St. Nicholas Orthodox Church

(21) Welcome the Shipwrecked

(It happened one day that one of the brethren in the monastery of Abba Elias was tempted. Cast out of the monastery, he went over the mountain to Abba Anthony. The brother lived hear him for a while and then Anthony sent him back to the monastery from which he had been expelled. When the brothers saw him they cast him out yet again, and he went back to Abba Anthony saying, “My Father, they will not receive me.” Then the old man sent them a message saying, “A boat was shipwrecked at sea and lost its cargo; with great difficulty it reached the shore; but you want to throw into the sea that which has found a safe harbor on the shore.” When the brothers understood that it was Abba Anthony who had sent them this monk, they received him at once.

Each person who enters the doors of a church has survived a shipwreck. Each person is desperate for land, for a place to plant his feet and clear the water from his lungs. Our churches are the “safe harbors on the shore” which Abba Anthony speaks of.

But like the brothers of the nearby monastery, are we tossing these survivors back into the sea?

Do we welcome and receive the shipwrecked? Or do we make them pass through an Ellis Island of red tape and vetting?

We have done much at Saint Nicholas to encourage a culture of welcoming, but in the end, what the world hungers for is relationship.

As Orthodox, we are the keepers of good news. Overseers of holy tradition. Stewards of peace and joy.  In worship, we sing alongside angels. Christ presides on Sundays over a cosmic liturgy that unites the realms of the living and the departed. Through icons, the kingdom annexes the fallen world, flooding the land of darkness with Christ and his warriors of light.

All of this is true. 

But the visitor is not necessarily looking for all this.

The visitor just wants to meet a fellow traveler. Someone also searching for home, and willing to sail the troubled seas to get there. Someone to greet and welcome them. 

Before someone can fall in love with Christ and his Church, she must first meet someone who wants to learn her name and listen to her story.

But do we take the time to listen?

“I am a beggar showing other beggars where to find bread.”

A friend of mine, Father David Rucker, has a wonderful description of the Christian life. He says, “I am a beggar showing other beggars where to find bread.”

When the shipwrecked enter our churches, they are hungry. They are hoping for bread. And they are looking for other beggars to show them the way. It is not enough to put up a sign that says “Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church.” The visitor is hoping to meet Saint Nicholas Orthodox Christians.

Abba Anthony wrote a note instructing others to welcome their shipwrecked brother.  Christ reminds us to welcome every weary soul, today and every day.

-Fr. Theophan

Remember O Lord, travelers by land, by sea and by air.  The sick and the suffering; captives, and their salvation.
— Liturgy of St John

(22) Dancing with God

Abba Anthony said, “I believe that the body possesses a natural movement, to which it is adapted, but which it cannot follow without the consent of the soul; it only signifies in the body a movement without passion. There is another movement, which comes from the nourishment and warming of the body by eating and drinking, and this causes the heat of the blood to stir up the body to work. That is why the apostle said, ‘Do not get drunk with wine for that is debauchery’ (Ephes. 5.18). And in the Gospel the Lord also recommends this to his disciples: ‘Take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness’ (Luke 21.34). But there is yet another movement which afflicts those who fight, and that comes from the wiles and jealousy of the demons. You must understand what these three bodily movements are: one is natural, one comes from too much to eat, the third is caused by the demons.”

Abba Anthony draws a distinction between movements of the body that are natural, and those that are unnatural. And he speaks to us about causes. About where these natural and unnatural movements come from.

There is much wisdom here about causes, but in this brief reflection, it is useful to think instead about results.

When the body moves “naturally” with “consent of the soul”  —  when the body undergoes “movement without passion”  —  what does that look like?

It looks like a young mother nursing a sick baby beyond 4am, who then prays the Our Father before collapsing from exhaustion into bed.

It looks like a supervisor finishing the shift for a new cashier so that she can help an elderly parent endure a panic attack.

It looks like a homeless man who gives his only good sweater to the winter coat drive at the children’s hospital.

It looks like one soldier with PTSD hugging another soldier with PTSD, saying “We can heal from the scars of war.”

It looks like an alcoholic who walks into his first AA meeting, willing to surrender his chaos to anyone who might help.

It looks like a school teacher who sends hungry students home with extra food on Fridays.

It looks like a woman who says “I don’t know, I’m so sorry” to her confused and grieving sister after a miscarriage.

It looks like a retired widow holding the hand of a crying mother whose children scream throughout the Sunday service.

It looks like a parent who cries out to God for hope and direction even as a child sinks further into depression.

It looks like the husband who holds the hand of his fading wife each day, even though she no longer remembers their life together.

It looks like you and me whenever we choose prayer.

Or when we offer forgiveness.

Certainly when we ask for forgiveness.

Or when we choose to help, rather than demand.

When we serve, rather than direct.

The body is created to move as the Holy Spirit leads. The Spirit, we confess, proceeds from the Father.  The Spirit then testifies to the Son. And the Son Himself points back to the Father.  It’s a life-giving circle, enlarged for us. It’s a cosmic dance, the one true “natural movement” in which our bodies and souls find both joy and rest.

-Fr. Theophan

Merciful Lord, teach me to dance.

(23) Maryyrdom, Red & White

He also said, “God does not allow the same warfare and temptations to this generation as he did formerly, for men are weaker now and cannot bear so much.”

Here Abba Anthony is holding up one generation of Christians above another. There is a judgmental quality to this saying that might make one squirm. Perhaps with a twinge of outrage one will protest, “Well that sounds so very smug! What does Anthony know about my spiritual suffering?” Or, one might agree and say, “Well, he’s right you know. I bet Abba Anthony would not complain about lumpy pillows and slow baristas.”

But is this really the complaint of a grumpy old man? Or is Anthony pointing the finger at himself?

Is Anthony saying this about others, or about his own generation?

Anthony lived from 251 to 356. He first entered the wilderness around 270, and with other Christians in the empire he endured the last great period of persecution, one that ended only with Constantine’s Edict of Toleration in 313. In the quarter-century leading up to 313, tens of thousands of Christians were put to death.

Anthony was a monk in the desert during this period. In his 40's when it started, in his 60's when it ended.  And it was directed, of course, at Christians in the cities. The victims were everyday men and women, really. If they denied faith in Jesus Christ, they lived. If they denied faith in the emperor and the imperial gods, they were tortured and executed.

Anthony was not among the martyrs, but witnessed the bloodshed as a pastor and elder to the suffering Christians of Alexandria. Anthony even tried to join his brothers and sisters in the city in 311, embracing martyrdom if it came to that. But Anthony was passed over by the persecution.

Perhaps saying 23 is in the first place a lament. Anthony recognizes that he faces many demons, and that the spiritual warfare that surrounds a desert monk is hard to handle, but also acknowledges that “red martyrdom” is a more fierce experience than “white martyrdom.” White martyrdom is bloodless. In it, the Christian battles the passions. Red martyrdom is bloody and fatal. In it, the Christian chooses death over denial. Anthony, in his unsurpassed humility, laments that despite his experience as a monk, he would not pass the terrible tests faced by his friends, the martyrs of old.

And of course Anthony lived another 43 years after the Edict of Toleration, raising another generation or two of monks. For many of these white martyrs, the age of red martyrdom was at best a distant memory. And though full of shock and awe, the spiritual warfare endured by these monks was of a caliber somewhat smaller than what was endured by those threatened with torture, the arena, or imperial terrorism.

But if saying 23 is in the first place a lament spoken by Anthony against himself, then it is also a gem of great comfort in the second place!

The same Jesus who offered himself as strength and comfort to the red martyrs of old now offers himself  —  ALL of himself  —  to each of us today. Jesus does not offer a discounted version of his power and glory. Jesus does not present himself to us watered-down and thinned-out.  He does not call it in from home. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). If he is more than enough for the red martyrs of the third century, he surpasses all that I need as I battle the difficult demons and passions that beset me.

The Apostle Paul nails it. Christ is sufficient for every martyr  —  red, white, or dusty and barely trying. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).

There of course have been other ages of red martyrdom in the history of the church. The twentieth century in Russia, for example, was perhaps the deadliest for Christians in any era. Estimates of those killed for their faith in the Soviet period range from 12 to 20 million. And of course Christians in Africa and the Near East are suffering at present. Just yesterday, a bomb exploded during Sunday worship in at a Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo, killing at least 25.

And someday perhaps North America will itself experience an age of martyrdom. Maybe a regime greater than the Soviet state will someday force Christians to worship in secret, on pain of death. One never knows. But one thing is for certain, even for those of us who can’t live without air conditioning and burger wars, Jesus Christ will always be enough. It is up to us to trust, as our own martyrdom moves closer to white through prayer, and perhaps someday to red.

-Fr. Theophan


(24) Hidden Holiness

It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his desert that there was one who was his equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Sanctus with the angels.

This is my favorite of the 38 Sayings, one I often relate to others. It perfectly captures the Orthodox vision of life in Christ.

The equal of Abba Anthony is not another monk at prayer in another corner of the desert. He is not another “professional” church person of any kind.

The equal of Anthony is hidden from the world. He is a guy with a job. He lives simply, and he prays simply.

He sings the Sanctus: “Holy, holy, holy are You, O God. Heaven and earth are full of Your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.”

From the Liturgy, we know that this is the “triumphant hymn” of those surrounding the throne of God. The Sanctus is continuously sung by “thousands of archangels, and hosts of angels, the Cherubim and the Seraphim … borne on their pinions” (Anaphora, St John Chrysostom).

The Sanctus is the prayer that closes the gap between heaven and earth. By it, human voices are joined to angelic ones.

Too often we fall into the trap of thinking that to be “really holy” one must first become clergy or monastic. One must work for the church in some capacity. But the reality is that Christ is ready to transform each and every life.

Each Christian partakes of the same holy eucharist. Each Orthodox believer receives the “one and the same Christ … recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation” (Council of Chalcedon, 451). The Lord that lives in Anthony by baptism and all the holy mysteries also lives in you and me.

And so “life in Christ” means nothing less for you and me than it does for Anthony. Like the simple physician, so pure in heart despite the demands of a regular schedule, we too can be raised by the Holy Spirit to the level of Anthony’s sanctity.

Christ offers to share his life with us, no less than with the men and women who devote themselves to continuous prayer and fasting.

We cannot excuse ourselves simply because we have a street address and a desk job. We cannot settle for the second row because we wear flip flops and denim rather than a cassock and a cross. Greek and Hebrew are cool, but they are not the official languages of heaven.

The Kingdom is in our midst (Luke 17:21), offered to each of us right here and right now. By the cross of Christ, you and I can breathe the air of the Kingdom wherever we stand. Whether that square foot beneath our feet is a tile on the floor of a monastery, or the floor of a factory. Beside the kitchen table, or the altar table, it makes no difference.

Christ answers the cry of all who call out “Marana-thá. Come quickly Lord Jesus!” (1 Corinthians 16:22).

-Fr. Theophan

This day, O Christ, teach me to work, to show mercy, and to sing with the angels. You ask for nothing more. I am created in love by you to offer nothing less.

(25) Madness in Me

Abba Anthony said, “A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, ‘You are mad, you are not like us.'”

If yesterday's Saying 24  is my personal favorite word from Abba Anthony, then today's Saying 25 might just be the internet’s favorite. I see this saying as a meme on my Facebook feed a few times each month.

As a post, the sentiment is that the world is increasingly embracing a point of view that is “madness” by the lights of Church tradition. Further, the suggestion is that the traditional Christian is viewed as “mad” because he is not like the rest of the world.

I agree strongly, in a sense. For certain, the Orthodox vision of life as a sacred gift from God is more and more exchanged for an evil vision in which lives have relative value.  “Some lives just matter more than others,” the world has come to accept. 

But in truth, the exchange took place long ago. “Lives have relative value”  —  it has always been this way. Go read the Psalms, where the voice of David and others rage and rage about the wicked who think nothing of exploiting and killing the poor, the widow, the orphan, the slave, and the sojourner from a foreign place.

And of course for centuries we have carefully crafted a world order in which we accept that war, despotism, and slavery are unavoidable tiles in the mosaic. Half of the population (XX) is typically controlled, silenced, and monetized by the other half (XY) simply because they were born that way. The old are kept out of sight. The rule of law does not guarantee access to fairness and equal opportunity so much as the color of one’s skin, the thickness of one’s wallet, or the country of one’s ancestors. In the developed world, the noble concept of freedom is collapsing under its own weight, as the endless pile-on of rights has built a new Tower of Babel, one that teeters close to Ivan Karamazov’s conclusion that if God is dead, then everything is permitted.

The evening news shows a dictator (or two or three) cluster bombing his own people  —  mainly women and children at this point  —  into holes inside of holes inside of holes. In parts of Europe, euthanasia is now an option for those deemed too depressed or too addicted, even for those as young as 12. Some people claim  —  have always claimed  —  that God gives them the right to kill others in the name of doctrinal or ethnic purity. And by any means necessary, transnational companies scheme to keep us fed, happy, and oblivious so that we continue buying their products. 

And I just sit, unmoved, except for making the sign of the Cross  —  which is not nothing, but...  —  who exactly has fallen into Anthony’s “madness”? Aren’t I included among the deceived and the deceiving?

As Orthodox Christians, we should not be too quick to huddle behind the banner of Saying 25. The line between “us” and “the world” is not so clear as we might think. Fast and loose Facebook posts make us sound like victims with no recourse.

We are neither victims, nor a people without options.

In the end, we cannot recognize true madness in the world until we first recognize how deep-seated the madness is in us. It’s easy to reach for the speck in my brother’s eye, ignoring the beam in my own (Matthew 7:3-5).  All of life is a sacred gift from God. This should shape how we think about everything  —  economics, politics, warfare, culture, language, beauty, gender, personal relationships and conduct. Any view which accepts, even passively or unconsciously, that lives have relative value is the true madness that must be called out and healed.

And healing takes place when we seek to receive the life which Christ desires to share with us. Jesus is the one who destroys all dividing symbols. As we heard last Sunday, the Second Sunday before the Nativity, in Christ “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

*** WARNING.  Here comes a possibly controversial comment. ***
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…  OK…

I am thankful for those who have organized since 2013 to protest and to insist that “Black lives matter,” or to insist on any variation in which so-called “identity politics” is emphasized. And I am thankful, not because of my personal opinions, but because I try and live up to the words which I say out-loud on Sundays just before receiving communion:  “I believe, O Lord, and I confess, that you are truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.” 

If I am the first of sinners, then before I can condemn the madness of the fallen world, I have to condemn that same madness in myself. 

And if I think that such madness does not live in my own heart, then maybe the world is right when it looks at me and says “You are mad, you are not like us.”

-Fr. Theophan