Patience and Nativity

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.

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The Prayer Rule

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.

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The Antiochian “little red book”

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.”

He said to them, “When you pray, say:

“‘Father, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
    for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.’”

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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 the Canon 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.

The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios

 

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  The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios by 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.

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Father Paisios of Mount Athos by Pietro Chiaranz

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.”

That they may be one

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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:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many… there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.”


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I pray also for those who will believe in me… that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”

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.

Chosen for His People: A Biography of Patriarch Tikhon

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.

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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.

On Mary and salvation

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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.

The Christian church has venerated Mary from very early on in its history. The earliest prayer to Mary comes from a document dated 250 AD– this was a corporate prayer, and thus evidence that the early church included her in their Sunday services.

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.

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by Sister Grace Remington. Source