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.

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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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Bearing God: The life and works of St. Ignatius of Antioch (A.S. Damick)

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One of the things I gained as I entered into Orthodox Christianity is a fuller sense of the history of the Christian church. As a Protestant, I considered the 14 centuries between the 1st century church of Acts, and then Luther’s reformation in the 16th century as something of a black hole,where nothing of significance happened. In hindsight, this point of view was absurd.  Christ declared of the church he built, that the “gates of hell shall not prevail against it”- how could it just die for 1400 years to be revived by Luther? And to ignore this period of history, the transition between the time of Acts and our time, ignores an age when the Christian faith was spreading like wildfire despite intense persecution, ignores the works and sacrifices of many righteous martyrs, and ignores some of the most profound and influential theological writings.

Bearing God: The life and works of St. Ignatius of Antioch  was written by Father Andrew Stephen Damick, a prominent Orthodox Christian author and an American priest under the Antiochian tradition. For Father Damick, learning of this “lost history” of the Christian church was the impetus for him discovering the Orthodox Christian faith. The epistles written by St. Ignatius of Antioch were especially significant for him, for reasons he explains in great detail in this preview of the book.

St. Ignatius was a prominent figure in the early Christian church in the 1st and early 2nd centuries. He was bishop of Antioch and a disciple of the Apostle John. Father Damick’s book discusses several letters St. Ignatius wrote to the churches of his time, as he was being taken to Rome to die for his faith (the texts of the letters can be found here). As someone brought up in the faith by Jesus’ disciples, St. Ignatius serves as a bridge between the church of Acts and our church today.

Father Damick writes his book not as a historical or theological treatise, rather, he discusses the letters of St. Ignatius in a pastoral, devotional manner- very focused on what these letters say about how we should live our lives today. The book is a very easy read: I finished the whole thing in a few hours. The source material, the epistles of St. Ignatius, are also very short and easy to understand.

The main themes of St. Ignatius’ letters are that of sacrifice and of community. St. Ignatius was condemned to die in faith, and he wrote these letters when as he was taken from Syria to Rome for his execution. We see how much St. Ignatius is looking forward to his martyrdom, and Father Damick explains masterfully how this ties in to Ignatius’ theology, and how even for us in modern times the attitude and practice of self-sacrifice is essential in our Christian faith.

The letters also explain at length how St. Ignatius saw the church, and how important Christian unity was to him. He writes at length about the role of the bishop, and how important it was for Christians to respect their city’s bishop, and to be united under his leadership. Father Damick emphasizes how the individualism of our day contrasts with St. Ignatius’ description of the 1st-century church.

There have been so many movements in Christianity seeking to re-establish the 1st Century Christian church- and so much ink spent on speculating what that Acts church to be like. St. Ignatius is uniquely positioned in this regard. To best understand how the church of the Apostles worked, it makes sense to consult someone who grew up in the first century, under the direct guidance of the Apostles. We see that the church that emerges from St. Ignatius’ letters it not very different from the Orthodox church today.

 

 

 

 

Three years Orthodox

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I was received into Orthodoxy through the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America on the Sunday after Theophany, 2015 (new Calendar).  I have thus completed my third year in the orthodox church.  I suppose this is a good time as any for some reflection.

I came across this thoughtful quote by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

-Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Gulag Archipelago

I feel that this quote encapsulates the most important ways my thinking has shifted, having lived in the orthodox way for these three years. Contemporary secular morality defaults to dividing between “good people” and “bad people” (prompting the Solzhenitsyn quote above) and protestant thinking divides between “saved” and “unsaved” in a similar way. The “lifeboat analogy” is a very common part of protestant teaching: the idea that Christians are on a lifeboat, and our calling is to convince the rest of the world to get on.

In Orthodoxy,  the line between good and evil, between saved and unsaved is not between one person and another,  but within each person’s heart. For these first three years, the most influential lines of the liturgy for me has been these words in the prayer before communion, taken from 1 Timothy 1:15:

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief…

I am very grateful how the Orthodox faith has such a healthy attitude toward guilt. We talk of sin as if it were a sickness, and the work of overcoming sin as if it were therapy. Whereas as a Protestant I believed that Christ simply and immediately removes the sin of the Christian, in the Orthodox faith Christ’s work of salvation in us is slow, gradual, and happens with our participation. We participate by being alert to our failings and repenting continually from our sins. If we do this right, we are too focused on our own faults to have time to judge the wrongs of other people. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? A lot better to regard your own sins as much worse than the sins of those around you.

For these three years, Orthodox living has been a patient, painful process of spiritual growth: “destroying a piece of my heart” as Solzhenitsyn put it, or “dying to myself” as the New Testament says. I have slowly recognized the many ways in which I have been callous and hurtful to other people, and forced myself to confront the flimsy justifications I have made for awful behavior. I am beginning to see how I am often coldly dismissive of others’ hopes, needs and vulnerabilities,   and how my desire to correct others’ faults comes not from a place of love, but self-righteousness and judgment. Lord have mercy on me, a sinner!

But these realizations do not lead to despair, but to hope. I continually repent, I continually surrender my broken self, I continually acknowledge my helplessness before the God who can do all things, and today I look forward to  Christ’s victory over my yesterday failings.

It is not that I was unaware of these unhealthy tendencies before I became Orthodox. But as a Protestant my spiritual focus was outward- towards the unforgiven sin in the non-believers around me, towards the wickedness and injustice in society. I mostly saw repentance as something I did in the past, and I considered continually dwelling on my own sin after accepting Christ as something pathological.

I think I am in a healthier place now, but I am still very new to the Orthodox faith, and there is still a lot I don’t understand, and a lot that I am probably doing wrong. In particular, I hope in the next few years I will learn what it means to live an Orthodox Christian life in an unjust society. As a Protestant, I felt that I was more in tune with the plight of the poor and suffering. Now, all my energy and attention is focused towards my sin and my spiritual growth, and in building up the church in Malaysia. The author of Ecclesiastes writes that “in everything there is a season”, and perhaps my attention is focused inward just for this time. But in the lives of the Orthodox saints I see how so many of them sacrificed a great deal for the sake of the poor and oppressed, and how there was harmony, not contradiction between their inward spiritual formation and their outward action. I haven’t figured that out yet. By God’s grace maybe I will.

 

The Brothers Karamazov (F. Dostoevsky)

“… we are of a broad, Karamazovian nature- capable of containing all possible opposites and of contemplating both abysses at once, the abyss above us, an abyss of lofty ideals, and the abyss beneath us, an abyss of the lowest and foulest degradation.”

The first time I had heard of this literary classic was from the leader of my college small group when I was going to a protestant church. Having read it, I am a little surprised at the wide appeal of the Brothers Karamazov- I thought it was a thoroughly Orthodox Christian book, and a lot of its themes resonate most deeply to someone fully immersed in Orthodox life. It speaks to the author’s skill that this book has become an enduring favorite nevertheless, even for people completely unfamiliar with Eastern Orthodoxy.

The Brothers Karamazov is a story set in late 19th century Russia, centered around the dysfunctions of the titular Karamazov family.  The main driver of the plot is a dispute between the father, Fyodor and his eldest son Dmitri, a tussle that escalates quickly into tragedy.

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I enjoyed greatly the strong characterization in this book. In particular, the four Karamazovs are very different people, and Dostoyevsky fleshes them all out beautifully. The patriarch, Fyodor is an amoral old rascal. His eldest son, Dmitri, is a hot-tempered and passionate young man bound by a quixotic sense of honour. The middle child, Ivan is a reserved, cynical intellectual coping with some deep neuroses. Alyosha, the youngest Karamazov, is a sensitive, thoughtful novice at the local monastery. The interactions between these four thoroughly different people create some delightfully memorable scenes.

Alyosha Karamazov is the main character of the story, and we see the events of the story mostly through his eyes. This works a little strangely, since he is the Karamazov brother least directly involved with the central conflict of the book. He influences the story in subtle but decisive ways, and his interactions with the elderly monk Zosima form the spiritual heart of the novel.

The scenes at Alyosha’s monastery are based on Dostoevsky’s visits to the real-life Optina monastery, and Elder Zosima is based loosely on Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk. My favorite passages in the book are Elder Zosima’s homilies, which delve rather deeply into Orthodox thought and theology. These, at the surface rather unrelated to the principal plot of the book, but we see later how they drive Alysoha’s actions in important ways. The monastery scenes contain beautiful discourses on love, forgiveness, refraining from judging others. These discourses are ever more beautiful and necessary given how dark other parts of the book can be.

“Brothers, do not be afraid of men’s sin, love man also in his sin, for this likeness of God’s love is the height of love on earth. Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love…”

“Brothers, love is a teacher, but one must know how to acquire it, for it is difficult to acquire, it is dearly bought, by long work over a long time, for one ought to love not for a chance moment but for all time. Anyone, even a wicked man, can love by chance.”

There are other very strong philosophical discourses in the book.  A chapter where Ivan Karamazov explains his objections to Christianity, the Grand Inquisitor, is prominent enough to get its own Wikipedia page. It is a credit to the author that he is able to articulate compellingly both Ivan’s arguments against the existence of a benevolent God, and Zosima’s stirring homilies on the necessity of Christian faith.

The story itself feels a little incomplete however, and most of the character arcs seem unfinished.  Apparently people think that this book was supposed to be the first in a series that Dostoevsky was unable to continue before he died. But this is not to say that the novel ends without resolution. We are treated to a wonderful epilogue at the end, at the funeral of a young child, where Alyosha and the dead boy’s friends talk of the hope that they will see him again in the resurrection. This hopeful ending, rather unrelated to the main events of the book, nevertheless ties all the themes of the book together.

This novel is a classic, with a very profound portrayal of Orthodox thinking, and of Christian lives lived well. I think Orthodox Christians especially would get a lot out of the Brothers Karamazov.