Living the Mystery
November 02, 2013 Length: 1:40:55Fr. Stephen Freeman
Fr. Stephen Freeman: This is interesting doing a talk the second time around. You try never to repeat yourself, but here I’m supposed to. The last couple of parishes that I served when I was an Episcopal priest had three Masses every Sunday, which meant preaching three sermons every Sunday. Every so often, I would decide that the first one had flopped and would do a different one, or would do the first one and it was really well, and I thought, “Well, I won’t top that.” But it’s not about topping or performance; it’s about the content of what we want to do.
Our topic is called, “Living the Mystery,” “mystery” here meaning both “mystery” as we say, a sacrament, living the mystery of grace that God gives to us in our life; but also the recognition that the faith we have, that is given to us, is in fact a mystery of faith. It’s descriptive of our daily life. So we’ll look at this.
They’re recording me today for Ancient Faith Radio. God bless you. So I’m afraid to get very far away from this device, so I may pause when I write on the board so my voice doesn’t disappear for all those listening out there.
I want to start with the mystery of the number one, but actually not the number one, simply the mystery of one. I notice, in reading and studying the Scriptures over the years, that there are lots and lots of passages that we skip over because we think we know what they mean. The more obvious they are, the more likely we are to skip them. We just don’t register them. This is true, I think, especially of many of the passages of which there are a huge number in the New Testament that talk about “one.” St. Paul, very famously: “There’s one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.”
Christ, at the ending of John’s gospel, his prayer, high-priestly prayer before the Father: “That they all may be one, even as you and I are one.” We tend to hear that in our culture, in a culture, a typically American culture typically talks about unity, and we often mean unity as in political unity that would be easily translated of “Why can’t we all get along?” So when Jesus says, “That they all may be one as you and I, Father, are one,” he does not mean “That they might get along as you, Father, and I get along.” This is so weak, but when we read passages like that or phrases like that, we tend to hear something, and then move along to something more interesting, and we don’t stop and ask, “What does it mean?”
The great confession of faith of ancient Israel: “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad; Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Again, we hear that and think we know what it means, but the Fathers begin to enlighten us and they say God is not one like the number one, because you can’t say… God is the one of which there is not a “two.” It’s not a number. God is one. Even when we confess God as Trinity, the Fathers are clear to say, “But he’s not three like the number three.” We only use the number three as a way for our convenience and to confess him as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but what it means in the Persons of the Trinity is not to be likened to the number three.
Sometimes it can be confusing, that we say we believe in one God, one in three, three in one. Well, that can be confusing, or confusing in the sense that it leads us to think something that’s not quite so. Again, we think we know what “one” means. When Christ says, “That they all may be one, as you and I, Father, are one,” that’s something quite different. That we all might know a unity or an experience a reality of one as God knows it, that’s an invitation to a completely different manner of being, and it’s that that is part of the mystery.
We live in a culture that loves to compartmentalize. You have a part of your life… This is your work. You go to work. Another part of your life: This is your hobby; you go to play. Part of your life: That’s family. Part of your life: That’s church. Sorry; I made it small—on purpose. We have these compartments in our lives. This is the way we think of things in our modern culture. You have planners. I was the other day at Staples, shopping for some supplies, and they’ve got one whole long aisle of planners so you can do that kind so you can figure out how to organize your work, your hobby, your family, your play, your whatever sorts of stuff that’s going on in church time.
Even, if we get to church, we’ll have compartmentalized that as well, so there’s education, there’s worship, there may be parish council, there’s… Again, it’s all sort of compartmentalized, and occasionally, especially if the church is a larger church, you can get competition, especially when you’re doing budget planning. What do we need, what do we need more of? I once pastored a very large church, and we had maybe eight or nine people on staff. It could sometimes feel like you’re being pulled in lots and lots of directions. If you work in larger corporations, this model, this is all there, too.
But we tend to think of our life this way. A difficulty with it is that life is, in fact, one. It’s one thing. We may describe it as compartments, but in fact something foreign to us has taken over our mentality as we compartmentalize our lives and separate ourselves out. It is, as we’ll see, quite impossible to live the mystery, to live the fullness of the Christian life in compartments. Fr. Alexander…
I’ll back up a minute. One of the statements I want to open us with is a quote from St. Irenaeus of Lyons. I apologize: in the handout I misspelled “Lyons,” because the French don’t know how to spell. They’re always using extra letters. That’s why your /e/s are silent. I think our /e/s are silent; couldn’t we take a collection of silent /e/s up and send them to Poland, where they need them? Or to the Republic of Georgia, where they have no vowels? Apparently here we have lots of /e/s. We have little collections on Sundays after church: Give us your vowels.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote and said, “The Eucharist agrees with our doctrine, and our doctrine confirms the Eucharist.” Well, that’s just confusing. Isn’t one of those things in the education department and the other in the worship department? Now he’s trying to put them both together? What is he doing? Is he wanting us to have Sunday school in the middle of the Liturgy? The Eucharist agrees with our doctrine, and the doctrine confirms our Eucharist. He could have, had he wanted to say this, [said] that our doctrine, our teaching, our education, our learning, the Holy Eucharist, are all, in fact, one. If I will push this and simply say, “Everything is the Eucharist.” The Eucharist is not a thing we do, something that simply happens in the Liturgy. The Liturgy is everything we do.
I live about a half-mile from my church, and sometimes on beautiful mornings that I feel up to it, I have, on occasion, walked to church. I think of my walk as a proskomidi. It is the preparation of the bread and the wine, the service of proskomidi that the priest does back in the altar ahead of time, taking particles out for all the names. But for me, on my walk, it’s walking down my half-mile and praying for my neighbors and for the streets and for the trees and for the dogs. Actually, I walk my dog the same route, so I know all of the dogs. They talk to us as we go down. The proskomidi—I am not simply—and this, again, is the way we tend to think—I am not just the priest of St. Anne in Oak Ridge. I’m the priest of Oak Ridge. It is my city to offer up.
I don’t know what the other gentlemen do in other churches, but I know what I was ordained to do, and I was ordained to offer the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving before God through Christ for all of these people. I am their priest. I can’t look at someone I run into in the streets and think to myself, “You don’t go to my church. I am not your priest.” As soon as I start saying that, I say that God is not one. I am saying to him, “My God, the one God, is not your God. I am not your priest.” Yes, I am. He’s probably at a distance from the Eucharist, needs to repent of the heresy of schism or whatever it may be, and brought back into the Church, but I’m his priest! I think one of the things I’m saying if I’m wearing my cassock out in public: “I am your priest.” They don’t know it, but I am.
We have our small town; we have a population of about 25,000, but we have a hospital. When I go and visit the hospital, oftentimes there you have people with a lot of needs. They just see you walking in a cassock, and they’re not just Protestants, they’re deep Protestants in Tennessee, but they’ll still stop you and ask you for prayers. Suddenly, you become their priest. “Father, my mother is in surgery. Could you pray for her?” Or even, God bless them, “Would you mind praying for me?” by which they mean now. Yes, yes, I’ve got some incense right here.
It is one. It is one, and the temptation for us is not to live the mystery as one, but to live compartmentalized, that: “I’m sorry, you don’t belong to my circle, you don’t belong to my segment.” I first actually encountered this—I’m going to say this for our English friend who’s with us. We’ve had some good conversations. I first actually ran into this with Lord Michael, retired Archbishop of Canterbury who lived at my seminary for a while after he retired. I was having at him one day, thinking that the American separation of church and state was superior to the British conception of state church and all. Foolishly, as a young seminarian taking Bishop Michael, one of the greater… I’m just sort of dumb that way, thought I would have at him.
He explained to me this sense that, as Church of England, that the Church of England’s divided into parishes, and as a parish priest you’re responsible for every soul in your parish bounds. Doesn’t matter if they go to the chapel, Methodist chapel or Baptist whatever that way—they’re still yours. You have a pastoral responsibility. I began to think that that sense of things was a much, much healthier [one] than the consumer Christianity that we’ve produced in America, in which we only take care of those who shop at our place.
Instead, it’s a much more whole—and the word “whole” is much more connected to “one”; one is the whole. It is not the one out of others, because I said, as God is one, there’s not a two. The Church is one. It does not come in twos, threes, or 28,000. The Church is one. That creates some problems about how do we talk to one another in view of what’s happened, but the Church is one. We say so in the Creed. We don’t say in the Creed that the Church ought to be one. We don’t say someday the Church is going to be one. I believe; I believe in one, holy… Just like I believe in one God, I believe in one, and it’s the same one. Church is one because Christ prayed, the same one: as he and the Father are one, the Church is one. And if that creates problems for us, so be it.
That’s the problem, is that many people think that our problems triumph over the revelation of God. The Church is one. You mess it up, you’ve messed it up, but the Church is one. The Church abides. You can’t make it not be one. It is one. You can’t make the Church not be holy. You can’t make the Church [not] be catholic. Again, that word: according to the whole, kat’ holon, kat’ holos. It is the whole; it is the one.
Living this one mystery… Fr. Alexander Schmemann of blessed memory, writing about the Eucharist… It is that that he’s perhaps most famous for, although I think as time goes on it won’t be that that he will be most remembered for. I get the occasionally, listening to people. Fr. Schmemann’s name gets invoked for a lot of things, some of which he actually said or taught. It depends on… In my corner of the OCA, if you quote his name, it settles arguments: Fr. Schmemann said so-and-so. In some parts elsewhere you can cite his name and start an argument.
But I think, actually, that he will in the long run be known more as poet and prophet even than liturgical scholar. Liturgical scholars come along; there are many, many of them, but his perception of our culture and his word to that… I think it’s significant that the first person Alexander Solzhenitsyn asked to see when he was exiled from the Soviet Union was Fr. Alexander Schmemann, and continued… That had been a relationship really by radio, because Fr. Alexander’s sermons were broadcast into Russia. It wasn’t so much that they were reading his writings; they were hearing another witness. Solzhenitsyn—I guess it takes one prophet to know another. It was the first thing, if I understand right, if I remember in the Journals right, that Fr. Alexander was actually in Switzerland when he came, and they met, and was able to take care of pastoral needs there.
What I think is significant about Fr. Alexander’s observations on the Eucharist is that he talks about it in the context of his observations on culture, and those observations I’ve put especially under the heading of what he had to say about the world as secular. He said that secularism is the greatest heresy of the modern world. Secularism is the great heresy of the modern world. He doesn’t mean by that how we organize ourselves politically, but rather the notion that, if you will, to give a definition of secular would be that there is such a thing, such a way of describing the world, that the world has a neutral zone. There is a place for God, and it’s not here. God belongs in your religious zone, in your religious sphere, and it’s personal. By that we don’t mean personal; we mean it’s private, as in “Keep your God out of my whatever-it-may be. Keep him out of it.” There is the public square, where God certainly doesn’t belong, and that sort of thing, again, can get a lot of good arguments and fights going on in our world, but the notion that there is such a thing as secular, that there is such a thing where God does not belong, it is not his sphere, that there is a neutral zone, a neutral ground where you can be, Fr. Alexander says that is a heresy.
Heaven and earth are full of thy glory. It all belongs to God. It all belongs to God. I’m sometimes troubled when I hear people talk about Pentecost as “the birthday of the Church” or “the Church.” You’ll see bumper stickers. You’ll get bumper stickers for Orthodoxy, like: “Orthodoxy, since 33 AD.” No, no, no. The Church began when God said, “Let there be light.” It’s one. We’re not a department of creation. The vision of the Church, if you will, as described by St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, when he said that God has purposely gathered together all things in one in Christ Jesus, things in heaven and things on earth, this is what is being gathered together. It was always being gathered together; everything was created for the purpose of glorifying God and of sharing in the life of God. Everything that exists was created for the purpose of communion of God. There’s no secular in that.
So sometimes I think that we buy in to false notions of the Church. We buy into false notions of creation, or whatever, when we talk about ourselves as anything less than everything. It limits our vision, and we, again, start thinking of the Liturgy as something we do. Between the hours of dot and dot, we have Liturgy. It’s all Liturgy, everything. The word Liturgy itself means, more or less, the work of the people, this work of offering up to God. We were created to be kings and priests to God. Our task is to make… This essential task is to make offering, to offer the world to God. This is our Eucharistic existence.
The first sin could be defined as the first act of secularism. Eve, in the garden of Eden, goes shopping. She does; she goes shopping. She had a little basket. She’s going down to High Street, and she’s going to go down through the garden, and says, “Oooh!” We see this tree here. It says she saw it and saw that it was good for food; it was a delight to the eyes; and it was able to make one wise. “Hmm! Well that just sounds great. My family will enjoy that. Adam, this is something new. We haven’t eaten it before. It’s good for food; it’s tasty. It’s really nice to look at; I could make a great centerpiece on the table, wrap a snake around it… And it’s able to make you wise. My husband could use a lot more wise.”
But if you think about that, the description. God is not there at any point. There’s no reference to God. “It is good for food.” But how can it be good for food? It’s the only thing in that garden that you could eat that had not been given to you by God. It was the only thing in the garden you couldn’t give thanks for. You can’t give thanks for what’s not been given to you. You couldn’t take that food and say, “Thank you, God.” It was the one non-Eucharistic food in the garden. Remember that “Eucharist” means “to give thanks”; it’s the meal of thanks to God. You cannot make Eucharist out of that tree. It’s the only thing you eat as an end in itself. It’s good for food, it’s a delight to the eyes, it’s able to make me wise, and it is death.
The Eucharist is the way of life. “Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood” or “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood,” Christ says, “you have no life in you.” Our life with God is communion, and unless we eat in communion with God every meal… And we’ll see that means more than just saying, “Christ God, bless the food and drink of thy servants, for holy art thou unto the ages of ages. Amen”—there’s a greater fullness than that, to eat a meal in communion with God, though it’s good to start with blessing the meal.
Nonetheless, secularism is not a belief that there is no God; that’s just atheism. Secularism’s not just a belief that there is no God, but the belief that the God who is isn’t everywhere or doesn’t belong everywhere, that there are spheres… There’s a long history in our culture of secularism. You could point back to certain decisions made in the Reformation of sort of diminishing the role of feast days and things this way in the Church. I recall reading a book about the English Reformation, stripping the altars, that he described.
Before the Protestant Reformation in England, [there were] something like about 50 feast days that were actually holidays. You got off work. That’s almost like living in France! That’s seven weeks! I think that’s the legal holiday in France, is seven weeks a year. So suddenly all these people get 50 days back at work, because all those feast days are stripped off the calendar, and for years you’ve had Protestants talking about their work ethic and lambasting Northern Europeans attacking the Southern Europeans because you don’t work, you’re not as productive as we are. Yeah, you knock out seven weeks a year vacation, and your productivity’s going to go up! And you turn your nation into slaves. Your turn your nation into slaves, creating an idea that work is for work’s sake. Think about that. Work is for work’s sake.
I’ve been some recently about the mystique—it’s, again, part of the secular idea, and a false idea—that young people, college students, others, will wrestle with the whole notion of vocation. I don’t mean this priestly vocation or whatever, but kind of the question of “What do I want to be when I grow up?” which is increasingly difficult in an economy that doesn’t have a job for you. What I want to be when I grow up? Employed, parents say. Really. Most would settle for that right now.
In a way, we invented an economy, or an economy has evolved in our culture, in which you will not now go to work for a company and work for them the rest of your life, retire, and draw pension. That doesn’t happen. Not in America. You’ll work for five years, and you’ll move along, and in fact if the company decides that they’re going to do something, they may build the plant down in Tennessee, and we’ll be glad to see them down there and take your Pennsylvania jobs away, and then you’ll be in a line and we’ll get jobs. Then they say, “If you want jobs, you have to be willing to relocate.” Really!? I’m supposed to sell a house in Tennessee and relocate and try to buy a house in California? That doesn’t work. Average price…
But not only do we do that and have these things, [the idea that] the economy belongs to you, but we [also] have ideas that churches now underwrite that by saying, “What is God’s will for my life?” God didn’t invent this consumer culture. The injustices of our system are of our invention, not his. In a way, we’ve increased the anxiety of the individual. Not only is this system corrupt and ignores the needs of human beings, we have a system that expects people to move on average once every five years, which will destroy the extended family, which destroys the stability that children need for growing up. We’ve built a culture that is designed to destroy the extended family. We didn’t mean to, but we have.
But then people will sit around feeling—I live in deep Evangelical territory—they’ll sit around feeling guilty and anxious, wondering what God’s will is for their life in the context of an unjust system. God’s will for our life, well, I tell some young people, “His will for your life is to work,” but they’ll think, “What about being fulfilled?” Throughout most of human history, people worked. They didn’t ask fulfillment. My grandfather was an auto mechanic. My father was an auto mechanic. My uncle was an auto mechanic. Why? It’s what you did. It’s what was available. My two brothers work with their hands and do mechanical kinds of things. My mother decided I should be a scholar. [Laughs] Ah, well. I feel so good when I fix something, I really do. That’s when I feel like I have fulfilled and I’m worth something, because it was broken and I fixed it. That’s what men do in the world I came from.
But a lot of churches sort of adapt themselves theologically to fit whatever the culture’s doing, and will reinvent themselves. There’s a constant reinvention that goes on in consumer Christianity. Churches reimagine themselves, reimagine worship, reimagine the Christian task and the Christian reason for being, and it’s strange how well it fits the culture they’re in. Oftentimes, we as Orthodox discover that by comparison we don’t do as well. Well, that’s right. But you’re doing something different. We are not creating a consumer Church, and our lives together do not need to be about trying to figure out how to make ourselves more consumable by Americans. Americans need to be consumed by the Church. Our lives need to be taken up into the one life, changed, and transformed.
There’s a little book I’ve seen up in the bookstore. I’ve seen an ad for it recently. I think it says something like, “Help! I’m Bored in Church.” Of course we are! We’re Orthodox! The worship service is designed for human beings, to offer praise to God, but we’re not living like human beings in our culture. We talked Sunday: God became man so that man could become God. Well, our biggest task right now is, first, to help them become human beings so that then they can participate in theosis. We were not created to shop. We were not created to be entertained. But we’ve learned how to do that, and we’re entertaining ourselves to death. Thank God that Orthodoxy, one of the last places within the Christian world, says, “No. No, your life belongs to God, and I need to teach you how to live. And we remember how to live.”
One of my favorite examples about the nature of Tradition and things that are learned and taught to us has to do with mothers nursing babies. I was born in 1953. In 1953, women in America were told nursing was a bad idea, that you can’t tell how much the baby’s getting. They were told that. You don’t know what’s in it. Basically, women were told, “This is primitive. You’re not in an African village or something. Here’s formula. This is much better. Doctors all agree that’s what you do.” So my momma didn’t nurse me, my brothers, or any of that sort of thing. The years of therapy this has required is… oh, it’s incredible. Think about it. We belong to a class of animals called mammals. What about that word did doctors in the 1950s not understand? Mammals. Look it up.
In 1980, our first child was born. My wife, on the vanguard of life in the 1980s, wanted to nurse our first child. We were in a progressive area in Evanston, Illinois, when I was at seminary, and they had heard of it. It was being restored. We came south… Our first daughter was born, and she had some difficulties nursing; it’s a typical thing with a child, but they didn’t have lactation specialists that we have now on OB staffs. They do; they have that now: lactation specialists. Goodness gracious. They should have, like, mammalian consultant. But they didn’t have that then, so we had difficulties. My mother was very helpful. “Why do you want to do that? How do you know how much she’s going to get? I told you this was not a good idea.” Her mother was no more helpful about that either. “See, this is why we don’t do that,” and stuff like that.
Beth persisted, and we discovered this wonderful organization of women called La Leche League, that were women who learned from women the way women have always learned throughout all of these many, many eons of mammalian history, that mammalian fish taught mammalian platypus ducks or something. We’ve handed down through all of this history of our existence, and they remembered how to do that. The problems we were having with our first daughter, half-a-dozen women in any African village could have solved, but not college-educated American women, because they didn’t do that.
It all got worked out. I remember two ladies came to our house and spent eight hours with my wife and daughter when my daughter was about a week old, and by the end of the day everything was fixed. I thought, “That’s amazing!” First, I didn’t think you could teach a week-old baby to do anything. I thought, “How about going ahead with the potty training while you’re at it?” We have real issues. That’s later.
It only takes a single generation to break tradition. Tradition is that which is handed down, and suddenly a generation of women and doctors got a “bright idea” to interrupt being mammals. We actually forgot in America, actually forgot how to nurse a baby! You just think about it. Is that just crazy or what? I mean, how did anybody ever convince us of that? But we bought into it. Believe me, we bought into it, and they looked funny at the women who didn’t. Women who didn’t… probably lacked some teeth, you know. Oh, I know. I live in Tennessee.
I get that, these days. I hear controversies sometimes: Should women nurse in church? I’m thinking, “There’s something about babies you don’t understand?” I mean, I think it’s fine to nurse in church; the baby’s hungry. But I’ve probably left off preaching and gone to meddling now, as we say.
But these disruptions of life and constant reinventing things, and part of the secular world as the neutral zone—we don’t think about: How did God create me to live? What does it mean to be a human being created in the image and likeness of God? How do we rightly live in peace with one another? Instead of thinking these things, we think there’s a neutral zone that, in fact, we’re responsible for, and we have to actually design this thing. We reinvent things.
I spent three years of my ministry, when I became Orthodox, and I had to make a living as something other than a parish priest, because we were just a tiny start-up OCA mission, I got a job working as a hospice chaplain for the local hospital system, out in the backs of Appalachia in East Tennessee, out in the mountains. I sure didn’t wear a cassock. I didn’t even wear a tie. A tie would mean you’re from the government, and that’s not looked on very nicely back in the hollers, because you might be a revenuer, or with the DEA. We have other cash crops in Tennessee, too.
Going out there in the midst of people who were, if you will, kind of removed from a lot of cultural fads, things moved along very naturally. One of the things that was fascinating to me, though, was I was in an area of the world that was very Protestant, that was very Free Church Protestant, Baptist, Pentecostal. In fact, generally there weren’t even Southern Baptists; that was a city church for most of them. This was rural East Tennessee in which [were] primitive Baptists, missionary Baptists, and some other just unaffiliated Baptists, Bible Church or whatever.
What was fascinating to me was my job as a hospice chaplain who worked with people who died; I also worked with people who grieved. Something that got disrupted at the time of the Reformation was grief. I used to always explain Baptist theology of death, or as rural Evangelical stuff, was: As a tree falls, so it lies. Whatever state… Was he saved? I don’t know. Was Brother So-and-so saved? Meaning, had he ever in his life prayed the Sinner’s Prayer? They tended to think you also needed to live it, too, but: had you been saved? I sometimes wound up speaking at funerals, because in the course of my work as a chaplain and talking with someone, talking with the family later, I would relate that I had prayed with him. They’d say, “Did he accept Jesus?” I said, “Yeah.” I was the only one who could stand up and say that he’d accepted Jesus, so that was the only way the family could have any sense that, okay, he’s saved and he’s going to heaven and that “my daddy’s not burning in hell.” It was kind of tough.
I remembered that I was contacted by a funeral home out in one of the small towns. They wanted to organize a grief support group. I understood that, and we did a grief support group. I began to notice that some of the natural things of grief… I read all the book of grieving. This is like women reading about nursing. Grief is human, but we do cultural disruptions, and we forget natural things like grieving. There’s a very natural thing about 40 days. It’s about six weeks, right? Six times seven is 42. Grief manuals that you’ll read will talk about a change that grief undergoes at about six weeks. I never had anybody come to a grief support group earlier than six weeks, but right around six weeks they started showing up. So I did mailings and things geared to that.
You can look at the mystery and the mystical meaning of the 40 days that we do, and go back to [the fact] that the Egyptians prayed 40 days and how they grieved and mourned for Joseph in Egypt 40 days, and these sort of patterns that way. We’re also wired like that. The faith and the teaching of Scripture is also quite human. We’re structured as is revealed in the Scriptures. The pattern of praying your way through the 40 days, the panikhida, the annual things. We would go… They had grief support. They would do this all over the country. We had grief support camps for children who had lost a loved one. One of the things done in the grief support camps was they would write—God bless these little children: they weren’t Orthodox, they weren’t Catholic, they were just whatever—they would write a letter to Daddy who had died or to Momma who had died. Some years in the camps, they would have them tie the letters to a balloon and release it. I’m thinking, psychologically, emotionally, it’s almost like a prayer—“Hope Dad gets that balloon”—or toss that in a fire.
I remember one of our nurses, a grandmother, had a grandson, and her husband had died, and she talked to me. She said, “You know, my grandson, he stays up. He wakes up in the middle of the night; he keeps waking up in the middle of the night, crying for his grandfather. Is there anything that you would suggest that I can do?” I knew she was Baptist, but I said to her, “If I told you that you all should pray for your husband, would you be okay? Would you be comfortable with that?” That’s the chaplain question, right? We don’t try to violate somebody else’s… And she said yes, she would. Okay, good. I told her: I got them to get candles, a little thing of sand, and gave her some prayers they could pray. And I said, “At the end of the day, when you do your prayers with your grandson, include a prayer for him and light a candle for him. Let the candle burn as he goes off to bed.” She comes back the next day. She said, “He slept through the night!” And it went on. It was the right thing to do. It’s a psychologically healthy thing to do. Surprise, surprise: that the commandments of God and the traditions we have in the Church actually work psychologically as well. It’s balance. Yes?
Q1: If I may… Do you think the need for the support groups are because, as a society, we deny people their feelings? We’ve got Prozac and all of these things that deny that, sure, somebody died or whatever, but now be happy.
Fr. Stephen: When you disrupt the most fundamental structures of a society so that the extended family has disappeared… I might keep my extended family intact, but there aren’t any others around, so the pattern is disrupted. When I was a little boy in the 1950s, both my parents’ families and all their brothers… Momma was one of 12, Daddy was one of five. Everybody lived in the county. I had cousins just out my ears. I thought I was kin to everybody. We had grief events, and we held together. We got through it, but you break all of that down, and before long you’ve got to do Prozac… And if you need it, you take it. None of us need… But we’re creating strange situations.
Q1: Because we’re so isolated.
Fr. Stephen: Because we’re isolated, and we’re also, if you will, we’re quite unnatural. The way we live is very unnatural, and I’m not talking about getting back to nature, anything that way, but you have to recognize the notion of secular culture that… We have divorced ourselves from the tradition of human life… This was a crisis in the Soviet Union. What happens when the Soviet Union falls? The only institution that pre-dated the revolution in Russia is the Church. The only institution. Of course, American missionaries were glad to send in… “We’ll go start churches.” I had a Russian friend that said, “Did we suffer 70 years for WalMart?”
Probably the greatest indictment of American culture was that at the end of the Cold War, we had nothing to offer. We were culturally bankrupt. The best that we could say was a consumer republic, which is what we are. We’re not a democracy; we’re a consumer republic: “You need one, too.” But spiritual values? No. Now Russia’s the bad guy because they’re trying to talk about spiritual values, and that doesn’t agree with Western Europe. Putin’s treated as a troglodyte or something, because he’s not gotten on board with the EU, as if he’s saying anything we weren’t saying 10 years ago. It was public policy until the Supreme Court decision. It’s just how these things wind up being structured. And it is a part of our secularism.
This begins to infect how we live. If secularism is a heresy, then we’re called to repent from it. If it’s a heresy, we’re called to repent from it, to turn away from the way of life that it offers, and instead, turn to the fullness and the oneness of the Christian life. Every moment in our life is and should be open to communion with God. Communion with God is the heart of salvation, is the heart even of our existence, as we’ll see.
I hammer on this. I’m a mission priest. My church has parish status, but I’m a mission priest. Every priest in America should be a mission priest. Maybe every priest across the world should be, and trying to teach the faith and do a catechumenate. I think of myself as being still in my catechumenate. I’ve only been Orthodox since 1998. I still have so much to learn, hopefully a little more before I’m gone. But I stress and say that everything—the more I work with this, the less I think I’m oversimplifying—that everything in the Church, the whole of the Orthodox faith, can be described as union with God. It’s union with God. It’s a right way even to talk about salvation and everything.
All of the sacraments of the Church are about union with God. In holy baptism, the priest asked the person being baptized or asked the sponsors, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” I sometimes will even stop right there in the baptism service, especially… It’s actually a great teaching moment. I’ll have visitors or other people standing around. Certainly, whatever preparation I’ve done, I still want to be sure that parents and godparents understand what they’re saying when they say, “I do unite myself to Christ.”
We ask them three times, and not just [for] formality’s sake. There’s sort of an ascertaining that you really mean it. “Do you unite yourself to Christ? Do you make now this offering of yourself?” “I unite myself to Christ.” For we say that as many as are baptized are baptized into his death, raised in the likeness of his Resurrection; we are saved by union. We are saved by union with Christ, that God became man, that man could become god. God has united himself with us that we might be united to him. That is our salvation.
This is one of the reasons that some of these explanations that came up, that are interesting but just fall short of what a Christian needs to understand when we start talking about Christ’s death for our sins as being simply a payment for a penalty that was owed or whatever that way. You can talk about that without baptism. It’s a weakness of that kind of so-called penal substitution or atonement, because you can talk about it without reference to the sacraments.
There is in some places a compartmentalization of theology, so that I have over here soteriology, that is, the doctrine to salvation; I have the sacraments; I have ethics; etc., etc., morals, all these little departments of theology. That’s the way I was taught theology when I was in seminary: you’ve kind of got this area, this area, this area, this area. It’s actually all one thing. It’s just that. It is one. Church is one; God is one. We’re invited into the one existence, and that invitation is itself union. So we are united with Christ in baptism, and united into his death, raised in the likeness of his Resurrection; his life becomes my life. This is not just getting my religious needs met.
That kind of thinking… And we do think like that: this is my religious needs. Phone rings, answer the phone: “Father, would you do our baby?” Do what? “Would you do our baby?” I don’t get that much in Orthodoxy. I used to get that a lot as an Anglican: “We need to get the baby done.” Ah, yes. Bring him in. We’re going to change the oil while we’re at it. Look under the hood. This baby needs a new carburetor. Did I mention my dad was a mechanic? We compartmentalize these things. Baptism: the union begins. The Eucharist: the great sacrament of union. “Communion,” we call it, koinonia in Greek; “cononia” for those of you who use the old English pronunciation, koinonia.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons had a document called “On the Apostolic Teaching,” that was lost for many centuries, and was rediscovered earlier, but only in an Armenian translation. It was written in Greek, but it only existed in an Armenian translation. I found it fascinating that as St. Irenaeus was describing the whole purpose of our Christian life, the translation I’m reading—now it’s English rendering Armenian—called it a “communion of union.” No, a “community of union.” A community of union: it’s a description of the Christian life, a community of union. I was so puzzled by that. I thought, “That’s really interesting.” So I called up Fr. John Behr at St. Vladimir’s, who is the world’s great authority on the writings of St. Irenaeus, and I asked him about this. He said, “Yeah, it’s an Armenian thing.” I said, “That’s a really incredible phrase. What is it saying?” And he guesses as to what St. Irenaeus actually said in the Greek. He said, “Oh, they’re just translating koinonia.” I said, “As community of unions?” They were trying to find a way in Armenian to give the full meaning and impact of koinonia, and they felt that simply saying “community” or simply saying “union” wasn’t enough, so they had to say “a community of union.” It’s like: Uuuunnnionnn, okay? That’s my English translation there, as it were.
We’re in this union with Christ. We talk about in the Eucharist, the one love, the one bread, one Lord, one faith, one baptism. One is holy, one is the Lord Jesus Christ, the glory of God the Father. This language of “one” is part of the great language of the Eucharist. That we might be made one with him, that he might dwell in us and we in him. This is our life. It is union. There’s a way in which coming to the cup is in fact saying, “I do unite myself to Christ. I do unite myself to Christ.” It’s all there. It’s everything. This is God, giving himself to us. God giving himself to us: it is everything. Koinonia.
The other sacraments that we describe: confession, coming together, coming face to face with God. “Behold this icon before us. I’m only a witness bearing testimony to all things which you say.” Coming face to face with Christ, and in a way, as I see him face to face, I see what I’ve done to harm that union, either by breaking my union with others, breaking my union with God, and it is restored. The Fathers called confession “a second baptism.” Everything we say about baptism can be applied to confession. It is, they call it, the second baptism, or, as they call it, the baptism of tears, as we repent. “I do unite myself to Christ.”
And on: the sacrament of matrimony. Oh, boy. This has been quite a controversial thing lately in our culture. I recently wrote an article on matrimony entitled, “No Wedding Vows,” because there aren’t any wedding vows in an Orthodox wedding. I’ve always said that it’s because we don’t want the young couple to perjure themselves on their wedding day. [Laughs] There’s a lot of truth in that, isn’t there? But that’s not why we don’t have wedding vows.
The Eastern tradition, it never saw that. The West, however, did develop [them], and though the language of union is quite strong in Western marriage ceremonies, the union of husband and wife is intended for their… It’s part of the language of the Western… But it also has this place of vows. It’s quite popular out there. Young couples, now you sweat bullets trying to come up with vows. You not only had to figure out how to propose to her, now you have to agree to come up with cute wedding vows. Oh, boy. Not only perjure themselves on their wedding day, they just become bad poets on their wedding day. Someday, someone might have recorded this event, and when you’ve been married 40 years, you’ll look back and just be embarrassed. It’s like getting a tattoo on your wedding day; someday you’ll regret that.
But the language of the Church with marriage is the language of union. The fulfillment of the union of husband and wife, the most literal and complete fulfillment of that, is children. My children are bone of my bone, bone of my wife’s bones, flesh of my flesh, flesh of my wife’s flesh. This is my union, running around. Mary-union, Kathryn-union, James-union, Clare-union. These are my unions. This is what it looks like. Now, the Church extends that—and we think the Church teaches that it is normative for marriages to have children—we extend that, because not all marriages in the Church are blessed with children, but we still extend that union, and you go to an Orthodox wedding service, but you understand just how much the thing is about children. It sounds like a fertility ritual. We pray and pray and pray that they might have children like olive shoots round about the table, that you may see your children’s children.
On and on it goes, that you might have enough grain and wine to feed them, and a few other people as well, and have some more children. Let’s pray again. When you’re blessing: May you multiply like Rachel. I’m thinking, “She only had two… You mean multiply like Leah; she’s the one who had ten.” On and on it goes. We pray these prayers. It’s almost embarrassing in our modern culture. This is quite earthy. Orthodox wedding ceremonies, you know. You get a slightly sheepish grin, too. We all know what the priest is praying about. If you want to do something really odd is do a marriage for an older couple, and that just feels odd. May you see your children’s children—well, they’re back there in the back; they’re watching this. We extend that, but it’s about union.
In the contract marriage, as it’s evolved in certain places in the West and certainly in America, viewing marriage as contract, it’s really hard, but if you’re thinking and if you’ve agreed to talk about marriage as contract to explain to somebody how any two people who want to have a contract can’t have a contract. It’s their business. And contracts, by nature, you can make any contract you want to, as long as the other person agreed and you get a notary. You’ve got a contract. So why can’t you do that?
The Orthodox Church says, well, you can have contracts all you want to, but marriage is not a contract. Marriage is a union. And you might, metaphorically, want to refer to some other kind of a relationship as union, but it’s not. You can sort of extend the metaphor, but it’s there that things fall short. There is where you’ve entered into fantasy and delusion. There’s much more to be said on that as a culture wrestles with all of the cultural issues that are going on, but the Church isn’t trying to solve the problems of the culture. The Church is calling us to this, to the one life, to the one union, to a true union of husband and wife.
I think sometimes it’s not just that… The Church has oftentimes fallen down even in trying to teach the fullness of what marriage is, and in the West the teaching of contract and that having crept in paved the way for a cultural misunderstanding, so I’m not surprised that we’re wrestling with the kind of conundrums that we wrestle with today. But we as Orthodox aren’t immune from that. We’ve oftentimes not listened to what we were praying, and lived our lives as husband and wife as though there were a contract between us, instead of understanding you, my wife, are my life.
This union is for my salvation. This union is for my salvation; my wife is one of God’s gifts, a sacrament of the mystery, that I might know him, that I might be united with him. On a day-to-day basis, the most fundamental place that I work out my salvation as a married man is in my marriage. That is the most fundamental place. That’s the one face I see all the time. That is the one place I’m mostly likely to hurt someone. That’s the one place I’m mostly likely to need to be forgiven and to forgive. And it is also a foundation of a culture as well. The weakness of families and the weakness of marriage is the weakness of a culture.
It’s interesting. The Soviet Union, former, Russia today discovered through the destruction of these things of 70 years, they weren’t having enough children to replace themselves. If you do the math, that’s a problem. Declining population… Of course, there’s people, the Malthusian population nut-people, out there, [saying] that we’re overpopulated, yadda-yadda-yadda. We’re actually on the cusp of a very, very different crisis in the world, and it’s just the opposite. It’s happening in a lot of… If there wasn’t immigration into Western Europe, Western Europe would be in great trouble, too. They will be soon, in one way or another. But in Russia, as policy’s been changing, they decided to turn it around. They now have a state holiday for making babies. What a country! [Laughs] I tell you. I don’t know what they call it, but… Isn’t it great? There’s a state holiday. Take a day off work, everybody. I just think that’s interesting.
In the Republic of Georgia, they were having the same problem, and Patriarch Ilia addressed the problem in his country by saying: any couple that has a third child, I will personally be its godparent at the baptism. They now have public baptisms in Tblisi, Georgia; hundreds of children with Ilia as the godfather for all of them. He’s becoming the father of his country in a new way, and it’s actually turned the tide. The numbers have shifted back. What an amazing role! It’s the Church proclaiming, in a really interesting way, and in a culture that was willing to hear it: back to family, back to these normal, normal human values. What did you replace the family with? Daycare? It doesn’t work. It’s like replacing breasts with bottled milk. Why would you do that? What is it about mama that you don’t know?
But we do this, and we invent it, and we’ve created situations where we hardly have any choice, and the Church keeps calling us back to this union. Marriage as union. Eucharist as union. Baptism as union. Penance as union. Ordination as union. All of these things as union, because this is, in fact, the nature of our salvation. We were created in communion with God. We broke communion with God. God said to Adam and Eve, “In the day you eat of it, you will surely die.” St. Athanasius, writing in the fourth century, said in his writing On the Incarnation, noted that God did not say to Adam and Eve, “In the day you eat of it, I will kill you.” That’s how we hear it in certain versions of modern Christian theology, that in the day you eat of it, I will punish you with death for doing this.
He says, “In the day you eat of it, you will die.” St. Athanasius notes the fact that human beings were created out of nothing: nada, nihil, nothing, nichego. Just nothing. Not emptyness. Emptyness is still something. Nothing is nothing. We’re created out of nothing. And he says: this is our nature. God sustains us in existence, but if God is not sustaining us in existence, then, he said, we start reverting back to our nature and moving towards nothing. This he called… This is the nature of sin. Sin is a dissolution of true existence and a movement towards death. Paul will say, “The wages of sin is death.” We fall back into dying. It has moral consequences. You start looking at your life sort of dissolving, falling apart.
I volunteer once a week and work at a drug and alcohol treatment center and do work with patients there, talking about the spirituality of recovery in their lives. When I start talking to them about it, because it’s a Christian place, I have to do a lot of work to get them out of a cultural Christianity that’s full of guilt and law and understandings about things that are not going to get them healthy, are not going to get them well. The first times I start explaining salvation as union with God, or talking about sin not as having broken Aunt Tilly’s rules and God being a cosmic policemen… Half the people I deal with have done jail time, and policemen are just not good figures. Policemen… they’re not good. Policemen are good, but in their lives it’s just the law coming down on your head.
But when we start talking about moving back towards nothingness, they sure know what that means. Been there, done that, watched it. Your body starts dissolving physically, liver begins to fail, systems break down, families dissolve. We go into a kind of existential entropy as it all just sort of falls apart. It’s just the opposite of union. We’re not one; we become… This is almost the existence of modern man, as they keep trying to say, “I need to get it together.” We keep trying to find ways to get it together.
A lot of the guys will say things like, “I kept thinking that if I had the right woman, that that’s what it needed.” There’s not a right woman if you’re using and drinking. There will not be one. There just will be one, another one that you can hurt. Won’t work. The right job, a new vocation… One compartment after another, after another, after another, and they only need one thing. They need God. One of the things they say in AA is, “The only thing you need to know about God is you’re not him.” It’s a great place to start, understanding, “I’m not God. I need God. Only a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity.” That’s a beginning, and it’s a profound beginning, to realize that you cannot do this yourself. It’s profoundly Orthodox, to say, “I cannot do this myself. I need God.”
I was discussing with other pastors in the area, and we start talking about salvation by grace. I don’t know what they mean exactly when they say, “You were saved by grace,” because I think in an Orthodox understanding, grace is God. It’s not some “stuff” of God. It is God. It’s the divine energies. Grace is God. So when they say, “Do you say by salvation by grace?” I think: Grace is salvation. “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” Yes! What does that look like? He is in me. His life becomes my life. What is that? His grace. I get grace on a spoon. We call it Communion. God is so wise that…
This is another great, great problem. I’ve written about this in the book I did, Christianity in a One-Storey Universe: Everywhere Present, that one of the problems of secularism is its tendency to move everything upstairs, and particularly everything upstairs in our head, so that God is an idea, my life is an idea; it’s all upstairs. It’s designed in a way to create atheism, because the more it just becomes an idea… [Knocking] This is real. My ideas… They kind of change. They float, they whatever, they’re like that. We say, “Help. My mind is wandering in the Liturgy.” I think, “Yes, what do you think minds are supposed to do? Why are you so upset about your mind wandering?” Because we think, “I am my mind.” You have a mind. It’s sometimes useful. Sometimes it’s very unuseful.
I’ve kind of worked on this some. I go into the altar… Maybe if I was a holy saint or something already that I could keep my mind and my heart and it would be there, but a lot of times I just walk into the altar, and my mind’s going like that, and somebody asked about so-and-so before the service and whatever, and I’m thinking about the sermon, and it’s just kind of out there. I used to just despair, would go in and just think, “Augh!” To make matters worse, I have ADD, so this is actually the natural state of my brain; it’s like this squirrel. It’s just terrible, and I’ve kind of come to the place in which I’m sort of like, “Hello, God. It’s me! [white noise]”
It’s like there’s a little meme on Facebook: There’s a person, and he has a little talking bubble, and it’s just got [white noise] squiggles all in the bubble. I’m just: This is so it. I know that person! This is me. But on the other hand, God knows that! And he doesn’t mistake [white noise] for my ego. He doesn’t think that’s me. It’s just very noisy. And I’m learning some things about how to get the noise quiet, but I also understand: you know what, I’m standing here. I am here. My mind’s wandering; it’s going places. Don’t get so upset. Just relax. Pay attention, that’s a help. Sometimes it gets so noisy up there, and I’m thinking, “Why is everybody looking at me? Oh, yeah, there’s a litany!” [Laughter]
I was first ordained deacon as an Episcopalian and was serving at morning prayer. It was very, very low church at “Mr. Timothy’s,” as we called it, not “St. Timothy’s”: “Mr. Timothy’s.” I was serving as the deacon, and the choir was singing the “Te Deum” at morning prayer. I started to remember how St. Augustine and St. Ambrose were supposed to have written the “Te Deum” off the cuff as they were locked in a church and the emperor was coming in and all this sort of stuff and they just sort of improvised and, impromptu, sang this thing. I was marveling over that, and I began to notice that it stopped, and the service is sort of… stopped. I’m thinking to myself, “Who has forgotten to do something?... These low-churchmen, they don’t know what they’re doing… I was trained to high-churchmen… I’m a lot better at liturgy than this priest…” Then I realized: “Oh, it’s me.” [Laughs] Oh, what a great beginning.
These kind of things still happen to me sometimes. I was invited; I’m going to serve tomorrow morning, but I’m kind of frightened because I think I don’t know Antiochian practice. I’ve watched it; I’ve seen it done. But I like for most of my mistakes to be Russian.
Our life is meant to be communions. Metropolitan John (Zizioulas), another great name, like Fr. Alexander Schmemann, he is more or less the house theologian for the patriarch of Constantinople. Though Metropolitan John had taught primarily at British universities, I think he’s been in Greece for a while. But a lot of his works are wonderfully available. His book, Being as Communion, really raises the bar as we think about the nature of union with God and communion with God.
I first started reading him when I was in graduate school at Duke University and I was studying there. I was doing a semester and concentrating on Zizioulas’ work; I had to read everything he had ever written, literally. I was having to write a paper, 20 pages or whatever, doctoral-level stuff. Reading his book: it’ll make your hair hurt. It’s… oh! Very, very all about being and communion and the nature of existence and it gets very philosophical. He’s sort of teasing out some very careful points from St. Basil the Great, whom you know—anything St. John Chrysostom could say in one word, St. Basil could say in five. So he’s going at the really easy, simple Fathers, teasing things out of St. Basil, then he’s running it through Heidegger—oh, boy. We’re kind of going out there.
I was having to read every paragraph four or five times, and I was thinking, “There’s no way I’m going to finish this book. I won’t live long enough.” I’m just kind of going through this book, reading it and thinking, reading and thinking, and sweating bullets… Walking across campus one day, in the midst of all this, the coin dropped. It made sense. I got the central point he was talking about, and was quiet—which is hard to believe, and I’m sure I’m exaggerating, but it seemed that way—for about three days.
I told my wife; I said, “I see something that is going to change… I have to rethink everything if this is right. I have to rethink everything.” It’s one of the things that actually, along a number of other dominoes that fell in my life, that just made it necessary to be Orthodox, not that this was a place a to flee to or anything else, but I couldn’t live not being Orthodox. It just was necessary for the fullness of life.
Metropolitan John says that—I’m going to oversimplify and do things with this so that I won’t make your hair hurt, hopefully—but he says… I’ll use this talking about Trinity: Christ reveals God, reveals him as Father. Think about that word, that name. Reveals him as Father. Well, it kind of begs the question, doesn’t it: Whose Father? You can’t just be “Father.” It asks a “who”? Father of...? It’s a relational word. Of the Son, the only-begotten Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God. Who was the Son naming himself as Son, again, begs the question: Son of... the Father, eternally begotten of the Father, God making himself Father, Son, and—we don’t hear it as strongly in English—in Greek: Spirit, Pnevma, Breath, Ruach in Hebrew. Breath. Well, somebody’s got to breathe it. You don’t just sort of have a “breath goes by.” A breath goes by, I want to find out where that came from. Breath, Father, Son, Spirit, Christ… When he reveals God to us, reveals him as person and the nature of person is this existence that is relational.
Metropolitan John, following St. Basil the Great—this is where it gets philosophical; hang on, we’ll get there—is to say that we start there and that God constitutes his being, his very existence and an eternal act in that the Father—this is outside time, so we’re not talking about time-things—but that the Father constitutes himself as Father in that the Son is begotten of him and in that the Spirit proceeds from him, and as such he is Father. It’s not that God is… Sometimes we have these terrible, terrible illustrations about Trinity that you get in Sunday school or things that way. St. Augustine inadvertently teaches this way about Trinity: that you’ve got the one God and you paste and try to come up with illustrations of how God is. He uses the one God and then you have it as intellect, emotion, will, these sorts of kind of various ways of doing that. It’s not nearly as sophisticated on the level of St. Basil, who actually goes at the very level of the nature of being itself.
The thing that was so shocking to me, and it may not sound like a big deal to you, was that person was prior to being. I just… changed my life. This is how I was going at the time, to realize that that actually… This is how we exist. I exist because I’m a person. It’s not that I have an existence and then act like a person. I only have real existence, I only have real existence because I’m in relation to you, because I love you. I exist because I care for you, because you name me, because we see each other, face to face; because we have communion with one another, we exist.
So this invitation into the one life of God is an invitation to exist, to truly exist. All of creation is invited, gathered together in one, all things in Christ Jesus, things in heaven, things on the earth, things under the earth. God has purposed to gather together in one all things in Christ Jesus. This is an invitation to true existence.
We talk about becoming fully human, to have real existence, and the nature, if you will, of the secular world is to stretch existence to its thinnest point. We exist to be in our modern secular world; in the American secular world, we exist to consume. The movie The Matrix that came out a few years ago, you have people kind of living as batteries… It was an interesting metaphor, but it was just so true. “Aah! I’m just a battery! I’m plugged in. They’re feeding me stuff.” You’re just consuming, and it’s… why do you exist? Why do you exist? For what reason? I don’t mean to kind of push it like college freshmen wandering around, scratching their heads, but I mean: why do you exist? for what?
What a wonderful thing today, standing out by the grave of St. Raphael. What a great testimony to the reality of true existence, as we stood and sang around a grave. In our culture, he’s beyond consuming. We took time out on a cold day to stand out by the grave of St. Raphael and sing hymns to him. The relation that I have with Raphael, with Basil, and on they go, this great cloud of witnesses, with the Mother of God, this wonderful, wonderful relationship: that’s the reality of my being! Christ said, “You are dead and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” You want to know who you are? Your life is hidden with Christ in God.
So what we’re leading people into in the Eucharist and the life of the Church isn’t a religious area of their existence. We’re leading them into existence, helping them to truly be. To truly be, to have a fullness. Christ says, “I’ve come that you might have life, and that more abundantly.” Our culture and some of the megachurch movements and stuff sort of advertize the abundant life, and they mean by that consumer Christianity. “You can have it all.” And we don’t have it all. It’s empty, and it leaves us. We come up empty.
This is all hard enough, even when you’re trying to live towards the fullness. Prayer is a struggle to a man’s dying breath, the Desert Fathers say. Struggling towards union with God, towards our true existence, is a great struggle. We do this in the most powerful engine, cultural engine, the Church has encountered since the Hellenism of Alexander the Great that we’re birthed into. I tell people: in the jungles of wherever, they wear blue jeans. That’s America. Of course, I live in the cultural center of the world, being in the American South. We invented jazz and blues, rock and roll, and wrote all the great American literature… Oh, we did. Yep. We did. Faulkner, and all that sort of stuff.
C1: And Nascar.
Fr. Stephen: What?
C1: Don’t forget Nascar.
Fr. Stephen: And, well, there’s Nascar, too. All of these great things. But, I mean… Again, for what? For what? For the life of God, for the life of the world that’s been given to us: it’s that that we’re invited into.
What’s our official finishing time? 3:20? Okay.
I’ve got a small list I’m just going to go down real quick, maybe not even all of them. Just some things to reflect on.
Recognizing that, though God is everywhere present and filling all things, that we often go through the world as if he were not particularly present at all, and things were just empty things that as we go through the world with a secular mentality, when we see that, we need to make that a matter of confession and repentance. The notion that that’s normal life, that I’m out there just living my life? No, no, no, no. Life out in the secular world is not a normal life; that’s death. That’s death, and we turn away from it.
Another one, related, in a way: Slow down. Slow down. Things that are beautiful… And I think the experience of transcendent beauty is one of the gateways of God; we know that in the icons. When you run across something beautiful, you have an intuition to slow down. You stop and say, “Whoa, whoa, wait a minute. Wait a minute, slow down, slow down! Look at this.” You can’t see God, you can’t have communion with God when you’re doing the speed limit in life. You need to slow down in life, each day.
If someone says something like, “I just don’t have time to pray,” you need to change your life! It’s like saying, “I just don’t have time to eat.” Well, we’re going to have some issues! “I don’t have time to sleep.” Won’t be long! “I don’t have time to pray”: You’re going to die—sooner rather than later.
I’ll relate it again: Live more simply. Give away money. Give away money. I’m not just talking about stewardship or tithing. Good grief. Give away money; what do you think it’s for? Why do you think God gives us money? Someone said the other day the great question on money on Judgment Day is God’s going to say, “What did you do with my money? What did you do with it? It’s not yours.” You got some of it. Use some of it. It’s there to be used, to be given away. The Fathers are quite clear. That’s our life. That is the life of what it is to be a Eucharistic being. We receive, we give. We receive, we give. You quit giving, it just doesn’t work. You stop having life. You stop having life. It just shuts down.
Be willing not to be equal. One of the great myths of the modern world that undergirds our democracy… I’m just glad to go vote and do all that sort of stuff, but we’re not equal! We’re barely even alike! We’re apples and oranges. We’re different. My children ask me, “Do you love me as much as you love…?” No, I don’t. I do not. I’ve got four children. I love Mary with a Mary-love; I love Kathryn with a Kathryn-love; I love Jamey with a Jamey-love. And this is how it goes. And Clare with a Clare-love—don’t want to leave her out. I can’t compare them. I can’t love you like Mary; it’d be weird. God doesn’t love… We’re not equal that way.
The hierarchical life of the Church is just… Our culture: people just walk into my church that are new to Orthodoxy, and they don’t like that iconostas, because it sort of says, “You can’t go there,” you know what? You can’t go there. You know what? You need to get over it. I take teenagers into the church and tell them, “This illustrates that you’re in the inside of you. There’s a place that others may not go. It’s called your heart. It’s intimate. Do not talk to Jerry Springer about it. Do not write on Facebook about it. It is the secret place, and if you violate the secret place, you will not be able to find God there. The altar is to find God.”
We had a warehouse we started a church in. We started up, just had a table and a couple of music stands with icons on them. It was really, really bare. Things like that. One day, we decided, we’re going to build an iconostas. We just got two-by-fours and we built an iconostas across the front and did sheet rock on it with three doors, and the altar was still sitting there by the end of Saturday, in time for vespers, there was the wall, and I thought, “Whoa!” I realized about the iconostas. It had just changed that table that had been a table and turned it into an altar. We finished it, and I thought, “I can’t go in there. I’m not ordained. I can’t touch that yet!”
I realized that the iconostas doesn’t hide the altar; it reveals the altar. It reveals the holy place. If God did not say, “You can’t go there,” we wouldn’t know what the holy is. Everywhere is holy; all days are holy. God is everywhere present and filling all things, but he gives us some holy places so that we’ll learn how to better recognize the holy. We’re not angels; we’re people. We’ve got bodies. I need examples. We got one. Ours looks a lot like the temple in Jerusalem or something, the New Testament temple. Why? Because it was like that in heaven, and that’s the deep inner structure of how we are as human beings. We learn these things. It’s like being a mammal! We’re built this way. You’ve got to have a holy place.
Being willing not to be equal, and with that: Approaching the Church and the sacraments like they’re holy. I had to work for this. We have catechumens, and you kind of forget. You come in and you start. You’ll forget you’re in a holy place. They weren’t used to walking into a holy place and you can’t talk. It’s like: shh! We don’t have enough little Russian grandmothers to slap you. [Slapping sound] You know? Shh! We work at it, but part of it is, we have a hard time not democratizing everywhere. “Everywhere is mine.” No, it’s not, and you can’t actually be a person, you will not be able to love, to be whole, and even to have union, unless you allow there to be boundaries. It will reveal you. It will not make you less of a person; you will be more of a person. That’s one of the mysteries of all of this. It will make you more of a person.
Let’s see; there’s a couple more of these. There’s a nice list in your take-home stuff here. Yes, with other human beings. The Scripture says that each of us, we’re not only created in the image and likeness of God, but it says that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Approach other human beings in fear and wonder. You won’t see them until you do. The boring guy that you’re sitting with and talking to at some time: is he actually boring? Is it just that you haven’t seen him?
I’ve been learning lately from one of my Russian members about the difference between Americans and Russians when it comes to seeing icons, especially American converts. I don’t know about all the rest of Americans. The Russians come into the church and they’ll stand stock-still in front of an icon, take a long time. They hold up the line, you know? Can’t you people cross yourselves faster than that? What’s wrong with you? I had to practice for 70 years to get that little flick of the wrist. St. John Chrysostom called it “swatting flies.” He fussed about it.
I asked one of them. I said, “Dmitri, what are you looking at? What do you see?” I kept wanting to go stand around behind them and look over their shoulders. “What are you seeing? I don’t see that when I stand in front of an icon.” He said, “You Americans, when you see icons, you think about God.” I said, “Well, what do you see?” He said, “I see God.” So I’ve been working at it so when I go in front of the icon, to quit thinking about the icon. I get all theological and I think about, “Yeah, it’s a hypostatic representation.” Instead, he said, “Stop that, stop that. Is God. Is Christ. Icon makes present what it represents. Don’t think that. Think: is Christ. Is the Mother of God. And stand there. Talk to them. Let them talk to you.” You’ll stand a lot longer and quieter. But human beings can be the same way, too. Don’t necessarily stare at them, because you’ll freak them out.
More than anything, give thanks to God for all things. Give thanks to God for all things. My wife’s father was probably the holiest man I’ve ever known, a Baptist deacon. He had certain verses of Scripture that he appropriated and was utterly rigid about applying to his life. One of those was the Scriptures that said, “Give God thanks always for all things.” I knew him for 30-something years, and he never failed to do that. He was giving thanks for the cancer he died with, the day of his death. He lived a life of thanksgiving. He trusted that God had sent these things into his life, whatever was coming along. I could tell you so many stories about him. But I learned, watching him, the truth of it. He was right. I used to argue with him when I was young, that surely he was overstating it. But he wasn’t. For all things.
Archimandrite Zacharias, at the monastery in Essex, [was the] spiritual child of the Elder Sophrony, who was the teacher of St. Silouan’s revelation and ways. St. Silouan had the famous statement, God said to him: Keep your mind in hell and despair not. I remember reading that when I was in college and thinking, “That’s so cool.” I had no idea what it meant, but I thought, “Man, that’s deep.” Keep your mind in hell and despair not. I didn’t get anywhere with it until 30 years later Archimandrite Zacharias said the Elder Sophrony taught that if you will give God thanks always, for all things, then you will fulfill the statement, “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” And I thought, “My father-in-law was a saint.” I was arguing with this profound revelation, to give God thanks for all things.
In fact, if you give God thanks always for all things, you will be a Eucharistic being. Truly, truly. And when you meet anybody, even [who] are not Orthodox, you are giving God thanks. Understand that they are also becoming human, and give God thanks for them. If we do that, then we will, in fact, be living the mystery. Thank you all. It’s good to be here. Appreciate your patience. I think I’m wrapped up.
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