(21) Welcome the Shipwrecked
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?
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.
(22) Dancing with God
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.
(23) Maryyrdom, Red & White
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.
(25) Madness in Me
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. ***
If you would rather skip it, go now to www.oca.org/readings, which in my opinion is the single best page on the Internet. Daily Scripture, delivered to your browser!
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.”