Asceticism

As a young Christian,  it seemed strange to me that the life goals I was supposed to have did not seem very different from everyone else’s. Do well in school, get a good job, make money, get married, raise a family.

Not that these are bad things- it just seemed that Christianity was supposed to be something transformative, that pursuing God was supposed to supersede other life priorities.

Furthermore, especially as a wealthy Christian in a country with stark poverty, it seemed that following Christ should have meant doing something for the suffering poor in Malaysia. It seemed to me that as Christ sacrificed himself out of love for us, following Christ had to mean making painful sacrifices for others’ sake. And growing up it just felt that I had very little guidance and encouragement as to how to do that, from church or from anywhere else.

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Much later I was introduced to the “New Friars” movement (the term comes from Scott Bessenecker’s excellent book, as a reference to the medieval Franciscan friars).  These were small groups of mostly protestant Christians who committed to live long-term in poor communities, in extreme simplicity in order to better serve their neighbours there. I spent more than a year considering whether to commit to living in a Jakarta slum for at least three years with Servants Asia.

I ultimately decided not to go through with it. Nevertheless,  it was tremendously encouraging seeing people striving to such extremes to be in community and to love their neighbors in such dire circumstances. It was as if I was seeing the Jesus in the gospels come to life in these men and women. However, they were such outliers that it seemed as if they were so far removed from my religious experience. I could give money to support their work, but there was no spiritual nudging for me to live more like they lived.

When I discovered Orthodox Christianity, I was pleasantly surprised at how important asceticism was in church practice. For example, the church calendar reinforces the idea that  the Christian life involves seasons of sacrifice and simplicity. In the regular fasting periods (lent is the most important one, but almost half of the calendar is a fasting day of some sort) all Orthodox Christians are meant to give up meat and dairy, eat and live simply, and give more to charity.  All this helps to emphasize that all of us are to strive in some small way to live out this ascetic ideal, to be “in the world but not of the world”.

Another huge blessing is the presence and participation of monks and nuns in the church life. The head priest at our local church in Kuala Lumpur is a also a monk, and we also have two nuns that run the church and the services. It it a tremendous encouragement to have people around who have taken vows of poverty and chastity, who have committed to a way of life that is so far removed from the worldly “rat race”. They are important role models, an affirmation that it is not completely crazy to renounce everything the world considers important to pursue God to the fullest.

 

 

 

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Communion

When I was in primary school, one of the other parents approached my mom and rather tactlessly asked if there was something wrong with me. I was running around by myself, jumping, kicking when all the other kids were playing together.

I enjoy being lost in solitude.

The parts of the Christian faith that appealed most to me in the beginning were the contemplative and mystical: prayer,  scripture, worship, meditation, fasting. Christianity was purely a way to connect with the divine, to develop this “relationship with God” as some Christians like to put it. I regarded spiritual mentorship and accountability as important, but I dismissed the spiritual value (necessity, even) of just showing  kindness and enjoying the company of others.  I put up with the social aspects of the faith, the church attendance, the prayer meetings, the youth camps – but purely as an act of obedience, not because I really felt that they were important in themselves.

Eventually if you read enough of the Bible, the person of Jesus Christ emerges, the Jesus who opens up and affirms the outcast Samaritan woman, the Jesus who miraculously conjures wine at a party, the Jesus who said to let the little children come to him, and not to hinder them. I slowly understood that the ideal Christian wasn’t the aloof hermit, but this joyful, warm, present Jesus.

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Change was both slow and difficult. I invited small groups of friends over and made them dinner. I started saying yes to more social invitations. I made it a point to stay at parties as long as I could. All this social contact was emotionally exhausting, but the more I did it the better I coped with it. My growth in this area was so gradual that I did not realize what was happening- I was still saying that I was the type that didn’t like people when I was throwing parties for a hundred guests. Thanks be to God for grace, and for the patient, transformative power of the Holy Spirit.

It was a pleasant surprise that the time I invested in these social “distractions” wasn’t detracting from the contemplative, prayerful parts of my spirituality. On the contrary, I found that rather than  just contemplating Christ’s death and the Christian calling to “carry our own cross”, I found more opportunities to sacrifice things that were important to me for the good of my neighbor. Rather than just meditating on the majesty of the divine,  I found myself having to recognize the image of God in difficult people, to appreciate the essential beauty of the human person even when it is distorted by brokenness, hostility, or fear. Rather than just grappling with the abstract theology of sin and forgiveness, I found more situations where I could encounter wickedness and yet choose the path of reconciliation rather than anger, and repent of my sins rather than judge the failings of others.

Only by bringing the inward and outward parts of my faith together could I begin to discover the fullness of joy that is in Jesus Christ.

St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco

Today, July 2 (June 19 in the old calendar) is the feast day of my patron saint, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco.

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This post is a little tribute to him. But first I would like to explain the role of the patron saint in Eastern Orthodoxy.  The Orthodox church places a lot of importance on the idea that the spiritually mature Christians should help out the Christians who are just beginning their journey. This emphasis on mentorship manifests itself in several different ways. For example, instead of the best man and maid of honor in Western weddings, in the Eastern rite the bride and groom have a “sponsor couple”, an older married couple who are supposed to help, support, and pray for the newlyweds and they work through the struggles and joys of marriage.

The patron saint is another way where the church gives us guides for our spiritual journey. Each Orthodox Christian has a patron saint, whom we are supposed to have this mentor-mentee relationship with as well. They are our role models, guides, intercessors (we believe the saints pray for us even in death) and friends.

Brief biography

St. John was born in Kharkov, Russia (currently Kharkiv, Ukraine) in 1896. He served in his early life as a monk, priest, and a teacher in a Serbian high school, before being consecrated as bishop of the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Shanghai in 1934, a very tumultuous time in China.

There are remarkable accounts of his 15 or so years in Shanghai. He lived an extremely simple life, for instance walking through the streets barefoot in the winter during the Japanese occupation. He was extraordinarily dedicated to prayer, to the point that he barely slept. He performed great deeds of mercy and compassion during a time where there was a great deal of suffering. He founded an orphanage and frequently visited those in hospital and in prison. There are also many accounts of his gifts of clairvoyance and miracle-working from this time in his life.

Ultimately, with the communist takeover of China St. John was forced to flee with his church. Five thousand of them were refugees for a while in the Philippines, until St. John managed to lobby successfully for the right for them to settle in the United States.

In 1951, St. John was assigned to be Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Western Europe, headquartered in Paris, and then in 1962 to the Diocese of San Francisco. He passed away in Seattle on July 2, 1966, and his miraculously incorrupt remains lie in Holy Virgin Cathedral in San Francisco.

A modern saint

The first thing that struck me when I first heard about St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco was how strange his appellation was- Shanghai and San Francisco are two cities 10,000 kilometers apart! His life was an interesting juxtaposition. He was in some ways thoroughly immersed in our modern, globalized age, with a ministry spanning three continents and a proficiency in several different languages. But in other ways he seems as if you had picked up a man from the 2nd century A.D. and plopped him in the 1950s.

Very often Christians in our age make the excuse that the challenges and distractions of modernity make it impossible to surrender our lives as completely to God as the early Christians did. St. John shows us that this excuse is weak, by living a life of uncompromising simplicity, faithful prayer and joyous love in the 20th century, even while facing many thoroughly modern hardships. And we see all these wonders, healings and miracles appear in response to his prayers, as they did in the church of Acts!

With faith and love do we all honor thy memory today, O heavenly man and earthly angel; for thou was a true desert-dweller amid this greatly turbulent world. Having mortified all the passions, thou didst attain spiritual heights hard to see, and wast truly a most splendid miracle in the midst of the darkness of this age. Wherefore, we marvel at thy great glory in heaven, and with compunction we celebrate thy glorification.