Holy Water

holywater

This is my little plastic jar of Holy Water. Every Orthodox church performs a great blessing of waters during the feast of Theophany (the commemoration of Jesus’ baptism in January 6) and the holy water is distributed to the congregation.

The following sermon by St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco touches on the significance of Holy Water:

On Theophany, the Day of the Lord’s Baptism, every year a great miracle is performed. The Holy Spirit, coming down upon the water, changes its natural properties. It becomes incorrupt, not spoiling, remaining transparent and fresh for many years. This Holy Water receives the grace to heal illnesses, to drive away demons and every evil power, to preserve people and their dwellings from every danger, to sanctify various objects whether for church or home use. Therefore, Orthodox Christians with reverence drink Holy Water — a great Agiasma (holy thing), as the Greeks call it.

One should always have at home enough Theophany water to last the whole year, and make use of it at every need: in cases of illness, leaving on a journey, whenever one is upset, students prior to examinations, etc. People who drink a little Holy Water daily, before eating any kind of food, do well. It strengthens the powers of our soul—if it is done with prayer and reverence, and one does not merely expect a mechanical result from it.

 

The idea of water with mystic powers seems like superstition to the modern mind, even to a Christian. But holy water ties into an idea central in Christianity. The work of salvation happens simultaneously and inseparably in both the spiritual and physical realm. Jesus Christ saved souls and expelled demons, and at the same time healed the sick and fed the hungry. Likewise, the grace of God can work both invisibly and through the physical form of this holy water.

Given my training, I found this a very strange and uncomfortable part of orthodoxy. There is an odd dissonance that comes with being a religious man of science. I am comfortable with the abstract ideas, the sophisticated theological arguments. But the Christian faith does not permit me to remain in this comfort. It demands that I acknowledge the sovereignty of God not just in the spiritual realm, but also on water, oil, and bread. It confronts me, not with an idealized metaphor of resurrection, but with the promise of  dead flesh- my dead flesh-  coming back to life.

God is the Lord both of the spiritual and material, and my little plastic jar of holy water is a small, valuable reminder of this wonderful, divine truth.

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Christ is in our Midst: Letters from a Russian Monk

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“By a Russian monk?” my priest comments as he glances on the cover of my book. “It is probably very practical.”

Father John (Ivan Alekseyevich Alekseyev) was a Russian monk who lived in the late 19th and early 20th century. This book (Christ is in our midst, St. Vladimir’s Seminary press)  is a collection of his letters to a wide variety people who have sought his advice on various matters. His pen-pals comprise a rather eclectic mix. There are writings to monks, nuns, and laypeople, to devout Christians, wavering doubters, and hostile atheists, to the elderly and the young.

As my priest predicted, the contents of this book are very pragmatic. Father John is squarely concerned about the struggle of living the Christian life well. The letters address questions of handling anxious, hateful, or guilty feelings, of dealing with difficult people, of coping with various physical and spiritual infirmities. He seldom writes in terms of abstract theology. Even when explaining Christian doctrine he draws on Jesus’ actions in the gospels, the lives of the saints, or anecdotes of his own experiences to demonstrate his points.

I suppose some might find his writings unsophisticated as a result.  But I really enjoyed how down-to-earth they were. The book served as a good counterweight for my own natural tendencies: I was raised as a protestant, and work in a profession that requires a lot of abstract thinking. I am used to thinking of salvation in terms of just holding to the correct doctrines. The Orthodox point of view is a lot more holistic, with a lot less separation between belief and action. “I will show you my faith by what I do” as it says in James 2:18.

The topics Father John addresses in his letters vary widely, but there are overarching themes about the importance of faithful repentance, even as we repeatedly fail:

You do not want to sin, yet you sin gravely. What can you do? We are human beings, bearers of the flesh, and are tempted by devils. Do not tremble and do not be depressed like that, even when a virtue is tottering. Stand up, straighten yourself and go forward again. Know that stability in virtue depends not on us, but on the grace of God.

…and to avoid judging the sins of others:

We sinners are so used to judging others. It has become a real habit, and we do not remember God’s injunction and the gravity of this sin.

Our judgment is always erroneous, for we do not know the reasons which prompted the sinner to act that way. We see only the sin of our neighbour, but not his repentance. Lord, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother.

Christ is in our midst is a wonderfully curated collection of wisdom, as relevant today as it was a hundred years ago.  This is one that I will gladly recommend.