess the only answer I can give is that there's always going to be something. When I thought we might be able to do this together, I was willing to give her the time she needed. When I thought it would just take time to adjust to the idea of doing things separately, I was willing to wait. But waiting hasn't seemed to change much so far. It just drags things out. And even now I have little confidence that whatever the elders come back with will make a tangible difference in our situation. I feel like it's time to move forward by whatever path is open. (And I should point out that this moving forward might be just one step in a process that's going to stretch out more years until I finally convert.) It will be painful, yes; but it's already painful where we are now, and I'm not sure that staying here will make things any better.

Still, it's hard to escape the feeling that I'm rushing things--that I'm selfishly doing what suits me best without adequate concern for my wife. I hope and pray that's not the case, but what if? Lord, have mercy on me a sinner!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

all but the signatures

The joint committees of ROCOR and the Moscow Patriarchate have prepared and published the Act on Canonical Communion! Now it remains only to set up an official meeting so both groups can sign (expected to take place in 2007). Associated documents are also available on ROCOR's Web site. Rejoice! Wounds in the Church can be healed.

Speaking of ROCOR, I visited last night for a moleben to St. John of Kronstadt. It was good to be back there. As much as I feel like I'm on the right path by sticking with Fr. Gregory and keeping most of my attendance to one parish, I hope I can also maintain a friendly association with Fr. George and his little flock. It may be more chaotic, but everyone gets to be an intimate part of the chaos, and somehow it works. I was wondering at the beginning of the service whether I'd made the wrong choice when I decided to go there, but by the end I knew we'd really prayed before God. The conversation afterward was good as well. (I'd never been to a moleben there--it's much shorter than any other ROCOR service I've experienced.) Fr. George seemed genuinely happy for me and invited me to come back more often.

The evening ended with a bit of mystery, as one of the parishoners noticed a tool handle or table leg of some sort, resting between some bookshelves. Fr. George laughingly referred to it as a "cudgel," but he never said exactly what it was there for. I thought the metal spike sticking out near the end was a nice touch and suggested that it might come in handy if the catechumens didn't depart when they were told. I like these people. I don't know which way I would have gone if I had only myself to consider, but I still think my wife would have a harder time there. Not that she's going in any case, but I can still hope.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

one foot in and one foot out?

Well, there's been a lot going on this week. I'm just hesitant to say too much at this point. I met with Fr. Gregory. He thinks it's about time to move forward, so we're starting to talk dates for me to become a catechumen. Woo hoo! One thing this would mean, obviously, is that I'd have to step up my involvement in the life of the parish. There's no minimum standard per se on most of this stuff, but I would need to make an effort to be in services with some regularity, and hopefully attend at least some of the classes that are coming up.

Transportation is going to be an issue. As I've mentioned before, we have only one car. I'm open to changing that if necessary, but I'm trying to be cautious and explore other options first. I don't really want this situation to put a strain on our budget, when it's already stressing other areas. Still, it might be a worthwhile trade-off if my wife doesn't feel like she's having to give up her car every time I want to go to a service. One positive development today--I was talking with someone after DL this morning and she offered to provide rides when Ian and I need them. Another possibility--my in-laws are talking about selling one of their cars, which might meet our need without too much expense. Then again, who knows what they'd think if they knew why we were interested.

That's the other thing that's getting close. If I do take the next step pretty soon, we're going to have to look seriously at telling parents about what's going on. I'm not exactly looking forward to it, although it will be nice to have it out in the open. Particularly, I'm concerned about the negative effects that might fall on my wife as a result. Some of that has already happened this past week, with her brother, who's known about this for some time. I'm not going to say exactly what happened, but it's something that affects her a good deal more than it does me, and is specifically in response to where I'm at with Orthodoxy. I can deal with negative reactions that affect me--I pretty much expect it. But I don't know what to do with things that affect her. It's probably the only thing that makes me question whether what I'm doing is worth it.

It's been good to get to more services this week. The car wasn't done Thursday evening, so I didn't make it to vespers. But I got there Tuesday and last night, as well as this morning. I was able to attend all of matins, DL, and hang around talking until about 1:30. Now I have to decide what to do this Tuesday. I could go back for the usual weeknight vespers, or I could visit the ROCOR parish for St. John of Kronstadt. The biggest reason I'm thinking about the latter option is that I feel like I should get over there sometime to explain in person what's going on, and how I'm probably not going to be back there much anymore, as I get more plugged in at the Antiochian parish. On the other hand, maybe it would be better to do that sometime when it doesn't require passing up another service to get there.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Orthodox marathon week

This is going to be another Orthodox-intensive week. I haven't had one of those since sometime during Lent, when my wife took Ian out of town to visit her parents. This time, they're visiting her brother and his family, leaving tomorrow morning and returning next Tuesday. I'll be able to attend vespers tomorrow night and hopefully Thursday, great vespers Saturday, matins and DL Sunday. I also have to take the car in to get it looked at, so Wednesday is out. Guess maybe I'll get some time to work on my dissertation as well. If all that's not enough, this past weekend had two significant events. Fr. Gregory came to our condo (for the first time) to meet with my wife after Ian went to bed Friday. Saturday evening, we went to a Russian festival at a nearby Moscow Patriarchal parish. Ian didn't seem to think too much of it at first--wanted to hang out in the little courtyard away from all the action for quite a while. But he really got into the music when we sat down for the concert. My wife also admitted that she had a good time. (Not that there was much religious about it, aside from being on the grounds of a church and having religious items for sale.)

The meeting on Friday seemed to go pretty well. Fr. Gregory was very gentle and skillfully avoided any opportunity to argue about Evangelicalism vs. Orthodoxy. He said the main reason he wanted to meet was that I wanted in, and he didn't see much reason to keep me out. He wanted to know first, though, whether and to what extent my wife would support me. She, for her part, said she didn't agree with what I was doing, but that she would not stand in the way. I'm going to try to meet with Fr. Gregory one-on-one this week, so hopefully I'll get a better sense of how he thinks things went.

One thing that came out of the meeting. My wife wanted a friend and mentor present, so she'd have someone to talk to about it afterward. When Fr. Gregory asked if we were praying together, we got rebukes from both sides of the aisle, so to speak. It's something we've never been able to establish as a habit, but we're trying again. Last night was our first time in I don't know how long.

Yesterday, in our Evangelical service, one of the action points from the sermon was to take a day sometime in the next two weeks if possible to do whatever we like, and to thank God for it. We were talking about it later, and honestly I'd want to spend such a day in as much Orthodox worship as possible. Since getting to a monastery would mean driving a long distance (which would mean it's no longer a day doing what I want to do), the next best option is to do exactly what I'm planning to do this Sunday (speaking here of the liturgical day, starting with vespers)--spend it in church as much as I can. Beyond that, if the weather's nice, I'll probably try to take a long walk. I'll try to keep things updated as the week unfolds.

Friday, October 13, 2006

words and deeds

Lord, have mercy on me a sinner!

I pray for my wife, because she has such a miserable example of an Orthodox Christian to look at. Our interaction about Orthodoxy has changed over time, but it never really seems to get any better. Early on (for quite some time before I encountered Orthodoxy), I didn't talk to her about what was going on in my head. I didn't share with her the changes in my thinking about truth and revelation, or how that was affecting my faith in Christ, or how desperately I needed to find a supportive community. I didn't talk to her when I was thinking about leaving Christianity for Judaism. I mean, we talked--just not about anything particularly important or directly related to faith. I just kept going through the motions at church and kept my mouth shut. The reason I gave myself for this silence was that she would take things too seriously, too personally, too emotionally, and she would overreact to ideas that might or might not stick around. Of course, I know now that it would have been better to start talking with her--and with others--about this stuff a lot sooner. But there it is anyway.

Eventually I realized that my thinking was leading me dangerously close to real action--going to a different church, or converting to a different faith, or something along those lines--which would inevitably affect her. The only way I could move forward in any sense was to talk to her about what I was thinking. By that point, we were so far apart in our thinking, that nothing ever really connected. From Messianic Judaism to Orthodox Christianity, the best we could ever do was occasional discussion about the issues involved, mixed with long stretches of silence, hoping that things would somehow work themselves out.

After several unproductive attempts at discussion about Orthodoxy, I began to get advice that I should just pray and live my faith before her, and trust God to work in his timing. So that's what I started to do. My prayer life became more stable, I was reading Scripture regularly, I was learning and growing and strengthening in my faith, and I was trying to make substantive changes in my life. None of it seemed to have much effect, but it's not like I was doing it just so she would be impressed. It was all stuff that I needed to do anyway. Still, it would have been nice to see it have some kind of effect.

Now I'm wondering, though, if I took the advice further than it was meant. Was the point to expect actions alone to make the difference? Or do actions need to be explained to have any effect on others? Take an example. During the Dormition Fast, I decided not to watch Simpsons reruns during the week. For several years now, one of the local channels has aired two Simpsons reruns every weekday evening (6:00 and 7:00). Most evenings I would watch one or both of them--usually episodes that I had already seen multiple times. For some time, my wife had been bugging me about it, since I get home at 5:00, and Ian goes to bed at 7:30. At some point during the fast, I decided that I was going to give it up entirely. I knew I was watching too much TV anyway, and that was the biggest single change I could make to my viewing habits. As a side effect, I was expecting her to notice. It was a few weeks before she even noticed that I wasn't watching Simpsons anymore (aside from the Sunday evening episode--usually new or recently released). When it finally did come up, I tried to simply acknowledge the change and drop the issue, without making a big issue out of my reasons. Some time later I was asking why she didn't seem to credit Orthodoxy with any of the changes in my life, and it turned out she had never put together the connection. I don't know if it made any difference in her opinion of Orthodoxy when I finally did explain my thought process, but the point is that she never would have had any clue if I hadn't explicitly spelled out what I was doing and why.

Last night, I brought up an idea I'd been mulling for a few days about how we might change our TV viewing habits during prime time. I won't go into the specifics here, but one of my main objectives was to create enough flexibility that we could interact more directly in the evening. She brought up that often she spent the evening watching TV because I was reading in the other room. I responded that I was reading in the other room because she was watching TV. Again, the thinking behind my actions never came through until we actually sat down and talked about it.

So, what does this mean? Was I wrong to think that my actions would speak for themselves? If so, is it a general rule, or is it a problem with my own execution? If not, why does it seem like nothing ever gets through until we talk about it? And how do I make a point of discussing what I'm doing and why, without an attitude that she should look at what a great job I'm doing?

Sunday, October 01, 2006

lay aside all earthly cares . . . right!

So, during the most solemn parts of DL this morning, I was wrestling Ian to keep him from climbing into a chair. I'm not sure how I was supposed to focus on the mystical transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ--maybe it's just as well that I don't have to worry right now about being mentally and spiritually prepared when the moment arrives, since I can't take communion anyway. I suppose some are wondering why I wouldn't let him sit in a chair anyway, and is it really worth all that struggle? Honestly, it's not that I object to him sitting in a chair. The problem is, once he gets in a chair, he starts moving the chairs around him. Not only is he not paying attention to the service (which is the least of my worries by that point--what three-year-old can concentrate that long anyway?), but he's disturbing other people in the process. It tends to snowball once he's got in a chair, because inevitably he'll cause a disturbance, and I'll have to retrieve him, and then the fight will be that much worse. Last night, he got so squirmy that I took him out for the last 10 min. or so. I didn't want to repeat that if it could be avoided, especially since it would mean dragging an upset kid through half the people during the most important part of the service. So since he was being relatively quiet (he whispered his protests), I just spent the time proving that I'm still big enough to hold him down (barely).

It's a frustrating business. You don't want to "reward" misbehavior by predictably removing them from the service when they're being disruptive (essentially what they want you to do), but at the same time you don't want to disturb other people. I suppose some would say that I should take him out and give him a good thrashing, so he knows it's better to stay in and behave. It's not that I'm opposed to spanking; I'm in favor of it when it works. The problem with Ian is, it doesn't generally accomplish much. When you ask him if he wants a spanking, he says "yes" and laughs, and the laughter generally continues during and after the spanking. He seems to have high tolerance for pain, and I don't feel particularly comfortable beating on him repeatedly until it finally produces some negative reaction. (Plus, it's very difficult to avoid getting angry in a bad way when he's just laughing at your feeble attempts to evoke some remorse.) So I normally consider spanking an absolute last and not very good resort. I find it much more effective to deny him something that he wants. Normally, when the three of us are together, this denial has something to do with separating him from Mommy. The threat that Mommy won't put him to bed, for instance, is usually enough to stop most problems that arise in the evening. In this case, however, Mommy wasn't around to begin with.

Normally, he's better behaved with me. That's probably still the case here, but it's just such an easy target. He knows better than I do that options for discipline are limited. I don't want to make the service seem like its own punishment, or to disturb others, or to give him what he wants by taking him out without some other consequence. Last night, I tried various idle threats. (Yes, I did invoke spanking--and regretted doing so as soon as the words left my mouth.) I said Mommy wouldn't bring him a present from her trip, as she'd promised. I said he couldn't go to the playground after the service. Eventually, I had to take him out, and the only other thing I could think of was to keep him in the narthex, where we continued to stand facing in the direction of the altar, and I followed along with what I could hear of the rest of the service until it was over. Then, after the service ended, we continued to stand there. He observed that the service was over, but I explained that, even though it was all done in there, what we were doing out here was still going on--and pointed out that if we had stayed in there, we would also be done by now. (I doubt that he got what I was trying to communicate, but it made me feel better anyway.) He didn't care much about missing the playground, but we did stay longer than he wanted to, while I talked to other adults about things that didn't interest him. He smelled the food downstairs and said he was hungry, but I made him wait until we got home to eat a piece of toast (the only option I gave him, but I doubt that he noticed or made the connection).

This morning, as I said, I didn't want to take him out of the service again if it could be avoided. I tried picking a position in front, so he could see more of what was going on. We also weren't terribly close to any other kids his age, which probably helped. Last night it all started with him making faces at a little girl nearby. He did fine through the liturgy of the word. Actually, both last night and this morning, he participated more than usual. I've been talking to him about participating, and he seemed to catch on. He doesn't know most of the words, but he tries to sing along anyway, and he sometimes follows what others are doing in the way of crossing and bowing. He's even started to venerate stuff--icons when we come in, and the cross at the end. (Fr. Gregory's offered it to him before, but this morning was the first time he did anything with it.) Then he wanted to sit in a chair, and it was a fairly continuous struggle from that point on. I restrained him for a while, which wasn't working very well. He's very stubborn when he gets something in his head, and he probably would have kept trying to get in the chair until the end of time.

It finally dawned on me, though, that there was one thing I could do to him--I took his pants. That probably sounds weird--even downright embarrassing--but it's not what you think. He has a pair of pajama bottoms that he's carried around with him for the past couple of years. I guess a normal kid would carry a blanket. We're not so fortunate. You've got to hand it to him for originality, but the bad part is, there's no way we can ever replace the darn things. We don't even know where to find another pair, let alone reproduce the various holes they've acquired over time. His worst trauma right now is on the rare occasions that we wash them--the dryer can never work fast enough. (Speaking of which, they're starting to stink again.) Anyway, I took them away from him and said he could have them back when he was ready to settle down and obey. For a while, he tried to get them back on his own, but eventually he figured out it wasn't going to happen and agreed to behave. A while later, he went for the chair again, and we had to start over. So it doesn't seem to have eliminated the problem, but at least I have some kind of weapon that works.

I guess everyone has to go through this kind of thing. I feel like it's probably worse because he's gone this long without being in services for the most part, but who knows? Someone relayed last night a comparison made by the Khouria regarding this kind of thing. She says DL is like Christmas dinner at Grandma's house. You dress up and use the best china, but the house is full of screaming kids, and it's to be expected. I guess. It's still frustrating. I am glad to see him participating more, though. It also seems like it helped to explain some things to him. I never quite know how much he gets of what I say, but between last night and this morning, I explained to him that it was important for all of us to do things together in church, and that's why I tell him to stand up at certain times, or not to lie down on the floor. I suspect that had something to do with his obviously following what others were doing around him this morning. Not bad for an unregenerate little sinner.