Schedule of Services, Late June & July 2018

Here is the schedule of services for late June and July 2018 at the Archangel Michael Russian Orthodox Church, Kuala Lumpur2018 07 Schedule of services KL-1

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Visiting St. John the Baptist monastery, England

I spent four days at the St. John the Baptist monastery in Essex, England. This is an Eastern Orthodox monastery (founded by a Russian, Father Sophrony but currently under the Ecumenical Patriarchate). It is about an hour’s drive from London, far enough from the city to be well away from the bustle, but still near enough that it is easily accessible with public transport.

Here are some pictures of the monastery! The buildings have really unique looking iconography on them.

The monastery hosts a few dozen monks and nuns of various nationalities. They have a lot of space for guests too. When I was there, there was a group of 20 or so Belgians who were also staying that week, and a few other individual guests as well. The monastery feeds and houses us for free.

Here is what the schedule is like:
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There are services every morning and evening, and meals at set times. The food is amazing! I went during a fast period, so it was all vegan. We sit in the common hall together. For breakfast and tea, it is rather casual. But for lunch and dinner, we have assigned seating, so a good opportunity to meet the monks and other guests. There is also a reading from famous monastic writings to contemplate during lunch and dinner. Here is a photo of a typical meal: olives, sweet potato, lettuce, and a bean, corn and pea dish (there was also a boiled wheat dish that showed up after I took this photo).

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Not mentioned in the schedule is a “common work” project at 2.30pm that guests can participate in if they want- we do chores around the monastery, mostly involving yard-work.

I spent four days at the monastery, attending services, reading, and spending time in prayer and contemplation. My favorite part of the stay was getting to talk with the monks. They were all exceptionally friendly and happy to chat. I was even able to set an appointment with one of the priests to talk for an hour or so.

I went during the summer, when the weather was sunny and pleasant. A really conducive environment for contemplation, reading and prayer! Here are some pictures of the monastery grounds:

My four days there were really enjoyable, and something I hope I can do again. I feel that it is necessary for those of us “in the world” to maintain in contact with monasteries, to remind ourselves continually that the daily grind of work and family obligations is not all there is to life.

How to get there?

I traveled by train. The best train station to get to is Whitham, which is about an hour away from London’s Liverpool Street Station. From there a bus makes its way to the monastery, a trip that takes half an hour. The bus stop at Tolleshunt Knight Top Road is a five-minute walk from the monastery. Be aware that the bus does not run on Sundays, and that phone coverage can be very weak around the monastery area.

How to arrange for a stay?

If you intend to stay at the monastery for a few nights, call them at : +44 1621 816471

I was told that the best time to reach them is between 2pm-3pm their time (GMT). There is no charge for room and board, although you are free to contribute to the monastery if you desire. The accommodations I got was in a shared dormitory, but it was all really pleasant:

 

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What to bring?

 

Bring long-sleeved shirts for the service, preferably in subdued colors. It would also be good to bring work clothes if you intend to help out with the yardwork and chores. The monastery has a rather large bookstore with a good selection of books and icons, but they only accept cash- so bring some cash if you intend to purchase anything.

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Monastics

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A Nun (portrait by Russian artist Ilya Repin, 1878)

One of the biggest blessings I have received since returning to Malaysia is getting to know Orthodox monks and nuns. One of our priests is a monk, and we typically have one or two nuns serving. They are a vital part of our small Orthodox Christian community in Malaysia.

The nuns take care of a lot of important tasks in the church. They lead the clean, garden, and prepare food for our after-liturgy coffee hour, lead in the choir, and handle a lot of the church administrative duties. Their contributions are very valuable! When I was in America, my local church did not have any monastics serving. It fell on the parishioners to do all that work, and things were very difficult.

Even though their service to our parish is very important, the example they set for us is even more crucial. Orthodox monastics take on vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity. These are very big sacrifices: a vow of obedience means not being able to decide how to live your own life. A vow of poverty means committing to living simply, and not being able to accumulate wealth or ensure your own financial security. A vow of chastity means giving up on  marriage and raising a family. When they are in monasteries, they spend all their time in prayer, in repentance and in hospitality: interceding for and serving those who are in need. For a us in this generation, obsessed with wealth, obsessed with possessions, and obsessed with ourselves, these faithful men and women are a powerful witness that a life of prayer, servanthood and self-sacrifice is possible, worthwhile, and necessary.

I remember asking once a nun serving in Singapore how long she was going to live there. She answered that she could not know- if the bishop asks her to go to Africa tomorrow, she would pack her bags immediately and go. As someone used to living a predictable, comfortable life, the idea of having so little control is really scary- may God grant me so much faith!

Their example is especially crucial in a place like Malaysia, since there is not a long tradition of  Orthodox Christianity and we have a lot of recent converts.  As Orthodox Christians we believe that thought and action are inseparable: it is not enough that we can learn Orthodox theology by reading books, we also have to learn how to behave in a Christian manner. From the example of the monastics we learn how and when to cross ourselves and to bow during services, but also how to treat one another with kindness, to serve others in a selfless manner, and to always be harsh on our own sins while showing mercy and patience when others do wrong.  With very few exceptions, the monastics that serve here don’t speak any English- but from spending time with them I have discovered that you can learn a lot from someone even when they don’t say anything.

My protestant friends have a hard time understanding monasticism. They have asked me, would it not better serve the church and the world to have a successful career and raise a healthy family? It is easy to understand their point of view. I have met monastics with law degrees and PhDs, and you could argue they are not putting those qualifications to good use. But Jesus calls all of us to serve in different ways, and all of those ways are crucial. At the core of the Christian life is the idea of dying to oneself, of loving self-sacrifice for God’s sake and for the sake of other people. This is embodied by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and this is lived out in the lives of Christians in many different ways. There is a need for faithful doctors, lawyers, teachers, workers, fathers and mothers- and they live out Christian lives of prayer, repentance, sacrifice and servanthood in their own manner. But there is also a need for people who are called to give up everything to follow Christ, in a most literal way-  those called to the monastic life have this opportunity.

As our Orthodox community in Malaysia grows, it is my hope and prayer that there will eventually be a strong Malaysian community of nuns and monks to pray for our country, to serve as a living witness to Orthodox Christians here, and eventually to bless other nations- in the same way these faithful Russian and Ukrainian monastics are a blessing to us now.

An Easter allegory in Disney’s Hercules

Christ is Risen!

As we are still in the Paschal season, I would like to point out this very on-the-nose allegory near the end of Disney’s Hercules

Son of god loves his bride so much that he subjects himself to death in her place. But because he is divine as well as human, he comes back to life and by doing so resurrects her also. Where, O death, is your victory? This definitely seems that it was intentional.

Father Symeon Kees pointed out that St. Basil the great wrote an essay on proper Christian use of pagan literature which is probably relevant here, even though Disney’s version of the Hercules story isn’t the authentic Greek myth.

Here is a link to the full version of  St. Basil’s Address to young men on the right use of Greek literature. I have also included the outline below:

I. Introduction: Out of the abundance of his experience the author will advise young men as to the pagan literature, showing them what to accept, and what to reject.

II. To the Christian the life eternal is the supreme goal, and the guide to this life is the Holy Scriptures; but since young men cannot appreciate the deep thoughts contained therein, they are to study the profane writings, in which truth appears as in a mirror.

III. Profane learning should ornament the mind, as foliage graces the fruit-bearing tree.

IV. In studying pagan lore one must discriminate between the helpful and the injurious, accepting the one, but closing one’s ears to the siren song of the other.

V. Since the life to come is to be attained through virtue, chief attention must be paid to those passages in which virtue is praised; such may be found, for example, in Hesiod, Homer, Solon, Theognis, and Prodicus.

VI. Indeed, almost all eminent philosophers have extolled virtue. The words of such men should meet with more than mere theoretical acceptance, for one must try to realize them in his life, remembering that to seem to be good when one is not so is the height of injustice.

VII. But in the pagan literature virtue is lauded in deeds as well as in words, wherefore one should study those acts of noble men which coincide with the teachings of the Scriptures.

VIII. To return to the original thought, young men must distinguish between helpful and injurious knowledge, keeping clearly in mind the Christian’s purpose in life. So, like the athlete or the musician, they must bend every energy to one task, the winning of the heavenly crown.

IX. This end is to be compassed by holding the body  under, by scorning riches and fame, and by subordinating all else to virtue.

X. While this ideal will be matured later by the study of the Scriptures, it is at present to be fostered by the study of the pagan writers; from them should be stored up knowledge for the future.

Conclusion: The above are some of the more important precepts; others the writer will continue to explain from time to time, trusting that no young man will make the fatal error of disregarding them.

 

Lent, purity of heart, and the limits of human reasoning

As this Lenten season draws to a close, I am reminded again that every Lent brings new lessons. Lent has been difficult- but the worthwhile sort of difficult, the kind of difficult that feels almost necessary. I have been through three Lenten seasons so far as an Orthodox Christian, and it has been interesting how the highlight of the season has been different every year.

st-gregory-palamasThis year I have been thinking a lot about St. Gregory Palamas. He was a Byzantine bishop from the 14th century, and in his time there was a controversy when the monk Barlaam of Seminara criticized the practices of the monks of Mount Athos. Barlaam was a rationalist; he contended that the contemplative prayer and mysticism of the Athonite monks was worthless, and that to know God they should devote themselves to learning and philosophy instead.  St. Gregory Palamas is celebrated for opposing Barlaam and defending Orthodox mysticism as practiced by the Athonite monks.

I have always found the Sunday of Gregory Palamas to be the most difficult of the Lenten commemorations to appreciate. I am both a Protestant convert and a scientist, and for these reasons, like Barlaam, my preferred approach to discerning truth is very scholastic- I read books, and try to deduce facts through logical reasoning. Orthodox Christianity  has a very different attitude toward understanding truth, and I am still figuring out how this fits in my life.

In this regard the story of Cornelius the centurion was really helpful to me. Cornelius was one of the first non-Jewish converts to Christianity. In the book of Acts he is repeatedly described as being very prayerful and generous to the poor. One day an angel visits him and tells him to visit St. Peter, where he learns the truth about Christ.

In Matthew 5:8 it says that “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”. and the life of Cornelius captures the meaning of this verse well. This is also the essence of St. Gregory Palamas’ theology. It is not possible to know God through learning and reason, but if we purify our heart- repent of our wrongdoings, treat people with love and kindness- the Holy Spirit will work in our life, and we will be receptive when God reveals himself to us.

This contrasts rather significantly with how we determine through reasoning. When we use reason to solve a math problem, or to work through a logical argument, our”purity of heart”  doesn’t matter. In fact, a computer could parse through a logical argument without much problem.  Using reason, we arrive at an objective truth, independent of the character of the person performing the analysis.

I used to be involved in Protestant groups that really emphasized logical reasoning in determining spiritual truths. We would use the Bible as a set of axioms, and then perform textual analyses similar to what you would see in a literature or history class to figure out our theological beliefs.

The Eastern Orthodox approach to discerning truth is focused more on developing our spiritual character rather than our knowledge and logical reasoning skills. I had a hard time appreciating this facet of Orthodox Christianity until this Lent, when I realized that “purity of heart” matters for discerning scientific truths as well.

To do science well, you have to be willing to accept that your ideas are wrong when presented with evidence to the contrary. I have also found that the best scientists are the ones who treat other people with kindness and respect. Outsiders tend to view scientists as solitary people performing solitary work, but on the contrary, science is a very social activity, and the best science tends to emerge when many people work together. Thus a willingness to admit that you are wrong, a willingness to hear other peoples’ points of view, and a genuine concern for the well-being of your peers and subordinates are vital traits in a scientist, although they have nothing to do with logical reasoning. Of course, I have also met accomplished scientists who display none of those traits; but they are rarer than you would think, and I always get the sense that, despite their brilliance, they are not fulfilling their full potential.

 

If the pure in heart shall see God, then the pure in heart shall see God in others…

Patirarch Kiril of Moscow and All Russia, homily on February 28, 2010 (Sunday of Gregory Palamas)

Purifying our hearts in Eastern Orthodox practice is centered on repentance. I try to continually be turning away from my sins, rather than focusing on what other people have done wrong. Only when I am fully immersed in this attitude can I accept what God reveals to me: I suppose that God equips us to repent of our own wrongs, but not to fix other people’s sins. I feel that spiritual truths are revealed to me through my interactions with other people, and when I am not fully in an attitude where I am being loving and kind towards the people around me, or when I am focused on my own needs to the expense of others, I miss out on those spiritual truths. But learning to be humble, to be kind, and to be loving in this way is not something I can just “turn on”- it goes against my natural inclinations, and continual prayer is essential in developing a “purity of heart” in this way.

I am reminded once again of how much Orthodox Christianity emphasizes the unity of belief and action. I used to think that the connection between belief and action was one-way: if for your religious beliefs to be meaningful they have to  affect the way you act and how you treat other people. But this Lent I learned that the connection goes the other way as well. If I show love, compassion and generosity towards other people, and continually immerse myself in repentance and prayer, I am then able to understand truths that I would miss out on otherwise.

And I hope for the readers of this blog, that this Lent and Paschal season was a joy for you too. Christ is risen!

 

 

 

 

 

Rejoice, O Bethany

One of my favorite hymns of Holy Week is “Rejoice, O Bethany”:

The sheet music is available from the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America website

In Antiochian Orthodox churches, it is sung during Lazarus Saturday (today) and during a procession on Palm Sunday (tomorrow).

The hymn is actually quite new by Orthodox standards. It was written (in Arabic) at the end of the 19th century by Metropolitan Athanasios Atallah of Homs. Bishop Basil Essey of the Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America translated it into English.

Holy Father Lazarus, pray to God for us!

 

Rejoice, rejoice, O Bethany!
On this day God came to thee,
And in Him the dead are made alive,
As it is right for He is the Life.

 
When Martha went to receive Him,
Grieving loudly with bitter tears,
She poured out the sorrow of her heart to Him
With great sadness, wailing her lament.

 
She at once cried out unto Him:
“My most compassionate Lord, my Lord,
At the great loss of my brother Lazarus
My heart is broken, help me.”

 
Jesus said to her, “Cease your weeping,
Cease your grieving and sad lament;
For your brother, My most beloved friend, Lazarus,
Very soon will live again.”

 
Then He, the faithful Redeemer,
Made His way unto the tomb,
Where he cried unto him who was buried four days,
Calling him forth, saying “Lazarus, arise.”

 
Come with haste, ye two sisters,
And behold a wondrous thing,
For your brother from the tomb has returned to life.
To the beloved Redeemer now give thanks.

 
To Thee, O Lord of creation,
We kneel down in reverence profound,
For all we who are dead in sin,
In Thee, O Jesus, are made alive.

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A pilgrimage to San Francisco

I was in San Francisco recently, to visit the relics of my patron saint, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco (the previous link is my blog post about St. John). The relics are located at the Holy Virgin Cathedral at the west side of San Francisco. This is where St. John served as bishop.

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The exterior of the Holy Virgin Cathedral

 

The plaque on the cathedral

The iconography on the church was really beautiful, and my subpar photography skills really don’t do it justice.

The iconostasis

 

The dome
I found the stained glass windows really interesting. These aren’t that common in Orthodox churches.

I arrived early Wednesday morning during Lent, so I was able to take communion in their pre-sanctified Divine Liturgy. I had emailed one of the priests, Father Peter beforehand, introducing myself. He came out at the start of the service, and I suppose I was the only Malaysian-looking person at the church because he recognized me. We had some brief small talk after confession. He seemed pretty excited to hear that the Orthodox church has a presence in a place like Malaysia.

The entire service was in Slavonic. The choir was small, since this was a midweek service, but it sounded wonderful. A little after the start of the service, about 50 schoolkids in matching green blazers trotted in. They were students in the church school that was next door (named after St. John).

The entrance of the church school next door

In the right side of the church, there was an enclosure with a small box. This box contained the relics of St. John. The design of the enclosure was really nice. On the left side was an icon of St. Michael the Archangel (St. John’s birth name was Michael) and the right was an icon of St. John of Tobolsk (the patron saint of St. John of Shanghai). In the middle was a large icon of St. John of Shanghai himself.

The enclosure where the relics of St. John are kept. Visitors were freely allowed to enter.

This is the first time I had encountered a saints’ relics, and so I did not know what I was supposed to do. Luckily, there was a steady stream of visitors, so I ended up just mimicking the people who seemed to know what they were doing. Some people were just standing contemplatively in the enclosure. Others were kissing the glass cover of the coffin, and still others knelt, with their head against the coffin’s wooden side. All sorts of people came to see the relics. A few of them brought rolling luggage bags. I suppose they were either on the way to the airport or had just arrived in San Francisco, and were making a quick stop.

I had a small prayer book containing prayers and the akathist to St John, so when I was alone in the church I said them. I then spent a lot of that afternoon in silence, just gazing at the relics.

At about 3pm, the church school students went back to the church in their matching green blazers. I suppose this was the end of their school day. They said a short liturgical prayer, and then lined up and one-by-one kissed the top of the coffin, while singing the Megalynarion for St. John:

We magnify Thee, our holy Hierarch John, and we honor Thy holy memory, for Thou dost pray for us to Christ our God.

The sound of 50 school children softly, reverently singing this short hymn was moving and beautiful, and I was grateful for the privilege to have seen it.

St. John was dressed in his bishop’s clothing, including a staff in his hands. His face was covered up, but we could see his hands and parts of his feet. Remarkably well preserved, for someone who had died fifty years ago. When a body refuses to decay like this, Orthodox Christian take this as a sign that the person might have been a saint (this was an important plot point in the novel the Brothers Karamazov).

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 This photo was taken by User:TGrain from Wikipedia (Link)

It was really wonderful being able to see the relics in person. St. John is known as “the wonderworker” and for good reason. Throughout his ministry he performed a lot of miracles, as fantastic as those we read about in the Acts of the Apostles. I am really drawn to him, because he feels like a man born in the wrong century-  like a figure from the 1st century church somehow appearing in the 20th. As a protestant I had believed that the church of the apostles had died or faded away, to be revived in the 1500s. But here was the body of a man who performed wonders like Peter and Paul did, and whose life reminds us that this Acts church, the one that Christ commissioned, is alive and still the same today.

Seeing the physical relics- St John himself, his clothes and other belongings- also affirmed to me that the Christian faith is not just about sophisticated theology, abstract ideas, but it is about God making his influence known through real people and real things. The incorrupt body of the Saint is a prefiguring of the Christian promise- that all our bodies will be restored to fullness after we die. May this promise give us the freedom to love others sacrificially, recklessly, without regard for our safety and comfort- just as St John lived, and just as Christ lived before him.