Patience is a big part of the Christmas story. An expecting mother looking forward to the birth if her child. A downtrodden people waiting for their deliverer. A gentle God giving wayward sinners a chance to repent.
Patience is the highest expression of love. How difficult it is to put your life on hold, to subject yourself to someone else’s timing. To extend help to someone who is slow or stubborn, rather than acting out in judgement or anger. To not insist that you get what you want when you want it.
May this Christmas be an opportunity for us to be patient with people in our lives, and to be patient with ourselves.
Orthodox Christians typically pray a prescribed set of morning and evening prayers, along with some additional prayers in preparation for communion and other occasions. We refer to this regimen as our “prayer rule”. In the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America, the “little red book” that contains these prayers has become rather iconic. Its entire contents are available on the Archdiocese’s website.
I was given a copy of this book when I started attending an orthodox church. I was initially resistant to having to pray a prescribed set of prayers. I saw prayer as simply talking to God, and it seemed inauthentic to use someone else’s words in a conversation.
I can’t remember who it was exactly that pointed me to this passage, Luke 11:1-4:
One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
2 He said to them, “When you pray, say:
“‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’”
Here when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, Jesus prescribes a prayer for them, which we know now as the Lord’s prayer.
In the same way, the prescribed prayers in an Orthodox prayer rule are also a teaching tool. These are prayers from the Bible (like the Lord’s prayer or Psalms) or written by spiritual giants from Orthodoxy’s rich history, collected and preserved by the church ( St. Jonah Orthodox Church of Spring, Texas runs a large online collection of common Orthodox prayers). A lot of the prayers contain nuggets of profound theology. One of my favorite examples is this line from theCanon of Our Lord Jesus Christ:
From a virgin didst Thou come, not as an ambassador, nor as an Angel, but the very Lord Himself incarnate, and didst save me, the whole man. Therefore I cry to Thee: Glory to Thy Power, O Lord.
A single line affirms the virgin birth and the divine nature of Christ, his incarnation, his power and his saving work, with enough nuance to emphasize the holistic nature of salvation- the whole man, as opposed to just the soul or just the body!
Just as valuable is what the prayers teach us about our proper attitude toward other people and toward God. For example, there is a famous prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian that is said every morning during Lent. It ends with these powerful words:
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own faults and not to judge my brother.
In my spiritual immaturity, I could never imagine ever saying this prayer myself. But through the Lenten prayer rule I do, and I am reminded at the start of each day that I am in a season of repentance and that in this time of all times I have to refrain from judging others.
The Orthodox are definitely not opposed to the idea that in prayer we are “talking to God”. Indeed, in the little red book are plenty of places where we are asked to “use our own words”. Rather these traditional prescribed prayers supplement our prayer life and help us to pray better. In using these prayers, I have benefited greatly from how the collected wisdom of Christ’s church surpasses my own narrow understanding. I have learned by contrast how often my own prayers were often shallow and self-centered, and I have been able to repent from these wrong attitudes toward God.
One concrete way in which my prayers have changed is that I have become more focused on seeking to repent, rather than seeking new spiritual experiences. I used to see prayer almost as an opportunity to “summon” God when I was seeking comfort or inspiration. But almost all the prescribed prayers in Orthodoxy emphasize repentance- they bring to mind Jesus’ parable of the publican and pharisee, how the publican wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ This is a far more healthy attitude toward God and toward prayer- a continual understanding that we fall short, but through the mercy of Jesus Christ we rise again.
St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Houston, Texas, a parish of the Antiochian Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America sent the Malaysian Orthodox community an English-language epistle book that we needed. We are thankful for their support of fellow Orthodox Christians, even on the other end of the globe!
The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisiosby Dionysios Farasiotis is an autobiographical account of a restless，skeptical young man in 1970’s Greece, sampling from a variety of mystical and occult influences. His story is anchored by a close relationship with Elder (now Saint) Paisios, a monk from Mount Athos. Dionysios’ explorations exposed him to a great deal of spiritual dangers, including literal attacks from demons. Saint Paisios’ prayers and influence protected Dionysios from the worst dangers. Nevertheless, Dionysios’ stubborn determination to test for himself the claims of the occult practitioners led him to India, where he sought out the tutelage of prominent gurus and cult leaders.
The bulk of the book is a brutally honest account of Dionysios’ time in India as he seeks out various spiritualists around the country. The author and his traveling companions encounter a great deal of misery and exploitation, but all that pales in comparison to the otherworldly dangers they encounter. This part of the book contains vivid and unsettling accounts of demonic possession and spiritual bondage, as the author foolishly submits himself to the authority of the gurus. Dionysios eventually manages to escape India, and the book ends with Saint Paisios guiding him, slowly nursing him back to spiritual health.
The bizarre and startling episodes where Dionysios finds himself in the thrall of dark forces are gripping and well-written. The author is completely honest about his foolishness and naiveté, and as a character he is very relatable- simply a man wanting to find out the truth for himself.
Nevertheless, I thought that the most rewarding parts of the book were the gentle encounters with Saint Paisios during the author’s frequent visits. We get glimpses of the great man’s character as he counsels and cares for Dionysios. Saint Paisios finds himself in a position that many of us struggle in, showing love for someone who persists in foolish and self-destructive behavior. Young Dionysios ignores Saint Paisios’ warnings again and again to his own detriment, and yet the the saint continually demonstrates a deep compassion without judgment. The encounters between Dionysios and Paisios are filled with an intimate warmth and good humor, even as they occur in seasons where Dionysios’ life is in shambles. The monk’s faithful prayers for Dionysios serve also as a continual backdrop to the events in the book. In the darkest episodes of Dionysios’ journey in India, we see how Paisios’ intercessions from thousands of miles away are a decisive in warding off the worst of the dangers.
Thus I think it would be a mistake to approach this book focusing on Dionysios’ occult misadventures in India, as titillating as those accounts may be . Pay attention instead to the Christlike person of Saint Paisios, his humility, patience, and joy. Inspired by his example of prayerful compassion, I have had to do a lot of fruitful reflection about what it means to love someone who is stubborn and wayward, to truly work for his best interests without succumbing to the temptation to judge him or to control him.
Finally, I would like to briefly comment on the excellent work that the translators did for the English version of this book. I cannot testify to its accuracy, since I don’t know Greek. However, the language is at once stirring and profound, especially in the parts where Dionysios is engaged in spiritual reflection after a visit with the saint. I will end this post with a passage from the end of the book that both demonstrates the effectiveness of the language, and serves as a celebration of the patient, unfailing love of Christ displayed through the works and life of Saint Paisios.
“Man takes one step, and God responds with a thousand in order to bridge the gap. Nevertheless, man’s small and insignificant step in God’s direction is absolutely crucial, because it reveals man’s intention and good disposition, giving God the ‘right’ to approach him, without infringing his spiritual freedom. Unlike the hate-filled, tyrannical devil, God deeply respects human freedom and never violates it. He desires a relationship of love with man, and love can exist only when people are free.”
On Malaysia’s national crest is the motto, “Bersekutu bertambah mutu”-roughly translated, “United we are better”. This is not an empty slogan. Unity is the central theme of Malaysia’s founding narrative. Malaysia is a federation of thirteen states, each with vastly different histories and demographics. Ours is one of the most religiously and ethnically diverse nations on the planet.
Unlike many multi-ethnic postcolonial states, Malaysia has been largely successful at forming a stable, prosperous nation out of communities that do not have a lot in common. I am very grateful for the privilege of growing up here, and having to learn to love and respect my neighbor, even when that neighbor looks different, thinks different, and lives different.
There is a lot of fragmentation even in Malaysia’s small Christian minority. I was raised in the Anglican church, but I had a lot of extended family members who were Roman Catholic. My favorite ice cream shop was run by the Seventh Day Adventists. And there were churches around town belonging to every denomination imaginable.
Having grown up in this environment, I considered this state of affairs to be natural, even good. With this wide array of Christian churches, it was easy to find one that fit your particular worship style and theological inclination, and to be with people you liked and who made you comfortable.
Nevertheless, it was difficult to reconcile this reality with how strongly the Bible talks about the importance of church unity:
That last quote in particular- the prayer of Jesus for his followers in John 17:20-21, speaks of unity in the strongest terms. Many years ago Malaysian bar council member Andrew Khoo spoke to my church youth group about this passage, and he pointed out that the unity Jesus said he wanted between his followers was the same kind of unity that exists within the Holy Trinity. How then can our panoply of churches, each professing a different version of the Gospel, each completely unaccountable to the other, fulfill Christ’s desire for unity within the church?
The invisible church doctrine is a Protestant attempt to reconcile the contradictions between the scriptural teaching about church unity and the fact that Protestantism by definition divides the church. The invisible church supposedly consists of all “true” Christians, each worshiping in the various denominations. Membership of this invisible church is known only to God. Thus, despite the readily apparent divisions among Protestants, they could claim that within this “invisible church” they were united!
I used to ascribe to this doctrine, and its problems only slowly became apparent to me. Firstly, this unity within this invisible church did not mean anything in practice. My pastor could teach doctrine on Sundays completely independently and without accountability to the pastor across the street. The churches might emphasize such different parts of Christianity that they might seem to be of different religions. I did not have to submit to, sacrifice for, or even talk to members of these other churches. In fact the reason that I chose my church might be because I did not like people in that other church and wanted to avoid them.
At that time, I thought that a visible unity among Christians was an unachievable ideal, and that the abstract unity of the invisible church was the best we could do. I realized eventually that for the first thousand years of Christianity the church was concretely united, and that this united church still exists as the Eastern Orthodox Church. I can go to an Arab Orthodox church in Texas and a Russian church in Malaysia and while the music, language and iconography styles might differ according to the local culture, the liturgy and doctrine will be identical. I have to practice loving and to submitting to people I don’t like and whose opinions I find abhorrent, and in doing so I learn how to show mercy when others hurt me, and discover that I need mercy when I hurt them.
The unity within Orthodoxy is not perfect, of course. I have been in Orthodox churches that have been torn apart by vicious fighting, and even among the leadership of the church the Patriarchs and bishops occasionally disagree over various matters. Nevertheless, by the grace of God there is a tangible, beautiful unity here, where the leaders of the church are accountable to one another in concrete ways, and where we all have to try to love one another, to submit to one another, to suffer for one another out of reverence for Christ. Bersekutu bertambah mutu.
The only canonical Orthodox church in Malaysia today is a Russian mission in downtown Kuala Lumpur, practically under the shadow of the Petronas twin towers. The Moscow patriarchate gave us the building, sent us a priest-monk and a few nuns to help run the services, and supports us in many other ways.
I am very grateful that our small community receives this help, and very grateful that the Russian church is in a position to support Orthodox Christians all around the globe. Things were very different a few decades ago.
Chosen for His People (by Jane Swan)is a biography of St. Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow during the communist revolution. This is the only complete biography of St. Tikhon written in the English language. I found this fact very surprising, as St. Tikhon was of great importance in 20th century Russian history, as the man who led the Russian Orthodox Church through the first persecutions of the Soviet communist regime.
The book is short- 117 pages, not including the very extensive endnotes and bibliography. It is more than just a hagiography, rather, Swan makes a good effort at historical rigor, and a lot of the statements and stories in the book are sourced.
Given the short length of the book, St. Tikhon’s early life and ministry are covered very briefly. The focus is on his Patriarchate from 1917 to 1925, a time of great turmoil and transition in Russia. The communist revolution deposed a devoutly Christian Tsar and installed an atheist government that was hostile toward the church, and sought to undermine it at every opportunity. The book chronicles with great detail St. Tikhon’s struggles against the enemies of the church, both within and without. St. Tikhon had to deal with the state’s slander, the murders of clergy and the confiscation of church property, but also with collaborationists in the church, opportunist clergymen who sought to empower and enrich themselves by siding with the Soviets.
The book paints a very humanizing picture of a simple, humble man, called to an impossible task in the most trying of circumstances. We see St. Tikhon’s courage in the face of great adversity, and deep compassion for his country and its people. We see his great faithfulness and prayerful perseverance despite deteriorating conditions and physical frailty. At its core, his is a story of a man refusing to give up, refusing to be cowed, standing up for Christ and His church in its darkest hour.
As with a lot of stories set in Russia, this is a depressing read. The Soviets eventually get St. Tikhon deposed as Patriarch, and at his death Christianity in Russia remained under grievous threat. Nevertheless, the church survived and endured, and has now outlasted the Soviet regime. We see Christ’s words fulfilled- “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
I am grateful that I can read this book 100 years after the events transpired, so I can see now that St. Tikhon’s sacrifice, and the martyrdoms of countless thousands of bishops,priests, monks, nuns, and laypeople like him in the past century were not in vain. Half the people who worship with me in our Kuala Lumpur church are ethnic Russians- those around my age are the first generation for whom the Soviets are but a faded memory. I am thankful for the opportunity to partner with them in building our little Russian Orthodox mission, and in some small way honoring the legacy of St. Tikhon and all those who suffered with him.
The veneration of Mary, the Theotokos (Bearer of God) is a very important part of Eastern Orthodoxy. She is present in the liturgy of every Orthodox service, and we display her icons prominently in every Orthodox church. We regard her as the chief of the Saints, and both in church and in our private prayers, we ask Mary to intercede to Christ on our behalf.
Nevertheless, Marian veneration made me very uncomfortable at first. Solus Christus– the idea that our salvation comes from Christ alone is a very central part of Protestant theology. Coming from a Protestant background, I wondered why the Orthodox needed to treat Mary with such respect. Worst of all, there was a line in the liturgy- “O Theotokos, Save us!”- that suggested that Mary played a part in our salvation!
Eventually I came to realize that my strict interpretation of Solus Christus was not consistent with how God works anywhere in the Bible. In one sense God alone was responsible for the creation, and yet Adam participated-“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). In one sense, God alone was responsible for delivering Israel for Pharoah’s tyranny, and yet God chose to work through Moses, Aaron and Joshua. In one sense, God alone caused the early church to flourish, and yet the book that documents this flourishing is called the Acts of the Apostles.
In one sense, our salvation is due to Christ alone. Yet Mary, by obediently accepting God’s plan as revealed to her by Gabriel- “I am the Lord’s servant; may your word to me be fulfilled”(Luke 1:38) – is a crucial part of God’s plan to redeem humanity. In a way, she is the first Christian- the first to hear the good news of Jesus Christ’s coming, the first to accept it, and the first to act on it.
I’ve only recently started giving Mary the respect she is due, and this has helped me understand salvation in a more meaningful way. Coming from a Protestant background, I had an overly passive view of Christ’s work in my life. Salvation was something that was done to me- after all, if salvation was due to Christ alone, what was there left for me to do? My participation in God’s plan was limited to telling others about Jesus, so they would allow him to impose this “salvation” on them as well.
Now, though I know that I cannot save myself by my own strength or my own works, I recognize that I participate in Christ’s saving work by doing as Mary did- continually saying “yes” to God’s direction, even when it is difficult and inconvenient. This participation encompasses every aspect of my life, not just in evangelism. And it is not I alone that participates in this salvation, rather I do this with the support of the church past and present, including Mary, the Theotokos who prays for us still today.
To end this post, I would like to share this wonderful crayon drawing of a pregnant Mary comforting Eve. I used to consider Eve’s role in the fall as a deeply uncomfortable part of the Bible, suggesting too strongly that it was woman who brought evil into the world. Once I recognized properly Mary’s part in our salvation, only then did the story become complete. I could finally see the fullness and beauty of God’s plan of redemption in the lives of these two women.
There are plenty of amusing stories about creative misinterpretations of the Bible. I know a Houston pastor who occasionally talks about a strange conversation he had over email. A stranger contacted him, asserting that the Bible was clearly telling him to smoke weed. This person was sincerely convinced that several passages in scripture were thinly-veiled references to the benefits of marijuana use. After all, what else could the “burning bush” in Exodus 3 mean?
We also recall the account of Jesus’ encounter with the devil in the desert, where in Matthew 4:5-7 we see the devil deceptively using scripture. In verse 6 the devil is quoting from Psalm 91.
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
I was raised in a protestant tradition that strongly emphasized sola scriptura, the idea that the Bible alone is the source of truth. I gladly accepted this as a central tenet of the Christian faith, but it didn’t take me long to come across problems with this idea. A lot of passages in the Bible were confusing and vague, and I found that different people could have vastly different interpretations of the same passage of scripture. I was developing a strong interest in mathematics at the same time, and I could not help but notice the stark contrast between mathematical writing and scripture. The mathematical texts I read contained truths that were clear, precise and unambiguous, and I could not help but wonder why God instead chose to give us a Bible that was a mish-mash of poetry, allegory, history, rhetoric, and so on, so easily misunderstood and misinterpreted.
When I asked this question, the answer I was given was that I need the Holy Spirit to interpret the Bible correctly. While this answer is true, it is also unsatisfying. I have met devout Christians who interpret the Bible in ways that are completely different, even though they both felt their interpretation was guided by the Holy Spirit. The reason that most protestant denominations exist is because different groups of people interpret the Bible in contradictory ways, although each group believed they were guided by the Holy Spirit. I have in the past interpreted the Bible in ways that I now know to be incorrect, even though I believed I was guided by the Holy Spirit at that time.
As an aspiring scientist, I was also drawn toward “scholarly” approaches to interpreting the Bible. Perhaps the correct way to read the Bible was to apply some of the techniques of textual analysis I learned in college. If we avoided presuppositions and arrived at a text as an objective observer, and made sure to understand the historical and textual context of a passage, maybe we could glean the real message that God intended to convey.
I was involved with a campus group called InterVarsity when I was in grad school that used a very rigorous method (called Inductive Bible Study) to systematically and carefully study the Bible. The composition of this group consisted of PhD and Masters students from an elite private university. It was also incredibly diverse in terms of denominational affiliation. Our membership was drawn from all over the protestant spectrum, plus the occasional Roman Catholic. It was an incredibly wonderful community to be a part of, and some of my closest friends are drawn from this group. But it did strike me that this group of incredibly devout, intelligent people, using sophisticated techniques in textual analysis to study the Bible, still disagreed on the correct interpretation of so many passages of scripture. As valuable as careful textual analysis is, it seemed pretty clear to me that you could not necessarily find the true interpretation of the Bible this way.
I wish I had encountered Mary Ford’s The Soul’s Longing (St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press) in this time of my life. The book is partly a historical overview of the use and misuse of the Bible over the past 2,000 years, and partly an argument for a traditional, orthodox understanding of how to interpret scripture.
Ford argues that the role of the church is indispensable for interpreting the Bible correctly. In other words, to understand a passage we have to take into account historically what the Christian church, especially the early Christian church believed about that scripture. We do this by, for example, reading the writings of the early Christian saints. Insisting on an individual, rather than a communal understanding of Biblical interpretation is a rather new development in the history of Christianity, and one that leads to a lot of error. The Holy Spirit works in the entire body of Christ, and not just in individual believers.
This book isn’t written as a scholarly work. It is a surprisingly light read given the subject matter, with casual language and frequent use of anecdotes. There are footnotes sprinkled through many pages, but it clearly isn’t intended to be an airtight historical argument. It is however an excellent introduction to different perspectives on Biblical interpretation, for someone who, like myself, was only familiar with protestant ideas on how to read the Bible.
The title- “The Soul’s Longing” comes from an urging in this book to view the Bible not simply as a list of theological ideas to be argued about, but rather as an instrument for fallen humanity to return to God, and receive the fulfillment that can only be found in God’s presence. I strongly recommend this book for anyone wanting to learn a historical perspective on Biblical interpretation. May you find what your soul longs for.
Fasting had a scattered presence in my early Christian life, as something I did when I needed a spiritual boost. If there was an important matter that required urgent prayer, or if I was in a season where I felt distant from God, I would give up food for a few days.
In the protestant circles I grew up in emphasized that fasting was not a compulsory thing. If we felt led to fast, we treated it as a purely individual act of spiritual devotion. In fact, we were encouraged to individualize our fasting. Perhaps rather than giving up food, if I were to feel led I should give up television instead, or give up using the computer, tailoring the details of the fast according to our own spiritual needs and leanings.
There were points in my life where I latched on to fasting, consuming nothing but water for days at a time. It seemed important to me how fasting weakened me physically, which was a reminder to rely less on my own strength and more on God’s. I also perceived that the act of giving up food was an act of “small martyrdom”, and this assuaged my concern that sacrifice was such a non-existent part of my Christian walk even though it was of great importance in the Bible. Protestant Christianity has a tendency to be overly intellectual, and for this reason I appreciated how fasting made me feel the reality of human weakness and divine power, rather than simply think it.
I never felt any inclination to follow the seasonal fasts of Christianity, even Lent. I viewed the practice of the Lenten fast as empty, outward devotion. This view started changing when I moved to Houston. My protestant church there was led by a pastor who deeply appreciated the history of the Christian church, and so he encouraged us to follow Lent in some form. His explanation was that Lent was part of the church’s cycle of mourning and celebration, that the fasting we perform at Lent enabled us to reflect on the brokenness and pain in this fallen world, and prepare us to receive the hope of renewal that comes with Jesus Christ’s resurrection on Easter morning.
This was my first glimpse of the idea of fasting as a communal practice, something the whole church did in unison, and eventually I transitioned toward an Eastern Orthodox understanding of fasting as something that the church did together as one body of Christ.
Eastern Orthodox fasting rules are rather complex. There are four main fasting seasons in the church calendar. The fast of the apostles occurs shortly after Pentecost and is intended to be a preparation for us to go into the world and do God’s work, as the first apostles did after the Holy Spirit descended on them. The fast of the dormition takes place for two weeks in August, and is a preparation for the feast of the dormition, when the church remembers the day when Mary passed. The third is the Nativity fast, which occurs for a month before Christmas as a preparation for that great feast. Finally, and most importantly, the long Lenten fast is a preparation for Easter, the greatest of all celebrations.
Together with the weekly fasting days on Wednesday and Friday where we remember Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion, about half of the year is devoted to some sort of fast. The exact details vary, but typically on fasting days Orthodox Christians abstain from meat, eggs, dairy, wine and olive oil, and restrict the amount of food we eat.
I am very new to the Orthodox manner of fasting, and there is a lot about it I don’t understand very well. But one thing I appreciate already is how the fasting calendar can be inconvenient in a way that the individually tailored fasts I practiced before never were. Frequently, fasting seasons occur when I don’t want to fast, and yet I do anyway. Thus I surrender a little bit of control over my own life and entrust a little more of myself to Christ.
This is not to say that the fasting rules are completely rigid. In every fasting season I have experienced in the Orthodox church the priest has emphasized that we don’t fast out of guilt or legal obligation, but as a way to practice our spiritual disciplines, to grow, and to be healed of our brokenness. As such, there are usually reasonable accommodations for medical issues, or when we are offering hospitality, et cetera. For instance, it is common in American Orthodox churches to exempt Thanksgiving from fasting even when it falls on the Nativity fast, since Thanksgiving is such an important holiday in American culture, and one that involves a large meal with family. Each fasting season normally includes a reminder that we are to be concerned with our own fasting, not anyone else’s and to resist the temptation to judge others’ piety. In my American church, the following cartoon was in the bulletin every week of Lent
As grueling as each new fasting season may be, I always end up learning a great deal. By fasting, I come face to face with my limitations and with God’s limitlessness. By fasting, I confront my tendency to judge my brothers and sisters, and experience the fullness of God’s grace acting in the church. By fasting, I mourn the brokenness, sorrow, and poverty that afflict the world today, and look forward in hope to when Christ overcomes it all.